Iona woke up on a cart, rattling around.
“Hey you! You’re finally awake!” An all-too-cheerful cat beastkin man said, with a voice like sharp, rusty nails in Iona’s ears. His voice instantly gave Iona a headache.
“You were amazing! Like the Valkyries in stories! I’ve started to write one about you!” He continued on, the words like the screaming of a tortured cat, digging into Iona’s head and upgrading her headache.
Iona would pay any amount of money to hear him shut up.
“I was kinda nervous, you were touch and go for a while there. Fortunately, my skill worked!” He said, and Iona’s eyes snapped open.
She could hear again! The entire fight being in utter silence had been a strange experience, and the man’s – healer’s? – voice wasn’t nearly so irritating, as memories came flooding back.
With a thought, Iona had her Mallium armor withdraw, back into a neat little bundle on her back. The volume remained the same, just the location differed.
Iona could tell by the weight that she’d lost a small chunk of it, and Mallium wasn’t cheap. Every gram was precious.
She sat up, and got her bearings.
She was in a cart, pulled along by a pair of cows – thanks to the pirate’s pen – and there was a whole convoy of people walking along the road. Iona recognized a few faces here and there, and started to put the picture together, along with the bard’s Rory’s help.
Being able to peek at names was awesome.
The slaves had broken free, and finished off a few pirate stragglers with a vengeance. Some had watched the end of Iona’s fight with the pirate captain, and rushed over to help. Rory was a bard, and had a weak healing skill, which he’d used on Iona. Clearly, it had worked well enough for Iona to wake up again. The former slaves had organized, looted the remainder of the town to the bone, and were now walking to the nearest town.
Iona wondered if anyone had dived to the wreck, and tried to get at the treasure. It wasn’t a deep dive, and from how much mana Alfie had pulled, it had to be loaded.
“Thank you.” Iona said, after getting a few coughs out. She could’ve kissed him, if his voice wasn’t so annoying.
“No worries!” Rory said, plucking a few strings of his lute.
Iona eyed it warily. How on Pallos had he managed to get a fully functional lute so fast?
Was he secretly a pirate who was turning coat as fast as possible? Or did the pirates like their entertainment, and their entertainment needed an instrument?
Iona took a quick moment to compose a prayer to Selene and Lunaris, while Rory was nattering on about something. How one slave had organized them all, etc. etc.
Lunaris. Selene. I survived! Smashed the pirates into pieces. They shouldn’t be bothering people too much anymore. The shark escaped though, and it wouldn’t surprise me if in a few years it’s a problem again. Oh well.
I’m off to see Julie! Or get a new squire. We’ll see!
“A song!” Rory declared, and a number of former slaves shuffled in closer, to better hear him. “Dedicated to our savior, The Dusk Valkyrie! I’m sure you’d like to hear it! Right?” He asked.
Bad bards, and songs on the spot. Iona didn’t know which was worse.
“Hang on, hang on.” Iona said, raising her hands. “Why not something more classic to warm us up? How about a song from The Bard?” She asked, plaintively, hopefully.
Anything to not hear about herself in bad song form. Iona almost wished Rory had left her deaf.
“A song from The Bard! Greatest of us all, songs passed down through untold millennia! Heroic in word, grand in stature! Yes! I will start with the song rumored to be The Bard’s favorite!” He said, starting to strum his lute at speed.
“Rage! Sing, Goddess, of Artemis’s rage!...”
Rory’s singing voice was as good as his speaking voice was bad. Iona leaned back, and let the music wash over her.
Iona kept a careful eye out as they continued to travel. The Valkyries didn’t really openly recruit, not in the way Iona thought they did. No, they waited for girls to do what Iona did – approach a Valkyrie and ask. A few minor hurdles, arranged by the individual Valkyrie, and boom! That was how they got new squires.
And while Iona was nice, polite, and paid extra attention to potential candidates – none of them seemed interested in becoming a Valkyrie. Oh, they hung onto her every word, hero-worship in their eyes, but asking to be one? They couldn’t imagine it, even with Iona’s gentle nudgings.
“I was talking with some of the travelers, one Thofur Krelur the 525th, and he had news. Wanna hear it?” Rory asked her, and Iona was surprised at just how awful his speaking voice was.
