Mist & Mystery: A Lunar Marked/Sovereign of Wrath Halloween Crossover
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We lost the trail on the way back into town. Without Ruston as a guide, our unfamiliarity of the terrain got the better of us. We didn’t need to go back to town, but both of us wanted to, for closure if no other reason.

As we walked, the trees became larger and older, their gnarled canopies choking out the sunlight. Fog and mist began to swirl lazily around them.

“This can’t be the right direction, Sey,” I lamented.

Seyari sighed and looked up. “We’re lost, Renna. We’ve already turned around twice. Maybe you could climb up one of the trees? They’re certainly big enough to hold your weight.”

I looked up into prickly darkness. “Maybe not all the way to the top. I’ll let the weight comment go this time, mostly because you’re not wrong. Limbs weigh a lot, you know.”

Seyari smiled thinly. “I’ll shout if something happens while you’re up there.”

I gave her four thumbs up and started up the largest nearby tree after setting my packs at its base. Sharp tips of dead wood poked at me, and the branches started to groan when I put weight on them the higher I got. I tried to use my claws for grip on the trunk, but the bark flaked off under my weight.

I didn’t make it to the top. I was above the other trees, but all I could see through the dense needles before I lost my grip was a half-second glimpse of more trees and mist. In the distance, I thought I saw smoke, but I couldn’t be sure. I managed to stop myself falling by hitting several branches and wrapping my tail around the tree. Above me, broken branches and shredded bark dared me to try again.

I decided against it, and climbed back down, picking needles and sticks out of my braid and clothing.

“You look like the tree ate you,” Seyari giggled.

“It did,” I replied and didn’t elaborate. “I might have seen some smoke, but I couldn’t get a clear view.” I pointed in the direction I’d seen it.

Seyari sighed. “Better than nothing, I guess. We’ll head in that direction and once we can get our bearing, we should be able to make it to a town and then get directions back to Harriston. We can’t have gone that far.”

I nodded, and the two of us set out in the direction I’d pointed, hopeful we’d find a way back to town, any town.

 

***

??? POV

Blearily, I rolled over, grasping the pillow in my arms tighter and snuggling into its warmth. The clink of metal and shuffling fabric met my ears, but I ignored it, my mind drifting slowly back to sleep. 

“Pearl,” a voice broke through the haze. “Pearl, wake up.”

I mumbled something about oranges, as I sunk back into the familiar emotional soup of a dream I’d been having. Walking with my father up ahead through a grove of trees toward our house and into our kitchen, with walls that seemed to converge and crowd down around me. There was work to be done; the food was late. I’d forgotten.

“Pearl,” Camilla insisted. 

A hand shook my shoulder, and I blinked my eyes open, finding the dark sorceress standing there in front of me. Right, I was in bed, asleep. 

“Get up! We have to go,” she hissed just above a whisper.

“Huh?”

The sorceress pulled me to my feet, out of the hot, cozy warmth of my pillows and blankets. When had Camilla gotten up?

“Quickly, put something on.” 

She shoved something into my hands, and I nodded. Staring down, I twisted the dress in my grasp, realizing it was part of my maid’s attire. With a huff of annoyance, Camilla snatched it back from me, and pulled my nightdress up over my head. 

“What's going on?” I muttered through muffling cloth as she slipped the dress around me.

“We’ve been found out.” She snapped her fingers in front of my face. “Get ready. You’ve got less than thirty seconds and then we’re going.”

My eyes widened as my sleepy mind finally began to clear. Oh fuck. 

With a bit more haste, I slipped into some thick socks and shoes, regretting the fact that I didn’t have anything suitable for travel. The shoes were suitable for housework, not running through the forest. I bundled several bits of clothes together, stopping still to ponder what to even put them in until Camilla tossed a half-empty bag at my feet. I gave her a quick nod and began stuffing whatever I could into it. A couple seconds later, she pulled me to my feet, tightening the strings along the sack and shoving it into my arms. 

“This will have to do. We’re out of time. Can you hold the sack?”

I nodded, and her clawed hand gripped painfully into my arm. She pulled, almost dragging me off my feet, as I winced and stumbled forward out of the room just behind her. Just as we crossed the doorway, I spotted a figure in the dark hall. Camilla released her grip and shoved me hard into the wall. My head smacked into the thick wood, and a groan left my lips as a painful throb emanated from the spot. Then the room began to spin as I stepped to the side, doing my best to keep my balance. I heard a man yell out, and a loud thump that echoed and shook the hall. One of my hands pressed against the wall, steadying me. 

A few other thumps and metallic clanging noises met my ears. When I finally turned to look over, two red eyes met my own. 

Camilla cursed, “Shit, shit, shit. Sorry. Are you okay?” She took a step toward me. “Fuck. I’m sorry. Can you walk?”

Around her were three bodies spread out along the floor, sentinels in their heavily armored uniforms, though without the long spears or massive shields that they typically carried outdoors. I wasn’t sure if they were dead or just unconscious and wasn’t sure I wanted to ask.

“Y—yeah.” I nodded and tried to take a step back from the wall, only to realize it was a mistake.

In a blink she was in front of me, an arm pressing against my legs. The room shifted around me, and I thought for a moment that I’d fallen until my side was pressed up against her form. I could feel the touch of naked skin beneath the shadows that curved around her dark skin like a dress. She then placed the sack that I’d dropped into my arms.

“Just close your eyes and hold onto that as tightly as you can. I’m going to get us out of here.” 

I bit my lip but nodded, closing my eyes as the shadowy veil she used as a dress flowed over me. Camilla, with me in a tight princess carry, began to sprint forth through the mansion with ease. Nausea rolled through my belly, and I did my best to keep it down as we twisted around corners at speed. She was so strong.

“Rosetta and Lena are meeting us along the way. Hopefully they haven’t dawdled or been caught,” she whispered. My shoulders fell in relief that she’d managed to already convene with them, only to tighten once more as we turned another corner and my insides rolled.

“I think I’m going to throw up,” I muttered as acid met my throat. 

“We’re almost there. Though we’ll have to be quiet for a bit now. Try to keep it down.”

I let out a soft groan and moments later, we burst through a door and into the frigid cold of the outside night air. Camilla continued to carry me, and I kept my eyes firmly shut for what seemed like forever. With some luck, my stomach began to finally settle, though the frosty air bit at my hands and face. 

After some time, Camilla whispered, “Alright, I believe it may be safe to talk again.”

“Where’s Rosetta and Lena?”

“Up ahead. They had a bit of a head start, but I’m luckily a fast runner.” She chuckled, before her tone grew serious. “And they haven’t a clue at how to hide their tracks. Escape is going to be a challenge once the sentinels begin to trail us.”

Opening my eyes, I found only darkness around me. I was quick to realize, however, that it was due to Camilla’s magic and peeked my head forward until I could see through it. The dark shapes of tree trunks and tall bushes flashed by us at a speed that I couldn’t hope to reach no matter how hard I ran. The cold air nipped at my nose, and I turned my head around to press my frosty face up against Camilla. I felt her twitch as my nose and cheeks pushed into her warm, smooth skin. They were red from the cold, but as I realized just what I was pressed up against, my face turned scarlet. Not that I cared enough to stop…

Camilla’s nearly silent steps slowed to a stop, and a moment later, I heard whispered voices. 

“I don’t think,” the girl huffed out a ragged breath, “that I can.” Another deep wheeze of air followed. “Keep this pace.”

“Oh, quit your complaining. We’ve got to keep going or Camilla and Pearl will leave us behind. They might be miles ahead of us at this point. Keep moving,” Rosetta demanded.

Lena groaned. “How are you able to run like this without being completely out of breath?” 

“Well, m’lady, I work on my feet for a living, and moving quickly is a part of the job.”

Lena grumbled out something else, though I missed it as Camilla shifted my body and brought my feet to the ground. 

Bright red eyes stared into my own, and I shivered. Mostly from the cold. “Do you think you can walk—or rather—run?”

This time I tested my balance before giving her a hesitant nod. With a hand intertwined with her own, we ran forward until Lena and her maid came into view. 

“Oh thank the gods,” Lena said. Her red hair was a messy mop, already having a few twigs and leaves tangled into it. She paused her slow jog to lean against a tree. “I was terrified you wouldn’t be able to find us.”

Camilla scoffed. “With how the two of you have been bumbling through the forest like an off-the-rails train? Unlikely.”

Lena met my gaze and frowned as we walked closer. “I can understand Camilla being fit, but how are you not out of breath, Pearl?”

“I carried her most of the way here,” the sorceress interrupted. “Now we should keep moving.”

Lena gave several minor protests, but a few seconds of rest later and we were off through the forest once more, the exhausted noble being the slowest among us. Though, I was sure that with a bit of time, I’d be struggling to drag my tired feet along as well. Only the threat of the Praevus and his men tailing us kept us going as hard as we could. It was lucky that Camilla seemed to know where we were headed, because I was completely lost. I dreaded the possibility of getting separated. 

As we moved, the trees quickly began to change, becoming taller and larger. The large leafy floor changed to thin needles, and in between the massive tree trunks, a misty fog began to gather. It was somehow even colder to the touch than the normal air. 

I rubbed my arms, wishing I had something a little warmer on, and hoping that I’d put something better suited to the temperature in the bag slung across my shoulder. Beside me, I saw Lena shivering, and glaring ahead at the sorceress, clad in nothing but the dark misty shadows flowing down her form as she casually waited ahead for us to keep pace. 

“Something’s wrong,” Camilla said in a whisper.

“Wrong?” I asked her.

“These trees,” she said. “There’s something… off about them.”

We all stopped, Lena, Rosetta, and I shivering in place. Only Rose had been sensible enough to wear something warm over her maid dress, though even that didn’t seem to completely hold off the cold. 

“How are you not freezing your tits off?” Lena muttered at Camilla as the woman eyed the woods around us. 

Internally, I had to agree. The sorceress was naked underneath her magical ‘dress’, and those shadows had done nothing to hold in any heat when she’d carried me within them. 

Camilla glanced her way. “I’m not nearly as delicate as you three.”

