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Chapter 90

Page history last edited by Anonymoose 5 years, 9 months ago

     “And I thought the Kneljewl swamps were rough,” I said while pulling a boot out from a vacuum seal of muck.


A sickening pop preceded my next (more cautious) step. The lands within Yaleria proper were far removed from green hills and red rock mountains we passed through two nights before. All those sweet scents such as budding grape flowers were a distant memory. A reality cruelly overwritten by the smell of rotted plants and mud. Off the paved stone highways were these dirt roads that turned to mud after the rains came. It was a mystery to me how nature had yet to reclaim these strips of dirt through the wetlands. Reeds and waterlogged trees grew thick, but they respected the man-made structures and left these dirt dykes unmolested. It's a good thing too because without them, I imagine that the pools of still water would probably end up chaotic and roil in every direction which would make travel impossible this deep in the Yalerian wilderness.


One small comfort is that it's still too early for mosquito season. Most of the little buggers were no doubt lying in wait as larva, biding their time till mid summer to unleash misery upon the world. A quick slap against my neck every so often would be enough to keep myself from being eaten alive.


     “If it troubles you so... I could carry you through like before,” Chris called down from up above.


The wyvern perched high up in a tree and wedged herself between a point halfway up where the trunk split in two. Her talons cut gashes into the bark and trees creaked and began to bend under her weight. She looked down at me, slogging through the mud, skin covered in mud and mosquito blood. I looked back at the other girls who were also covered in muck up to their thighs.


Shoshanah had muck all over her. The anubis' bronze tan couldn't hide what looked like a haphazardly applied mud mask. I'm sure the cosmetic benefits of it were being counteracted by the way her brow furrowed. Her golden staff did not serve the best walking stick either, and despite how careful she is, her paws routinely sunk into the road, plunging her fur covered calves into the muck and nearly throwing her off balance which would lead her to face plant into the mud. The rest of her fur had long since caked with dry mud. Her stomach, once smooth, was a canvas of rough dried mud that concealed her signature tattoos.


Even Minte had gotten soaked and covered in mud at some point. However, she looked nowhere near as bad as Susan. The assassin's stoic expression didn't let on if she were as miserable or upset. Rose, on the other hand, looked just as messed up as Susan, but what alarmed me was to see her signature smile absent. I expected this little foray into the wilderness to make her ecstatic. But for the past couple days she kept quiet and cared not to look back at me. If I were not seeing things, she went so far as to look away and give a little pout when doing so. The other girls either didn't notice, or the novelty of the peace and quiet this caused had not yet worn off.


     “No, I'm good,” I declared.


     “Don't be so modest, Laven,” Ba'el said with a happy-go-lucky chime. “Don't be so lame while trying to look cool.”


So said the one girl who had yet to get so much as a spec of mud on her. She pranced along the road, from one stray stone in the road to the next. Not once had I'd seen her sink a hoof up to the knees in the mud. It didn't take her much effort, but the little girl put in some effort to stay completely dry and unsullied by the mud. This of course was not lost on the other girls.


     “As expected of the goat,” Shoshanah said with dagger in her words.


     “Ha ha,” She laughed, “Maybe that'd get a rise out of me while you looked like anything but that.”


The baphomet skipped merrily down the road. Shoshanah's goat comparison was not far off at all. It could be because she's that much lighter than everyone else here, or maybe it's a natural talent in those legs of hers. Ba'el pranced as gracefully as a goat high up in the mountains where one misstep could spell certain death. The girly singing of old folk songs grated on the anubis' nerves even more. For my own health I decided against pushing the goat comparison myself. I learned there were two buttons with that girl: Don't treat her like a child and remember that she's a demon, not a—


     “Dark Beast, Laven,” Ba'el said, stopping mid step on a single hoof and pirouetting toward me.


     “Erk,” my voice croaked and died in my throat


I didn't say all that out loud, did I?


She shook her butt in my direction (what she did have at least) which was hidden behind her green cape. Yet still it clung to it due to there being not much at covering it to begin with.


     “I know you like to watch when I walk in front,” she said, laying the sultry on little too thick, “But you should remember it's the spade tail that gives a demon her pride. For a hell beast like me, it's all in the horns.”


