Apollyon and Jophiel didn’t wait for us…
Michael felt their eye twitch as they returned to the foyer and found both their inconsiderate, irritating cousin and their–uncle? Also cousin?–elder family member gone, along with their intended escorts. Or escortees. One or the other.
“Oh, I guess we’re late.” Their eye twitched again at Anaya’s voice, prompting them to turn to tell her that they were late purely because of her. But that didn’t happen. Because Anaya was pouting, and the words died in Michael’s throat.
Resulting in them simply saying: “Yuh huh.”
“Though, I guess it’s mostly my fault, huh? Sorry for that,” she continued, giving Michael a little apologetic bow that made their face warm again.
“It’s fine. You bear no blame for this.” And now their mouth was acting without their input. Stupid flesh body.
“Well, is there someone we should see for this? Like an orientation or something?”
Hm. Finding Gabriel might be–No, no, this is my mission, I shouldn’t immediately go to my younger sister for help. “Follow me.”
A few flights of stairs later and Michael shoved their way into Pontiff Popola’s office, ignoring the surprised guards who definitely should’ve stopped them, but were too surprised to think of that. The idiots.
“Wha-Who in blazes are you supposed to be?!”
Michael scowled at Popola. “Isn’t that obvious? Don’t ask stupid questions.”
“No, it’s not obvious, though judging by your crimson hair and arrogant bearing, you must be one of Centola’s ilk,” the pontiff sneered in return, “What in Lucere’s name makes you think you can come storming so brazenly into my damn-”
Right, elf form. Michael flicked a hand above their head, manifesting their halo for a moment, then had to resist going rigid when Anaya let out a little “ooo” of wonder behind them.
“-offiiiiiiisssssssss……Hello Cardinal Michael.”
“Yes, hello, shut up. My companion and I missed the orientation the other pairs went through. Give it to us, now, and make it quick. Twenty words or less.”
“I-No, what? Cardinal Michael, this is-”
“You’ve wasted six words. Speak better.”
“…The…mission simply-…requires you…travel with…that person.” He pointed to Anaya, who raised a hand and waved in greeting. “And…show her…our city.”
“You don’t need to use shorter words, but you did express your message in exactly twenty words, so good work there.” Vocula never managed that one. “Thank you for your aid. Gabriel should be by to act as your aide later. Treat her well. Also, you should put your paladins go back through training, I could have killed you easily here.”
“I’m an unknown variable that entered your office without permission. They should have both tackled me to the floor before I even neared your desk.” They directed a baleful glare at the guards in question, who shrunk back and tried to hide behind the door frame. Cowards.
“You’re a cardinal of Divica-”
“Does that change anything? Get better security. Have a good day.” Michael nodded to him, then left without another word. They just had to show Anaya the city then. Good, that would be simple. They lived in this city for three thousand years, they knew where things were. This would be easy.
“There’s the Watcher statue,” they explained some time later, pointing to the very large statue out in the bay, on its own little island and portraying a robed figure holding a lantern, “It lights the Crescent Bay.
“These are the docks,” they continued, pointing to the docks under their feet, “This is where the port is.” No, wait. “The city is the port, the docks are where…ships dock. Yes.”
“That is the Temple of Light.” They pointed back to the temple they’d walked down from, which was still massive even at this distance. Some sailors gave them a wide berth and tried to avoid crossing where Michael’s finger was pointed, which was kind of them. “We just came from there. It’s the most important building in the city, and has two layers. The upper is where the offices and residences of the Faith’s officials are located while the lower is a labyrinth intended to test heroes at the end of their quest so they may receive the blessings of Light.”
“Oh, like the Wood Temple then?” Anaya asked, still smiling. She’d been doing that ever since Michael started explaining, and nearly giggled at points, though she was clearly paying attention so her odd sense of humor could be overlooked.
“No. The Temple of Light is always the last temple the heroes enter. It gives them a number of direct tests on their capabilities and training, culminating in a battle against a reflection of their inner self.” They paused. “…I thought it was called the Forest Temple?”
“Oh, it can be. People call it different things, but as long as it’s related to vegetation, I don’t think anyone minds. I’ve heard it called the Leaf Temple and the Grass Temple before, for instance.”
“Hm. You should pick a name and stick to it.”
“Pf-Yeah, I know, but ‘Plant’ does encompass a rather large branch of magic, doesn’t it? Ah, pardon the pun.”
