Chapter 90.5 Through a Thousand Lenses
Lova Feldstal stirred as a cold breeze blew through the open window. When she first opened her eyes, they were unfocused. She had to rub them for the thousand images to fuse into one. The moth lady cast an absentminded gaze around the room as she slowly sat up and tried to recall the reason behind the unfamiliar sight. The stone walls were nothing like the wooden ones she was accustomed to. It was certainly a strange change of pace, but she was too groggy to panic.
An explanation eventually floated into the back of her mind as she continued to sit in place, half asleep. She wasn’t home. Beckard had offered her one of his guest rooms, and she had accepted for the sake of ensuring that she was in good health.
The priest had offered to take care of her while her body was still weakened. Her health regeneration had fixed her wounds, but the starvation that had come with her capture kept her from regaining all her strength. The crabs didn’t exactly feed her, given that they cared little for her survival. It was certainly a traumatic experience for most, but such was life as a Kryddarian. Getting captured in a net and eaten alive was an everyday occurrence, in the woodlands that they called their home.
Casting her gaze out the window, the moth confirmed that it was early in the night. The sun was sinking beneath the horizon and the stars were only just starting to show. Her favourite time of day, one she could only enjoy if she managed to wake early.
Turning around, she looked to the nightstand situated on the opposite side of her bed. Atop the wooden structure was a large plate, featuring several cookies made of cotton, a cup of wine, and a short note, written in ink. With one arm lifting a treat to her mouth and two raising the note to her face, the moth girl fashioned a pair of glasses with her authority skill and positioned them right on her tiny nose. She had lost hers during the fight, and she was blind as a bat without them.
We’ll be at the tavern tonight.
Lova smiled as she took a sip of the white wolf wine and got out of bed. She had rested for two and a half days already. The priest—the citadel’s only medical professional—had yet to deem her fit for release and her status panel still had her explicitly marked as weakened, but she wasn’t worried. The worst thing that could possibly be encountered within the citadel’s walls was a drunk.
Finishing the rest of her food, she stretched her shoulders, flapped her wings, and leapt out the window. Thoughts of the past few days raced through her mind as she fluttered through the air. The most terrifying part had not been her encounter with the ascended cotton crabs, but rather the supposed rescue that took place after.
A white-bodied, white-maned centaur was the cause of her retirement, the reason she had resigned from the Kryddarian air force to begin with, some fifty years prior. Lova didn’t think that the judgement had come purely as a function of her rescuer’s appearance. Associating with Carter had taught her that not all centaurs, male or otherwise, were to be feared. And she knew that the girl, Claire, was not exactly a centaur. But her blank stare, the colour of her coat, and the way she so readily resorted to violence had left her quaking in her boots. Looking at her, she couldn’t help but find herself reminded of the massive cervitaur that had single-handedly decimated the Feldstal county and ended her family’s legacy.
Pinching the base of her antennae, she rid herself of the thought and basked in the comfort of the evening wind. She was already upon her destination, and there was no point in wallowing in self-pity with a reunion right around the corner.
Like Beckard’s makeshift cathedral, the bar was placed within one of the few ancient structures that still stood. It was considered the city’s highlight, and on a good evening, would house as much as two thirds of its population. Even at the worst of times, namely the middle of the day, there would still be a few customers hanging around it, not that they were strictly customers per se. Everyone had an authority skill; the only people who actively asked others for drinks were the ones that hadn’t killed the monsters they needed to summon their personal favourites.
Though the presence of alcohol was undeniable, the tavern was more of a hub for food than it was drink. Many of the former veterans had taken the chef class. It was one of the few that were relatively easy to unlock, but not so easy that the average individual would have acquired it accidentally. Most would experiment with the authority skill’s dishes, reusing them to create items that were even more delicious.
The lack of a currency meant that neither the chefs nor the servers were getting paid, but they were at least given preferential treatment. Anyone that went on an expedition was likely to bring back some of the things that the bar’s employees had on their list, namely the monster parts they required for their hobbies and personal projects.
