Vivian was avoiding them.
Michael was willing to admit that they were not a perfect angel, and therefore they could miss things, but they were positive the paladin of light was avoiding them. Even now, back at Kyora–or, more accurately, the town’s outskirts–Vivian remained by the carriage, aiding Polina in unhitching the unicorns from said carriage while Michael, Amitiel, and Anaya handled “negotiations”.
“I promise they’ll be looked after and maintained, I’ll even take them out for a ride each day until you all return!” a rather enthusiastic Shiho declared once Anaya finished explaining their current needs and asked if they could leave the carriage and unicorns there. Unicorns traditionally didn’t fly, nor did they particularly like dragons–as evidenced by both of them glaring at Rokuhara, as much as horses could glare–so bringing them along wasn’t possible, and having Rokuhara carry the carriage was impractical. “I’ll even add on some modifications if you don’t mind!”
…Michael felt that warranted a question. “You’re going to be doing what to the unicorns?”
“Hm? Nothing? I mean they’re nice and all but I’m not interested in them.” She waved off the question, before heading straight over to the carriage and pressing her face against Charlie. “Who’s a beautiful jewel of creation! You are! Yes you are!”
They watched the ex-heiress of one of this land’s most noble families continue rubbing her face against the core’s surface, before looking up at Rokuhara. “…Is she…”
“She’ll be fine. She gets enthusiastic about this kinda stuff.” I was going to ask if she was mentally sound… Somehow, Rokuhara could understand their thoughts, judging by his sigh and nod. “Yeah, it’s…She usually only gets like this when it comes to something fancy and sharp.”
“It’s good to have enthusiasm,” Amitiel commented, before bowing to Rokuhara, “And thank you, Sir Katsuro, for your help in this time of potential crisis.”
“Ah, yeah, sure. Shiho’s happy with the carriage so might as well.” He glanced towards Gauri and Sadja. “Actually, you think those two could count for the price?”
“No,” Michael refused.
“Worth a shot. Could make a ton selling them off to the Naks.”
Anaya gave Michael a pat. “Sorry Kats, but nope. Do you have anywhere they can stay while we’re gone?”
“Sure, there’s a stable. Shiho will make sure no one tries to steal or sell them.” He rolled his shoulders and stretched out a crick in his neck. “Mrgh…right. We doing this?”
Michael nodded. “We are.”
And with that, preparations were finished up. Michael, Anaya, and Polina would all be riding on Katsuro’s back while Amitiel carried Vivian. Apparently she was well practiced at carrying folk, but Michael was fairly certain Vivian still wanted to avoid them. Which, yes, they were a little offended by. Not hurt, just annoyed.
Oh, and Noriko was traveling in Michael’s shadow. The reasons she gave were that it would reduce weight and needed space. Michael did point out that Noriko was small enough that she could probably sit comfortably in their lap the whole way over, but that just earned an odd look before Noriko replied that their shadow was warm anyways so it was fine. Whatever that meant.
Then they were off, and Michael had the very unusual experience of flying under another’s power instead of their own. It was…bizarre, not using their own wings to keep aloft, instead just sitting on the large, scaly back of a draconic criminal and trusting that he wouldn’t let them drop. If he did, Michael would catch everyone and then smash him so far through the ground that the country itself would shake from the impact, but at the very least, Katsuro Rokuhara seemed to be a dragon of his word.
It really was surreal though. The weather of Gorokiva truly did seem tied to the lands as they traveled from the warm, humid Natsuno through the mild, temperate Haruno and to the cold, wet Fuyuno. Even with summertime bringing life to the plants and light through the clouds, the province of Winter carried a cold air, not helped by how even the trees and flowers of the region seemed to prefer icy-blue colorations.
“You got lucky coming around here when you did,” Rokuhara rumbled, his voice carrying easily through the air despite the altitude and rushing wind, “Late summer’s one of the worst times to travel through Goroki. The hot weather from Natsuno meets the natural cold from Fuyuno and we start getting huge thunderstorms all through the country. You all managed to hit a sweet spot in midsummer where it’s nice and sunny.”
“Tell that to the rainstorms we dealt with on our first days here,” Michael replied, pitching their voice to carry through the wind too.
Rokuhara chuckled, another rumble of thunder. “Rainstorms and thunderstorms are two very different things, Redwing. There’s a reason this land’s named for rumbling thunder.”
They frowned at that, then paused as they felt Anaya tugging on the back of their red kimono. “What?”
She said something, but the wind didn’t carry it as she instead gave Michael a curious look.
“Oh. I’ll teach you how to speak in high winds later.”
That earned a smile and a nod while Polina just looked extremely confused behind Anaya. Well, Michael could always explain it to her later anyways, so it didn’t matter too much.
What did matter was keeping an eye out for the city of Sui. The landscape passing below them wasn’t too far down as they were only a bit above low cloud level, and Rokuhara’s broad body and wingspan did block much of their view, but there was still a decent amount to see. Anaya even pointed out–through tugging–some type of floating city suspended between massive, dragon-headed towers, but that was in Haruno, not Fuyuno, so it clearly wasn’t the city they were looking for.
The city they did need to find was less visible than the lake it sat upon, though in fairness to Sui, Lake Hie was a massive lake. Not quite a landlocked sea, but certainly huge, due to it being the basin in which several rivers in the region fed into before continuing towards the ocean. Or at least they would continue, if it weren’t for the massive dam responsible for the lake’s existence.
