"Can I join this round?"
In retrospect, my question came out just a bit more sheepishly than I originally intended, but before I could correct my tone, my request was rebuffed with the bluntness of the business end of a war hammer.
"Denied," Judy rebuked me on no uncertain terms, and I couldn't help but groan in disappointment.
"Are you sure we can't let him in?" my second girlfriend edged the first in my favor. "He looks so sad to be left out."
"No," my dear, if at the moment somewhat uncooperative, assistant shook her head as she pointed at me. "This is his punishment. The chief is a cheater, so he will be excluded and has to sit on the sidelines and watch until he mends his ways."
"But I cannot mend my ways, because I didn't cheat!" I objected, though I have to admit, if I was listening to my words, I probably wouldn't have believed myself either. As such, after a brief moment of consideration I quickly amended, "Or rather, I only cheated a tiny little bit."
"Chief, stop digging yourself any deeper and deal already," Judy urged me on. We locked eyes for a moment, but it was a foregone conclusion that I couldn't win against her like this, so I decided to get back at her at some other opportune moment and instead I let out a sigh and began shuffling the pack of cards in front of me.
"I do hope we don't have to sit through listening to that after every round," a certain annoying butler commented on the side, earning him a hearty chuckle from the head of the household.
"Come on, grandpa! Let the kids have their fun!"
Sebastian sent an irritated glance in the direction of Abram and he whispered back in a low, almost threatening voice, "What did I tell you about calling me 'grandpa' in front of guests, lad?"
"Oh please!" the Dracis patriarch dismissed him with a scoff. "We are all one big family, aren't we?"
"Not quite," Lady Emese jabbed at her husband before she took an elegant sip from her fancy crystal champagne glass, and then she used her free hand to point at me first, then at Judy, and finally she said, "While I acknowledge them, these two are not quite part of the family yet."
Now, this might be a bit of a tangent, but I couldn't help but make note of the fact that her glass was filled with coke of all things, and her side of the table was jam-packed with various soft drinks, snacks, and sweets. There was such a huge mountain of them she was almost buried behind it all, but none of the other family members even batted an eye at the sight, so I figured it was her usual modus operandi and I also ignored it until now. But back to the scene at hand: after being rebuked, Papa Dracis immediately doubled down on his previous claim.
"But they almost are, and it's all just a formality at this point anyway!" Abram declared in a boisterous voice before he glanced at me in the company of a broad grin, a gesture I have long since learned to associate with him requesting support. Unfortunately for him, I was too busy shuffling the cards at the moment. Not that it stopped him from pointedly calling out to me in the form of, "Isn't that right, son?"
I gave the man a slightly annoyed look in return, but seeing how hard he was trying to maintain his upbeat grin, I ultimately gave up and answered, "It sure is, father-in-law."
The moment I said that, the middle-aged man's expression shone like that of an especially cheeky kindergartener who just got let loose in the vault housing the national candy reserve.
"You see, dear? Leo is already part of the family, and so is Judy! Isn't that right?"
There was a momentary pause in the discussion as no one seemed to want to answer his rhetorical question, but then thankfully Sebastian intervened by diverting the flow of the conversation with a declaration aimed at me.
"My boy, if you dare to follow the lead of this foolish descendant of mine and attempt to call me something puerile, such as 'great-grandfather-in-law', in a vain attempt to garner endearment, I promise I will remove you from the premises in an instant, most likely through the windows."
"Oh, don't worry, old man," I answered with the finalized v1.0 of my roguish grin. "I can assure you that I would sooner try squeeze rock until delicious russian caravan tea came out of it than to try to endear myself to you!" I scoffed at the mere idea, but since I accidentally reminded myself of something important, I quickly added, "By the way, I enjoyed your tea very much. When can I have another?"
"Everything in moderation, my boy," the incognito dragon told me with an inscrutable and ever so slightly aggravating smirk. "Let's say I invite you for another cup once you find ten more cursed items."
"Oh my, does that mean you scrounged your collection just for me? How nice, I promise I won't break any of th—" I was just about to finish my cordial discussion with the old man when I was stopped on my track by something touching my leg. I glanced down and under the table, only to find Judy's left heel repeatedly tapping against my shin.
I sent my girlfriend a questioning glance, and she responded by flatly telling me, "Stop picking a fight with Sebastian."
It was only then that it dawned on me that this was most likely yet another one of her oddly harmless efforts of inflicting slapstick violence upon me. It was inexplicable, but kind of cute, as usual.
"I am not picking a fight," I denied her baseless accusations and simultaneously sent a glance towards the butler before adding, "We are getting along swimmingly, like a house on fire, aren't we, old man?"
"The proper idiom is getting 'on' like a house on fire, my boy, and as much as I hate to admit, I feel your choice of idioms quite apt in this situation."
"It's the burning part, isn't it?"
"Indeed," the old butler told me with a wistful expression. "It reminds of the good old times; before we first met and I made a small mistake that haunts me to this day."
"Aw, don't be so sentimental, or I might be tempted to call you gramps just to make you stop."
Sebastian gave me a long, exasperated look and then buried his face into his palm and muttered something along the lines of, "I can't decide if that's better or worse than great-grandfather…"
Before I could respond, Elly let out a decidedly girlish giggle by my side, immediately short-circuiting my thought processes. When I directed my attention to her, she looked genuinely surprised by it for a moment, but then she quickly stated, seemingly to herself, "It's nice to see Leo and Sebastian getting along."
"How does that even remotely look like 'getting along' to you?" my assistant asked with incredulity seeping through her usual deadpan demeanor. "Their words were practically seeping with barely disguised sarcasm."
For the record, they weren't. I mean, I can't speak for Sebastian, but I for one never tried to disguise sarcasm. Not that I had to in this case, as we were having a perfectly friendly conversation (by our standards, at least), so I had no idea what Judy was talking about.
"But... They do get along, don't they?" the princess stated just a smidgen less certainty, after which she looked at the butler and asked, "You said you get along too, right?"
The old lizard appeared to be stumped for a good second, but then he forcefully cleared his throat and, through visible effort, he forced a considerably strained smile into his face that obviously didn't reach his eyes.
"It is, without a shadow of a doubt an undeniable fact that our personal relations have definitely improved in the recent past to some degree," Sebastian declared, and after spending a second to untangle his sentence, I tentatively nodded along. I mean, he wasn't wrong per se...
"Could you please just deal already? We don't have all day," the lady of the house grumbled a little as she tapped her fingers on the table, and after one last shuffle, I graciously obliged.
Now, in case it wasn't entirely obvious yet, our little group was playing good ol' Texas hold'em poker inside the Dracis mansion's spacious Poker Room. No, I am not kidding; they literally had a room just for that. It even had a professional-looking round poker table with a green felt top and everything, and the rest of the room was decorated to invoke the look of a certain famous Las Vegas casino... or at the very least that's what Abram told me, and considering I had not been in any casinos before, Las Vegasian or otherwise, I decided to take his word for it. If I had to give a quick description, it was uselessly posh, with way more mahogany wall paneling and crimson velvet highlights than good taste dictated.
To make a long story short, playing poker like this was apparently a long-standing family tradition among the members of the Dracis estate, and Elly insisted that being part of a session is pretty much the ultimate seal of approval we could receive from the family. The whole thing felt a little silly to me, to be honest, but I could imagine worse ways to spend a Saturday afternoon.
There was only one small issue with the game though, namely the fact that I was barred from actually competing by Judy, who completely convinced everyone that I should not be allowed to play, as I was, to paraphrase, 'a terrible, compulsive cheater who refuses to let anyone else win even one round'. It was a gross overstatement, as the last time we played, I can clearly remember her winning at least one. … Or was it a tie?