“Yeah sure!” Iona asked, wanting to know more.
“A healer in The Great Tang is past 256!” Rory practically exploded as he shared the news, licking his lips nervously. His ears were twitching in excitement though. “Oathbound to boot. Rumors have it that she can create Immortals!” He said, tail swishing at the thought.
Iona let out a fake-groan.
“Don’t tell me. It’s war?” She said.
“Yeah! Think of all the stories! Aerie already declared war, Nime is crawling out of their hole and also declared war!”
“Poor healer is going to get assassinated.” Iona said, frowning at the thought. “Nobody can allow an Immortal who bestows Immortality to live.”
Ugh. This is why Iona hated Immortals. One – just one – showed up, and three countries were at war. Thousands would die in fighting, and tens of thousands more would be a casualty of the war. Rolland shared a border with The Great Tang and Aerie, and would get dragged in as well, just for the chance to capture or kill the healer. If they couldn’t have her, nobody could.
Of course, the thinking was short-sighted. If Rolland somehow got ahold of the healer, all of Roland’s neighbors would declare war. It was a giant game of “pass the buck”, and it would continue until someone slipped a knife between the healer’s ribs.
Well. Given that it was a healer, slipped many, many knives into her.
“Wonder if more Immortals will show up, and try to rescue her.” Rory mused. “They do tend to stick together. Could be an elf. Oh! Or even one of the legendary vampires!” Rory said, dreaming of meeting one.
“Vampires almost never leave their country.” Iona pointed out. “You’d need to travel to the Exterreri Empire to see one, and they’re halfway around the world. Plus, any Immortal ‘rescuing’ her is just going to want her to make their friends and family Immortal as well. It’s no different than a country grabbing her.”
“The vampire Sentinels occasional leave the border….” Rory whined, in his annoying, contradictory way.
Iona had enough of vampires and other immortals.
“So damn inconsiderate of the healer.” Iona groused. “Setting off another round of Immortal wars.”
“Is it really an Immortal war?” Rory asked. “There’s only one after all.”
“Right. One Immortal. Four nations at war – and the number will probably go up. That counts for me.” Iona griped. “Good chance we’re going to end up in it.”
“You mean the Valkyries?” Rory said, practically salivating at the information.
“Yeah – wait no, don’t tell people that.” Iona said, cursing her mouth.
A bard? Keeping quiet?
It would never happen.
Iona and the rest of the former slaves made it to a local town soon enough, where Iona was able to get a healer to properly look after her injuries. A touch, a few coins begrudgingly changing hands, a map of the area, and Iona was off, to the Abbey of the Guiding Waves.
She was a little sad that none of the girls had asked to become a Valkyrie. This particular mission had been one of the best chances Iona had in ages to acquire a squire.
Iona shrugged her shoulders philosophically. Ah well. Next time. At least, the lack of a new squire let Iona see Julie, instead of heading back to the Valkyrie’s base.
She whistled a merry tune as she walked alone over the roads. The nice thing about being [Analyze]ed as a level 350+ warrior – bandits didn’t bother you at all. Nobody wanted to tangle with Iona, which was a huge pain when she needed to track them down, but great for traveling.
[Tracking] was great for tracking bandits down, but it didn’t seem like they had a strong local presence… yet.
Either way, five days of easy travel at a pace that would outstrip most low and medium level couriers with explicit movement skills had Iona eyeing up the Abbey of the Guiding Waves.
The Abbey of the Guiding Waves was somewhat wealthy, given the obscene size and ornamentation of said building. It had gothic architecture on the front, which moved into flowing, wave-like walls and ceilings as the building moved towards the sea. The d’Audrey family was wealthy, and it wasn’t too much of a surprise to Iona that they’d sent their daughter to this place.
Probably required a significant donation. The cynical part of Iona said.
Now, Iona could just walk in, ask to speak to Julie, and would probably be allowed to briefly chat with her. That was Iona’s plan E. She wanted to have a long, erm, “conversation” with Julie instead, and there was no way the Abbess would allow that.