Though does that make it a lake or a reservoir? Or both? Michael mused to themself as Kasturo flew over the Hibari Dam, which overlooked the city of Sui. At first, they doubted the wisdom of building a city at the base of a dam, though as Katsuro flew down to the bustling municipality below, they did begin to understand why it was built the way it was.
In terms of shape, Sui resembled a snowflake, floating atop a water basin. Its streets and buildings spread out from the large, blue, watery palace at its center and connected to one another through bridges of stone and wood, some pressed right against the water under it while others rose up higher. Some bridges spread out to connect to the shore, while other parts of the city seemed to be built straight into and out of the dam itself. There were even some…maybe houses? That were jutting out on higher up parts of the vast, white dam.
Where Mera was built to look like it was ablaze, Sui seemed more meant to look like a part of the water itself; the roofs and streets were paved with an almost shimmering quality in the blue tiles and stones, like ripples in a pool, while the dam itself resembled a waterfall, mostly from the streams of water flowing through where it was allowed. The palace, as typical, was the most extravagant example of that quality, shown through the water flowing down its shimmering, curved roofs.
Also of interest, there appeared to be houseboats along the docks of the city, possibly where those who couldn’t afford to live in the city proper stayed, along with smaller boats transporting goods from the lakeshore to the city and back again.
Altogether, Michael couldn’t help but think how loud it must sound to live in a constant waterfall, and how unpleasant it would be to live in such a perpetually wet and cold city. Sure, Divica was a seaside city and it could get cold at times, but it wasn’t in the process of constantly bathing itself.
Hopefully we won’t stay long, they thought as Katsuro turned and angled down towards the edge of the city. It was understandable that he wouldn’t want to land in the city itself; not only would that more than likely disrupt the peace–and Katsuro was still very obviously pained after the city of Mera’s recent “fining”, so perhaps there was something to that practice–but it would likely earn the ire of the city’s watch, who were already visibly angling ballistae from atop their guardtowers.
That was also understandable. Dragons were one of the most naturally dangerous peoples in the mortal world, and Katsuro was a very distinct one who happened to be a crimelord, so it wasn’t quite paranoia for the watchers to be wary. Further, any unpleasantness was avoided because of Amitiel, who flew towards the watchtowers first to let the guards know that there was no threat while Katsuro landed at a dock along one side of the city.
At. Not on.
“Did you need to land in the water?” Michael groused as they dried their kimono, running a heated hand over the fabric to draw out the moisture.
“Yup,” Katsuro replied. And then said nothing further.
“…Are you at least going to get out of the water?”
Katsuro raised an eyeridge, then lifted his head and looked down the dock, towards the gathered crowd of pike-wielding samurai and, further back, curious civilians. “Nope.”
Their eyebrow raised in turn. “Are you afraid of humans now?”
“Nope. I’m not getting on the dock because I’d break it, and I’m not changing shape because I don’t feel like showing off.”
Right, his clothes don’t transform with him. Physical bodies are very inconvenient, though at least he has some sense of modes– Michael froze, their musings interrupted as Anaya suddenly pressed against them. “Ah-Wh–”
“S-S-S-S-Sorry t-t-t-t-to i-i-interrupt, b-b-but I-I-I’m w-w-waaaaay t-t-too cold!” she explained, shivering in her wet clothes as she practically hugged–no, it was definitely a full hug, her arms were all the way around–the increasingly red-faced angel, “Oh, that’s nice…are you getting warmer?”
“…I have no idea what you’re talking about. Can’t you dry your clothes on your own?”
“Nope, can’t. I’ve got no practice with fire or heat magic at all, so my only magical options there involve sprouting plants from my clothes and that’s not comfy at all, trust me!” She glanced over at Polina, who had switched to her armor, for some reason. “Hey Polly! Want Misha to dry you off too?”
“Huh? Ah, no thanks. My armor’s good for keeping out water, cold, lotta stuff.”
Anaya huffed. “Traitor.”
“…How am I a traitor here? I can’t share my armor.”
“Polina’s cruel betrayal aside,” Michael began, ignoring Polina’s half-amused sigh, “We need to keep watch while we’re here. The curse shop is dangerous and elusive. If we lose it here, we may never find it again.”
“If it even is here,” Polina noted, “We’re workin’ off of assumptions here, and we can’t be sure we’ll get lucky. Also, just to check, you’re still thinkin’ this curse shop has to do with the leviathan stuff, right?”
“Then we probably picked a bad city to go after ‘em in.” She gestured to the water all around them.
Michael shrugged. “Rodoa was beside a lake and w–the leviathan there was caught too. Really, the fact that we’re on another lake just gives credence to my theory.”
“Huh. Does it count as a pattern if it’s only two examples?” Anaya asked, looking thoughtful even as she kept hugging Michael. Which was distracting–No. No, focus. Do not get distracted.
“It doesn’t matter. We’ll put an end to things here,” Michael stated, resolute.
Today, the terror of the curse shop would come to a close. Nothing else would distract them.
Michael stared, baffled, as two massive, rotund men wearing little more than loincloths attempted to shove each other out of a ring. How in the world did I wind up here…?
Legitimately, at no point in their prior planning had they even considered that their entire group would be sidetracked by a “sumo wrestling match”, as Vivian very enthusiastically described it. They side-eyed the paladin in question, who was actively cheering on one of the men, halfway out of her cushion as she shouted encouragement.
