Beneath the Dragoneye Moons

by

Selkie

Chapter 273.2 - Major Interlude - Iona - Sigrun II

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Dairalt was not a wealthy country. The gnolls tended to be happy in their tribes, bonded with their companions, living their best life. The climate was cold, and the land not terribly wealthy. Would-be invaders were faced with harsh winters as well as powerful dinosaurs and beasts, backed by skills.

It wasn’t worth it.

Dairalt didn’t have much to offer the rest of the world, not until Florence’s Friends. A group of gnolls from different tribes came together, based on their great love for animals. At the same time, they were a practical sort who knew that not every animal was most at home in the plains. That some animals would be happier in the wider world.

They knew money and outside funding was needed.

Such was the birth of Florence’s Friends.

They were stationary, and they expanded as external money flowed to them. They required infrastructure, and the city of Maral was born. Being a place most of the tribes had contact with, a place for resolving inter-tribe disputes emerged, and later, something resembling a government was formed.

Iona smelled the place a full day before she got to the outskirts. Lumbering titanosauruses had thick blankets, larger than most houses, to protect them against the cold. A few [Massive Tenders] kept a wary eye on the eight of them, protecting them against the elements and poachers, and keeping people on the road safe.

Iona craned her neck as she passed, watching the majestic beasts. They were like the brontosaurus the Valkyries used to have, before it died at Goblin’s Death, but even larger. There were also a number of rock-like protrusions from its back, looking like natural armor. If there was a category after "massive", the sauropods would belong in it.

Creatures needed space and land commensurate with their size. The titanosauruses required massive fields dedicated just to them, and it was nearly half a day before Iona saw diplodocus, the smaller sauropods having their own land.

As Iona traveled along the road, the dinosaurs got smaller, more numerous, and closer together. Feed shacks popped up here and there, and the density of gnolls increased.

Dinosaurs turned to other, more fantastical beasts as Iona continued along the road. Lion-headed, scorpion-tailed manticores were next to the pegasus, and the kelpies had a large pond to keep them happy.

Before long, Iona was staring up at the headquarters of Florence’s Friends. All manner of happy shrieks and cries came from the animals inside. The building itself was made out of polished bone, the remains of many titans artfully and expertly worked together to create a glorious-multilayered structure.

The world’s largest pet store. Building 01.

The doors were wide open, and people were moving in and out. A city dweller buying cat food, a burly, way-too-hairy-to-be-fully human walking out with a hulking wolf nearly as large as he was. A full squad of dullahan warriors wrestled a stone egg onto a wagon, where it was swiftly chained down and thick canvas was thrown over it.

Iona eyed their armor-skin, noting areas of grey paint over where standards and seals were normally kept. Someone was going through a large amount of effort to remain anonymous for whatever was in that egg.

It wasn’t hurting anyone, and it wasn’t her business. Iona ignored them, and entered the store.

Signs were plastered all over, in all of the common languages and nearly every uncommon one.

"Bonding with a companion not guaranteed."

It was a sobering reminder that finding a creature to use as a companion was the easy part. The connection was the hard part.

Iona entered the store and looked around.

Cats played on towers designed for them, while dogs raced and played with small dinosaurs. Some rabbits were in a heavily-warded enclosure, and Iona saw why as one of them hopped, then blinked forward.

Scorpions were next to spiders. A gorgon, with her head covered, was examining a variety of snakes. All of them, from the common garden snake, to the deadly cobras and asps, all the way to the crested vipers and white snakes were interested in her, raised up and following her every motion.

Was that a devil negotiating in good earnest with some poor [Florence’s Friend’s Floor Manager]? The manager had the advantage of a home turf and a narrow, specialized class for handling situations like this, while the devil, well.

Had an eternity of negotiating and writing contracts. An eternity of reveling in the act of negotiation and contract-writing.

Iona stared, having never seen an Immortal casually roaming around in mortal lands before. The Wardens didn’t count - there’d been nothing casual about their actions and motives. The demon she fought hadn’t counted either. It was a pirate, and there was nothing casual about a life and death fight.

