Chapter 44 – The Winning Streak Continues

So it turned out Julius didn’t actually have to fight a random woman in a restaurant. In fact, it was kind of the opposite.

The random woman in question turned out to be a werewolf by the name of Jofrid Otakin, she was apparently Fergus’s cousin–her dad was the grandnephew of his mother’s father or something like that–and she was actually there to take them to Capitalia, Claire’s very straightforwardly named capital of her empire. So that came as a pleasant surprise.

And Zia even let him suspend his training for said trip. Apparently Claire would be “an adequate replacement teacher”, if he wanted to continue his training. Also pleasant.

Less pleasant was the actual ride over there. Sure, the fiery-maned “Duidani” demon horses that Jofrid summoned for them–except for Zia, who had to stay back in Plachor, much to Jofrid’s obvious and kind of weird disappointment, and Seona, who had her own demon horse–were definitely cool and all. Certainly made traveling much faster and easier on their surprisingly rapid journey. Also kept away the monsters and bandits, apparently, though Jofrid practically radiating intimidation towards anyone that looked at them funny at their stops definitely contributed.

The near-constant rain was less helpful.

“HOW MUCH FARTHER UNTIL THE NEXT TOWN?” he tried to shout over the heavy morning downpour, apparently very common in Inrapaba during Spring, which sure was fucking fantastic.

“NOT TOO FAR. ONLY ABOUT A HALF-MILE,” Jofrid called back, somehow always able to hear him no matter how heavy the rain got. Perks of werewolf hearing, probably.

Julius huffed, fidgeting a little in his saddle. Sure, he’d had enchantments layered on to keep his clothes from getting too soaked, but the wind kept pushing his hood back and there weren’t any protections on his damn face…What made it worse was that the stupid rain was soaking into his new beard, which had apparently grew at some point when he wasn’t noticing.

Ugh. Maybe he’d be less miserable if somebody else was actually having a bad time too but Jofrid and Mira clearly didn’t mind it based on how they were chatting up ahead and Cyrus and Seona had been singing ‘rain songs’ for the past hour or so of riding, so there was that.

Maybe it was just the reminder of those storms from his childhood, where ships and houses alike swayed in the wind and water, the sewers flooded and the canals themselves became death traps, but Julius was not a fan of rain. Ever.

That’s probably why he was glad when they finally traded rainclouds for fog as they neared whatever place was next on their route, the heavy rain slowing into a light drizzle until it finally faded completely into the thick mists flowing around them. No more traveling in a constant downpour and actively avoiding the routes where the rivers could apparently overflow; instead, they got fog so heavy he could barely see the fields around. Which did remind him of some mornings in Orin, so huh…

What did it say about Inrapaba that it kept reminding him of home?

Well, since he’d probably have to live here, at least he’d be used to the weather. Even if it did make him homesick. 

It was weird. Despite everything, there was still an odd disconnect. He knew he wouldn’t be able to go home, but he still wasn’t ready to give up on it. At the very least, he hoped he would be able to see everyone again. It wasn’t an impossible dream, just a difficult one since no one–outside of Cyrus, who was right there with him–knew where he was. 

Hm. Maybe he should just send Cyrus over the border to let everyone know what happened? Or just send a letter…Did the Dark Lands even have post offices?

“Jofrid, do the Dark Lands have post offices?” he asked, bringing his steed up towards hers and Mira’s.

“Most places in Inrapaba and Olafiba do. They get less common in the wilder areas, but you can still find courier services if you’re willing to look.” She glanced back at him. “Why?”

“I was thinking of sending some letters.”

And now she was frowning at him. Why was she frowning at him? “Don’t.”

“…Why?”

“Uh, Joff, I don’t think he’s planning on leaking information to any of Valondrac’s enemies.” Oh. Was that it?

Judging by how Jofrid immediately went back to her more typical neutral expression, Mira was apparently exactly right on that. 

“I have nothing to gain from leaking information, I’ll still be banned from the Light Lands, and Claire will hate me if I do that.” 

“…Hm.” Did her nose just twitch? Letting out a small huff, Jofrid looked forward again. She also looked a little less tense, so that was probably good. 