She wasn’t the only one. Anaya was also getting quite into the proceedings–where she’d found a souvenir hat and small flag to wave, they weren’t sure–and even Polina seemed invested– “C’MON KITA! YOU GOT THIS!”
Strike that; the word “invested” was understating her investment. “Captivated” described it a bit better, though Michael would even go as far to say the minotaur seemed enthralled by the spectacle.
Oh, and Katsuro flew back home rather than stick around. They felt that was pertinent to note.
“Enjoying the match?” came the rumbling voice of their group’s newest host. The one who owned the box seats Michael’s group was sitting in, the stadium itself, and also the entire city. Though to call them seats wasn’t entirely accurate, considering they were just cushions on the ground–Though I guess those are seats anyways?–but the luxury box built into the stands and overlooking the ring was still fancier than any surrounding seating.
“Not especially,” Michael replied honestly, earning a chuckle from Lord Yataro Akaboshi, the Daimyo of Sui.
“Shame,” the broad, fat, and sturdy lord said. His solid black hair was done in a topknot and he wore a dark blue kimono, embroidered with small, red stars. Girth and height aside–he was about half a foot taller than Michael–the Daimyo of Water’s most distinguishing feature were the twin tusks poking up from his lips, hinting at an orcish ancestry, which was unusual this far west, but not especially relevant to comment on. “Not a problem though. This lord appreciates your enjoyment of his hospitality, even if you don’t enjoy the fight.”
Michael made a noise of appreciation, not really interested enough in carrying on with the conversation, though they did pause when they heard Noriko’s voice coming from their shadow. “Betcha you’d enjoy it a lot more if it were two ladies out there, Mish~”
“What? What does that have to–” They paused, pictured it, then immediately shook their head. “I-If you’re staying in my shadow, stay quiet.”
“Fiiine, fine, but you really shouldn’t miss this kind of opportunity. Reconnaissance one-oh-one, be curious, ask questions, especially when you have a chance to talk with someone who knows about the place you’re in.”
“…” It wasn’t…bad advice. “Lord Akaboshi, have you heard any rumors regarding a cursed shop in your city?”
“Hm? This lord doesn’t think he has…Kyeon.” He turned, looking to the woman Amitiel was chatting with on the other side of him. The woman, who perked up and smiled at being addressed, also wore a blue kimono, if in a lighter shade, while her light-blonde hair was done up in a traditional “shimada” hairstyle. “Have you heard of a cursed shop in the city?”
“No, lord husband, I haven’t,” replied the blonde–…blonde. Hm. “Would you like me to look into things?”
“Would you?” Akaboshi asked, looking at Michael again, who studied Kyeon’s face for any hint of tell.
“…Not at the moment. If I may?” They moved past the large lord and to the low tea table Amitiel and “Kyeon” sat at. “I don’t believe we were fully introduced.”
Amitiel tittered at that for some reason, taking a sip of her tea as Kyeon smiled. “Weren’t we? If not, then it’s very nice to meet you, lady paladin. I am Akaboshi Kyeon, the cute and friendly wife of my lord husband here~.”
…They didn’t even need to look deeper to see the woman’s smug aura. Though they still did and felt a frown cross their face as they saw the obviously demonic aura the woman had, tinged with purple Pride, pink Lust, and yellow Greed. The three sins stood out so starkly that the angel would have immediately leapt to their typical course of action, wife of the daimyo or no, if not for Amitiel’s tight grip on the back of their kimono pulling them down before they even rose.
The lightning angel hadn’t even paused in drinking her tea, though she smiled in reply to Michael’s glare–because obviously they would glare at someone trying to stop them from stopping a demonic threat and they genuinely had no idea why Amitiel wasn’t joining in with them–before lowering the teacup. “So, Kyeon, how did you and your husband meet?”
What? What’s the point of asking–
“Oh, it’s something of a silly story, but the basics are that I was sent here to spy on my lord husband by General Kiyoshi about, oh…nine months ago? It was definitely before the invasion of the Light Lands by Empress Valondrac, more as a sort of preliminary espionage, you understand.”
Michael blinked. “What.”
Kyeon sighed fondly though, not hearing them. “It wasn’t a huge deal, my main goal was to gauge the response times the lords here would have to any invasion of Rainfall Island, you know, the place with the Lightning Core, but while I was gathering information, I was attacked by gulpers, and my dear hubby saved me~!”
They knew what gulpers were. The best description they could think of was a cross between a frog and a whale, with six legs, long tadpole tails, and absolutely massive maws that could swallow a full-sized horse whole. Large pests, in other words, on the level of boars and wolves. “He saved you?”
“Yup! Smacked one so hard it splattered on impact!” She sighed happily again. “He really did look gorgeous there, so fierce and powerful…so of course I just had to show him my appreciation~” She pouted. “Though he was a little too insistent that I should rest and recuperate, even after he brought me back to that cute little village.”
“This lord was culling monsters at the time,” Akaboshi added, “A good lord needs to keep his people safe, and it’s a decent way to work out.”
“And I’m sure everyone appreciates it very much, my lord husband~!” Kyeon beamed, before continuing, “Anyhow, he made sure I was cared for in a clinic, but I wasn’t about to let that be the end! So I moved here and found various excuses to keep bumping into Taro so I could seduce him fully~” Her smile turned sly. “But since things were going slower than I liked, I thought it best to be more direct~”
“This lord should point out that breaking into a person’s room, even, and perhaps especially, if you have a crush on them is bad behavior.” What.
