I’d gotten over “fight the next day” nerves years ago, and I slept decently considering the nightmares and the circumstances.


Aegion’s brew wasn’t quite as bad as usual, but drinking a full mug had taken its toll. I’d carefully nursed it while telling a story - Hercules had seemed rather appropriate - but I’d needed almost an hour for the aftertaste to fade enough for me to get some sleep.


I did not like sleeping under stone. Not anymore. I was totally going to get myself a new villa when I got home, made entirely out of wood. Maybe I’d see if Serondes would be willing to make me a glass ceiling or something? Or I could just sleep under the sky.


The thought of Serondes and home quickly led in an awkward direction, and I axed the entire line of thinking, instead cursing that my nightmares had come back.


I didn’t spend long cursing my luck though. I got up, and immediately started to move, preparing myself for the battle ahead.


Hilariously, mages and healers took more time to gear up and get ready than warriors and rangers at the levels I was dealing with, which was part of why I got up early, a nightmare acting as my alarm. Warriors had more gear to put on, but correspondingly more speed. I was no slouch in the speed department, but I was outstripped and outclassed, and Awarthril had already seemed reluctant to have me come along on this mission. I didn’t want to give them any excuse to leave me behind.


Mistweave off, dwarven armor on. Awkwardly, given that I’d only put it on once - then promptly stayed in it for months - I wasn’t 100% sure how it was all put together. Julius’s lesson from long ago echoed back - better to be slow and get it done right, than fast and sloppy and get someone killed.


Which had me working on latches and clasps, the armor both incredibly obvious, and overly complicated at the same time.


[Pristine Memories] was useful, letting me recall the memory of Korun helping me into the armor with perfect clarity, along with months of seeing which strap and buckle went where.


It took time, but the first light of dawn was brightening up the sky as I emerged from my room into the airy inner section, Serondes having made the choice to leave the fortress open-air for whatever reason. The rest of the elves were still in their rooms, and I allowed myself a little, tight smile of victory.


There were still ways I could get small edges over the immaculate creations. I grabbed a light breakfast, my stomach starting to clench with nerves.


I’d be fifty types of stupid if I didn’t get nervous before a big fight I knew was coming, against a creature, once again, twice my level. And without my major destructive gems to boot! I’d been able to take down a Formorian Royal Guard with a full complement of my gems, and right now I was acutely feeling their absence.


However, I had a new problem I needed to figure out. What was I going to do with my egg? I wasn’t bringing it to the fight, but I didn’t want it to stick around cooling off. Maybe I should build a fire, and stick it in? My biggest concern with that was the fire might be too cold.


As I pondered my options over some delicious meat of dubious provenance - I swear, there wasn’t a single skill one of the three elves wasn’t an expert at - Serondes, then Aegion and Awarthril emerged from their rooms.


“Morning!” Serondes cheerfully greeted me, heading over to the Spatial Box. He started pulling out pieces of armor.


A light bronze, bordering on silver, the armor was beautiful in its functionality and grace, each piece flowing and elegant. However, I eyed their armor, and I looked at mine.


The dwarves had been bragging when they claimed they were better at shaping metal than elves were, and the jury was still out on that claim. However, from what I’d gathered, Serondes and the other elves weren’t exactly the best elves in the world, the cream of the crop. They were, from my understanding of elven society that they’d imparted so far, relatively low-tier. That’s why Serondes had agreed to come - he wanted the levels to boost his social ranking.


“Morning!” I cheerfully called back, chomping down on another bite. It was so delicious. I chewed, savoring the taste, then my jaw dropped open as Serondes started to strip.


My eyes traced every line of his arm, his perfect abs, his chiseled thighs, his forearms.


So delicious.


A finger gently but firmly closed my mouth, as Awarthril blocked my view with an amused look on her face. She wiped some drool off my face, snapping me out of it. A hot rush crept up my neck and onto my cheeks.


“Good morning Elaine!” She cheerfully winked at me. “Sleep well?”


I was still somewhat star-struck, and could only mutely nod my head, stabbing another bite to eat.


“That’s great! Here, I recommend having this for breakfast. Or a snack. Whichever!” She said, handing me something wrapped in leaves I didn’t recognize. I slowly unraveled it.


“What is it?”


“Ilan bread!” She unwrapped and started chewing on her own. “Fantastic stuff. Gives a slight boost to all your stats, makes you heal faster, makes you more resistant to poisons and toxins, improves your effective skill level by one, and some people claim you learn skills faster!”


She paused on the last one and shrugged.


“I personally don’t think so, but you can never tell. Sadly, the bread isn’t as good as the fruit is, but the stuff’s tricky to preserve fresh. Anyways, eat up! I hope we won’t need you, but any little extra edge you can get to not get hurt is a boon.”