Curved backward, sharp, but also sporting one which had broken. She pampered and padded them with the palm of her paw like some patrician bunching up the curls in her hair. The movements of her paws suggested thickness, curl and size mattered. Her goat tail swished back and forth merrily and peeked out from each corner of the cape as she glowed radiantly with pride.


     “Ohhhh~” Chris awed from above. “Is that why they're so big while nothing else is?”


Her words carried no malice, I think, they certainly sounded sincere... I could never tell with that girl. Chris' naivety touched a nerve though; Ba'el haughty expression twisted into an ugly grimace. A crack in her armor of contempt which then got obliterated by a snort from Susan who wore a smug expression on her mud covered face.


Ba'el kicked the tree next to her. The bark splintered and the trunk cracked. A whole mature tree got severed at the base of the trunk from one single kick. Chris was not troubled though, a few flaps of her wings and a leap forward carried her into the next tree where she perched in safety as the twenty odd meter tree collapsed into the soggy swamp.


     “Say that again down here, why dontcha? I'll slap those tumours of yours so hard they'll spin right 'round and grow outta your back!”


And Ba'el's chipper attitude had been cut out from under her. Chris' lungs bellowed out another hearty laugh as she moved not so gracefully in the canopy above. The rain of leaves and twigs onto Ba'el's head exasperated her frustration as she chased after the wyvern from below.


Leaving the daemon behind to swallow her anger, the wyvern beat her wings and leaped into the air. She crawled her way up through the canopy and broke free into the skies above. I envied the girl, I really did, but it wouldn't be fair for me to cling onto her back while the other four—three were drudging through the mire. I'm the one who got us into this mess, and I wasn't about to avoid paying the bare minimum price of admission.


     “Laven, thou shouldst suffer from imagined obligations,” Susan declared, tired.


     “No way,” I refused immediately. “What good what that do besides soften me up?”


Susan offered no rebuttal. I'd be abusing both trust and their kindness by making a single day a little easier on me. That would be a bad trade and an unfair one. Immoral even. I'd stick to my guns and commit myself to going through the same drudgery as the others. Anything less would be unacceptable. Besides, there were a few questions I had to get off my chest. First, about something Ba'el had said. I looked forward and watched her while she preoccupied herself failing to catch up with the girl who could fly. She'd be out of earshot right about now.


     I turned back to Susan and had to ask, “Isn't she a demon?”


That was my understanding when we first met in that cave back in the North Marches.


     “A creature sired by the pits of hell,” she replied. “Semantics, to be sure, but technically a creature such as her is not like that of succubi which I read now dominate the hells.”


     “...But still bound by the same rules?” I muttered.


If I could catch her in the right mood, the one where she wasn't hitting on me or messing around, I'd have to have her flat out explain it all. To be honest there were questions about Susan's origins and home I wanted to ask too. But these things felt incredibly private. Topics that were too sensitive to bring up in polite conversation and mix them casually with small talk. It felt wrong to simply bring them up with the others around the camp fire in the evening.


While looking past Susan, I caught Rose staring at me, but once again she quickly diverted her eyes. Her tail sparked and sputtered a few embers for a second, but then died back down to tepid levels. Her tail made it all but impossible for her to hide her emotions, but I still wasn't sure which emotion she inadvertently displayed. The only sound she made besides that was a rude humph. It had gotten worse, so I slowed down till I walked beside Susan and could whisper directly into her ear.


     “Is something wrong with Rose? She's been acting weird ever since we set off.”


I got an incredulous look in return. A cocked eyebrow which forced anyone who looking to reconsider if they were current sober, or weren't missing a few braincells from a moment ago. You need to seriously think on what you just said, and why you said it. That's what that single expression from Susan said, and she left it at that. Her attention returned to navigating the muddy road.


She passed by while I stood there dumbfounded by the cold shoulder. Normally she'd not hesitate to answer, but apparently this was something I had to do myself. I scratched the back of my head while Rose passed me by next. A thick tension hung in the air which felt thick enough to lite off a couple sparks. A force which felt near gravitation in nature caused my hand to twitch and reach out for her, but I held myself back while she walked past.


Something hung in the back of my mind, but I couldn't give it form or put it into words. This wasn't exactly the best place to be doing this though. We had limited daylight hours left and camping here would be as miserable as it'd be disastrous. So when Minte passed by, I stopped her and asked the same thing. I didn't expect much out of the quiet girl, but anything would be something at this point.