Disguising herself would be the easiest method, but of course Iona had taken a Vow, and part of it was never lying. Somehow, in Iona’s mind, that extended to deceiving people via disguises, which caused of no end of irritation and challenges for her.
Which left breaking in.
Iona first secured her weapons. They wouldn’t be allowed in the Abbey, and for her plan to work, she couldn’t have them hanging around the entrance. She built a small cairn of stone, put her bow, arrows, axe and shield inside, then sealed it up with more rocks and dirt.
A touch obvious, but Iona was willing to gamble that nobody in the next 12 hours or so would discover and disturb the cache she just built.
Iona kept her armor, because it stayed under her tunic until she needed it. It was hard to see, unless you knew what you were looking for. The benefit of loose shirts.
Iona walked out of the woods, down the path, and up to the front door, where one of the sisters was on door-duty. She was dressed in a simple blue robe.
“Hello Sister.” Iona said politely, giving her a small bow of her head.
“Greetings. Do you wish to visit the humble abode of the goddess of the Wakacola sea?”
There was nothing humble about the gaudy Abbey, but Iona wasn’t here to pick fights.
“I am. I was also recently saved from a brush with death, and I was wondering if there was an unaffiliated altar for me to give thanks to my patrons.” Iona said.
Prayer could be done anywhere, but there was something special about praying at an altar. It was ok to pray to any deity from an “unaffiliated” altar, and it was considered more than a bit rude to pray to a different god at a particular god’s consecrated altar.
“Of course! We have a small altar for you to give thanks to your deities. Ness would appreciate a small donation for the upkeep of the Abbey.” The Sister said to Iona.
Iona didn’t bat an eye, fishing out a few mid-sized coins from her satchel, with small flecks of rubies in the middle.
“Naturally, I’d want to help the good Sisters of the Abbey of the Guiding Waves.” Iona turned up the charm. The amount should be more than enough to keep the Sisters happy, and off her back.
But not too much that Iona would suddenly be a VIP, to be buttered up in the hopes of getting more.
“Thank you! Do you mind if I check in your satchel? No weapons are permitted inside, nor are drugs and…”
She then recited a long, long list of contraband, which included a few oddities.
Who didn’t like apples and vinegar in their Abbey?
This particular goddess, apparently.
Iona happily opened her satchel, showing coins, her drawing supplies, field rations, and miscellaneous supplies, like a rope.
Iona followed the Sister, keeping her eyes peeled for Julie, and hoping that they didn’t bump into each other now. This was the riskiest part of the plan – if Julie saw her, the entire jig would be up. Iona was gambling that as a new initiate, Julie would be kept away from the paying guests until she learned how the abbey expected her to act.
Which would make finding her super hard.
Iona was led to the main room of worship, a grand chamber that had an altar and a large statue of Ness herself, missing a wall entirely. Instead of a wall, it opened up to the sea, and the breeze grabbed Iona’s long hair and playfully whipped it about, as the smell of salt filled her nose.
Iona took a moment to kneel before the altar to Ness. It’d be rude to come all this way without saying hi to the goddess, as minor as she was.
Hi Ness! It’s Iona.
We haven’t chatted much, but I’d just like to say hello! It’s nice to meet you.
Hey, so I’m not here for the purest of motives, but at the same time, I don’t mean you or yours any harm. In fact, I wish them the best. I just want to say goodbye to my friend. I don’t think I’ll be able to visit frequently, and one way or another, our friendship is coming to an end.
Please don’t take offense. I mean none.
Oh! There’s a nasty shark that’s now free and on the loose in your sea. You’ll probably get some prayers about him. Heck, he might pray to you himself, I dunno how sharks think. Anyways! Take this first one from me – keep people safe from the shark.
Iona had no idea how long she’d spent kneeling at the altar, but she felt just a hair stiff as she got back up. A different Sister was there.
[Magnetic Charm] was a great skill. While it didn’t do something nearly as stupid as make people think something, or change their mind, it did help Iona read them. The way the Sister’s gaze lingered on the view of the sea let Iona know that… she really liked looking at the sea.
“It’s a wonderful view, isn’t it?” Iona said, giving a raw, genuine smile. It was pretty.
A soft smile appeared on the Sister’s face.
