Michael was annoyed. They were not pouting, no matter what anyone said, but they were annoyed. Extremely annoyed. And for valid reasons.
“Hey it’s okay, you gave it your best.” Anaya gave them a pat on the back in some attempt at consoling. In reply, the angel simply tightened the fold of their arms and slumped further on the bench they were sitting on, still completely and reasonably displeased with how the jousting tournament had gone.
Namely that they’d lost completely in the second round. On the first charge too!
“It’s alright, you don’t need to sulk, we’ll find another way to get to the wedding. Nori’s already out looking, so it’ll be fine.” Michael simply huffed, glowering at the crowds that dared to be so happy in their time of devastation. Especially at that one jolly clown handing out candy. Probably secretly evil. Want to…rot the teeth of Luceneva or something… “I brought a candied apple~?”
They glanced at Anaya. “Don’t patronize me.”
“So you don’t want it~?” she said, still smiling as she waved the bright red apple on a stick in front of them.
“…” They took the offered apple and bit into it. “…mm. I didn’t realize the apple underneath was green.”
“Yeah, I think it’s to balance out the sweetness with some sour,” Anaya explained while taking a bite of her own apple. Which Michael noted appeared to be covered in nuts.
“…you don’t need to comfort me.”
“I do if you’re upset.”
“Why would I be…hmph. Why wouldn’t I be upset? I lost to a peacock…”
“Hey, there’s no shame in losing to a peacock. Those are dangerous birds! Surprisingly aggressive and territorial for being so pretty.”
“It’s a metaphorical peacock, the man wasn’t actually one. I think. I didn’t see under his helmet–The point is, I lost to some random mortal because, what, he was just better than me?”
“Misha, he was a professional jouster. You did great with Morien, but you’re still an amatuer, right?”
“…Yes, fine. I suppose I can accept I was outmatched…” Stupid golden-armored idiot. What kind of name is Lionheart anyway? Doesn’t he know the fate of his nation is at stake??
They grumbled again, munching on their apple and idly listening to the crowds. They could vaguely hear someone yelling about a knight that hadn’t even shown up for the joust to a quailing subordinate along with the usual chatter of various–Then there was a soft fwump as something landed on their head and they let out an irritated sigh.
“Pff-Ah, hey, Misha, the pillow’s back–”
“I can tell the pillow is back.” So burying it does keep it away for a little while…
At least it didn’t show up in the middle of their jousts. That would’ve been more humiliating than just getting immediately knocked from their saddle–
“Ah hey, there you are!” Yvonne greeted as she walked over to the two of them, out of her armor and back in a more casual vest and pants, “I was wondering if you were hanging around!”
“We’re here, yes,” Michael greeted, before casually taking the pillow from their head and setting it on fire.
“…Huh, strange way to get rid of a pillow.”
Anaya gave their shoulder a pat. “Misha’s not happy with her loss.”
“Ahh, I understand that, it’s a real knock to the pride, isn’t it? Just lost a little while ago myself. That Morthru’s more skilled than I expected.”
“It’s not that,” the angel denied, annoyed, “We needed those tickets. It’s…look, it involves the demon that caused problems in Rikfield.”
“Oh her! Yeah, I remember–” Yvonne paused as the pillow, intact again, reformed and fwumped to the ground in front of her, letting her see the image on it. “Huh, yeah, that exact demon. Hm, I’m starting to get an idea of what’s going on here, but back on the ticket thing, why not just sign up for another part of the tournament?”
“What? There–What do you mean ‘another part of the tournament’?”
“I mean there’s three parts to the tournament? It’s called ‘The Triple Threat Tourney’ because there’s a joust, a melee, and an archery competition.”
“Ohhh, that explains the name,” Anaya noted as Michael straightened, frowning as the implications made themselves obvious.
“We haven’t lost our chance then,” the angel said, “That’s two more opportunities to get–It’s not just one ticket per tournament, is it?”
“No, I think it’s tickets for the whole group,” Yvonne elaborated.
“Good to know, thank you. I should still sign up for both tournaments though to maximize our chances to win the wedding tickets. While I’m confident I could win the melee, I could easily handle the archery competition if need be.”
“Oh, you know how to use a bow?”
“…I can throw a spear very accurately–”
Anaya gave them a pat on the head. “Archery and javelin throwing are different things, Misha.”
“Mnh…do you know how to use a bow?”
“Ehhhh…” She wiggled her hand in a ‘so-so’ gesture. “The whole ‘every wood elf can use a bow’ stereotype isn’t completely inaccurate because we do all learn when we’re young in case of invaders, but I wouldn’t say I’m on a professional level. I’m willing to give it a shot though~”
“…Why the emphasis?”
“Loosing an arrow can be called shooting, it’s a pun on that.”
Yvonne giggled at that. “Well it was nice catching up, but I should go find Ortrux before he gets banned from the grounds. He was arguing with someone about my last match, so there’s a good chance it could escalate to violence.”
“You sound remarkably fine with that prospect.”
“It’s nice to have someone defend your honor sometimes. Anyhoo, enjoy your time here! I’ll see you in the melee! Best of luck with your evil ex!”
“Hm, very well. I’ll see you–Wait, what was that last part, what?” But Yvonne had already walked away, leaving Michael with an overly giggly Anaya. “…It’s not that funny.”
