Awarthril ran through the woods, crate on one shoulder, Kiyaya bounding next to her, while the rest of us were attached to her, bouncing around like kites on a string. Cordamo flew next to us, the fast couatl keeping up, providing a strong gale to help carry us along.
For all I knew, he was also directly buffing Awarthril’s speed, but I had no way to tell. Kiyaya’s growls did seem to be doing something, not that I could get much benefit out of any buffs right now.
It was not particularly comfortable, extra-so since I was in the middle. I had [Scintillating Ascent] going, lighting up the woods around us, and trying to get some height.
Awarthril’s running kept pulling me down, the [Rubbery Rope] giving a strong downward pull, connected to me through Serondes. That would be manageable, if it wasn’t for Aegion behind me, taking long “speed leaps” to stay with Awarthril. That kept pulling me down in a second direction. I could handle the downward force from one of the elves, but not two. The end result was me bouncing me off the forest floor before I could regain my balance and fly back up, only for the ropes to pull me down again. It was like I was the biggest, slowest ball being dribbled along. Without the extra-tough skin.
None of it was dangerous, but it sure was painful, and somewhat embarrassing. One particularly nasty knock almost dislodged my egg, and I gave up.
I wrapped myself up with [Mantle of the Stars], saw that being bounced, then dragged along the ground wasn’t enough to blow the shield - although my mana was draining at an alarming clip - and called it good enough.
I basically half hamsterballed, half ball-skied my way out.
I did occasionally need to drop the shield to regenerate mana though, and I swear Awarthril went through every single bramble bush and every tree reached out to smack me when it happened.
Still, I shielded the egg, and after enough time had passed, I was able to expand my shield to fully protect myself again.
I was going to be ravenous after this.
The chase was short, as a new set of horn blasts heralded the rising sun, the trolls choosing not to get turned to stone for a futile chance of catching us.
We cleared the forest, Awarthril turning sharply to head north, and kept running.
Poor Aegion, stuck at the end of the line. He got snapped around like the crack of a whip. I just got tumbled around.
Honestly, once I’d determined I was safe, it was kinda fun. Except for the rocks. And the thorny bushes. Or the mud pit, that Awarthril gracefully jumped over and I went into face-first. Or the…
Ok, slightly less fun.
Awarthril kept running, with only the shortest breaks to take care of biological needs, and two days later, I just wasn’t having fun anymore.
“Do we need to keep going?” My voice was significantly whinier than I’d expected.
I got what felt like a judgemental yip from Kiyaya, and I gave her the evil eye.
“Listen you. You’ve got a fur coat, and you’re running on your own. I’m over here getting bounced around. So I don’t want to hear any sass coming out of your jaw.”
Oh yeah. I was definitely cranky, to be grumping at the dire wolf who was literally as tall as I was, and whose jaws could casually bite me in half.
I didn’t quite think we needed to keep running, not with the trolls unable to handle the light. And, you know, the two days of putting distance between us and them. Awarthril started to slow down, then finally, blessedly stopped.
“Egarblegarglebargen.” Awarthril had another one of her strange elvish curses. I was still taking notes on them, but I wasn’t getting too far. “That was a disaster. Serondes! What were you thinking!?” She yelled at him.
I didn’t think that was very fair, plus, he was my boyfriend. I jumped in.
“Hang on, you didn’t say anything when he was building the baths!”
“Also, I didn’t mean it. I had no way of knowing the lake was sacred to them! Without Aegion’s insistence on staying, that would never have happened.” Serondes added.
Some of his reasoning seemed a hair suspect, but I brushed over it for now.
Much grumbling was had. Aegion was pissed that the party got cut short, nevermind that it had been winding down anyways. Awarthril was bothered that we’d been incredibly rude, left a mess, and ruined their sacred site. Serondes was irritated that everyone was blaming him for it going wrong.
I was unhappy that the elves were all yelling at each other, with the companions occasionally throwing in some noises of their own. Unhappy noises.
“Look, why don’t we all just… take a walk?” Awarthril’s growling noises as she suggested that kinda ruined the cooling-down suggestion she was making.
I turned on my heel and was out. The elves, so far, had been the epitome of arguing well. They didn’t try to murder each other, they didn’t try character assassination, they stayed on-topic. I blessedly didn’t get dragged into it, nobody attacking me for anything I did, and I wasn’t pissed at anyone. I did occasionally try to defend Serondes, but I didn’t want to get too involved in it all.
Maybe because I was more used to things going wrong, and rolling with the punches. The elves seemed to have things almost always go perfectly for them, and they were handling a minor defeat poorly.
Maybe that was their curse? Or could it just be tangential to it?
It was still too heated for me, and the fact that they hadn’t started a friendly brawl to work it out told me it was more serious than usual.
