The next morning, Asterios woke up alone. Even though his mother had been snuggled to him tightly during the night, he hadn't noticed even a slight disturbance when she had sneaked out of the bed. A faint smile spread on his lips. It looked like it was just impossible for him to wake up before her, no matter the situation.
After dressing up properly, he found Kindra in the restaurant part of the inn, chatting with the barmaid by the main counter. She noticed him coming and they ate breakfast together. At first, he wanted to wait for Roalt, but she informed him that he had also woken up early and had already eaten, leaving to the village to resupply arrows.
They finished eating and left the inn too. Yesterday, Asterios and the others had been focused on wrapping things up with Ezekiel and the guards so they hadn't paid too much attention to the small town, but the moment he and Kindra walked into the open street, they marveled over the cozy atmosphere.
Pretty much all the houses and buildings their eyes could reach were in the form of low log cabins and similar architectural structures, usually having only the ground floor. You could easily recognize places of importance such as the Adventurer’s Guild, the village mayor's residence, the main bell tower, and the watchtowers around the borders from how these broke the line of roofs, reaching higher than most.
Kindra insisted on giving the officer they talked with previously some more time and brought Asterios deeper into the village, dragging him towards the market square as if she inherently knew where it was located.
But, it wasn’t so surprising. She was a merchant. A good one at that. Navigating through towns and villages according to common arrangements was something you would expect from someone in this craft.
They spent some quality time together while strolling around various shops and stalls. Asterios had fun watching his mother interact with many different people from many fields of trade. There wasn’t any notable jewelry store besides some stands with poor quality accessories, but it was understandable considering the size and average wealth of the village.
Around noon, Roalt stumbled on them by accident and joined them to continue going around as a group, but Kindra quickly took him away while saying that Asterios could handle the talks with the guild and the guards by himself without their help.
Asterios smiled to himself seeing his mother hastily dart into the distance with the adventurer in tow. He knew it was just an excuse for her to wander around more and Roalt was a poor victim of her scheme.
Miria and Selene walked out of their portals soon after he had been left alone. Both of them hadn't felt like interrupting Kindra’s time with Asterios, but now that she was gone, they didn’t need to hold back and could enjoy his company. Especially a certain panthergirl who got showered in affectionate pats the moment she stepped out of the crimson gate.
The trio headed to the guard post together and met with the officer. He had managed to get the approval to reward them for their efforts and presented Asterios with ten gold coins. Asterios argued that it was too much, but the man insisted on it while saying that it was calculated not only from the capture of the bandit’s leader but also having the value of provided information about their den in mind, which would lower running costs for the raiding operation by a lot.
After finally accepting the money, they headed to the village’s branch of the Adventurer’s Guild as the man had instructed them. Compared to the one in Rosewind or the town near the nature dungeon, it was nothing great and had barely one more floor beside the bottom one.
The staff must have been informed about their looks because one of the receptionists instantly waved at them when they entered. She asked for his ID card and used it to record their help in the subjugation in the interguild system. It was registered as a C-ranked task, definitely boosting Ast’s track record by a decent amount.
They chatted for a short while, mostly talking about the road ahead and any news coming from Tyrienheim or places between these two locations, and said their goodbyes. Ast’s group wasn’t going to accept any additional quests at this moment, even if they aligned with their direction.
While heading back to one of the restaurants they had passed by earlier to have dinner, Asterios noticed Miria looking far ahead with a bit of a distant gaze, definitely thinking about something deeply.
He reached his hand out and stroked through her soft hair, bringing her out of the faint daze.
“Is something troubling you?”
Miria glanced at him and smiled gently. She stepped closer and leaned her shoulder against Ast’s chest while pushing her head more into his hand.
“I’m just thinking about our recent fight. I can’t help but feel like I’m somehow growing stronger much faster than before.”
“I see. And you are trying to figure out why?”
Asterios turned to Selene. “Do you know the answer?”
“I do, my Lord.”
He then moved his eyes back to Miria and scratched behind her fluffy ear. “Should I tell you then?”
She pouted a little. Asterios always teased her like that whenever the chance presented itself. But, he never led her through the question he believed she wouldn’t be able to answer at least partially so Miria resumed her contemplation.
“It’s definitely not training… We haven’t done complex exercises like when we decided to practice more together… Perhaps experience? Am I getting better from fighting monsters and other opponents alongside you? But I also fought a lot as a hunter back in my world… In a group too… I’m not sure… The increase in my power is way more noticeable than then… The dungeon? I felt a big improvement after our first dive together...”
Asterios calmly observed his partner analyzing various possibilities with a happy smile, even though she did not hit the mark.
“Miria. What are we?”
She tilted her head to glance into his eyes and blushed after a moment, more conscious of their current positions. She didn’t back away though.