Deciding not to press his luck, Julius pulled back and towards the singing duo. 

“And~ as we rush through the rain–Oh, Julius, did you come to join us?” Cyrus asked as he noticed him approaching.

“Glad to see you two are enjoying yourselves. And no, just didn’t want to anger Jofrid, so I came back here.” 

“Ah, fleeing from a riled lycanthropic lady. I am quite familiar with the practice.”

“You would be.”

Cyrus shrugged, grinning. “What can I say? Her husband was just too handsome~. And besides, I more than made it up to her~.”

Julius just sighed as Seona giggled. “Well, I guess that’s probably another person you’ll have to meet up with when you have the time.” 

“…” Cyrus took a slow breath, then sighed. “…Yessss…that’s likely true…”

“Ah, well, it might not be? She’s married, right?” Seona asked, trying to smile in a reassuring way, “So she could just assume whatever kid she has afterwards is her husband’s!”

“…”

“…Er…Merci?” Cyrus gave her a weird look, then cleared his throat. “So! Where are we wandering today, mon bon ami?”

“You don’t know?”

“Julius, mon ami, when a beautiful lady says she knows the way to a good time, I rarely question her!”

“…You must get robbed a lot.”

“Many times! And yet, often I leave my accosters with far more gold and clothing for me, and far less of both for them, along with some fond memories~.”

“…So do we need to check out random bandits for your kids now too?”

He sighed. “I can’t even joke anymore without you bringing that up, eh?”

“I’ll stop bringing it up when you stop bringing up your sex life.” Julius paused thoughtfully. “And when it stops being funny.”

Seona started giggling again. “Wow, you two must really make a lot of money when you put on that act!”

“…Seona, you know I’m one of the lightlander heroes. You know Cyrus was too. You can’t possibly think we’re still in a comedy troupe, right?”

“I don’t think those are mutually exclusive though?”

“She makes a fair point!”

“No, no she doesn’t.” Julius sighed, then pulled ahead again to leave Seona and Cyrus to their whimsy.

And it just so happened to be a good time to do that, since Jofrid had actually stopped up ahead at what Julius was pretty sure was an open gate into the city. The fog was actually covering most of the wall, but judging by the sudden wood underneath them, they were on some kind of drawbridge; one that happened to be over a moat or a small river, judging by the sound of running water under them. Huh…kinda looked like they were entering a fort or castle. 

“…Are we already at Capitalia?” he asked, staring up at the ramparts.

“No, this is Lordsgrave. Get used to seeing towns like this. Most people don’t bother tearing down the castletowns of former Demon Lords and just repurpose them.” Pausing for a moment as Julius moved to her side, Jofrid tilted her head, staring at the open gate. “Often, the castle itself is either destroyed by those invading or repurposed into a new building. Typically though, the residents tear it down to make more room. ” 

“Huh…well, that’s resourceful.” 

“It’s idiotic to do otherwise. The town already has a decent defense with the moat and walls. Just needs to be fixed of the damage.” 

“Right.” Thankfully, once they entered the town–which involved Jofrid showing the guards at the gate some kind of badge thing–the fog seemed to be kept at bay as they walked through the gate. Almost actively, actually, considering how none of it even flowed over the walls, though the sky above was still plenty cloudy.

And once inside, Julius found himself in what was probably the most normal place he had been to since he arrived in the Dark Lands. From what he could see, along with the guardhouse positioned by the gates, there were plenty of inns, taverns, and many stables around and ready to accept any travelers passing through. If it wasn’t for the fact that there were various darklander species walking around, like orcs, lamias, and goblins, Julius could’ve easily assumed it was any Light Land town out there; well, maybe the ones specifically on the road, where most people passing through were literally just passing through and not planning to stay long.

Thankfully, there were still some humans also around, so Cyrus and Julius wouldn’t stick out like rusty nails. 

“Come on. We need to catch a ferry. I’d rather not have to spend the night if we miss it.” Right, they still had things to do, no time to see the sights.

Still, Julius did take the time to look around a little. With the knowledge that this place used to be some Demon Lord’s old fortress, he started to notice a few things that stood out around the town. Little things, mostly, like bits of broken wall that had been left up or bricks in the buildings that were noticeably off-color. Knowing that it all came from a broken castle just made those tiny details stand out a whole lot more.