Either way, because of her lobbying to Lady Emese in particular, I was relegated to the role of permanent bank and dealer. It was a thankless job, but someone had to do it, so in the end I sacrificed myself for the greater good and wore the mantle with pride and honor. Any claims about me being bitter about it are false news spread by disinformation-agents, and should not be trusted.
Anyhow, while I mused about this, I finished dealing the cards to everyone present and declared, "The starting bet is twenty. In the last round, the blinds went full circle, so we are starting from my left again."
The moment I said my piece, Elly and her mother put in the small and big blind bets, as if by reflex, and when they did so, everyone took up their hands.
"I call," Papa Dracis exclaimed with the polar opposite of a poker face, and after he threw in two tokens he continued with, "What were we talking about when the last game ended?"
"I fold," Sebastian decisively threw his cards into the corner before facing Abram and telling him, "I believe you were discussing the success of the 'streaming service', as the boy called it."
At this point it was barely worth a mention, but he naturally used air-quotes when he said that. I used my heroic willpower to stop myself from sending a snide remark his way and instead I acknowledged Judy placing two tokens into the pot.
"You are right, grandpa! Thanks!" I could see the old butler had something on the tip of his tongue, but before he could say anything, Papa Dracis barreled on, forcing him to settle for a defeated sigh. "As I was saying, the website has only been online for two days, and it already made back two-thirds of the initial investment we made for the server park and the staff! If things continue like this, we are going to make a net profit by the end of the week! It is absolutely amazing!"
"To be honest, I am considerably more amazed by how you managed to put all my ideas into practice in such a short time."
Abram let out one of his patented hearty chuckles and told me, "Don't sell yourself short, son! Anyone with enough money and connections could do my part!" I wanted to bring up that those two things were pretty damn significant in and of themselves, but at the end of the day I decided to just take the compliment and let him continue. "Your ideas were the ones that made all of it possible! I could never in a million years come up with things like the subscription model, or the streaming service! Ah, I also raise twenty!" There was a momentary lull in the conversation as everyone matched the bet and I revealed the next card, but then Abram abruptly asked me, "By the way, how did you even think of these ideas?"
My hand paused for a moment and lingered over the newly revealed King of Spades, which made Judy unusually excited for a moment, so I figured she must have had at least a straight. Putting her literal poker face aside, my alleged father-in-law's question was one that I had already spent a lot of time thinking about.
Really, just where exactly my knowledge and expectations for modern technology and conveniences came from? From the moment I awakened into this world on the first day of September, whenever I ran into a brick phone, a VHS tape, or a CRT monitor, I immediately and instinctively considered them old and outdated. That meant that, through some currently unexplained means, I was aware of a certain technological level, which wasn't present at the time I regained (or gained, depending on who you ask) consciousness that morning, and I compared things to it.
Sure, the world, for another entirely unknown reason, quickly developed to meet my expectations, but it still left the original question open: why did I consider the previous tech level outdated, and why do I consider the current one perfectly fine? Where did that initial value judgment and expectation come from? And why was that it all plateaued at a certain tech level instead of going any further towards holographic interfaces and androids, the occasional magitech fembot notwithstanding?
This was but some of the many nagging questions that routinely annoyed the heck out of me but I could never get to the bottom of them, because every single time I would think I could get some breathing room to spend with theory-crafting and experimentation, the world always threw a wrench into my plans. In fact, considering how fairly uneventful my past couple of days have been (apart from the periodic Sentai attacks on Josh and Co. and my evening strolls with Rinne), I had a slowly mounting feeling of apprehension in the pit of my stomach telling me that it's just another calm before the storm; before something annoying was about to happen again. Like an alien invasion. Or a tax collector showing up on my doorstep. Or worse yet, an invasion of alien tax collectors. Brrr...
But putting my Cassandric tendencies aside for a moment, I quickly retracted my hand and told Abram, "It wasn't a new idea, just taking an old idea and applying it to a new consumer demand to reach a modern solution."
The Dracis patriarch looked at me funny for a moment, then he requested, about as sheepishly as I have ever seen him, "Can I use that line on the next shareholder meeting?"
"I don't mind," I replied with a shrug, earning me a toothy grin from our host and an impatient huff from his wife.
"Can we get on with the betting already?"
"Of course, dear," the Dracis patriarch seamlessly moved his smile over to my prospective mother-in-law, only to glance back at the new card on the table and immediately exclaim, "I raise forty!"
"It's not your turn…" I tried to object, only to get completely ignored.
"I call," Judy followed up by throwing her chips onto the pile practically at the same time Abram's landed.
"I fold." Elly decisively discarded her hand, followed by a moment of silence as Lady Emese pondered on her next move.
"I call, and raise another forty," she proclaimed, at last, followed by the clinking of tokens, and now it was Abram's turn to consider his options.
While we waited for him, I noticed that the Lady of the house was subtly eyeing me. Small correction: she didn't actually start just now, but had been doing so since we sat down around the table, but it was around this point that my patience began to dip into the red, so I sent her a questioning gaze and followed it up by an actual question.
"Is there a problem?"
"What makes you ask that?" she asked right back and crossed her arms in front of her ample chest while making sure her hand wouldn't be accidentally revealed in the process.
"I couldn't help but notice that you have been more irritable than usual," I told her straight as an arrow, tact be damned.
"Are you trying to tell me I'm usually irritable?" the lady of the house sent another question my way while her husband pushed a small pile of small denomination tokens into the pot.
"More or less."
It was at this point when I received yet another love-tap under the table, followed by a borderline pouting scolding by my dearest assistant.
"Chief, stop picking a fight with Emese. Also, I call."
"I am not picking a fight," I retorted with a small frown. "I'm just telling the truth. Or are you telling me she isn't high-strung?"
Judy seemed like she wanted to respond to my question, but Emese beat her to the punch after one last glance at her cards.
"I fold. Also, I admit that I might be a little more worried than usual," Mama Dracis told us while still looking at me in particular. "For the record, it would help if someone did something about the people routinely assaulting my daughter."
After a long beat for effect and tentatively pointed a finger at my nose and asked, "Is there something on my face, ma'am?"
"No," Lady Emese huffed. "I'm looking at you because I can distinctly remember you declaring that you had them in the palm of your hand, yet they are still running amok, completely unabated."
"Mom, please stop putting Leo in a corner," the princess sprung to my defense with a pout on her lips. "We all agreed to leave them be for the time being."
"You have?" she inquired, with her question still aimed at me by the looks of it.
"Yes, we have." My confirmation resulted in the lady of the house lowering her brows into a disapproving scowl, so I quickly elaborated, "We are maintaining the status quo for our own ends. If the ambushers become more trouble than they are worth, I already have the means to shut them down with extreme prejudice."
"Then why haven't you done so already?"
"I already told you," I answered, mildly exasperated. "The ambushes are only a minor inconvenience at this point, and our group can gain a bit more combat experience from them."
"Easy for you to say when you are not the one who has to fight them. "
The Dracis matriarch's verbal jab made me pause for a moment as I wondered how she even knew that, but it didn't take a genius to figure it out, so I sent a slightly miffed glance in the direction of my draconic girlfriend. The moment I did so, she immediately sprung to action in my defense, completely oblivious to the intent behind my gaze.
"Mooom! I told you it can't be helped! Leo's been sick in the past couple of days, so he could help us even if he wanted to!"
"You are sick?" came the next question, and it finally managed to unknot the brows on Emese's face.
"Just a little," I confessed. "It's nothing serious, I just overworked myself a bit. I'm still not on top of my game, but I'll live."
"Oh." After that eloquent response, the lady of the household fell silent for a second or five, but then she added, "If you are feeling unwell, should we postpone the..." Her words trailed off into an implicit silence, and I promptly shook my head.
