The evening air in Va-ren was crisp; the onset of winter could be felt from momentary breezes that came and went. Elexis was currently staring from her mount at a body that was suspended in the air by its wrist, connecting to either side of the now fully opened gate of the town they had just performed an ambush from. The corpse that was once Sto-ar swung lifelessly from time to time; blood dripped from it slowly. She felt it was distasteful, but she could not quell the rage she felt just by sharing a presence with the former paladin. The man was one of the individuals directly responsible for slaughtering most of her family, and she sought to make an example of him. Even now, she was clenching her fists to the point she was probably tearing the leather of her mount's reins.
"Mother... we should move on... we were ready for them, but we both know there is more, just a day's march away."
Elexis heard her eldest remaining daughter speak from behind her.
"The entire time... even to the last... he claimed she was lost. All the effort and all we had to show for it was 'traders river'... "
Elexis continued to stare up. Two years had passed, she knew that her youngest daughter was still alive. Her status as Matriarch was passed on by Solah to give her daughter strength, and with Kiyomi's death, the title would have returned.
"Mother, we have more than we had before... we can work with that... but we still have a war to win here... If we are to find Kiyomi, we need to give her a safe home to return to first."
Elexis did not reply; she stared for another minute before turning back around. Meeting the gaze of her eldest, and the hundreds of soldiers that sat atop their mounts within the streets.
"AAAAHHHH!!! I give! I give!"
Beryl was currently screaming at me. We were playing in the grass area behind her family's wagons' and just to the side of the ramps to the main gate area of the city. After a few rounds of tag, I managed to catch her finally, and I currently had the widest part of her body raised overhead and in an iron grip.
"Say you're it!"
I commanded, motioning as if I were about to throw her.
"I'm it! I'm it! Now put me down!"
I placed the terrified snake back on the ground, making sure not to drop her. She was now catching her breath on the ground as I was dropping to the ground myself, trying to stifle some of the first bouts of laughter I managed to gain from someone else around my age in this world. When we walked to and from Vaughn's wagon, I apparently gave the vibe that I would roll over for them at every turn. Which I proceeded to smash twice in a row now by tackling Vaughn, and grabbing Beryl so that, without a doubt, she was 'it.'
What was that? Round seven? Eight?
I thought to myself, laying back into the grass as I was beginning to calm down from the excitement.
"Yeah, I take back a lot about the 'big sister' teasing stuff."
Beryl proceeded to plop down beside me.
"I can help you learn stuff... but that strength, remind me not to make you mad. I'd rather not get the dragon experience by learning to 'fly.'"
"Or-ahh- that tackle felt like a horse hit me... maybe a little softer next time?"
Vaughn complained, laying in the grass to the opposite side.
Yeeeeahhhh, maybe I was hard on Vaughn... Beryl though? Mmmm-Nah, I was easy on her.
"Sorry about that one Vaughn, still kind of ruff at watching my strength."
"It's cool; I think I'm done with tag for now, though."
I looked to Vaughn for a moment, then back to the sky.
We'll be waiting another half hour from how Beryl described dinner.
Thinking for a moment, I remembered that I had a particular round wooden object in my satchel.
"Wanna play catch in the meantime?"
Vaughn and Beryl both asked in unison, raising their heads.
"Well, you see-"
After a short explanation, they were both sold. We were all relatively tired thanks to the day's stresses and running around, so the rather lax game of 'catch' was welcome. All it really consisted of was the three of us standing in a circle, throwing the wooden ball to the person to their right. For me, this was another outlet for nostalgia. But for them, this was new, so they were absolutely absorbed by the 'game,' particularly since neither of them could really throw worth a damn.
"Kids', the food is done!"
I could hear Mother yell to us all as she came around the side of one of the wagons.
"On our way!"
"Darn. Times up guys, Vaughn, toss me the ball."
Vaughn tossed me the ball as he began jogging past me, with Beryl following behind. Walking behind the two, Mother was waiting on me. Recalling, my initial warning should have been when Beryl flinched and gave space between herself and mother as she passed.