Aside from those though, the city seemed pretty normal. Though the large river clearly cutting straight through where the center of the fortress used to be was a little surprising. It actually seemed to have completely submerged at least half of the castle’s grounds, based on where it cut through, and it looked like most of the remaining pieces of the Demon Lord’s castle had been converted into the ferry building standing proud in front of the riverbank. 

A part of him wondered what they probably thought of said lord that they changed their castle into a ferry building. Eh, not like it mattered. And as they approached the building, Cyrus, Mira, and Julius abruptly found themselves falling to the ground as their horses suddenly dispersed, while Jofrid landed right on her feet in front of them. 

“…A bit of a heads up would have been appreciated.” 

“Should have been obvious. No reason to pay for space for the horses.” Huffing, Julius stood up–helping Cyrus too as Mira pushed herself to her feet–while Seona dispelled her own horse after getting off Siegard. Walking up to the werewolf, Julius followed Jofrid in as they entered the building. “If you want a personal room, that’s coming out of your own money.” 

“I don’t think we’ll need one. It’s not like the trip will take long, will it?” 

“Only a couple hours. Food is also gonna be on you if you want any.” 

“Right…” Sighing, Julius waited with the other three while Jofrid went up to buy the passes. “Just saying this now, Cy, don’t flirt with anyone when we get to Capitalia.” 

“You ask too much of me, Jules.” 

“Cyrus, I know most of the generals there. Not a good idea to get on their bad side.” 

“I’m sure they’re strong, but I can take care of myself.” 

“At least one of them can snap you in half with one hand.” 

“Hot.”

“I mean, she is, but that’s not the point.”

“Very well, my friend, for your sake I’ll refrain from doing so. Unless they flirt with me, of course~.” 

“…” Pausing for a moment, Julius considered what he knew about the generals. “…Yeah that’d work.” 

“Hm? What was with that tone?” 

“Well… aside from maybe that Kitsune I didn’t meet, I don’t think any of them will be into you. And even then she wants to get married, and well. You are you.” 

“…”

“Aw, so I’m not getting a new, better mom?” Oh right, Mira was still there, her tone incredibly dry as stared at her now far more awkward-looking father.

“Eh…em…” 

Staying quiet, Julius slowly backed up away from that impending disaster and towards Seona. 

“So, what are the generals like anyways?” she asked when Julius stood next to her. 

“Uh… eccentric? They’re all very… interesting.” It suddenly dawned on Julius he’d have to meet the generals again if they were at Capitalia. Shit, he was not at all prepared for that…would he have to fight any of them again? He could probably still win, especially with all that blood magic training, but he still didn’t want to…Shit, he still didn’t have most of his gear. 

“Well that doesn’t really explain anything. People can be eccentric in tons of different ways, like you and Cyrus.”

“…” He looked at Seona. “…How am I like Cyrus?” He really tried not to sound too offended.

“Oh, not like that. I mean you’re both eccentric, but in different ways. He’s flirty and loves to sing, and you’re gruff and angry but well-meaning and a total sweetheart. Though you’re also both apparently really weak to strong women-”

“I see your point, clearly no need to continue this conversation, thanks for that,” Julius replied as he very definitely did not run from that discussion and instead just went over to Jofrid to see what was up with the ferry, ignoring Mira clearly still needling Cyrus along the way. 

“So, is everything good?” Instead of replying, Jofrid handed him his pass, then did the same with the others as she walked by them. Hm. “Uh…Thanks for coming to pick me up?”

“You’re welcome.” And then she just walked past him, heading to the ferry’s boarding ramp without a second look.

“…Okay.” Well. He could take a hint. 

So instead of trying to follow the obviously uninterested werewolf, Julius just decided to board the ship with everyone else and find a decent seat on the ferry. 

It was a pretty simple boat with only one deck and a roof set up over the rows of seats filling up the ship’s center, along with two rooms near the back if anyone wanted some privacy. At the very back of the boat, a tall and black-haired gray orc sat behind a wide drum, her chest bare aside from a bandeau to show off all the deep blue tattoos curling around her muscles as her dark hair spilled free down her back. Said tattoos actually reminded Julius of the water clerics back in Orin–another thing reminding him of home, huh…–though they looked fiercer than those marks. Not the simple curls of water the followers of Mesic used, but instead more like rough, breaking waves and simple, snarling sea serpents pulling themselves up from the depths.