“S-Sorry, sorry, just, I can kinda see the reasoning? I mean, the skimpy pillow, the following you around, the tension, it gives off vibes.”
“No it doesn’t. Regardless, we should register for the melee. And archery, just in case.”
“Just in case,” Anaya echoed, cheerfully following along after them.
The day didn’t end just because Michael had signed up for the second and third parts of the tournament. Life would be far more convenient if events just ended once the important activities were accomplished, but alas, time was an inconvenient annoyance that refused to move at a more convenient pace. It was no wonder the God of Time was an Ouza.
Still, perhaps the slow motion of time was in fact a boon to the cardinal at this point in time because they had a task of the utmost importance to handle while they had time to. And they should probably stop thinking about time because it was starting to feel like it wasn’t an actual word.
“Hello,” Michael greeted as they took their newly re-wrapped bundle off their back and set it down on the table of a mage’s stall, “I’m cursed and I would like you to break it.”
“Then you’ve come to the right place!” the yellow feathered drake woman–dressed in a pointed hat and dark robes that complimented her own violet scales–declared, gesturing expansively to her stall, “We here at Rodney’s Curse Breakers are the absolute best at the business!”
“Hm. Are you Rodney?”
“Nope! I’m Tircia!”
“Understood. Do you typically get much business here?”
“Oh sure, plenty!”
“Huh. I didn’t expect so many cursed people to come to a festival.”
“Oh no, not that part,” she denied, waving a hand, “We mostly sell things like fortunes and prophecy cards. More like novelty stuff! But we can also break curses! And I assure you, I can definitely break whatever curse you have!”
“Great. This thing won’t stop following me,” they stated, opening up the bundle to show her the pillow.
“…Okay woah, two things. First off, I’m sorry, I vastly underestimated what you were actually dealing with. Like wow, that is the single most cursed object I’ve ever seen.”
“You’re the third person that’s said that.”
“Oh you tried at Hex ‘n Friends and Jinxie’s Jinxes then? Yeah those guys are lamer than us, definitely not as good at their jobs, but they’re not wrong! I think you might actually need an exorcist for this kinda thing…or a cleric…maybe an archdeacon, even.”
“That bad then.” At Tircia’s nod, Michael sighed. “I had a feeling…you said there was a second thing?”
“Oh yeah, I did say that. Yeah so secondly, I have to ask, was this a curse from an ex? And, follow up, is that an ex a demon? Because I’m getting vibes.”
“…You’re also the third person to ask me that. She’s an enemy, not an ex.”
“Ahhh, nemesis stuff then, okay, say no more. Well, that aside, wanna buy a psychic crystal? They tap into mental energy and the mindscape instead of magic stuff!”
Michael eyed the pink crystal, which seemed bizarrely bereft of actual energy. They’d seen diamonds with more magical potential than this thing. “Is that real?”
“As real as this snake oil I can also sell you! Or coconut oil if that’s more your speed?”
Neither was, so, as a reasonable person, Michael just left without a further word, ignoring a further offer from the saleswoman for “totally legit protective talismans”.
“So, no luck?” Anaya asked when the angel found her again, not too far from the unhelpful stall, where she seemed to be snacking on another candied apple.
“None. I’m beginning to suspect I won’t find legitimate aid at a public festival.”
“Yeah, that tends to happen. Are you ready to try out the shrines?”
“I suppose,” they mumbled, glancing around the colorful stalls for an excuse not to, “Is Noriko still not back yet?”
“No, she checked in a little bit ago. I told her about the tourney stuff, and I think she wanted to join you in the melee? She definitely sounded confident about the archery competition.”
“Oh, good, that should be helpful. Did she say what she planned to do afterwards?”
“Yup, she’s going to buy more crossbow bolts. So what’s up?”
They blinked. “What?”
“What’s with the reluctance and the topic changes? You’re an angel, I’d think you’d be happy to go into a shrine.”
“That’s…They’re not shrines to my god.”
“Is that a problem? You didn’t have an issue with Amitiel, Tigress–Oh, and you don’t have a problem with me.”
“You’re different. They’re different. I have less of a problem with Lord Innominatum than I do with the so-called Matrons.”
Anaya nodded, casually taking their hand and starting to lead them along through the rows of tents and stalls. “Okay, so why is that?”
Her hand feels firm. Callused. “The three of them…they form a bloc in opposition to the Elder. To the Triarchy. They bring antagonism into what should be a righteous order, overcomplicating matters and…”
“…” They didn’t want to just shrug. It felt like an admission of weakness to admit reality. Why is that? “…it’s a strange feeling. I don’t know how to describe it.”
“Do you want to try?”
“…No. Come on.” They started taking the lead, pulling Anaya along into the city, their eyes glancing past shops and homes, past grocers with signs reading “closed for the festival” and the idle eyes of those who chose to go about their normal days instead of joining the festivities. Whatever reasons they might have had, Michael didn’t know, and they weren’t interested in finding out, in wasting time with those that would be inconsequential.
The first shrine they found was one to Lady Foco. The steepled cathedral–fittingly large for a shrine within a capital city–reminded them of the castle at Mera, back in Gorokiva; it had a similar quality to it, built in red and orange to resemble a towering inferno, solid and without smoke.
