Chapter 14 – Southward Bound

The noise Michael made as they woke up was incomparable to any sound made by mortal throats. The closest way to describe it was somewhere between a phlegm-filled snort and a majestic orchestra suddenly having its instruments all break at once, though not necessarily at the crescendo of their performance. More like somewhere in the middle of build up, leaving a somewhat dissatisfied feeling of not even reaching an anti-climax, mixed with the unpleasant sensation of waking up against a pillow soaked with drool.

Michael blinked, their eyes oddly heavy as an unpleasant and accursed light shone almost directly into their–Oh, that’s the sun. 

Closing their eyes, Michael slowly rose up out of the bed, becoming aware that, not only did they sleep over the covers instead of under them as proper, but they didn’t even bother changing into their robes before sleeping as they still had on the overalls. 

At least their stomach felt better. Closing the shades on the window, Michael decided to get changed, this time putting on a shirt to cover their arms and back. Biting back a yawn, Michael immediately set out of the room, not wanting this sense of lethargy to grow. While they may have indulged too much yesterday, they would ensure they didn’t fall to sloth.

The walk to the house aided in this endeavor, and the amount of noise inside also aided with it, snapping them into greater awakeness as they stared at the bustling household. Though they did falter in their step as they realized breakfast was being served, the pain from yesterday coming back for a brief moment. 

In an attempt to avoid such an issue, they very deliberately–with a type of stealth they were sure Raphael would…well, not envy because that was a sin, but at least comment on–moved  through the crowd of minotaurs and took the first unoccupied seat they could find, before taking a piece of fluffy toast and munching on it with the utmost casualness. A perfect camouflage.

“Y’know you’re supposed to wear the shirt under the overalls, right?”

Michael paused in their munching, looked down at their current attire, then looked at the minotaur who commented– “Oh, you’re the one from last night.”

“Heya. You’re also from last night.”

“You know what I meant…do you know where Anaya is?”

“At the same guest house you were in. Different rooms though, so I guess you didn’t notice. I was half-tempted to put her in your bed, but I have a feelin’ it would’ve turned out less than funny…” She raised an eyebrow. “Or not.”

“W-What do you mean by that?!” Michael demanded, then took a moment to loosen their grip on their now crushed toast.

“…You’re a hell of a lot cuter than I thought you’d be.”

“What? W-What?? What does-Th-That-”

“Tiz, try not to tease our guest too much,” one of the sisters–Zinovia, one of the bakers–requested, before her words fully registered in Michael’s mind.

“…Ah. ‘Tiz’. Would that be short for…Tisma?”

“Well it ain’t short for Tatiana, so you’ve got a fair guess there.” Tisma Vlahos, one of the so-called heroes who abducted the late–missing, supposed to say missing–former Pontiff Vocula, paused and glanced at yet another nearby sister. “No offense Tanya.”

“None taken. Though I would’ve gone for ‘well it ain’t short for Tisserand’, go for somethin’ more morbid-classical.”

“Right, but that’d be more Tiss than Tiz–”

“I…” Michael trailed off as the “hero” gave her a glance. Not out of a feeling of threat, but honestly because Michael had no idea what to say in this situation…oh, there’s something. “…I like Polina better than you.”

“…Uh. Huh. I don’t know what to say to that.” She frowned. “…feelin’ weirdly offended though.”

“Good, you should be. Or, rather, shouldn’t, because Polina is clearly the superior sibling.”

“Er, a-are you talking about me?” And speak of the taurus, so she shall appear. Hm, taurus don’t have that as a thing, right?

“Eh, kinda? Apparently Misha here likes you better than me,” Tisma explained as her younger sister–who was wearing another rather lovely sundress–took a seat nearby. 

“Oh, h-huh…thank you? Ah…w-well, um, not to…I don’t want to impose, but, er…I was k-kinda wonderin’ if you’d…prefer if I escort you a while longer?”

“Oh? Heh, you lookin’ to travel now, Polly?”

“A-Ah, well, m-maybe a little? I, um…The Light Lands are large, so it might be nice to keep traveling? A-And her majesty did ask that I escort them…”

Michael considered the proposal as Tisma teased her sister. Polina was a decent traveling companion, and she would likely help provide guidance for their remaining time in Sollamava. “I should discuss matters with Anaya, but I’m fine with your continued presence.”