“Huh. Dad was right, you really do have a type.”

Julius blinked, then glanced at Mira, who was grinning at him. And sitting next to him. Hm. “…Oh, uh, no, I wasn’t-I was just looking at her tattoos.”

“Ah, yeah, that’d explain it. Never seen a follower of Fathom before?”

“…Those still exist?” He honestly didn’t expect her to snort. “What? I thought Fathom was sealed…well, I’m not sure exactly, but at least thousands of years ago.”

“Sure, good point, but, counterpoint, Surodus still has plenty of worshippers and she vanished completely from existence. Or at least Estus.”

“Hm. Okay, I-” Julius paused as a sudden boom rang out. He glanced behind himself again and stared at the orc–the worshipper of Fathom, apparently–as she started rhythmically slamming her twin mallets down on the drum in front of her in a steady beat, one after the other. And as she played, the ferry suddenly started moving, pulling away from the dock and pushing its way out onto the water until they were making their way downstream. “…Huh.”

“Cool, huh?” Mira chuckled, crossing one leg over the other as she leaned back on the bench, her hands flat on it to keep herself steady. “Even a sealed god has their power linger, and the ancients were always the most powerful deities out there.”

“Hm. Okay, counter, the elders, who actually sealed them.”

“Yeah, that’s not how you say that thing, but alright, I’ll give you that. Though the elders didn’t seal the ancients; it was a bunch of mortal heroes that actually did the deed. Or deeds, since the four ‘sealings’ were all pretty spaced out in terms of millennia.”

“Huh. I didn’t take you for a history buff.”

She smirked. “Oh nooo, you’ve discovered my deep dark secret. I’m actually a huuuuge nerd. My reputation is ruined.” Ah, sarcasm. Gods be damned for all these sarcastic kids he had to deal with…Still, at least this bit of familiarity was a little comforting. 

“Well as far as I’m concerned, your reputation with me is still as a skilled bounty hunter who kicks down doors and burns up taverns. Oh, and a daughter of Cyrus.” 

“…Hm.” Despite the unamused glare she gave him, Mira’s lips did twitch upwards in a little smile before she continued. “Anyways, since the Ancients didn’t have their full power when they were on Estus, it was significantly easier for them to be sealed. So, ha.” 

“Really?” 

“Yup, despite what lightlanders may think, the Ancients don’t want to destroy the world. But their powers can be very destructive, so they put limitations on themselves when they come to Estus, same as your elders, back when they actually came to this world.” 

“Huh… that’s odd to imagine. The gods being in this world and all.” 

“If you think that’s weird, then wait’ll you hear about the second generation’s parentage.” 

“…What are you talking about?” 

Yup, she was definitely grinning by that point. “Well where do you think the younger gods came from?”

“…They just came to be? Like the Elders, Ancients, whatever they call the Laut?” 

“Nah, those three groups boned a lot.” 

Julius blinked. “…What?”

“Yeah, while the Light Lands might want to try to hide that fact, it’s pretty well known in the Dark Lands.” Smirking, she leaned back further on her part of the bench. “For example, Foco is the child of Surodus and Rupture.” 

“…” Honestly…he could kinda see it. Heat and Lava makes Fire, sure-

“And that’s not even going into the weirder ones. Like Innominatum’s parents being Surodus, Lucere, and Tempest.” 

What. “I…what…all three of them?” She nodded. “…How??” 

“Fuck if I know. Gods, demons and angels work on different rules than mortals. Course, that all happened several millennia ago, so it might not be completely accurate.” She shrugged, leaning–and then Mira had to lurch forward as she nearly fell off the bench. “…A-Ahem. Anyways! Right, so, gods bone, that’s a thing, and they get god kids out of it.

“So you have the top gods, like the Ancients, the Elders, and the Primordials–” Oh, that was it. “–and the rest of them are all interconnected as a result. Like, your god of purity is the kid of Lucere and Hallow, right?”