Opening the wooden double door, she stepped into the massive stone building. It had likely been a sort of auditorium prior to its refurbishing, but it no longer looked like anything of the sort. There were tables and booths placed all over, with something in the range of a hundred people hanging around its interior, all of whom she knew.
The familiar faces raised their cups and nodded at her as she passed them by. Returning each of their greetings, she eventually made her way over to the usual table.
“Lova!” Myrtle, or Murtt, as she preferred, spotted her almost immediately. The one meter-tall alraune leapt out of her chair, pranced over, and wrapped her vines around the moth girl’s back, her limbs stretching out to accommodate the difference in their size. “I’m so glad you’re okay!”
“Hello, Lova.” Grell, the last member of their party, floated over from his seat and spoke in a deep, gurgly voice.
Unlike the flower girl, the jellyfish man was much less touchy-feely, but not because he was unemotional. He simply didn’t have much of a choice. His body was covered in stingers, and hugging someone was a surefire way to accidentally poison them. Still, he offered his respects by lowering the dome that was his upper body.
“Good evening Murtt. Hello Grell. I missed you both dearly,” said the Kryddarian, as she returned the plant girl’s embrace. “And thank you very much for visiting during the day. I appreciated the treats.”
“We just wanted to see how you were doing. Beck said you’d be better soon enough,” said Myrtle.
“I am sorry we had to leave you. Your actions are likely what saved our lives,” said Grell.
“I was doing my job, as the party’s vanguard,” said Lova. “Please don’t worry about it. I’m sure you would have done the same for me.”
“Perhaps, yes. If I was not made a backline mage.” His lack of a face made it impossible for him to smile, but he made sure to flash his bioluminescent lights around his core.
Their greetings out of the way, the trio made their way back towards their table, with the plant immediately summoning a glass of wine for the newcomer. Her high level Llystletein Authority skill made it so the process completed in an instant.
“Did you ever figure out why the monsters suddenly got so much stronger?” asked Lova.
Myrtle shook her head. “Beck’s party’s the only one strong enough to skew the average so drastically, and they weren’t there.”
“Perhaps it was the group that saved you. Beck did not tell us much about them, besides their names,” said Grell. The man crossed all twelve of his tentacles as he floated in the space above his chair.
“One was a very strange chimera. Part snake, part horse, part human, part elemental. I can’t say for certain, but my gut was telling me that she was some sort of centaur.” The moth crossed all four arms and leaned on the table, pressing her fur into the wood. “The other was a fox.”
“Maybe that was it then.” The jellyfish let out a low hum. “Llystletein foxes are all high level. Eight hundred total, at least.”
“Can’t be.” Myrtle shook her head. “The one that helps me from time to time said that proctors don’t scale instances. At least not automatically.”
“Perhaps it was manual,” said Grell.
“Maybe… but they have no reason to try to kill us.”
“Then it was likely the girl,” said Grell.
“Maybe.” The moth fluttered her antennae. “She was… terrifying.”
“Are you sure that isn’t just your fear of centaurs kicking in?” The plant placed a root on the table and shaped it like a horse. “With how much they’ve hurt you.”
“It is rather ironic, considering what I believe is likely the target of your affections,” said the Ryllian.
“Please, Grell. I’d really rather not talk about it,” said Lova, with an audible groan. “I don’t know how he hasn’t noticed. I’ve been giving him all the signs.”
“You have?” Myrtle’s roots shrivelled. A display of shock. “Like… what?”
“I always produce extra pheromones when he looks at me,” she said. “And I’ve always lowered my antennae in his presence.”
The plant girl sighed, while the jellyfish man buzzed. The same reaction, just expressed a little differently.
“As a man, I assure you that it is unlikely I would have noticed, had I been Carter,” said Grell.
“Really? I thought centaurs knew plenty about Kryddarian habits.”
“Perhaps, but as your friend, I advise that you change your approach,” said the Ryllian.
“Centaurs flirt by waving their ears at each other. Maybe you can do the same with your antennae?” suggested Myrtle.
“Thank you, both of you. I’ll give it a try,” said the moth.
Casting her gaze across the room, she looked at the man in question. Her wings warmed as she rose from her seat and looked for a chance to speak to him.