“Ah, thank you!” Polina beamed with a genuine happiness that did give Michael some slight pause as they felt their annoying face warm again. 

“You are welcome. Now, since you will be traveling with us, you may handle Anaya’s inevitable questions about the regions we travel through.”

“Oh, okay. Isn’t that what I was already doing though?”

“Whether it is or isn’t, mind if I interrupt?” Tisma interrupted, which Michael did indeed mind, “It’s just a quick bit of advice, but you’re plannin’ to head to Gorokiva then, right?” At their nod, she continued. “Then you oughta head straight south from Titolis, down towards Nassato, instead of southeast through Garoti.”

Garoti? Why does that sound familiar? “Why? Is there an issue with that province?”

“Might be one. Nothin’s set in stone yet, but there’s a good chance trouble’s brewin’ there, so I’d recommend stickin’ to more peaceful roads. Course, you still gotta look out for monsters and the occasional outlaw, but I’m sure two paladins oughta be able to handle any problems on the way.”

“Hmph. We most certainly can.” Well, I know I can. I might need to check if Polina can handle herself.

Regardless, it was largely decided then that Polina would be accompanying them on their journey, so Michael brought up the issue of transportation, and the fact that their carriage was only meant to carry two people.

“Wait, what?” another sister–Damia, a carpenter still under apprenticeship–spoke up in audible confusion, “That thing could easily hold four people in it, and that’s not including the top.”

“What? No, it’s a two-person carriage. There’s room for storage at the back, but there’s only room for two people to sit in it.”

Damia shook her head though. “C’mon, I’ll show you.”

And it was outside, nearby the stables, where Michael found their carriage parked. Or at least some type of odd replacement carriage that someone had decided to leave them after stealing their original carriage. That was the only real conclusion they could come to as they stared at the far larger passenger carriage set near the stables, as the only other option was that their carriage somehow grew in size.

“See? It’s a damn fine one too. Even got a trunk at the back.” Damia demonstrated that fact by opening said trunk, attached to the back of the vehicle, and inside it were the four remaining metal jugs of milk. Somehow kept cool, judging by the cold air visible wafting out of the trunk.

“…Ah. I see. This is indeed my carriage.” Michael nodded to themself. “…HOW?!?”

“…Cause you were given it?” a confused Damia said, stepping aside as Michael wrenched the door straight off the side of the blatantly demonic vehicle. “Ah, that’s gonna be hard to put back on if you splinter it like that–”

“I DON’T WANT IT BACK ON!” they snapped, before glaring at the gleaming core sitting on a pedestal in the middle of their carriage, the wood curled around it as it was lifted up. The core they apparently did forget to actually turn over to anyone but that was beside the point! “You! Don’t think I’ll make the same mistake twice, you–!”

“Oh wow! Did our carriage grow??” Then they paused because that was Anaya’s voice. “Ooo, it looks gorgeous–Oh, hey Michael–…did you rip the door off?”

“…” Michael looked back at Anaya. They took in her current attire. “…P-Put on a shirt.”

“Pff, like yours–Eep!” Anaya squeaked as Michael’s shirt hit her in the face, blinking as it flopped down into her hands. “…Well alright, I guess so. So, huh, Charlie took over our carriage. Hm, it can’t eat us, right?”

“Wh-…Can it…?” Michael looked suspiciously back at the carriage, examining its interior. It didn’t look anything like a mimic…no hint of disguised tongue or teeth, no sign of digestive fluids, though they did eye the red cushions on one set of seats suspiciously. There did seem to be a rather nice flame and vine pattern decoratively curving around the interior, though perhaps those were simple traps designed to suddenly spring into fire or choking plants–

“Y’know, we do have a fair amount of monster handlers in this family,” Damia pointed out, “If you’re worried, they can check the carriage and the core over, see if there’s any problems.”

“Oh that sounds fantastic!” Anaya agreed without hesitation, now wearing the shirt over her overalls just like Michael had, thereby proving them right, “Just let them know that if Charlie’s not causing any problems, oh and Charlie’s the core, then you can feel free to leave him there.”

“You gave the core a name?” Damia asked. She didn’t seem bothered by the idea, just curious.

“She did,” Michael said, then turned their gaze to their druidic companion, “Anaya, we should talk.”

“Oh yeah, you were gonna ask her about talkin’ Polly along, right?”