"Ah, ah, ah. You have something you need to do, Kiyomi."
Mother stopped me by grabbing my shoulder, producing a wooden cup that had steam rising from its top.
Ma- wait, what the fuck is that god awful smell-
Any protest was quickly cut short as Mother brought the cup to my lips and started tilting it. What flowed into my mouth was a bitter substance with an extremely weak taste of honey to it.
"Bleh-bleh-what the- what the heck was that?!"
I was protesting, looking back up to mother as if she'd just betrayed me.
"Oh, hush, you'll have plenty to brush the taste away with. That was the Yarrow tea we talked about, and you'll thank me later."
Mother proceeded to rub my head between my horns, guiding me from the back as we continued back to the front of the wagons together.
Fuck me, that was nasty, ugh. Use more honey, gods damnit!
When we came around, there was a wooden table set beside a makeshift firepit, with three chairs, one of which was taken by Vaughn. Beryl sat next to him; her own body was coiled underneath herself.
"You'll get used to it. If it helps, I still have to take the stuff even as a lamia."
Beryl said in a sympathetic tone, swirling a wooden cup of her own, grimacing as she looked back down to it. Mother took the seat to the furthest right, leaving the one next to Vaughn for myself. We waited there for maybe a minute before Cressida came from a tent maybe four meters away, followed by another Lamia, presumably Beryl's second mother. Both were carrying three plates each and placed one before each of us, then for themselves.
"Kiyomi, Hatsumi, I would like both of you to meet Sophia."
Cressida directed both of our attention to the other Lamia, denoting that she was Beryl's other mother.
Wait, those eyes.
I looked at Beryl for a moment, then back to Sophia.
Wait, Beryl clearly has features from both of them... What the f-
"Staring is rude! It's nice to meet you, Sophia. I always wondered what Beryl's primary mother looked like. Cressida talked much about you in the past. You were a war mage for the empire abroad, is that right?"
Mother flicked one of my horns before returning the greeting.
"Ah, yes, I wasn't released from my service unfortunately until after the purges occurred. The last I had visited before returning was just as Beryl hatched. It's a shame we never met before; Cressida talked you up as a fantastic mage in the past."
Hatsumi looked to Cressida, who was averting her eyes, blushing lightly.
"Sophia, I was admiring her as a peer... "
Cressida attempted to brush the comments aside.
"Oh, bull, you were quite fussed for someone younger to surpass you!"
Sophia teased Cressida, poking at her side with the tip of her tail.
"Oh, stop, you fool. Not at the table, pfff, hey, hey! There is still someone to address. Are you forgetting?!"
The two lamias settled after a moment of prodding at each other, Cressida attempting to draw attention elsewhere for her own sake.
"Oh, yes, I apologize. Our little demon!"
Sophia looked to me as the two of them settled and coiled their tails as Beryl did.
"Kiyomi, I wanted to thank you greatly."
Sophia bowed her head some, bringing it up after a moment.
"You helped us avert quite a tragedy. Cressida, Beryl, Vaughn, and undoubtedly Gregor himself thanked you, now I would like to do so myself. If you ever find yourself needing anything, neither of you hesitate in seeking us out for aid."
"I just did what I would, thinking of my own Papa-"
What? I just let that out... I thought to say it, yeah... but it just came out... Why?
A face flashed through my mind, one of the man from 'our' nightmares.
Papa? Ah... Kiyomi's Papa... the nightmares were digging that deep now?
Mother was snapping her fingers in front of my face bringing me back to the present. Looking at her, she appeared concerned before sighing and rubbing my head again.
"Apologies, Kiyomi hasn't been able to remember much past roughly a sun and a half, maybe two by now. She tends to stop like this from time to time."
Wait, this isn't the first time? Wait, it's not; I remember... the party... not the first time.
"It's of no issue to us, Hatsumi. If anything, her ability to show her true sincerity is appreciated."
Sophia waved away Mother's apology.
"Now, if the formalities are out of the way, I believe you have yet to enjoy your meal. Please, enjoy~."