“Really~? And here I thought things turned out just fine, what with how tenderly you embraced me~”
“Ask for more details,” Noriko whispered–
Michael cleared their throat. “To be clear, Lady Kyeon, you’re a darklander?” They heard Noriko groan something about “wrong question”, but they ignored her.
“Yup~! It’s something of an open secret, but still, keep it on the downlow, kay~? Some people get touchy when one of my type in particular is in this particular region, especially those touchy tanukis~” She giggles, before making a gesture and allowing her humanoid ears to switch into foxish ones while a trio of tails rose from the base of her spine and through the fabric of her clothing. Not tearing through, but phasing through, much like Michael’s wings could. “I’ve gotten pretty comfy here, so it’s better not to complicate things, right~?”
A fox demon then. And an admitted spy from the Dark Lands no less…no, prioritize. Think of it like Matsuzaki, if she isn’t a threat, you’ll cause more problems by treating her like one…though… “Understood. To clarify, you’re an admitted spy, you came here deliberately to spy on Gorokiva, and your husband is entirely fine with that?”
“Yup! I even got permission to defect, so it’s all good!”
“…How do you get permission to defect from our nation?”
“By sending in a letter and formally requesting it.”
“Kyeon did share info on what she was doing in Gorokiva,” Akaboshi added, “This lord even informed the shogun on the issues occurring, though the shogun never followed up on anything.”
“He’s not great at his job,” Kyeon commented, earning a huff from her husband.
“He’s not, no. But he’s still the shogun. Even if he insists on us keeping up harvests out of season.”
Michael frowned, nodding as they heard yet another negative reaction towards Kawajiri. It’s a wonder the man’s still shogun… “And what do you harvest?”
Kyeon tittered and Michael felt like they were missing something…
“Ice forms around coldstones,” Amitiel said. Ohh…
“Aww, I wanted to see if she’d figure it out,” Kyeon grumbled, pouting, before it turned right back to a smile, “Though yup, our main export is coldstones, which you can imagine sell really well in hotter regions.”
Michael nodded. “I saw many of them in Mera.”
“Ah ha, yup! One of our biggest buyers, next to pretty much everyone in the Natsuno region. Of course, plenty of people here in Fuyuno buy heatstones from there in turn, so it balances out. Though it is sorta funny to me that the ‘city of water’ here sells coldstones, but the ‘city of fire’ mostly exports ceramics.”
“Moku’s the one that sells heatstones,” Akaboshi chimed in, “The forming stones create the hot water in the region.”
“And Moku would be the Shogun’s home city then,” Michael noted, feeling as though they’d gained a deeper understanding of the country’s geography and politics. Which was also not at all what they were here to do.
“It’s a lovely place,” Amitiel began, “The city is built around the springs, almost like Sui, but the heated water creates an almost constant cloud of steam flowing across every building.” She sighed, then smiled. “But while I would like to keep reminiscing about this lovely country, I do have a more pressing question on the mind. Lady Kyeon, what do you know about leviathans?” Wait, what?
Michael looked at Amitiel, alarmed, while Kyeon tilted her head in thought. “Leviathans? Hm, interesting question…can I ask what brought it up?”
“If it’s not imprudent, I presume the two of you are familiar with the stories of the curse shop that has plagued Gorokiva for some time now, and that you are also familiar with the scandal that occurred in Zemava and Sollamava, wherein a number of paladins and law officials were revealed to be engaging in acts of corruption, and where a leviathan happened to be at the center of the entire debacle.”
I didn’t even mention all of that…I don’t think I even told her about the leviathans. How much does she know? Micahel wondered while Amitiel continued.
“Misha knows more about the specifics than I do, but she has reason to believe the perpetrator behind the curse shop is also a leviathan, and that the both of them may be a part of a larger, organized effort to do harm to the nations and people of the Light Lands. So, if you please, any information could be helpful.”
“Huuuuhhh…yeah, alright. Though I wouldn’t call myself very knowledgeable.” Kyeon hummed, tapping at her chin, then began again. “I have heard the rumors, as well as the fact that, despite everything that’s happened, the shogun has made no effort in dealing with it. However, I can say one thing for certain, if this shop travels around so much, it must be something that can be put up quite easily, and be taken down with the same ease. Something like that wouldn’t do well inside a city like ours, now would it~?”
Michael raised an eyebrow. “Why wouldn’t it? The shop’s more than likely magical.”
“Sure, but what type of magical? It’s a full building, right? One made of wood and glass, maybe with stone and metal in the mix too? If it were just a tent appearing, that’s easy, it’s something anyone could do with the right cloth and some skill at getting set up fast enough, while something like a caravan is even easier because you can just roll into town. A building though has foundations, supports, things that take time to set up, and magic needed to skip that time will have to be something deeply powerful, more so than one would first guess if they were just thinking of those cute tales of meandering mystery shops.
“But even taking all that into account, Sui isn’t a city that would be good for such a thing. We’re built on the water, with specific docks and placements for all the buildings and such. Weight distribution is important, after all, and you can’t just go building willy nilly with such little space, especially with all the running water. We may be a large city, but any building appearing out of nowhere would garner far more attention than in a landbound city.”
“If it showed up anywhere, it’d probably be at the neighborhoods along the lakeside, assuming it can’t turn into a houseboat on the water,” Akaboshi added.