“Ah–Well, yes, but–”

“Oh, that sounds great!” Anaya agreed with a bright smile, “I’m sure it would be fun to have someone who knows the area better to come along with us! And you can keep learning about the faith of judgment from her, if you want!”

“Er, that–I suppose that’s true–”

“Ah, I-I’m glad to hear you like the idea!” Polina said, because apparently she was there too. In fact, there seemed to be a crowd forming as the other members of the Vlahos family got curious and came over to stare at the carriage. 

And, to a lesser extent, at Michael, who just realized they were still standing in the broken doorframe of the carriage. “…I would like it if someone would decide if this thing is safe or should be destroyed now.”

Their request only earned a number of immediate protests that the “awesome” carriage should remain intact, so Michael was fairly certain they weren’t going to get a proper response here. Still, they stepped away and allowed the qualified members of the Vlahos family to take a look at the altered carriage.

“Hm…I’ve heard of people trying to use cores like a big battery, but they usually seal them away when they’re not in use. Guess this shows why,” Tisma Vlahos, who had apparently followed them outside, commented, apparently content to watch while her sisters examined the carriage.

“But we’re not using it as a battery,” Michael retorted as they stood by Anaya. Who was actually sitting by this point, on a blanket with Polina. When did this turn into an outdoor play?

“Yes, but being in one place for a long time without any restraints will still let it bond with where it is. Good news is that the carriage should stay stable after we check it out. Dungeons only tend to ‘shift’ after they’re in danger, like right after a party that got deep in decides to leave. So as long as you keep an eye out, the carriage should remain the same.” 

“And what about the monsters it spawns?” 

“Well, that part is a bit more tricky. Monsters tend to be protectors of the core, but with how long you two have been around it, it might see you two as its protectors?”

“What.”

“D’aw, that’s cute! Charlie got attached to us!” Anaya said with a bright smile while Tisma stared blankly at her.

“You named the core?”

“Yup! Charlie’s a good name for him, right? Charlie the core!”

“…It’s alliterative.”

“That it is!” Anaya seemed in high spirits, for some reason–Where did they get the lemonade. What? Why is this becoming a picnic??

Regardless of Anaya’s apparent skill at procuring food–it was either her doing it or Polina and Michael heavily doubted the large paladin was that quick or stealthy–the inspection of the carriage returned with a resounding “It’s all good” from the assembled Vlahos family members.

And, well, once it was established the carriage was fine to travel with, Michael didn’t particularly want to stay any longer. Yes, the farm was pleasant, and yes, they did feel oddly relaxed–even around someone who should undoubtedly be a criminal and the only reason Michael wasn’t reacting worse to her presence was that doing so would make them a bad guest–but they had a strong feeling that they would wind up wasting far too much time if they agreed to stay around.

The goodbyes alone took far too much time to get through, so Michael felt they made the best possible choice they could have.

Though they did their best to remain steadfast when Io decided to give them some food for the road. Including several leftover pies that made Michael’s stomach tense up. 

“Well hey, at least we have a lot of room in the trunk now to hold all the food!” Anaya said as they pulled away from the farm. It took some time to get the unicorns hitched up to the carriage properly, largely because the stupid horned horses apparently liked the ranch better than the open road. “That should make things nice and convenient. And we can even use the inner carriage to store more stuff!”

“Ah, right, I was meanin’ to ask about that,” Polina said, glancing back at Anaya, “Y’know the cushions inside are where you’re supposed to sit, right? We don’t all need to be outside the carriage.”

Anaya shrugged. “True, but then I wouldn’t get such a nice view of the countryside. I’d have to keep looking out the windows and all that.”

“It would be safer,” Michael grumbled as they drove the unicorns onward, stubbornly not looking back at the druid who elected to sit cross-legged on top of the carriage instead of inside or even in the front seats, where the angel was sitting with Polina.

“If we only did safe things it would be boring. Besides I have two strong paladins keeping me safe~”

“You are far more likely to suffer the whims of gravity than I am,” Michael retorted, earning a confused look from Polina.

“Er, what does that-”

“Then I’m sure you can catch me,” Anaya interrupted, still smiling, before leaning–which she really shouldn’t be doing–to look at the nearing walls of Titolis, “For now though, why don’t we enjoy our third capital city of the trip? Hm, though I guess we can’t count Rodina, since we didn’t actually go inside there…”

Michael felt a vague urge to point out that Divica was technically the first capital city that Anaya had visited on her trip, but that would’ve been pointless. It wasn’t as though Titolis really matched up to either Divica or Sona Komottos either.

