I chased after Cordamo, the shithead couatl much faster than I was.
I was going to pluck his scales off, one at a time. I’d get Serondes to trap him with Lava, then find a rusty knife somewhere.
He wasn’t faster than my Radiance beams, but he was quicker than [Kaleidoscope]. At least, for the majority of the butterfly’s lifespan, while they were accelerating up to speed.
I was going to eat the tastiest food right in front of him. And give him nothing.
As I twisted and turned through the air, performing impossibly acrobatic feats thanks to the flexibility and agility of my beautiful wings, courtesy of [Scintillating Ascent], I carefully held onto my egg. Making sure it stayed warm, and didn’t fall out of my basket.
I was going to have to be extra-vigilant about Cordamo and the egg now. He was showing an alarming lack of concern for anything I cared about, versus his own greedy desires.
I wasn’t using my beams for a very good reason.
A cursed reason.
I couldn’t hurt Cordamo!
He was clearly intelligent, regardless of what the System message was sending back. He was clever, smart, and Aegion’s bonded companion. My [Oath] stopped me from hurting him, because while I could defend a patient, there was nothing in my [Oath] about revenge, vengeance, balancing the scales, or anything similar.
Dead people weren’t patients. Given the massive disparity in stats and levels between Cordamo and Sasha, and given his poisonous nature, I would be deluding myself if I thought Sasha was being digested alive or something. No, Cordamo would never risk a creature with skills trying to slice him open from the inside.
No, my ability to defend Sasha with lethal force died with her. All I could do was chase Cordamo with murder in my eyes, and make the snake sweat a bit.
On one hand, right now, I wanted to modify my [Oath] - as impossible as that was - to let me counter-attack. On the other, I knew down that path lay madness - and a snake-leather purse.
I wasn’t an avenger. I wasn’t a killer who went out of her way to exact pain. I was a healer, it was my art, my calling. It meant, at times like these, that I was bound, unable to take the actions I wanted. At the same time, my [Oath] was keeping me grounded, reminding me of who I was, and what I believed my purpose in life to be.
There was nothing in [Oath] about not making aggravating danger noodles sweat. More importantly, I’d been keeping a lid on my [Oath] around the elves. Sure, I was baring myself to Serondes, but there just hadn’t been a need to share the details of my [Oath]. What they’d said about granting Immortality still rang in my ears, and while I liked and trusted the elves, “hi I can’t actually fight back” might just be too tempting.
Heck, if Awarthril got super desperate, she could kidnap me back to the Tympestshard Council, sell my services, and get enough money to buy the services needed to make Kiyaya Immortal. As much as I hated the idea, if I was in her shoes, and I was told “Hey, you need to enslave this one person for 6 months and your parents, brother, Artemis, and everyone else you know and love get to be Immortal forever”?
Yeah, I’d be breaking out the whips and chains. I hated the thought that I could ever get involved in something like that, but morals, wants, and needs were a hierarchy.
Actually - I should discuss that with Awarthril. Instead of powerleveling me, why not head back and try to make a trade? I raise some funds helping other people, use said funds to help Kiyaya?
Autumn would have an aneurysm if she knew how much money I was considering giving away just like that. Actually, she’d have an aneurysm once she did the math on how much I could charge. She’d insist that I acquire a swimming pool full of gems. As a spare thought.
I shelved the thought for another day. We should have the discussion at least.
Stealing was wrong, but what if someone was stealing to stay alive? An old loaf of bread from the garbage?
Murder was wrong, but what about killing a Classer who might be the one killing an entire city on their own?
Given enough incentive, given enough of a reward, and many people would find that some of their highest, most closely-held beliefs broke down. It was like that famous joke.
“Hey beautiful lady, would you sleep with me for 10 million rods?”
“How about 10 coins?”
Shocked gasp! “What do you take me for, a prostitute!?”
“Well, we already know that, we’re just negotiating the price!”
Cue laugh track.
It was a crude joke, meant to demean women. Meant to imply that all women were prostitutes, and we’d spread our legs for absurd amounts of money. I didn’t like the joke very much.
However, there was a different seed of truth to the joke, which was that people's morals were flexible, for the right price. Or, if money couldn’t move a person, there was always a lever, a button that could be pushed. Only when an absolute core value was threatened, would we balk and refuse, no matter what was offered or the pressure applied.
For example, I’d never hurt my family. In turn, that made my family a lever - “Do this or your family gets hurt.”
If I was threatened with “Go steal something or we kill your parents.”, I would… probably go talk with Night and the rest of the Sentinels, and figure something out from there.
The elves had been great, and who knows, maybe they were above such things. Maybe they had ironclad morals.