Rosetta muttered something under her breath, and then we were off again.

We trudged further into the mist at a brisk jog until, just a few minutes later, Camilla came to a stop. By this point, the trees had become truly massive, looming above so high that they blotted out the sky. 

The sorceress held out a hand, and we each stopped in place. “There’s something or someone up ahead,” she hissed out in a soft whisper. 

I squinted in the direction she was looking, but neither saw nor heard anything at all. Had we already been found? Did they know we were here? Or worse, had we stumbled into something else in the forest? 

I gulped, my eyes trying to peer through the mist for anything other than the large, knotted, and overgrown trees. A chill completely unrelated to the cold ran down my spine as I realized that the forest had become unnaturally quiet, the sounds of insects and other night critters completely absent. 

“They know we’re here,” Camilla said, so quietly that I could barely make it out. They? Was there more than one, then? I wasn’t sure if that was good or bad at this point. “Stay behind me. And if I say run, you run.” Her voice had a coldness to it that terrified me almost as much as everything else. 

The crunch of leaves made me jump, only for me to realize that it was just Rosetta shifting her feet. For what felt like an eternity, but which was actually a handful of seconds, we waited in silence. 

Then, out of the mist two dark figures approached. Both Lena and I flinched back, and I heard Rosetta release a breath. Camilla, however, didn’t move, her body still tense and already facing them from the start. At first glance, they seemed human, so there was some relief that we hadn’t run into any dangerous beasts. But then I noticed that one appeared abnormally taller than the other. As they more fully walked out of the foggy mist, and into sight, I saw just how truly massive the one on the left was. She—as it was now clear she was a woman—was so large that I was certain she’d bump her head against the ceiling of my old room above the library. If she could duck through the door to get in.

The large and muscular one raised a hand casually into the air, as though giving a strange wave or salute as they stopped several meters away, giving us a wide berth. 

“Hello,” she greeted in a bright, casual tone. 

I shuddered from just how relaxed she seemed, given the situation. It spoke of a confidence that didn’t bode well for us. My eyes roamed to the other woman that stood next to her. She looked normal at first glance, with black hair much like the larger woman. Though as I stared, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something strange about her eyes, even if I couldn’t put my finger on what. The two were also a little pale looking, compared to the warm brown colors that were normal around here. Though I’d seen a similar complexion from travelers far to the north of the Empire. The other odd thing was their worn and rough-looking clothes, similar to what you might see a traveling merchant wear, if the merchant was also a beggar. 

All of it came together to scream that these two were not normal, if the strange height of the left one hadn’t already given it away. While they didn’t have the typical appearance that one might expect of two sorceresses, there was no doubt of what they were. I felt stupid. It only made sense that the Praevus would have brought more sorcerers here to handle Camilla, should she finally break from his control. I glanced over to Camilla, who stood leaning forward like a loaded spring ready to fly into battle. Hidden in her hand was a short blade. Her gaze was cold and fierce, never leaving the two.

The tall sorceress across from us let her arm fall when no one responded to her greeting, only to awkwardly scratch the top of her black braided hair as the silence dragged. “I don’t suppose we can solve whatever this is peacefully?” She glanced over to her companion, whom I couldn’t help but notice also seemed on edge and ready to fight. 

I licked my dry lips.

“Turn around now,” Camilla growled out. “And I will pretend I didn’t see you. You might be lucky and live to see the next day.” 

She was bluffing. I knew she was bluffing, or assumed so at least. The Praevus wouldn’t send two sorcerers who couldn’t easily take her on. But what else could she do in this situation? 

“Okay, yeah. That’s fine. We can go. Though, I’ll admit we’re a bit lost at the moment and, uh—” 

The woman next to her elbowed the large lady. “She’s a demon, Zarenna.” 

I held back a huff. That was a bit rude. Flicking my eyes over to Camilla, I noted she seemed distinctly unamused. Camilla wasn’t some kind of monster, no matter how she looked. Two random sorceresses should know that. 

“Yeah, I can see that, Sey,” Zarenna whispered. “And so what? She might be nice!” 

“She might try to kill us,” ‘Sey’ fired back. “Or get us more lost!”

“She just said she wants us to leave.” The woman turned back to face us. “Which we were about to do—sorry!” She bowed slightly and grabbed the other woman’s shoulder to turn them around. 

I realized the moment they began to move that this wasn’t the end. Regardless of their strange banter, them leaving would only mean the both of them coming back to attack us later, when we were even more vulnerable. And so when Camilla shifted and threw a knife at their backs, I was only a little surprised. 

The normal-sized, if still a bit tall, woman they called ‘Sey’ turned on the spot to raise a hand, but half a second too late. The knife pierced into the back of Zarenna's neck, making her take a stumbling step forward, before regaining her balance and posture. To my surprise, the tip appeared to barely pierce her flesh, and stuck in only briefly before falling to the dirt below.

“Damn it,” Camilla cursed under her breath.

I stood frozen, staring. A small trickle of blood dripped from Zarenna’s neck as she turned our way. Camilla wasted no time. She stepped forward, increasing her distance from Lena, Rosetta, and I, as several knives slid out from her shadows, floating in the air around her, as well as two in each hand. 

Zarenna raised her hands up. “Heeey,” she said, with an edge in her tone. “We really don’t need to fight. Why don’t we—”

The other lady rushed forward, drawing a glowing sword from her waist. Camilla met her charge with her own, at a speed well beyond normal human means, knives at the ready. 

“Aw, damn,” Zarenna sighed out.  

My eyes widened as her body suddenly shifted. Two arms grew to four, her skin became dark red, ridged horns pushed up out from her head, and a long thick tail splayed out from behind her—all in the blink of an eye. I could only imagine how terribly painful it looked to be, despite the sorceress’s lack of reaction. Even with how fast the strange transformation was, I couldn’t help but feel a little nauseous watching it, with flesh and bone growing out of her where none was before. 

Her fierce eyes briefly flickered our way, and I gulped, before she refocused on Camilla. A pit in my gut swirled as I realized that my mistress might not even be able to take on one of them, much less them both. But what could any of us hope to do in a fight between sorcerers? I was useless, and the heavy weight of that now bore down onto me more in this moment than ever before. 

 

***

Zarenna POV

She tried to kill me! I stumbled, struggling to keep a lid on the raw fury that wanted to boil forth. Think back to those hunters who tried to kill us in our sleep. Maybe she’s had a similar experience? But she’s not even glamoured or transformed to look human at all! 

The people she was with were unusual, too. Their clothes were oddly well-made and fine, like what I would expect nobility to wear. Not to mention their style was strange, and only one of them had a bag with them despite our remote location.

I turned around slowly and raised my hands. The demonic-looking woman had seemingly conjured an array of knives that floated ominously in an arc around her. Shadows swirled as if pulled and twisted by magic. Force magic? And something else?

“Heeey,” I said, trying and failing to keep all the anger out of my voice. “We really don’t need to fight. Why don’t we—”

Seyari cut me off by rushing forward, sword drawn. The other woman met her.

“Aw, damn,” I muttered, and shifted out of my human form.

The humans in the group reacted with fear, and the one woman with a sword stood in front of the other two. I wasn’t interested in hurting them. Or anyone, really.

I dashed forward and tried to tackle the other demon. I didn’t even make it that far. While still clashing with Seyari, who had whipped her wind magic into a tornado around herself, the other woman sent several knives hurtling my way. 

The last one didn’t do much more than what a mundane weapon would do, but I really didn’t want to find out if these were different. I skidded and rolled under them. One embedded in a tree, but, with a swishing sound the others turned back toward me and picked up speed again.

Briefly using two clawed hands for grip, I picked myself up into a lunge. Seyari caught the motion and committed herself with feint into a vicious thrust. The other woman barely dodged out of the way, in a burst of movement that was far, far faster than a human possibly could do. It struck me that she wasn’t continually moving that quickly, implying some kind of limit. A potential weakness? Or was it a feint so that we would underestimate her?

I pulled my claws back for a fist and threw my weight behind it, aiming below the neck. Shadows rushed up, and I had a moment of panic as my fist passed through them, before twisting up the angle of my punch and throwing myself off balance. No reason to see what those did. I reacted quickly, sweeping my tail around as a counterweight. The tip caught her in the shin and she grunted, stumbling to one knee.

Several points of sharp pain bloomed across my back as the knives found home. Thankfully, they didn’t pierce deeply. The remainder went after Seyari, putting her on the defensive again. There were already a worrying number of thin, bloody cuts along her body, and I feared she was one slip-up away from one of the blades truly spearing into her. Damn it.

I rushed in for another attempt at a punch and the other demon surprised me with a dagger thrust at a speed I found surprisingly fast. The short blade glowed with some kind of magic. With one of my lower arms I tried to bat her limb aside, pivoting so my punch flew past the side of her head. Her red eyes widened at the force of my hit, but I didn’t completely knock the blade off course and it dug into my shoulder.

Before I could react, a rush of knives drove themselves into my back, and I jerked, missing my attempt to grab her retreating arm. With an agile jump she backed off from me, thick fog blurring her form even over the short distance. The daggers likewise ripped themselves from my back and returned to floating around the other demon.

She cursed, and shadows swirled around the mist, to no avail. The thick fog hadn’t even cleared from Seyari’s wind tornado. And speaking of my partner, I could hardly see her form through the mist. A strong breeze blew from her direction, but the fog hung in place, almost like the wind blew through it.

“I can’t blow it away!” Seyari shouted. “You’ll have to get in close.”

“Or, y’know,” I shouted back, loud enough for everyone to hear, “We could talk and not fight!”

“Is this mist not your doing?” The other demon asked.

“Huh? Of course it isn’t! I have fire magic, not water or whatever magic could make this,” I replied, forming a ball of fire in an open palm. “We got stuck in it this morning and have been hoping it’d burn off all day! Seyari’s wind magic could blow it clear for a few minutes earlier, but I think there’s something magical about it.”

I used my aura sight: the fog had a slight tinge of magic to it, the color washed out and faint. I also saw through my sight, mostly obscured by fog, that the aura of the other demon seemed to focus itself in her legs.