Asterios chuckled making Miria’s cheeks grow even rosier. “I guess that’s true too, but isn’t there something else? Something dating further back than us becoming mates?”
She forced herself to calm down a little and dove into her thoughts again. Not much time passed before Miria’s ears twitched adorably. She glanced into his eyes again, with a bit more confidence this time.
“A Summoner and familiar?”
“Exactly,” he confirmed, causing a beautiful smile to form on her lips. “And what’s the most important part of our contract? Usually being the biggest benefit for the summon besides whatever they ask for in their conditions?”
He let her mull over the question for a bit, but even after a few minutes, the answer wasn’t coming.
Asterios chuckled again. Miria’s thirst for the unknown and powerful curiosity strongly overshadowed the main point of why various entities entered these contracts. For her, exploring this realm by his side was of much higher value than anything else.
“It’s spiritual essence.” He decided to not keep her in the dark any longer.
“Every being’s essence reaches its cap at some point, usually around the time they mature, turn into adults, or whatever happens to the species. After that limit is reached, it’s almost impossible to expand spiritual essence by yourself, without the help of external factors, which also are quite scarce. And the summoning contract is one of them,” he began his explanation.
“Through our connection, you receive a bit of my own essence regularly, which gets absorbed by your own, increasing its volume. Ah, but it’s not like I'm slowly sacrificing my spiritual lifespan to keep you serving me until I can’t handle it anymore. Spiritual essence is a bit similar to spiritual energy, which is mana, in the fact that it can also replenish itself over time. The main difference is that mana pool can still be increased by training.”
He looked at her and Miria nodded, confirming that she was following through his words.
“That essence cap is what dictates how many and how strong familiars can a Summoner contract before finally running out of juice and being unable to distribute any more of it after giving away what was promised in the contracts. It’s like having a glass of water that refills every day and gathering people offering their help for a sip each time that happens. At some point, there won’t be enough for a new person to join the queue.”
“What an interesting way to present this, my Lord,” Selene commented. “I’ll allow myself to share this allegory with my kin as the one we currently use is way less digestible.”
“Of course. Feel free to do so. Anyway, where was I? Ah, the cap. Spiritual circuits are important in the matter of summoning too, but let’s move on. You are getting stronger each time you receive some of my essence. And well, the same as with mana, there are many different ways to share it, each with varying efficiency. If you remember our past talk about a certain researcher, you should understand what I mean,” he finished with a smile.
Miria tried to search her memories for the mentioned moment and quickly remembered their conversation about the human who had been exiled for his quite controversial-in-nature theory. She quickly turned red and couldn’t match his gaze anymore.
“Does… Does that mean…”
Asterios gently cupped her chin and brought it up. He moved his face closer while observing if she would be too embarrassed for this in the open, but Miria didn’t show any hints of resistance besides her slightly widened eyes so he softly connected their lips.
Ast’s voice pleasantly rang in her head as they shared a warm kiss, faintly brushing their lips together. She tried to do as he instructed and quickly noticed an almost unperceivable trace of energy she assumed was the essence, unhurriedly making its way to her core. The delicate stream broke after Asterios pulled away with a gentle smile.
“Did you get it?”
She nodded while lowering her head and glancing at him from below. Selene’s soft chuckle reached their ears.
“Basically, what Master meant was that each time you two mate he not only shares his love and affection with you but also a considerably bigger chunk of his essence, making you stronger by a lot.”
Miria instantly stepped away from him after Selene’s blunt statement, almost steaming from embarrassment. Even so, she had connected the dots in her mind even without that comment. The first, bigger jump in her performance had occurred after the fight with the scorpions in the dungeon, and the second had been noticed by her in the last bout with the bandits. Shortly before each, she did in fact share a more intimate moment with Asterios.
He sighed while glancing at Selene. She ostentatiously acted as if nothing happened.
~You knew very well I was trying to explain it to her in a less embarrassing way.~
~Ah! Is that so? I truly apologize, my Lord. This humble servant did not catch on your intentions quick enough, fufufufu~
He shook his head as they finally entered a diner to eat lunch together. Selene was recently turning even more playful towards Miria than before.
Afterward, they met up with the rest of the team and decided to head out the next morning.
Asterios spent the remainder of the day talking with Miria and Selene about various things connected to summoning and spiritual essence in general, having a bit of help from the latter as her tribe had some knowledge about it. He mentioned some new techniques he would want to try out in the not far future and they practiced together by going through various exercises for Summoners and their familiars.
In the night, Selene asked to be groomed by him and Asterios obviously obliged. Miria stayed in the room this time and kept sending her jealous gazes while watching the fox lady's euphoric expression. Selene intentionally exaggerated it to tease the young panthergirl, making full use of Ast’s closed eyes as he focused on caressing her tail while replaying her memories in his mind.
