Chapter 6 – The Road Ahead

It had been a very long time since Michael traveled the lands of Zemava. The lands specifically; the skies were very well known to them, but the lands were less so, and the seas were honestly a complete enigma but they weren’t traveling that way at the moment so that really didn’t matter.

Even so, it was only their memories from the sky that ensured they weren’t lost as aside from the occasional town, there weren’t any notable landmarks. Even more so if they went through a forest, and Zemava did have a few of those.

“Wow,” Anaya marveled as they passed through one, smiling as she looked up at the sparse light filtering through the treetops, “It’s always nice, seeing what another nation’s forests are like.” “

Why would that be?” 

“Well, aside from seeing the various types of trees, you can generally tell much about the land of a country based on the plants growing there!” 

“Is that so? I’ve never paid much attention to plant life, so I shall have to believe you are correct.” 

Anaya giggled, for some reason. “Are you alright? You seem stiff, Misha.”

“I am not. I’m just focused.”

“On driving?”

“Yes,” they bit out, keeping their eyes forward. I don’t know anything about plants, how would I even discuss this subject? “What’s different about our plants?”

“Well, they’re mostly deciduous, yes?” I don’t know what that means. Apparently, their ignorance showed on their face, because she continued. “Deciduous trees and shrubs tend to alter with the seasons. Their leaves will change from green to shades of orange and yellow and gradually fall off as summer turns to autumn, and they’ll normally be completely bare by the time winter rolls around. In contrast, evergreen trees, which most conifers tend to be though larches tend to be deciduous, are trees that don’t change with the seasons. The pine trees around Tramontava, for instance, won’t turn orange with autumn, and that could be largely because the slight shifts in temperatures caused by ambient magic can result in a region that would be ‘naturally’ temperate instead turning more arboreal, or outright arid like Sollamava.”

“…I see.” What does any of that mean? “…So our forests are good?”

She didn’t giggle, though she seemed to be hiding a smile. “Yes, they are, though I haven’t found a forest I’ve disliked yet. Even deepwoods can be quite lovely.”

“Deepwoods?”

“Darker places in Naloriva, where Mother Chlora’s magic turns more towards the wild. Some say it mixes with the similarly natural magics of The Beast, resulting in dark stretches of forest where the animals grow far larger than they naturally would.”

Michael frowned. “I haven’t heard of these before. Are they a secret?”’

“No, not exactly. My people, Nalorivans, don’t tend to talk much about our lands in general. Keeping our communities hidden keeps us out of danger when warlords from the East come looking for plunder. Open villages tend to go first.” She seemed almost sad for a moment, and Michael felt…discomforted, for some reason. “But, well, we’re in a time of peace, so maybe we’ll have more reason to actually talk now, right?”

They bit back their instinctive response to point out just how false and fragile this “peace” was. It wouldn’t do to be aggressive. I can do this. I can talk with someone without getting angry. Just agree with her. “…Does Naloriva have roads?” Why am I like this.

Anaya blinked.

“…Well, not like in the major cities of other countries where they’re paved. They just tend to be naturally formed where we travel.” 

“I see.” At least she isn’t being aggravating like my siblings when I ask them something. “Zemava has roads leading to each city and town under the Faith’s protection. It’s even said you could walk to every major settlement in the nation just by traveling down one road. I haven’t tried it myself, though I’ve heard of people attempting to run the entire distance.” There was some sort of record back at the temple. A plaque or some such in honor of an elf who managed to run the entire distance in…what was it, a week? Less? Something outlandish.

“Oh wow. I almost want to try that now…oh, though, doesn’t that get difficult to maintain? If you have so many fully constructed roads, they must get torn up often.”

“No? Why would they?”

“Well, monster attacks, mainly. I guess you are far enough from the border that you don’t have to worry about attacks from eastern warlords, but you still have dungeons and monsters cropping up around, right?”

Michael resisted the urge to roll their eyes. That would be rude. “Zemava does still have dungeons and monsters appear at points, yes, but our land is fully protected, both by my siblings and I, and the paladin forces that act as guardians for other Zemavan cities. Every town has at least one paladin assigned as their guard, and many patrol the roads at regular intervals to check for problems or damages. If there are any, the local masonry guild branch is contacted and protected while it’s fixed. As such, our roads always work and traffic remains unimpeded.”

“Huh. That’s pretty impressive,” Anaya marveled as she leaned outside the carriage, looking at the brick road underneath their unicorns’ hooves, “It must make travel really easy around here too.”

“Quite. The people of Zemava have peaceful, easy lives, because of our efforts and the prosperity of our…” They trailed off, because up ahead, there was a fork in the road, and Michael could see a direction sign pointing to Lopetra on its right. And it didn’t mention where the other road went at all. “…Sloppy.”