What pun? “Then call it the Plant Temple.”
“Hm…I suppose, but we don’t call Chlora the goddess of plant, do we? It’s more like ‘goddess of plants’.”
“Yes, but you don’t call her the goddess of leaf, grass, wood, or forest either.”
Anaya hummed at that, tapping her finger against her chin again. “I suppose that’s true. Huh, that had a much simpler solution than I thought it did…”
Michael shrugged. “Most problems do.”
“Heh. Also a fair point my friend!” Friend? Friend…Isn’t that moving too fast? We just met today. “Oh, that reminds me!”
Anaya reached under the top of her dress–Michael averted their eyes, only looking back when the druid spoke again, “Here you go!”
She was holding out her hands, which held…a ring? No, a pendant. Both? It was a small, wooden ring with two wings spread out on its sides, with a string through a smaller ring on its top. “…What is this?”
“A necklace! Of a sort. It’s a token of friendship, Misha.”
“That’s not-No, yes, that is my name.” Anaya’s lips twitched as Michael studied the “token”. “…What do you mean by friendship?”
“I know what friends are,” they didn’t quite snap, “That’s not what I meant.”
“Oh. Alright, simple explanation then is that I want to be friends with you, so I brought that as a sort of indication of that desire. It’s a gift, and I hope you like it.”
Michael stared at the beaming wood elf for a moment, then looked back at the necklace. They held out a hand, and Anaya placed it in their palm. For a brief moment, they were sorely tempted to burn it in front of her, but they smothered that impulse and simply looked at the druid. “I am not interested in becoming friends. This is a mission to me. I will escort you. That is all.”
Anaya shrugged. “Alright.”
“What? You said no. If you change your mind, great, but I’m not going to push you on it.” She smiled again and Michael took a moment to check their hand because they were feeling far too warm and they felt a brief concern that they really had burned the trinket. “Things like this take time to grow.”
“It’s not going to grow,” Michael stated as they shoved the trinket in their pocket, “So don’t bother hoping for it.”
She was still smiling. Her eyes actually lit up, and she giggled. “No promises~.”
Michael frowned, then let a breath out through their nose as they looked around for something else to look at and explain. Then they noticed a familiar helm peeking out from the roof of a nearby building. And a familiar metalworker’s mask. Because apparently Sariel hadn’t changed out their helmet yet, and also–WHY ARE THEY SPYING ON ME!?
“Are you okay?” Anaya was staring at them, an eyebrow raised and her mouth turned down in a concerned frown.
“Yes. Why wouldn’t I be?” Michael responded, looking back at her and away from their idiot siblings who apparently couldn’t trust them with anything for even a second.
“You have a huge scowl on your face and you’re literally shaking with rage.”
“These are things that happen with frequency, yes.” Right, I need a diversion… “Do you want food?”
“Mortals need food to live. Ergo, we should get food so you keep doing that.”
“…” Her lips twitched. Why? “Yes. Food is good, so sure! And hey, I was interested in seeing the local cuisine anywhere, so this works out!” Good. This situation can be easily salvaged then. “So, where do you want to go?” Curses.
They gave a glance around, taking care not to look at their siblings, then pointed to the nearest restaurant they could see. “To that one.”
“Oh, a fishery? They serve food?”
“…No, the one nearby. The actual restaurant.”
“Oh, right, I see it now.” Oh thank the Light…
So they sat at a restaurant. Michael hadn’t been in a restaurant in…hm. They’d gone to restaurants before–Well, no, more like escorted people to them…hm. Well, the procedures were simple enough to understand, as they were allowed to sit at an available table with two seats–near a window and facing out towards the bay–and then they selected what food they wanted from laminated menus placed at their tables.
Anaya seemed to be in the mood for fish, potentially due to the mention of a fishery earlier, and requested some type of “chowder”, while Michael had no idea what to order, and settled for mutton. Which was sheep meat. They didn’t know why they wouldn’t just call it “sheep”, but it was fine; cooked with some sort of white onion sauce and melted cheese, and paired with pasta noodles.
“So, do you eat here often?” Anaya asked as they waited for the meal.
“No. I don’t eat.”
“No. I don’t require sustenance in a physical form.”
“Huh. Not even for fun?”
“Again, no. Why would I eat for fun?”
Anaya stared at them for some reason, opening her mouth as though she was looking for the correct words to say. “…Okay, I don’t know how to answer that. I mean, saying ‘for entertainment’ is just saying the exact same thing, right? So…yeah, I don’t have an answer for that. I guess I just assumed because we tend to leave offerings back home.”