Michael frowned, considering matters. Would it even count for the pattern if it wasn’t in the city itself? But then…blast it all, was this a fool’s errand?
“Thank you for your help,” Amitiel said with a smile, “Though I was more asking if you knew anything about leviathans themselves, in case it would help.”
“Ohh, well, again, not a huge expert on stuff like this, though back home in Yeolu we did get some trade from Banguani. Let’s see…leviathans are basically the aquatic equivalent to dragons, complete with a much larger serpentine form that they can take whenever the feel like, though they have the subtler ability to shapeshift and camouflage themselves to the point of being able to mix into almost any crowd easily; most of them are solitary and territorial, living at all corners of the ocean, but there are some pretty significantly large communities down around the Sea Lands and especially the Virchester Chain; communal leviathans almost singularly belong to religious sects that worship Grandmother Fathom, Titan of the Deep, and reside on the backs of deep-sea island turtles, which has earned them the nickname ‘shellbound’ in comparison to the more solitary members of their species, which could be compared to the more derogatory name ‘riverbound’ that they give to any leviathans that prefer to live in freshwater instead.”
“…You said you’re not an expert?”
“Being a former espionage agent meant I have to be well informed~ Even so, I can’t tell you anything else about the shellbound. Few are able to travel so far down, and even fewer have been allowed into their communities. All we vaguely know is that the communities are surprisingly large, meaning that there probably aren’t just leviathans forming them.”
“And said seclusion would mean no one would know of their plans when they were creating them?”
“Perhaps~ I can’t say for certain, though with their longevity, I wouldn’t be surprised if some members of the shellbound had a long time to make up a grand plan~ That being said, leviathans can be quite the threat from what I’ve heard, so it could be safe to assume that, because of all this sneaking around, they might not have many members.”
Michael nodded along, still frowning, though more in thought than in annoyance. “How many leviathans would normally be in a community?”
“I did just say we don’t know for sure, right? Still, the maximum is probably somewhere between ten and fifteen, if it’s just one community.”
That’s not many, but if each one had strength equivalent to a dragon… But that did raise the question then of why Borzla was so…pathetic, if she were that strong. Really, the idea that she could turn into a giant sea serpent just made that whole debacle even stranger.
Amitiel just nodded along though. “Thank you for the information. Do you have any tips for picking them out of a crowd?”
“Hmm, sure, I have some general tips, speaking as a sort of illusionist myself: firstly, always check the eyes and the shadow, those are two of the most common tells for any shapeshifter. Eyes are a window to the soul and shadows are our body’s natural companion, so anything that tries to change or hide those is going to leave some sort of sign.” Michael felt an odd sense of amusement coming from Noriko there. “Changing shape is also pretty tricky if you have a physical body instead of being demonic or angelic or just not fully corporeal; the more fluid your nature, the easier it is, but that nature also has natural tells to them, so if you know how to look right, you can find traces easily. Lastly, don’t worry too much about the whole ‘oh they might replace someone you know’ idea that pops up in fiction. Actually replacing a person is ludicrously difficult because you need to fully understand their body, their personality, their history, all sorts of things that make it insanely impractical, especially when you can just invent a new person and insert yourself into a city as a traveler. Not that I’d ever do that.”
“Of course you wouldn’t. Thank you again, that was all very informative. I’m sure we’ll be able to put everything you’ve said to good use.”
“Oh it’s no trouble at all! Just be sure to take care of those problems so we don’t have to, okay?” Kyeon requested.
Michael nodded sharply. “We shall do so.” Why that earned a giggle, they weren’t sure. Still, they had better things to focus on. “How much longer will this match be going on for?”
“Hm? This particular match or the tournament?”
“…This is a tournament?”
“That it is! I could have sworn we mentioned that.”
“I see…thank you for your hospitality, I will be going now.” Michael stood, then paused as Amitiel raised a hand.
“Try not to go too far, Misha, and make sure to take your shadowy friend with you.” That earned a startled squeak from Noriko, for some reason. “Please don’t get lost, okay?”
“…I won’t,” they replied, disliking how stiff their voice sounded, before they turned and headed out of the arena. Amitiel would tell the others where they went, so it wasn’t like they needed to make a big deal of out of saying goodbye.
“Eesh, I forgot how scary angels can be,” Noriko muttered as Michael headed out of the stadium.
“We’re not ‘scary’.”
“You’re not. She, and some others, can be.”
Michael frowned as they walked out into the streets proper, ignoring the bustle of the watery city’s denizens. It seemed mostly populated by humans, along with some of the piscine sea-elves known as nereids, though they did see the occasional minotaur and some oddly icy individuals. “Amitiel isn’t scary. She’s…soft?”
“Hm…I guess she does have kind of a ‘mama’ vibe to her, but soft isn’t really a word I’d use to describe someone made of lightning.”
“The lightning looks soft.”
“Okay but you’re wrong though.”
They weren’t, but clearly Noriko was going to be stubborn, so they turned their gaze towards searching the wet and watery city. Which, really, the logic of building under a dam really wasn’t making much sense to them as they avoided puddles along the way towards…well, anything that might potentially catch their attention. Such as…Ah ha!
“A ramen shop?” Noriko asked as her heavenly host turned straight towards the curtained doorway of a small noodle place. “Do you want to stop for lunch?”
“I’m investigating. Food has nothing to do with it.” The growl of the angel’s stomach said otherwise, but Noriko wasn’t about to be rude and point that out. Even if she was pretty sure that was the first time she’d actually heard Misha’s stomach growl.