“Huh?” Anaya blinked as Michael pulled the reins, stopping their steeds with nary a neigh of complaint, and stepped out of the carriage. “Uh, where’re you going?”

“You mentioned monsters in Zemava earlier. As I said, we do have some.” Michael crouched down at the clean and clearly well-maintained road, then swiftly grabbed a brick and yanked it out, holding it upside down as the monster squealed and flailed. “And as you can see, this-”

And then they paused as Anaya let out a high-pitched squeal of her own. “Oh my gods it’s a froggy!” 

Michael stared at the druid, who was cooing and poking at the toad in their grasp. “…no, it’s a toad. A road toad.”

“Ohh, gotcha! Ah, yeah, I see the little bumps…well, around the big brick on its back–why does it have a brick on its back?”

“The brick is its back.” Michael gestured to the rest of the road, which was starting to shift in spots as the rest of the knot registered their fellow’s distress. “Road toads mimic the bricks and cobblestones in roads, hence the name. They’re a close relative of rock toads, which do the same, but with random rocks. When prey, most commonly beetles or small rodents, get close, they leap from their cover and quickly eat them on the spot.”

“Aw, so this tubby buddy’s a hungry fella, huh~?” Anaya was cooing again, while lightly petting at the large toad’s belly. Her fingers were glowing a soft shade of green, which did explain why the monster was starting to settle down in Michael’s grasp. “Think you can turn him over now? I doubt he likes being on his back.”

“…you do understand these are monsters, right?”

“Yep! And monsters are just animals but with extra bits attached.”

“They’re malicious manifestations of natural magic that exist to attack all those their feeble minds regard as enemies.”

“I don’t think this little guy’s about to attack us anytime soon. And besides, that’s just nature.”

“…Just nature?”

“Yup! Carnivores eat animals to live, herbivores eat plants, omnivores eat both, and monsters work a bit more weirdly, but they still have their own natural rules, and I don’t think these little guys can even eat someone as big as us.”

Michael sighed as they set down the toad, which they did purely because it was getting annoying to hold up, not out of any sympathy for the beast. “You don’t get this many road toads in one place naturally though.” They nudged it and watched as it hopped off to the trees, paused, then turned and went back to its place in the road without further hesitation. “See? Something is controlling them into making a path.”

They raised their finger and sent a small bolt of flame towards the sign, which burst into violet smoke that swirled in on itself before evaporating. “Add in the false-sign, and something is aiming to lure travelers in deeper this way.”

“Huh. How did you notice that?”

“The sign only pointed in one direction. Any sign set at a fork or intersection would point out what’s in every direction. Even a lone sign at a bend would have two points. One to direct traffic towards their destination, and one to point back where they came from. As for the road, while these creatures can mimic bricks, they’re too clean.” Michael stood and started walking down the path, paying attention to each brick they stepped on in case any wanted to try bursting out from under them. “Any natural road would have at least some debris and detritus strewn across it, especially out in a forest. The fact that this one didn’t shows it’s unnatural.”

“Wow. Y’know, I wouldn’t’ve even guessed. I thought Zeman roads would all look super clean. Don’t you have Purus as one of your trinity?” Anaya asked, apparently content to follow Michael, though she did take a moment to hitch their carriage to a nearby tree.

“…Lord Purus is a member of the Triarchy of Light, yes. What does that have to do with roads?”

“Oh, I thought his followers would be…well, maybe not obsessed, but zealous about keeping everything clean.”

“That’s stupid.” Wait, no, that slipped out. “Ah, what I mean-”

“Pft. Jeez, you don’t hold back, huh? Alright, fair enough, I guess pure clerics have better things to do than clean streets.”

“…Quite.” I don’t actually know what they do though. Presumably clerical things? Whatever.

The two of them subsided into silence then, which continued until Michael raised a hand to their right and caught the clacker-hound leaping from the bushes around the throat. Conveniently, it was right as they approached a cave jutting up from the earth at the end of the path, so they were very confident they found the right place.

“Woah. Er, is that a horned wolf?”

“It’s not a wolf,” Michael replied as they threw the monster against a tree, earning a sharp crack as it crumpled to the ground, “It’s a monster resembling a hound, though the real beast is a crustaceous quadruped in a false skin. The fur is shorter than it would be on a wolf, more resembling a type of guard dog like a pinscher or a pesker.”

“Oh, a hound then. Right-” Anaya paused as Michael abruptly turned and punched the hound jumping at her unprotected back. “Huh. Thanks for that.”

“You’re not going to complain about hurting these ones?”

“Not really, no. I haven’t run into these things before, but they’re big enough to leap for my throat and seem to have the inclination for it.”