It was admittedly rather homey though, past the city walls. Things were more open, in some ways, with open-air markets down nearly every street and a large park taking up a good portion of the city, which was where the zoo that Zita worked at was located. It was also where bees were kept and crops were grown; not at the level of a full farm, but more akin to a public place for communal gardening. 

The city certainly seemed to like its plants; there was a tree on basically every corner, some even modified to hold sources of light like regular streetlamps.

“Oh wow. I never thought I’d see these outside of Nalori,” Anaya commented as she felt one such fancy lamppost-tree, staring up at the luminescent fruit that served for its lightsource, “Did a druid grow these? Or an order of druids, I guess, I just never really heard of one being out here.”

“Thanks to the fairly rich soil in Titormo, we actually import lots of seeds from different countries to grow them here,” Polina explained, “Not sure if a druid helped with growing them though. Aside from helpin’ at my family’s farm, growin’ stuff ain’t my area of expertise.” 

“Well it’s nice that they’re looking nice and healthy, though the fruit on this tree might need to be picked soon.” 

“Why is that?” Michael asked, deciding they may as well learn more about the bright plant.

“The fruit of this tree starts to go bad when they start to dim, and the rot spreads rather fast if you leave a rotten one on it.” 

“Huh. So it should be ripe now then?”

“Oh definitely, and they are perfectly safe to eat.” Anaya turned towards Polina, not noticing as Michael did the perfectly logical thing of plucking the fruit in question. “Do you know if the city intends to harvest them or-”

She paused at the audible crunch, then glanced at Michael as they chewed the luminescent fruit in their mouth. The entire fruit, because it was best not to leave a mess. “Mh…somewhat bitter…”

“Ah…yeah, people don’t normally eat them like that.” 

“But they’re fruit.”

“That is true, but the taste doesn’t attract many fans. Though when used as an ingredient in a larger dish, it can be pretty good.” Grinning, Anaya leaned in, making Michael take a step back. “They also make you look quite pretty, Misha. You’re literally glowing!” 

Michael felt their face flush as her words registered, a denial quickly springing to their lips before the “literally” part hit and they touched said lips. And sure enough, there was a glowing residue on their fingers. “…Your attempt at humor was terrible.”

“Heh, if you say so~! Now, we should probably leave before someone notices you ate a streetlight.”

“Ah, yeah, that is pretty illegal, now that I think about it,” Polina agreed, nodding along as Michael blinked.

“…But it’s a fruit? What’s illegal about eating a fruit??”

“It’s also owned by the city, so you can’t just eat it.” Grabbing Michael by the arm, Anaya quickly led them away, heading to a shop that was a ways away from the tree. Specifically to buy some more supplies for the trip, which made Michael thankful that she was being at least a bit more serious.

Still, the idea that eating fruit was somehow illegal was ridiculous! Zemava doesn’t have any sort of law like that! …I think. I suppose I haven’t actually checked whether eating…’city fruit’ is illegal, but if it is, it’s stupid. Fruit is meant for eating, mortals need to eat, providing fruit for consumption is a logical step! Otherwise they start dying!

Granted, the fruit in question was meant for lighting streets, so the equivalent might be something akin to eating a light stone or a lamp. But if that was an issue, then clearly the city should have used actual lights instead of plant lights, therefore Michael was fine and hadn’t actually broken any real laws because it was the city’s fault for having a stupid law. Yes, that sounds about right.

Regardless, their ruminations on the strange possessiveness a city had towards things that literally grew on trees was soon sidetracked by shopping. And if Michael happened to make a point of specifically buying fruit for their journey, then that was merely a matter of following their priorities properly and ensuring their two mortal companions had an abundance of needed nutrition.

The food shopping turned towards clothes shopping and Michael briefly wondered if maybe this trip to the city would take longer than expected.

“I have clothes,” Michael said as Polina led them to an admittedly cozy boutique. Well, the outside equivalent of one? It clearly sold clothing and other such amenities, but it was mostly under a tent? Still with areas sectioned off for changing, but it was somewhat interesting seeing how the Titormans seemed to really dislike the idea of indoor business.

