The Three Shades monastery was, as Noriko explained, the home of the Sanying Clan, a people originally coming from the mountains of Liorzula, down in the southern continent known as the Sun Lands. There was some deep history there regarding persecution, dark magic, and the charity of the Gororans to the clan, but Michael was less interested in the historical context and more interested in the fact that the monastery was also the capital’s official prison.
Though, considering the rather well-lit interior decorated in winding pictures of gray and black landscapes and figures along white walls, they were pretty sure it was a monastery first, prison second.
“–and here’s where Nori executed her first convict!” proclaimed the monastery’s grandmaster, a white-haired dark elf in a three-toned kimono–somehow evenly black, white, and gray–with a near-perpetual smile who introduced himself simply as “Master Ken”, as he gestured into a wide open room with a round stage in the center, “Ah, we picked out a nasty one that day, no moral ambiguity in the slightest, just a genuine cannibal! Do you know how rare it is to get cannibals these days? And when Nori struck, it was a clean piercing too, straight to the base–!”
“Misha doesn’t need to know all the details, sensei,” Noriko muttered, her face visibly red in spite of her mask, though she seemed to be smiling. It did remind them of how their Father could get at times, so Michael could sympathize, somewhat.
“This man’s sure she’d love to hear them though! Oh, we should visit the training fields after this! This man would love to see how you handle some of our obstacle courses, Miss Centola!”
Michael considered the offer, then nodded. “I might as well.” They can’t be that difficult.
“Fantastic! It’s always a delight to see how foreigners handle themselves!”
“Usually badly,” Noriko chimed in, earning a chuckle from her mentor.
“Usually, usually, yes. Now then, future fun aside, this man does need to ask before we get too deep.” He stopped in his tracks suddenly, pausing in the middle of the well-lit hallway, and turned to regard Michael, his gray eyes looking dull and empty under the light. “Do you intend to torture our prisoner?”
“I do not believe in torture. I find it wasteful and damaging to not only the recipient, but the enactor,” they stated, “I will not lay a hand upon your prisoner, should you request it.”
“There are ways to harm that do not involve hands in the slightest.” He chuckled then, though the lifeless look in his eyes didn’t abate. “This man won’t begrudge your anger, should you show it, for there are reasons to be angry. But to be a warden is to accept responsibility, not just for punishment, but for care. So do no physical harm. You can yell if you want though.”
In all honesty, the fact that they were even having a frank discussion about the torture of a prisoner was somewhat out of Michael’s realm of experience. They usually went for things like flying someone all the way into the sky and letting them dangle to get information, but considering they were inside of a building and they were trying to keep their angelic nature less than obvious, they probably shouldn’t do that either. Also Kozloi can fly now, so that’s an issue.
No matter. “Very well then. I will stay my hand.”
The dead-eyed elf nodded, still smiling. “Thank you, noble paladin. This man shall trust your word.”
The room they were brought to reminded Michael of the interrogation room back in Sui, when they’d been arrested for fighting Labatu and several other things that were illegal, yes, and they probably should still be serving a sentence of some type for, but regardless, the room was similar, it was just that the angel was now on the opposite end of the table.
And at the other end was a familiar leviathan. One who wasn’t fully a leviathan anymore.
Kozloi looked exhausted. Deep bags showed under her dull eyes and her hair and tentacles hung limply around her mismatched head. A metal collar was locked around her throat. A chain extended from it and attached to the steel table in front of her while her arms were shackled behind her back, fully trapped in solid restraints meant to completely lock away her hands. Her legs were further restrained, locked into the chair entirely, even with a set of cuffs manacling her ankles.
Even then, a pair of guards stood behind her, dressed in black tunics lined with white, both wearing steel masks bearing stern visages under black caps. Steel juttes hung at their hips, and both had their eyes completely focused on the chained leviathan.
“Normally, we shave a prisoner’s hair, but this man thought it would be cruel, mostly because we don’t know how sensitive those tentacles of hers are,” Master Ken explained, his tone casual.
Michael nodded, their eyes flicking towards the tendrils in question. They were hanging limp too though, unmoving as the angel took a seat opposite the leviathan.
“Kozloi.” The leviathan didn’t stir. Michael frowned. “Kozloi Banguani mar Zyafol, you claimed to be the ‘herald of the Deep Prophet’. That more than likely means you’re a shellbound leviathan from the Sea Lands region, or more specifically the ‘Deep Lands’, whatever the distinction there might be. You worship the Ancient God Fathom, and you’ve attempted to destroy this country, presumably at your ‘Prophet’s’ orders.”
“…is there a question there?” Kozloi asked, her eyes not lifting from where they stared at the table. Her voice was low, softer than they’d heard before.
“Many. What are your prophet’s goals? What demons are supporting you? How did you infiltrate these lands? Who else are you working with? What other plans are you aware of?”
“World peace, all of them, I walked, Borzi, none of them because they don’t tell me shit.”
Their eyes narrowed. “Do not lie to me.”
“I’m not a demon, idiot.” Despite her soft tone and dull eyes, they could hear a growing amusement in her voice. “You can’t compel me to speak the truth-”
“Speak the truth,” they snarled, pushing the weight of their angelic nature onto the leviathan.
Who smirked, raising her head. Her hair fell loosely over her altered eye, while her tentacles curled in seeming amusement. “Are you joking? What the hell is that supposed to do?”
“Probably compel you to tell the truth,” Noriko chimed in, leaning against the closed door behind Michael, “And hey, things would go a lot easier for you if you did. We’re not savages here, we know how to treat behaving prisoners.”
