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We entered the cave, walking deeper and deeper without seeing a soul.

 

“Where are they?” I asked, seeing minor signs of civilization. Worn footpaths, some doors closing off side-passages.

 

“What, you think they hang out near their lethal enemy? Nah, they’re all deeper in.” Serondes replied.

 

We went a bit deeper, finally emerging into a large cavern, haphazardly lit with torches jammed into the wall. Trolls were scattered about, sleeping on and under piles of furs, while only a few signs of civilization were around. Some stretched tannery racks, a couple of crude firepits, a big horn, from an elephant or a triceratops or something equally large, some extra-wide bowls with weird chunks floating in it, and other signs that made me think that the trolls were basically a stone-age civilization, without too many aspirations for more. Most of the trolls were snoozing, with a few grumbling and rubbing their…

 

Well. Not their eyes. They were making the motions though.

 

Almost all of the trolls were wearing bone masks. Each one was the skull of some animal with a few bright, artful, jagged lines painted onto them. The only ones without a mask were the younger, smaller looking trolls.

 

“Should we really have come while they’re sleeping?” I whispered over.

 

Awarthril pursed her lips.

 

“I… no.” She finally admitted, sounding pained to admit any sort of fault or failing. “But we’re here now!”

 

The biggest, baddest troll, with the largest mask came over, and started to snarl and grunt at us. Awarthril turned back, and started snarling and grunting of her own, an entire animated discussion erupting between them. More of the trolls woke up, some of them joining the conversation, others rolling over and piling more furs over their heads. I did a quick [Long-Range Identify], and universally, they came back as [Warriors]. Their levels were all over the place, from kids at level 20 or so, to shades of orange that I wasn’t familiar with.

 

Higher level than the elves, that’s for sure.

 

The big, bad troll was a lime-green, which told me nothing other than “stronger than the Inevitable Shluggoth”.

 

I looked at Aegion and Serondes, who were eyeing the cavern and looking at the trolls respectively.

 

“Do either of you speak troll?” I asked.

 

Aegion shook his head, good naturedly replying.

 

“Nah, I never bothered. Like, I should, and one day I will, but it’s a niche language in the first place.” Aegion shrugged. “Think they’re up for some beer?”

 

Serondes and I looked at him with equally horrified looks.

 

“They’ll murder us in our sleep!” Serondes protested.

 

“Poisoning people isn’t nice.” I rebuked.

 

Aegion looked offended, muttering under his breath. Something about “I’ll show you all!” and other stereotypical villain one-liners.

 

Finally, finally Awarthril finished her conversation with the trolls. Or at least paused.

 

“Hey! Autumn Equinox is coming up, and the trolls throw a huge party. I figured I’d check with you all, but do we want to spend a few days here, and party with the trolls?”

 

“YES!” Aegion jumped in with such ferocity and vigor, that it completely killed the objection that had been forming on my lips.

 

I did want to get back home, and the fact that it was mid-autumn was a nice kick in the pants that I really should get moving. However, Aegion clearly wanted this, and wanted it badly. He’d always given off “party animal” vibes, and with the prospect of a party coming up?

 

Cordamo was furiously nodding his head, long sibilant hisses indicating his approval of the idea.

 

Serondes and I looked at each other.

 

“Sure, why not!” I agreed, trying hard not to dampen Aegion’s enthusiasm.

 

“I think we should stick around a bit.” Serondes agreed.

 

“Would you mind if we speed up a bit after this though, to make up for lost time?” I threw on my best puppy dog eyes at Aegion.

 

“I’ve got no issue with that.” He said.

 

“We seem to be in agreement then. Hang around for the festival, then hurry up?” Awarthril asked.

 

Nods went around the circle.

 

“Right! Let’s set ourselves up outside of their cave. Wouldn’t want to intrude.” Awarthril snarled at the trolls, communicating our new plan, and our desire to stick around for their festival. The troll was clearly happy, slapping Awarthril on the shoulder so hard that she nearly fell over.

 

Such a love tap would literally flatten me, and I was extra-happy with Awarthril’s plan on setting up our camp outside.

 

We left, and Serondes started to make a modest hut, for all of us to share together. I eyed it, a sneaking suspicion percolating.

 

“We’re worried about the trolls, aren’t we?” I asked.

 

“I’m not.” Serondes replied.

 

“You should be.” Awarthril glared back. “Their chief is triple my level, and trolls aren’t known for their strong sense of justice. They dislike something? They smash and kill it.”

 

“Why are we staying?” I asked the obvious question.

 

“Because it’s a party!” Aegion happily jumped in, already taking out his barrels. Had they somehow managed to multiply while we weren't looking? I looked at them skeptically.