"No need, I'll manage," I reassured her, and this time it was Elly who gave us an odd look.
"What are you two talking about?"
"Don't worry about it princess, you will see in soon enough," I told her with a wink and an enigmatic smile, and lo and behold, against all odds, it actually worked and she let it slide with a fairly neutral 'Oh, okay then' whispered under her breath. As such, I turned back to her mother and told her, "So, just to return to the previous discussion, if our merry band of silly ambushers bother you that much, you are free to intervene."
"We are not. We have already issued an unofficial complaint, but Endymonion didn't move, nor did he explicitly tell us we can take care of things," she scoffed and then added, in a low voice, "There must be some internal politics involved."
"You are more or less correct, I suppose," I agreed and cut the conversation short as I glanced over to the last to players still holding their cards and asked, "Are you done betting?"
"I think so," Abram replied in an unusually tame voice, and Judy nodded with an affirmative grunt on her end. "Okay, so the current pot is..." My voice trailed off as I quickly calculated the value of the chips in the middle, and my brows involuntarily descended in a small frown as I asked, "Did you two throw in half of your funds during the first round of the game? Again?"
Abram only coughed in what I figured was embarrassment, yet Judy simply nodded again, as if this was the most natural way to play the game.
"Okay then," I shrugged and revealed the last card.
"All in!" Judy declared before I even finished flipping the river card, and she simultaneously pushed in all of her tokens.
"I call!" Papa Dracis exclaimed in kind and roughly shoved his pile of chips into the middle. I, for one, spent a second glancing between the two before I exhaled a tired sigh.
"Are you two going to do this in every single game?" They must have thought it was a rhetorical question, as they didn't bother to enlighten me. In the end, I let another grown escape my lungs and easily told them, "Fine. Please reveal your hands."
The words barely even left my mouth when Judy put her cards onto the table and stated, maybe a smidgen smugly, "Straight flush."
"Oh boy," Abram responded as he scratched the base of his neck with his free hand and reluctantly revealed his cards, which were… a pair…
"Did you seriously go all-in on that hand?"
He answered my incredulous question with an embarrassed shrug and by muttering, "I was sure she was bluffing."
"You two have been doing this for three games in a row!" I complained as I pointedly smacked the deck of cards in my hands against the table a couple of times. "How are we going to play together if you two insist on knocking one of you out of the game in the first round every single time?"
There was no answer to my inquiry, so at the end of the day I stopped hitting the edge of the deck against the tabletop and proposed, "How about we take a break?"
"I believe it is an opportune time," Sebastian agreed with me, as planned, so I turned to my other collaborator.
"What do you say, Dormouse?"
My girlfriend gave me a flat look (or at least one that was flatter than usual), and commented, "I hate it that you decided to do this when I was winning."
"Decided to do what? Take a break?" Elly interjected with tiny, invisible question marks circling over her head, so I sent an eye-signal to my other girlfriend and, after some more nudging, she finally rolled her eyes and stood up from the table.
"Don't worry about it; the Chief is just being weird as usual." Saying so, she walked over to the princess's side and began to tug on her blouse. "Let's go out and freshen up a little."
"Erm… okay, we can do that?" After saying that, Elly sent me a questioning look, but instead of saying anything I just gave her my best encouraging smile, and after a few long seconds of hesitation, she ultimately rose from her seat and followed my lovely assistant's lead.
Just before they left the room, Judy turned back for a moment and gave me a look that said, 'You owe me one', as if I requested some kind of back-breaking task from her. Anyhow, I acknowledged her, and once I did, she quickly closed the door behind her. With that part of the so-called plan finished, I let out a pent-up breath and turned to the remaining three people in the room.
"All right, with my girlfriends out of the picture, I would like to officially open the first annual 'What should I gift Elly for her birthday?' brainstorming session.
"Oooooh, so that's what this was all about!" Abram exclaimed as he did that thing where he dramatically dropped his fist into his open palm.
"More or less," I responded with only mildly faked modesty. "I asked Judy ahead of time to distract Elly for a while. Since her birthday is coming up soon, I figured the time was nigh."
"Wait, dear? Did you know about this?" Abram asked his wife, and she nodded without any reservation.
"Yes. Judy told me about how Leonard wanted to discuss something to that effect today."
"What about you, grandpa?"
He turned to the old and at this point fairly drained butler, and he told him, "Yes. The boy and I already discussed the plans for today ahead of time."
"So I was the only one who didn't know?"
He looked a little confused by his exclusion, so I decided to just straight up tell him, "No offense dad-in-law, but we all concluded that you would probably let it slip if we let you in on the secret."
There was a moment of silence, but instead of continued the discussion, Abram only let out a chuckle and declared, "Dad-in-law! I like that!"
This announcement was followed by yet another, this time even longer pause, right until Mama Dracis let out a defeated sigh and turned to me again.
"So you wanted to ask us for advice on what to give her?" she asked me with just a hint of curiosity in her voice, and she was apparently quite surprised when I shook my head.
"No, actually, I already have a gift in mind; I just need your cooperation."
"Oh?" The Dracis matriarch did a perfect single-eyebrow-raise at me and inquired, "What exactly do you need our help with?"
"I'll tell you in a moment," I responded by flashing a toothy grin at her, after which I began to clean up the poker table by moving the chips and the cards out the way. Abram and Sebastian also helped me a little, and in a couple of seconds we freed up the middle. "Okay, this should be good enough," I noted with a satisfied huff. "Sebastian, please take out the plot device."
"The spear, I meant the spear," I stressed, earning me an exasperated grunt from the old man.
"Why you keep refusing to refer to things by their proper names is a mystery I would very much like to solve one day," he grumbled, but then he reached under the table and retrieved a long object wrapped in a white cloth, possibly a simple bed sheet by the looks of it, and he placed it onto the table.
"Is that the…?" Abram mumbled in an uncharacteristically low voice, but his question became redundant the moment Sebastian unwrapped the thing and revealed the plain and intensely eye-straining Spear of Dragonslayicus, or whatever.
"Long story short," I began as a stood up and slowly rounded the table, "I knew that Elly's birthday was coming up soon-ish, but I couldn't think of a good gift. I mean, what can you give to a girl who has it all? But then, due to a recent discovery, I realized there was something after all." By the time I reached the end of my not-at-all awkward speech (which I may or may not written in advance for dramatic effect), I stood in front of the seated Emese. I looked her in the eye and, after taking a deep breath, I softly asked, "Ma'am? May I take a look at your wound?"
"It's smaller than I expected," I mused as I looked at the neat white line on the right side of Emese's lower back, just under the kidneys. At the moment she was standing with the help of her husband, and she looked supremely embarrassed, probably because of the way her pants were pulled down a little so that I could take a good look at her scar while I was crouching behind her.
After observing her already healed wound for a moment, I asked, "Does it still hurt?"
"A little," she told me in a low voice.
"According to the doctors, the injury caused by the spear damaged her pelvis and grazed the sciatic nerve," Sebastian supplied he details, and I hummed as if I had an idea what he was talking about.
"And you actually threw an armored guy across a table with an injury like that?" I asked as I gingerly touched the scar, earning me a hiss that sounded more surprised than pained.
"Adrenaline," she told me just a little bit sheepishly, then added, "At the time I didn't even realize how bad it was. I thought it only hurt so much because I was in my Draconic form, and it was only after the fight was over that I realized I couldn't move my right leg properly."
"Hmm…" I let out a suitably brooding sound as I considered what she just said. "Does that mean that getting stabbed didn't disrupt your transformation?"
"No, it just hurts," she told me curtly.