“Yes you are,” Kozloi replied, amusement far clearer in her voice, even as her eyes still looked dull, “You’re all savages. Every last one of you primitive apes scrambling in the dirt up here is a filthy fucking savage living shallow lives in shallow lands. Is it any surprise I thought you’d all be better off as beasts?” She smiled, baring teeth that were clearly mismatched, yet all sharp. “Does that answer your question?”
“None of my questions were related to that topic,” Michael insisted, before glancing at Noriko, who was openly glaring at the leviathan now. The guards looked tense too, though Ken was calm.
Noriko paused and gave them a nod when she noticed their stare, visibly relaxing, so Michael turned back to Kozloi. “What-”
“I’m going to stop you there, birdy. I’m not going to answer any of your questions. Char me, roast me, broil me, bake me, you can’t make me say anything. Because I have faith.” Her smile grew wider. “I would sooner bite off my own tongue than go against the prophet. So go ahead. Drive a blazing spear through my chest. I might not even feel it, because of what you made me.”
“You mean what you made yourself,” Michael stated, not rising to the bait, “Then I’ll repeat a question you never answered then either. Can you go home as you are?”
That brought life back to her eyes. Bright, vicious, angry life, a snarl of rage spilling from her mouth as she bristled. “You–You winged rat, you don’t get to–!”
“I see I wasted my time here.” Michael stood, nodding to Kozloi. “I’ll just have to destroy your faith, one herald at a time then.”
“AS IF YOU CAN!” she shouted, unable to stand but glaring with pure hatred, “You winged slave, you really think you can stand against the Might of the Deep!? Against the Wrath of God!?”
“Your god lost millennia ago. You’re all just the fumbling remnants of her lost cause.” They didn’t even have it in them to really get angry now. There was no point with a creature of such delusion. “Unless you have anything worth it to share, we’re done here.”
“…” Kozloi settled back, still fixing them with a deep glare. “Yeah. Yeah, I have something left to share.” She took a breath, a deep one, then let loose with a blast of sapphire flames that Michael easily swept aside before punching her straight in the face, rocking the leviathan and her chair back just in time for the guards to slam her fully to the ground, fixing a metal muzzle over her face as she screeched and roared.
“…Eesh, that was way more intense than this gal expected,” Noriko noted.
Master Ken nodded to her words, still entirely unphased. “Yes, we really do need to step up measures for dealing with draconic prisoners. Granted, we don’t usually have to deal with hybrids that are part leviathan, but still, this was a valuable lesson. Oh, and Miss Misha?”
“Hm?” Michael glanced at his address. “Yes?”
“Please don’t punch our prisoners in the face.”
“…Your guards should’ve moved faster.”
“You punched her faster than most mortals can move.
“Faster than you can move?”
Master Ken paused at that, looking thoughtful. “Hm…perhaps. We’ll have to see on the obstacle course, won’t we? And if you are, then this man will definitely have to step up his training! In fact, the whole monastery should go through some remedial lessons, to get everyone on this man’s level!”
One of the guards visibly winced, even with the mask on, and Noriko clapped Michael on the shoulder. “Congrats Misha, you’ve probably earned several enemies for life.”
“Because Master Ken’s remedial lessons are the fucking worst.”
“Don’t cuss in the monastery,” Master Ken chided, actually earning a contrite look from Noriko.
“Ah, right, sorry sensei.” Before she gave Michael a poke in the side. “Make that several plus one, the one extra being this gal.”
“So you plan to betray me too, Noriko.” Michael nodded solemnly, crossing their arms over their chest. “Did our activities in the baths mean nothing to you?”
“Your what.” The angel paused, glancing over at Master Ken.
“Our activities in the baths at Mera. Noriko and I partnered-”
“She doesn’t mean it like that!” Noriko suddenly cut in, earning a deeper frown from Michael.
“Of course I do. You and I joined together–”
“N-Not like that!” She just squeaked. Why did she just squeak? Since when does she get this red? Their questions weren’t answered in the slightest by Noriko suddenly grabbing them and pulling them down in a headlock. “Not in front of my mentor, c’mon!”
“What?” Michael straightened, pulling Noriko up with them with another startled squeak from the flustered human. “Why is that a problem? If this man’s a father figure to you–” Was that a squeak or a yelp? “–shouldn’t he know of our partnership–?”
“J-Just shut up, okay!?”
They did, though they still didn’t get why, nor why there was a sudden air of amusement from Master Ken and one of the guards. The one that wasn’t busy dragging a seething Kozloi back to her cell.
Well, no matter. This trip may have been less than helpful, but that was true for much of their journey so far. At least now they should be able to leave the capital, since Anaya was with Katsuro. Hopefully, they should be out of the country before sundown.
It still felt strange flying under another’s power. Riding a dragon just felt…unnatural, compared to using their own wings, but Michael decided to tolerate the experience in favor of expedience as the group made their way back to Kyora, so they could finally get their stuff back and leave this admittedly beautiful yet still accursed country.
“Oi, stop thinking mean things about my homeland,” Noriko complained, frowning at them.
“You don’t know what my thoughts were.”
“This gal can tell because you have the lousiest poker face she’s ever seen!”
“I don’t gamble, so I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“You don’t have to gamble to play poker,” Anaya chimed in from behind them, her arms wrapped around Michael again. They tolerated it, just as they tolerated Noriko riding in front of them, but the sensations did leave them feeling strangely warm and likely contributed to their current mood.
“But it’s much funner when you do~!”
“I have no interest in that type of fun.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll fix that for you~” Noriko said, grinning despite how futile her statement was.