She leaned in real close, her lips almost kissing my ear.


With a near breathless whisper, so quiet I could barely hear it in spite of my stats and proximity, Awarthril whispered into my ear.


“Serondes is interested, but you have to make the first move.”


Blushing, I grabbed my egg from my lap, and fled back to my room.


I slammed the door shut - the elves had managed to rustle up doors of all things! - realizing I still had the Ilan bread.


Well, might as well. It wasn’t Aegion’s invention, although I was somewhat wary of it. It sounded a lot like a potion, and those were uniformly terrible in Remus. Also, Awarthril hadn’t said anything about the taste, and in my experience, that was because it’d be terrible.


I took a tentative nibble, and thought I’d died and gone to heaven. It tasted like everything. Well, every fruit and vegetable ever. But not in the terrible way eating everything at once would! No, it had the bright notes of blueberries, the smoothness of bananas, the freshness of cucumbers, the tingly sensation of pineapples, and best of all, the sweetness of mangos. That, and a million other sensations went through me, electrifying me.


I couldn’t control myself. I wolfed down the rest of it, eager to get more. I felt strength flooding through my body, and I checked my stats, seeing that they’d all improved roughly 2%


Which was absurd.


In Remus, humanity had figured out how to make Strength, Speed, and Dexterity potions. The easy physical stats. Vitality was being worked on.


It was believed to be impossible to improve any of the magical stats. How would an increase in mana pool even work? No, the experts were trying to make mana potions - at least according to the Ranger Trainee I’d nicknamed ‘Alchemist’ - as a substitute for Arcanite.


And the elves just casually had something utterly absurd lying around like it was no big deal, able to just hand me a slice like it was nothing.


I checked over my gear. Armor. Gems. Arcanite.


No weapons, which sucked, but at this point they’d just slow me down. A hydra wasn’t going to get intimidated by me waving a spear at it.


No, my big problem was my egg. What was I going to do with it during the fight? I wasn’t going to carry it, that was for sure.


Another nice side-effect of the bread - all my embarrassment was gone, and the lingering effects of sleep had been entirely chased away. Sure, I could’ve used [Sunrise], but this was nice.


I figured hanging out in my room would just make the awkwardness worse, and I left, getting a double eyeful of Awarthril and Aegion.


PAPILLION! Why! Why didn’t you tell me this was an option! If you changed your mind, making me a human instead of a golden crow, why didn’t you tell me I could be an elf! I want to be an elf! Mulligan! MULLIGAN! I want a do-over! I’ve changed my mind! Give me that easy perfection!


Aegion caught me staring and winked, but kept on getting dressed as normal. I had no idea what I’d do otherwise. I did appreciate him not making it weird, or doing anything strange.


They were both sadly at the tail end of getting dressed, and I was soon freed. The images were forever burned into my mind.


“Elaine! I was thinking about you!” Serondes came up to me, finishing the last bite of his Ilan bread. He was fully dressed in his silvery-bronze armor, each part elegantly flowing into the next. It’d look right at home in some fancy art gallery, never mind it being a lethal instrument. Numerous small, thin pieces of paper were attached to his armor, only stuck on one end. They were white, with dense red scribbles all over them. The previously mentioned talismans?


“Oh?” I asked, dying to know what, exactly, he was thinking about me.


“Yeah! Your egg! I have the solution for it.” He opened his hand expectantly.


I was the trusting sort, and handed it over.


A pillar of Lava slowly emerged between us, forming a blazingly hot pedestal that he put the egg on.


“Right! Let me know how hot it needs to be.” Serondes said, and I put my hand right next to the egg, letting [Egg Incubation] work its magic.


“Hotter. Hotter. Hotter. Keep going. Warmer. There we go!” I pulled my hand back, blowing on it furiously. I had to have healed some damage, and Serondes had one eyebrow going high into his hairline.


“Well then. Certainly a Lava creature!” He stepped back, more hot Lava forming around the egg, lowering it somewhat.


I hadn’t quite realized how hot I’d been keeping the egg, nor just how good my Radiance magic was - both at generating heat, and keeping me safe from it.


After changing the pedestal to a more nest-like structure, Serondes stepped back satisfied.


“My skill should keep it warm long enough for us to get back, and then some.” He nodded approval at his work.


Awarthril’s works in my mind, I decided to say fuck it.


“Can you keep people warm?” I gave him what I thought was a coy look. Or something. I wasn’t great with this flirting stuff, all my prior romantic attempts ending in flames. Once, quite literally.


“Ahem. If we’re done flirting, are there any last second preparations you need to make?” Aegion strode over.