"So the curse of the spear doesn't directly prohibit transformation," I stated as I stood up. "Does that mean you could transform if you wanted to right now?"
Mama Dracis hurriedly pulled up her pants to cover her skin, and only then did she tell me, "I tried to do that in the past, but when I do, it hurts a lot. Not just the wound, but my whole body feels like it's on fire, down to my bones. It's a thousand times worse than usual."
"Hold on," I halted her explanation with a raised palm. "Please don't tell me you are in constant pain…"
"Not constant," she told me while gesturing for Sebastian to get her wheelchair, but I once again stopped them by shaking my head, so after sending me an annoyed glance the lady of the house dourly stated, "It is nerve damage, and it tends to flare up at the most inopportune of times."
"Then I suppose we best do something about it," I told them with a (hopefully) reassuring smile as I crouched down once more. Abram was just about to make her wife's scar visible again, but I told him, "No need, I can work through the clothes. I just needed to know where exactly the wound was."
After saying that, I took a deep breath and placed my hand on Emese's back. I couldn't see any magical glow around her scar, but that didn't mean there was nothing to be done, so I gently poked the area with my Phantom Limb, aaaaand… there was no reaction whatsoever. That wasn't a good start.
However, it was too early to throw in the towel, so I took a deep breath and reached 'deeper', at least metaphysically speaking, which mainly felt like I was swimming in a river of syrup in a completely black space that tasted like iron and dried coconuts, until I have reached Emese's 'core', so to speak. I forced down the slowly rising sensation of nausea by slowly counting to ten and then I took a closer 'look' at the 'object' I was observing.
The best way to describe it would be to say that it was a giant, multi-layered ball of yarn the size of a family sedan, with each layer composed of thousands upon thousands of small, constantly shifting two-dimensional filaments that simultaneously looped upon themselves and at the same time connected to each other and yet reached into the infinite distance at the same time. In short, it was really trippy.
Now, the last time I attempted to touch the core of something, it resulted in me getting an absolutely terrible headache and a giant cacophony of mugs, so this time I was considerably more cautious in the endeavor.
As such, I steeled my nerves and ever so lightly poked said core, and even that was enough to fill my poor brain with a flash-flood of weird, organic, and decidedly non-Euclidian torrent of information. Maybe it was because I was already a little more familiar with this kind of phenomena due to my previous exposure to this 'space that makes no sense', I managed to keep my calm and cut the connection. For the next couple of subjective minutes, the ever-so-helpful part of my mind that seemed to be at least somewhat familiar with these things organized the information I gleaned from the experience, and while I had no proper words for what I just 'learned', it kind of felt like a piece of some enormous mathematical equation, except with colors instead of numbers and angry koalas instead of symbols. I know that doesn't make a lick of sense, but at this point it would probably make less sense if it did.
Anyhow, this didn't really help me with the task at hand, but I came too far to turn back now, and since there was thankfully no sign of the infernal headache so far, I decided to keep poking the 'core' in front of me until I could find something useful.
As far as my personal perception of time was concerned, I was doing this for a solid hour before I decided to take a break. In that time, I have managed to conclude that the different layers corresponded to stuff like the body, the unconscious mind, memories, history, relationships, current thoughts, and all kinds of other stuff that was constantly cross-referenced between the layers and ultimately formed a coherent whole which was, in this case, a person.
If I had to make an estimate, I would have said that if I wanted to completely map out all the layers of the core, it would have taken me a solid month or more, though I once again had a nagging feeling that I was doing things in an incredibly inefficient way, and if I was doing this 'properly', I could do it all in seconds and then freely turn her into a pterodactyl with a monocle and a top-hat or something. While I found that image somewhat amusing, another part of me was quite vehement about that being an extremely bad idea and one that I shouldn't even consider as a joke, and it was so oddly reasonable I had to wonder if I developed a tiny little Judy in my head.
Jokes aside, once I figured out where I should be searching, I started combing the 'layer' responsible for the body of my patient, so to speak, and once I zeroed in on the target, it didn't take long to find the portion I was looking for. Once I digested that, I decided it was time to take a proper break, as my brain was starting to feel like an overstuffed bookcase with the index missing, so I slowly withdrew my Phantom Limb, and after going through the whole 'swimming in a nauseating syrup-river' thing in reverse, I let out a huge, pent-up breath and almost fell on my ass in the process.
Thankfully I managed to regain my balance in the last second, though not before Sebastian could reach out and support me by my shoulder. Insert a grumble about it being unnecessary and him being thoughtful being creepy, et cetera. Anyhow, once I reoriented myself, I quickly asked, "For the record, how much time has passed?"
Papa Dracis and his hidden ancestor shared a meaningful look between each other and at long last he told me, "If you mean since you put your hand on her back, then about ten seconds."
"Really? That's surprising," I muttered as I shook off the old butler's hand and carefully rose to my feet. This meant that the time-dilation was even more pronounced this time than when I was manipulating enchantments. Speaking of which, I gestured for the man behind me and asked, "Sebastian, could you please give me the spear for a moment? I want to cross-reference something."
To his credit, he didn't bother with asking any silly question, and instead he immediately walked over to the poker table, picked up the spear and came back to my side. I absent-mindedly reached out towards it, only to get my right thumb zapped for my trouble, forcing me to jerk my hand back in the company of a series of stifled curses.
"… with a bloody grapefruit spoon!" I ended my swearing-session while shaking my hand until the feeling returned to it, and only then did I notice that both Abram and Emese were looking at me funny, which was actually fairly understandable. More alarmingly, the old man was giving me a look that said he was actually expecting something like this would happen and he found it really amusing, so I sent him a silent glare in return before I faced the other two and excused myself by saying, "Sorry, but this oversized toothpick really seems to hate me for some reason. Just give me a moment."
After saying so, I reached out once again, this time already prepared for the shock, and I firmly grabbed onto the weapon and took it out of Sebastian's hands, only to then swiftly smack it against the floor a couple of times, startling my hosts in the process. It took a good four whacks to stop the spear from resisting, plus two more, just for good measure, and once it did, I faced Emese again and told her, "Sorry for the intermezzo; let's continue."
"I'm no longer sure this is a good idea," Mama Dracis whispered under her breath as I crouched down again.
"Don't worry, dear. Leonard knows what he is doing… I think…?"
I ignored Abram's anemic efforts of coming to my defense and instead I once more focused on the task at hand. First, I quickly glanced at the magical innards of the spear in my hand, and once I peeled away all the superfluous bits and pieces surrounding the core enchantment, I spent some time memorizing the 'curse' parts of its effects. It took a considerably longer time and much more effort than I originally planned on, as the part of my mind that was inexplicably clued into the workings of my powers (and yet refused to share, the git) kept throwing up red flags at every turn and stopping me from manipulating even the slightest details.
Still, after I felt confident enough, I withdrew from the enchantment and turned to my prospective mother-in-law again, then I warned her, "I am going to try something. I have no idea whether or not it will hurt, so please bear with it for a moment."
She only gave me a determined nod, her mouth set in a thin line as she no doubt clenched her teeth in preparation of whatever I was about to do. I also took a deep breath to focus my attention and dived right back into her metaphysical representation of extra-dimensional non-Euclidian space or something.
Once I reached her core and found the relevant bit, I began to slowly and meticulously comb through her… well, I wanted to say 'data', but that just didn't feel right. Calling them just 'strings' also felt wrong. In the end, I decided on 'records', at least until I found a more apt designation for the phenomena I was reading at the moment. Maybe I should ask Judy later, I mused as I continued to work, only to stop the moment I found something.