Michael, meanwhile, wasn’t paying attention to random noises at all as they stepped into the shop and breathed in the pleasant aromas within. One patron was already at the counter, having noodles, so Michael simply took a seat next to her as they perused the menu. Mixed seafood with red curry broth, spicy miso shrimp…hm, squid ink and salmon roe?
“Which would you recommend?” Michael asked, then paused at the startled noise the patron beside them let out. They glanced at the blonde, whose pale cheeks were puffed out with noodles and broth, her chopsticks still half raised to her mouth. “Ah, sorry. I was talking to…” Wait.
Their brow furrowed at the strangely familiar slim, pale woman with pointed ears, wearing a yellow kimono embroidered with violet flowers, who was staring straight back at them, her eyes wide enough to see the specks of black in the white. So Michael looked, and though there were very few traces of Smug emanating from the leviathan in front of them, they most definitely saw her true na–
Then Borzla threw the broth straight in Michael’s face and bolted straight from the shop, repeating “fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck–” as she sprinted.
So of course Michael chased straight after her, their–They didn’t bring out their wings because they were still in cover and they weren’t about to give themself away, so instead they simply increased their pace in chasing down the fleeing leviathan, letting broth fly from their dripping face as they took a moment to lick some from their lips then aimed to run her down.
Which was easier said than done; it seemed that despite her clothing, Borzla was still skilled at running, something which didn’t help that all the water around made it difficult for Michael to properly run. A problem that Borzla didn’t seem to have.
Not that it stopped Michael either. “GET BACK HERE!”
“NO! WHY THE FUCK ARE YOU EVEN HERE?!”
“TO FIND YOU, YOU…CURSE SHOP MANAGER!”
She nearly stumbled there, actually looking back for a moment as her voice raised to a shriek. “HOW THE FUCK DO YOU EVEN KNOW ABOUT THAT!?!”
Borzla grit her teeth, then darted straight down one street and into a bustling marketplace. She’d been trying to scout out a decent place to set up, but now she took advantage of the crowds and stalls to shove obstacles in the angel’s way, smashing down crates of produce and pushing shoppers behind her.
She hazarded a glance back, then yelped as she saw Michael simply barrel through every obstacle, kicking broken crates aside, crushing produce under foot, and even outright tossing the civilians in their way.
Michael, meanwhile, kept their focus entirely on their pursuit, paying no mind to the objects in their way, though they did take care to use bursts of Life magic when removing the mortal obstacles from their path. They could pay for damages, but mortals were fragile and giving them a boost to healing should make up for tossing them into the softest objects they could spot on a moment’s notice. They might get in trouble from the pillow and carpet shop owners, but that was a sacrifice they were willing to make!
“Gh-!” Borzla grit her teeth, thinking fast as she rushed through the parting, startled crowds of shallowfolk. It didn’t help that she could hear some calling for the guard, but she wasn’t supposed to use the horn again or Kozloi would get–!
She shook off her worries, instead diverting to a stall selling fish and promptly began yanking down the iceboxes along its side, scattering ice across the stone streets, hoping the angel would just slip–Then immediately got a chunk of ice kicked at her head.
“OW! BITCH!” she snarled, then squeaked as the furious angel lunged for her. So she did the first thing she could think of and grabbed a weapon, striking them straight across the face before vaulting over the table and sprinting off.
…Did she just slap me with a fish?? Michael stalled for a moment there in genuine confusion, before they shook it off, tossed the table aside–at the shopkeeper’s cry of dismay, they shouted back “I’ll pay in full later!” and threw a diamond to him–and resumed their chase. Only to have to duck as Borzla pitched a bottle at them.
The leviathan had a crate now–almost certainly stolen, judging by one of those icy people yelling after her–and continued chucking bottles from it, splashing multicolored liquids across the ground, most of which immediately caused more problems, ranging from plants immediately growing out of a greenish liquid to a portion of the street converting into ice. Not freezing; literally turning into pure ice. Slightly problematic.
Still, Michael was undeterred, ducking another thrown bottle–And getting the second straight to the face. “Blegh–Eugh, is this a slime!?”
They shook their head and tossed away the gelatinous creature, wiping a hand down their face to clear away the broken glass and dripping goo, and also fix the mild lacerations and corrosive damage it did, all while not breaking stride, even as Borzla continued making a massive mess of everything.
Vines and hair sprouted across the street as glass shattered and liquid sprayed; plumes of colorful smoke burst upwards and more than a few slimes joined the initial one in becoming obstacles, which was extremely annoying, not least because Borzla seemed bizarrely accurate with throwing those in particular. Corrosive damage was easily fixed for an angel, but damn it, they liked this kimono, and all the stains and holes were getting annoying!
Still, their efforts seemed to be bearing fruit as the leviathan’s panic increased, though they did have to bat aside the empty crate when Borzla threw it straight at them.
“WOULD YOU GIVE IT A REST ALREADY?!”
“NEVER! NOW GIVE UP!”
Borzla scowled, turned, then skidded to a stop as she realized she’d ran to the edge of the city. She turned, then paused as she saw the walls on either side of her. “Ah. Fuck.”
She’d run straight down an alleyway, aiming to escape, but now she was at the edge with an angel stalking ever closer. “There. Nowhere to go now, Borzla.”