Minte's blank expression heaved an almost unnoticeable sigh, but compared to her usual self, I picked up on it without fail. But even her eyes spoke to me: Really? That's the one word, in an accusatory tone, I got from those indigo eyes of hers. And she isn't about to let me stand in the middle of the road either as she put her hands on my back and started pushing me forward. Rear guard duty fell onto her and she so there would be no way tolerating my standing around in a daze by all by myself.


     “I can see the clearing!” Chris bellowed from above. “At the end of the next bend in the road. Through the swamp one-third a league north, our destination awaits!”


Well, mulling over all that could wait. Hearing that our destination neared had been a breath of fresh air to our tired convoy of misery. That should mean some dry and flat ground to rest on before starting the next leg of our journey. Letting my feet dry and my back to stretch out on the floor... the thought of those alone caused a warm soothing feeling to wash over me. A taste of the reward my body had prepared for itself after a laborious day.


Chris is the fortunate one; due to an unfortunate series of events after reaching these nearly forgotten backroads. Yaleria was indeed spotted by swamps, wetlands, marshes, whatever you want to call them— But a lot of it were rather cleverly and impressively converted into farmland. A few levies and dykes here and there, and you found yourself with several dozens of acres worth of freely irrigated black peat soil. That's why the sudden decay of good infrastructure hit us so suddenly. Chris sank down all the way to her chest when a soggy section of dirt road gave way like quick sand. If it were not for her massive chest, the girl may have gone down to her chin or worse.


This happened about three times before we all agreed she should take to the skies and act as our eyes. It took two more times of her sinking into the muck before she finally agreed. The girl felt as though she were missing something if she left us down below. I could never leave my comrades to toil alone! She declared... But in truth everyone was getting tired of stopping every ten or twenty minutes to pull her loose from the mud. The girl must weigh more than a hundred kilos thanks to her height, tail, wings... chest... and all those armoured scales. She wasn't built for off-roading, and she'd have to accept that. Especially after the third time, when Ba'el, with all her strength, threw up her arms in anger and refused to be the one to pull her out of the muck one more time.


One small comfort now, after half a day in this mess, would be that the entrance to our destination is now close at hand. We'd leave this muck behind, wash ourselves off, and we could finally get to work... But only after wading through the waist deep sludge. It took another half-hour, a few more legs sinking into the mud and the swamp coming up to our chests. I'm positive an army of leeches were tripping over themselves to latch on wherever they could as well.


Minte moved up the to front and started slashing through the foliage with her arm blades and make quick work out of the brambles blocking our path. Chris circled up above and kept an eye on us and made sure we didn't stray off target while cutting through the wilderness. Ba'el, still refusing to get dirty, jumped from one tree trunk to another directly over our head. At least we managed to convince her to carry most of our belongings. She lugged several packs strapped to her in all places, altogether they would be twice her size, but that didn't slow the girl down at all, nor make finding her footing with those hooves of hers any more difficult. Rose, Susan and I stuck close with me in the middle. The anubis' held her staff above her head and let it glow with a guiding light since much of it was being blocked by the thick forest canopy. Rose held her sword above her head


I let my mind wander in a vain attempt to escape depressing reality. My train of thought drifted back to the words of that mysterious sorceress.


     “With this artifact, I proclaim you active priest of Dulimder; Be his ward, he himself who walks the world and among the living in his stead. Take it to the depths of my family's ancient tomb and set it upon the alter. That one should assuage many missed generations of homage and ease those spirits which have no doubt grown restless.”


That is what I recall Hyria telling me two nights ago. Even now the green glowing crystal rested in my front jean pocket. It wasn't much smaller than a rely baton, but definitely looked like one giant emerald. It shone with an inner light, but the cut and grind of the clear crystal no doubt made it an unbelievably precious gemstone. Susan and Ba'el both agreed that it could not be a naturally occurring stone. Due to its size and shape, the thing had to have been created using magic.


What this green artifact could be was beyond everyone besides Shoshanah and Ba'el. But the definitive thing that could be deduced between the two of them is that it's magic in nature and that no natural process within the earth over many eons could by chance produce it. A series of ridges and notches gave no other impression but that of a key. To set it upon the alter had a whole other meaning with that in mind. That's what the two of them figured out by looking at it. When they wanted to take it into their own hands I had to stop them.