At the same time, when two of the morals collided, one of them had to break. Looping back around, sick, starving family member? Well, either the “protect the family” moral was going to break, or the “don’t steal” moral was going to bite the dust.
At least, that’s how I saw the world. [Oath] helped ground me, helped declare which morals I considered core, which ones were most important to me. I hadn’t had it conflict with, say, protecting my family, but I had serious doubts it ever would.
Back on topic - I was chasing Cordamo, throwing butterflies at him and flying at full-speed towards him. Sure, I was never going to catch him, and I was never going to be able to hurt him. He didn’t know that though - I could make him run!
And if he was stupid enough to attack me back, then I’d be able to go for him. Wasn’t sure I could actually win a fight though, not with the huge level gap, amplified by the fact that he was past level 512.
I cooled down a bit, and decided to seize the moment. Cordamo was in full flight mode, twisting and turning as he snaked through the sky. I’d gotten a gift from Sasha, some aspect of my flight improved, and I was determined to extract a similar price from Cordamo, given how my last attempts at studying him had been interrupted - either by the lake, or by a branch smacking me in the face.
Down below, lit by the moon, I saw Aegion and Awarthril arguing, the former holding his bow in his hands, Awarthril with her hand on her hip, wagging her finger in his face.
This probably looked really bad to Aegion, who naturally would want to keep his bonded companion alive.
With one last blinding flash of light at Cordamo, I stopped chasing him, landing near Awarthril and Aegion, hands up to hopefully indicate I meant no harm.
I didn’t know if elven culture had the same connotations. For all I knew hands up was a deadly threat.
Aegion blew an exasperated raspberry as I landed.
“Awarthril filled me in. Thanks for letting Cordamo off the hook. I’ll have a chat with him.”
I had done no such thing about letting him off the hook!
The last part was more ritualistic than threatening, and I didn’t think Cordamo would be getting much more than a slap on the tail. I hated it, and I disliked it, but cooling off for a moment, and stepping back, I saw his point.
He was much closer to Cordamo than me, and when push came to shove, he’d always side with Cordamo, regardless of how right or wrong the couatl was. In all fairness, I would probably be the same. My bonded companion ruined someone’s day? I’d defend them.
Cordamo landed on Aegion’s shoulders, wrapping around his neck like a scarf. Aegion absent-mindedly reached up to stroke the snake, who appeared to be…
That snake-faced bastard! He seemed to be sobbing into Aegion’s shoulder. I could only imagine the tales he was weaving, of “The mean Elaine was chasing me, trying to kill me! I did nothing wrong, I swear!”
I was probably reading too much into it, but hey.
Kiyaya made some harsh, reproaching barks at Cordamo, making her feelings on the matter clear. Cordamo’s crocodile tears intensified.
Aegion glared at the snake.
“Now none of that. No flying around for two weeks.”
The fake tears intensified.
“And you’re doing the cooking, the cleaning, fetching water, and doing whatever Elaine asks of you for the same time.”
Ooooh, I was getting some ideas what I could make the feathered snake do. Hop on his head?
… I was not good at coming up with cruel and unusual punishments. I generally either killed a threat, threw them to the guards to be fined, or healed people. This “in-between” business was hard.
How could I fine a snake? I probably could, I’d just need to be inventive about it.
Hisses of protest.
“You keep that up and it’ll get worse.” Aegion threatened.
Serondes emerged from his hut, saw us all standing around, yawned, stretched, and walked over.
“Hey.” He gave me a one-armed hug, which I leaned into. “What’s going on?”
Everyone looked at Awarthril, agreeing by silent consent to let the relatively neutral party explain what was going on. She gave a concise, accurate explanation. In the end, Serondes just gave me a squeeze.
“We’ll find you a nice companion. I promise.” He gave me a quick kiss, then went off to find breakfast.
A nice compan-!? WHAT ABOUT MY DAMN EGG!?
I didn’t say that, but I did glare murder into the back of his head. I quickly redirected my ire towards Cordamo, who deserved it.
With the lack of light pollution on Pallos, a good, cloudless night, combined with enhanced vision from the System made seeing at night fairly easy.
“We should get a move on once Serondes is finished. We did say we’d move fast, and, well, we’re up and awake now.” Awarthril proposed, already starting to clean up.
My stomach rumbled, reminding me that I’d only had a drink with Awarthril, and not a proper breakfast, and that I’d run a serious calorie deficit. Aegion, Serondes and I sat down to eat. The meal was a little tense, a little awkward, but nothing happened.
Cordamo had enough grace to slink off somewhere out of sight while we were eating.
“Sooo… North?” I asked, trying to mentally remember the map. I set down my fork, only for Awarthril to whisk it away.