Well, no, there was some smoke as they entered, coming from braziers lining the walls and letting smoke rise to the high-vaulted ceiling, where there did seem to be some type of slits for ventilation so it wasn’t just poisoning everyone in the room. Why do they have lit braziers in the middle of the day? Also…Braziers, Brazier Knights? Some relation?
“Good afternoon, travelers. Welcome into the hearth of our Mother,” the priest at his pew greeted, as though he’d been expecting their presence. The long sleeves of his scarlet habit seemed like something of a hazard around so many lit flames, especially with all the candles about, but then the man himself was a firedrake, so he was probably fine in the event of anything catching. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your company?”
“I’m cursed, I want it broken,” Michael promptly stated.
“She’s cursed, she would like the curse broken,” Anaya echoed, sounding more amused than she should be. Again.
“Ah, I understand. Then, if I may, I will first attempt to diagnose–”
“That’s unnecessary,” Michael interrupted, cutting the priest off before the orange glow could fully form around his raised palm. “The curse isn’t a physical ailment afflicting me.” They yanked the stupid pillow out of its coverings. “This thing won’t leave me alone.”
“Oh that is hyper cursed. Good gods above, how in the heavens and est did you acquire such an object?” the priest asked, leaning closer to study the accursed item.
“A pair of demons forced it on me as a prize for winning their stupid shell game.”
“You shouldn’t gamble.” His words were automatic and most of his attention was on the pillow, fully examining it from top to bottom, rubbing his chin as he studied–Then Anaya snapped her fingers in front of his face and he straightened, before letting out an odd cough. “Yes, I see. Well, I suppose I can’t just say burn a candle to call her protection, now can I? You would probably need a bonfire for something like this…hm. We do have all that kindling, though it’s supposed to be for later in the festival…”
“There’s nothing else you can do?” they asked, irritated already.
“You’ve tried burning it, yes?”
“Hm…then I’m not sure. As an angel, your flames would be far hotter than any I could produce.”
They blinked. “Oh. You can tell?”
“Hm? Yes? The instant I attempted the diagnosis, you may as well have unveiled your wings and halo. You’re the wayward one then? The cardinal?”
“Wayward? Why am I wayward?”
“You’re an angel of flame that did not come from Mother Foco. In a sense, that does make you a wayward angel, though I suppose you do have your place, don’t you? Ah, ignore me, I ramble sometimes.”
“Actually, real quick question,” Anaya interjected, leaning in front of Michael to catch the priest’s attention, “Is hyper cursed a proper term used by the faiths?”
“That it is, yes.”
“Ha, I knew I could get it to catch on…ah, also, are you sure you can’t do any ritual thing to help out? What’s that ash bath thing you guys do sometimes?”
“You mean the one where the penitent burns the objects representing their sins then bathes themself in the ashes to mark their skin?”
“…okay, not that one.”
“Sorry, most of our practices involve burning and flame. Sometimes smoking. All around though, I apologize, but I don’t think we’re what you’re looking for.”
“Well, that’s one down at least,” Anaya noted as the two of them walked away from the shrine.
“One that was entirely unhelpful,” Michael groused, idly noting their surroundings as they left the cathedral. They seemed to be in the Smith’s Quarter at the moment, “Brickroad” according to the signs, so they’d be moving away from the festival if they wanted to visit the other shrines.
“It was helpful in the sense that we know Mother Foco’s magic won’t help. So how about we try Mother Chlora’s now?”
“Hmph. It didn’t exactly work when you tried.”
“Well I’m one lone druid without any of the fancy stuff on me, so let’s at least give this place a try, okay?”
They grumbled a vague assent, allowing Anaya to lead this time as they moved through the city to a more lush neighborhood, apparently called Hillstreet because of, well, all the hills. Queenshill Castle itself sat atop a large hill, its cream-colored walls and multicolored spires standing out above the yellow brick roadway reaching up to its peak, but there were smaller hill dotting the third of the city Michael and Anaya were now entering, some with houses built atop them while others had homes built into them. Likely a natural result of the halfling population–Is that stereotyping? It might be, I’ve seen halflings living in non-hill homes…
No matter. The important thing was finding the next cathedral, which stood amidst a rather well cultivated park, consisting of various flower gardens and fruit trees. It seemed to be composed of a green stone, stretching as high as the Focoan Cathedral, though it was more bulby towards the top; not like there were domes, but more like the spires were deliberately carved into the shapes of bulbs.
“Oh right, I forgot they were like this…”
Michael paused, glancing over at Anaya, a little confused at the druid’s annoyed tone. “Anaya?”
“Hm? Oh, uh, ignore that, we should head inside.”
The angel slowly nodded, following the druid’s lead, though they felt their confusion grow as Anaya started grumbling things under her breath. Muttered complaints about “just painted on vines” and “didn’t even hang real gourds”.
“Greetings, travelers, and welcome to the Cathedral of Verdure,” the cleric at the front–a pale, redheaded human wearing green robes and a flower crown–greeted as they entered, though she paused at Anaya’s oddly derisive snort, “…Is there something wrong, Miss?”
“No no, everything’s good, just, y’know, noticing a distinct lack of actual greenery in a shrine dedicated to the goddess of plants.”
“…Well we have plenty of greenery in the park, miss.”
“Outside the shrine. Not in it. Like, wow, not even a potted plant?”