It was more of a curse than a blessing that Katsuro was flying lowly and slowly enough to allow them a talk, even if it was somewhat leisurely. Still, their ride came to an end soon enough as Katsuro touched down in Kyora.
“Alright, everyone off,” he said once he reached the ground, “The ride ends here.”
“Thank you for it, Katsuro!” Anaya said, before she let go of Michael and easily hopped off the dragon’s back. As for the angel, they kept their arms around Noriko as they turned and slid off too, earning an irritated huff from the human.
“You know this gal can get down on her–”
“No you can’t,” they disagreed, “Evidence shows you can’t. Anaya has a wooden leg and she’s better at dismounting than you.”
“…this gal is a skilled kunoichi, capable of traversing the entire country by tree top–”
“And how well do you get down from those tree tops?”
“W-Well enough! Mounts are hard! This gal doesn’t travel by steed often!”
“Since when am I a steed?” Katsuro rumbled, glancing at them.
“Since you agreed to give us several rides,” Michael retorted.
The dragon huffed and headed into town, grumbling under his breath. And Michael followed him because he was bound to lead them to Shiho and Shiho had their carriage, so if they actually wanted to leave this blasted country in a timely manner, without attracting attention by flying, then it was just smarter to get the stupid carriage and collect the stupid unicorns and just get going already.
“Patience is a virtue,” Anaya said as she walked alongside Michael, smiling with some amused emotion the angel couldn’t quite place. It wasn’t exactly mocking…maybe teasing?
“Patience is fine, it just gets annoying when it turns into tedium. And tedium is demonic.”
“Yes, Limboan demons are tedium made manifest.”
“I thought they were law demons?”
Michael rolled their eyes. “As though law is demonic.”
“Are there law angels?”
“…No, but that doesn’t mean anything. Law is neutral.”
“…This is a stupid conversation.”
“What-ic?” Noriko asked, leaning into the conversation that Michael was no longer paying attention to in favor of speeding up towards the stupid bar, whereupon they saw a familiar face.
“Nope.” was the single word Nari uttered as he exited the bar, saw Michael, and promptly walked off in an entirely different direction. They could hear him muttering something like “give up” and “become a damn doctor” for some reason.
“Strange reaction,” they muttered, watching him leave, before the doors to the bar were suddenly shoved open as a pink blur rushed out.
“KATSU!” Ah, of course it’s Shiho. The pink blur resolved itself into the familiar shape of Lady Yojin, who had rabbit ears now and was currently nuzzling up against her husband’s still draconic face. Also, she was wearing pink overalls, which was somewhat unusual given the usual fashion sense of Gorokiva–
“Oh hey, you again.”
Michael blinked, then glanced behind themself again. “…Matsuzaki?”
It was. For some reason, the blonde outworlder outfitter was in Kyora. And dressed nicely, in a blouse and checkered skirt, though she still had that Tisserand-butterfly clip. “Yup, it’s me. Sup?”
“…I’m here to retrieve my carriage from Lady Yojin.” Who seemed to be busy catching up with her husband, judging by the conversation and continued nuzzling, though Katsuro seemed to be the more active nuzzler at the moment. Really, from the sound of it, it was less a conversation about what had occurred while they were absent from one another and more the dragon teasing his wife about being so enthusiastic in greeting him. Wait, focus. “I also delivered all of the advertising cards you gave to me.”
“Yeah I noticed, since Shiho-chan–uh, wait, how do you say it again…ah, whatever, my point is, the cute rabbit lady decided to look me up and I figured I didn’t want to deal with all the crazy stuff happening since Daimyo Saruta apparently betrayed the country, so I thought a vacation was in order, especially since I could start making bank by promoting my stuff in another province. Bee tee dubs, were you involved in all that coup stuff?”
“I fought against the nation’s traitors and their leviathanic conspirators, yes.”
“Ahh, cool. Is it true Daimyo Saruta and Lady Inukai fucked on the battlefield?”
What. Wait. Michael frowned in thought, actually considering the question because they were fairly certain someone had mentioned that at the capital. Something about the two “wrestling naked”? Is that a euphemism? It has to be. “Yes.”
Matsuzaki blinked, visibly caught off guard. “Wait, seriously? For reals?”
As far as Michael knew. “Yes, ‘for reals’.”
“Holy shit, Daichi owes me two silver…oh wow, okay, wow, that’s really wild?? Just wow, what???”
They shrugged. “Apparently they have history.” They paused, giving Keiko a look over with a frown. “Were you unaffected by the beast curse?”
“Hm? Oh, yeah, completely. I thought it was an outworlder thing at first but Madam Weaver gave me a heads up that followers of gods were protected so long as they had something active to protect them, like a talisman or something.”
“…The Skin-Weaver gave you a ‘heads up’?”
“Madam Weaver did, yeah. You know, my patron god? Or matron god, I guess? I can’t really tell if your language genders that the same way but whatevs. You talk to your god, right?”
“Frequently, yes.” They looked at her hairclip, frowning at it.
“Do you wanna talk to her?”
“…” It took them a second to look directly at her. “What?”
Matsuzaki tapped her hairclip. “It’s not that hard, and I’m sure she wouldn’t mind much. She was pretty chatty last time.”
“Why would she be ‘chatty’?”
“I dunno. Something good happened, maybe?”
“What would be good to a demon god?”
“No idea? Ask her if you wanna.”
Michael’s frown deepened as they looked at the otherwise innocuous hairclip. The fact that it was a link to one of the Ouza kept it from looking innocent in any way though. “An angel doesn’t speak to a demon god.”