"Jackpot," I… well, I didn't say it, because I was disembodied at the moment, yet the word that somehow emanated from me seemed to send waves through the very fabric of the geometrically impossible space I currently occupied. It honestly freaked me out for a moment; I was honestly worried I might have broken something. After waiting for some time for the waves to die down, I let out an implied breath of relief and decided not to do that again any time soon.
Anyhow, back to the thing I found: If I wanted to describe what it was, it was kind of like an imprint the spear's enchantment left on Emese's body. It was not immediately obvious at first glance, but more like how the west coast of Africa and the east coast of South America roughly fit together because they used to be part of the same super-continent.
Putting my analogies aside, I focused my attention on this imprint, and once I isolated it from the rest of the 'records', I attempted to interface with it through the supernatural stratum, only to get shouted at by the back of my own brain, as if I was trying to jump into a bonfire or something.
Okay, so the direct approach didn't work. Apparently, just like the spear itself, this 'wound' was a plot device that I wasn't supposed to touch, and the knowledgeable corner of my mind made it quite obvious that trying to do so was a really, really bad idea. Unfortunately, I already made a promise. Not to mention, I wasn't exactly the well-known for following rules, even if they were rules set by me. As such, I attempted to analyze the curse once again, against my own judgment, because I decided so, even though I really didn't want me to do it. Man, I was confusing…
After doing a lot of skirting and non-intrusive probing, and using the other half of the enchantment from the spear as a reference, I managed to put together a rudimentary 'map' of the curse. Or rather, it was more like a diagram? Like one of those wiring ones… or maybe like a circuit board? I could probably spend an hour trying to describe this confusing thing and still couldn't make it sound like it made sense, so let's move on to the meaty part of the discovery: the curse was actually really rudimentary in its execution.
Its goal of disabling the Draconic transformation was really obvious even from a single glance, however, for some absolutely baffling reason, it didn't actually inhibit the actual process of the physical changes, but instead it overwhelmed the nervous system with pain signals to stop the victim from completing the transformation. I had no idea why that was the case, and I even wasted some time with checking if maybe it was impossible to do it the 'obvious' way, yet no matter how I looked at it, disabling the physical shape-shifting was in no way more difficult than the option they ultimately went with. Now granted, whoever enchanted this weapon probably didn't have access to the supernatural stratum the way I did, but it was still a pretty circumspect way to achieve the same goal.
Furthermore, the longer I looked into it, the more baffled I was by the 'imprint'. It also inhibited any healing relying on 'the essence of the dragon' (there was that oddly specific tag again…), but what was the point of doing so when the victim couldn't transform in the first place? Not only that, it had an entire set of anti-tampering and security measures interwoven into the entire imprint, none of which actually tied into any other parts that would lead to adverse effects upon breaking them. It was like as if someone installed a state of the art security system in their house, but didn't link it to any alarms or the police. It was downright nonsensical.
In fact, looking at the curse as a whole, it reminded me of a single term: 'spaghetti-code'. It is a programming term for convoluted source-codes where, usually due to multiple iterations of the code being built on top of each other, the end product ends up a tangled mess. What I was looking at felt pretty much the same; as if someone took some already existing enchantments and effects, smashed them together, and once they confirmed that it worked they moved on without trimming off the unneeded parts or checking for errors… And that gave me an idea.
Once I had that, I immediately jumped back into the work without any further ado and began to further analyze the 'wiring diagram' in front of me. My goal was simple, yet really difficult at the same time: breaking the curse would have been fairly easy, and it wouldn't have caused any side effects due to the disconnected safety seals, yet doing so was something that at this point I knew was a bad idea as firmly as I was sure the sun was rising on the east. However, just like with the spear, my aversion to manipulating it only applied to doing so with my Phantom Limb, not by other means. What other means I had at my disposal, you may ask? To put it bluntly, I was planning on simulating the supernatural equivalent of a system-crash by subtly tweaking things in a way so it would look like the curse collapsed on itself due to terrible 'coding'.
Of course this was infinitely easier said than done, but I absolutely relished the challenge, and the more absorbed I became in the process, the more I felt in sync with the part of me that seemed to have some form of knowledge about these things, and before I knew it, I actually managed to find a couple of 'strings' that looked perfect for the job. I double-checked everything, just to be sure, then triple-checked my double-checks to be extra sure, and only then did I carefully extended my ethereal appendage and slowly, ever so slowly, tied together a few of them, all the while on the lookout for any changes or red flags popping up somewhere.
The whole process felt like it took ages, even with the apparent time-dilation, but once I was done and did a quadruple-check, just to be on the safe side, I pretended to sigh a breath of relief and slowly withdrew from the meta-space I was in, and I once again nearly fell on my butt in the process.
More alarmingly, when I regained my wits I noticed that I was drenched in sweat and my hands were slightly trembling.
"Well, this doesn't seem good," I muttered as I was subsequently hit by a rush of nausea and nearly fell backward, my involuntary tumble once again stopped by the intervention of Sebastian.
"What happened? Are you all right?" At the moment Abram seemed to be torn between supporting her wife or coming to my aid, so I raised a hand to halt him and forced a smile on my face to show him I was okay. It apparently didn't work, as he only looked even more concerned, so I quickly cleared my throat and, with the unsolicited yet not entirely unwelcome help of Sebastian I successfully rose to my feet.
"I think I overdid it a little bit. Don't worry; I should be back to normal in a moment or five." My slightly shaky words still didn't seem to completely persuade them, so I decided to quickly change the topic by turning to Lady Emese and asking, "More importantly, are you all right?"
"I'm… fine, I think," she muttered while looking at me like I was a ghost or something, but then she tried to completely turn around, only to let out a low hiss.
"Before you move around any more," I halted her with a raised (if slightly trembling finger), "First try to transform."
She was confused for a moment, but after some more wordless urging using my patented brand of eyebrow-wriggling, she hesitantly took a deep breath while still supported by Abram. That soon changed as her whole body abruptly shuddered and, with a surprised gasp, she took half a step forward, accompanied by a series of ripping sounds as her clothes couldn’t handle the physical changes of her transformation, and I swear to god, I nearly got my eye poked out by a button flying off her outfit.
After a short yet long second, the previously pale and somewhat frail-looking lady completely disappeared. In her place stood a tall, fit woman with a full set of horns adorning her head and a long, muscular tail trailing behind her, and as she straightened herself, a pair of large, leathery wings sprouted from her back, completing the Draconic look… and nearly knocking down the ceiling lamp in the process.
Mama Dracis let out a surprisingly girlish yelp and pulled her wing back, but in her hurry she managed to whack her husband right in the face with her other one. Then, in a spectacular demonstration of slapstick chain-reaction, Papa Dracis fell back and into one of the chairs, which then immediately buckled over backwards and he landed with a meaty thud.
For lack of anyone else, I sent a deadpan glance at Sebastian, and the old man's expression perfectly mirrored mine. Sometimes the oddest of things could make the strangest bedfellows, I supposed.
In the meantime Emese regained her balance and finally noticed what happened, and she immediately rushed over to her husband's side, seemingly without any thinking.
"Ah, Darling! I'm so sorry, I didn't think I… I…" She came to a stuttering pause as she looked down at her own two legs, and after glancing at the man still lying on the floor, she muttered, "I can… walk?"
"You can walk!" Abram immediately repeated after her as he jumped to his feet and grabbed his wife by the hips. "Are you all right? Does it hurt anywhere?"
"I'm… I'm all right!" she beamed at her confused husband and suddenly hugged him with all her might. "Nothing hurts! Absolutely nothing!"