“Well, a shrine is a holy place, so we wouldn’t want to track dirt-”
“You don’t want to track dirt in a shrine to Mother Chlora? Goddess of Plants? What do most plants grow out of, again? I mean I suppose you could try growing it out of the stone directly, but you don’t seem to be doing that.”
Michael raised an eyebrow, feeling a little…alarmed? Since when is Anaya this passive aggressive?
“Ah, you must be one of Chlora’s druidic followers.” Michael began to feel that they shouldn’t be here. “I understand you of the forest faith may be more rustic in your beliefs, but you must understand that such ways can be considered outdated by some.”
“…Rustic and outdated, huh? So, practicing the traditions of our ancestors, carrying on, oh, maybe thousand year old legacies, actually worshipping as our goddess intended–”
“If we’re talking about legacies, technically the clerical tradition has been around as long as the original Faith of Light, and even the kingdom of Naloriva, back before it was destroyed, adopted the clerical traditions–”
“I’m from Naloriva. You don’t need to tell me how it was destroyed.” That was a…concerning tone Anaya had taken on.
“I mean no offense, druid. It’s just, well, clinging onto the past doesn’t do anyone any good.”
“The past–No, no, it’s…I’m sorry, I’m getting too heated.” Anaya took a breath, visibly calming herself, though her frown didn’t go away. “It was uncalled for for me to come in and–”
“It was, yes. Really, as I said, clinging to the old ways like you are hasn’t done your nation or people any favors. Your home country is only called Naloriva because no one else could hold power long enough to change the name and just months ago it was given away to appease the dragons over at Ebkai. Your dedication to ‘traditions’ didn’t help any of that, now did it?”
“…” Anaya’s burgeoning attempt at calming down failed entirely right at that moment and she glared straight at the cleric in a genuine fury Michael certainly hadn’t seen before. “I think you need to kindly keep quiet on topics you know nothing about.”
“Oh, so now I’m ignorant then? And here I thought embracing being an ignorant savage was a part of the druidic doctrine? Or is that just so you can frolic around naked without a care in the world?”
“…” There was a pop from Anaya’s knuckles as her hands clenched into fists. “Cleric. I am sorry. For my previous conduct. Stop insulting my home and people.”
“Hmph. Fine. Now what is it you even want? To lord your druid craft over us? To declare how we don’t count as worshippers just because–”
“Just because you’re embarrassed by our traditions?”
The cleric sneered. “Well who wouldn’t be? In case you haven’t noticed though, Chlora still accepts our worship, even without naked frolicking or planting trees right in the temple. Why, we even provide for the people with our orchards, so–”
“YES. That is what you’re supposed to do. I’m glad. My friend–”
“Hm? Wait.” The cleric paused upon noticing Michael, and the angel was fairly certain they’d been recognized again and resigned themself– “The druid and the paladin?” She looked back at Anaya, her face scrunching in apparent offense. “You’re the follower of Chlora that was chosen for a representative? You?”
Anaya sighed in audible annoyance. “I realize I didn’t make a good first impression–”
“No, you didn’t, because like all druids, you couldn’t care less about the followers of Chlora that aren’t in your little sect!” Michael was fairly certain the druids of Chlora vastly outnumbered these clerics they’d never heard of. Doesn’t Chlora have followers in the Sun Lands too? Not so much in the Frost Lands, there’s something with the snow god there…Or was it that Lautic one? “We didn’t even get a choice in representative!”
“…I mean I think that says a lot about who Mother Chlora thinks takes priority among her followers.”
The cleric gasped, affronted, her voice echoing in the cathedral and drawing some attention from the other clerics present. Of which there seemed to be a few just idling around, reading or…well at least one of them was fiddling with a puzzle cube– “You damn–It’s your sect’s fault we can’t even have a Pontiff! Every other faith does!”
“The faith of Judgement has an archdeacon,” Michael notes, then added as an afterthought, “And so does the faith of purity.”
The cleric gave them an odd look, before smiling. “Then you understand the issue, don’t you? A deity should have a proper representative on Estus, just as a faith should have a proper representative to travel on the divine tour.”
“Are you going somewhere with this?”
“All I wanted to ask was if you would rather travel with a proper cleric instead of this druid–”
Michael’s answer was prompt, concise, and final. “No.”
“…Y-You didn’t even consider the question–”
“I realize. I like Anaya. She’s pleasant company. You seem unpleasant, so no, I wouldn’t want to travel with a passive aggressive human from a sect I hadn’t heard of before today.”
“But she’s the one that started-!”
“I don’t care. Bye.” With their piece said, Michael turned and left, followed a second later by Anaya.
“Well, that was…hm. Can’t say I feel good about that one,” she mumbled as they exited the cathedral.
“Why? That cleric was unpleasant. Better we leave before it escalates into violence.”
“It wasn’t going to go that far.”
“That’s what everyone says about religious conflicts, up until half a country explodes and is rendered permanently uninhabitable. Or, more recently speaking, up until Morsorova ceased to exist.”
“…Do you want to explain that one?”
“Light Land country, used to be the seat of the Faith of Water until there was a schism between the Freshwater Clerics and the Ocean Druids. Thirty thousand people of varying species died and twelve islands sank.” They paused under an apple tree, frowning thoughtfully. “To be fair, they were small islands. I think Mesa Island is technically the remains of one of them?”