Michael raised an eyebrow. “Offerings?”
“Yep. To give thanks to Mother Chlora and her host of angels for the bounties and blessings they grant us, we put food out at shrines. Usually just leftovers, but I have seen at least one angel come down and start munching from the offering bowl, so it seems to work?”
“Hm. So what you’re telling me is that the Green Daughter’s ilk take payment for her grace?”
“Hmm…I guess that’s a way to think of it? She gives us a good turn, we give one back. It’s not like we’re forced into it, it’s mostly just a way to feel connected. Show some kindness, hope for some back, but mostly just show that you care, you know?”
“I understand the idea, sure.”
“What do you-Ah, no, wait…I guess, what do Zemavans do when they want to get your attention or show their appreciation?”
“They don’t. The Cardinals of Zemava receive their tasks from the Pontiff of Light, or are directed directly by our God. We don’t take on minor jobs, that’s what the paladins are for.”
“Really? Even if they were to pray specifically for your help?”
“In comparison to the other gods, the Triarchs have fewer angels. Altogether, our numbers are only twenty, so it would be foolish for us to listen to every single request mortals have when there are more pressing matters.” And Michael, a full month later, abruptly grasped why Innominatum’s “army” comment had been so insulting, though they showed no visible reaction.
“That few??” Why is that so shocking?
“It is by the will of the Elder Goddess Lucere that those of the Triarchy are to keep our numbers small. After the betrayal of the Dark, she ordered it, as to ensure that the Triarch may keep a close eye on each of their children.”
Anaya raised an eyebrow. “So she believes there’s a chance you angels are going to betray her?”
“The Dark was one of our progenitors, and even she struck against the goddess Lucere. It would be foolish to believe that no one else would.” It was also why all angels should strive to be a shining beacon of what their gods expected them to be, to ensure no such thing happened. One who was acting within their gods’ will was displaying loyalty. To falter was to betray.
“Hm. Well, at least that should make sure you have a close relationship with your siblings, no?”
“…As the eldest, it is my duty to ensure that they all perform their objectives to the best of their abilities.”
“…Hm.” Silence fell upon the two as their meals arrived, allowing Michael to think of what else they could show Anaya in Divica. They didn’t care much for what mortals considered attractions, but they should at least try to find something for her. They did have to make sure to guide their principle best as they could, after all. It had been a long time since they had such a task, but they were more than up for it.
As their idiot siblings should no doubt know, but then there they were, out in the water this time, like a pair of stupid seals poking out of the bay and completely failing to realize that a yellow helmet stands out a great deal amidst blue waters. Sariel’s gray mask was faring slightly better, but Uriel had no excuse, aside from simply being somewhat dim…
No, that’s uncharitable. They’re not stupid, they’re just…they have strange ways of thinking about things. Yes, that’s it. Something like that-Oh gods this meat is really good, what?
Michael paused, fork in their mouth, then continued eating without any noticeable change in pace, because they had complete self-control and would not give away the fact that the mutton was fantastic, that it was metaphorically–and somewhat literally–melting in their mouth, and that every bit of flavor was far more intense than they actually expected.
Is this how mortals feel when they eat?? How do they ever get anything done?!
“Oh, you look happy,” Anaya commented, grinning and somehow not seeming overwhelmed by tastes she was experiencing, “Enjoying your first meal?”
“…It is adequate.”
She giggled, and Michael felt their face heat again. “Are you sure it’s just ‘adequate’? You looked really happy with it.”
“…” I looked happy? “…The meal is pleasant. My mortal body is reacting more strongly than I naturally would. I have no natural need to eat, so my normal body…I don’t lack anything, I simply don’t have the…tongue, things.”
“Taste buds. The little bits on your tongue.” Anaya stuck her tongue out, pointing to the tiny bumps on it. “Thss. Ss?”
“…Don’t do that. It looks weird.”
She snorted, then winced as she pulled her tongue back in. “Ow, bit my tongue there…anyways! Taste buds, they help people taste things.”
“…Is that what the followers of Chlora call them?”
“Well, originally no, we didn’t call them anything, but one day we met this… can’t remember what he called himself, but he was an outworlder who was studying the species of the world, I think it was for a book? Either way, we heard the name and loved it and ever since then we used it ourselves.”