I tensed myself, and the moment she dashed forward, I sprinted to meet her, barely able to make out her dark form through the dense mist. The fog closed around us, thick and oppressive. It didn’t part in front or behind us, rather, it swirled in lazy whorls as if nothing was moving in it at all.

She saw I intended to ram her, and altered her stance, but not quite quickly enough.

We impacted each other, the other demon’s aura flaring to life in her shoulder just before she struck. Twin daggers drove into my abdomen and chest, piercing skin and bone alike.

I felt like I’d run into a boulder, but my larger mass let me off easy and I only stumbled. Air whooshed out of me from the hit, spraying specks of burning blood into the air. 

The other demon was knocked away, and from the crunch her shoulder had made, I doubted she got out unscathed. One dagger was still in me and I pulled it out, wincing from the pain. My wounds were caused by magic, and would be slow to heal. My heart hurt, and I realized faintly that I’d be dead if I were a human.

The other demon scrambled upright, holding a wounded shoulder. Her red eyes burned with fury. I could barely see her in the fog, even though we were only a few feet away.

Panic suddenly welled up inside of me. I looked around for Sey, but I didn’t see her anywhere through the mist.

Before we could charge at each other again, a scream rang out from nearby—a voice I didn’t recognize. A moment later, Seyari shouted out through the fog as well.

“Sey!” I shouted, and staggered quickly in the direction of the screams.

“No, we’re ending this,” the other demon said, and lunged at me, despite her wounds. “I won’t let you hurt them!”

“Hurt them?” I shouted, dodging her. “You were the one who attacked me! I was going to ask if you needed supplies, or directions back to whatever mansion you stumbled here from! I didn’t even know anyone lived out here at all!”

“You really expect me to believe that? That you’re not working for him?” She had a wild look in her eyes, one of desperation. “That this is all a coincidence?!” she shouted, one of her knives stabbing forward once more. 

This time, I grabbed her wrist and held it firmly. “I don’t—” 

Other knives flew at me, and I let them hit, wincing as they punched into various vital places. She struggled and lashed out, and I managed to grab her other arm with another of mine and then wrap her legs with my tail. “...want to kill you.”

With a free hand, I conjured a ball of white hot fire and held it in front of her. “So stop trying to make me.” Then as a last thought, I added, “please.”

Glowing red eyes glared into my own, her face a scant few inches away. I met her glare with a razor-toothed smile. From off in the fog, another scream echoed our way, this time accompanied by a cry for help. 

 

*** 

Pearl POV

Lena took another step forward in front of us as the sorceresses disappeared in the fog. Her feet were spread, the sword in her hands pointing forward in a stance that was familiar. My eyes flickered around us, trying to spot anything through the thickening mist. Visibility was getting continually worse by the moment, to the point where I could see fog visibly flowing around and between us. 

“Ugh, what are we supposed to do in all this fog?” Lena grumbled. 

“Do you think this is their doing?” Rosetta asked as she fidgeted in place, hovering at Lena’s back and to my right. 

“Let’s hope not,” the noble girl said. “Keep your eyes peeled and shout if you see anything. I don’t imagine that they’re just here for Camilla.”

I bit my lip, staring out into the gray expanse. The fog had become so thick that even the sky was slowly becoming obscured. Stars appeared to wobble and flow from their normal positions. I blinked, having become cross eyed from the strange sight, and shook my head. In the span of a few seconds the fog looked to have drifted closer. Thick tendrils flowed and spun through the air, parting their way around us. A whispering breezy sound in the distance met my ears. Probably just from the trees, I told myself. I shivered and rubbed my arms. 

“Are we sure we should just be standing here?” I turned to Lena, hoping she might come up with some plan or another. 

The girl sighed. “I don’t know. At this point, I can’t even tell north from south. Everything looks the same, and I’m worried that if we run off, we’ll end up lost. Or more so than we already are, and we don’t want to lose Camilla. The good news is that chances are good that the same is true for anyone else in this fog.”

“So we wait,” I grumbled. 

Lena shrugged, adjusting her posture as she stared off into nothing. “We wait.”

I turned back around to stare at the strange flowing mist. It certainly didn’t appear natural, which gave credence to the idea that it was a magical creation of one of the sorceresses. But how strong would they have to be to make something so vast? 

I twisted around again to ask something else, my lips parting, when I felt something grip my shoulder. A scream pierced the air as I whirled to see whatever had grabbed me, only to find a swirl of fading mist. When my scream cut off, I sucked in a shaky breath. In the distance, another voice pierced through the fog.

“What's wrong?” The sword-wielding noble placed herself in front of me, glancing my way to assure that I was fine. “Pearl?”

“I…” My gaze darted around the fog covered forest, searching for anything and everything. The flowing mist twirled and danced in glee, as though mocking me. 

“What did you see?” Rosetta’s hand met my own and I flinched before meeting her searching eyes. “Tell us what happened, Pearl.”

“I thought something had grabbed me, but,” I stared back out into the mist, “there was nothing there.”

As I looked over to Lena, I noticed how her hands shook against the grip of the blade. “Maybe you’re right and we should go, after all. Camilla will have to find us later.” Then she looked my way. “Are you okay?” 

I nodded. “Y-yeah, just spooked.”

“Let’s go,” she said, and marched forth in a seemingly random direction. I only hoped she had some idea of which way she was heading. 

Rosetta and I followed closely behind, her hand still tightly clutching my own. The both of us were searching all around us, occasionally jumping as a tree or bush came into view. Just as we made it past three or four large ones, I heard the sound of rustling. Lena stopped, and Rosetta and I halted quickly after, nearly running into the girl. 

“Something’s coming.”

I tensed and my legs felt like they might give out beneath me. We stared ahead, our gaze shifting slightly to the right as the sound of running footsteps got closer. I gulped. The fog suddenly picked up speed, seeming to become frantic. It rushed toward us, a cloud of mist twisting in our direction like a mass of snakes who’d found their prey. This time all three of us screamed like terrified banshees. I took a step back, but the mist was too fast for us to escape it. Lena swung her sword through the air, hitting nothing as the fog rushed around us. My eyes closed, and I could feel it, trailing and caressing across my skin, whispering into my ears.

And then it was gone. 

I held still fearing that the worst was yet to come. When nothing happened my eyes opened to find the area around us surprisingly clear. Then I saw why. Standing a few feet in front of us was one of the sorceresses. Luckily, not the big one with four arms. Unlike before, the woman glowed. Shining golden eyes looked our way and silver hair flowed down around her shoulders, instead of the black of before. I might have thought her to be an angelic messenger of the gods if I hadn’t recognized her or the sword from before. 

Lena glared, her sword at the ready. The only upside was that at least the fog directly around us was gone, due to the bubble of air around the sorceress that seemed to repel it. 

“Alright,” the sorceress said. “I think it’s time for some answers.”

“‘Sey,’ was it? I believe I’m inclined to agree,” Lena responded, her grip tightening. 

I looked between the two, terrified that the woman in front of us was about to attack and incapacitate us, or worse, simply kill us. Lena may have been learning to use a sword, but sorcerers were trained to fight the great beasts of the Deadlands. And as much as I hated it, I was completely useless here, just barely having begun to learn how to cultivate at all. The best chance we had was to stall until Camilla could arrive… if she arrived.

“Why have all of you attacked us? Is this the work of one of the sovereigns?”

I looked to Rosetta, who shrugged. Just what was a sovereign? Did they work for the emperor?

Lena scowled. “Attack you? You aren’t seriously going to pretend we attacked you here? It’s obvious that you’re here on orders from the Praevus to apprehend us.” 

I certainly hoped Lena was right on the ‘apprehending’ part of that. Though why else would she stop to talk with us? Was she waiting on the other one?

“Your demon friend threw a knife with the intent to kill,” the sorceress hissed. 

“Don’t call her that. Camilla hasn’t done anything wrong,” I interrupted, before her gaze turned my way and my jaw clenched shut.

“Nothing except try to kill us. I don’t know who or what this ‘Praevus’ is, and I’m not sure that I care. I’m just trying to understand why you attacked us. And make sure that it doesn’t happen again,” she said ominously. 

Was the woman trying to claim amnesia? It seemed like a strange act to adopt. Though it could be a peculiar way for them to keep the Praevus’s hands clean or just stall for time. Perhaps both? Lena’s gaze met my own, and I could tell that she’d come to a similar conclusion. We had to find a way out of this. Staying here and talking with her was probably exactly what she wanted. 

“You two run. I’ll distract her,” Lena whispered. 

I shook my head and felt Rose tighten her grip.

Go,” she insisted, and stepped forward bringing her sword forward into a fighting stance.

Sey let out a loud sigh. “You can’t be serious.”

I stood frozen, unsure of what to do. I didn’t want to abandon her, but it seemed almost rude to brush aside her brave stand to defend us, allowing it to be in vain. I watched as the sorceress strolled casually forward. 

“I can tell you’re not very skilled at fighting just from how you’re moving, even if I’m not familiar with that particular stance. I’d advise you to surrender before I have to stop you.”

Lena said nothing, following the sorceress’s movements with her own steps. 

“Fine, we’ll make this quick then.”

The woman struck a strange pose that I’d never seen before. I could tell from the smooth grace of her movements that it was one she’d done many times. A sigh left my lips. I couldn’t forgive myself if I just ran off and let Lena fight her alone. My eyes glanced at Rosetta, who gave me a determined nod. Perhaps if we rushed her at the same time, we could throw her off enough for Lena to get a lucky blow. I took a deep breath. The two got closer to fighting range, and I saw Lena tense. 

Sey spun around and a bright light shone from her hand, stopping what looked to be a dagger mid-air. 

“Not this time, demon,” she growled. 

My eyes widened as Camilla flew from the mist several feet behind her, hurling another dagger in her direction and charging forward. 

“Wait, wait, wait, wait!”