Then she laughed. It was a burst of pure, clear laughter, like spring water bubbling up from under layers and layers of silt, determined to wash them all away, and it was answered by a series of relieved chuckles from the man hugging her with all his might. Emotions were running high in the room, and I would have been lying if I said I wasn't a little touched, but at the moment I still had to deal with the aftermath of my actions, so I gestured for the butler to take the spear from me. He did so without a word, and once my hands were free, I quickly grabbed hold of one of the chairs in the room and sat down before my legs could've decided they supported me for long enough already.
Once I took a seat I immediately took several long, deep breaths, and successfully managed to get both the feeling of nausea and the trembling under control. While I did that, Sebastian looked over me with considerable interest (and maybe just a hint of concern) in his eyes, and he only spoke up when he deemed I was not going to die on the spot.
"May I ask how you did that?" he asked me while using his head to gesture towards the elated couple, who in the meantime have moved on to kissing each other in relief. I saw no harm in explaining things to him, so I said:
"In short, I have short-circuited the part of the curse that makes the Draconic transformation hurt. The rest of it is unfortunately still intact, but I figured being able to walk on her own two legs was the most important part to accomplish first, so I decided to go for that."
"So she is not fully healed?"
"Unfortunately no, but I'd say if she kept transforming back and forth a couple of times every day, it would soon wear the curse down to the point where her injuries should start healing."
"I suppose. Sadly I have no idea of the time-scale, and I am too exhausted to check, but hopefully she shouldn't need her wheelchair anymore by the time Elly's birthday rolls around."
I blinked in surprise as a new voice entered the fray, and I glanced over to the source. There, I found the princess frozen in the doorway, her eyes as wide as saucers as she was looking at the scene in front of her. Once the enthusiastic lovebirds realized their daughter was in the room, they quickly untangled themselves, and when that allowed Elly to take a better look at her mother, she let out a shocked gasp and she much less walked than leaped over to her side.
"Mom! You are… What happened!?"
While the two were reunited, in a certain sense of the word, my dearest assistant also made her way into the room and made her way over to me. Once she got into earshot, I sent her a rueful glance and told her, "You had one job, Dormouse. One, single, job."
"It couldn't be helped," she answered with just a hint of sulkiness in her voice. "How was I supposed to stop her coming in when you made such a ruckus?" I wanted to tell her that she should have improvised or something, but before I could do so she suddenly leaned closer to me. "Chief, you are pale as a sheet. What happened?"
"The usual," I told her with a disinterested shrug. "More importantly, we should—"
I got exactly that far when my dodging senses suddenly flared up and tried to have me dive out of the way. As it would happen, I wasn't exactly in the right shape to do that, so instead I had to take the full brunt of a blonde comet colliding with my chest in a flying tackle, nearly blowing me off the chair if not for Judy's support. Once the stars finally stopped circling around in my vision, I glanced down and, unsurprisingly, I found the Princess giving me an enormous, ribcage-cracking bearhug.
"Thank you, Leo. Thank you…" she whispered to me between sniffles.
I glanced over at her parents, then at Judy at my side, and I ultimately tussled her hair and bit and told her, "Happy birthday in advance, I suppose."
My words only seemed to crack the dam open even wider, as she went from sniffles to outright sobbing and she squeezed my chest even harder. It was actually hurting quite a bit, so I quickly sent a pleading glance at her parents. Regrettably, probably because of their emotional state at the moment, they completely misunderstood my intent, and instead of helping me with my predicament, Lady Emese walked over, lowered herself to one knee by my side, and proceeded to hug the both of us at the same time.
"Thank you. I am forever in your debt," she told me, her expression telling me that she was also just a hair's breadth away from breaking out into sniffles.
"You are… welcome…" I squeezed out the words, and was just about to request that maybe, if possible, she could stop the situation escalating any further, but then all of a sudden we were all trapped in an even bigger hug, as Abram sneaked up behind me (which wasn't a small feat, considering the man's size) and he swept all of us up in his arms, which incidentally also included Judy.
With that, there was only one person in the room I could turn to, as insane as the thought might have sounded, yet when I peeked at him between the arms and heads the composed the ball of bodies that currently encased me, Sebastian only gave me an odd look. Then, after locking gazes with him for several seconds, he let out a sigh, rolled his eyes, and then said, "If you insist…"
Then he walked over and joined the group hug by holding onto Papa and Mama Dracis.
Damn it old man, that wasn't why I was looking at you!
By this point the emotions in the room have once again reached their boiling point, with both Elly and Emese bawling their eyes out, Abram laughing like madman and Judy… well, she was mostly just snuggling up to me like a well-fed cat. And then there was I, trapped in the middle of all of this and feeling… well, not too horrible, considering the situation. In fact, in some ways it was surprisingly cozy. It was different than when I cuddled with Judy and Elly, and it felt, for lack of a better word, wholesome.
I could do with slightly less snot on my shirt though, but then again, no family is perfect. Mine was at least unique…
"… and that's why I literally can't go around patrolling with you today," I explained in a low, neutral voice, just like how you would describe something to a child, and just as expected, Mountain Girl let out a disappointed huff.
"Then how are we to track down and slay the horrid creatures of the…?"
"Please, stop," I pleaded to her with my palms raised. "It's cold out here, I'm having a migraine, and I just want to go home. I promise I will hunt with you once I feel better, so just let it go this one time, okay?"
I kid you not, she actually puffed up her cheeks like she was a chipmunk. I admit that, if Judy, Elly, or even Snowy was doing the same, I would have probably found it super-adorable, but since it was our resident annoying monster-huntress, I could only groan in response.
At last, after spending nearly half a minute staring at me in silence, she let her shoulders droop a little and she told me, "Very well. I shall go and scour the rotten underbelly of the city for the trails and tracks of the vile fiends of the underworld! All alone!" After saying her piece, she dramatically turned on her heel and took a few steps away from me, only to stop, turn back, and declare in a sulky voice, "I am going to unearth the greater fiend, and then I massacre it, and then I drench the streets with its lifeblood, and you are going to miss it, and you are going to be sorry!"
"Um… Good luck?"
"Onikiri wants you to know that you are the worst and a prepubescent penis."
"A prepubescent what now?" I muttered in response to her unusual insult, but instead of answering me, she let out another huff and dashed away, leaving me all alone in the park. For a moment I couldn't decide if I should shake my head or let out a groan, but in the end I decided on not wasting my time on either of those options and instead I quickly made my way over to the closest (and inexplicably clean) public toilet, hid myself in one of the stalls, and quickly Phased back home.
"Welcome back!" I was immediately greeted by Snowy as I appeared in the living room. I still remembered how she would freak out every time I appeared in front of her, but by this point she seemed to be totally used to it. Humans (or in this case, Abyssals) are really adaptable creatures, I supposed.
Anyhow, she quickly bounced over to my side and helped me slip out of my coat, and I belatedly realized that this time she wasn't wearing her maid outfit. Instead she was sporting a pretty stylish ensemble including a puffy white blouse, a black skirt, stockings, and even some simple jewelry in the form of a bracelet and a thin silver necklace. I was actually a little baffled by that for a moment, but then my poor, over-exerted brain finally managed to connect the dots and I remembered that she told me in the morning that she was invited over to Angie's place for a movie-night and a sleepover.
I checked the clock, and it was a little before six in the evening, so I told her, "Shouldn't you get going soon?"
"I already called a cab," she answered in an upbeat voice as she left the room with my coat in hand, and when she returned empty-handed she added, "It should be here soon."
"Good," I said with a nod. "You know the rules, right?"
My sister gave me a determined expression and told me, while counting on her fingers, "Be a good guest, be respectful to her parents, don't do anything Judy would be mad about, and… um…"
She seemed to forget the most important part, so I gently patted the top of her head and said, "… and have fun."
"Right, that's the one," she murmured with a smile, and I couldn't help but tousle her hair even harder for a moment.