“…Okay, that’s a lot more extreme than any example I thought you could give.”
“Quite. So, yes, snippy clerics can be an issue.”
“Mm…” Anaya sighed, sitting on one of the park benches for some reason. Michael waited a second to see if she would stand up again, then elected to sit beside her when she didn’t. “…I don’t know why that bothered me so…no, that’s wrong, I do. Seeing a shrine to Chlora, a place that’s supposed to be wild and overgrown, filled with life, treated so…they deliberately had it be empty. Why? That’s just…even Rose clerics tend to keep flowers in their shrines.”
“You mentioned some argument with a rose cleric before,” Michael noted, “Though you had no issue with Rosemarigol?”
“Well yeah, he’s an angel. He’s born from a god. It’s not like he’s a mortal follower of a religion, he’s an embodiment of a god’s will, a child yet a servant, a servant yet a child. It’s like…us mortals, we’re picking who we follow. Even if there’s obligations and attachments from being born into a family or faith, we’re still making choices. Embracing a god is a choice! And here they are, choosing to half-ass it. They’re taking the basic tenets and ignoring them for some idea of, what, a cultivated garden? Why not follow the Rose Saint then? That’s her deal!”
“And that’s what you’ve argued about?”
“Debated, more like. Mother Chlora’s about untamed vegetation in all its forms, Rose Saint is about cultivated beauty. One encourages harmony with nature, the other encourages discipline to achieve perfection, and I don’t know what the clerics in that cathedral came up with, but I don’t see how they could actually be worshipping her if they don’t even keep plants in their shrine. They worship the goddess of vegetation, but they’re hanging out in a city with a garden outside and nothing but stone inside. It’s…I don’t know what it is.”
Michael was fairly certain there was something deeper that Anaya wasn’t saying, but, also, they had done the same barely half an hour earlier, so pushing her on it felt somewhat hypocritical. Noriko did react poorly when the angel interrogated her on how she concealed her face, so doing the same with whatever issue Anaya had felt…maybe dangerous? Michael wasn’t one to shy from danger, but that didn’t mean being reckless was the right approach if it could damage their relationship with their companion…on the other hand though, this conversation was annoying.
“They’re all idiots and literal heretics. It’s a genuine wonder the goddess Chlora hasn’t sent an angel to tell them to cut it out, though it might be that they’re too small and feeble to even warrant that interference.”
“Snrk-Okay, I know you’re trying to make me feel better, but you have to know how villainous calling something ‘small and feeble’ makes you sound,” Anaya chided, albeit with a smile on her face and a potentially joking tone, “But yeah, I get it. I just…it’s a petty thing, but there’s a feeling of knowing they’re wrong and wanting something to prove it.”
“There’s the fact that they’re irrelevant. I guarantee if you go to a random village where Chlora is worshipped, the priest there would be known as a druid instead of a cleric.”
“I guess there’s that, yeah. Ah well.” She stood with a smile, catching a green apple as it fell from the tree and taking a bite. “Mm. Thanks.”
“Meant that for the tree, but thank you too, Misha. You can be very sweet. Or at least mean towards some people in ways that are nice towards others.” She took another bite, seeming to think. “No, wait, ignore the qualifier, I’m just going to stick to calling you sweet.”
“I’m not…fine, if you want.” They took her hand when she offered it and continued on with the walk, keeping a firm grip as they led the druid out of the park where the flowers seemed to be blooming brighter and the trees were sprouting more and more fruits.
“I do want to, so thanks.” And she punctuated that with a kiss to their cheek. Which. That…
“Water cathedral would be next then,” they muttered, ignoring the brief flame that flared from their head. There wasn’t more to say. Was there? No, no, just. It’s fine. Anaya is affectionate, you are aware of this.
“That it would! I think it’s called the Stream Cathedral. If I remember right, it’s named so to contrast with the Brine Cathedral in Orin.”
“You’re familiar with it?”
“Yeah, I know a little bit. I actually knew a few water clerics in my traveling years. Even dated one named Josie for a while, though, well…ah, it’s a story for later,” she said, waving her free hand dismissively, “And it doesn’t involve anything nearly as crazy as islands sinking, I can tell you that much.”
“I imagine not. I would have heard if more islands sank.” Well, presumably.
Judging by the skeptical look Anaya gave them, they were fairly certain she didn’t believe them.
Regardless, their walk through the neighborhoods was pleasant enough. Fewer and fewer people seemed to be present within the residential areas at the moment, likely being involved in the festival for either profit or merriment, so travel from Hillstreet to Millway was easy and uninterrupted as they passed by the local wells dotting the more water-themed side of the city. The various boroughs didn’t necessarily seem to align to elements–the forges of Brickroad could maybe work for fire, though it seemed to be a more commercial area in general rather than purely for metalworking, while Hillstreet definitely fit the plant theming with all its grassy hills–but Millway definitely seemed to like its fountains.
“All this water is a hazard,” Michael stated as they passed by a stone building with several such basins along its side and holes in its walls from which water poured, which the angel kind of thought might be legitimately leaking instead of being deliberate, “Or at least wasteful.”
“I’m pretty sure there’s a natural aquifer under this part of the city,” Anaya replied, glancing curiously at some type of novelty restaurant someone decided to build out of the husk of a galleon.