 

“What are the odds that Aegion’s shit beer gets us all killed?” My question wasn’t rhetorical.

 

“High.” Serondes was eyeing the barrels. I could practically see sabotage in his eyes. Heck, I would help.

 

“Low. We’re here because they’ve asked nicely, and we don’t go through life being rude. As long as we don’t do anything to massively piss the trolls off, like drag their kids into sunlight or something, we’ll be fine.”

 

“Or poison them all with bad beer.” I muttered under my breath. Everyone heard me of course, but Awarthril bulldozed on.

 

“Look at Elaine here! She flew over to us, and she’s a fraction of our level. The world is full of imbalances. Just because we’re on the wrong side of it for once, doesn’t mean it’s something to be avoided.” Awarthril pointed out.

 

“It’s the handshake problem.” I realized.

 

“What’s that?” Aegion asked, busying himself around the barrels.

 

“Pretend a room of ten Immortals all have the same curse. They can only shake hands with someone shorter than they are. How many handshakes occur?”

 

The elves spent a moment thinking about it.

 

“None.” Serondes said.

 

“Exactly!” I paused a moment for the rest of them to digest the idea.

 

“With that being said, hanging around people with a reputation for violence isn’t the best idea.”

 

I completely ignored the hypocrisy of my own sentence with my history. Rangers weren’t exactly known for peaceful mediation, and Artemis had killed a kid in cold blood the first day I’d met her. In hindsight, not exactly the most stable people to go running off to.

 

Then again, what other options did 14 year old me know of? I at least knew and trusted Artemis, although I almost got wrecked by Julius not wanting me around. Got lucky in the end.

 

This situation didn’t call for luck, but I doubted I could convince the elves. I figured I’d give it a shot.

 

“No chance we could just…” My sentence trailed off as I saw Aegion’s crestfallen face, knowing the rest of my sentence before I said it.

 

“Look, look, it’ll be fine.” He got up, and started walking around the hut, animated as all heck. “I’ll handle it. I’ll make sure everything goes alright, and the trolls won’t decide to tangle with us. Who likes attacking elves anyways? The troll’s old enough to know what happens. Just trust me, and if it starts to go sideways, I’ll take responsibility, ok? Hey, Awarthril, can you teach me some troll? Better for me to talk with them and negotiate all this.”

 

I mean, it didn’t matter much if I was dead, but I reluctantly nodded.

 

Awarthril started talking more about the trolls and safety, and how it was going to be OK. I started to do some thinking.

 

If this went sideways, I was going to totally murder him.

 

Which brought up a question for myself - was it worth sticking with the elves? They had a hubris problem. They believed themselves to be nearly invincible.

 

No - that wasn’t quite it. It was close to the truth, but inaccurate.

 

They believed, with proper effort, that they could overcome any obstacle. The world, so far, hadn’t seen fit to smack them with a healthy sense otherwise. They were like teenagers in that sense, although they were a bit old to be acting that way.

 

Wait.

 

WAIT.

 

Was that the elven curse!? Were they doomed to a belief that they were superior to anyone and everything? Were they doomed to believe they could overcome any problem? Was White Dove forcing them into fights wholesale, to better collect?

 

It might be the case. Or, it could just be the case that life hadn’t ever gone poorly for them. They tackled the hydra, being a few hundred levels lower than it was. A smart hydra, in its lair, when almost half the team couldn’t do anything against it.

 

And they won. With some injuries, sure, but not anything they couldn’t have handled themselves with time and rest. Maybe, just maybe, they were as good as they thought they were.

 

And from the looks of the discussion, they were going to stick around.

 

Right. The only question was - should I stick around?

 

I briefly thought about Serondes, and his wonderful arms, and how we’d be in close contact together - going to a party together! - and acknowledged it’d be very nice.

 

I tried to put the thoughts aside, but I couldn’t deny that they were there, lurking in the background, subtly pushing me.

 

It came down to a risk-benefit analysis. By sticking with the elves, I had high level protection, a guide through these strange lands, multiple comforts that made traveling easy, and a map home.

 

Stacked on the other end was the occasional insane risk they took, regardless of the reason.

Powerful monsters roamed the world. Heck, even a relatively mundane goat had rammed the point home! No, protection was key.

 

I couldn’t ignore the fact that I liked the elves. They were nice traveling companions, and romantic feelings aside, Aegion and Awarthril were pretty cool. Sure, Awarthril was a bit too mothering at times, and Aegion’s constant attempts to poison us all were getting old, but there were never frictionless interpersonal relationships. I wanted to hang out with my friends more.

 

It wasn’t that close of a fight. Sticking with the elves was the best move, although maybe I wouldn’t get too deep into the party.