“She’s real, Eric. I’ve made many mistakes before, but this isn’t one of them”
Carter lowered his mug on the counter as he spoke quietly to the man sitting beside him. The portly centaur’s face was flushed, a surefire sign that he was far from sober.
“Put a sock in it, Chubby. We all know this goddess of yours is just another damn hallucination.”
Eric, a particularly vulgar werebear and the centaur’s favourite drinking buddy, chuckled as he slapped the horse-man’s back.
“That can’t be right. She’s the only reason we managed to escape Borrok Peak. You can even ask Marleena.”
“I did mate, and she said she thinks that this ‘goddess’ of yours was just a person, maybe a librarian of sorts.
Though the conversation was relatively subdued, compared to all the others going on, there were many listening in. It wasn’t the first night that Carter had preached about his newfound faith, and drunk as they were, the citadel’s folks were starved for entertainment. Most were on Eric’s side and found joy in cynically prodding at the man’s half-assed attempts at justification. Others were not as sure. Unknown deities were certainly uncommon, but not by any means unheard of. Dorr, the dwarven god of the inner flame, had been one such example.
“She couldn’t have been a librarian. She wasn’t a fox,” grumbled the plainsrunner. “And you know how Marleena is. She tries her best, but she doesn’t have the best judgement. Half the time, it doesn’t even come close. I was there with her, and I’m telling you. She’s real. A goddess, in the flesh. You can even ask Zelos. He said that one of Archie’s artifacts detected a divine just the other day.”
“Damn tard. Are ya really trusting one of them fucking artificers? Blasphemers, the lot of them.” Eric shook his head and lowered his mug. He was already plastered, but he figured he was still a few mugs away from letting Carter of all people convince him of anything so absurd. “You know what it is? I bet that your dumb ass is probably just horny. Go fuck Meg and call it a wrap. She may be an ugly whore, but you’ll at least get it out of your system.”
“Absolutely not,” said Carter. “That would be a sin before the goddess of ears. My allegiance is already set and I’ve already pledged celibacy.”
“Look, dipshit. I just told you she’s not real,” said Eric, as he emptied and refilled his mug. “And half the gods are horny fucks anyway. Have you seen Vella? Bitch’ll fuck any man with a spear between his legs.”
“Screaming no proving your point, bear.“ Another voice entered the conversation, deeper than both the others. It was the bartender. “Seen the lassie too, godly form ‘n all, aye, or least me thinks me did.”
“Fuck off, Fred,” said Eric. “You’re the drunkest of us all. What you say ain’t worth jack.”
“Why don’t we listen to the man? It sounds to me like he might have something interesting to say,” said Carter.
A whisper of agreement went through the crowd as more people started gathering around them. Carter was one thing. But if Frederick Jasper of all people was on board, then perhaps there was some weight to his words after all.
“Only because he’s about to prove your damn point, nitwit,” said Eric, as he downed a shot. “But whatever, fine. Go for it, Fred. Let’s hear what your bitch ass got.”
The goblin king smiled, his purple skin glimmering as he set down the mug he was polishing, adjusted his bowtie, and leaned over the counter. “Drunk off me arse the other night, ‘n konked meself out in the alley with me statue. Woke up when me was stepped on, pretty little lassie with silver hair and giant ears. Glowed too, pure elemental magic that. Passed out again, ‘n next time me looked, statue was robbed.”
“That certainly sounds a lot like the goddess I saw,” said Carter. “Did she have slitted eyes?”
“Saying for sure no possible, lad. Konked right back into me sleep, me was.”
“Hold the fuck on, did you just say that she stole the motherfucking statue?” Eric furrowed his brow.
“Robbed we were, aye.” The goblin nodded, his big nose hitting the counter. “Missing when me woke up next mornin, ‘n still no returned.”
“That’s impossible! I had Zelos enchant that thing! It’s hard as balls to destroy, and comes right back when someone steals it!”
“Carved right into ‘er panties, aye. Chosen real smart place, that. Brought flavour to me day.” Fred shook his head. “Gone now it is, me friend, and me no think she no comin' back.”