"Awawa! Don't! You are going to make my hair all ruffled!" I stifled a chuckle and stopped messing with her hair, just in time to hear the horns of a car from the driveway, which immediately perked her up. "My cab is here!"
"Nice timing," I said as a used my now free hand to rub my chin. "What would have happened if I came home a little later though?"
"I would have waited for you, obviously," Snowy told me with a twinkle in her eyes as she headed to the entryway. I followed after her and watched as she put on her boots and her coat in record time, then, after making sure she got everything, she beamed at me and gave me a small wave. "I'm off!"
"Have fun." I waved back, and five seconds later she was already in the cab.
The moment she left, I let out a groan worthy of the history books as my shoulders involuntarily drooped. I didn't want to make her worry, so I toughed it out in front of her, but I was already feeling worse than at the time when I over-exerted myself with the enchantments. I didn't know if it was because mucking with the curse and the core and what have you the way I did was just that much more exhausting, or because I haven't fully recovered from the previous stunt, but either way, at the moment I felt sick and tired like a three-legged workhorse.
Since there was nothing to do in the entryway, I went back into the living room and contemplated the idea of just sitting down on my comfy chair and putting my brain on standby mode. It was a tempting idea, but not a particularly productive one, so I shook it off and forced my legs to carry me up the stairs and into my room.
When I arrived, I immediately fell onto my bed and spread out on my back. It made me feel just a tiny bit better, though even that was a small mercy. Serves me right for trying to do something nice for someone else, huh?
Oh, who am I kidding? No matter how I sliced things, I had to admit that I was a little proud of myself. Maybe not even just a 'little'. I mean, I was sick as a dog because of it at the moment, but I did more or less cure my girlfriend's mother of a debilitating curse. That probably earned me a ton of brownie points, and Emese's attitude became noticeably warmer towards me... maybe even a bit too much to be honest. I couldn't help but wonder; were all draconians this emotional, or was it just this family in particular?
I didn't dwell on the question for long, as it was obviously a moot one, considering that my sample size of 'draconian families' was exactly one. Speaking of sample sizes, I forced my body into a sitting position, and after taking a few slow breaths I dragged myself over to my PC.
To be perfectly honest, I really wasn't in the mood to take notes at the moment, but I figured doing so was as good as any other method for taking my mind off the fact that I was sick as a politician allergic to dishonesty. As such I turned on the machine, limbered up my fingers a little, and once the desktop loaded in, I opened up the usual files and browser tabs.
When I paused for a brief moment while I considered where I should start, my attention was grabbed by the public chat room of the hub flashing with a series of notifications. I am not going to lie, I was a little apprehensive of joining in, but the more I thought about it, the more tempting the button looked in my eyes. I mean, when it came to these guys, it was about as likely to find something amusing as it was too run into an absolutely brain-numbing discussion, but after the poker-party this afternoon, I was still in the mood for a bit of gambling, so I ultimately pressed the button, and it opened up a new window with lines upon lines of text already in the logs.
"Morosemoose: Hello, Admin."
"Morosemoose: It's been a while."
The <Admin joined the room> notification barely showed up, yet I was immediately greeted by Moose. I reflexively wrote 'good evening', but then I remembered my cover story and quickly corrected myself.
"Admin: Good day, and yes, it's been a while."
"Admin: Where have you been?"
"Morosemoose: Mostly work. It's been a busy week in the office."
"Admin: I can imagine, though I don't really want to."
"W1NG3D N1NJ4: HEY, IT'S ADMIN! HI!! (￣▽￣)ノ"
"Admin: Hello. I should have known you would be online as well."
"W1NG3D N1NJ4: I HAVE A LOT OF FREE TIME BEFORE THE EXAM PERIOD STARTS! (─‿‿─)"
"W1NG3D N1NJ4: MORE IMPORTANTLY! ADMIIIIIN!!! (☆ω☆)"
I waited for a few seconds, as I was under the impression that he had something else to say, but when there was only radio silence, I decided to respond first.
"W1NG3D N1NJ4: I THOUGHT ABOUT THE MEANING OF LIFE, THE UNIVERSE, AND EVERYTHING, AND DECIDED TO BELIEVE IN THE POWER OF LOVE!!!! (≧◡≦) ♡"
"Morosemoose: ... I think you lost me there. What exactly are you two talking about?"
"Admin: Ninja has a crush, but she has a scary grandfather."
"Morosemoose: I'm still lost, I'm afraid..."
"Admin: Don't worry, it's nothing important."
"W1NG3D N1NJ4: HOW CAN YOU SAY THAT?!?! ( : ౦ ‸ ౦ : )"
"W1NG3D N1NJ4: I'M SUPER-DUPER SERIOUS, YOU KNOW!?!? (>_<)"
"W1NG3D N1NJ4: I DON'T CARE ABOUT WHAT SOCIETY THINKS, EVEN IF IT'S A FORBIDDEN LOVE!!! I'M LIKE A MODERN DAY ROMEO!!! ♡＼(￣▽￣)／♡"
"Morosemoose: You know that the play ended with both Romeo and Juliet dying, right?"
"W1NG3D N1NJ4: ARGH!!!"
"W1NG3D N1NJ4: WHY ARE YOU GUYS SO MEAN?!?! (＃`Д´)"
"Admin: We are just teasing you."
"Morosemoose: That's right. I mean, putting the drama aside, just how forbidden can this love be?"
"Admin: He's crushing on the Critias Arch-mage's granddaughter."
"Morosemoose: Well then, it was nice knowing you. I will make sure to send some flowers for your funeral."
"W1NG3D N1NJ4: *SOB-SOB* o(〒﹏〒)o"
"Admin: How about we put teasing ninja aside for a moment?"
"Admin: What were you guys chatting about before I logged in?"
"Morosemoose: Can't you just scroll up and see it for yourself?"
"Morosemoose: Fair enough."
"Morosemoose: I was just giving a warning to ninja."
"Admin: A warning about what?"
"W1NG3D N1NJ4: AAAAAA!!! THAT'S RIGHT!!! THE KNIGHTS ARE COMING!!! (((＞＜)))"
That gave me a long pause, but then I quickly typed in:
"Admin: Can I get a slightly less dramatic explanation, please?"
"Morosemoose: I'll do it."
"Morosemoose: You asked me to keep an eye out for any suspicious movements in regard to the Oathbreakers."
"Morosemoose: In the last couple of weeks, there have been a number of attacks on their strongholds in Europe and in the East."
"Morosemoose: Both sides only suffered minor casualties, yet all of their cells had gone underground."
"Morosemoose: The last report before they went dark said that they would be moving their forces to Critias for some kind of operation."
"Morosemoose: Since I knew ninja lived on the island, I told him to be careful."
"W1NG3D N1NJ4: DON'T WORRY ABOUT ME! THEY MUST BE AFTER THE SCARY DRAGON PEOPLE IN THE CAPITAL!!"
"Morosemoose: Do you have anyone you are not afraid of?"
"W1NG3D N1NJ4: HEY! SCARY THINGS ARE SCARY!! ＼(º □ º l|l)/ "
"Admin: That's a little unexpected. Are we sure they are moving in on the Dracis family?"
"Morosemoose: Can't say for sure, but it's the most conservative assumption we can make based on the little information we have."
"W1NG3D N1NJ4: YEAH!! THOSE GUYS HAVE A HATE BONER THE SIZE OF A QUANTUM LEAP AGAINST THE DRAGON GUYS!!! (￢_￢)"
"Morosemoose: A quantum leap is actually really tiny."
"W1NG3D N1NJ4: STOP NITPICKING, MOOSE!! YOU ARE MAKING ME LOOK BAD IN FRONT OF THE BOSS MAN!!1! (＃`Д´)"
"Admin: Please stop fighting, you two. This could be serious."