“North!” She happily agreed - seemingly skipping right over the discussion about the trolls, and making amends - and in no time at all, we were off!
We spent two weeks traveling at a relatively good pace. The pace was a brisk walk, up from the slow walk from earlier, and we were no longer stopping for lunch, instead going until the sun was threatening the horizon.
A truly blistering pace. Mmmhmmm.
The world was a wild, savage, and untamed place. Dinosaurs roamed by in herds, hoovering up as much of the plantlife as they could, trampling the rest. Carnivores large and small trailed the herds, looking for weaknesses. Picking off the old and the sick, keeping them healthy.
I frequently sent Cordamo on “errands”, generally fetching one of the bigger, meaner monsters for lunch or dinner. This backfired somewhat when Aegion happily reported that they’d both leveled, which was cause for a minor celebration.
Not what I’d been hoping to accomplish. I did insist that Cordamo stay far away from me and my egg, and he was, to his credit, respectfully obeying.
He did seem a little more contrite after I’d heard Aegion having a loud conversation with him about why it was wrong. The couatl was just a wild beast in the end.
On one memorable occasion, the biggest, meanest brachy in one of the herds stormed towards us, Wind gusting ominously around it. The level was slightly concerning, but we didn’t need to kill it. We’d already secured our lunch, and dinner was hours away. Well, Serondes started to make a move, but Awarthril and Aegion stopped him, instead electing to move faster, getting out of the way.
Birds flew in the sky, from flocks of carrier pigeons, to the occasional large thing that flew at a dramatic height, only visible due to its sheer size.
I didn’t try [Long Range Identify]ing that. Not worth the risk. Not after her. I tried to study it, but with the distances involved, and the fact that it was just a shape, I’m not sure I got anything out of it. I was glad to see that the elves were occasionally jumpy when the sky got dark, glancing up to see what had flown over this time.
As we trampled over ferns and grass taller than I was, disturbing all the critters hiding in it, I was reminded just how wild and untamed this world was. Remus was looking positively civilized in comparison.
I woke up one morning, half-sprawled across Serondes’s very nice chest. I opened my eyes, and had a minor heart attack, entirely skipping the need for [Sunrise] as I saw Cordamo right next to me.
I practically leapt out of my skin, getting ready to swear vengeance. We’d basically made peace, and now he was scaring me first thing in the morning!?
The thieving little shit came in to - wait, no, I still had the egg. And why would he leave evidence?
I finished waking up, all my mental processes turning on.
I then realized I was a bit of an idiot, and that wasn’t Cordamo - it was his skin. I picked it up gingerly, feeling the soft, leathery feel in my hands.
I felt Serondes waking up and sitting up beside me.
“Morning.” He yawned and stretched, and I was distracted by the nice stretching.
“Morning!” I came in for a quick kiss, which became a long one, hands doing some wandering.
“MmmmMM!” Serondes was making pleased noises as we broke from the kiss.
“Elaine. I love your starry blue eyes, your delightful brown locks.” He said the last part, entwining his hands in my hair in a way that was just so.
“Well, I-” I started to say, but was interrupted.
“Your slim waist, your firm ass, your -”
It went rapidly downhill from there, but I didn’t mind. I felt my face burning as I soaked in his shameless flattery, snuggling into his chest as his hands stroked me, pressing up to each body part he named as he described why he liked it.
“Flatter won’t get you anywhere.” Was a saying that was, quite frankly, somewhat wrong. It would get someone many, many places, just not everywhere. Either way, it was nice.
As much as I wanted to continue the sweet pillow talk, we had things to do, places to be. Like taking a nice walk together! And figuring out what Cordamo was doing.
Serondes noticed Cordamo’s skin.
“Well. Would you look at that. Cordamo’s molted, and he’s given it to me.” Serondes grabbed the shedded skin, looking it over. “Quite the gift. Want me to make it into something nice for you?” He asked.
Serondes was occasionally insufferably self-absorbed. It did not bode well for the long-term prospects of this relationship, but then again, my short-term plans didn’t have that much room for Serondes in them anyways. Something for me to examine in-depth another day.
“I had promised to turn Cordamo into a purse.” I nodded towards the shedded skin. “Think he’s delivering?”
Serondes looked thoughtfully at the skin.
“Yes, it seems like Cordamo is giving you the proper apology you deserve. I don’t believe there’s enough here for a proper handbag, but a very small purse should be doable.”
I gave him a quick peck on the cheek.
“Thanks! You’re the best!”
We got up and out, and began traveling in no time at all. I figured it was time to bury the hatchet with Cordamo once and for all.