“You see Fred?” Carter whinnied victoriously. “There’s no way she isn’t a goddess, if she can take apart enchantments so easily. The same thing happened to the magical lock that the borroks used on us. She removed it in an instant.”
“Fucking horseshit! The hell am I supposed to jerk it to now!?” screamed the werebear, his fist smashing right through the counter. “That fetish was the only thing that fixed my goddamn fucking ED.”
“Calm, mate. Will tell a secret if y’can fix the counter, aye.”
“Right, sorry. My dumb ass lost control,” said Eric.
The priest placed his hands against it and activated a spell, one that repaired the enchanted plant that functioned as their table.
“Fixed it good, y’did lad.” Running a finger along the freshly mended wood, Fred nodded and leaned forward to speak in a whisper. “Earning levels strengthens it. Grow enough, and me thinks you’ll hallucinate ’bout ‘em all day. Get there, ‘n imagining’s enough for me.”
“Are you really all still stuck on catgirls?” A fourth voice joined the conversation with a chuckle as it moved through the crowd and sat down in an empty stool by the bar.
Turning to it, Carter found the boy everyone knew to be a man. Though his fair skin and lack of a tail made him appear as would a typical Greenwood or Bluebark, his name revealed that he was at least in some way related to the night elves of the Redleaf forest. Perhaps a forbidden union - though no one dared to ask. The angle of his ears suggested that he was a high elf, and there were hardly any willing to risk angering one of the few that stood above level 500.
“Arrived finally, Zelos?” Fred summoned a mug of equitaur blood and slid it to the newcomer. “Expected see you three bloody hours ago, me did.”
The elf smiled. “I was entertaining my daughter and her friend.” Swishing his drink around in his hands, he slowly raised it to his face and took a sip. “More importantly, the rest of you need to correct your fetishes. Minigirls are far more attractive than catgirls.”
“Centaur ears are by far the most attractive,” said Carter.
“Well… I do understand where you’re coming from.” Zelos pursed his lips. “Much more of an impact than I expected.”
If the reddened tips of his ears were any indication, the man was clearly already drunk. Just like everyone else.
“Oh, fuck me. Not you too,” said Eric. He immediately downed his cup, refilled it, and emptied it again. “If even Zelos has bought into this shit, then I guess you fuckers are right. She really does exist.”
“What are you talking about? I didn’t catch all of it, just the ears part.” Zelos furrowed his brows.
“A girl. Beautiful ears, magical glow, and blue-white scales. Any of those things ring any bells, friend?” asked Carter.
“Ahh… her. Yes, I’m fairly certain I know exactly who you’re talking about.”
Carter leaned forward, nearly getting in the other man’s face. “So you’ve seen her?”
“A few times now.”
“I knew it!”
The centaur jumped out of his seat and raised his arms overhead. His drink spilled from his cup and splashed all over his head, but he hardly cared. And neither did the crowd. Much of it had already joined him in his toast, convinced by the words the high elf had spoken. Zelos was one of the citadel’s longtime residents. His word was as good as any.
“Knew it, we did! Drink now, good for celebration,” said Fred, with a grin.
“The goddess of ears is real!” Carter brought his drink to his mouth and downed it in a single gulp. “I wasn’t hallucinating!”
“Ears?” Zelos laughed. “If she was a goddess, recklessness would be more apt.”
“Recklessness… ears… yes, yes, I like it!” The plainsrunner’s face was beet red. In part because his imagination was running wild.
“Ah, fuck it! Count me in, ya nitwits. To the goddess of ears and recklessness.” Eric raised his cup as far as it would go before bringing it to his lips and drinking every last drop. He was too plastered to care about its cherrywood flavour, nor the words leaving his mouth. All that mattered was that he was having a good time.
Little by little, cheers of approval spread throughout the drunken crowd. If Eric had accepted Carter’s claim, and two of the four Relic Weavers were in accord, then they saw no reason to refuse. Only the most stubborn continued to stand in opposition—not that they mattered.
The majority had already decided that the goddess of ears and recklessness was real.
And that was exactly how faith worked.