Behind her, the big four-armed woman bumbled after, sporting dozens of shallow-looking stab wounds. “Stop the fighting! I think there’s been a huge misunderstanding.” She grabbed at Camilla’s shadows as though expecting to find clothes just underneath, only for her hand to pass through them. “Seriously! We don’t need to be enemies here.”

To my surprise, Camilla stopped her charge, turning in an instant to point her knife at the large woman’s neck. A few others floated around her back, and pointed the opposite way, as though daring Sey to make a move.  

“Alright,” she said in a low tone. “I’m willing to hear you out. Let’s talk.”  

 

***

Zarenna POV

Of course, now she was willing to talk with a knife against my throat. The other wounds she’d given me, still yet to heal, throbbed angrily. I swallowed nervously, all eyes on me. Seyari watched from nearby, fury in her eyes. If I let this situation turn into violence again, she’d kill someone or die trying. I had to salvage this. Come on wrath demon, be the calm, diplomatic one!

“Hi, uh, I’m Zarenna Miller. I’m a demon, but I’m not like most demons.” When I said demon, the knife shifted and pricked my skin. “Seyari and I are trying to get back to Harriston, a small town near here, and then Lockmoth further southwest.”

“Enough with your stories. Do you think we’re stupid?” the woman holding the knife to my throat hissed, pressing it closer. 

I could maybe have reacted quickly enough to get away, or maybe I’d end up with my head becoming less attached. Didn’t think I could survive that. “I’m not lying. Look, how about you tell us where you’re headed, and we can try to get un-lost together?”

The red eyes staring at me narrowed. “Your sorceress friend said something about ‘sovereigns.’ What are they?” she demanded, ignoring my question. If this demonic-looking woman recognized my aura, she didn’t mention it.

“Sovereign demons,” I explained nervously. “Sorta the top demon of their aspect. I don’t look it, but I’m wrath. Can’t you tell from my aura? I haven’t met another demon who couldn’t.”

She pressed the knife forward, biting further into my throat.

“Camilla, wait!” The unexpected protest came from the small girl in a maid outfit. The girl nervously moved closer until she was only a few feet away. “I think maybe they’re not from around here.” She stared up at me. “Are you from up north?”

I rubbed the back of my head with a hand that wasn’t held in surrender. “Sorta? We’re traveling north to south, trying to get me home to Edath. You’d be surprised how much I’m looking forward to cold winters again.” I tried a nervous laugh, and the blade cut deeper.

“Huh?”

“You know, Edath? Kingdom in the Empire of Ordia, fought a war for independence that ended in a draw a few years back. Cold and snowy.” I tried to back my neck off the knife and Camilla gave me some literal breathing room.

The little maid stared at me in utter confusion before turning to the demon with a questioning look. 

“There is no ‘Empire of Ordia.’ This is the Haizar Empire,” Camilla said slowly.

“Look, I’m not the best with geography, but I have never heard of the Haizar Empire. Last I checked, Seyari and I were in the northern wilds of Ordia when we got lost in this weird fog,” I replied evenly, keeping anger out of my tone. “Your clothing is odd, too—not like you’re dressed for a trek into the deep wilds. Maybe some kind of weird magic is happening with this fog.”

“I don’t think Camilla is lying, but I’m not entirely certain,” Seyari added with an edge in her voice.

“Is there another empire somewhere I haven’t heard of?” The maid asked.

“No. There isn’t.” There was a cold finality in the demon’s voice. 

I checked the fog with aura sight again. There was magic in it swirling around us. The glow of my eyes made Camilla stiffen, and I quickly ended my sight. “The fog’s magic. I don’t have any idea what it does, but maybe none of us are where we think we are?”

“It’s demonically-aspected, Zarenna,” Seyari flared her magic and threw back the fog for a moment, eyes glowing. “But what I don’t get is why Camilla doesn’t have a demonic aura.”

Huh? Well crap, I couldn’t tell that at all. I took another look at her. Demon-blooded, then? But her shadow clothing didn’t fit with any mortal magic I knew of, though I didn’t know much.

The fancy girl with the sword took a few steps forward, grabbing my attention. “You keep saying ‘demon’ and ‘demonic.’ Is that what the Marked are called where you are from? It’s generally considered an insult around here.”

“I haven’t heard of ‘Marked’ before. What should I call you?” I looked down at Camilla. “I can just call you Camilla if that’s best.”

Camilla raised an eyebrow, finally removing the knife from my throat and taking a step back. Her anger decreased in intensity, but didn’t completely leave. The strange magical shadows covering her began to dip around her chest, nearly revealing her breasts. She pointed to a strange white and circular symbol above her breast that seemed to glow. 

“My Mark. The one that marks me as a cultivator, or as we’re often called, sorcerers.”

“That’s… different.” It looked nothing like my own. I pulled my shirt down to reveal my own symbol that sat just above and between my breasts. The crimson gem in the center shined a dull green in the dim light. “This is my symbol: a lot of greater demons have one, but the gem in the center shows me to be a Sovereign. I don’t know about ‘cultivator’ or ‘sorcerer,’ but I do know that people with magic are just called ‘mages’ as far as I know.”

She stared, leaning forward with eyes full of curiosity.

“Well, isn’t this a gay ol’ time,” the other maid commented. “Should I flash my chest as well, then?” She smirked.

Flushing a deeper crimson, I quickly pulled my shirt back up and coughed. “Sorry.” I glanced at Seyari worriedly, but she just shrugged. At least I’m not in trouble there.

The sword girl scowled over at her. “I don’t know that this is really the time for humor, Rosetta.”

“I think we’ve reached a point of discerning that we’re not enemies here. And that something rather strange is going on.”

I nodded rapidly.

“It’s nice to meet both of you. My name is Rosetta, maid of the Dyere family, and Lena’s handmaiden.” She dipped into a curtsy. 

“Nice to meet you too.” I bowed lightly. “I already introduced myself, but this is Seyari. Half-angel.” I gestured to my girlfriend, who bristled, but nodded.

“I’m Pearl,” the other maid said, her gaze flickering between Seyari and I, before frowning. “I guess.” Guess what?

The noble looking girl let out a sigh. “Fine, fine. I suppose we’re doing this. I’m the formerly mentioned Lena Dyere, daughter of Virgil Dyere, the Reeve of Sunridge.”

“Runaway daughter, you mean,” Rosetta teased. 

Lena gave her a stern look back. “Says the runaway maid. Difficult to serve the Dyere family running off out here in the woods, isn’t it?”

Rosetta blinked, appearing taken aback. “I guess you’re right. I’m not really a maid anymore, am I?” 

“It’s a pleasure to meet all of you, mostly.” I shot a glare at Camilla. “But I’m sure we’ll get along fine once my dozens of stab wounds finish healing. Would everyone be okay if we teamed up to get out of here?” Truthfully, the drain on my mana wasn’t small, and if we did get into a serious fight, I’d be going in about half-empty.

“I do not trust you,” Camilla said. “Either of you. But lacking a better option, we may take you up on that until we figure out just what is going on here.”

“For once, I agree with the sorceress,” Seyari said icily. “I don’t trust any of you, but I’ll allow this. For now.”

The tension was thick. I clapped two hands together, hoping to break it. “Right! Let’s get going then, yeah?” Then I strolled forth in a random direction, hoping they would all take the hint and follow. 

After a moment, they did. Lena was quickly overtaken by Camilla who put herself between me and the others. Seemingly miffed, she took rearguard behind Rosetta and the very nervous-looking Pearl instead. Seyari, likewise moved between me and Camilla. The sorceress kept the arm whose shoulder I’d injured still, and her red eyes bored into my own.

If she had any sort of trauma like Seyari did, and I was beginning to think that likely, the best way to gain her trust was to earn it through silent action. Unfortunately, this severely limited my conversation partners as I had no interest in talking over her and risking pissing her off further.

Curiously enough, her anger was restrained—not quite so hot as I imagined it’d be.

“Hey Sey,” I asked, desperate to fill the eerie silence with anything positive, “what do you think’s going on?”

She turned from Camilla to look at me, and the look she gave was one of frustration. Yeah, I’m talking about this in front of Camilla. So?

After an awkwardly long pause, she answered. “I think this fog is something serious. I’d wager we’re not in either Ordia or wherever the others are from.”

“The Hazier Empire,” I corrected.

“Sure.” She glanced to Camilla and back at me. “Some powerful greater demon’s behind this, I’d wager. That, or we walked into something that’s either Camilla’s doing or the doing of something, or someone, from Hazier. Whatever it is, I’d bet this is either some sort of illusion or they’ve somehow transported us somewhere. I’ve not heard of such a thing personally, but that doesn’t make it impossible.”

“It doesn’t make any sense that Camilla is doing this either,” I defended the person who even now was clearly ready and willing to kill me at the drop of a hat.

“Yeah, I know.”

“Then don’t blame her!” I raised my voice a little. “We’re all here now, we all want to get out, and our best bet is working together.” Then, softer, I added, “please, Sey?”

She huffed. “I will, I will. Don’t worry.”

“Could you heal Camilla’s shoulder then?” I ventured.

“”No,”” both Camilla and Sey said at the same time.

I smiled, careful not to show teeth.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Seyari accused.

“Nothing,” I replied, my smile widening and becoming sharp.

From behind us, Pearl stifled a giggle and Rosetta chuckled.

 

***

Pearl POV

Walking for what felt like hours through the forest at night was rough, though I wasn’t sure how much time had actually passed thus far. The cold had only gradually seemed to heighten and sink in, and worse, my feet were beginning to hurt. On top of that, the fog around us was downright spooky, even with Seyari somehow holding it at bay. I kept seeing faces and other strange things in the mist, and there was this sinking feeling that something out there was watching us. Every strange shape or sound in the distance made me jump, and I was getting tired.

“You’re certain that you’re feeling alright?” Camilla glanced down at me with concern. 

Then there was Camilla, who was now hovering. It was endearing at first, but…

“Like I told you before, I’m fine. Nothing happened. I just thought I felt something grab me in the mist. I think I imagined it.” 

She continued to stare. “I don’t mean before, I mean now.”

“It’s just cold,” I said and rubbed my arms. 