“Good. They tend to arrive in packs of six, so try to stay close.” With that said, they promptly turned and blasted a stream of fire at the next leaping clacker, searing straight through its furry covering and revealing the crimson shell underneath as the burning monster squealed.

“Do you need to set them on fire though?”

“Fire kills them quicker.”

“Hm.”

Why does it matter how I kill them? Shaking their head, Michael brought up their hand and let loose three arrows of fire that twisted in the air and came down on the three remaining hounds as they all charged out of the trees at once, their sizzling bodies crashing to the ground around them. “There, now that that’s been dealt with, we can try to figure out who set this trap.” 

“I must say, I’m surprised that you’re doing this yourself instead of just going to a nearby town to inform a paladin or something.” 

“If I were to do so, then I would need to go much further than a forestside village to find an actually useful paladin, and even if I were to inform them, it would take them far too long to decide on what to do.” Honestly, why is it that mortals always take so long to decide what to do despite their limited life spans? “And the only other option would be to leave it to an…adventurer. And for such an important task, people like them cannot be trusted.” 

“…huh.” 

“Is there a problem?” 

“Well, no. I guess I half expected you to just say it was the right thing to do? You know, break my expectations and all that.” 

“…This is not a matter of what’s right and what isn’t. It’s about what’s quickest.” 

“Okay, fair enough. I think I’m getting a better idea of who you are already.” What’s that supposed to mean? “So, why don’t you like adventurers?”

“They’re annoying meddlers and mercenaries with delusions of heroism. They’re also largely irrelevant in a land that has proper guardians such as the paladins, so I don’t know why any would even bother coming to Zemava.”

“For adventure?”

Michael rolled their eyes as they walked down the path, towards whatever thing waited at the end. “They aren’t likely to get that. Those ‘guilds’ of theirs that are set up here are all maintained by the Order Centola’s pet project, those ‘Furies’. To even be active in Zemava, they need to bow and scrape and license themselves to a mercenary guild with little interest in accepting competition.”

“Really? That sounds like a hassle.”

“I imagine so. Still, they can’t operate in Zemava without authorization from the guild. Failing to gain that authorization can result in fines, with banishment from the country as the highest sentence an ‘adventurer’ can receive.”

“And the nation allows that?”

Michael paused, then squared their shoulders and kept walking towards the cabin at the end of the winding path. Anaya’s tone wasn’t accusatory, though her words sounded so. “Yes, it does. It keeps things orderly.”

“I guess? It sounds like the Furies get the most out of it, though.”

“And the Vermillion Furies are run by the Centolas, who are one of the major paladial orders of Zemava, so it’s allowed, and I’m done answering questions. I have a monster to handle.”

“Kay. So, is the house the monster, or does the monster live in the house?” Anaya asked, staring at the two-story cabin sitting in the middle of the woods. It looked to be made of white logs and had a tiled roof, along with glass windows. A pair of columns held up the roof above the entryway, and the door was open and inviting. Altogether, a rather typical vision of a Zemavan home built in the forest.

Michael raised a hand and launched a sizable fireball straight through that open doorway, lowering their hand as the monstrous mimic exploded in a massive conflagration without even a chance to make a noise. “The former.”

“…huh. That looked like overkill.”

“You can’t overkill a monster. As long as the beast dies, the mission is accomplished.” And as the chunks of burning wood and charred flesh rained down around the clearing, the path of road toads shuddered and began to split apart, each toad hopping away into the forest as the beast controlling them died. Though Michael did notice a few of the little monsters going around to gobble up their master’s remains.

“See, I feel like you’re wrong on that one. Largely because you set fire to the treetops.”

“What? No I-…oh.” Right, leaves catch fire very easily… “…I can fix that.”

“It’s good, I can handle it.” Anaya snapped her fingers and there was a sudden rush of greenery across the forest floor that quickly spread up the trunks and overtook the flames in seconds, converting them into bright, crimson flowers amid the treetops.

“…” Huh. That was actually impressive. “Good work.”

“Heh, thanks-Oh, well hello there.” And now she was walking past them, why was she walking past them?

Anaya went over to the ruins of the mimic, which was also being rapidly overtaken by plant magic, and plucked some sort of flower from the growing patch of greenery. A strangely large and round flower– “Is that a dungeon core?”

“Yup! I think the house-monster swallowed it. Somehow.” Anaya hummed, staring curiously at the deep red core, its center slowly pulsing with arcane energy. “Now how did that happen?”

“…That’s a question we don’t have the time to answer,” Michael answered, taking the core from Anaya and walking with it under their arm. “We wasted enough time with this detour to begin with.”

“Pft, you do remember you’re the one that wanted to take this detour, right?”

“I know. I thought the issue might be something greater than a mimic lucky enough to consume a core.” Though the question of how, precisely, the mimic did that was starting to bother Michael. 