With a mischievous smile and a wink seen only by Miria, Selene left them alone. The former didn’t waste any time on being too shy and jumped straight into Ast’s embrace, snuggling to him for the night.
He was a little surprised to see her so actively guiding his hands to her ears and tail, clearly asking to be spoiled lots, but in the end, he found that matching her adorable personality and showered Miria with lots of caresses before they fell asleep.
They left the village early in the morning and resumed their journey. The rest of their path to Tyrienheim went without any more issues coming up and the party arrived in front of the big city in four days. It was surrounded by a high wall made of stone blocks, instilling feelings of might and respect from far away. It was also the first time Asterios had seen a heavily fortified city.
He thought the entry checkup at the gate would be long and complex, but after hearing Kindra’s family name and confirming its authenticity, the group was let through very quickly. It looked like his mother’s lineage was well-known in Tyrienheim. She had mentioned they were good and versatile merchants, but he hadn't expected this much recognition from gatekeepers.
After going through the checkpoint and leaving the horses at the nearby stables, Miria jumped back to her realm and the trio of Asterios, Roalt, and Kindra, went towards the Adventurer’s Guild to report completion of the escort quest, led by Ast’s mother, of course.
Roalt already had the chance to visit Tyrienheim in the past so he wasn’t as impressed by the tall and beautiful buildings as Asterios, who kept glancing around as they walked through the paved streets full of people of different status. Kindra smiled to herself seeing his reaction, proud of her birthplace.
She found the Adventurer’s Guild without an issue and they quickly finished all the formalities. The huge and spacious hall had tens of receptionists and they didn’t have to wait long for their turn. The atmosphere was almost incomparable to the ones Asterios was used to, feeling more organized and professional than cozy and familiar like in Rosewind or the other places. Of course, it wasn’t any worse, just the scale changed a lot of things.
With the rewards split appropriately, Roalt bid farewell to everyone and left them to themselves. He planned to stay here for a while, maybe picking up some quests in the area, so it was very likely they would run into each other again and he had enjoyed teaming up with Ast’s unique group.
“I guess it’s time to return back home,” Kindra said after they walked out of the guild.
“Should I wait for you to make contact first, Mom?”
“No, that’s not necessary. It’s obviously your home now too, so there’s no need to announce your visit. Unless you don’t feel like living with me anymore and would want to find a house for yourself and the girls…”
He stopped her and hugged his mom lightly. “What are you even talking about? As you said previously, my home is where you are. I’ll always stay by your side. Unless you would feel bothered by living under the same roof with your son and his girlfriends.” He smiled at her teasingly.
Kindra smirked. “Oh, did my little playboy finally realize his charms? If you think it’s that easy to get rid of me then I have to disappoint you. You guys can enjoy yourselves as much as you want. I won’t complain even a little bit. Let me know beforehand if you are too shy and I’ll go out shopping or something.” She giggled and escaped his embrace, starting to walk forward.
Asterios could feel Miria getting increasingly embarrassed through their bond. She must have been closely listening to their conversation. He chuckled internally and shook his head. All the women around him were just something else, especially his mother.
It took them almost twenty minutes to reach the destination on foot. They arrived in a part of the city where the density of buildings was visibly lower and the district was filled with residences and small mansions of various sizes. They were not comparable with those of noble families such as Tina’s or Roz’s, but still showcased the considerable wealth of the owners.
Kindra led him to one of the mansions in the form of a single, three-story, rectangular building without any additional wings. The paint and the structure’s features were dark brown and gold respectively. A small garden with two bowers, one on each side of the main path leading to the mansion’s entrance, decorated the front of the property.
Stopped by the sentry at the gate, she brought up a fine-looking pendant with a family crest engraved in the brown mineral which made the heart of the accessory. The man was shocked at first, most likely not recognizing the owner, but he possibly couldn’t go against some rules or didn’t want to risk offending her if she wasn’t a con artist and let them inside immediately.
Asterios and Kindra walked the straight, paved path side by side. He could tell his mother was getting a little nervous. Who wouldn’t be after being far from their family for so long? He placed a hand on her back and smiled gently, which she reciprocated with a smile of her own.
Passing the intersection leading to the bowers on the sides, they heard the giggling of two ladies coming from their left. Kindra didn’t spare it even a moment of her attention and pressed forward with an anxious face.
“Oh? Are my charming eyes deceiving me, sister Cerina?”
“I don’t think so, sister Latua. But, we should take a closer look to be sure.”
The two voices spoke to each other louder than previously and giggled again. A shiver passed through Kindra’s body as she stopped in her tracks. Asterios did not miss that.
Hearing footsteps behind them, they turned around.
Two women in fashionable dresses with a multitude of frills and decorations stood in front of them, one in sapphire and the other in emerald one. They looked to be somewhere in their late fifties, judging by their appearances and the amount of makeup on their faces. They both wore fancy hats with extremely wide brims and big feathers.