I explained to them that our client specifically mentioned that only I could carry it and that handing it off to anyone else would make the whole ritual null and void. Shoshanah objected at first, but she got real strange when I mentioned the bit about being some Death God's representative. Her thoughts got all tangled up on that. She twirled a lock of her black hair around a claw while her cheeks flushed red. Then she spent the next twenty minutes muttering to herself. Ba'el narrowed her eyes and looked at me suspiciously; but in the end she shrugged her shoulders and stated, “well, we'll just have to wait and see.”


Something about the way she had answered rubbed me the wrong way. But Ba'el assured me that if she remembered anything important that she'd bring it up immediately. I'm positive that suspicion had to do with the aura of mystery that surrounded the woman who was our client. Rose and Minte had been the only other two to see her, but hadn't spoken to her directly, or alone, so the others had to take my word on the matter. They were all rather alarmed that the two of us had met in person, alone, that night.


Shoshanah could not rationalize her intentions and reasoning based on her actions while Ba'el made passing insults about 'cowards' magic. Putting the whole manor to sleep, the baphomet assured me, had been quite a feat, but such an indiscriminate spell had no utility besides mercy. It didn't win battles, it could prolong them, but there wasn't always a benefit to that. Unless reinforcements were on their way. During a seige though... You'd expect them to have arrived considering how long a good set of walls should last. A good night's sleep to help with the last stand, that's the one situation that spell would be good for. A sphere of sleep magic that would render any attacker moot by lulling him to instant slumber upon breaching the perimeter. “Made selfishly by some soft insomniac wizard on the eve of his slaughter. When he got taken out with the rest of his fortress the following day,” Ba'el had said.


I got the impression that my not being affected by the spell was part of some test. Hyria would vanish into the night and never be seen again had I not answered her summons. That is the way I saw it. It took some explaining before the suspicious Susan and Ba'el relented and came to the same conclusion. But even Ba'el had a hard time believing I could have woken up during that spell. Hours had passed since I passed out after... well... after a rough start to the night... but I did wake up as suddenly as I had fallen asleep. A spell that lulled the energetic Rose and attentive Minte to a sleep so deep I couldn't shake them out of it.


At last we were rewarded when the thick foliage gave way to the clearing Chris mentioned before. We stepped out from the swamp and stood before an enormous mausoleum. Its size may have been mistaken for a temple, but how it was described to me meant it could never have been a place of worship. It had been a place of mourning and paying respects. But all the moss and cracks covering the stone structure told me it had not been used, repaired or visited for a long time.


We made better time through the swamp than I could have ever hoped for. There were still a few hours or daylight left. My first course of action would be to shake off my soaked boots and fall face first on the dry grass. A fire is needed, stat. A couple more days of this and I'd begin to rot with trench foot. Everyone else appeared to have the same idea too, and they all collapsed onto the grass in a series of thuds. A warm wash of accomplishment overtook me and banished the cold dampness and string of fresh mosquito bites. I gave out a weak laughter and it ended up being infectious as the others began to chuckle as well.


Ten minutes were put aside to lay there and do nothing. The occasional dragonfly buzzing nearby and the sing song of birds were the only sounds to be heard. There wasn't any need to agree upon the moment of silence and rest, everyone knew instinctively to not violate the sanctity of it. That would be until I sat back up and it was time to get back to business.


     “Are we going to camp here tonight and then enter in the morning?” I asked.


     “Sleep in the middle of the swamp?” Ba'el answered incredulously. “With all these insects around and in this humidity? I don't think so.”


     “This ground here, as dry as it is, shall no doubt flood with the evening and morning dew,” Susan declared. “Without a solid and prepared floor, such an action would be highly inadvisable.”


     “Still, we can't sit around here soaking wet. We need time to dry off and prepare.”


     “And be inside before dark,” Ba'el added. “Don't you think there's a reason why no one lives around here? And I'm talking about things besides the smell of shit.”


A clatter of sticks haphazardly dropped on the ground along with some stones kicked into place. Chris used her talons to scrap the ground and dig out a pit with all the grace and efficiency of a backhoe. Without a word of warning she puffed out her chest and breathed a stream of fire onto the coddled mess of a hastily made campfire and it roared to life in an instant. The girl of action looked up, a smile on her face, and gave me a thumbs up with a claw on her forearm.


     “Step one, completed!” the wyvern declared.