“You have robes and overalls and you’re already getting stares from the overalls,” Anaya countered, “Take it from a woman who can literally grow her own clothes, you need at least some variety in your life.” 

“…hmph.” 

Variety or not, they were going to make sure to be well covered; they weren’t gonna make the same mistake they did at the farm. As such, Michael found themself wearing a long sleeved shirt and long cloth pants, in a warm orange and light brown, with nice matching gloves and boots. 

“Aw, here I was hoping you’d be more adventurous~” Anaya teased, wearing a new yellow sundress. “I mean, you did seem to have fun with the overalls.”

“I’m not interested in adventure, I’m interested in practical wear for travel. You’re the one who wants to be adventurous.”

“Is that your way of saying I should’ve picked something more daring?”

“…Polina, do you know of anything else we should do while we’re here?” 

“Aw, don’t ignore me…” Anaya pouted as Polina, electing to wear a rather loose linen shirt–which would probably work as a full dress on Anaya and even Michael–and practical travelers pants of her own, along with what looked to be a new belt, rubbed her chin, looking around in some thought.

“Hm…um…I don’t think there’s anythin’ we need to do? You two have campin’ equipment already, right?”

“…” Michael looked to Anaya.

“Nope, that all belonged to the nice folks who escorted us to Sona Komottos.”

“Oh then we definitely oughta get some while we’re here, in case we need’a stay by the roadside for any reason. Hm, we oughta get some flint too then, maybe matches if they have ‘em, a couple lanterns…”

So the shopping trip continued. As did some lessons on the region as a curious Anaya decided her time in between purchases was best spent badgering Polina with questions about her homeland. At least the paladin was open to such questioning, though Michael largely tuned out the information in favor of looking around themself. 

So outdoor shops seem to exist because of the heat, they mused as they walked, glancing at a stall selling monster parts. Tusks, fangs, still-beating violet hearts, tentacles kept in a sort of icebox… The region is naturally open and arid, so warm days and cold nights are common. So the houses are better insulated, but uncomfortable to stay in during the day, maybe? 

They could ask Polina, but she seemed to be in the middle of explaining some religious significance to the dungeon under the–

“There’s a dungeon under the city?”

“-huh? Ah, uh, yeah, under every major city, actually. Sona Palati is probably the most famous, but every province’s capital is a dungeon, right under the archducal palaces.”

“…You built castles atop dungeons? Directly on top?”

“Well sure. It’s like the Temple of Light that y’all have, right? You put the Temple on top of the…temple? Is, uh, that the right way to say that?”

Michael considered for a moment that whoever built the Temple of Light on top of the Light Temple had a deep misunderstanding for how confusing the terminology would be, before continuing, “Close enough. Still, I understand the…Palati is a situation where they host challenges to be the next monarch, but isn’t the archduke…archduchess? Arch…Isn’t the arch position inherited?”

“It is, yup, but the dungeons themselves are still good sources of resources and good ways to train future generations, ‘specially if they go into an official position like the paladins or palgraves. Ah, palgrave bein’ a sorta, like…palace guard? But ones that travel and do things for the archons sometimes, like tax collectin’. They’re like the personal forces for an archducal family, while a paladin’s, y’know, for the faith.”

“Polly here was just saying that the archon families, the original founding families, specifically chose these places to settle because they were the largest dungeons in their respective regions,” Anaya chimed in, “They even based their heraldry around the types of monsters they would encounter.”

“Well, for the most part. The Perrakan based theirs around a bow ‘n arrow instead cuz they wanted to emphasize monster hunters. That, or they just couldn’t find any good ones to make a coat of arms out of.”

“Huh.” Heraldry based around monsters…I wonder what kind of strange beast was chosen to embody the land Tisma Vlahos was born in– “Why is it a vase.”

The grand beast that represented the lands of Titormo, displayed proudly on its flags and souvenir t-shirts, was a vase.

“Hm…isn’t that a pithos? It’s more like a large jar than a vase,” Anaya supplied.

“Um…w-well, Anaya is a little closer? It’s, um, actually a waterbearer.” Oh. Oh, right, that makes more sense.

“Oh? And those are?”

“Ah-”

“A waterbearer is a mimic variant-” Michael explained, “-resembling a vase, or pithos, I guess, filled with water. It lures curious or thirsty victims close before the water inside splits into tendrils and yanks the unwary inside.” 