They’d been perfectly fine so far. I was all too aware that any one of the elves could snap me in half like a twig, and keep snapping until I was dead. I didn’t think it would escalate that much, but it was scary.
Serondes joined me a moment later, shoulders hunched over, muttering under his breath.
“Imbeciles. Idiots. Morons. Primitive brutes.”
I wasn’t sure if he was talking about the rest of the team, the trolls, or both.
Either way, we took a long, angry walk together in silence.
Good thing Serondes wasn’t a storm mage, otherwise there would’ve been little clouds and lightning bolts around him.
We made it back, and with barely a word, in spite of the sun blazing high up in the sky, we set up camp.
I suppose we’d been awake for… time was hard to track with how long we’d been awake for. At least it was for me.
Blasted elves probably knew exactly how long we’d been up, to the minute.
For that matter, why did they even need to sleep!?
Serondes was either being petty, or careful, as he made six different huts, all spread out from each other. One per person, per companion. He didn’t say anything as he made them, but he was still fuming, as were the rest of the elves.
“Sleep well!” I said as I gave Serondes a quick peck on the cheek. He didn’t really reciprocate, but he did give me a one-armed squeeze in return.
As I laid down, staring at the glass ceiling - Serondes was really so thoughtful, he’d noticed how I hated being under stone and made it glass for me - I was somewhat conflicted.
On one hand, boo to being sent to my own place to sleep. I didn’t feel like Serondes had been particularly cuddly or attentive.
On the other?
Dude was mad, and was maybe just keeping a lid on things. Maybe he wanted his space. The glass ceiling showed some care and attention. Everyone else had their own sleeping spot.
This relationship stuff was hard. I should maybe talk with him about it. Unless he didn’t want to talk about it?
I woke up to the evil eyes of the moon glaring down at me, baleful red light rudely interrupting my sleep through the glass ceiling. I groaned and rolled over, realizing that I wasn’t feeling all that sleepy.
Guess I’d gotten enough sleep. I did need to figure out wood or something non-transparent, non-stone alternatives for a bedroom.
I yawned and rolled out of bed, seeing Awarthril gazing up at the moons, a mug of something warm and steaming in her hands. I silently joined her, and she quietly passed me an already-prepared second mug. Kiyaya sleepily padded over from Awarthril’s side, then forced her head under my hand.
Hint taken. I started to scratch her absent-mindedly.
I wordlessly took the mug with a small smile, and we just watched the stars and the moon, sipping our drinks in companionable silence.
“Could’ve gone better.” Awarthril eventually broke the silence. “I think we should go back and fix things.”
I thought about it for a moment. It seemed like a good idea.
“Is there any reason not to?”
Awarthril gave a big, deep, pained sigh.
“The trolls will absolutely try to murder us either way. Heck, they might even be trying to hunt us down right now!”
She calmly sipped her drink after that dire pronouncement. I couldn’t figure if she was yanking my chain or not. We were days away from the trolls, who could only travel at night.
I figured I’d play along for now, and see what happened. I took a sip myself, the warm brew magically filling every inch of my body with heat, staving off the cold autumn air.
“What are we going to do about it?” I asked.
“Well, they can only travel half a night’s distance to try and get us, and we’re probably far past that range already. Once everyone finishes waking up, we’ll get going.”
I noticed there was no mention of being tracked or not, or disguising our trail. More arrogance? Or against an entire tribe of creatures that went out and hunted their meal nightly, was trying to hide our tracks an exercise in futility?
I took another sip from my drink, spraying it all out as something landed and impacted on my shoulder. I slowly turned my head, only to see an owl, feathers as starry as the night sky, as beautiful as my [Mantle], looking back at me.
“Why hello there.” I craned my neck back, just to get a better view of the bird. It was close!
“Whooo?” It hooted back, cocking its head at me.
“Whuuu.” I tried to coo back.
“Whooo!” The owl cocked its head the other way, studying me.
“Whuuu!” New owl buddy!
A soft, soft voice whispered in my ear.
“This is almost exactly how Kiyaya and I met. Whoo knows?” Awarthril’s voice was quiet, just barely on the edge of my hearing. Kiyaya had gone entirely still to boot.
Bless the System, and all the stats it gave me. It gave me the strength to not groan and facepalm at the utterly horrendous pun Awarthril managed to slip in.
I decided to check what I was dealing with.
[Barn Owl] was the result, and that was an incredibly light shade. Low level, even by Remus standards. Possibly young, although that only spoke to a System and personal power aspect. It said nothing about character, personality, or drive.
“You are Sasha!” I declared, only for Sasha to dart her head forward, pecking me on the nose.
It hurt, but between my anti-pain skills, and general “don’t jump around the wild Celestial owl that’s trying to make friends with you”, I didn’t flinch.