“Aw, you remembered my name? I’m flattered.” She smirked, trying to hide the internal panic she felt as she undid the sash around her waist. “Still, don’t think I’m out of options!” Before she pulled–
“H-Hey!” Then she paused at the startled noise Michael made, the angel averting their eyes. “W-What do you think you’re doing?!”
“…” Borzla just sighed, and pulled open her kimono anyways, showing the tank top and shorts she wore underneath. And, more importantly, the belt across her chest, holding the summoning horn the Listener bequeathed her with, and the Devil’s Deck Kozloi had chucked at her face. “Seriously?”
“Oh. Ah…You still shouldn’t undress in public.”
“…And you’re still stupid. Seriously, what do you think I’d wear under one of these?”
“Traditional Gororan undergarments.”
Michael nodded. “Noriko explained how these outfits are meant to be worn–…hm.” They glanced back at their shadow. “Are you still–”
Then immediately looked back as Borzla blew that same white horn from before, bellowing out a noise that echoed through the whole city. The sound resonated like a cacophony of buzzing fleas and mosquitos, then all was silent aside from the movement of the water,
Borzla smirked triumphantly. “Ha! Looks like you’re fucked, angel! You don’t have a partner here to back your ass up this time!”
Michael felt like they should point out they didn’t have a partner the previous time either…unless she meant Anaya helping out towards the end? Should that even count though?
“Hm. To think I would be summoned by the same person and face off against the same angel…” came a familiar demonic voice. The demon of sickness appeared behind Borzla, looming over the leviathan like a protective bird in her mask and hooded cloak.
“We don’t have time for banter, just kick their ass so we can get out of here before backup shows up to help that angel!” Tilting her head down at Borzla, the demon remained silent, before glancing behind her.
“…” Her head tilted. “Could you not have swam away?” While Michael would never agree with a demon, it was hard not to notice that the edge of the city was over, well, water. Really, the leviathan could have jumped in at any time, which would have made things trickier.
Borzla stared, glanced behind herself, then waved a hand dismissively, though she was pretty obviously blushing. “Y-Yeah, of course I can, but if that angel is gonna be a problem shouldn’t we take her out!?”
Labatu nodded. “I can appreciate that logic. And since you did call on me to ‘take her out’ this time…” She pulled a pair of knives from her bandolier and stepped in front of Borzla, blocking her from Michael’s sight. “I suppose I should fulfill my promise, cripple cardinal.”
“So you say. Though I don’t recall any promise made between us, demon,” Michael replied, their eyes narrowed as their mind worked. A moment of distraction had allowed a powerful demon to appear in the city, and while they were in cover, they did need to consider things, more than they normally would. Ugh, things were simpler when I just launched forward and punched my problems…Still, at least Borzla’s an idiot, she shouldn’t be too hard to track–
“Ah, one more thing. Make sure to add another hole to my punch card for helping you escape.” Labatu stated, earning a confused look Borzla.
“To your what-” Then the demon kicked the idiot leviathan straight in the chest, launching her into the water, and Michael immediately rushed forward, trying to reach Borzla before she escape–
They halted, turning as Labatu–now behind them–struggled to force one of her daggers down at them, her wrist fully caught in Noriko’s grip. “Ah, I was wondering if you were still here.”
“Yes, she noticed, you looked away when it was important,” Noriko chided, which really wasn’t fair in Michael’s opinion, though she was in the stressful situation of trying to hold back a stabby demon, so Michael elected to help instead by punching Labatu full in the face.
Noriko blinked as the demon flew down the alleyway, her knives clattering to the ground before she managed to skid and roll to her feet. “Wow. It’s really easy to forget how strong you are.”
“Try not to in the future,” they stated, stepping in front of Noriko, “You should go after Borzla. You’re better in the water than I am.”
“Are you sure? This gal wasn’t great at helping during the case, mostly cause you were moving so fast she had to put all her focus on keeping up–” They elected to ignore that side comment, though they did notice an odd tone to her voice that sounded suspiciously like lying. “–but two on one is better–”
“Noriko, I’m a cardinal. My skill might not be readily apparent at times–” They ignored the snort too. “–but handling demons is what I do.”
“…You’d better win easy after all that bragging.” She turned and sprinted for the water, diving in as Michael caught the knife Labatu pitched at her back.
The demonic implement was writhing with plague magic under their grip, the roiling sickness trying to cling to their skin before they set it alight, burning the blade to ash and slag in seconds as Labatu climbed to her feet.
“It’s rude to destroy someone’s equipment.”
“It’s rude to throw knives.” They studied the demon across from them, tall and looming in all white, and decided, yes, they could take her without their wings. So they tore their sleeves off and let flames lick up their bared arms, lending an orange glow to their metal had as they settled into a stance.
“A mortal stopped your blade. I can do more.”
“And here I thought angels were meant to be humble…” She moved from one end of the alley to Michael in less than a second, stabbing–And Michael batted aside her blade and punched her in the chest, sending the demon skidding back. “Ngh…no follow up?”
“You need to come to me, demon. Remember? Your master ordered it.”
“…You’re trying to stall me. To keep me from hunting down that mortal.”
Michael snorted, letting their derision show. “You’re bound by your contract, demon. If you want to defy it and chase my comrade, do so. Just know the instant you pass me is the instant I kill you.”
Labatu bristled in a buzz of insects, then dove in, stabbing straight at Michael. And the angel did not dodge, weave, or evade, instead smacking aside every strike and following through, as the demon wanted, in driving their fists into her chest.