“Uh…yes?” Which one was that again?

“And that makes him the direct half-brother of the Three Matriarchs: Rot, Marrow, and Drought. An interesting status for one of the more aggressively anti-demon gods out there, huh?”

“…Yeah, huh.” Weird how the world worked sometimes. “So, did you learn most of this stuff from Hans?”

Mira abruptly snapped her fingers, like she just realized something. “Oh right, you said you knew him. How do you know him?”

“Uh…fought him in the Water Temple.” Julius shrugged. “Old human warlock, summoned a lot of demons, had one of them playing music during the fight.”

“Yeah, that’s him. Well, good to know that general gig hasn’t gotten him killed yet.” She chuckled, sounding fond. “So, the basic thing is that the old jackass took me in a little while after I got to the Dark Lands. I ran into him…by accident, let’s call it, and I wound up becoming his apprentice. After traveling for a while. There were some things, stuff happened, I lost my arm in a bar fight…Well, more like at a restaurant, it was supposed to be a nice thing-A-Ahem, anyway, basically, my main job for a while was as a teacher’s assistant.”

Okay, there was a lot to unpack there. Maybe focus on the less uncomfortable part? “Really? A teacher’s assistant?”

Mira smirked. “What, don’t I look the part?”

No. No she did not.

His thoughts must’ve shown on his face because she abruptly snorted and started giggling. 

“Ah, that face was almost worth the platinum I lost.” Smiling as her giggles subsided, Mira continued. “Anyways, I mainly helped him teach in classes whenever he didn’t train me. Ah, this was after Valondrac came around to recruit him, actually, but he wanted to focus on my training first until I was all good to go. And once I was strong enough to strike it out on my own, I did, and took up bounty hunting as my new gig. And a few months ago, Valondrac sent a message about pops being in the Dark Lands, so I started hunting him down.”

“Huh…well I’m glad you weren’t planning on being lethal from the get go.” 

“Of course I wouldn’t. I needed to find out if he was a complete asshole first before deciding to kill him.”

“Hm… Well good you decided against th-…” Pausing as he looked over her shoulder, Julius stared at a pouting Cyrus, jealousy obvious on his face. “…” 

“Huh? Is something wr-… Pops, what the fuck.”

And that got his pout to break into another awkward look. “Uh….S-Sorry. Just, I want to be a good dad, so it’s a bit annoying seeing Julius be all good at that…” 

“…Well, you’re already better than the bitch by a wide margin, so…” Mira shrugged a little uncomfortably. “You know you could just ask to join in the convo, right? You don’t need to be jealous.” Oh boy, she had no idea what Cyrus could be like…

“…That’s…a good point.” Cyrus somewhat awkwardly sat on the bench across from them, trying to smile again. It was kinda weird to see him so unconfident. “So…how long have you lived in the Dark Lands?”

“…Nine years, pops. Think I, uh, mentioned that before.”

“Oh. Oui, you did. Pardon.”

“…”

“…”

Okay, how was it that these two were worse at this than Julius was? He’d seen them interact just fine a few times…though, then again, those times tended to go off course when Cyrus tried flirting with people or Mira brought up something uncomfortable. Alright, maybe he could start this off… “So, Mira, what’d you learn from Hans?”

“Huh? Oh, er, lots of stuff. History, mathematics, demon magics, things like that.”

“Do you have a favorite?” Cyrus asked, sitting a little straighter and smiling a little better. 

“…Subject or demon magic?”

“Yes.” Okay, now he was definitely grinning.

“Pff-Okay, uh, history’s my favorite subject, but as for demon magics…Wrath and Envy are the two I’m most attuned to, but I’ve always liked Avarice.” And now she was smiling more easily too. Progress.

“Oh? Pourquoi ça?”

“…I think you said ‘why’s that’?” At his nod, she grinned again. “Well, Avarician magics focus mainly on holding onto things and preserving them, like keeping artifacts and books in their collection; it’s why they’re so attuned to Mordant and part of why I wound up accepting her as my patron.”

“Ah yes, the debt god, lady of righteous vengeance, non?” 

“Ah…Oui?” Cyrus’s immediate grin was almost cute, though something there caught Julius’s attention.