I felt something a little wet and greasy get pressed into my hands, then Awarthril slipped away, Kiyaya having silently removed herself.
Nothing that big and dangerous should be able to move that quietly. I was 99% sure at this point that Kiyaya had anti-sound skills, to make herself completely silent.
I stuck my tongue out at Sasha. No owl was going to bite my nose without consequences! The Consequences being the Dreaded Tongue Sticking!
Sasha immediately called my bluff, trying to peck my tongue. I rapidly sucked it back into my mouth, and glanced down at what Awarthril had stuffed into my hands.
Meat. Leftovers from the party, if the texture was anything to go off of. Not exactly appealing, with how long we’d been going for, but then again the Spatial Box seemed to have some preservation aspects to it. My stomach rumbled, reminding me that I was due a good long chow-fest.
I offered some up to Sasha, who looked quizzically at it, then darted forward, taking a neat bite of food, carefully not hitting my hand. I continued to hand-feed the feisty owl, not quite believing my luck. I wanted to stroke Sasha, but I didn’t want to risk startling her. Plus, my other hand was covering up the egg. I didn’t think there’d be a problem, but owl + easy food wasn’t a formula I wanted to play around with. I think owls ate eggs, anyways.
Sasha finished the treats, a content look appearing on her face. She then took flight, and I felt my heart plummet for a moment at the loss of my new owl friend.
However, all she did was fly in large circles in front of me, happily hooting.
“Whoo! Whoooo! Whoooooooooooo!”
I seized the moment to study the owl, her body practically vanishing against the night sky as her wings blended in perfectly, her flight entirely soundless apart from the noises she was deliberately making.
I had no way of telling, but it wouldn’t surprise me if [Scintillating Ascent] was going to evolve off of this. Given the skill’s incredibly flashy nature, I doubted it was going to get anything remotely related to visual stealth, but I could believe that my flight would get quieter.
I mean, it was already nearly completely silent, but maybe it’d do something with the air currents or something?
Either way - it was a nice chance.
An owl companion. I’d never thought of it, but it seemed nice. Owls and crows absolutely hated each other, and there was something appropriate there, about how I was constantly locked in mortal combat with Black Crow.
After a few loops tiring herself out, she landed back on my shoulder. I braced myself this time, but it was barely more than a light tap as she landed.
From my shoulder, she lifted a claw up, pointing it towards my face.
“What! Don’t you give me a faceful of claw! I just fed you!” I complained at the bird. Sasha just twisted her head.
“WhuHooooo!” She insisted, twisting her head again.
The penny dropped.
“Oh ok.” I said, taking a leap of faith and turning my head. I had full confidence that even if Sasha decided to try and kill me - why would she, I had just fed her and wasn’t being threatening - that I’d be able to defend myself, even though she was right against my head.
I felt the claw grip my hair, yanking my head to the side in a flurry of wings. I felt more claws dig in as I straightened my head, Sasha working her way up to the top of my head.
“Well hello there.” I said, rolling my eyes upwards.
“Whoo!” Sasha leaned over, looking at me up-side-down, hooting her excitement to be up on her new perch. “Whoo whoo!”
I was pretty happy, but now somewhat worried. Dealing with the egg was hard enough, now it was looking like I might have to deal with an owl on top of that?
Was I going to collect a whole menagerie? What was next, a toucan?
I wanted to show Serondes though, so I carefully, slowly got up, stats making the transition between awkward poses smooth. Sasha wobbled briefly, her claws digging into my hair - and scalp, that hurt - but managed stayed balanced on top of my head.
I threw in some healing for good measure. New owl buddy needed to be 100%! No disease! No parasites! No small hidden injuries! Life in the wild was tough, and it was the rare animal that had no scrapes or bruises at a minimum.
Slowly, I started to walk over to Serondes’s Lava hut. I saw Awarthril, who was giving me a great big grin and two big thumbs up, while Kiyaya was sitting next to her, giving us an approving look.
Awarthril’s face contorted, and chains launched from her as she screamed.
I felt an impact over my head, my scalp being half-ripped off by the force, half-bowling me over in an explosion of starry feathers.
I looked up to see Cordamo flying through the air, an owl-sized lump distending his body, his face covered in blood and feathers.
“CORDAMO!” I screamed out, my heart breaking at losing my friend that I’d met just 10 minutes ago. “I’M GOING TO TURN YOU INTO A PURSE!” I yelled at him, launching myself into the air with [Scintillating Ascent], forming butterflies with [Kaleidoscope].
Cordamo’s hissing laugh of triumph and joy was cut short as he saw me winging towards him, murder in my eyes and radiant butterflies around me.
The sneaky snake was off like a shot as I chased him, intent on getting my pound of flesh for my poor, lost friend.