And with that we had the all important fire prepared. We scattered our belongings and half set-up a temporary camp. I changed into a dryer (and clean) set of clothes. I also put my steel gauntlets and iron tipped boots back on. There would no telling how much trouble could be beyond that door, or in the middle of the wilderness. Neither did we have to worry about rusting or sinking into the ground like before either. The girls shook themselves off, wiped the dirt off their bodies, shone their scales back to a shine and wrung the muck out from their hair and fur.


Susan took control of the fire to prepare a much needed meal. Some sort of stew carefully and exactly prepared with absolute and planned measurements. Minte and Chris worked together to start drying off all our belongings which had been soaked during our foray into the swamp. Minte held out a piece of clothing on the end of one of her arm blades while Chris blew extremely hot air at it. I feared that she'd spurt out a little flame and light something on fire, but they seemed to be in control. Meanwhile, Ba'el stood by the front of the mausoleum. Rose sat at the edge of the grass clearing, dangling her legs off the edge.


It was very much unlike Rose. I couldn't get anything out of Susan or Minte, and Chris was busy, so I took my chances with Ba'el this time. I approached from behind as she traced her paws over the engravings chiseled into the stone.


     “What's the story here?”


     “Nothing,” she replied with a dry monotone voice.


     “What do you mean nothing?”


     “I mean nothing, nothing. Half the engravings have eroded away. You look here and here,” She said while pointing to a couple lines framing the whole of what she spent the last five minutes looking at. “This is a door, for sure. But I don't see any lock or mechanism.”


She turned and looked up at me with an exasperated expression on her face.


     “Well how about—“


I tried to suggest, but Ba'el thrust her paw folded into a fist toward the stone wall. A loud crack echoed throughout the swamp. My whole body jerked and had my nerves been a little shakier than they were, I would have leaped far enough back to land myself back into the swamp. And the door didn't give way.


Not one bit.


Ba'el straight lips curled slowly into a frown and her out stretched arm trembled. Her legs gave way and she squatted on the ground, clutching her right paw into her chest.


     “You alright?”


     “PERFECTLY... calm,” the girl reassured me, unconvincingly.


     “What do you think you are doing?” came Susan's voice from the campfire.


The anubis stood up and glared at Ba'el's back and then turned her accusing eyes to me. I shook my head and pointed fingers down toward the daemon.


     “Did you just try to break down the door?”


     “Yes, I just tried to beak down the damn door!” Ba'el yelled back.


Susan wouldn't be close enough to see, but there were a couple of tears welling up in her eyes.


     “This is a holy site!”


     “This is shitty site, in the middle of fucking nowhere! Besides, it's not one of your holy sites, so lay off it... You mind the damn dinner!” Ba'el screeched as she stood back up and pointed her unharmed left claw back at Susan.


The priestess had a mean look in her eye, but decided against escalating the situation into a full-blown fight. Ba'el hadn't done any visible damage to the structure, and rather hurt herself, so Susan backed away. She'd no doubt check in later when she had finished preparing that stew for everyone. Her knowledge must have some specialization in tombs and the like, but Ba'el held an edge in matters concerning magic. And this was from a culture, history and religion she's not familiar with in the first place. If the goat, as she'd say, wasn't going to have any luck then Susan could provide a second opinion. It would be very unlikely she'd have the answer right away if the baphomet did not.


     “Can we not resort to brute force in less than ten minutes for once?” I suggested.


     “Brute force is exactly what you do when you come across something without a lock. Especially when there isn't an opening either,” she said, turning her eyes back up at me. “Whoever built this did not intend for anyone to get in.”


After a minute, Ba'el could flex her right hand along with moving all its fuzzy digits. She immediately went back to tapping the stone with the claw tips, tracing for some sort of missed opening or important etching she had missed.


     “If you're gonna stand there and watch like an idiot, go and do something that's actually useful... Like cheering up the firebrand back there,” Ba'el said.


At least this time I didn't have to awkwardly bring it up.


     “And what's with that? I haven't seen her that mopey since she tried pretending to be a professional mercenary for once,” I said, remembering when we first walked together into proper civilization for the first time.


Ba'el turned her head up to look at me and she wore the exact same expression Susan and Minte had. It said: 'Really?' I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders as if to reply: 'Yes, really!'