The devil was shopping.

Iona eventually tore her eyes away, and kept going. She needed to remind herself that Dairalt was on the edge of mortal lands, and bordered both Modu and Jurcor. Florence’s Friends catered to more than just mortals, and by the Treaty of Kyowa, they were allowed. She carried on.

Parrots were cawing next to sleeping owls, Oozlums flitted next to microraptors. Peacocks showed off their plumage, which offended a swan. The bird in question flashed back intricate colors, showing off her Mirage element.

Iona continued to wander around, each creature and display more overwhelming than the next. A dozen [Handlers] ran around, feeding the animals, keeping them happy, and breaking up arguments.

The second floor had endless rows of feed, from mundane hay, to live crickets and mice, all the way to rare slabs of meat, sold by the half-ton.

The third floor had eggs, neatly labeled and organized in rows. Half were under heater lamps, while more were in stasis fields, keeping them well-preserved.

Creatures that were harder to contain were here. Basilisks and Xuan’wu, tyrannosaurus rex and thunderbirds, the rarest and most difficult creatures to keep only had a few eggs.

There were a few gaps where powerful creatures had been purchased, and Florence’s Friends hadn’t been able to stock more quite yet.

The floor had significant security, with most shoppers unable to wander among the eggs. Iona spent some time looking at the unhatched monsters, while reading a sign that indicated what they had. Before long, a member of the store approached her.

"Hi! Can I help you!" A cheerful rabbitkin greeted Iona. It was clear to Iona that she was using one of the more subtle social skills - [Personable], a quick peek of her skills revealed.

It also revealed her name, but people got weirded out when Iona called out their name before they introduced themselves.

Iona didn’t mind that Celery was using a social skill. They greased the world, and made things go smoothly. She had her own [Magnetic Charm] skill.

With a flex of thought, Iona rearranged the Mallium that was omnipresent on her body, quickly creating the detailed wings by her ears that was the hallmark of the Valkyries.

"Iona. Pleased to meet you." She extended her hand, shaking the rabbitkin’s.

"Oooh! A Valkyrie! I’ve never seen one before! Can I touch?" She asked, reaching up to Iona’s ears. Iona bent over some, letting the rabbitkin touch.

"Wooooooooow. Oh! Where are my manners?! I’m Celery!" The rabbitkin was energetic, constantly moving even though the two were just talking. "Are you looking for a steed?"

"Yeah. Hopefully a companion?" Iona trailed off, not sure what terminology Florence’s Friends used, and if "steeds" were the same as "companions" for them.

"Oooh, right! Ok! You came to the right place! Florence’s Friends is here for you!" Celery said. "Now! Steeds aren’t quite the same as companions. You ride on steeds, and anything big enough can work as a steed. A companion’s different! You need to be BEST FRIENDS with your companion, and you need to have the same temperament!"

"Temperament?"

"Yeah! Like, you’re a great, big, fierce fighter, right? Strong Valkyrie, slaying goblins left and right? Pow! Pow!" Celery mimed swinging a greatsword around at the end.

Iona clenched her jaw briefly, then relaxed it. Celery hadn’t been there. Hadn’t known. Didn’t smell burning goblins in her sleep. To her, it was just a famous story.

"Sure." Iona agreed, keeping her words curt to keep her emotions under a lid.

"Well, something like a bunny isn’t going to work." Celery said. "They’re flighty prey animals. They’re not big fighters. Snakes might not work either. You probably want a carnivore! Or a large herbivore. Moose can be mean."

Celery was clearly making assumptions about Iona, but they weren’t exactly wrong.

"Something sneaky and clever like a fox might not work, but something big and strong like an anteosaurus could work! They just get right up in your face, and RAWR! Not even Lumornor can save you!"

Iona had successfully come to Florence’s Friends with a mostly open mind. She’d gotten exposed to dozens of different animals over the years, but was willing to listen to the experts. She mentally shuffled her list around.