“I could carry you again.” Her lips curled up into a teasing smile, and my cheeks reddened. 

“No, I’m fine, really! And besides, isn’t your arm hurt?” Looking over to her, it was obvious with how she kept it close to her side. 

She scoffed. “You’re as light as a feather, little Pearl, and really, it’s not all that bad, nothing that a bit of—” 

Suddenly she paused, and stared forward, past Zarenna and Seyari and into the fog ahead, her eyes narrowing. A moment later, they both stopped, followed by the rest of us. 

I frowned, worry building in my gut. My gaze scanned the fog, searching for anything out of place. Then we all walked a few meters further, and the fog ahead cleared. My eyes widened, all of us now stopped and staring. 

An old metal gate stood in front of us, its rusting black bars shining from the once again visible moon high in the sky. The tall black fence to each side seemed to loom, with vines growing up its length. The gate stood open, as though inviting us. Within, covered by only a subtle haze of mist, was a large three-story building, seemingly abandoned, were I to guess. The building’s mansard roof was ringed along the top with the same sharp tips of wrought iron as the gate. Its large windows were dark and many were missing shutters. The building’s paint was cracked and worn, appearing gray, at least from this distance in the dark. Perhaps it was once blue or something? 

“Well, that’s not creepy at all,” Zarenna commented.  

“What does that say?” Camilla asked.

“What, you don’t know how to read?”

“I can read perfectly fine. What I can’t read is whatever that language is,” the sorceress spat back. She pointed up to the top of a gate, where I noticed a nearly hidden string of symbols that I’d honestly taken to be decoration.

“Hmm, no idea. Seyari?”

We all turned to Seyari, hoping she might have an answer. 

After staring for a moment, she responded, “It’s not a language I’m familiar with, unfortunately. But were I to guess, I’d say this is some sort of old inn.” 

I didn’t have much experience with inns, so I supposed I would take her word for it. The building looked ‘inn-ish’ enough. 

“So, do we check it out?”

Check out the creepy inn surrounded by fog and in the middle of nowhere? “No way,” I said, with a vigorous shake of my head. 

“The maid is right. We’re trying to get out of this fog, not go off exploring any random building we find. Let’s go,” Seyari replied, before turning around back into the fog. 

With relief, I followed right behind, with the others not far after. It took only moments for the inn to once more disappear from sight, and I was glad to see it go. If I never had to see the place again, I’d be quite satisfied. The fog alone was plenty weird and spooky enough. 

Half an hour later, I realized it wasn’t meant to be. 

“We’re lost,” Lena muttered. 

All of us stared once more at the open gate and the inn just beyond it. A crow cawed in the distance, one of the few sounds we’d heard in this oppressive mist. 

“We’ve been lost this whole time,” Zarenna said, offhandedly. 

“What I mean is, we’re so lost that we are walking in circles.”

Camilla’s eyes narrowed at the offending structure. “Perhaps.” 

Zarenna gave a questioning look to Seyari, who turned her back to the gate and said, “Let’s go.”

I let out a sigh of relief as we left the strange old place once more. 

About ten minutes later, Lena let out a whine. “You’ve gotta be kidding me.”

Once again, we found ourselves at the old iron gate. The one occurrence of circling around might have been an accident, us somehow happening upon the same spot in this weird fog and without a true sense of direction. But twice? A shiver slid its way down my back. 

Zarenna shot a toothy grin at Seyari, raising a brow. 

The supposed half-angel gave her a look back, before relenting with a sigh. “Fine, fine, we’ll go explore the old abandoned inn. Maybe we’ll figure out just what’s going on here and get out of this maddening forest.” 

“Awesome,” the large demon said. 

She strolled forward, before Camilla grabbed onto her shoulder. “Perhaps we shouldn’t just stroll into a place that, by all appearances, may be hostile.”

“I could skip or dance inside, if you’d prefer?” Zarenna offered cheekily.

Seyari’s eyes glowed for a moment, and then she shook her head. “There’s too much ambient magic—I can’t tell if there’s anything else going on here.”

Camilla scowled. “The reasonable thing to do would be to scope it out, see what we can figure out from a distance for a few hours.”

“Through the fog?” Zarenna asked.

“Well, the area around the building itself is clear enough. Let’s handle this sensibly.”

Zarenna pouted. “I’m sorry, but sensibly left when we ended up here for the third time. Someone or something wants us here, so I’m going in.”

“That’s… that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard come out of your mouth. You can’t just— Hey!” Camilla shouted as Zarenna walked through the gate. The sorceress rushed after her. 

“Are we really going in there?” I asked, my voice wavering. 

“It’s that or stay out here,” Seyari replied before following them. 

I looked to Rosetta beside me, who just shrugged. Lena, Rosetta, and I jogged after them.

As we caught up to them, Camilla grabbed Zarenna’s arm, slowing her down, but not fully stopping her. “Do not test me, ‘demon.’ I will make you eat the dirt at my feet.”

Zarenna grinned over at her, showing off her very pointy teeth. “Yeah? Is that a challenge?” She looked almost ready to pounce. 

Wait, were they flirting? Damn it, Camilla. 

“Now is not the time for jokes,” Seyari replied. “And no flirting with the sorceress. You’re mine.

Wait. They were together? I glanced between both of them, wondering just how that worked, considering the size difference. Zarenna’s fingers were rather big, and those claws. Then I shook my head. This was really not the time. 

Zarenna ignored the large knocker on the double doors, instead reaching right for the handle. The sound of wood cracking broke the quiet around us, as she pulled the door open, the old wood splintering from her forceful tug. She peered inside before entering, followed quickly by Camilla. 

I let out a sigh as the others followed, and then slipped in behind them all, glancing briefly over my shoulder and watching in horror as the gate slowly creaked closed behind us. Fuck.

I scurried forward, moving up on Camilla’s heels. Twin crimson flames lit up at the tips of Zarenna’s horns, lighting the room in a dim glow. We’d entered into what appeared to be a fairly normal, if old and dark, inn lobby. A small desolate bar sat to one side, one of the stools knocked over to the wooden floor. On the other side appeared to be the desk where one would check in and out. 

“See? Nothing here,” Zarenna said, in a voice that was much too loud. 

“We don’t know that for certain,” Camilla hissed back. “Keep your voice down.”

The demon raised one of her four hands to her face and yelled out, “What do you mean? This place is empty!” Her voice echoed through the room.

“I’d prefer it if you wouldn’t yell,” a calm voice said from behind us. 

I nearly jumped out of my skin, letting out a squeak, before swirling around to face them. My heart was beating so hard and fast that I was worried it would thump right out of my chest. Camilla twisted around in an instant, knife in hand and a hair away from being thrown at someone’s head.

A young-looking woman holding a lit candelabra walked up through our group to stand before us. I stumbled back as she casually passed by me, not even looking my way. Then she turned to face us as a group. “My apologies that I was not here to receive you,” she said calmly before giving a formal bow. “Welcome to the Heartspring Inn. You may call me Genevieve.”

The woman, who I assumed was a maid, had long, straight black hair and wide, dark eyes, with bags under them. She was dressed like what I might imagine of high-end waitstaff of a wealthy noble, or a concierge, slick and pristine. She dusted one of her shoulders with a white-gloved hand, dust flying off of it in a small cloud. “How many rooms would you like?” Her wide eyes stared off, not appearing to really be looking at any of us, and she didn’t bat an eye at how strange of a group we were. Was this place in any condition to have guests?

Zarenna turned and whispered back, “Three?”

Camilla elbowed her. “We’re not here to stay.” 

The demon gave her a light glare back. Genevieve gave a single blink, her gaze finally resting on Camilla. 

As before, she spoke slowly and flatly. “Oh. Well, we have a number of other amenities. Unfortunately, the bar is currently closed.” We all glanced over to the desolate bar, which looked like it hadn’t been used in decades. What few bottles sat around it appeared to be covered in dust and cobwebs. “But, our hot springs are a popular choice.” 

“Let’s get right to the point.” Camilla stepped forward until she was right in front of her, the knife pointed toward her chest. “We’re here to find out about the mist, and why we’re being drawn here to this ‘inn.’” 

The girl’s head tilted a fraction of an inch. “The mist?”

The sorceress’s eyes narrowed. “Yes,” she hissed. “The fog blanketing everything outside and making it impossible to travel.”  

“Fog?” Genevieve blinked again. “Oh, I hadn’t realized there was a fog out.” She stood there for a moment, as though frozen in time. “Why don’t I show you to your rooms, then?” 

She turned, and nonchalantly walked away, as though Camilla wasn’t glaring at her like she wanted to rip her head off. Light from the candelabra she carried swayed and flickered around the dimly-lit lobby. Zarenna shrugged and followed Genevieve. Wait, we didn’t even pay!

Seyari then sighed loudly and jogged after her. Grumbling, Camilla went as well and the rest of us tagged along behind her. We moved up an old creaking staircase, the wood seeming like it might give any moment. Zarenna in particular stared down with a worried frown at each step. But somehow, we made it up to the second floor and the long, dimly lit hall full of old paintings. Unlike downstairs, sconces holding candles were already lit along the walls. 

“Forgive me if your rooms are a bit sparse. We weren’t expecting guests tonight,” Genevieve said as she paused in front of a room. 

“Your rooms are these three here on the left: 204, 205, and 207. We ask that you please not disturb any of the others.” She held out her hand; three silver keys sat within. “Your keys.” Her gaze shifted to Zarenna, who nodded and gave her an awkward smile, taking them. 

Entering our rooms, we found them not quite as ‘sparse’ as she’d implied. A four-poster bed sat against one wall. Next to it a painting of a woodland landscape showing gnarled, ancient trees covered in moss hung above a worn-looking vanity and mirror. An ancient-looking armoire and washbasin sat along the opposite wall, and a small table with two high-backed chairs was positioned near a single, wide window that looked out into the fog. Very deliberately, I avoided looking outside and closed the shutters.

“If it pleases you, I can show you to the hot springs,” she said from the hall, in the same monotone voice.  