How in the world did they even get a boat this far inland? Michael wondered, before shaking off the thought, “Still. They’re bound to drain it at some point–”
“There’s also a dungeon in the area, so the ground might be enchanted.”
“And it will likely flood whenever there is rain.”
“That’s probably why they have a lot of drains. Hm, I wonder if they go right back into the aquifer or if they mixed in a sewer system to avoid cross-contamination? Either that or maybe brought in some purity stones to keep the water clear. Oh, or they just get the Mesic clerics to handle it?”
“We can just ask,” the angel pointed out, while also physically pointing towards the third cathedral on their journey.
The Cathedral of Streams didn’t actually have streams coming from it. It did have a large fountain with a statue of Mesic in the center–and the lack of exterior statues for Foco and Chlora in their respective areas suddenly struck the angel as actually fairly bizarre–and what appeared to be artificial waterfalls along its sides forming stone-ringed ponds within which a mix of waterfowl and fish could be observed, but no actual streams. Its steeple also followed the trend of relating to the element of its god, as the uppermost structure of the cathedral was shaped like a geyser spraying up towards the sky. Not with literal water, just stone carved to look like it, but it was still an impressive effect.
The interior also did far better than the Cathedral of Verdure in actually having examples of its element around; rather than rows of pews to sit in, there were a series of pools along the sides of the cathedral, separated by marble columns, while a large mural of Mesic took up the far wall. Pools that seemed to have people in them, who actually appeared to be bathing.
Most were wearing bathing garments, so that was fortunate, though Michael did notice one woman who seemed to be wearing Gororan-style undergarments as she stood with her hands pressed together beneath a…well it wasn’t exactly a waterfall, given it was coming from the ceiling–
“Is that Noriko?” Anaya asked, and Michael blinked in some surprise, before leaning slightly, narrowing their eyes.
Her whitened hair was loose, falling a bit longer down her neck, and she seemed…really relaxed, actually– “She’s not wearing her mask.” Hm. The sharp teeth really should’ve given her away.
“You didn’t notice that part?”
“It’s more that I’m used to seeing the mask instead–Look, never mind.” They headed over towards the pool where Noriko stood, staying at the edge and calling out, “Noriko!”
“Hm?” The human opened her eyes, blinking, then smiled, her sharp grin getting wider. “Oh hey Mishi! Are you planning to join this gal in her practice?”
“Yep! Sitting beneath waterfalls is pretty traditional! Helps connect the mind and body! Or at least she’s pretty sure that’s right. Though it might have to be a freezing waterfall…Either way, it’s good for showering!”
Michael didn’t know how to respond to that, so they didn’t. “Are you at least finished with your errands?”
“Oh yeah, totally! Signed up for both tourneys and got, like, three more quivers of bolts! This gal even sprung for the nice stuff, like electro and cryo bolts! She figured you’d provide fire magic, so she abstained from getting pyro bolts.”
“And you just decided to bathe afterwards?” they asked, idly noting that Anaya had wandered again, heading over towards one of the blue robed clerics of the cathedral. She doesn’t stand still easily.
“Well no, this gal decided to explore a bit, maybe look into rumors, scout around, all that. She even found out some fun info, like how the Peasant’s Quarter is actually called Pleasanton, but everyone calls it Peasanton instead, apparently because the original sign meant for the area lost its L back when it was first set up and the name’s stuck no matter how many royals or nobles try to get it changed. Oh, and this gal also ran into a new friend up on the rooftops.”
“Yeah it was pretty funny, we almost literally bumped into each other.”
“Why were you on the roofs??”
“Vantage point. C’mon Mishi, you have wings, you know how that works.”
They did. Hmph. “You don’t have wings–” Wait, did she? Her nue form is really chimeric… “Do you?”
“This gal hasn’t been able to form any, so she’s pretty sure it’s a no. She’ll tell you if she can though!”
“See that you do, I could probably teach you–” Wait. “You mentioned meeting a new friend?”
“Yep! They’re over there,” Noriko said, gesturing toward…a blue lump in the water? Or, no, there were more shades than blue in there; really, the lump looked almost iridescent the more Michael watched it, the colors across its gelatinous surface shifting slightly around the lazy blue shade–Is that a slime? “Hey Mask! Meet Mishi! She’s one of the friends this gal mentioned!”
The slime opened its–their?–eyes, slowly blinking despite the complete lack of need to do so as the white circles that formed their visual receptors stared up at an odd angle in the distance, before shifting across their surface to stare at Michael. “Oh, hiya. Sorry, I was kind of sleeping. Sort of? I guess more resting than sleeping.”
“Sleeping is a type of resting,” Noriko helpfully pointed out.
“Woah, true…ah, right, hi again. One second.” The slime’s surface shifted colors as they…not quite stood, per se, but raised upwards, their blobby body extending and coalescing into a vaguely elvinoid–no, definitely more humanoid in build–humanoid shape. One still lacking in a lot of definition, given that they had no nose, mouth, or ears, nor any really defining features below the neck, aside from being a multicolored slime person. “Hi there. I’m Mask.”
“…You’re not wearing a mask,” Michael felt the need to point out.
“Well yeah. You can’t wear a mask in the baths.”