Stabs were batted aside and rewarded with solid punches, slices were blocked and met with blazing hooks, and a vicious cut that managed to score a line across their arm received a full backhand straight to the demon’s head, driving her to into a wall as Michael took a moment to burn the encroaching illness away.
Labatu stumbled, snarling through her cracked mask, and ripped her coat away and to reveal some extra arms–for six total–before she drew more knives and vanished in a cloud of flies–So Michael drove their elbow straight back into her stomach as the demon reappeared.
“Don’t be obvious,” they advised the choking, doubled over demon, before they smashed their fist full into her face and shattered her bird mask into pieces.
Labatu landed hard on her back, struggling to stand back up as Michael burnt every fallen knife away. Best to avoid causing any plagues. “N-Nh, nnh–GHA!”
Michael loomed over the demon, keeping their foot planted on her chest as they studied her now bared face. Which was…surprisingly cute? Not that demons could be cute, but she was clear of most of the blemishes and warts most plague demons had and looked rather youthful, even as she glared straight back up at Michael. “You lose.”
“H-Hnh…” Labatu opened her jaws and spat a cloud of plague-filled insects straight at Michael’s face, which the angel immediately burnt away before they even reached her. “…a-ah.”
“Yes. Ah. You picked a very bad match-up, little demon.”
“…I-I can still-” Pressing down, Michael channeled divine energy to suppress Labatu’s magic.
“No, you can’t. What you can do is tell me what’s going on here. The only reason I haven’t driven my foot through your chest and crushed you into the ground like the worm you are is because I am more annoyed by my lack of knowledge. Now tell me everything you know about your leviathan masters and I’ll send you home without too much scarring.”
“Mnh…as though I’d-” They pressed down harder, a smirk crossing their face as the demon went rigid. It really had been far too long since they’d properly
bullied subjugated a demon–
Michael paused as a loud splash of water sounded out, their amusement turning to confusion as they saw…a building? Bobbing out on the water, before the whole thing tilted over and started to sink.
“…oh. Oh she had the deck…ah…”
“The deck?” Michael spared Labatu a glance, but more splashes caught their attention and they saw more and more items starting to bob up around the water. And even from where they stood Michael could feel the vast amount of cursed energy coming from the items.
“Just a nice and handy way to transport items. Can’t tell you more than that.” Michael put more pressure onto Labatu’s chest. “U-Ugh, I’m being honest! I was just summoned to assist them. I do what they need when they summon me, they pay the price afterwards, that was the contract.”
“Your mind changed quickly. Do you know what will happen if you lie to me?”
“It’s because I know what will happen that I’m not lying. This job isn’t worth dying over.”
“Hm. It’s rare for a demon to see sense.” They leaned forward, resting their arm on their knee. “Extremely rare. Luckily, I know how your kind works. Swear to me to tell the truth, bind your word in your oath, and then I will trust your word, Labatu.”
Without her mask it was easy to see how the demon cringed. No devil liked being bound by their word–
“Pardon, miss?” a sudden voice said.
Michael turned, then blinked as they saw a row of blue-armored guards leveling spears at them.
“…” They stared in some confusion, then paused again when they heard a faint click. It took them a second to realize they’d just been handcuffed. “…Uh.”
“Would you mind stepping away from the other individual?” the armored officer currently arresting them requested, his helm decorated with the same type of plume Captain Uchino had. So probably a captain then–
Their mind finally caught up. “What. No, this is a demon.”
“Really?” He looked down. “Hm. Black eyes, one, two, four…six arms total, yup, that does seem demonic.” He turned towards the other guards. “One of you, get a priest over here, tell them we have a demon to exorcise.” One of the guards salutes and runs off, his spot quickly filled by another spear-wielder.
“…I was in the middle of interrogating her.”
“Hm? Right, there’s a question. How are you holding down a demon?”
“I’m an-I am a paladin.”
“Ah, that would explain it. Well, Lady Paladin, you’re under arrest.” He rubs the chin of his steel mask, thinking. “This samurai does suppose we should arrest the demon too then. One of you, follow the other guy and explain we need to seal a demon, not exorcise her.” Another salute, another running off, another filling the spot. They’re certainly well-disciplined around here. If extremely slow in responding…
“Uh, if I could interject-”
“You can’t,” Michael stated, stepping harder again.
“Hm…the lawkeeper in this samurai really does think he should pull you away from the other prisoner, but the other prisoner is a demon and he feels ill-equipped to handle her otherwise, so…” The captain nods after a moment. “Right, he’ll just perform the arrest here then.”
Right, handcuffs on wrists. “Why am I being arrested?”
“Due to many charges against your person, Miss Paladin, including vandalism, destruction of property, disruption of commerce, unlawful pursuit, more vandalism, assault, public misconduct, contamination, pollution-” He gestured at the floating cursed items in the water, before finishing up. “-and disturbing the peace.”
“…I can pay for the property,” they said, then paused at a slight tearing sound, before it quickly became clear to Michael that a kimono really wasn’t built for running through the streets, being doused in corrosive slime, and being partially set on fire, as evidenced by theirs abruptly falling straight off their body completely as the worn material tears apart. “…”
“…Also a charge of public indecency,” the captain added.
“…Do all cardinals wear that? I thought you were meant to be modest–” Was the last thing Labatu said before Michael kicked her hard enough to knock her out.