Living within the Sky Citadel, I gradually began to let myself slip into a more normal life once again. With Leowynn no longer needing to remain hidden, and with Ryone or the others sometimes coming down to visit, it started to feel like a proper family. I had to admit, even Tsubaki started to show signs of changing from the lively atmosphere.
I first started to notice it about a week after I had descended. With her perfect self transformation, she no longer needed to eat, yet she still cooked for me. When she did, she diligently stood at the corner of the dining room and watched in case I needed her for anything. That day, Aurivy and Ryone had both come by to visit, and we were all chatting at the table.
It was only for a brief moment, but I swore that I saw her lips tugging upwards as she watched us. It seemed like she caught my gaze, however, and quickly returned her expression to its normal, stoic state. But that was enough, and it had me paying more attention.
Most of the time, she only seemed to loosen up when she thought she was alone, whether it was cleaning the halls, doing the dishes, or even just sitting in her room. Her body would relax, and the serious look in her eyes would turn more content. For the record, I checked. She wasn’t developing a crush or anything, she didn’t have that kind of love for me or anyone else around us.
Instead, there was a thought that went through her head whenever she saw us enjoying ourselves. ‘So this is what it’s like… having a family.’ Even if she didn’t directly consider herself a member of this rather unorthodox family, the fact that she was able to be around it seemed to lift some invisible burden from her heart.
Naturally, of course, there was one person who just wouldn’t let such a hint go. Aurivy and Tsubaki spent a lot of time together playing Vision Expanse, and I would often see a variety of different expressions from her during that time. Sometimes, she’d get flustered at Aurivy’s teasings, whereas other times her eyes lowered, her ears drooping as she remembered her past.
“Do you wanna talk about it?” Aurivy asked as her and Tsubaki sat at a table. Aurivy was using a long, flat stone to carefully sharpen one of her daggers. Meanwhile, across from her, Tsubaki had laid out a large bundle of black and white fabrics, and was hard at work tailoring an outfit for herself.
The kitsune shook her head at the question. “I appreciate your kindness, Lady Aurivy, but there is truly nothing to discuss. I assure you, I am not attempting to hide something from you.” Her eyes grew dull as she grabbed a pair of scissors, cutting away at the fabric. “There was just never anything there to hide in the first place.”
“You mean a family?” Aurivy asked in a gentle tone, earning the barest of nods from Tsubaki. “Tsubaki, I already knew about all that. Believe it or not… I’ve seen your entire life. But there’s something that you’re wrong about.”
Seeing that Tsubaki wasn’t answering her right away, Aurivy simply continued. “You do have a family. I get that you can’t look at Dale that way, but we all think of you as one of us. No, not like a Goddess, but just someone that we can trust and confide in.”
There was a small twitch in the kitsune’s ears at that, and she glanced up to Aurivy. “I apologize, but you know that I can’t accept this.”
However, Aurivy had a rather… unexpected reaction. “You were pleased! You were totally just pleased with what I said!” She pointed her finger towards Tsubaki in ‘accusation’.
Tsubaki, as if in a practiced motion, leaned back in her chair, her hand going over her heart. “Lady Aurivy, you mustn’t say such things.” She turned her head to the side to hide the barest hint of a smile. This little play had become something that Tsubaki had come to enjoy. Any time Aurivy noticed a sign that she liked something, she would ‘accuse’ Tsubaki of being happy.
In truth, that had done a lot to help Tsubaki to relax over the past several days. She hadn’t known personal happiness in so long… having it pointed out like that allowed her to remember the feeling again and again. She didn’t know if that was all a part of Aurivy’s plan, but it was most definitely working.
Seeing the two of them like that was rather nice for me. Both Tsubaki and Aurivy seemed to have found a friend in each other that they could enjoy spending time together with. And thanks to that, I began to see more and more normal reactions from her as time went by.
Of course, I wasn’t giving up on my own personal training, or preparations for the incoming invasion. Despite the guild’s assurances, there was still the chance that RedRose would launch an attack on me. And while I didn’t want to raise interplanetary panic over a slim chance, I still had to prepare for it myself.
That means personal training, exploring the depths of the divine soul. After giving it some serious thought, I made a decision on how I wanted to train my divinity, what type of domain I wanted to pursue. Of course, I hadn’t narrowed down the exact one yet, merely the category.
The path I wanted to take was the path of detection, the ability to search through the entire world and beyond. I had already begun that path with my world sight, but I needed to take it a step further. I needed an ability that would let me more easily locate invading forces during an invasion, while still offering enough combat potential to fight them off once I found them.
As a part of this training, I looked through the world with my divine energy. I molded my divine soul into various shapes such as eyes, mirrors, or pools of water, and looked through it to gaze upon the activity of the inhabitants of my worlds. Doing so was tiring, as I was purposely avoiding the use of world sight, but I also felt that it was rewarding.
This training continued for… it should have been about two months, right? Every so often, I would get an update from Terra about how much time was left before the scheduled invasion, and I felt the weight of that time pressing down on me. If, for some reason, RedRose did launch a true attack, I would know fairly quickly thanks to the length of the invasion. There would be plenty of time for me to send out a warning to the world, even if they didn’t have the fifty years of preparation that they did before.
Nonetheless, I wanted to believe in the Gilded Branch. So far, they had given me no reason to doubt them. And, as I counted down the seconds before the invasion began, I hoped that that wouldn’t change.