They couldn’t argue with that logic. They weren’t really sure how to. “Understood. Why were you on the rooftops?”
“To gain a vantage point, same as Noriko.”
“That explains nothing–”
“Woah, are you a rainbow slime??” Anaya abruptly asked as she returned, her eyes wide with curiosity as she stepped into the pool–And Michael averted their eyes because the elf was just wearing a towel.
“Clothes are over in the lockers at the back, I asked a cleric if I could, it’s all fine,” she replied almost too quickly as she moved over to Mask, who regarded her with a curious eye, “Ah, sorry, I didn’t catch what your name was?”
“It’s Mask. Shouldn’t you be wearing a swimsuit?” How is it that the slime is the first one with sense here? Though, actually…
“You’re not wearing one either,” Michael pointed out.
“Yes I am? I’m…” There was a pause as Mask looked down at themself, then Michael was introduced to the rather curious sight of a slime blushing as Mask’s face went a shade of reddish pink and they abruptly ducked into the water before returning, now wearing a dark blue one-piece swimsuit. “We were talking about something else.”
It wasn’t the worst attempt at deflection Michael had heard, but it was up there. The angel also felt a mild temptation to point out that the slime actually looked more indecent with the swimsuit defining the contours of their body instead of staying as an amorphous blob, but they were better than that.
“Oh hey, you found your suit! This gal was wondering if that was deliberate or not. You should keep it on, it really rounds out your booty,” Noriko, master of tact, said. Though her tone was vaguely teasing, so perhaps it was intentional.
“…Y-Yeah, well, um…You’re here for the festival, right?” they asked, turning back to Michael as Anaya strolled past and slipped into the water.
The angel watched the elf for a moment as she waded into a deeper part of the pool, then nodded to Mask. “More specifically, we’re here to win the melee. And the archery competition, potentially.”
“Ahhh, that’s neat. So why’re you visiting a cathedral? You don’t look like a follower of Mesic, there’s not enough blue on you, though I don’t think there’s any cult of tomatoes…” Michael was beginning to reconsider the wisdom of wearing the shirts Anaya bought for them.
“There is, actually!” Noriko chimed in, sounding amused, “It’s a sunlander thing.”
“Really? Huh, weird. So yeah, are you just visiting the cathedral for fun? Oh, or for a bath or a swim, it does have really nice baths.”
“…” Michael raised an eyebrow, vaguely wondering if they should even elaborate to a random sapient slime. Which, hm. “On that subject, how are you maintaining your form in water? You’re a slime, I thought water was one of your kinds’ weaknesses.”
“Not for water slimes! And I absorbed enough of those that most water doesn’t bother me. I’m buoyant enough to stay on the surface and keep steady if I go under, though I guess I’d be in trouble in deeper water? Even then, I’d have to be diving deep enough for it to actually start hurting before I’d be in real danger, and I could always coalesce again as long as I retain the thinky parts of me.”
“So you eat other slimes?” Anaya asked as she floated past on her back, idly kicking her legs–Well, her functional leg, not the prosthetic.
“Not exactly? It’s more like they join the collective that is me,” Mask explained, watching her pass with a bit of pinkness and redness appearing across their “face” again. Understandable, given that Anaya had forwent her towel again. Is it an issue that I’m getting used to her doing that? “…s-so, um, yes on the bathing part?”
“Hm? Oh, you mean why did we come over here? No, Misha’s cursed and they’re trying to get that fixed.” Okay so Anaya’s just going to come out and say it. “We visited the other cathedrals, but the fire priest couldn’t help and the plant clerics were jerks.”
“I thought they were called druids.”
“Ah ha! See, I was right, everyone assumes they’re druids,” Michael said with a proud–well, not too proud, that was sinful–smirk.
“Heh. Yeah, no, they’re clerics, it’s a whole thing,” Anaya explained, before getting up and starting to wring her hair out, completely uncaring for conventional modesty.
“Huh, weird. Well, if it’s a curse you need broken, I know somebody who can help! My pal Adri’s good at that kind of thing!” Mask declared.
“They are?” Michael asked, somewhat hopeful and somewhat skeptical.
“Yup! Well, I think he is anyway. He has a special sword that should probably help.” Special sword? That definitely sounds familiar. Do I know of a curse-breaking sword?
“Sounds great to me!” Anaya said, smiling brightly as she finished playing with her hair, “Why don’t we give it a go, Misha? It might turn out better than asking clerics for help.”
True, I’d rather not waste time going to more unhelpful clerics… “Alright, fine, but you two need to get dressed or I’m leaving with Mask.”
The rainbow slime blinked, despite probably not needing to do that at all. “Um…I think I need to dress too?”
“They can get dressed as you do.”
“Aw, you don’t want to see this gal traipsing around the festival as she is~?” Noriko teased as she got out from under her waterfall, looking far too relaxed for someone in wet undergarments.
“It would be kind of fun,” Anaya mused, and Michael promptly clapped their hands together, catching both women’s attention.
“No. Dress in proper clothing. I can and will leave you here until you do.”
There was some grumbling to their demand, but mostly of a good natured type, judging from the faint smiles both of Michael’s companions wore. Which did garner them a curious look from Mask; or at least they presumed it was curious, as the slime had dressed in their apparent namesake–along with a hooded coat and dark trousers, plus concealing gloves and boots, all around marking them as some type of sneaky individual–a white mask that appeared to be deliberately cracked into a vague smiling face.