No longer in casual clothes, his armor fit elegantly. A slightly curved sword was at his waist, and a teardrop shaped kite shield was on his back, a large quiver of arrows on his waist, opposite the sword. He was holding onto a crystal longbow, which defied everything I knew about bows and agreed with everything I knew about magic. He had two more quivers of arrows slung over one shoulder. From what I knew about long-term archery fighting, he’d be putting those down near him. A couple of talismans were stuck on him, but not nearly as many as Serondes had.


I shook my head, as Serondes went and grabbed his own set of sword, shield, bow, and arrows. I cocked an eyebrow at that. I was curious what he was planning to do with it.


“All ready?” Awarthril asked, her gear trading a bow and arrow for an oversize crystalline fauchard which she wielded without a shred of effort. It had a long pole, almost twice as tall as I was, and a shaft as wide as my arm, which Awarthril gripped with ease. At the top was a thick curling blade, the entire thing giving off an imposing air, screaming “Big game hunting.” Awarthril had her talismans in neat patterns, somehow making them look like a fashion statement, rather than the powerful magic I was sure they had to be.


There was no doubt that the hydra fit into the category.


“Ready!” I pumped my fist, while Serondes confirmed in a more restrained manner.


“All set!” Aegion didn’t look at us, instead grabbing a bag out of the Spatial Box. Awarthril rolled her eyes, and grabbed three more bags.


“Preparations complete.” Serondes started to conjure Lava around him, hardening the top half into a platform, while the bottom half remained molten, hovering just a hair above the ground. Some chairs and railings sprang to life, and he beckoned me on. I stepped on, only to get bowled over by Kiyaya leaping on.


“Bad girl.” Awarthril said, not able to keep the laughter out of her voice. I chuckled as I got up - it was funny. True to his word, Cordamo landed on my head, wrapping himself around my helmet. I got some annoyed hissing that I interpreted as “You said I could stay in your hair! What’s with the helmet!”, totally forgetting I’d said no such thing.


Of course, he could just be trying to bribe, beg, blackmail, plead, threaten, or generally extort me for more food. The couatl was a glutton and a half.


I watched Aegion leap to the top of Castle Elaine - a much better name than anything else I’d come up with - with a howl of wind at his back, then start stretching as Serondes’s Howling Platform lifted off with the five of us on it. We slowly cleared the walls of Castle Elaine, then started to pick up speed, Aegion waving at us from the walls.


We flew over the swamp, Awarthril leaning over the railing with her hand over her eyes, looking around, while Kiyaya tried to pace in the small area. She had a few talismans stuck to her, and the big difference was that these ones were already glowing.


Well, I’d been assuming. This seemed to be a good point to fix my knowledge, one way or another.


“Talismans, right?” I asked, gesturing at the inked paper. Awathril nodded.


“Handy things. We can grab, mix, and match what we need for a situation with them. Sure, they’re one-time use, but they’re easy enough to make.”


“Can you teach me?” I asked Awarthril, but I was shooting eyes at Serondes, the all-knowing mage, hoping he’d answer.


“I have no idea how.” Awarthril answered, and Serondes seemed to completely miss the question.


Drat. Outta luck.


The walls of Castle Elaine rapidly vanished as we went deeper, Serondes starting to zig-zag the platform in a classic search pattern.


“Go that way a bit more, that’s roughly the direction I was going last time.” Awarthril pointed, Serondes continuing to drive.


A thought came to mind.


“I know Aegion’s on ranged support, but, uh, how can he help?” I said, the castle having totally vanished from view.


Serondes got a smug look on his face.


“Hold your hand up in a circle.” He said, and I put my hand up in an OK-sign. Cordamo and Kiyaya were both looking at me, and a few moments later I stumbled as a blast of air went through my hands, forcing my fingers apart. A deafening crack of thunder punctuated the entire thing, making my ears ring for a moment before my healing kicked back in.


“Show off.” Awarthril signed something quickly in Cordamo’s direction, then turned back to scanning the swamp as she explained what happened to me.


“Every companion bond is different, as unique as the people involved.” Her head was still moving back and forth, scanning the swamp. “In Aegion’s case - hang on, Serondes, turn us left then shoot forward, I recognize that weird moss pattern on the rock - anyways, in Aegion’s case, he and Cordamo can see through each other’s eyes. His skills already allow for impossibly long shots, and Cordamo acts as a spotter, making him the longest-ranged archer at our level. You saw how accurate he is to boot.”


Yeah, I had. We were, what, a few miles away by the time he’d demonstrated his stunt? And he managed to thread a high-powered arrow through the tiny hole my hand made?


I was so glad he was on my team, and not gunning for me. How was I supposed to survive a Classer like that trying to kill me?


“There it is! Pole!” Awarthril yelled, Serondes making a pillar of rapidly-cooling Lava in the middle of the platform. Awarthril barely waited, throwing out her [Rubber Rope], connecting herself to the pillar.


Then she leapt off the skyship, bungee-jumping down to the swamp below.


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