I looked to Camilla, who’d decided to share a room with me, before we went back into the hall. I could tell she wasn’t pleased, and it made sense, considering how on edge we both were on top of how peculiar the woman was. This was well beyond weird. 

“Why don’t we get back to why exactly we’re here?” the sorceress said.

Seyari sighed. “I agree. We were very clearly led here, and I hate to admit as much, but I don’t think it was your doing.” 

“Are you not here for the hot springs? It is our most popular amenity.” She stared between them, her expression blank. 

“If you cannot give us any answers, then perhaps you can take us to someone who can?” Seyari continued. 

The woman blinked, pausing. 

“Good, you’re all ready? It’s right this way.” She turned and walked back to the stairs, before beginning her way down them. 

Seyari sighed, and Camilla grumbled under her breath. Zarenna looked around at all of us before shrugging once more and following after her. 

This was going to be a really weird night. 

 

***

Zarenna POV

Well, this was getting weirder and weirder. The bed in our room looked comfortable at least. Seyari and I set our things down—after I convinced her—and joined the others and Genevieve back in the hallway.

Something about the woman was… off. She didn’t even bat an eye at a demon, a sorceress, and a half-angel walking into her bar and inn. Even now, she walked with a fluid grace that bordered on the unnatural. I swear she was forcing her arm to move the candelabra around as she walked. And there was the way she just stared off into nothing, as though she were peering out into another realm. All of it was simply eerie. 

We followed her further down the hallway, and back downstairs. The inn looked old, but it didn’t quite look deserted. Honestly, that made things worse than if they were one or the other.

My thoughts stopped at the door she led us to.

“This is the changing room. There are towels inside. Please wash off before entering the springs.” Genevieve produced a small silver bell from… somewhere. “Ring this if you need assistance.” She handed it to me.

“Thanks,” I replied, a little confused. “I guess I’ll just set this next to the bath once we get in?”

Genevieve nodded slowly and far, far too evenly.

I turned to the others, and both Camilla and Seyari held out their hands, expectantly.

I frowned, dangling the bell between them out of reach. “Jump for it!”

Camilla stabbed me, though just with the tip. She won the bell.

“Are you going to take that dagger into the hot springs?” I asked, dramatically putting a hand over my latest stab wound. “Just because I heal quickly, doesn’t mean I appreciate being stabbed.”

“If anything happens, I’m blaming you for this mess that we’re in,” she said as she walked past me into the changing room. 

Seyari frowned at me and followed her. What? Do you really need your sword to go take a bath?

“Are you okay?” Pearl asked, staring up at me.

“I’ll be fine in a minute,” I replied. “Probably should wait so I don’t bleed into the pool.”

“You should stop antagonizing Camilla,” Rosetta said as she walked by, taking Lena by the hand.

“Understood,” I said with a grimace. I waved for Pearl to go ahead of me and then followed her in.

The room inside was wood-paneled and floored and better-kept than the rest of the inn had been. True to Geneveive’s word, there were two stacks of six towels. There were also cubbies for clothing. 

At this point, I realized I’d be stripping in front of everyone. “Hey, uh, would you mind not looking?” I asked the group.

Lena, Rosetta, and Pearl assented.

Seyari said, “Yes, I would mind.”

Camilla shrugged, but looked away.

I stripped quickly, and then wrapped a towel around my waist. I covered myself up top with two arms while another hand held the towel. Truthfully, I had no idea how I’d manage if I lacked the proper number of arms, like humans did.

Seyari stood next to Lena and Rosetta, all of them proudly nude and waiting, turned away. Camilla stood off to the side, still in her strange shadowy dress. Was she going to change?

Pearl, like myself, had wrapped up in a towel, though she managed to cover both her top and bottom with one of the tiny towels they’d provided. Her legs looked a bit shaky. 

“Ready?” I asked her, glad I hadn’t turned around a moment too early.

She nodded, red in the face.

“We’re ready!” I announced and the others turned.

No, it was my turn to flush red, well redder.

My eyes decided they had to look at someone, so I chose Seyari. I’d seen her naked before, and she was still as gorgeous as ever. 

“Are you not going to change?” I asked Camilla as we walked to the bath part of the changing room, my eyes unable to really look away from Seyari’s butt in front of me.

“Eager to see me naked?” She smirked.

I blushed harder and coughed a small stream of fire. “Uh, well, Seyari would…”

“That’s not a no~”

I glanced up at her and her shadows dissipated, revealing Camilla in all her naked glory, aside from a waist belt holding an impressive number of knives. My eyes immediately betrayed me and went to her ass. She was naked this whole time!? 

“Enjoying the view~” she teased, not even looking back.

Ahead of us, Rosetta and Lena quickly entered the rinsing pool. Beside me, I could hear Pearl mumbling and I could almost feel her embarrassment.

I forced myself to look up, and tried to make light of the situation. “Yep! Great ass. Not as good as Seyari’s, but you get three thumbs up.”

Seyari glared at me, but I couldn’t feel much real anger behind it.

Camilla laughed and motioned to my arms. “Oh, then why don’t you show me those three thumbs?”

“Because they’re covering my boobs and holding my towel up?” I replied.

“Later, then,” the sorceress promised slyly.

I looked at Seyari and she shrugged. “I haven’t had a threesome in a while, but I can see a view you can’t, and I think I might like to try it.”

Huh!? What!?

“Uh, Sey?”

She winked at me and stepped into the rinsing pool as Lena and Rosetta got out. I quickly followed her. Once I got in, I saw what Seyari had been talking about and blushed harder. Camilla had something between her legs I had really not expected. And it wasn’t small either.

I dropped my own towel as I slid in, keeping a hand over my nethers and another two over my chest. I wrapped my tail around my legs demurely as I rinsed in the too-shallow pool. Frustratingly, no one else had a problem with the depth.

After Seyari and I got out, Pearl got in behind us while Camilla kept watch over her. 

Seyari and I followed Lena and Rosetta out of the changing room and into the chill night air. The sight outside was, I had to admit, borderline magical, and not in the literal magic from fog and demonic meddling way. Lanterns were hung from wire across a series of rocky pools separated by steaming waterfalls. The rocks above tumbled up into snow and short pine trees. A waning gibbous moon hung above, pale yellowish white and big in the star-filled sky. The steam that rose above the scene was nothing like the fog from outside.

“Something’s definitely up with this place,” Seyari muttered.

“Oh, for sure, but I’m going to enjoy this for as long as I can.” I took her hand in mine and together we walked to the main pool and stepped in.

Rosetta and Lena were chatting quietly along one edge, and Seyari and I moved to the deeper part, so I could sit comfortably and stretch my arms, relatively sure that the turbulence of a nearby waterfall would cover my sensitive bits.

Camilla led Pearl by the hand after us. She set the silver bell by the edge of the pool near where they ended up, between us and the other couple. Lena and Rosetta looked cute together, almost happy despite the weirdness of the circumstances.

I really hoped we could all help each other out of this. Despite her stabby nature, Camilla seemed nice enough, if overtly sexual. The way she sat out of the water just enough to show off her dark black nipples kept me flushed in embarrassment.

Honestly, it was the way she was clearly showing off that made the act embarrassing. Whatever, I won’t let her get to me. I leaned back and relaxed, trying to care less about what was seen and what wasn’t. It’s all just our bodies anyway. Nothing wrong about it, I suppose.

 

***

Pearl POV

I sunk down into the spring up to my nose, wishing I could better hide my body. I felt so exposed, naked out in the open as we were. Camilla was laid out next to me, her eyes closed. One might have assumed she was relaxing, but I could tell there was a rigid tension still there. Why were we even in the hot springs in the first place? They felt nice, but this seemed a strange time to indulge. Were we really going to stay the rest of the night here? 

I blew bubbles into the steamy water, trying to distract myself.

“Relax, little rabbit. You’ve nothing to worry about,” Camilla said to my right. 

Her fingers brushed through my wet hair, across the top of my head. My tiny growing ears twitched, and I fidgeted from under her grasp. ‘Relax,’ she said. As if she was truly relaxing. I couldn’t see how anyone would be able to truly relax in this place. 

As I lifted my head and neck back out of the water, one of my arms shifted to cover my developing breasts. This would have been a lot easier if I still looked as I used to. Not that I liked looking like a man, but… 

I sighed and Camilla took the opportunity to snake an arm around me, snuggling me into her side. My warm face turned crimson, but I wasn’t sure I had it in me to complain. Instead, I pressed my face into her skin, closing my eyes. If nothing else, I could trust Camilla to keep me safe. 

Her grip around me tightened, and with a downward shove, my face dunked under the water. A second later, I came back up, spluttering. My arms waved as I pulled myself from her grasp, taking several steps away. She grinned up at me, and I gave her a glare. Off to the side, I could hear Zarenna stifling a giggle. 

It was then that I realized I was standing. Naked. In front of everyone. My face caught fire as I shot back down into the pool, steaming ripples of water splashing outward. I gave Camilla another glare as she gave me a smug look. Then I sent a splash of water her way, soaking her face. Her eyes narrowed. 

“You dare challenge me?” 

I hesitated, nearly backing off, before gathering my nerve. “I do.” 

“Oh, I gotta see this,” came Rosetta’s comment from the side. She stood, walking over to our little pool of water. For a moment, my eyes glued onto her graceful stride, before I forced my gaze away. 

This was not the time to admire beautiful naked women… Right?

I shook my head, and eyed Camilla once more. 

“The first move is yours,” she offered. 

I took my best splashing stance and paused for just the right moment. Then with as big of a thrust as I could, covered Camilla in the steaming hot-spring water. For a few seconds, she paused, the steam rolling up around her. Then, with unnatural speed, she shot forward, and her arms wrapped around my torso. My eyes widened as we toppled down into the pool, and I was fully submerged. When I came back up for air, the evil sorceress’s fingers trailed to my sides, and I realized with horror, that her assault had only just begun. 

Her fingers tickled into my sides, and I yelped out, wiggling to get away from her. My arms and legs splashed into the water, showering both of us, but my attack was ineffective. She was too strong! 

“No-no!” I spluttered, giggling. “Stoooop.” 