“Not to interrupt, but I just have a quick question for Mira,” he spoke up, raising a hand to catch their attentions, “If Avaricians are all ‘holding and preserving’, why do they use lightning magic?”

“Well, if you’re asking about history, the devils of greed supposedly gained that power through the blessing of Tempest. As for why Avaricians focus on it specifically, it gives them an easy non-lethal takedown if they want to grab someone, which is pretty handy for bounty hunting or just their tendencies to collect things.”

“…Which includes people?”

“It can, yeah. They’re still demons, so the default for them is ‘selfish sociopath’. It’s a fucking miracle most of them even have any type of society.”

“Ah, but is a society so bound by empathy, or by the dominant’s need to control those they call lesser?” Cyrus smirked when they both stared at him. “Bardic traditions include a great deal of study in philosophy, my friend and family. Mostly so we can say fancy intellectual things when necessary, but still.”

“…Right. Any reason why you didn’t act like that before?” 

“Oh I have. Doug and I had plenty of conversations about topics like these.” 

“Huh…well I guess that explains what Doug told me.”

“Oh? And what did he say?” Julius stared at Cyrus, not saying a word. “…Ohhhhh, he told you about that.” He didn’t need to sound so casual there…

“Well, at least you helped him discover something about himself.”

“Yes, the miracles of self-discovery truly are precious.”

“And now you ruined it.”

Cyrus just chuckled while Mira gave them both a slightly confused, slightly wary look. “Is this another sex thing?”

“Actually yeah,” Julius admitted, “It involves a friend of ours and how Cyrus confirmed for him that he doesn’t like sex.”

As Mira snorted, Cyrus sighed and pouted again. “Did you have to put it like that?”

“Yes. Yes I did.”

“I shall make sure to keep stuff like this in mind when we meet Valondrac.” 

“…I…hm…you…better not….” Feeling his face heat up, Julius tried to figure out how he was supposed to tell Cyrus to not embarrass him in front of Claire without embarrassing himself further in the attempt. “Shut up.” Brilliant.

“You know-” No. “-you never did-” No no no. “-fully tell me about your relationship with her-”

“I don’t have anything to say.” 

“Non non, we both know that can’t be true~! A man as smitten as you must have many stories for us~.” 

Who the hell says ‘smitten’!? “You don’t know that.” 

“Sounds like there are,” Mira pointed out, like a filthy traitor.

“Allez Julius, all I want is a tiny tale to be told! S’il vous plaît? Just how you met, at least!”

“She ambushed us in Naloriva and tried to kill me.”

Cyrus blinked. “Oh, so you really are a masochist-”

CYRUS-!

“Calme-toi, calme-toi! No freaking out now, you were the one who decided to phrase it like that. Though I must say, that is a very rough start for someone so obviously enamored here.” He hummed, scratching at his chin like he was being thoughtful. “So what of the second meeting then? You had to have had something, non?”

“…” Shit, how did he explain this? “…So. Um…Cyrus, how much do you know about…dream magic?”

“It originates from the elder god, or ‘ancient god’ if you want to use that distinction, Stygian, who is known as the Great Mother of All Demons and is quite famous for her tragic love with Hallow, the Lady of Seven Hearts, who could only have ruinous children embodying calamities with her beloved weaver of thought and mind.”

“…” 

“…”

“Oh come now, really? It shouldn’t be a surprise at this point that I’m actually intelligent and thoughtful.” Cyrus huffed, pouting as Julius awkwardly scratched the back of his head and Mira, equally awkwardly, faked a cough and glanced away.

“…Right. Uh, so…one of those kids is Marrow, right?”

“Yes, the Butcher is-…” Fuck, Cyrus was starting to grin- “You’ve only interacted with your beloved through dreams, haven’t you~?”

“…” Julius…tried to come up with something–Mira no, don’t start getting sparkly eyes it’s not that romantic noooooo- “M-Maybe.”

Cyrus was outright beaming. “You, Sir Julius, are utterly adorable~.”

Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck. New subject, new subject…

…He couldn’t think of anything. Shit.

Maybe if he jumped off the boat here, he could just swim to Capitalia?

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