After all, end of the day, I’d known Sasha for all of five, maybe ten minutes. I’d spent a lot more time with Cordamo, both before and after, and holding a massive grudge over a single owl wasn’t reasonable. I’d nursed the heck out the grudge, but end of the day it didn’t have the emotional weight, time, or investment to last.
“Hey Aegion!” I whispered conspiratorially to him. “Got a treat I can give to Cordamo?”
He eyed me, a mix of appraisingly and knowingly.
“Yeah, sure, here you go!” He fished around into the crate for a moment - Awarthril lowering it for his easy access, having overheard our conversation.
I eyed one of Aegion’s infamous candies dubiously.
“This is, like, actually good, and not something that’ll make Cordamo hate me more, right?” I asked him, remembering the minor prank war we had going on.
“.... Let me double check that.” Aegion said, hurriedly taking the candy back from my hands. He put it up to the sun, squinting at it.
“Mmmm. Yeah, it’s ok.” He finally said. Given how dexterous he was, and how often it had left my sight, I could believe he pulled off some sleight of hand at some point, swapping a prank candy out for a real one.
Or maybe it was always a good one?
Either way, I was overthinking it. Cordamo was smart - he knew where the candies came from.
The devil himself landed with a whumph on my shoulders, wrapping his tail around my neck, his tongue flickering towards the hand that was holding the candy.
Still not fully trusting him - which had nothing to do with burying the grudge we had - I covered the egg with my other hand, while feeding him the candy with the free hand.
He hissed in delight, coiling around my neck in a way most disconcerting.
Kiyaya, not wanting to be left out while I was handing out good stuff, came up to my free hand and nuzzled it, her nose almost as large as my hand. She then deftly flipped my hand up and over her head, making it clear that she wanted scratches, and wanted them now.
“Alright, alright.” I grinned, scratching her behind the ears. Cordamo hissed in a way I’m sure he thought was soothing into my ear, but just ended up giving me the creeps. The nope-rope then took off, flying off into the air.
“Glad to see everyone getting along!” Awarthril cheerfully butted in. I had many things I wanted to say, but held my tongue.
Instead, I changed the conversation.
“Awarthril! Question for you!”
“Answer!” She happily chirped back.
“If your goal is to make Kiyaya Immortal, why are we still heading towards the Shimagu? Wouldn’t heading back to the, er, Tympestshard Council work? Like, we go around, charge an arm and a leg for me to restore people, then use those funds to buy restoration for Kiyaya?”
Serondes gave an undignified snort at that, showing what he thought of the plan as Awarthril answered.
“Bluntly, we couldn’t keep you safe. Sure, maybe we’d be able to hire some people high level enough for protection, but there’d quickly come a point, no matter how much we wanted it to otherwise, where they were calling the shots, not us. We’d get muscled out, and then it’d be hard to tell who, exactly, was in charge. Would you be in charge? Or would it be whoever’s in charge of ‘security’ and your day to day schedule that was in charge?”
Awarthril paused for a moment, thinking.
“There are all sorts of ways they could try to convince you to stick around, most of them kind. It’s likely that they’d approach it with a soft touch of sorts. Make things nice for you. After all, they’d want you to perform for them. Well, they’d say it’d be for you, and they just get paid by you. Either way, you’d find it hard to replace anyone. At that point, who’s really in charge?” Awarthril’s question was rhetorical, and Aegion and Serondes were both staying uncharacteristically quiet.
“Granted, you’d live one of the nicest lives in existence… within a designated safe area. Be able to meet and see whoever… the guards decide is safe enough for you to meet. Do you want that life? We can detour over if you’d like?”
Awarthril’s tone was almost pleading in the end. It was obvious, even to me, that she was twisting things slightly, and putting a negative spin on things. At the same time, she was denying a potential path to making Kiyaya Immortal. Given how badly she wanted that to happen, I was inclined to take her word for it when she thought it wouldn’t work.
I was reminded of the dwarves, and how they’d done almost exactly the same thing. A golden cage, for someone with valuable skills. It sounded like the more things changed, the more they stayed the same, and I wasn’t exactly clear just because I was away from the dwarves.
And hey! Bonus! It meant that even if they knew about my [Oath], they were unlikely to drag me away kicking and screaming!
“Elaine probably wants to wait until we’re stronger, and can properly protect her before trying something like that.” Serondes added in at the end.
Hmmm, yeah, that was also a valid option. Didn’t much like him putting words in my mouth like that, but he was kinda right.
Cordamo returned, landing at high speed on Aegion’s arm. The couatl was light, but his speed was so high that he ended up causing Aegion to stagger anyways as he landed. He then seriously hissed something long and syllabant at Aegion.
“Oh.” Aegion offered his arm, Cordamo wrapping around it. “There’s a road about three miles west of us.”