“Like none other in the world.” She said.
Iona and the Sister made more small talk, while other nuns came in and out, and one or two other guests also came to pray. Both merchants, and Iona would bet they were asking for safe passage and favorable winds as they traded over the sea.
And with that, Iona was in her ‘this is a decent person’ books.
“I’m wondering where the unaffiliated altar is? I’d like to pray to my patrons.” Iona asked.
“Follow me!” The Sister said. “Just don’t touch any of the artwork.”
As they walked through the Abbey, the Sister gave Iona a brief tour.
“Over there are the kitchens, the dining hall’s there, that’s Mother Superior’s room, those are the novice dorms…”
On and on it went, with Iona mentally marking the novice dorms. That was her target. She was careful not to touch any of the artwork. It was one of the rules here.
Nevermind that “sneaking around in the dead of night” was probably against the rules.
“… and here’s the unaffiliated altar!” She said, finishing the tour.
It was a tiny room, out of the way, dusty, practically a closet, but that was fine with Iona.
“Let me know if you need anything!” The cheerful Sister told Iona.
“I’ll probably be here awhile. I’ll be able to find my way out on my own though?” Iona said, noticing how the Sister was somewhat fidgety, looking somewhat impatient. Good chance that –
“Yeah, ok!” She said, and turned and left.
Iona closed the door with a grin.
Unaffiliated altars were an afterthought in most temples and other religious buildings. The temple was to THE GREAT GODDESS, and, oh yeah, let’s not offend the rest of the pantheon and include a secondary, minor altar for all of them.
But the acolytes of a religious building tended to be focused on their particular god or goddess, and benevolently neglected the unaffiliated one. Hence the dust, and general unused-ness of the altar.
This one was particularly bad, and Iona spent a few moments tidying it up, before kneeling to pray.
Found an altar! Going to work some mischief. Nothing too bad, but I don’t think Ness would approve. Let me know if she’s going to smite me or send some [Paladin] after me.
Iona smiled as she heard the goddesses laughing, knowing the prank she was going to pull. She had their approval… which wasn’t the same as having their protection.
Anyways, I wanted to talk more about the pirates. See, I first heard about them when….
Iona didn’t know how long she’d been kneeling in prayer, just talking with the two goddesses. She’d also checked her level-up notifications while praying, it was just part of how she did things. It felt right for her, and joy of joys, she got a level in [The Dusk Valkyrie], and three in [Traveling Archer]. When she got back up, it was dark.
Iona creaked the door open a hair, and quickly looked around. Nobody was around, but that didn’t mean a nun wouldn’t turn the corner any minute now. It wouldn’t surprise Iona if there were some younger acolytes who had been sent to the Abbey, who snuck around at night – and some of the Sisters patrolled the hallways, looking for wayward charges.
The moons were up, and half full, throwing red light around everywhere. More than enough to see and sneak around by.
Iona looked up, and briefly considered climbing up to the ceiling, and moving around up there. She had the stats for it… but she wasn’t sure if the ceiling could hold her. It looked delicate, almost art-like.
And she had been told not to touch the art.
Fortunately, traps and alarms were unlikely. Who trapped their own home? Who risked waking everyone up when one of the younger nuns snuck around?
No, worse-case there was an alarm for one of the Sisters on-duty, but Iona imagined a perimeter alarm was much likelier than an internal one.
And Iona had made sure to brazenly walk in through the front door before nightfall.
Iona slunk around, silently padding through the hallways before reaching an intersection. She didn’t have [Sneaking] or [Quiet Footsteps] or anything – but she did have soft shoes and over 10,000 points in dexterity. Sadly, there was no way to justify this as [Vow]-worthy.
Iona reached an intersection before the novice’s dorms, only to freeze in panic as she heard footsteps.
She quickly determined that they were coming from the novice’s dorms, and fled back down the hallway, making sure she restrained herself to move slowly enough to not create a breeze, to not have her clothes rustle against each other and give herself away.
Iona didn’t have [Sneaking], but she and the other squires had totally done sneaking around the castle when they should’ve been in bed once upon a time. Iona was no stranger to this game – except nuns instead of Valkyries, and fleeing in embarrassment and not seeing Julie instead of a paddle and extra-hard training.