"Is there anything you don’t have here?" Iona asked. Celery sighed, a saleswoman having heard the same question a dozen times, and pointed to the board.

"Out on those." She said, then frowned.

"Hang on, we just sold our last cockatrice. Lemme fix that real fast."

She made some lightning quick adjustments.

"Ok! Sorry about that! We have everything else!"

Iona scanned the board, noting a particularly powerful monster was missing from the "not in stock" list. One that, on first glance, would fit with her temperamentally, would work as a steed, and, important to Iona, was unlikely to die in a fight, or anytime soon.

Iona also had experience with them.

The only issue might be the price. The Valkyries had sent Iona with a ransom’s worth of coin, anticipating sky-high prices for a proper companion. Iona had carefully guarded the coin, but even then, some of the prices she’d seen already were out of reach.

That was before upkeep and maintenance came into play. Feeding a creature was expensive, and the larger they got, the higher the price. Iona had spent too many years mucking out stables and throwing dinosaurs their dinner. She knew how much money it cost.

"What’s the temperament of a hydra like?" She asked. The Valkyries had one, and she had some idea of what hydras were like, but at the same time, that might’ve just been that one hydra. Outliers were everywhere.

"It depends on the hydra! They’re cunning, vicious creatures, powerful lords of their domain! I hope I can meet one someday! They’re soooo cool. It probably wouldn’t want to be my friend."

Celery’s ears drooped, then perked back up.

"Oh! But we don’t carry hydras! They’re too smart. It’d be wrong. Could you imagine if we sold humans here? We’re not Urwa." Celery gave Iona the evil eye, which on the rabbitkin just looked adorable. Iona wanted to pinch her cheeks - or do more - but kept on track.

"I’m a great, big, fierce warrior, like you said. I’m straightforward, and I’m a physical fighter and archer. What would you suggest for me?"

Celery grabbed a carrot from a belt pouch, and started chewing.

"Hmmmm." She thoughtfully munched around the vegetable. "Your primary element is Celestial, and that’s just sooo rare. Usually only variants get Celestial. What’s your other element?"

Iona hesitated a moment, then figured it couldn’t hurt that much. Not when dealing with something this important, and Celery seemed to genuinely want to help her.

A paranoid part of Iona mentioned that nobody gave out information to untrustworthy people, but at the same time, Iona had used Ice arrows often enough that anyone paying attention would know her secondary element.

"Ice." Iona said.

"Oh! That’s great! We’re next to the pole, and we’ve got a ton of Ice creatures! For you, the great big brawny fighter? A polar bear would be perfect!"

Celery’s ears drooped again.

"But they have their cubs in the winter, and the only cub we have left is a runt. That, and it’s been a few months. It’s easiest to start working with a creature from the time they’re born if you want a companion."

Her ears perked up again.

"But don’t take the baby away from mom! They need their mom! It’s cruel otherwise."

Iona was finally forced to sidetrack a bit.

"You care a lot about the animals. Yet you’re ok selling them?"

"Yup!" Celery cheerfully agreed. "Not every animal wants to be here." She leaned closer, and whispered conspiratorially to Iona. "Some of the cages are a bit too small."

Iona quirked an eyebrow at that. She’d seen some of the cages, and they’d looked plenty roomy to her. Heck, the dogs had more square feet than the squire’s rooms!

"Either way, lots of these animals want to go out! See the world! They want to have a best friend as well! I help them do that, then everyone is happy! Plus, I get to spend my days surrounded by the most awesome creatures! It’s a great job!"

"Well, let’s see the polar bear then!" Iona let Celery’s infectious happiness get to her.

The store was like an endless labyrinth. Celery guided Iona around, revealing endless rooms and hallways that Iona had somehow entirely missed the first time around - then exited the building, only to enter a different building.

The second building was hot. The air was practically thick enough to drink, and murky, fenced-off ponds and soaring tropical trees was the order of the day. Nevermind that Dairalt was about as far south as possible, and chilly even in the summer. Florence’s Friends spared no expense on nice habitats for their animals.