“…Right.” Hm. That’s certainly a complication Michael didn’t expect. Sure, this was clearly a testament to how amazing they were that they were able to flawlessly mimic something they didn’t even know existed, but it also left them wondering what else they would have to expect… “Anaya, I shall require your assistance. If at any time I begin to do something that is unnatural, you shall tell me. As I suspect, I will have to grow accustomed to many things in this mortal body.”
“Oh, alright. Well, I probably should’ve mentioned this earlier, but you look very young for an elf. Barely over a hundred at most.”
“…Is that bad?”
“No no, it’s not bad, it’s just, well, most elves are going to assume you’re a young adult, at most. Now, under one hundred isn’t necessarily…childhood, it’s…” Anaya hums, tapping at her chin as she thinks.“It’s a little hard to explain? Elvish maturity doesn’t quite work like other mortals. We do mature slower, but it’s not as though someone in, say, their seventies will be the equivalent of a seven year old human. More like a seventeen year old? Oh, though sexual maturity doesn’t kick in until after a hundred.”
Anaya shrugs. “Yeah, it’s a weird little quirk of our bodies. Physically speaking, we could look like an adult human, if a young one, but we wouldn’t be capable of producing children until we hit that ‘hundred year’ point. There are a few theories on why, ranging to it being a quirk of our people being descended from nephilim, to a sort of evolutionary limiter to make sure long-living elves don’t overpopulate. Oh, though none of this will probably come into play for you, it’s just some info sharing.”
“…I see.” Michael decided to just get back to eating. They could figure out…that, later.
“Oh, though if you want to look a little older, it should be pretty easy. All you need to do is sort of…well, it’s like…” Anaya gestured to her own face, trying to find the words to explain how her own aging worked. “…you can kind of tell from…eyes? Wrinkles under the eyes are pretty common, though it’s also a thing of…” She continued to gesture, though she didn’t seem to be really motioning towards anything at this point. “Uhhh…”
“…should I try to look more like you then?”
“No no, no need to do that, you look fine as is. Eh, I guess we can just play it off as you having youthful looks if anyone asks? Yeah, that could work…Oh, before I forget, do you mind if we do some shopping whenever we get the chance?”
Michael shrugged in answer, somewhat thankful for the topic change. “Is there something you need to purchase?”
“Well, not need, but I figured that it would be nice to buy souvenirs, as a way to help remember everything~! And hey, once we leave Divica, you can get stuff for Iudex to show off what you’ve seen!”
“I…see. Very well. Once we’re done here, I shall show you the shopping district and then we can leave.”
“Oh, we’re leaving so soon?”
Michael nodded. “Of course. I showed you what needed to be shown, and have made sure you won’t die from hunger. There is little else that we need to do here.”
“Ah…huh. Okay then.” Nodding at the matter being cleared up, Michael stood up once their meals were finished, reached into a pocket in their robe, and placed a square-cut diamond on the table. For some reason, Anaya gave them an odd look. “…Is that what you’re paying with?”
“Of course. While I am not particularly knowing of exchange rates, I feel like this is proper payment for such a meal.”
“…Do you always just have a pocket full of jewels?”
Yes. Is that weird? It might be weird, deflect. “I ensured that I would be prepared for this journey, which includes finances so that you wouldn’t need to pay for everything.”
Anaya silently stared at Michael, before giggling once again, trying to cover it with her hand and clearly failing.
“Well, good to know, though maybe we should have a talk about ‘exchange rates’ when we have a chance.” Standing up, Anaya gestured for them to lead the way. Upon exiting the restaurant, Michael thankfully found that their siblings had left the water, as they could not spot them nearby. So without any obstacle, the duo found their way to the shopping district.
“I’m not certain what it is you wish to buy, but I am certain you can find whatever it is here.”
“Great! I’ll be right back then! Unless you want to come along?”
Anaya waited for a moment, for some reason, then huffed, looking oddly disappointed. “Right. Actually, no, this could be good, I could get a surprise for you now!”
What? Michael thought, confused, but Anaya walked off before they could say anything, heading into a figurine shop. One meant for children and collectors, so Anaya probably fell into the latter category. Considering she mentioned getting souvenirs, that was likely.