Mimics were ambush predators, typically taking the shape of a treasure chest and formed in dungeons to kill unwary treasure-seekers. They could come in other shapes, but the caveat to the monstrous species was that they could only take the form of an artificial item or structure.

However, mimics rarely ever held treasure within them. The only times they ever did was when they ate something they couldn’t digest from someone foolish enough to fall for its trap. 

So how exactly did the core enter this mimic… 

“Well, in that case, what are you planning on doing with that core?”

“Sell it. I have no use for it, and simply breaking it would be pointless after the effort I expended to obtain it.” 

“…huh. Well, I have heard of people using cores as batteries, so that works.” 

And thus it was decided, and the two were on their way once more to the town of Lopetra, the first stop on their tour of the Light Lands. Which really wasn’t much of a stop, considering it was an average small town in Zemava, consisting of marble buildings with slate roofs set around a central square containing the local shrine, itself consisting of three simple statues of the Triarchs set atop a pedestal.

Regardless of that, the more important thing to take care of was the fact that there was indeed a paladin–albeit a minor one–here who was supposed to be in charge of keeping the roads safe for travelers. And the fact that Michael had a dungeon core tucked under their arm was pretty clear evidence that it was indeed not safe. 

So when they heard about Paladin Ausilio from the local priest of Lopetra, during a conversation in which said priest expressed surprise that there could be any monsters around their town with him around, Michael decided it would be best to meet the wayward paladin. After all, perhaps he was simply too busy with other matters to notice a very dangerous monster attempting to lure in travelers from the main road to his town?

Such matters appeared to be carousing at a milk bar. So not exactly important.

“You serve milk at your bars?” Anaya questioned as she followed Michael in, now in charge of core duty. Which simply meant holding the stupid thing so it didn’t try turning some peasant’s house into an aboveground dungeon. Such a thing was rare, but Michael had seen it before.

“The land of Zemava has a blanket ban on alcohol of all kinds. Inebriation is antithetical to morality.” Michael paused, thinking. “They also tend to serve juice.”

“Huh. Neat.”

Regardless, Michael soon found Paladin Ausilio–another gold-skinned high elf like most of his countrymen, with the close-cropped green hair commonly associated with the Order Bosio–in the company of two very bored looking barmaids, who appeared to be attempting to look interested in his long-winded tale of some journey.

“-truly, the coastal bluffs of Sollamava are-” Ausilio went stiff as Michael took the core from Anaya and slammed it onto his table, his eyes darting from the sphere to Michael in growing confusion. “…ah…hello?”

“Hello Ausilio. Why was this in your forest?”

There was a flash of nervous recognition that he tried to cover. “Ah…A ball?”

Michael glared. “A dungeon core. The type of thing you should have caught in the process of your duties.”

“…” Rather than cower, Ausilio raised an eyebrow and leaned back in his seat, smirking. “Now that’s rich. A Centola comes by just to lecture me on duty? What do you really want here?”

Michael bristled. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“It means what it means. I know your type, Centy, even if you’re not willing to admit it. Afraid you’ll upset your girlfriend if she knows just what your order gets up to?”

Michael paused. Just for a moment, before they looked to Anaya. “Anaya, why don’t you get a drink? I need to speak more candidly with our friend here.”

“Yeah, okay. This is clearly a Zemmy thing, so I’m gonna take Charlie here and get some pomegranate juice. You folks have that, right?”

“…Charlie? And, yes, I think so.”

“Yeah, Charlie the core.” She petted the core in question, before lifting it up and pressing it to her che–Michael lifted their eyes to her face. “I think it’s cute, yeah?”“

…Sure. Do that. These two should join you.” The barmaids couldn’t hurry away fast enough, leaving Ausilio scowling.“

Now why did you do that? What, do you have some weird grudge-” He paused for a second, studying Michael’s face. “…Wait, shit…are you one of my ex’s?”

“…” Michael dropped their disguise entirely, walked straight through the table in full angelic form, and grabbed Ausilio by his gaping mouth before flying straight through the roof of the bar, phasing through it and dragging the struggling paladin a good two hundred feet in the air.

It was easy to hold into him as his panicked struggles went from trying to break free to trying to hold on. “I do not believe in torture, Paladin Ausilio. I find it wasteful and damaging not merely to the recipient, but the enactor. As such, I will not endeavor to cause you undue pain or fear in this instance. This is your punishment for whatever transgressions you have clearly committed.

They leaned in closer, holding Ausilio in place so he was forced to look into their burning eyes. “If you wish for leniency, you may confess your crimes and the crimes of those you associate with, and I will grant you absolution. If you transgress further by lying to me, I will have to punish you once more. Do be smart about this.

“I have no tolerance for those who embrace corruption.”

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