No matter how Asterios looked at them, they definitely tried to pose as rich, noble ladies. And while he didn’t doubt the first part, he knew very well that his mother’s family was not of noble lineage, nor were they granted it by any of the kingdoms. They were respected merchants, but not royalty.
“Well, well, well… What do we have here?” the one in blue dress spoke first.
“It seems your eyes are as perceptive as always, sister Latua, fufufu~” the other one commented.
“But of course, sister Cerina.”
No matter how blind he would be, Asterios could tell from miles away how uncomfortable his mother was in the presence of these women. And they definitely didn’t give off the good vibes. He could guess their identities already, even though Kindra hadn't talked much about her relatives.
“How bold of you to show your face here after almost two decades, Kindra,” Latua said in a cold tone. “Did you finally realize how hopeless you are on your own? Did you finally run out of assets to live? You were such a brilliant child but you had to ruin yourself and your future just so much by running away from home, from your responsibilities.”
Kindra lowered her head but did not answer.
“I know, right? What idiot would want to run some trashy shop in the countryside instead of taking the lead of a whole company in a big city? Gosh, that was just so pathetic I don’t even want to remember it. But, you always lacked in every aspect. Especially sanity. I have no idea how Father could even consider you to inherit the jewelry trade. Or how he still hopes you will do it,” Cerina added after her, sending a piercing gaze towards Ast’s mother.
Even with his lacking information, Asterios could already make a few guesses of what was happening here from their tone and clearly jealous gazes, poorly hidden behind exaggerated disdain. Emotions were slowly rising inside his heart, but he forced himself to control them to save his mother some face. The last thing she needed was him attacking her family.
“And if abandoning your family was not enough, you even got an idea of picking up some random kid from the side of the road! How did that turn out for you? Did that little bastard run away from you the moment he learned to walk? I can’t believe you would think a fifteen years old girl, completely clueless about these matters, could be an imitation of a mother. Pitiful,” the lady in blue dress continued raining insults on her third sister.
“I bet he ended up as a bandit. That is if she didn’t kill the child with her inability.”
“Oh yes, that’s very likely why she came back. He must be rotting in some prison for sexual assault or something, forcing her to hide from—”
“Shut up!” A sudden, loud shout from Kindra made the two women jolt in surprise. She glared at them with fury in her eyes. “Do not dare to utter even a single—”
Asterios squeezed his mother’s shoulder, stopping her from finishing her sentence. As expected, she ignored anything they said about her but instantly lashed out at them the moment he was mentioned.
“I was convinced we entered the premises of the famous Hestizo family but it looks more like an unruly kennel with two withering bitches jealously barking at their own kin to me.”
His comment made the chins of the two ladies drop to the ground. Before they had a chance to retort, he grabbed his mother’s hand and turned around, glancing back at them over his shoulder.
“Get back to your doghouses before I decide to discipline you in your owner’s stead.”
He released some of his ferocious energy, focusing it in his eyes, and sent a bone-chilling gaze with his deep crimson irises straight at them. Seeing the two crones shiver, he withdrew it and started walking away.
Near the entrance to the building, Kindra spoke up while glancing at the ground. “I’m sorry…”
He sighed. “What for?”
“Letting you see and hear all of that...”
He rubbed her shoulder. “Was this the reason you left?”
She nodded faintly. “I know I didn’t tell you much about my relatives besides the general things, but… Yeah… I couldn’t handle the atmosphere here and decided to run away, as they said…”
He directed her eyes towards his with his free hand. “You did not run away. I don’t know much, but after this, I’m sure I would have made the same decision if I were in your shoes. Now I feel really bad for forcing you to move out…”
“Don’t blame yourself! I decided to come back out of my own volition! I’m sorry for keeping this part to myself though…”
“Well, it’s alright. I can understand why you would want to avoid telling me about this, but I’m here, and always will be if you would want to talk. You know how much I love you, Mom.”
She nodded with a faint smile. “Mhm. I know. I was silly to hide it and worry so much.”
They stared at each other in silence for a moment before Asterios spoke up again. “I know we came to this place with the intention to live here, but… if you want… we could always rent out a house somewhere in the city. For our own, small family.”
Kindra’s eyes widened a little and she began tearing up a bit. She quickly wiped them with her sleeve and hugged him closer with a beaming smile.
“That’s a great idea! Just let mom secure some funds and we can go to find our little love nest together! Judging from their words, I seem to still be our father’s favorite, fufufu~ He is an amazing and kind man! Come on, you need to meet your grandpa!”
As if the previous situation had not affected her in the slightest, Kindra grabbed Asterios under her arm and rushed with him inside, turning back to her usual, lively self.