They left that building, and kept going, navigating through numerous buildings and environments, creatures that didn’t easily graze in the grasslands.

Finally, they got to the polar bears. Iona took one look at the runt, and had serious doubts.

"He’s… kinda runty." Iona observed. She’d never seen a polar bear before, but even to her untrained eye, the bear was less than impressive.

Her blessing to look at System-granted stats and skills was equally disappointing.

"I know, poor thing." Celery looked from Iona to the runt, and back.

"Actually… I’m not sure if your temperaments would work well. Or if he’d be a good steed." She frankly admitted.

"Well, what else do you have? Any Ice or Celestial casters?"

Celery laughed.

"A Celestial caster! Oh, I wish! No, but we’ve got some Ice casters. Want to see?"

"Sure! Lead the way!"

The first candidate was a scorpion, encased entirely in Ice armor, cold enough that Iona felt a chill. Iona and Celery both agreed it was unlikely to be a good fit, although Iona was more than impressed when she peeked at what skills it had, and just how many stats it was running. The second was a crafty fox, happily munching on rabbits, snowflakes dancing around its pure white fur. It was close, and Iona and Celery agreed that it was a strong candidate, even if the temperament might not be exactly there. A quick, nimble carnivore that had no issues attacking? Quite a few marks in the "yes" column.

Almost all of the fox’s skills were strong, or had the potential to become powerful.

[Heart Hearts] was a weird skill though. Something about finding the tastiest hearts to eat, and making them all the more delicious?

However, it didn’t punch up, and it liked using tricks and cleverness to get what it wanted - namely, more rabbits. Iona mentally quibbled a bit - she thought the fox knew exactly what it wanted from life and worked hard to get it, just like she did.

It went into the "maybe" column.

Iona spent some time imagining working with the fox. It could easily wrap around her neck, or balance on her broad shoulders. It could hunt with her, play with her, and Iona could easily imagine lazy hours spent drawing, while the fox gnawed on a favorite… heart?

Foxy got upgraded to the "probably" column.

A fat caterpillar that lazed around and ate was instantly rejected by both Iona and Celery, and the poor rabbitkin berated herself for even suggesting it.

"Oh! We’ve got a mammoth!" Celery eagerly bounded through the store, Iona following until they left the building. A dozen fields navigated later, and Iona was looking at a small herd of mammoths.

"That one! There!" Celery pointed to one of the baby mammoths. To Iona’s untrained eye, he looked just like the rest of them. However, looking through their statuses showed the truth - the mammoth in question was a full-blown [Mage].

"They’re not super aggressive, but once they get in a fight, watch out! Boom! Pam! Wham! Those tusks are nasty, and they’ve got a powerful charge! Their snouts are clever and nimble! And look at how heavy they are! They can smush anything, and their fur is like armor!"

Celery was a canny [Salesrabbit]. She knew how to make a deal, without coming off greasy or pressuring, which improved her chances of success.

Iona looked at the mammoth, and tried to imagine riding one.

It was easy. She could sit behind the head, and use a lance or bow easily, from a dominant position high above everyone else. On the ground, she could cover the mammoth’s weaknesses, and the mammoth could cover hers. Her biggest concern would be overheating the poor animal. Armor was hot and heavy, and that was before the animal’s massive fur coat was taken into account.

Yet, a caster - an Ice caster - should be able to keep themselves cool.

"How much?" Iona asked, and Celery named a price. Iona felt her heart plunge into her boots.

She didn’t have that much.

She didn’t have nearly that much.

"Too much?" Celery asked.

"A bit. Are all mammoths that much?"

Celery shook her head.

"No, casters tend to cost ten to fifty times as much. This one’s twenty times, given how strong its class appears to be."

Iona winced at the price.

She hadn’t known.

"If I wanted a caster companion, what would you suggest?" Iona had an idea in her mind, and she wanted to chase it down to its logical conclusion. She wasn’t going to let a little bit of adversity get in her way.