“Hey, where are you from?” the apparent rogue asked, their head tilted curiously as they walked backwards, keeping their eyes on Michael while still leading the way.
Paasa, the heavenly realm of light, though, technically… “Zemava.”
“Thought so! You have the look of those elfy types from around there. The tall elves.”
“You mean high elves?”
“Yes! Those, the goldy ones. Okay good, you’re super going to like Adri then.”
Michael studiously ignored Noriko and Anaya’s curious noises, raising an eyebrow. “And why would that be?”
“Last time we were in Zemava everyone was excited to see him!”
“Really?” Hm, he must be some form of celebrity mage. Or a bard? Would the commonfolk really be that into a musician?
“They were! And you seem pretty nice so I’m sure he won’t mind helping you!” For some reason, Mask’s statement made Noriko and Anaya chuckle. “Anyways, I think he’s over at the festival, so let’s go!”
Leading the way, Mask leapt up onto a building, apparently wanting a good vantage point, with Noriko following soon after. The two were definitely nimble with how easily they made it up…do they expect Anaya and me to follow them?
They glanced at the druid, who was watching with some amusement as the two made their ways over to one of the taller buildings around. “Welp, looks like we’re being left behind. Nice to see Nori made a friend though.”
“We could follow them.”
“Heh, nah, not really. My leg doesn’t really let me do the whole ‘sprinting over rooftops’ thing.”
“I could carry you.”
That earned a blink. “…Uh, well…hm. I appreciate the offer, but can you actually do the roof hopping thing?”
“I’m an angel, I can just–” Wait, no, disguise. “…I can probably jump that high.”
She patted them on the shoulder. “Let’s just follow from the ground. Though you can carry me if you want~”
Michael raised an eyebrow, then promptly crouched down and hoisted Anaya up, earning a startled noise from the druid as they easily lifted her in what they were pretty sure was called a princess carry, before starting to walk with her in their arms to follow the faster members of their party.
“O-Oh, okay, you’re actually…h-hm.”
Michael continued walking, pretending to ignore Anaya’s somewhat obvious blush, though they did let a little smile grace their face. And if that smile turned to a wider grin when she started blushing brighter from the curious stares they were getting, well…the angel couldn’t help but admit to themself that they liked finding the druid’s apparent weakness.
“You don’t need to carry me the whole way,” Anaya muttered, pouting a little as she noticed the angel’s smile.
“You requested it, and as your guard, I will do as my guide requests.”
“Really now? Then how about we go back to that cathedral and you join me–”
“I thought you said–”
“I did. I’m also saying no now.”
“Hmph.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “So you only follow my commands when you like them, huh?”
“Precisely.” That, and Anaya looked cute when pouting.
“Hey you two–Oh wow, you’re getting close,” Noriko noted as she stood atop a lampost, “Hm, need to step up my game here…anyways! Mask spotted their friends, so follow us!”
Considering Noriko decided to keep traversing by rooftop, she did make things a little more difficult than they had to be, but either way, the trio–plus Mask–soon made their way to the fairgrounds, where the more nimble members of their party had to actually walk on the ground like regular mortals. Well, most of them, harpies and similar winged species could fly…and then there were–
Michael paused, their line of thought disrupted by Anaya poking their cheek. “You can let me down now.”
“Because I don’t want to meet Mask’s friends while being carried.”
“Really? But you requested to be carried.” She really did look cute when she blushed.
“Th-That was me being teasing, you know that.”
Her eyes narrowed. “…You’re teasing me.” She said it like it was a revelation. One she happened to be annoyed about.
Michael couldn’t help but outright grin.
“And so the student becomes the master,” Noriko intoned, walking alongside them with obvious amusement in her eyes.
“Ah–…N-Nori, how long have you–?”
“This gal’s been walking with you since she ran out of roof to run on.”
And with that, the trio followed Mask’s lead over to a larger section of the fairground. A fairly open area where there were stages still being set up, presumably for the bardic competitions, and some food stalls and tables were present. Though Michael felt their grin slowly drop as they sensed something…powerful. A demonic presence, one distinctly large enough for them to feel it, just by–Oh, no, wait, it’s the hellhound again.
They still huffed in annoyance as they saw said hellhound sitting at a table with the leviathan Ophelia and a group of humans, who all seemed to be watching Naomi. The annoying bard was sitting on a stool and playing a melody on her harp while crooning in an…admittedly lovely voice. Some kind of tale of a princess and a demon falling in love, which felt inappropriate to say the least.
Well, annoyances aside, the group of young adult humans seemed to be Masks’s friends, consisting of a tanned man with curly black hair; a tall, freckled woman with short blue hair; and another tanned man with more narrow features, a mask over his mouth, and a shaved head. They were dressed like adventurers in admittedly well-tailored clothes and simple armor, though the first young man had a sword slung on his back that seemed…oddly familiar–
“Hey Adrien! I brought this cursed elf who needs help!” Mask said, gesturing to Michael, who abruptly realized who they were staring at.
The young man in front of them, looking up curiously from where he’d been listening to Naomi sing, was Adrien Dro, the current chosen hero of the Light Lands.
Otherwise known as the hero whose mentor cut Michael’s hand off.