An hour later, the conversations involving everyone at the table ceased, and the meals were resting in each person's stomach. Mother was now drinking wine with Cressida and Sophia, going over their memories as mage apprentices. With that, I was seated in front of a mirror, with my hair currently in Beryl's hands as she was inspecting it. Vaughn was sitting at the wagon entrance, bouncing the wooden ball I loaned to him against the far wall. We were making small talk here and there; I was suggesting spots around the city that had good food vendors and stalls that managed to catch my eye, possibly also tossing in a reference or two to Claire's shop. At some point, Beryl asked why I was being taught the stuff I was being taught, and we went into my thoughts on being an adventurer.
"You mean to say; you just took 'adventurer' as a class on your mother's suggestion... on the spot?"
Beryl asked, raising a brow, looking concerned.
"I know that it was stupid at the moment not to wait... but looking back, I don't think I'd make a different decision. I don't have anything really going for me anyway. I was an orphan, I guess, so why not?"
I answered, mulling over a decision that was already said and done.
"Kiyomi... and you said you were probably going to have to join a team down the line?"
"Well, I don't really have a choice. No other parents in the city would allow their kids to be adventurers until they hit their sixteenth. So I'm gonna be going it alone until then; I might even be stuck hunting solo when I turn fourteen."
The fact that that's still a common practice was also strange, but now I knew why Avery stressed the existence of 'stalkers' way back. The reason so many new adventurers died to them was that they were usually too young and solo.
I could see Beryl look to the side towards Vaughn, who just stopped throwing the ball. Looking back to the mirror, Beryl continued running through my hair, with an expression as if she were debating something with herself.
"Hey... Kiyomi... "
Beryl ended the silence after a few moments.
"When were your training sessions again?"
There was another bout of silence.
Wha-? Why would you care?
"Monday, Wednesday, and Friday are sword training. Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday are general skills. I'll be starting mana manipulation next week, though... "
Beryl stopped for a moment once more, looking back to Vaughn before nodding and letting my hair fall free. Turning my chair around, Beryl faced me towards herself and Vaughn. The former taking a seat with her body before sighing.
"Want us to be your party?"
Beryl asked, flashing a proposition I hadn't expected. Least of all from her, rather than Vaughn.
"You, hah- you're not serious, are you?"
I almost thought what Beryl had said was supposed to be a joke. Vaughn was the son of an engineer, and Beryl the daughter of a successful pair of mercenaries and caravan guides. They would be set if they just shadowed their own parents. However, they both looked at me strangely before Vaughn spoke up.
"Kiyomi, we're here with nothing. We have our parents, yes, but that's about it. Prospect-wise, we're pretty close to you."
Vaughn rolled the ball back to me.
"We only really have each other... but you don't have anyone, so..."
Both of them continued looking at me intently.
"That and with those freeze-ups. After you helped my Pa... I'm... ahem... I'm kind of afraid the same could happen to you... "
Vaughn looked away, forcing out his next sentence.
"And I was earnest about the 'big sister' stuff... at least about helping you. Kiyomi, we can't let you just do that stuff yourself. We were already talking about being Adventurers on our way to the city. Knowing how scared we are already about being a team... we couldn't really imagine you going out by yourself. Soooo... "
Beryl trailed off, looking away just as Vaughn did.
These kids... I'm not some little girl... solely... I can handle myself well enough... but them? I wonder if they'll need help more than myself.
They would be adventurers regardless if we banded together or not. Knowing what I did, I had the ability to watch over them. I may have been younger in the sense of this world, but I had years of combat experience, Hatsumi's mentoring, and Callum's training.
The incident with the Spider-tortoise was brought to mind.
They could watch over me... and I could watch over them... We'll be a team, rather than by ourselves.
Suddenly then, another image flashed in my mind.
Thinking back to my last friend on earth, back to that clearing in Czechia. I thought about what I lost, to what I could lose again if I weren't careful, to what I was too much a coward to do all the way up to my death.
At that moment, we all at least had a semblance of what our futures held. Our places in a team.