Iona allowed herself to shed a single tear for the friends that she’d lost, that she’d never see again, before refocusing.
She was losing another friend, but not to death, and this time, she’d say goodbye.
The Sister’s footsteps receded down another hallway, and Iona seized the chance to blitz into the dorm.
Now was the hard part. Dozens of closed doors, and only one was right. There were three options when Iona checked on a door.
- It was empty. Try again.
- It had Julie! Success!
- It had someone else. Time to run away!
Iona thanked her lucky stars that she’d decided to pick up [Tracking]. Not only did it usually help with hunting down whatever monster was causing trouble, but it’d help now.
Iona focused on her skill, her nose, and Julie, sniffing the air. She’d had her face buried in her soft fur often enough, smelling like a lively forest in spring, with a hint of sunshine and berries.
Iona was no beastkin, nor was she of a race that was blessed with an improved sense of smell. Almost 30,000 vitality together with [Tracking] somewhat made up for it.
Near each room she’d quietly sniff, seeing if the scent matched Julies.
Weirdly, there was no smell from almost every room. Business wasn’t doing well.
Eventually, Iona hit a room that smelled right enough. Not perfect… but Iona chalked that up to time and the new place.
Iona strained her ears to see if anyone else was around. Not hearing the menacing footfalls of one of the nuns patrolling the hallways, she softly rapped on the door.
“Julie! Psst, Julie!” Iona hissed at the door.
Iona knocked again, a bit louder.
Iona knocked one last time, a rapid staccato drumming on the door. She froze as she heard movement in two rooms.
The handle clicked, the door opened, and there she was, in all her tired glory – Julie.
“Huh? Iona? Wha-?” Julie said, at cursed normal volume, as Iona barged in, putting a finger on her lips and closing the door behind her.
“Shhhhhhhhhhhh!” Iona whisper-hissed. “Otherwise they’ll find us!”
Having gone from “sleeping” to “someone’s barging in my room”, Julie was remarkably composed, not shouting – just getting that mischievous grin that kitsunes were so famous for, amusement dancing in her eyes.
The two of them said nothing, the only thing louder than their pounding heartbeats was the sound of the other acolyte asking questions of the hallway – then the patrolling nun finding her, and softly yelling at her.
Iona and Julie’s face were both straining with restrained laughter, and at last, Iona couldn’t take it anymore. She grabbed the pillow, shoved it over her face, and let peals of laughter break loose. Julie had better restraint, as she quietly laughed in that high, yipping way.
After a few minutes, they were able to compose themselves.
“What are you doing here!?” Julie hissed at Iona.
“I wanted to say goodbye.” Iona said.
“You could’ve just asked to see me!” She retorted.
“Yes, but then how could I have…” Iona trailed off a moment as she patted herself for Julie’s letter. She unfurled it, and started quoting from it.
“How could I have kissed your lips one last time? How could I rub your ears, run my hands through your fur, massaged your-“
Blushing, knowing the rest of the line, Julie snatched the letter back from Iona.
“I didn’t expect you to sneak in!” She said.
Iona winked roguishly at her.
“Nobody does! You didn’t expect it the first time either, did you?”
“I did too!”
Ok, fair point there.
“Well, look, I’m here now. Why don’t we chat? Talk about old times before you become one of the stuffy nuns.”
“I swear, the Mother Superior must have a [Shove a Stick up your Arse] skill. All the nuns get stodgier and stodgier as time goes on.”
Iona grinned at her.
“See what I mean?”
Julie punched her in the shoulder.
“And what do you mean, ‘old times’? We’ve only known each other for three years! We only spent like three weeks together total!”
Iona’s face went from smiling to sad. She tried to fight back tears.
“Julie… that makes you one of my oldest friends.” Iona barely managed to get out.
Julie’s face fell, as she hugged Iona.
Iona hugged her back, wrapping the smaller kitsune in her gigantic frame.
“I’m sorry.” Julie said, after a moment or three passed. “I forgot.”
Iona patted her on the back.
They broke the embrace, and Julie hopped onto her bed.
“Hey Iona?” She asked.
