Chapter 13 - Height of the Stakes
“SUUUUUUUUN!” Pixa danced around a sailor, twirling, before falling on her back to roll across the wooden floor to enjoy the heat all over. “I missed you soooo muuuch.”
“It’s…not even been a day.”
“It does look like a pretty day, doesn’t it?” Arata shaded his eyes with his hand while smiling.
“I just wonder how much longer it’ll take to get there,” Sanpu complained, nodded on by Fuun’na who shared the sentiment.
“In a hurry to get impaled again, Sanpu?” Jomiko asked in mid-air, leaping over Pixa.
She was training.
“Just worried he’ll get away is all,” Sanpu pointed out with a simple shrug.
“There’s nothing to worry about,” Kazuki mentioned, standing ahead of them all with crossed arms, “as disagreeable as Leaf is, he’s a Ranger: an expert on scouting and tracking. Only someone equally skilled could become aware of his presence.”
“Yeah well, you never know with those bastards,” Sanpu spitefully shot.
“The level of multiclass they’ve shown is a big deal as it is,” Kazuki mentioned, “if they have a third, they’re welcome to show it before we confront them again.”
“So that we don’t?” Arata added with a smirk and Kazuki nodded in agreement.
“Are you sure you can even beat them as they are?” Miyabi raised an ear.
“If we don’t split up again, we may be able to,” Arata stated.
“And if we train!” Jomiko jumped, front-flipped and landed on the ship’s railings, holding her balance perfectly. “And get stronger!” She punched, cutting the wind apart up to a feet in front of her.
They had quickly boarded a vessel once they found out where Agathon and Shinyaki were headed: the island of Aellea and Spellgate, particularly Aellea’s side.
The two major cities shared the bigger island but the territories were divided by a line of mountains which crossed the island at roughly its mid-section. Aellea stood on the eastern side which is where they would port. It was easy to see where a ship was headed soon after it set sail as the ports on each side of the island were at respective extremes: left and right from Stormdream’s direction.
Agathon and Shinyaki had taken their ship by force. Leaf stowed away and then began working as part of the deck crew. Ringo herself passed as a child and spent most of the day on Leaf’s cabin. They checked in once in a while, whenever Leaf was certain he wouldn’t get caught.
The ship Jomiko, Arata and the rest had boarded, as passengers, was a big one. It boasted two main sails and little over a hundred crew members. It wore a yellow flag crossed by red claws nailed by brown spikes. The captain was a chubby Pan with blue hair and flabby cheeks. He was a jolly captain, though, and much loved by the crew.
There were a lot of passengers though only a few that could be called adventurers, which is to say, fighters without allegiances.
Adventurers differed from mercenaries because they weren’t employed. They took jobs, quests, missions, but never employed themselves as to establish loyalty. Thus, they were even more fickle than Mercenaries about their work. While a Mercenary would risk his life and die on a life-risking quest, most adventurers – should it get so dangerous - would shrug and send back a note of apology.
Another big difference was that mercenaries took the pay, all or part of it, in advance, while adventurers were, by definition, paid only upon the verifiable completion of the job.
They were similar in the fact they were both capable of handling themselves in a fight and normally walked around in groups.
When referring a group of adventurers, people often used the word ‘party’, because they were known to be more carefree and irresponsible and also because their hierarchy was always sketchy; a group of mercenaries was referenced simply as ‘mercs’.
Oddly enough, the names originated from the opposite sides. Mercs dubbed adventurers ‘adventurers’ and called their teams ‘parties’, and vice-versa.
It was normally easy to tell a mercenary from an adventurer as long as they weren’t pretending to be something else. A mercenary usually had a uniformed look to him, especially when within a group. They liked to be identified at a glance as part of the indentifiable crew. An adventurer dressed differently and uniquely because they liked being identified by who they were.
So it was no wonder every adventurer on the ship eyed them at one time or another. It was rare to see mercenaries and adventurers together, and Sanpu and Fuun’na were clearly a merc duo while the rest of them five were visibly a party. This was because Sanpu and Fuun’na dressed very similar and looked alike, being twins.
Jomiko was, at the time, training by herself. Training her balance, striking speed, pose firmness and so on, but that was because she had already challenged every tough-looking passenger to fight.
The extent of Agathon and Shinyaki’s power was impressive. Despite the fact she had proven herself to be a better hand-to-hand fighter than Agathon, it had been clear to her she still had to improve her ability, in order to bridge the gap of his second class. But none of the passengers were, unfortunately, a match for her. It was better to work her body by herself, she had conceded.