“…Cool? What’s that have to do with you?” …Right, Matsuzaki doesn’t know that I’m an angel. Ugh, it’s a pain to keep track of who does and who doesn’t…
“Never mind that. It’s an idiom, you wouldn’t get it. It doesn’t matter anyway, I’m not accepting temptation from a warlock.”
“Eh, no biggie then. I’mma gonna go see if Shiho-chan’s done smooching her hubby.”
A glance behind showed there was no “smooching” ongoing, though Anaya was still deep in her lecture about the Laut–with Shiho and Katsuro apparently joining in on her audience at this point–which she seemed surprisingly knowledgeable on. That, or she’s making things up entirely, an uncharitable part of Michael suggested, though they chose to disregard that for the moment as Matsuzaki began to walk away and the butterfly on her hairclip flapped its wings.
Michael’s hand was on Matsuzaki’s shoulder before she could get far.
“Woah! H-Hey, give a girl some warning, jeez. What’s up?”
“…In light of new developments, I’ve reconsidered your offer.” That had to be some type of signal. There’s no reason for it to move right as I was looking at it otherwise.
“…Right.” Reaching up to grab the hairclip, Matsuzaki paused for a moment. “…You’re not gonna break this, right?”
“Warlock or not, I have no idea what would happen to you should I break this cursed object that has clearly been swaying you for so long without a proper purification.”
“…So that’s a no, right?” Letting out a sigh, Michael nodded.
“I won’t break it right now.”
“Oi, I heard ‘right now’ there!”
“Yes, and it’s the best you’ll get.” Ignoring Matsuzaki’s pouting, Michael turned their attention back to the hairclip. It felt almost greasy in their hand; not in a physical way, but in a spiritual sense, as the angel touched something inherently unclean to their kind. It could be a beautiful gem glimmering in the sun and it would still feel greasy and fleshy against their fingers because of its nature.
And when the wings began to flap, Michael nearly dropped the hairclip as they felt their skin crawl, thinking for a moment the Skin-Weaver was about to curse them. However, they composed themself, ready to hear what she had to say.
Hello there, young angel~ spoke the demon god, her voice echoing in Michael’s head.
<Tell me what you wish to say so we can get this over with.>
Aw, not one for pleasantries~? Though I shouldn’t be surprised, you Judgement angels are always so quick to judge~
<As if I had any reason not to judge an Ouzan like you. Do not try and fool me, Skin-Weaver, the tales of your dark arts have spread far and wide.>
Oh I hope they have, it would be a shame if after all that work, no one heard of me. Laughter echoed in Michael’s head as they scowled down at the butterfly.
<What do you want from me?>
Careful there, a reply like that might make me think you’re offering something.
<I’m not. Not to you.>
How stubborn~ Here, how about I make things less troublesome for the both of us~?
Michael’s eyes narrowed as their surroundings changed. Not fully. They hadn’t left the physical world, but they were seeing a reflection of another place, all around them, like looking into a pond at night and seeing the moon.
In a way, the room almost reminded them of Matsuzaki’s shop. There were extravagant gowns on display, some thin as air while others layered on and on at the heights of giants, and working on one was the god that called out to them.
The Skin-Weaver was a mottled being, gigantic in stature and covered in stitches, her skin a patchwork of a thousand different shades. Some human, some elven, some demonic–There were frills at her joints and loose weavings of fabrics and ribbons winding through hooks and threaded with needles that jutted into what could have been cloth, but it was impossible to tell where her garment began and her skin ended. Six arms worked across the gown she stood beside, stitching and weaving even as her monumental gaze turned down towards Michael, showing one red and one blue eye–both with horizontal pupils–and long goat horns curling up from her surprisingly delicately bound pink hair, woven through with ivory beads. “There, isn’t that better?”
“No. I’ll ask again–”
“You shouldn’t, else you’ll waste your questions.”
They paused, frowning as they looked up at the god above them. “My questions?”
“Mm hm~!” She playfully plucked a string on the deep blue gown, sending a ripple through the entire garment that shifted its patterns into curling waves. “My little warlock brought it to my attention that you were wandering around, being helpful and such, so I thought I should reward that.”
“That better not be a question, you only get three and I’m being very generous in letting some of those go. Actually, let’s just say you get five and you’ve already used two, that’s fair.”
“…You’re contacting me because I helped Matsuzaki.”
“Ooo, a statement to form a question, cute! I’ll allow it.” Tisserand grinned, running a finger through the fabric as the threads danced to her command. “Yep, she’s my only outworlder warlock, so there’s some favoritism there. That and Therian’s little encroachment twigged my protections and you put a stop to that, so I’m extending more favor than I normally would.”
“Then Therian’s helping the leviathans.” I knew the Beast Church had to be involved…
“Not quite, not exactly. ‘Helping’ implies something more active, and all the leviathans did was call on her influence. You don’t call on the Flame every time you use your own fires.”
‘The Flame’ meaning Foco, presumably…hm. “What gods are helping the leviathans?”
“Ha! Oh that’s a good one, a very good question!” Her smile was wide and perfectly white, gleaming in the room’s shadows. “Mordant is helping them for sure and they have a deeper backer, someone before my time.”
Someone before her time? Fathom then. How could a sealed titan still have that kind of influence? Could the seals be weakening? Is that why Mordant is involved? Too many questions. They needed to focus. “What are the leviathans planning?”