“Do you still have [Drawing]?”
“Draw me. Get a picture of me as I am now, bring it with you.”
The light played with the shadows to make an interesting portrait, but Iona had no trouble breaking out her drawing supplies, and starting to sketch Julie. Swift lines crossed the paper, drawing almost as fast as an experienced painter with classes and skills. Such was the tyranny of insane stats.
As Iona drew, the two idly chatted, catching up on what had happened since they’d last met. Julie told the mundane tale of the life of a trader, the discovery and subsequent ultimatum. Iona hung onto every word, hearing stories of a world not her own.
“Are you sure you want to be here?” Iona asked. “It’d be easy enough to walk out with you.”
“What would I do? Where would I go? I’m not strong like you Iona. I can’t forge my own path.” She said.
Iona privately disagreed – anyone could forge their own path, especially with the System.
But maybe that was just it. Julie didn’t have the drive, the resolve, the fire needed to do that – and hence, wasn’t strong enough.
“If you’re happy, I won’t stop you.” She said.
Julie smiled, and settled back down further on the bed. Lounging on the bed, in a pose well-suited to being drawn.
Iona finished up, and showed Julie the portrait.
“Oooh! That’s me! It’s so good!” Julie cooed over the picture. “Do yourself!”
Iona rolled her eyes.
“With what mirror?” She asked.
Julie got a mischievous look on her face, and slipped the habit down over one shoulder, exposing a breast.
“Well… why don’t you draw me like one of your Rolland girls then?” She asked with a sultry tone, waggling her eyebrows.
Iona’s drawing was fast, and not particularly good – but she did manage to fill Julie’s entire wishlist of “things I regret not doing.”
They only stopped when the sun was starting to peek over the horizon, and both of them were covered in sweat and other fluids.
“You need to get out of here.” Julie panted out, wrung out and exhausted. “The Sisters will be mad if they find you.”
Iona agreed. She already heard footsteps in the hallways as people were getting up.
She gave Julie one last kiss.
“Hey. If you need anything – just write! I’ll try to swing by.” Iona said with a wink.
Julie laughed and threw a pillow at Iona.
“Shoo! Get out of here! If they catch you here with me, it’s the birch stick for me.”
The halls were filling up with nuns, and going out the normal way? Impossible not to get caught.
“All the rooms are the same, right?” Iona asked
“Well. This is goodbye then.” Iona said, giving her one last hug.
“Goodbye Iona.” Julie said.
They broke apart, and Iona focused, seeing if her latest stunt would qualify as protecting Julie. She felt no boost come over her, and she mentally shrugged. It wasn’t needed, it’d just be nice.
Iona cracked the door a hair, and seeing nobody in the hallway for a moment, burst out of the room, entered the room next to Julie’s – to not implicate her – and launched herself feet-first out the window.
She ignored an alarmed shout as she landed on the grass outside the abbey, and was off in a sprint a moment later, off to her weapons cache, grinning all the way.
Crying all the way.
She made it back to her weapons, and as she slung them back on, considered what her next move was.
The pirate’s treasure was still at the bottom of the bay, and with the stupid amount of mana Alfie had used, was probably more than a bit valuable. The Valkyries could use it.
There was the healer in the north, a flashpoint for a full-fledged Immortal war. Diving into the fray could be useful, although Iona would need to whisk the healer away somewhere nobody could find her – probably into the Immortal lands, where such people were welcomed.
Then again, Immortals brought the trouble on themselves, and for millions of others in multiple other countries. So thoughtless.
It was a healer that needed help though. Iona was indecisive.
In the other direction was getting back to the Valkyrie castle, and reporting back to Sigrun, and seeing what the next emergency that needed a Valkyrie was. Possibly getting a squire, expanding the order, demonstrating they still had value, etc.
Bonus – Randall was in the town around the castle, and it’d been a while since she’d visited him.
Finally, there was finally spending some time on working on acquiring and bonding with a companion. Iona was one of the oldest Valkyries who’d never tried to get one. Iona believed that she was good, that she’d bond with one – she’d just never had the time.
Choices, choices. She chewed on them – and some jerky – as she walked back through the forest.
Onto the next adventure.