Michael took a breath, then settled in to wait. They weren’t sure why they were so focused on Anaya, but–No, no, it makes sense to be focused on her. I’m working with her, protecting her is one of my tasks. It’s entirely reasonable to wonder about her hobbies and tendencies, because if we need to visit a toy store in every country, I need to be aware of that. And have the proper money, and she just went into the shop without me, so does she even have money? Should I go after her? No, that would be weird-But, no, what if she needs-
They shook their head and took another breath, grimacing. They needed to calm down and–Why.
Uriel and Sariel were standing in a window. In one of the stores. A mask shop, apparently, because the absolute idiots decided to wear masks over their helmets and Michael was genuinely wondering how in all the heavens those two even managed to function normally. They were posing like they were display mannequins but they didn’t even bother to change their clothes and Michael’s eye started to twitch. And their skin started to smoke.
So in the interest of not screaming out their frustrations in the middle of a crowded shopping district, Michael stomped down an alleyway and just…kept on walking, because they were in control of their emotions and weren’t the type to go screaming in public places. I am a well-adjusted angelic being in complete control of their emotions. I am a well-adjusted angelic being in complete control of their emotions. I am a well-adjusted angelic being in complete control–
Anaya found them later on at the stables near the southern gate in Divica’s wall. She looked the same as before, though with a white coat on over her dress. “Hey there! So, what happened to waiting?”
“…I thought it best that I prepare our transportation out of the city,” they answered, before gesturing to the carriage the Faith of Light had prepared for them. It was a simple, boxy thing, with two seats and a trunk for any important items on the back. Two white unicorns were hitched to the front.
“Oh, cute!” She immediately brightened up, which really didn’t help Michael’s recently regained composure, and rushed over to the unicorns, beaming as she started petting one as it whinnied happily and leaned into her hand.
Michael…just watched that for a moment. It was a surprisingly pleasant sight, the gentle care in her eyes…And they were letting the silence drag for too long, they should say something, what should they say? Unicorn things? What did they know about unicorns? “…Ah, did you know, it’s said that unicorns are only amicable to virgins. Supposedly, only the chaste can truly tame them, and they tend to be more unruly towards the wanton.”
Anaya snorted, giggling. Which was an odd reaction- “Oh these poor dears must absolutely hate me then. Don’t you, sweeties?”
Michael blinked. Michael processed that information. Michael further noted Anaya’s amusement, and that she didn’t seem offended, so…good. Yes. Good? “…Well. No, it’s…a legend. Not necessarily true, simply a thing people say because unicorns are usually only found in Zemavan lands, and Zemavan culture as a whole has an emphasis on modesty-” Don’t stare at her back, don’t stare at her back– “-and retaining chastity until marriage and that means most riders tend to be virgins when they first meet so it’s really just a sort of thing, and maybe it’s not exactly virginity but more so age in that case?”
“Misha, I’m three hundred and twenty-seven, remember?”
She snorted again and pressed her forehead against the unicorn’s, possibly to hide her laughter. “Heh, more…middle-aged, let’s say? The average lifespan is five hundred, though that’s less due to aging and more due to the world being a remarkably dangerous place. Several of my kind have lived far longer, though it’s rare.”
Right. Five hundred. That’s nothing. “Of course, I knew that. Hm, right, now, we should be going. You only have one bag, so we really don’t need this entire carriage.” They walked over to the other unicorn, the one Anaya wasn’t lavishing affection on, and started undoing the bindings.
“We can ride the unicorns alone. I’m sure you’ll enjoy spending more time with your friend there.”
“Pff-Yes, I probably would, because she’s a sweetie, but also I have no idea how to ride a horse.”
Michael paused and frowned at her, ignoring the unimpressed stare their unicorn was giving them, even though the stupid horned horse should really mind its own blasted business. “You don’t? No, it’s fine, it’s the same as riding an elk-”
“I’ve never ridden one of those either. I’m not a ranger, Misha.”
“…Aren’t druids supposed to be friendly with animals or something?”
“Oh sure, animals are great, which is why I’m being so nice to Gauri here~! Though you’re thinking of beast druids, which are an Ouzan thing and also technically my goddess’s exact antithesis.” Oh. Anaya was waving a hand though, apparently dismissing the offense. “Still, I have no idea how to ride any sort of animal. I tend to hitch rides with people, and said rides tend to be in carriages. I wouldn’t mind riding with you though, but we might have to ride in the same saddle-”
“We’ll take the carriage.”
“Perfect!” And as Anaya sat next to Michael in the carriage, giggling again–She laughs really easily–the cardinal briefly considered that they might have been duped.