If it failed though? She had no problems changing track, and getting a more physically-inclined creature to work with. Her blessing was a little unfair in that respect. She could see exactly how powerful a creature was, and what skills they had, and pick the best of the lot.

Celery chewed thoughtfully on another carrot.

"Well… What’s your budget?"

Iona gave the top end of what she had.

"Mmmm. The fox isn’t in that range. She’s more expensive than the mammoth."

"Why’s that?"

"Adorable Ice fox? Some noble is going to pay waaaaaaaaaaaaay too much money to get her for his daughter. We’ll probably need to send someone to make sure it all goes well."

Celery frowned and kicked a rock.

"Nobles keep us in business, but have the woooooooooooorst track records. At least with you, I know you’ll keep the animal doing what it loves, even if it’s risking its life."

Celery thought for a moment more.

"Well, there’s always the wilderness."

"Oh?"

"Yeah, if you want an Ice caster, Modu’s right next to us, frozen pole and all! The conditions are terribly harsh! Unfit for beastkin or human! The animals love it though. It’s where we send our hunting teams for Ice and snow creatures."

Celery nodded absent-mindedly.

"Yup, yup. They’re so happy down there where it’s cold. Oh! You could also poke around the tribes, and see if any of their creatures are casters. They usually bring them here though. Too hard to sell out there."

Iona thought about it.

It sounded like her options were a non-caster creature of some sort, or visit the frozen wastes and give hunting a caster down a shot.

Florence’s Friends weren’t going anywhere. If seeking out an animal in the wilderness didn’t work out, she could just head back and pick up an animal. It’d take some time, but Iona had time - and orders to take it easy.

A few weeks in the wilderness sounded like a "break" - one that Sigrun would approve of - while keeping Iona busy and on the move. Staying still wasn’t in her nature.

Plus, they were currently out of polar bears, and the idea of one appealed to Iona. They seemed to be an exact match for her, and were large enough to be a steed, while powerful warriors in their own right.

"If I wanted to try my luck in the wilderness, how would I go about it?" Iona asked. "Also, are there special rules for entering Modu?"

The ice giants ruled Modu, but Iona knew the rules for entering the country were lax, in spite of it being on the mortal-Immortal border. The Tabernacle’s primary place of worship was located inside Modu, and Iona knew pilgrims had no issues visiting the place.

Visiting the Tabernacle’s primary temple was on Iona’s lifetime bucket list. She’d love to be able to pray to Selene and Lunaris from there.

"If you’re going to the arctic? Don’t wreck their stuff." Celery shrugged. "That’s what the hunters have said. For making a friend? It’s like making a friend anywhere! Play with them! Hang out with them! Talk with them! If they like you, they’ll hang out, and if they don’t, they’ll maul you to death! Careful though, their roughhousing and ‘shred to pieces’ look really similar!"

Iona chatted with Celery for a while. Celery didn’t seem to care at all that Iona wasn’t buying anything today from Florence’s Friends, simply happy to guide Iona towards TRUE FRIENDSHIP!!!!

With four exclamation points.

"Oh! One last thing!" Celery said as they were wrapping up. "Once you get your new BEST FRIEND FOREVER come back and see us! We can help you get the basics down!"

Unsaid - for a modest fee. Iona didn’t mind though, it’d be worth it dozens of times over.

"Of course I will!"

Their business mostly concluded, Iona moved on, and gave Celery her best [Charming] smile.

"Would you be interested in spending the night together?"

Celery’s ears perked up briefly, then went flat.

"Oh. OH! Um. No thank you."

Iona shrugged.

"Alright, no worries! Thank you again!"

Iona found an inn, and spent the night drawing all manner of fantastical creatures she’d seen that day. It took up dozens of pages in her notebook, nearly filling it entirely.

At the end, she drew Celery, then went to sleep, preparing to visit Immortal lands for the first time in her life.

The arctic wastes of Modu.

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Selkie

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