“No idea!” At their glare, the goddess laughed again. “Aw, don’t look so sour~! You should be able to guess easily enough what they want from what you’ve seen. Destroying nations, conquering the remains, perhaps for some grander design. So I guess I do have an idea, but since I upset you, why don’t I give you a freebie? While Mordant’s helping the deeplanders along their way, they’ve been preparing for their plans far longer than they’ve had that support. The deep sea takes many things that fall into its depths, and they’ve amassed a collection, so be very wary of what they might have waiting for you.”
That…was more than they expected to hear. They inclined their head, not quite a bow but more than a nod. “…That knowledge is helpful. Thank you.”
“I’m helping you, young angel. No need for thanks, and do remember to be careful who you thank. You have one more question if you’d like to ask it.”
A thought came to them, from the last time they talked to Matsuzaki. “…What are you the Death of?”
That visibly made the goddess pause, before she regarded Michael with a curious eye. “You’re more thoughtful than I gave you credit for. I suppose it is an interesting question. I’m not the death of wounds, for that is caused by violence, and neither am I of infection, for that is the realm of disease. Flesh doesn’t lend itself to death easily, for all its manipulation offends the close-minded.” Michael held the opinion that regarding flesh manipulation as disturbing was fairly natural, but they didn’t feel like getting into an argument. “My nature is more akin to death through failures, in a sense. Not a failure in the traditional sense, not one where you strive and falter, but a failure to help another survive. Where medical aid, most commonly, is attempted and can do nothing. Death magic does not mingle with Life magic, as you might expect, so when I lived, I was a healer who wanted to find a way to help without any affinity for giving Life. For those tied to Death to prolong Life. Very antithetical, wouldn’t you say?”
“…I would.” The idea…confused them. Life and Death were opposites, that was a basic fact of reality. The living were not the dead, the dead were not the living, so to utilize something inherently tied to death to save lives was…Is it impossible for darklanders to use Life magic? No, it’s been done, certainly. It has to have been. Otherwise…Focus. You’re still having a conversation. “I’ll take your advice from earlier and avoid thanking you. Just know that I am grateful.”
The goddess laughed, a low, melancholic sound, and Michael returned to reality. With Matsuzaki still there and staring straight at them.
“Ah, nothing, you were just making the weirdest faces.”
“Hey Mishi, are you done catching up with your friend?” Noriko called out, and Michael was struck by a sudden certainty that they shouldn’t let Noriko and Matsuzaki meet–
“Misha, come on now, we need to get Charlie~!” And it seemed Anaya didn’t feel this certainty as she grabbed onto Michael to pull them away.
Potential disasters disregarded for the moment, Michael allowed Anaya to pull them along into the bar, where– “Why is Gauri behind the bar?!”
“Hm?” Genta the bartender glanced up from the book he was reading, looked over at the unicorn wiping down the bar with a cloth in her mouth, and shrugged. “Brother Gauri felt like helping out.”
The unicorn–who somehow fit behind the bar–whinnied in agreement. “…You realize Gauri is a mare, right?”
Genta glanced up again, looked at Gauri, then shrugged once more. “Yeah? Brotherhood transcends species and gender, like a man’s romance.”
Gauri nodded in agreement to that nonsense and Michael just decided to keep walking, ignoring Anaya’s amused giggling in favor of heading to the back of the bar. Though they didn’t go down into Katsuro’s den this time, instead heading into a workshop far in the back of the establishment. A rather large workshop that contained several sketches and blueprints along the walls, several discarded tools and metal pieces, and some kind of bizarre…carriage? What?
“What in the world is that thing?”
“Your carriage,” Shiho said as she walked past the two of them, smiling cheerfully while she went up to the odd carriage and gestured at it with a flourish, “Specifically, your brand new motor carriage, designed and devised by this brilliant lady!”
“Ah well, while you were gone, the carriage started to change, presumably cause of the core within it. The wood was starting to bend and shift as the core continued to fuse with it, kinda like it’s a mini portable dungeon. Heck, it even started to fuse with some scrap metal I left near it. Honestly, seeing how fast it happened made me wonder how it didn’t happen before. Which made me realize something.
Grabbing a set of blueprints, Shiho spread them on a nearby table. “You, unintentionally or not, were somehow able to suppress the core’s abilities with your divine aura. So, presumably, being away from it for long periods of time would let it do this until you were to return.” She began to point at various parts of the blueprints. “Since it was starting to haphazardly fuze with things, I began to devise a sorta ‘shell’ for it, so it didn’t look like a mishmash of random objects, and thankfully, since the unicorns are partly divine, I was able to use them to help make sure the shell wouldn’t just begin to fuse badly to the carriage, mostly by mixing their hairs into the material. They were very helpful in that regard.”
Michael nodded slowly, still staring at the…whatever it was supposed to be. “And…what’s a motor carriage?”
“A carriage with a motor! See?” She opened up the front part of the boxy carriage to show Charlie the core, hooked up to several…things. And…metals?
“Wooooah.” Anaya seemed impressed, leaning in to look at the “motor”. “So these things let the carriage drive itself?”
“Well not exactly. The carriage does still need a driver, though that involves pressing the pedals over at the front here.” The demonstration continued as Shiho led them to that door, gesturing to a set of pedals under a wheel. “You press down on this one to go and this one to stop. Though just a heads up, I couldn’t quite make the mechanics as robust as I wanted. See, the motor frame here siphons power from the core to make it move, which this pedal activates, but that means it only really has one speed and it jumps up to it immediately when you press down on this pedal. So unless you’re charging the carriage yourself and actively moving the flow of energy, you can’t go speeding off super fast.”
“Aw.” Anaya pouted, while Michael couldn’t help but wonder why in the world they’d want to go “speeding off super fast”. Then again, I was always annoyed by how slow the carriage moved… “Ah, quick question. How did you get the idea for this anyways?”