Oddly, Anaya didn’t seem impressed, just staring at them with a raised eyebrow.

“…y-yeah, um, that’s it,” Polina agreed a few seconds later.

“Which is still an odd monster to choose for your heraldry,” Michael noted, ignoring Anaya’s oddness for now as they turned to Polina, “Is it really the wisest thing to declare to everyone that you value deception and taking advantage of the desperate?”

“…um…I…I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be sayin’ that we’re a lot more dangerous than we look? On account of most of our lands bein’ farmland and people tendin’ to assume we’re less up to scrap on account of it.”

“Oh. Hm.” How to say this tactfully… “Are you sure you couldn’t pick a better one?” Nailed it.

“It really ain’t up to me.” Huh. Is that actual annoyance? “Also, it’s not like we got the worst one, pretty sure that’s Rodalli’s with their dumbass sea-goat–Uh, n-not that, uh, I think there’s anythin’ wrong with any herald stuff, just, y’know, it’s an example ‘n all and maybe we oughta go do somethin’ else? Maybe get you another streetlight?”

“…I don’t eat streetlights, it was just one fruit,” Michael insisted, still intent on winning this conversation, “Also, there are easily far better monsters to pick in this region alone. Why not go for a hydra if–”

Polina immediately and emphatically shook her head, crossing her arms in a very negative X. “Nope, nope, that’s askin’ for a curse, you do not put hydras on your flags ever.”

“Oh?” Anaya leaned over curiously, an amused smile already on her face as she looked up at Polina. “Is there a story behind that?”

“Yes and it involves a chunk of land fallin’ into the ocean and Rodalli’s coast bein’ haunted–” Wait, that sounds familiar- “–and I’m thinkin’ we should go back to the carriage now, yeah? Yeah, we got what we needed to go, so let’s go.”

“But-” Then Michael had the sudden, very odd experience of having a far larger person hoist them up and carry them on her shoulder. In all honesty, their brain seemed to have stuttered for a moment at the sheer audacity, not helped in the slightest by Anaya’s downright giddy and clearly surprised laughter.

It also seemed lPolina was deciding where Michael was going to sit since she opened the carriage and–gently–placed them inside–along with most of their recent purchases–while the paladin and druid sat up front. Michael couldn’t quite understand why Polina seemed to be annoyed, but at least she wasn’t wasting time on getting their trip started up again. Well, in the interest of expediency, I suppose I can let her strange actions go–

“….Misha….” Feeling their hand clench tightly against the seat, Michael immediately looked up towards the front of the carriage where her companions were sitting. Unease fell over them as it immediately became clear to the angel that Polina and Anaya were talking about them. 

But what are they saying? I didn’t do anything–Well, I suggested their flag wasn’t good–But that was an earnest question! And besides, it’s just a flag! The paladins of light never threw fits over flags– They paused in their internal monologue, briefly remembering the near civil war that erupted over two paladin orders conflicting over shades of blue. …It’s still no reason to get upset with me.

Really, Michael had more reason to be upset. They were just picked up and carried like luggage! In fact, they had far more reason to be outright angry! So it was perfectly justified for them to lean up and try to listen to what Anaya and Polina were saying about them, which was why their ear was now pressed against the wood as they tried to do exactly that.

“–really really sorry, I didn’t–”

“You really don’t need to keep apologizing, Polly, I didn’t mind.”

“Y-Yeah, sure, Misha’s definitely gonna be mad, I mean I just manhandled them outta nowhere! I just–Ugh, that was so stupid…”

“Polly, take a deep breath. I’m sure she won’t mind either. She didn’t get angry, did she?”

“Eh…no? But that was cuz I just grabbed her outta nowhere, that’s…hhh…gods, sorry. I just…I’m not good with arguin’ and I wanted to avoid it and get back to doin’ somethin’ so I’m not thinkin’ about it and I’m supposed to be guidin’ you two so it’s like ‘oh I’ll just grab what I need and go’ and you two were what I needed so it’s like…”

Things were quiet.

“…thanks,” Polina said, and apparently Anaya did something. Michael wasn’t sure what, but…hm.

“It’s no trouble. If Misha actually is mad, you can just talk to her. She can be abrasive, stubborn, and silly, but she has a good heart. Besides, you’re already her favorite, remember?”

“I said I preferred her better, not that she was my favorite,” Michael corrected, earning an “eep” from Polina as she whirled to face them– “Eyes on the road.”