Arata himself had followed her example, though not as diligently. His weapons of choice were normally the dual swords but he had understood, after his fight on Fairgrifen’s wall, that the chained swords would give him better mobility. And from what Kazuki had described of Shinyaki, they would also help against his scythes. For that reason, he was practicing with them.
Kazuki spent more time working his secondary specialization, that of a Conjurer, and once in a while dueled either Arata or Sanpu. He worked on improving his ‘speed’ spell, and also on mastering a new spell, ‘sensory’. It would heighten his senses so the whole world around him seemed to be moving in slow motion. He hoped that using it with ‘speed’ would prove a worthwhile and useful power combo to use with his sharp straight-forward fencing style of combat.
Pixa was mostly enjoying herself, often lying in the sun and watching Kazuki train with dreamy eyes. He always ended up asking her to stop, though, because it caused him to lose concentration.
Otherwise, she talked with other adventurers, read a few scrolls and books, and in her spare time, practiced some magic. She regretted she had not had a chance to yet participate in any conflict.
Not that she liked conflict, but she felt it was unfair. No one did it on purpose, but ever since they arrived at Fairgrifen, she had been running from one place to another, trying to get to the battle in time to help and yet always running short. She wanted to be useful.
Still, she was always easily influenced and seeing everyone else working hard made her want to train too. Every night she planned a full schedule of training for the next day but then she’d inevitably spend most of it goofing off.
And watching Kazuki.
The twins were either playing with each other or sparring with each other. It was pretty impossible to tell the difference, most of the times. They had gotten into fights with some of the other passengers but after seeing Jomiko unmatched, they lost interest in being belligerent.
Nobody really cared what Miyabi gone up to.
“So what if there’s more of them?” Pixa asked, curious, from the ground.
“Then we’ll really have fun,” Fuun’na shoulder-bumped Sanpu who giggled in agreement.
“We’ll really die, most like,” Kazuki mentioned. “Which really begs the question: how far are we willing to pursue this?”
“I hope as far as Leaf goes. I mean, he is going to all that trouble…” Jomiko spitefully remarked at Kazuki.
“Leaf getting into their ship was a stroke of luck, yeah, we shouldn’t waste it,” Arata casually agreed. He seemed to be watching a cloud or something, he was looking up and focusing his sight.
“Yeah but Kazuki has a point, they seem really strong,” Pixa lift her torso into a sitting position, leaning on her arms which she set in between her opened legs. “I think we’re just in way over our heads.”
“That’s why we need to train,” Jomiko interrupted, landing hard on the ship’s wood. She hopped and spun a kick at amazing speed. The air sung off-key after her foot.
“And they were afraid of their boss, weren’t they?” Pixa pointed out, looking at Kazuki.
Kazuki looked back at her, expressionless.
“Yes. Who knows what kind of power their employer possesses,” he agreed.
“Yeah!” She nodded with a blushing grin that was a bit too excited. “Exactly!”
“Pff,” Sanpu interrupted. He had Fuun’na head-locked and was scraping his knuckle against her head. “The guild people were afraid of their boss. I still took ’im down in one swing!”
“Oowwww!” She pushed him off. “We took ’em all in one swing, you idiot!” She pushed him but he spun and grabbed her hand, pulling her and tripping her into a forced flip across the air to fall at his feet.
“I’m just saying their employer could be just that!”
“WUAH!” She landed hard on the wood and some adventurers who had spotted the little dance move chuckled and giggled. Fuun’na blushed red and kicked Sanpu so he’d trip. She rolled on top of him.
“Or not!” They proceeded to wrestle, rolling across the floor.
“I say we deal with each bridge as we reach it,” Arata shrugged while bringing his gaze back from the sky, “Agathon and Shinyaki, we may be able to defeat. If we can catch them before they get to their employer or any other friends. Otherwise, none of this will matter.”
“Exactly,” Jomiko agreed, watching Sanpu and Fuun’na rolling past Arata, “you say useful things from time to time.”
“Guess that’s why you keep me around?” Arata jested.
“Nobody knows why we keep you around,” Jomiko shot back. “Just train and get ready. If nothing else, Fairgrifen’s bounty will be a good one. And I’ve seen no reason why we should quit now.”
“Why you little—” Sanpu and Fuun’na rolled back again, grabbing at hairs and such.
“A valid point,” Kazuki nodded, “I just don’t want to continue if we are to be unreasonable to the point of suicide. I want to know what that point would be.”