My hands moved to her shoulders, trying to counter her, but even with only two arms, the woman easily outmaneuvered me. Her fingers moved around to my belly, and I wiggled further, flailing and giggling even more. Finally, when she made her way to my armpits, I managed to press one of my hands against her face. After more giggle-filled begging for her to stop, and then repeatedly admitting she’d won, the demonic sorceress eventually relented. 

Clapping came up from above us, Rosetta apparently happy with the results of our duel. I took several deep breaths, laying in the water on my back. My face felt like I was going to combust. At this point, I didn’t even care that I was flashing my chest to everyone. My mind was just too overwhelmed from all the overstimulation. 

I let out a loud huff, turning over to eye Camilla. She had a smug smile on her face, and her gaze shifted to meet mine. 

“You—“ I took a breath. “You win this time,” I managed. 

“Hey Sey.” I heard Zarenna’s deep voice from somewhere nearby. “Want to—”

I looked over just in time to see Seyari grab the large demon woman by the horns and dunk her face first into the pool. In the back of my mind, I took notes, as my eyes flickered over to Camilla’s tall horns. Zarenna came up sputtering, and dove forward onto Seyari, all four arms outstretched and without her usual claws. They fell together into the water with a splash that sent a large wave across the pool. I felt some of it splatter onto me even from this distance. This time, Zarenna surfaced first, with a triumphant look on her face as she stood over Seyari with a proud and victorious pose. Completely naked, of course.

I took a brief moment to look her over, notably the very toned abs along her stomach and large chest. Compared to me, they were very, umm, big. I did my best to keep my eyes from trailing elsewhere, somewhat successfully. My embarrassment finally managed to catch up to me, and once more I dipped back down into the water up to my nose. 

“Look at you, so brash,” Seyari commented snidely as she stared up to her tall companion.

Zarenna’s eyes widened. She let out a surprisingly high-pitched ‘eep’ and flopped back down under the water, her face flushing a darker crimson than its normal hue.

I blew more bubbles into the water, averting my gaze from the somehow-shy demon. 

Things ‘cooled’ down a bit from that point on, though I wasn’t sure Zarenna ever got fully past her moment of incidental exposure. I kept my head down, mostly literally, still a bit shy as well. Eventually Rosetta and Lena got up to grab their towels and move back into the changing room. Lena gave me a smile as she passed. 

Camilla let out a sigh. “I should go with them. Make sure nothing strange happens.” I gave her a small nod, and she rubbed the top of my head, making me fidget. “These two seem trustworthy enough, if you need another moment.” She eyed me questioningly. 

“Alright. I’ll join you in a bit.” I felt like I needed to mentally prepare myself for a few seconds before getting up out of the water once again. It’d be easier with fewer eyes.

She nodded and stood, gracefully jogging after them. I sighed, and realized that despite everything, I was going to miss this one of a kind moment. To my surprise, Seyari stood as well, moving after the sorceress into the changing room, her eyes narrowed. 

My gaze traveled over to the large red demon. She looked back bashfully, the pool just a bit too small for her to comfortably hide in as I could. I gave her a soft smile, before taking a brave breath of air and standing up from the pool. Spotting the small bell that Genevieve had left us, I quickly grabbed hold of it, my other hand doing it’s best to cover up between my legs. With red cheeks, I walked over to Zarenna and offered her a hand, putting the bell into the other. She didn’t need the helping hand. I mean, she had four of them. But it was the sentiment that really mattered. 

“Thanks.” She gave me a shy smile, palm and fingers circling around my own. 

Then she stood, her thick and impressively muscular thighs pushing her to her feet. My flush enflamed into a full blaze. Then I looked up—and up—to her face. You really couldn’t appreciate just how tall this woman was until she was right in front of you. 

She winked, her own cheeks nearly as flushed as I imagined mine to be. “Let’s grab our towels and get out of here before the others come back searching for us.”

I nodded numbly, and began walking back to the changing room, Zarenna following behind. Once the inn came into view, a shadow caught my eye as it moved through one of the upper-story windows, disappearing as quickly as I spotted it. I briefly froze, before shaking my head. Probably Genevieve, or another one of the staff. Perhaps even some other guest here. There was no reason to assume it was something more nefarious. As we made it into the changing room, the two of us twisted the towels around our bodies, covering ourselves up as much as we could. It was surprisingly difficult with a small bell in hand. 

As I moved into the room, Zarenna just behind, I stopped. The room was empty. Not a single person within. 

“Huh,” Zarenna said. “Well, this isn’t good.”

“Maybe they went on ahead?” I bit my lip.

The demon’s eyes narrowed as she scanned the room. “If they did, they took our clothes with them.” She strolled inside, bending at the waist. “As well as the water off the floor.” She then turned back to me. “Unless your sorceress has some kind of water or fire magic?” 

I tiptoed across the floor, nervously, and peeked out the other side of the changing room, only to find a dark and quiet hall. Quickly, I scurried back toward Zarenna, giving her a shake of my head, before giving her a wide-eyed stare. 

“W-what happened? They can’t have just disappeared.” My fingers were gripping around the bell so tightly that it was biting painfully into me. 

“I—I don’t know.” Worry crept into Zarenna’s voice. She scratched at a horn nervously. “Should we go check our rooms?”

“We don’t have any clothes!” I whispered out. “I—I don’t want to go around wearing just a towel. Is there really nothing here?” My head swiveled, looking for anything we could put on. 

“Hmm, what about the bell?”

I blinked and looked down, briefly wondering how a little bell was supposed to help. Then I remembered Genevieve saying to ring it if we needed anything. 

“Oh, good idea.” Thank the gods that Camilla left it. 

Holding the tiny silver bell out, I gave it a soft jingle. I stared, wondering how anyone was supposed to hear that soft chime. The two of us looked around, particularly toward the entrance. When no one showed up, I let out a loud sigh. 

“Well, I guess we should have expected that,” I muttered. 

“Maybe she doesn’t come into the changing rooms?”

I shrugged.

“I assure you, I arrive where I am needed.”

We both jumped, and I definitely didn’t emit anything even close to a squeal.

Zarenna coughed out a small flame. “You’re… way too good at that.”

“Good at what?” Genevieve’s face kept a starkly neutral expression. “I would hope you do not find my attentiveness or timeliness lacking.” She paused, and there was a brief moment of awkward silence. “Now, what is it you two need me for?”

“Where is everyone?” I asked, fidgeting nervously with the bell.

She stared off and gave a single slow blink. “You’re in the changing room.” 

My brows furrowed. “No, I mean everyone else. Camilla, Rosetta, and everyone.” I swear, if she said something along the lines of ‘You two are the only guests here,’ I would go mad. 

Slowly she turned her head, peering lazily around the room. “I do not see them.” 

“Do you know where they are?” Zarenna asked, a hard edge to her voice.

She paused. I held my breath, waiting. 

“No.” Then she continued, “But if they ring the bell, I can attend to them immediately.” 

But… we had the bell? I looked over to Zarenna. 

She sighed loudly. “Fine. But I am disappointed you do not know where they are. I assumed that attentiveness of yours would be better.”

“I cannot see through walls,” Genevieve replied with absolutely no emotion. “It is not an ability I possess. Do you two require anything of me?”

I bit my lip, before saying, “Some clothes would be nice.” 

She gave a small bow. “Of course.”

Then standing up straight, she moved to the row of cubbies along the wall. The strange woman pulled out two plain white dresses, before holding each out to us. Weird that we didn’t spot them before. Zarenna peeked over her shoulder as if to try to see where they came from. By her confused expression, I assumed she didn’t find an answer.

“I hope these are sufficient. The tailor is currently indisposed. We were unfortunately not expecting guests tonight.”

“I’m, umm, sure they’ll be fine.” I reached out and plucked the smaller of the two from her grasp. 

Zarenna took the other dress and held it out in front of herself. “This… actually might fit. Thanks.”

I blinked at the peculiar woman, somewhat surprised. It looked like I had a lot of growth still in my maidly skills. This woman was in a league of her own, pulling things like that out of nowhere. 

“If that will be all?” Genevieve asked.

“You’re certain you don’t know where they are?”

She looked over at me, and a shiver went down my back. “Who do you mean?” The question brought yet another shiver.

“Our friends?”

“I do not,” was her simple reply. 

Zarenna narrowed her eyes. “Fine.”

Genevieve bowed a final time, and walked around the corner into the bath part of the changing room. Zarenna dashed after her with unnerving quickness, and returned a moment later, frowning. “She was gone.”

Very strange. I shivered once more. 

It seemed like our little gang was split up. 

“Oh, zoinks,” I muttered in frustration, the strange word seeming to fit the situation somehow. “Where do we go now, Zarenna?”

“R-I don’t know, Pearl? I mean, right. Let’s go right. I believe that’s the way back to the rooms.”

“Let’s just hope we don’t run into anything too spooky.” 

 

***

Zarenna POV

The light from the orbs of fire atop my horns cast long shadows up and down the surprisingly unfamiliar hallway outside the changing room. We’d reached the end, and there was a single door instead of the stairs that I remembered being there. “Do you remember which way our rooms were?” I asked, looking down at Pearl.

She fidgeted with the hem of her dress and looked up at me with wide eyes. “Uh, n-no.”

My memory’s not this bad, right? “I, uh,” I scratched at a horn nervously. “I think I got turned around.”

“All we did was walk down a hallway?” Pearl asked worriedly, biting her lower lip.

I sighed nervously and hung my head. “Okay, I’m lost then. Do you know the way back?”

She shook her head, and patted around her midsection, ruffling the white dress in search of possible pockets. “I can’t find the bell. It was in my hand, but…”

I looked back down the dark hallway. “Maybe it fell somewhere? This isn’t the right way anyway, so let’s go back.”

Pearl nodded and the two of us walked back down the hallway. We passed a painting of an old, stern-looking woman and I could have sworn she was facing the other way when we went past the first time. I kept my eyes on the floor and my aura sight on, so I had to quickly catch Pearl with my lower arms when I bumped into her. She’d stopped right in the middle of the hall.