“Gah-Ah, r-right!” Polina turned back, though not without another glance back at them while Anaya stared with an amused smile and a raised eyebrow. “Uh…h-how’d you get up on the roof?”

“…I climbed up.” 

Anaya’s eyebrow raised further. “After telling me it would be safer to be in the carriage and not the roof?” 

“…I can better protect myself.”

“From falling off the carriage?”

“Yes.”

“And because you’re better at protecting yourself, you decided to climb up to the top of the carriage while it was still in motion, right?”

Actually they’d just phased through the wood, but they were…fairly certain they shouldn’t be saying that to Polina. Probably? Though, if she’s going to be traveling with us, maybe I should just tell her sooner rather than later? …No, no I shouldn’t, not at all.

“…Yes.” 

“Just checking.”

Michael frowned sourly at the clearly amused druid, but let the apparent issue lie. They would be away from the city soon enough, and then it would be an easy trip straight to Gorokiva. 

Or at least it should’ve been, if there wasn’t a random vase sitting in the middle of the road on one particularly deserted stretch of the route.

“…”

“…”

“…Huh.” Anaya stared at the vase–pithos? Probably a pithos–then looked around the road. “Is it usually this deserted on a major road?”

“Eh? Ah, ‘round this time of day, sure? Noon-ish tends to be too hot for most folk and there’s not a lotta travel south for summer. Most’re headin’ either north where it’s cooler, or west towards the coast, so mostly towards Rodalli? Though Cotilla and Molgari also have some popular spots–”

“Are we ignoring the obvious waterbearer in the middle of the road?” Michael asked as they stared at the offending pithos, their hand on Polina’s shoulder for balance as they leaned upward.

“I actually think that one’s a snakebearer?”

“…A what?”

“Oh, uh, it’s like a rarer variant of the waterbearer. Instead of havin’ water that tries to drown you, when you open it up a bunch of snakes attack you.” Indeed, the jar did appear to have green snakes patterned on the side instead of the typical blue waves a waterbearer would have.

“…Why??”

“Well it still does the ‘drag you in’ thing, but with more poisonin’ first. The snakes are still part of the monster, so it’s kinda like a hydra in a jar?”

“That-”

“So do they usually hang out in the middle of roads?” Anaya asked.

“Not usually?” Polina frowned, handing the reins over to Anaya as the unicorns shifted uneasily, watching the seemingly innocuous vase with suspicion. “They tend to try lookin’ less obvious, either by stickin’ to enclosed spaces or spots a jar might reasonably be.” She hopped down from the carriage and glanced around the road. “You two oughta stay up there.”

“What? No, I’m-”

“It won’t take long, Misha,” Polina interrupted, “Just a second to check this out. Sides, if there’s any trouble, you oughta be by Anaya to keep her safe.”

“I could easily keep her safe by eliminating the problem–”

“And that’s the other part. Yes, waterbearers and their cousins can be problems, but, generally speakin’, it’s bad luck to kill a monster that’s on your province’s sigil. If you can’t help it, sure, that’s fine, but if you have the option, it’s better to leave it be.”

“…Fine.” Despite their annoyance and internal disagreement with Polina’s logic, Michael was at least willing to let her deal with this situation. To a degree. If any actual threat arrived, Michael would be dealing with it immediately–

“So have neither of you noticed the very obvious bushes on both sides of the road?” Anaya asked, getting both of them to pause.

Because yes, there were actually bushes on either side of the road, yellowed from the heat yet oddly thick with leaves. And rather tall too. About height with a minotaur.

“…”

“…Okay, to be fair, the snakebearer was real distractin’.” 

“Yeah, I think that was the point.”

Then a voice came from one of the bushes and Michael had to resist the urge to facepalm. “Well well well, looks like we’ve got a smart one here!”

Out from inside one bush stepped a minotaur, because of course, with a tanned complexion and straw-blond hair, wearing a blue vaquero hat and a red bandana over his mouth and nose. For some reason, he seemed to be dressed in a rather torn and dirty blue uniform with oddly discolored patches on it where things seemed to be torn off. “It’s a shame your smarts didn’t save you from our trap, elfy!”