“Oh, uh…books. About…technology.” …Why the evasiveness?
“Oh hey, you’re showing off the car now?” Matsuzaki spoke up as she peeked into the room.
“‘Car’?” Isn’t that a demon thing?
“Ah, yeah, well, it is theirs, so of course this lady would want to show it off,” Shiho said, still sounding sheepish.
“Yeah, I getcha. Still came as a big surprise to find a car nut in fantasyland,” Keiko continued, “You know she mostly called me over to ask about car designs instead of clothes? Sure, I made her a nice outfit, but she’s been way into–”
“I-I don’t think they need to know every part of the design process.”
“Oh, you sure? Didn’t you want to give them that sketchbook we made in case they found someone who could improve the design?” Michael couldn’t entirely tell if Matsuzaki was intending to be teasing, but her smile was definitely getting wider as Shiho’s face got redder.
“So…the carriage works better now?” the angel decided to ask.
“Oh totes, it should work really good. I’m not super big on cars myself but I remembered enough of, like, some twenties’ designs to work with what I think your tech level is. Though the fact that you guys have airships is throwing that off in a weird way, especially since they’re more like flying ships instead of zeppelins.”
Michael didn’t know what a zeppelin was, but it sounded threatening. “…So it works better now.”
“And you don’t need to bring any steeds with you to hitch up to it.”
Anaya paused. “Wait, really? So…we’re leaving Gauri and Sadja behind?”
“I guess? Those are the unicorns, right? Because I’m pretty sure one of them already ran off when they heard they weren’t needed to drive the carriage anymore.”
Michael blinked. “What.”
“Yeah, there were some tearful goodbyes and everything, though I’m pretty sure he just went to that fire city? Probably to get with some sexy horse babes.”
“…Never say that sentence ever again.”
So they had a “motor carriage” now. Or a “car”, for short. Michael didn’t trust it in the slightest, especially since it looked like the blasted thing had a face now with the “lights” on the front that they were still convinced were secretly eyes, but Anaya seemed positively inclined towards it and Noriko was ambivalent–more interested in talking shop with Matsuzaki, which, again, Michael was pretty sure they shouldn’t have let happen–so they decided to at least see if the stupid thing worked as advertised before purifying it with flame.
Though before that, Katsuro apparently had something he wanted to say, so after Michael returned the demonic hairclip and while tearful goodbyes were said to Gauri–who was apparently staying as a bartender now–they followed the dragon to another corner of the bar. “What is it?”
“Heh, can’t give a guy a second, huh?” Katsuro chuckled, before he nodded to them. “I can respect it. We didn’t meet on the best of terms, but I’m glad we met. You’ve done a lot for me, more than I can repay. So if you ever want anything, your or your family, you can come to me. I don’t know if you’d consider me a friend, but I’ll act as one from now to the end of my life.”
He bowed then, deeply and fully, and Michael felt an odd warmth. “…I’ll let them know that. Actually, one moment.”
They held a hand back to their halo and Spoke. <My greeting to you, my Heavenly Father. My message is brief, but I wish for you and my siblings to know a dragon named Katsuro…Yojin, I think it is now, is deep in moral debt to my angelic self and thus offers friendship to any of us who come to him. So if anyone’s ever in the area, he’s…acceptable.>
<OH, MICHAEL, IT’S BEEN A WHILE. HOW ARE YOU DOING? IS EVERYTHING FINE DOWN THERE? DO YOU NEED ME TO SEND ONE OF YOUR SIBLINGS DOWN->
<Everything is fine, Father, I handled a coup, just please pass the message along.>
<OH, ALRIGHT–A COUP? WHY WAS THERE A COUP?>
<Mortals were doing things, there are leviathans, I’ll explain more later, I’m still on the mission so reports will have to wait.>
<WELL, IF YOU’RE CERTAIN. GO WITH GRACE, MY CARDINAL.>
<As always, my Heavenly Father.> They turned down the connection, then looked up at Katsuro again. “I passed the message along.”
“…Huh. You can do that?”
“Obviously, yes. An angel is always connected to their god.”
“Huh. So that’s what the halo’s for?”
“The halo is the encompassment of my angelic being, it just becomes visible when I do things like that. You may as well ask a mortal if ‘that’s what your brain is for’ when it comes to talking to a parent, it’s reductive.”
“Okay, feelin’ like I touched on a subject there. Favors aside, I do have one more thing to say. You’re going eastward, right? Towards Luceneva and Orin?”
“Luceneva then Orindaco, yes.”
He nodded, scratching at his chin. “Thought so. Well, while I’m sure you don’t need any warning considering who you are, I figured it’s good to tell you if you might be running into a problem, which you probably are. Remember the Blue Scales? Those mercenary fuckers?”
“I recall them being mercenaries, yes, though whether that means they pursue relationships with other mercenaries, I don’t know for certain.”
“…Was that a joke?”
“You’ll never know.”
His lips twitched. “Sure. Well, point is, the empress was understandably pissed off that some upjumped mercenary guild decided to participate in a coup against her. Or, well, Kawajiri, but they still went after her, so you get the picture.”
“I do. Where are you going with this?”
He pulled a chair from a table and sat, before raising a hand to wave at Genta. “Just some set up. My main point is that the guild apologized for the misunderstanding.”
“Yup. Sent a representative and everything to smooth things over with the Empress.”
Michael’s eyes narrowed as they stayed standing, though they leant on the table to look more closely at Katsuro. “Those were the people that burned your town and fired cannons in the capital’s bay. How was any of that a misunderstanding?!”