“Hrm,” Jomiko grunted impatiently turning her back on them. “I’ll let you know.”
“Don’t worry, Kazuki. We’ll watch each other’s backs and, as usual, we’ll be alright.”
Kazuki eyed Arata in silence for a moment of consideration. After a few seconds, he closed his them in assent and walked away.
Pixa didn’t like when Kazuki closed himself off like that, hiding his opinions and thoughts. It was impressive, though, that he had that kind of restraint.
She admired his cool demeanor a lot, and much more so how his actions always spoke louder than words. Always somber, serious, melancholic, emotionless, but when push came to shove, he shoved back the most for the sake of all of them.
It all just motivated Pixa to do some actual training.
Later that night, for some reason, Pixa felt like practicing her favorite offensive spell. It was best to do it then since she specialized in light thaumaturgy, and at night, she could better see what she was producing.
In actual fact it really was just prettier to do it in the dark.
She found a spot where she was alone and practiced her explosive beam. She would focus, opening her arms and hands, holding her palms stretched wide. Square-looking energy panels would show in front of each palm, made of white light, but stroked in light blue. She would close her arms so the two squares joined together.
Once they fused, they would glow and shine unbelievably bright in one instant of focus before shooting a long beam of pure light.
It pushed the air around as it made its way but since it didn’t collide with anything, it eventually dissipated like it was just a very strong flashlight. The intensity and size of it depended on how much she focused her shot.
She could fire much smaller beams as rapid fire, and from each of her hands to boot. That was what she began focusing her training on after that. She didn’t even need to join squares when casting in rapid fire.
She imagined she would upset the crewmen on the night shift if she kept practicing her strong beams.
She liked playing with the light, too. She loved how it lit the otherwise dark sea as if uncovering the existence of a whole world where once her eyes only saw a big black void. She made it real and present, and she liked that.
She trained until she was sweating and too tired. Then she lied down on the floor and took a breather, taking the night in. The trip would take a few more days but with everything that had happened, she couldn’t help but think they were getting involved in something huge.
She looked at the sky, basking in the starlight and thinking back to everything that had happened. She especially remembered the words that Agathon had spoken during his rage.
“You have no idea… the years, and the plans, and the alliances. And now, at the crossroads, you ruin EVERYTHING!”
She closed her eyes to contemplate the puzzle, putting things together in her mind. Being tired, lying back beneath a warm night, it was really the ideal environment to ride her thoughts.
Agathon issued us to slay that big beast. Immediately afterward, he procured an entrance into Fairgrifen through someone who was well connected. Once inside, he did business with ‘The Vulture’, as they referred to him in the conference... and through him, acquired the stone. But what did he pay in return? After the deal, he ran from Arata and escaped in such a way it’s obvious he’s not planning to return.
So whatever ‘The Vulture’ wanted, Agathon already had with him. That must be where the beast comes in…it was hassling a bunch of towns so taking it down maybe gave him a lot of favor? He swindles them into slaying the beast, retrieves his own proof of kill behind our back and uses it as currency to trade for the stone.
The stone… She opened her eyes, slowly… calmly. Faircloth wants the stone without his colleagues knowing…and Agathon would have surrendered had Sanpu not demanded the stone.
She laughed. And had Jomiko been in a good mood. But I digress… She again closed her eyes, putting things together.
The origin stones…”plans, years, alliances”…”let’s leave while no one knows we did this.” For years…their employer has been after the stones. It has taken many plans… because they are hiding, and they are making many alliances… because they’re planning something big. Agathon was emotionally invested when he said years and plans and alliances, which means their relationship with their employer goes back a good while. The same could be said of Shinyaki, which seemed to be Agathon’s superior, or at least, senior.
She opened her eyes with a serious expression on her face.
“It’s good that we stumbled onto this,” she whispered to herself, “it’s good. They’re up to something awful and big in scale, I’m sure of it. And they’re very serious about it.”
She stood up and turned to the sea. With a foot in front of the other, arms opened wide to generate the squares over her palms, she faced the world
”And now…at the crossroads”
“They’re almost at the point where they can’t be stopped. It has to be now.” She nodded at herself, smiling optimistically as she brought the squares to overlap in front of her. The squares hummed upon fusion, focusing power, and then shot a beam of light, of hope, that lit up the dark for almost a mile ahead.
This was why she had become an adventurer. To enjoy naps all over the world! And to have a good impact on it.
“It will have to be us.”