     “You think about that for a minute,” Ba'el clicked her tongue and then turned her attention back to the wall.


That was the last I'd get out of her for now. Her expression advertised it. I gave up and stepped away, setting my sights on the red hair girl sitting far beyond the edge of the camp. Her tail rested lazily on the grass, her red ponytail hanging down her exposed back. Each footstep I planned carefully and approached with caution.


     “Hey there,” I called out to her.


Her tail came to life and lifted off the ground, but she slowly set it back down on the opposite side of her. It spurt to life for a second, but slowly died back down to a static and mellow low burning point.


I crouched down, wiped off the grass beside her and sat down. She responded by crossing her leg closest to me over her other and looked away. Rose rested her chin on her right fist. I still couldn't tell what expression she made. And that left us at an impasse. We sat there without saying anything. She's upset and had nothing to say to me. I wasn't sure where to start or why she's mad in the first place.


Sitting in close proximity did get my heart rate to increase and the blood flow to my brain to kick into overdrive. My confusion metamorphosed into distress as the lack of a simple answer left me distraught. It couldn't be something that complex. I had to be over thinking something. Rose didn't let herself get hung up on small and petty details. She had also been all over before we had set out. It was at some point after we left the manor, after meeting back up with the others and debriefing on the night before, that I noticed this change in attitude.


I thought further and further back. Rose in that dress of hers... twirling a dagger in the air. Great, now I couldn't separate those two images. The novelty of Rose dressed like a princess had been polluted by something far more natural and organic. I wracked my brain further and further, daring to delve through other memories, such as Rose laying peacefully asleep in that bed while I got up to...


By myself.


Ah. Of course. That'd probably it. Rose and I had gone it alone, but she did feel obligated to protect me. That's how it was, wasn't it? Had I put myself in danger and left her behind? No. I'm the one trying to protect her because she'd been sleeping peacefully and defenceless... Except for the bit she wouldn't be harmed since no one else was awake but me and... Ack. I held my throbbing head in my hands and groaned. Of course she was mad. But how do I explain all that, and explain myself?


No. An explanation probably wasn't what a girl like her would want to hear. At least that's what I think. That's what I've learned so far about her... If I'm not mistaken... Either way, I stood back up without a word. Rose's tail twitched again, her body shook and she readjusted herself on that perch of hers awkwardly. I took a few steps back toward the camp while watching her and saw her shoulders sag as she exhaled dejectedly.


     “Hey,” I called back to her.


Her whole body twitched again. The girl's tail jerking back up to attention.


     “I just thought this was all nice... I stepped out, maybe put myself at risk, but I finally scored us a... you know, an adventure?”


Rose's ear fins twitched at that word.


     “I mean, we've been on the run; that's all pretty exciting. We've had quite a few fights, sure. But we've never really— been on a proper adventure. When we first met, not long after we first met, that's one of the things you said, right? You'd need nothing else. An open road and an adventure is all you needed, right? That's why I thought... If I had the chance to... Make sure we had that...”


I started to find myself at loss for words. My finger reached up toward my cheek and scratched it nervously as my heart beat faster and I got as flustered as a school boy. Everything I did manage to say was true though.


Rose stood up.


     “I know I must have made you worry!” I sputtered. “Hearing I might have been in trouble when there's nothing you could do. But you were sleeping so vulnerable there too. So I wanted to—“ I said, forgetting myself and the promise to not stoop so low to that reasoning.


Rose finally turned around and looked at properly for the first time in almost two days. Her amber eyes shook and were glistening.


     “That said—“ I tried to voice the conclusion and point of that whole spiel.


But I didn't get the chance to go so far. Rose closed the distance with two quick steps. Her claws reached up and squished my head between her claw's soft and warm scaled palms. She pulled my head down slightly, but she mostly stepped up on her talons and pushed her lips into mine. It wasn't a savage kiss, she didn't slip in any tongue either, but her soft lips completely sealed my own. Her face, her forehead pressed up against mine. That smell of stale water, mud and rotting plants got replaced by the smell of burning pine. My dry mouth overflowed and tasted something salty and sweet from the skin of my lips, which spread to the back of my throat.


A couple seconds wasn't enough, she moaned happily while cutting off my breathing entirely. My arms flailed uselessly. Her body got so hot my instinctual reaction was not to touch it for fear of burning. A more self conscious thought is that I'd get inappropriately carried away if I did.