The time has come for the Keeper Games! For this match, you have been designated as Defender, with your opponent being RedRose.
Immediately, I moved to open the hostilities menu, wanting to see how many enemies had been sent to the world. Yet, I was never able to. Before I even had the chance, another window appeared.
Congratulations! You have defeated the invading forces, and won the match! Below, you will find a comprehensive list of entities that had been sent, and their total point value for your victory.
1 Tusken - Heavily injured prior to arrival. Value: 0 Points
My body finally relaxed after I saw the message, the stress from the last several days of waiting left me all at once. I collapsed back onto my bed with a heavy sigh, and actually began to laugh. Two months of constant training in preparation for a potential invasion, and it had been blown away like nothing.
Sure enough, when I asked Terra about the time until the next invasion, there were still two more Standard Months. That should put the next invasion as happening immediately after the annual Keeper meeting that the system hosted.
I shook my head, slowly rising back up to sit on my bed. “Mirror, mirror.” I spoke, drawing out a sliver of my golden divine soul. As I had practiced recently, it formed into a circular mirror that floated in front of me. At first, the image reflected in the mirror was cloudy and unfocused, but this was normal. I had to focus on what I wanted to find, first, and my range was far more limited than that of world sight. But I wasn’t aiming to look too far. The citadel had already been positioned near where I wanted to observe.
A young unicorn galloped through the plains along a dirt road, her black fur marred with strange purple markings. Atop her head she wore a silver tiara, one built to rest on her gently shining horn. On her human upper body, she wore a white dress that flowed down just beneath her waist.
Hailed as the Eternal Princess, she had long since gotten used to the life of royalty. It was not one that she had asked for, but it was also unavoidable after she began her life as the Keeper’s voice among the centaurs. She had gotten the position due to Tryval himself, and it was only normal that people eventually began to notice that she never aged.
Alme Dien had refused the crown at first, wanting to live a free life, unobstructed by the chains that came with it. Even now, she was adamant about not being named queen. She was the Princess, wherever she went. She did not rule any centaur lands, but the king and queen of both centaur kingdoms would happily accept her order, should she choose to give one.
Instead, her function as the Eternal Princess was an advisor to the crown. As a large city with a wide, marble gate came into view, a warm smile filled Alme’s face. She had been asked to visit the Queen of Chet, one of the two kingdoms, and offer her advice on a matter.
Nobody stopped her as she trotted through the gate, the guards shifting aside to let her pass. Whether centaur or halfling, or even one of the visiting races, Alme had become a living legend. Nobody stood in her way, and nobody dared to impersonate the daughter of Tryval.
When she reached the gate of the castle itself, she received a similar treatment, only this time one of the guards had moved to walk alongside her. Upon entering the throne room, he loudly announced her presence. “The Eternal Princess has arrived to grant an audience, my Queen.” He introduced her, before giving a polite bow and backing away.
“Seek an audience.” Alme insisted. “It’s seek, seek.” However, the queen that had been sitting on a wide swath of blankets across the room, her equine half fully relaxed while her upper body stayed upright, smiled warmly.
“Now now, my dear. You know that it is simply custom. Come, join me for a moment, will you?” She offered, inviting Alme closer.
While Alme typically avoided the royal treatment, things were different for her right now. “Alright, auntie!” She rushed over, practically cuddling into the queen’s side. She had seen a lot of rulers over the years, and sometimes she would get close enough to them to see them as an extended family. This was seen as a great honor by those members of royalty, as it brought them even closer to Tryval, and showed that their character was such that it had earned the approval of the Eternal Princess.
“My dear, have you heard about the new game being announced? Word has come in from the merchants, and people are… curious.”
Alme’s face scrunched up at that. She didn’t hate games, but… “Why would anyone want to stay still long enough for something like that?” She did enjoy games, but only those that she could carry with her and play while she ran, or at night when she was resting.
The queen laughed, seeming to have expected such an answer. “Actually… from what I hear, you don’t truly stand still. Within the game, you can experience the joys of running through new lands with your mind, while your body remains where it was.”
The princess’s eyes widened, having not heard the full details. “That… that could be fun. The disabled could walk again?” Even now, the greatest pain a centaur could suffer was to have their leg broken. Mending a leg was difficult, sometimes impossible, and would almost always ensure that the centaur would never be able to run again.
“That’s right.” The queen gently stroked a hand through Alme’s hair. “However… I wanted to consult you about this. To allow the game within our lands… it is both harmful and helpful at once. You’ve seen what happens when we give up on our regular runs. Even if our minds go free within this game, our bodies will be idle. I worry that it could be a health risk.”
Alme gave a nod, leaning into the queen’s hand. “Yeah… I see what you mean, auntie. It’d be really good to help the disabled… But you could set up rules to restrict its use? Only so many hours a day, to prevent people from hurting themselves?”
When a centaur stopped running, and became accustomed to a still life, they grew… lazy. To an even greater degree than most races. Their bodies would be physically sapped of energy, needing the regular activity to keep their blood pumping properly. Otherwise, their hearts began to slow down, and their bodies weakened. The normally hearty race became prone to diseases, their bodies no longer able to keep up with its own demands.
Hearing her suggestion, the queen nodded as well. “Let’s discuss what sort of rules we could use here, shall we? And truly, thank you for the help, my dear.”