 

Or wait - could I get away with flying the entire time? Just be like, a one-woman lightshow? It’d keep me out of their grasp, while still participating.

 

“Elaine? Everything ok?” Awarthril asked me. Going into the “thinking tank/Bubble of Contemplation” hadn’t gone unnoticed.

 

“Hmmm? Oh, yeah!” I snapped out of it. “Was just thinking. What now?” I asked.

 

“Let’s go hunting!” Aegion finished tweaking something on one of his endless barrels. I wrinkled my nose, and slipped my arm into Serondes’s.

 

“Any chance you could make a hut for the two of us?” I batted my eyes shamelessly at him. Anything to not sleep with Aegion’s noxious messes nearby.

 

Plus, we would have our own little cuddle-corner! Win-win.

 

“Yeah sure.” Serondes replied.

 

“Hunting time!” Aegion whooped, getting out his bow. “Let’s go!”

 

We all exited the hut, and I got to see what, exactly, Aegion’s definition of “hunting time” was.

 

Cordamo took off, flaring his wings and making large circles, high up in the air. Aegion went still, closing his eyes - all the better to see through his bond’s eyes, the two of them sharing a special connection.

 

They snapped open as he smoothly drew his bow, making minute adjustments as he prepared his shot. Then he fired his bow with a thunderous roar, the arrow arching high into the sky with a crackle of Lightning, and a howl of wind.

 

Aegion squinted as he looked up, then cursed.

 

“Hate trying to shoot things through trees, always goes wrong.” He muttered, nocking and firing three more arrows. Hand over his eyes, he went back to squinting, before nodding.

 

“Right. That way, about a mile and a half.” He pointed, and Kiyaya and Awarthril traded looks.

 

“Small boar. Kiyaya could grab it.” Aegion said, and the wolf in question was off like a shot.

 

More looking, another trio of shots, and Awarthril took a leisurely walk to grab his latest hunt.

 

Frankly, this was entirely unfair to the poor animals. They might have their own classes and skills, but surprise Lightning and Gale-empowered shots out of the blue? Without any warning that they were being hunted?

 

“Unsporting” came to mind, not that there was any such thing when it came to survival, instead of, well, sport.

 

Serondes finished making our sleeping spot, and Aegion promptly had instructions for him.

 

“Blackberry bush about two miles that way.” He pointed up the mountain.

 

I glared murder at him. He smiled sweetly.

 

“Apple trees another half-mile east once you get there.” He added on.

 

Serondes grabbed my hand.

 

“Let’s go before he gives us any more tasks.” He started to walk, and I happily fell in step beside him, totally game for a romantic walk in the woods.

 

“Some honey on the way!” Aegion shouted out, giving one last instruction. I liked honey.

 

“What are the trees like where you grew up?” I asked.

 

“Oh, they’re things of wondrous magic! Few trees are truly mundane, with most having some special property or another. We grew Firewood, which gets its name from the fact that it burns far longer and far hotter than it has any right to. It gave me an early affinity for Fire, which is how I ended up taking Lava as my first class. I…”

 

Woo! Go team Fire!

 

I loved listening to Serondes talk, as we took a romantic walk through the woods. There was no need to hurry, no desire to rush.

 

We made it to the blueberries, taking a few pauses to kiss. Serondes made us a basket out of Lava, then, while we waited for it to cool off enough to not cook everything we were about to pick…

 

“She shoots! She scores!” I crowed out, as I tossed another blueberry into Serondes’s mouth. He snorted at me.

 

“Open your mouth skywards, and don’t move.” He said, and I complied. He tossed a handful of blueberries up, and with some sharp whistles, they all neatly fell into my mouth.

 

Show-off.

 

Serondes - Sweet in my mouth, sweet on my mouth, sweet on the ears.

 

We went and picked wild apples next, chowing down on the hardy fruit that had somehow managed to eke out survival in the middle of the wilderness. They weren’t nearly as tasty as cultivated apples, but hey, couldn’t have it all.

 

I jumped as a triple booming roar of arrows flew by, Lightning crackling from them. Their sheer speed caused my hair to whip around me, although maybe that was the Gale empowerment on them.

 

A few minutes later, Awarthril jogged by.

 

“Hey Serondes! Elaine!” She waved at us.

 

“Awarthril! Catch!” I tossed her one of the apples, my stats making every move supernaturally smooth.

 

“Thanks!” She caught the apple and smoothly bit into it without breaking a stride, juice running down her chin. “Good stuff! Keep it up!”

 

We did just that, until Serondes’s basket was overflowing with nature’s bounty.

 

Then, hand in hand, we walked back to where Aegion was continuing his unfair hunting spree, to get our next task.

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Selkie

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