Guy hurdled another fallen log and doggedly refused to look back at the entire nest of nasty that was chasing them. That had been chasing them for several miles, ever since a simple reconnaissance trip had managed to land them right in the center of the things' lair.
Beside him, Luke was laughing like a loon as he pelted through the undergrowth, nearly swallowing a low-hanging branch but never losing step. As they stumbled down a sudden slope, and the wild cry of the monsters was picked up to their right as well, Guy somehow found himself grinning in return.
Luke's tongue was sticking out of the corner of his mouth as he counted the steps, just a little. But he didn't lose count this time, Natalia noted with approval and a little pride, and he didn't step on her feet either. Unlike the last five attempts. Maybe he was starting to remember, after all.
They turned again, stepping closer to the room's far wall where Guy was still pinned by the flock of ladies gathered around him. Guy flapped a hand toward them weakly as they passed, mutely pleading, but Luke only laughed as he whirled them on by.
The distinctive sound of a Lesser Pan came wafting down the tunnel from around the next bend, and Luke gritted his teeth. Mostly, he just wished the things would shut up, because none of them could hold a tune for crap, and the way their pipes echoed off the stone walls of Zao's lower levels made his ears hurt.
He took a firmer grip on his sword and stalked determinedly forward. This one, at least, had better be carrying some gold dust. And if not, well—at least he could allow himself the satisfaction of stepping on that damned pipe.
Cecille absently returned a soldier's salute, mind already roaming to the journey ahead. At the gates, the first units were already moving out, the drummers setting a brisk pace to start-- as they should, Cecille thought; they all had too much energy from sitting too long.
Her hand was in her pocket again, she realized, fingers toying with the ring that she couldn't quite bring herself to throw out. She rubbed the edge of it, briefly slipped the tip of one finger through it. Drew her hand away, and couldn't quite help from smiling to herself as she turned away.
Tear called out her order and waited while the kitchen flew into motion, closing her eyes. Afternoons were always the most tiring. But they paid the best, and they did need the money to restock. She supposed that was why she'd let the others talk her into it. Again.
At least she got to wear her uniform. It was too cute to sit at the bottom of her pack all the time. And—
She slid a milky Amango Tea to a customer, and watched his face light up at the first sip.
She supposed the work had its own rewards.
The Keterburg Spa was the same as always– the air warm and damp and smelling faintly of coconut, the quiet lapping of water overlain with the sound of some quiet music. It was a space very carefully designed to relax, to refresh.
Natalia and Tear didn't really notice, looking instead at the latest swimsuits that Peony had left for them to use.
"It's-- kind of small," Tear said dubiously.
"Are those feathers?" Natalia added.
Anise, her long and very concealing one-piece tossed to the side, turned a little further into the corner and gave in to the urge to pout.
Luke cracked another egg into the pan, whistling to himself as he stirred the sizzling mess; Natalia looked on, wide-eyed. The eggs were kind of-- bluish, really. And not just on the outside. And while they smelled quite normal, she couldn't help but picture the strange nests they'd scavenged them from, and wonder.
But it had been quite a while since they'd been able to restock. The thought of fresh food was very tempting.
Natalia's stomach growled, and she sighed before nodding to herself. Surely eating monster eggs wouldn't do anything to them that a few well-chosen Bottles couldn't cure.
"So," Luke started, crouching down to poke at the Sorcerer's Ring around Mieu's middle. "Have you ever gone looking for more of these? Or tried to make more? There's got to be a way."
Mieu looked up, wide-eyed. "Why would we want to do that?"
"Well, so more of you could talk with humans," Luke answered, shrugging.
"Oh no, Master," Mieu said, "most cheagles are happy not talking to humans."
Luke blinked. "Why's that?"
"Because humans are loud, and rude, and angry and mean," Mieu listed happily. "But don't worry, Master," he added brightly, "I like you anyway."
Guy turned the final bolt, set the spring, and-- he loosened his fingers as the tiny thing came to life, flapping delicate metal wings to rise and hover just above his palm. Guy let out a whoop and narrowly reminded himself that while his design was sturdy, it was still breakable-- and that hugging the thing would not help his arguments that he didn't have a "thing" for fontech.
He muttered a command and grinned as his creation whirred off out the doorway, looking for its target. No better way to let Luke know he was done for the day.
Three whole chickens on the table, steaming and savory, and they hadn't even had to steal them. Noir smiled to herself and listened to the sounds in the room-- York making one of the smaller boys laugh, the clink as Urushi helped someone else fill their plate.
The walls were rough, sure, the stone not yet finished, but it was warm, which was a step in the right direction. Given time, they'd make this little cave somewhere great. A real home, somewhere safe and hidden and wonderful.
She closed her eyes and sat back, still smiling. Just-- give her time.
"Did you see that?"
Guy glanced up when Anise flailed-- a defense mechanism, because she occasionally liked to flail in his direction-- and followed her pointing finger with his eyes. "See what?"
"Oooh, you're useless." Leaping up, Anise ran to the tree and-- started climbing, practically throwing herself up the branches.
Before she got far, though, two small greenish shapes bolted out of the leaves and flew away. Guy blinked after them. If he hadn't known better, he'd have thought they were tiny, flying-- turtles?
"Booo," Anise pouted, dropping back to the ground. "Those were worth eighty thousand gald apiece."
A partridge in a pear tree
From the highest branch of their tree, Mieu could see the entire forest, from the great river that never froze to the far north where he had, so long ago, burned the ligers out of their homes. When the sky was clear he could even see beyond the trees, to the human village he'd once gone to with his Master.
He looked now, but the night kept the world close.
He looked up, instead, up and up to the glittering skystones, and cooed softly. He still missed his Master. He probably always would. But— he'd see his Master again.