“Because the guild disavowed everyone involved. As far as they’re concerned, a bunch of rogue elements tried to get in good with corrupt nobles, did some bad things, and now they’re very, very sorry it happened and they’d appreciate it if business could go back to things as usual, because their operations in Gorokiva are a big part of their revenue. Course they didn’t say that last part, but they did bring a gift to show they’re sorry.
Katsuro’s smile was a dark one as he leaned in too. “The rep brought along two gifts, the first being all the gold the ‘rogue elements’ were paid to participate in the coup. The second gift was the more interesting one though, considering it contained the severed heads of the regional guildmasters.”
“…” Michael sat. “I…believe I understand the reasoning. I’m surprised that they took such a route though. Is that even legal?”
“Officially, yeah, because when they disavowed those folk, they went from legal mercenaries in good standing to being outlaws, just like that. My best guess is that the rep in question had all the guildmasters gather for a meeting with the pretense being that they were deciding on how to proceed next. He just didn’t tell them the higher ups already decided who was on the literal chopping block.”
Genta brought over a pair of drinks then, one for Katsuro and one for Michael. The angel raised an eyebrow at the orange liquid inside, before looking at Katsuro again.
“It’s just orange juice. Figured you’d prefer something softer than alcohol.”
They nodded, accepting the offered drink and taking a sip. “Mm. So is this the problem you mentioned?”
“In a sense. The country as a whole probably got an uptick in bandits and pirates if the Scales really did fire everyone involved, but I figure it’s more likely the Empress will be getting some severed fingers as apologies. I mostly wanted to talk about this because you’re going into their territory now.”
He took a drink and gestured for Genta to come over again. The underling laid out a set of…posters? And Katsuro tapped the blue one, displaying a shining, shimmering serpent rising from a stylized sea and crushing a simplistic pirate ship in its coils. It featured the words “The Sapphire Serpents, Saving the Seas from all Scoundrels” and some other such slogans. “The Scales are one of the biggest mercenary guilds in Estus, though you might know them better by the name ‘Adventurers’ Guilds’.”
They frowned, their eyes immediately going to a second, scarlet poster displaying three winged figures wreathed in flames. The Vermillion Furies, Recruiting Now. “I’m familiar with the term.”
“I’m sure you are. Zemava’s under a monopoly with the Feathers here–” He tapped the red poster. “–and my best guess for why the Scales though they were smart in playing with a coup is because they wanted the same kinda thing for themselves in Gorokiva. Adventurer guilds like to play themselves up on the ‘adventuring’ angle, but for the most part they’re just odd job centers where you can hire someone to protect your flocks or clear out some slimes. These kinds of guilds though are more connected and more influential. They’ve got their own systems, their own rankings, and speaking as a crime boss, they run things like a mob, if with some more legitimacy.”
“I’ll trust your expertise on the matter,” Michael stated, their tone deliberately flat.
“Heh. Well thank you for doing so. My point is, I don’t know for a fact that this’ll be a problem, but I wanted to bring it up because it could be. The rep that came by, name’s Belsito, is one of their highest-ups, close to the boss, does jobs directly for him, that kind of thing. He might not know all the details, but tales definitely went around that Kawajiri was ‘helped’–” Michael let out a derisive snort that made Katsuro grin. “–yeah, I know, but the point is, they know a ‘Centola’ was involved. A paladin traveling with a druid might be the most they know, but that’s probably enough, because these two–” He tapped the Fury poster and the Serpent poster. “–hate each other. It’s a genuine rivalry between them, and the Centola Family, Paladin Order, whatever they wanna call themselves, are the ones that run the Feathers, as much as they might pretend otherwise.”
They leaned back in their chair, studying the serpent on the poster. “So you think the Scales will try to attack me as retribution.”
“Maybe. Like I’m saying, I don’t know for sure, but I have guesses, and my instincts tell me these people are gonna be problems for you.” He smiled, one finger resting on the serpent’s head. “It doesn’t help that their symbol’s a sea serpent and we’re dealing with leviathans. Might be a coincidence, but I heard once that the gods don’t like coincidences.”
“Father certainly doesn’t,” Michael muttered, before looking at the other posters present. One set was a mix of white and gray, forming different animals in stylized silver on white backgrounds. A stag, a lion, a wolf, each displaying the name “The White Furs” in stark, standout black. The last remaining posters looked to be almost the inverse; their paper was pitch black and one displayed a shimmering green serpent winding around a stylized turtle shell while the other featured a black rose outlined in pink doing the same. “Hm…could you explain these to me? Not for too long, just some general information would be good.”
“Eh, sure, I could exposit for a bit.” He tapped the red poster first. “Now you know the Furies already, which you should, considering you live in their home country. The basics as far as I know them is that they were founded by some ‘retired’ paladins–” Either meaning they left their order willingly or they were excommunicated. “–who wanted to ply their trade for coin instead of virtue. The Centola…”
“Right, Order, they’re the ones that back these guys. A good chunk of their membership comes from Zemava, and the upper parts are all either former paladins or folks who couldn’t make the cut to become one.”
Michael grimaced. “The guild is, unfortunately, considered the ‘second best option’ for those looking to pursue martial careers. There’s even an excuse that they’re still working for the good of the Faith, since a portion of their profits goes back into the Order Centola and thus the nation as a whole.”
“Ahh, figured. Well, you get the gist. They’re pretty elitist and if you’re not a high elf, you probably won’t make it big in the organization, though they still hire a lotta humans, half elves, even some harpies and halflings, and that’s not counting the adventurers that just use their services.”
“Those services being?” they asked.