"Admin: Critias is already a powder keg. Throwing the Oathbreakers into that might lead to an incident that will make Cardhouse look like small potatoes in comparison."
"W1NG3D N1NJ4: GOT IT, BOSS MAN! I WILL BE TOTES SERIOUS NOW!!! (☆ω☆)"
"Admin: In that case, can I rely on you to gather intel on-site?"
"W1NG3D N1NJ4: DO I HAVE TO??? (￣︿￣)"
"W1NG3D N1NJ4: NO, WAIT!! I COULD TOTALLY ASK THE INFO BROKER FOR THAT! THIS MIGHT WORK OUT GREAT! (❤ω❤)"
"Morosemoose: How so?"
"Admin: He probably wants to have an excuse to stay in contact with him."
"Admin: So that he would have more chances to meet with his crush."
"Morosemoose: ... Is ninja crushing on the information broker?"
"W1NG3D N1NJ4: NOOO!! STOP TEASING ME!! ( ` ω ´ )"
"Morosemoose: We will stop when it stops being funny."
"Admin: On a more serious note, I would prefer if you didn't rely on the chimera slayer too much."
"Morosemoose: The chimera slayer of Critias is your informant? I thought you were allergic to scary people."
"W1NG3D N1NJ4: HE'S NOT SCARY!!... WELL, MAYBE A LITTLE, BUT HE IS ALSO REALLY COOL, AND HE HAS THESE COOL PIERCING EYES AND HE IS ALSO REALLY COOL!!"
"Morosemoose: ... Are you sure you are not crushing on him?"
"W1NG3D N1NJ4: MOOOOOOOOSE!!1!!ONE! (＃`Д´)"
"W1NG3D N1NJ4: JUST YOU WAIT! ON THE DAY OF NEXT OFFLINE MEETING, I'M TOTALLY GOING TO KICK YOUR ASS!! (＃`Д´)"
"W1NG3D N1NJ4: I KNOW KUNG FU AND STUFF!!! (＃`Д´)"
"Morosemoose: If I had boots, I would be quaking in them right now."
I really wanted to ask how (and why) these alleged elite Celestial field agents were having offline meetings, but considering what I recently learned about the knights, I figured this question was be so low on my priority list it should be right next to dinosaur bones.
"Admin: Moose, where can I find the reports about the recent developments involving the Oathbreakers?"
"Morosemoose: I'll send the list over in a PM later."
"Admin: Good man."
"Admin: As for you, ninja, I want you to keep an ear out and write regular reports."
"Admin: Also, I'm going to send a circular to all the assets on Critias and tell them to forward their reports to you for screening."
"W1NG3D N1NJ4: HOLD ON!!"
"W1NG3D N1NJ4: DOES THAT MEAN THAT I'M PROMOTED TO FIELD SUPERVISOR?!? (*°▽°*)"
"Admin: Informally. Do it well, and I will put in a couple of good words for you and we'll make it official."
"W1NG3D N1NJ4: YAAAAAAY!!! I LOVE YOU, BOSS MAN!!! YOU ARE THE BEST!! ＼(≧▽≦)／"
"Morosemoose: So now you are crushing on Admin? How fickle of you."
"W1NG3D N1NJ4: MOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOSE!!!!!! ٩(╬ʘ益ʘ╬)۶"
It was at this point that I decided to leave the bickering duo to their own devices and instead I minimized the tab and leaned back in my seat. Once I felt suitably collected, I reached out to my phone and the desk and dialed my assistant.
"Hi Chief. Do you feel any better?"
"Thank you for the question, but my malaise the least of our problems at the moment."
"Did something happen?"
"Not yet," I stated, after which I shared with her the short version of what I just learned from the Hubbites. She listened to my explanation until the end, without a word, and as the finisher I asked her, "What's your opinion?"
"It sounds like foreshadowing."
I let a tired groan escape my lips and reiterated my previous question, because apparently I wasn't clear enough the first time.
"I didn't ask in narrative terms, but whether we should warn Abram ahead of time."
"No, you asked for my opinion," she retorted with a huff. "I gave you that."
"... Okay, then let's hear that first, and then I would like to hear your advice on the second question."
"Certainly," she told me a smidgen smugly before she immediately adopted her usual, dry mannerism and expounded, "I believe that your interference with the Sentai arc caused the narrative to start the next arc early."
"Don't you mean 'our' interference?"
"You were the one who insisted on avoiding the genre shift, you were the one who undermined Robatto, and you were the one who magically hacked the transformation devices," Judy countered in rapid succession, then after a self-satisfied huff she finished with, "As such, I wash my hands of this whole affair."
"You can't really. You are my assistant, so you are liable for any unforeseen consequences caused by our actions as much as I am. It says so in our contract."
"The one where you agreed to all that. Did you think employment at our company was all sandwiches and no responsibility?"
"I don't like that. Can we change the contract?"
"Sure. Do you have the funds to pay back all the sandwiches you earned so far, with interest, plus the contract breach penalty and the legal fees?"
"Why would I have to? I never heard of any of this."
"In that case, my young lady, you should learn to read the fine print at the bottom. Insert villainous laughter here."
"Oh, the humanity. Woe is me. My current level of distress is at least three standard deviations away from normal."
"Insert continued villainous laughter here."
"… On second thought, can I pay you in kisses?"
"What is the current exchange rate on those?"
"I have no idea."
"Then come up to my office tomorrow, and we will discuss the terms."
"Okay." There were several long seconds of silence on the line, and then she told me, in her normal voice, "If you can joke around like this, I guess you must feel a little better."
"Oh, that? Nah, I still feel so deep under the weather I should be inside the Earth's crust. It's just that talking to you and hearing your voice makes me a little happy, and it helps me to ignore it."
Another short bout of radio silence ensued, and then my assistant softly told me, "That was unusually sweet of you. I'll take it."
"You are welcome," I answered as I couldn't help grinning, even though it was pointless to do so on the phone. With that, I considered our tangent over, so I cleared my throat and asked, "Seriously though, what do you think we should do with the info about the knights?"
"If you ask me, you should—"
It was right at this moment that I suddenly picked up a strange, unfamiliar sound. It was kind of like marching band music or an anthem of some sort.
"Ooookay, this is weird. I have to put it down, Dormouse. I'll call you back."
I didn't wait for her answer; instead I quickly cut the call and rose to my unsteady feet in search of the source of the sound. I didn't have to look for long, as I quickly found it in the form of the old brick phone on the shelf at the back of my room. After I changed phones and carriers, I held onto the old one and kept it charged, just in case my theoretical parents or the like attempted to contact me. Which was apparently happening just now.
Odd and slightly disconcerting as it was, I still reached out towards the device, undid the simple key-lock, and checked the caller-ID. Surprise-surprise, it belonged to the only unknown number in my old contact list, and the one I cheekily renamed to 'Mystery Number X' on the very first day. I had attempted to call it a couple of times in the past, but I always got the stock 'The number you are attempting to call is not in service' automated reply, so it more or less completely slipped my mind as of late.
I had a feeling that this call was fairly significant, so I took a deep breath in preparation and then pushed the little green button and raised the phone to my ear.
There was a momentary buzz on the line, followed by silence, but just as I was about to call out again, there was a soft sound on the other side followed by the voice of a man, as deep as the Mariana trench and huskier than an entire dog-sled combined.
"The time has come, brother."
He only said that single, insanely foreboding line, and then he immediately cut the line. I blinked in surprise as I slowly pulled the phone away from my face, and then I whispered, with all the eloquence I could muster at the time:
"Well… fuck me that was ominous..."