My arms, my whole body, started to lose its strength quickly as it starved of oxygen. Those flailing arms settled down and dropped listlessly at my hips.


Behind the girl, her tail exploded back to life and surged into roaring inferno. A backlog of kindle bursting to life all at once. She finally released me from her grip, and the lock of her lips. My knees had turned to mush at some point and I slammed down to the soft ground with a wet thud.


     “Alright!” Rose shouted and bounded back into action.


She jogged over to the campfire and where Susan had been preparing our meal. Chris appeared behind me and wrapped her wing arms under my own and lifted me back onto my shaky legs. Everyone else had been watching with stunned and flushed looks on their faces. That spell did not break until Susan freaked out and screamed back when Rose stuck her finger into the boiling stew and sampled it without a care. I myself remained useless until Chris shook me back to my senses and wrapped a wing around my shoulder and leaned down to whisper into my ear.


     “Great work, master,” she said and then added a wink.


     “Huh, wha? Where am I?” I said in a daze.


Chris merely pushed me forward which forced me to put strength back in my legs or hit the ground again, but this time face first. I noticed right away that Rose had suddenly returned to her usual self. Throwing a quick glance back in my direction every so often with a beaming sharp toothed smile on her face.


Rose spoke jovially to Susan, who was a little overwhelmed, but from the few words I could still make out, and their gestures, she brought her back up to speed about the problem with entering the actual mausoleum itself. The salamander thought hard for a moment, then slammed her fist into her other palm with a eureka moment.


She marched back toward me, and I prayed to whoever would listen to give me a few more seconds to recover. But no one answered and she grabbed me by the wrist and dragged me over to where Ba'el is still hard at work... Was hard at work. She too couldn't help but watch the whole spectacle as it took place.


     “Take out the crystal,” Rose said.


     “Huh?” I replied, still in a daze.


     “Come on now, hurry!” She said again, excitement exuding from her voice.


I fished through my pocket and produced it. I nearly freaked out when she reached out, but she seized me again by the wrist.


     “Ha ha~!” She laughed while embracing my body with hers.


But she violently thrust my arm unexpectedly toward the mausoleum wall. The tip of the crystal formed the tip of the spear. My heart skipped a beat. Every thought I had screamed in protest as I expected that crystal to break, shatter, snap, fragment, the whole nine yards... But it didn't. There wasn't even any resistance. It stuck into the stone no harder than it would if dug into the soil, or even stabbed into the surface of a pool of water.


     “Menageries are always like this,” Rose declared.


     “Mausoleum,” I corrected her, myself still not even half there.


And then it sprang to life. The etchings that were there, the ones that appeared to have been eroded over the centuries, came to life. A magic green glow of energy traced along those lines and many runes came to life. Then they all began to vanish as the earth rumbled and the great wall before us slowly sunk. Meter upon meter of stone gave way. A little more stone gave way in succession, forming a stairway down into the darkness which had been a solid slab a moment ago. This rumbling continued for half a minute until silence descended upon our little camp once more.


     “What? How? When?” Ba'el spoke first, flustered and confused. “how did you know? If you had done that in the wrong spot. That would have!”


     “Hm hm,” Rose laughed through her nose while puffing out her chest with pride. “Because of that one big lonely circle in the middle, of course. Besides, I've heard this kind of story before in taverns all over. Overheard right from the source: Other, drunken, adventurer types.”


Ba'el turned her head back to the wall which had now become stairs. Then back to Rose. Then to me. She raised her claws up and traced the engravings and runes in the air from memory. Rose turned back around to the other girls who watched with eyes wide open in shook. Ba'el began to bang her head against the stone beside the entryway. She muttered and cursed to herself over how she could let Rose one up her... It seemed as if she could have lived with anyone else having done so.


It's all rather obvious, in hindsight, I guess.


     “Alright! Let's go go go! Adventure awaits!”


Everyone was still too stunned to do anything.


     “Rose, wait. Everything is still scattered, we haven't eaten yet and—“


     “Adventure awaits!” Her battle-cry sounded out louder than before.


With her claws still wrapped around my wrist, she flashed me a smile bigger and brigter than all the others so far today. Rose did not stop there, she dragged me along behind her while recklessly plunging into the darkness. Her fiery tail lighting the way, while my protests did nothing to stop her.

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