More minotaurs stepped out from the bushes, also dressed in patchy blue uniforms with bandanas over their faces, though the only thing Michael really bothered to note about them were the crossbows two out of the six bandits were carrying. And even then, one crossbowman had managed to get his pantleg caught on a root and was clearly struggling to get it off, so they really didn’t expect much trouble from this group.

“Well come on now, step away from the carriage and leave all your belongings!” demanded the apparent leader. 

“We don’t want to have to hurt y’all, so make this easy on yourselves!” another one called out, though the spear he was pointing towards them did make his words ring rather falsely.

“…Right. Any reason why a group of deputies are actin’ like bandits?” Polina asked, fiddling with the band on her wrist.

“Gh-That-We, uh, we ain’t deputies! We’re just…a band of folks down on their luck lookin’ for opportunities! Aimin’ to move down south ‘n get–”

“Dammit Jim, don’t give away the whole damn plan!” the apparent leader snapped towards Jim, before everyone’s attention was drawn back to Polina, who gleamed with a bronze light as she suddenly conjured her full paladin armor over her body.

“By all means, continue,” she said as a round shield emblazoned with a set of scales formed over her left arm, “I would like to know just what you folks did to decide runnin’ was your best option.”

“We didn’t do anythin’ just good hard workin’ folk that had some bad luck!”

“Well if you really are good folk, drop the weapons.” 

They didn’t drop anything. 

“…Oh, are you the scum who were helping that leviathan?” Michael asked as they looked down at the bandits 

“H-Huh!? How did y- I mean, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” shouted the leader, aiming a crossbow at Michael. “Don’t make me-“

Ping.

Looking up, Michael saw some of their hair float off, the bolt that bounced off their head doing little else but give them an impromptu haircut. Still, that was rather rude of them.

They were going to hop down and deal with the bandits, but by the time they looked back, Polina had already smashed her shield into the face of the lead bandit hard enough to lift him at least three feet off the ground. And before the man had even crashed back down, she’d thrown her shield like a discus, ricocheting it off the heads of the assembled bandits and knocking most of them flat while she rushed in and threw Jim straight into the dirt, before whirling to look at Michael again.

“ANAYA, IS SHE-…uh…”

“Oh wow, that was fast!” Anaya cheered, beaming, “How did you get it to curve around the carriage like that?”

“…oh, uh…well, mostly trainin’, but I got some magic–ah, right.” Polina gestured with her hand, as though pressing down on something, and the prone bandits–the ones who weren’t outright unconscious–all yelped as a visible pressure settled over their bodies, pressing them into the dirt. “Uh, right, so, faith of Judgment carries the weight of our decisions and, y’know…uh, Misha?”

“Yes?” Michael raised an eyebrow–Oh, she must want praise, like Uriel usually does. So they gave her a thumbs up. “Good work.”

“…uh…thanks? Are you…good?”

“Morally, yes.”

“…That’s…kay then.” Hm, she seems worried about something. “Guess the bolt must’ve missed you, gave myself a scare there…”

“Seems like these guys are bad shots, in addition to being bad deputies,” Anaya said, idly kicking away the crossbow from the bandit that hadn’t shot. The bolt abruptly launched, shooting off into the distance, and landed somewhere with an audible thunk, though Anaya brought everyone’s attention back to her by clapping her hands. “Now then, what should we do with this lot?”

“Obviously we should punish them.”

“What do you think, Polina?” Why did she ignore me?

“Well, we gotta take them to a nearby sheriff who’ll keep them in town until they’re taken to a city. I know a town nearby, if y’all don’t mind a slight detour.” 

“Better than just leaving them here.” Michael would disagree. “But how do we take them all? Only have the one carriage, after all.”

“We have rope, don’t we?” Polina and Anaya paused, looking at Michael, then looked to each other.

“…We do have rope.”

“We do, yeah. Hm. Well, guess you’re ridin’ inside again, Misha, ‘less you wanna sit on top of them.”

Michael blinked. “Wait, they’re being tied to the top?”

“…Yeah? I mean, I guess we could stick them inside if you’d prefer, but I’m not sure I wanna put them that close to the core.” Polina paused. “…You weren’t thinkin’ we’d drag them behind the carriage, were you?”

“…”

“…”

“…” Michael cleared their throat, ignoring Anaya’s raised, unimpressed eyebrow and the dirty looks the unicorns were giving them. There were even muffled hisses coming from the snakebearer that sounded distinctly disapproving. “…I’ll get the rope.”

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