“Legitimacy, for one thing. They provide licenses for prospective adventurers that give a lot of freedom of movement, armor and weapons for anyone with those licenses, and even training for people starting out, same as the other major guilds, plus a messenger service to go with it. All of them provide those types of services, but there’s differences too with how they handle jobs, ranking adventurers, all that shit. I don’t know everything since I never went for that career, but I’ve looked into enough for the basics.
“So, next up, The Sapphire Serpents, the Blue Scales, whichever you wanna call them, are almost the opposite of the Furies. They started over in Orindaco as an Adventurer Guild and expanded up massively by focusing on naval pursuits. A lotta former sailors and naval officers joined these guys and a huge chunk of their personnel are natural seafarers like nereids and even merrows. There’s a lot of humans and drakes in it too and from what I know, they’ve got a navy to rival a small kingdom. Though they probably lost a chunk here.”
“They don’t only work as a navy though, correct?”
“Yeah, they do plenty of land jobs. And from what I’ve heard, they’ve been expanding towards the Sun Lands for a while now, really trying to get into that market since things tend to be turbulent with the city-states down south. Peace is nice, but war’s profitable when you’re in that line of work.
“As for the next one, the Furs are kinda funny in that they’re a mix of a few Adventurer Guilds coming together to form one big company. They tend to compete with the Feathers for work in Tramontava, the Scales in Luceneva, and the Shells in Rosiava, so they don’t have the same kinda home turf like the others do. Way I’ve heard, they’ve tried moving up north to the Frost Lands by allying with folks up there, but they’re mostly considered the middle ground of the guilds, even if they’ve got their own subculture goin’ on. One that actively wants its members to be beastfolk, from what I’ve heard.”
Michael’s eyes widened, then narrowed as they looked at the white posters again. Beastfolk. Beast magic? Could they be involved with the leviathans?
“And last up, the Black Shells. Or the Black Rose, depending on who you ask.” Right, one more. “There’s some weird story with that. Apparently a few months ago it turned out they were assassinating people in Rosiava on the orders of one of the country’s governors and the recent batch of heroes revealed them or something, some stupid conspiracy thing. Basic thing, as far as I know, is that these guys started as an Assassin’s Guild, went legit, then went back to assassinating when it turned out that paid really well.”
“…And they hid that by going under the name ‘The Black Rose’?”
“And no one made the connection that the guild named ‘The Black Shells’ had a connection to a cabal of murderers named ‘The Black Rose’?”
“Also yup. Plenty of people do like using colors for names, so two organizations using the same color wouldn’t raise too many eyebrows.” He shrugged. “That’s probably what they thought.”
“That’s stupid.” They looked back at the poster showing the fancy rose pattern. “Wait, did they start advertising with this poster before or after the unveiling?”
“After. Apparently they decided to lean into it, make themselves more edgy and alluring. It helps that you can pay a fee to guarantee they won’t try to kill you for any reason. Gives some rich folk peace of mind.”
“…Question. Would the Scales hire the Shells to try to assassinate me for my part in resolving the coup?”
Katsuro tilted his head, frowning as he crossed his arms over his chest. “…Maybe? See, it’s possible, but it’s not likely. The guilds don’t really like each other, and if they wanted someone dead, they’d send their own people because they don’t trust each other enough to think they wouldn’t turn on them. You don’t hire a rival to do collections, it’s that kinda logic.”
“I see…well I’m not paying them anything because I refuse to give money to murderers, so we’ll see if they try anything. It might not even be the Scales that send them after me, after all.” The leviathans know how to disguise themselves, so it wouldn’t be impossible for one to place a contract while pretending to be a wealthy noble.
“Hm, good point. Well, whatever happens, I’m sure you’ve got a handle on it. You might be self-righteous and easily pissed off–” Excuse you? “–but you’ve got a good heart, and you know how to throw a punch.” He grinned, holding a hand out across the table. “Like I said, feel free to hit me up if you ever need anything.”
“…I may, if just so I could try for a rematch,” they replied, taking his hand and giving it a firm shake.
“Please don’t ask for that anytime soon, Futoshi will literally kill me if I reopen my wounds.”
“Oh. Ah, understood.”
Some time later, when all goodbyes were said and far more hugging than necessary was enacted, Michael sat in the front passenger seat of their new “car”, looking not warily, but with reasonable caution at Anaya’s grip on the steering well. “Are you certain you should be driving first?”
“Course I should! Who here read the manual?”
Michael frowned. “I was busy speaking with Katsuro-”
“And that means you didn’t learn how Charlie the car works, so I’m the driver now.”
Their frown deepened, but they turned their gaze to the open plains of the summer province, looking out over the wide, mostly flat lands. Probably not an issue for a “test drive”. Presumably.
They looked back, glancing first at the town of Kyora where so much of their adventure had been spent. The town wasn’t bustling again, not yet at least, but the colorful house-trees showed quite clearly that it was on its way to recovery. And the crowd of people gathered to see them off–or just to see if Lady Shiho’s contraption worked–did feel…nice, in a strange way.
Then they looked at Noriko, who was lying across the back seats. “…You’re supposed to sit on those.”
“Hm? Why? They’re comfy. And this gal’s pretty sure this is real leather.”
“I’m not going to help you if you fall off.”
“Pff, please, we’re in a metal box! We’re gonna be good.”
“Nori’s got the right idea,” Anaya said, “Now let’s see how you drive!”
Her foot pressed down on the start pedal and the car immediately shot forward, racing across the plains as Anaya let out a whoop of delight…that turned into a yelp as a giant boar immediately rammed into the side of their car.