“Sorry!” I said quickly. “Are you?”

She reflexively pulled an arm closer around herself and pointed her other hand forward.. “Did you see that?”

“See what?” Suddenly, I felt a lot more nervous as I followed her outstretched finger.

Pearl was pointing at a set of double doors that I definitely did not remember seeing in the way by earlier. They were set in their own rounded alcove, and one of them was cracked open, a thin ray of pale light streaming through.

As I watched it creaked closed. “What did you see?” I looked down, letting Pearl cling onto my limb.

“A g-g-ghost. I think. Or a spirit. ‘Ghost’ is a bit disrespectful, I believe.”

I shivered. Even years ago, there were supposedly haunted places I wouldn’t even let Abby drag me into. “M-maybe it was steam from the changing room?”

She shook her head.

Ahead of us, the soft sound of music playing reached our ears. I glanced up. It was coming from the direction of the now-closed doors.

Slowly, and carefully, we walked past the doors, only to find the hall turned and dead-ended ahead of us. “I know about undead, but they have bodies. There’s n-no such thing as, like, actual ghosts, or spirits, right Pearl?”

“Huh? Of course there are.” She glanced up at me, her eyes quivering and mouth set in a worried pout. “Why are you shivering?” The look she gave suggested that I was somehow supposed to be the brave one here. 

Undead I could deal with, but actual ghosts? I wasn’t so sure.

“Oh, uh, I guess that makes sense.” I thought back to Isidore’s talk of souls and demons. Ghosts existing wasn’t a far-fetched idea—just an undead minus the physical body. “And I’m just cold,” I lied. “Maybe we can try one of these doors.” I tried two of the single doors near the end of the hall, both were locked.

The music grew louder, and we both poked our heads around the corner we’d just walked around, mine above Pearl’s. In the flickering light of my fire, a pale faceless figure of mist, in a dress that flowed like fog, strode toward the double doors and passed through them. They creaked slightly, like they’d been opened and closed, but they didn’t move more than an inch.

Now, it was my turn to fidget at the hem of my white dress nervously. Pearl still held one of my arms. Was that truly a ghost? Perhaps some kind of illusion? Either way, there was clearly something in this house, and I was well and truly spooked. 

“W-we can go investigate the room. Maybe whoever’s playing the music can give us directions? I didn’t see the bell anywhere when we walked by, so…” 

Had she seen what I’d just seen? My lips parted to ask her, but for some reason I hesitated, scared to know the answer. Pearl looked nervously up at me looking nervously down. 

I schooled my expression as best I could and offered a soft smile. “I’m a big scary demon, right? The ghosts are probably more afraid of me than I am of them.” Why did those words sound so hollow to my ears? They were true, weren’t they?

Pearl nodded and then gulped. My hand reached out, slowly—just in case something tried to grab me as I opened the door. Definitely not out of fear. With a gentle pull, the old door eased open, and the two of us peeked inside. 

The room was well lit, several chandeliers casting flickering candle-light from the ceiling. I looked over to the piano sitting in the corner, noticing immediately that no one sat by it. As the door opened fully, the melodic tune seemed to echo through the hall and fade, the sound becoming strangely discordant. It gave the strange impression that it was an echo of some distant past, somehow held here until the door had finally opened to release it. 

“Does that door look familiar?” Pearl pointed across the ballroom at an ornate single door.

Did it? I might remember it? Either way, it was the best lead we had.

“Kinda,” I answered. “Let’s go that way. If it’s another weird empty hallway on the other side though, I’m going to make my own door.”

Pearl blanched. “Y-you’re just going to destroy their wall?”

“Uh, okay, maybe not then…” I conceded. “All this is weird and spooky, but this place hasn’t done anything bad to us, really.”

“I just hate the idea of giving poor Genevieve more cleaning work. She might be the only maid here. Or, err, whatever it is that she is?” 

I shrugged. “Fair enough. Shall we go then?”

“And what if they kicked us out? Are we really gonna go back into that creepy fog?” 

“No property damage, got it.” I gave three thumbs up (Pearl still had my other arm).

We moved across the room, and I couldn’t help but feel continually more on edge the further we got. There was this strange sensation along my back that we were being watched—a feeling that was growing with each step. I took a moment to look around us, finding nothing out of the ordinary, or at least more out of the ordinary. 

Eventually, we made it, and in a moment of boldness, I thrust open the door with a heavy arm. We were met by… another door. 

“It’s not technically a hallway?” Pearl said. 

I put up two hands in a placating gesture. “I said no property damage, it’s fine. Although I have to wonder what the builders of this place were thinking.”

The little maid shrugged. “Maybe there’s a closet next to it.”

This time, she was the brave one, moving forward and easing the door open. The two of us strolled into yet another unfamiliar room. Tall windows along one side let in pale moonlight. A single, long table stretched out before us off toward the far wall. Candelabras were lit atop a stretch of white cloth. Fancy plates had been set—six places, but no food. Strangely, a single glass of dark-red wine sat at the opposite end, or at least I assumed it was wine. Please be wine.

As we stood around the edge of the table, a shadow passed by outside, flickering darkness down the wall opposite the windows. I looked over, but it was already gone. “Did you see that?” I asked Pearl.

“The shadow?” she asked tentatively.

“Yeah.” I walked over to the nearest window with Pearl still attached. 

Outside was a courtyard, and the three-floor inn ringed around three sides of it, top windows peeking out of the mansard roof. I could see steam rising from the hot spring in a direction I was certain we hadn’t come from. On the opposite side of the building was a bell tower. The moon was behind it, and something dark and large inside it swung again, sending that same shadow hurtling across the dining room. As we stared, the sense of being watched intensified.

I really hoped whatever was up there was just a bell.

Wait a minute. “Hey Pearl, was the inn this large when we entered it?”

She shook her head vigorously.

A cold pit formed in my stomach. “We need to find the others. Now.”

Pearl nodded rapidly.

There was a crashing noise from across the room, and the maid cried out a loud squealing ‘eep.’ I turned quickly, just remembering to slow down enough that I didn’t jerk in Pearl’s grip. The wine glass had shattered on the floor, and the blood-red liquid within oozed out over the wood.

“W-w-w-what was t-that?” Pearl stuttered out. Her fingers were gripping into my hand so tightly that it was close to painful even for me. 

My eyes narrowed. “Someone or something’s messing with us.”

She looked up at me with wide eyes. Under other circumstances, it would have had my heart fluttering. But here, it was beating erratically for very different reasons. 

“Let’s keep going,” Pearl said, her voice trying to find its confidence.

I gave a sharp nod. The two of us quickly paced across the room to the other door, moving around the table to be far away from the broken glass and spilled something. The other door looked much like the first, and when we opened it, we entered again into a hallway. This time, the sconces were lit, and I saw stairs at one end.

Pearl sighed in relief. “This is the hall that leads up to the rooms, isn’t it?”

I gave a relieved smile of my own back to her. “Looks familiar, at least.”

The two of us began to make our way up.

 

***

Camilla POV

I wrapped the towel around my head, strutting through the changing room unashamedly. There was always a sense of liberation to going around in the nude, my body exposed for everyone to see. At first, it’d just been a way to train my control over magic, forming and shaping the shadows around my body continuously. High stakes meant little room for mistakes. And mistakes meant death. As I got more comfortable with my naked body, though, I found other reasons to continue the practice. 

I turned to the others, Lena and Rosetta already dried up and getting dressed. Seyari stood nearby, turning her head such that I was never out of her range of vision. She clearly didn’t trust me still, though I admittedly didn’t trust her either. There was still that lingering worry that this was all some kind of ruse, a peculiar way for them to pull us back into the Praevus’s clutches. Even if I knew it was quite unlikely at this point. 

We all got dressed. Well, they all got dressed. Then we waited for the other two. And waited. My eyes narrowed. It was a stupid idea to leave Pearl out there alone, even if I wanted to make sure the other two didn’t run into any trouble. There was something dangerous about this place. I could feel it. But the fog was dangerous as well, and at least in here, I could see anything coming at us. Grumbling at my foolishness for not dragging Pearl out with me, I made my way back to the hot springs. It was a short jog, made shorter by channeling my mana through my legs. I was careful not to move my arm too much, else my injury turn worse. I truly envied that monster of a woman, Zarenna, and her ability to near-instantly heal from the stab of a knife. 

As I approached the springs, I listened for the telltale sound of conversation, splashing water, or anything that would indicate nothing was wrong. But I heard nothing except the natural sounds of the spring. It didn’t necessarily mean anything, I told myself. Maybe they were just still relaxing. My hand hovered around a knife at my waist, my shadows finally pooling down around me to my feet. 

Moving into the isolated springs, I stopped and glowered around. It was empty. Empty. My anger rolled within, the shadows around me swirling and spreading to reflect it. 

I wanted to scream and curse, or better yet, stab something. How could I have been so stupid? Had I learned nothing at that cursed academy? The world will always take that which you hold the closest to your heart, should you give it a chance. Clawed fingers sliced into my palms as my hands tightened into fists. 

With what mana I had left, I began to scour across the springs and the areas beyond it, looking for any sign that Pearl or that lumbering demon had come through. After long minutes of searching, I found absolutely nothing. 

Damn the gods. Damn this inn. 

I continued until I heard the sound of someone’s approach. A knife was in my hand before I had the presence of mind to consider grabbing it. Seyari moved from the other side of a large boulder, and I had to stop myself from blazing in front of her and stabbing my knife through her throat. She might just be here to help. I can’t assume her and Zarenna are the enemy. 

“They’re gone,” I said, gritting my teeth. 

“Gone?” Her own gaze narrowed onto me. 

We eyed each other for a long moment. My hands and legs itched for movement. I had to stay focused. All the mana in the world was useless if I couldn’t keep hold of the focus needed to use it. I took a deep breath, trying to center my head and release some of that boiling anxiety and spiraling thoughts. 

“Yes, gone. I can’t find a trace of them. Nothing out here to indicate anyone besides myself have been anywhere around the springs.”

“I’m half tempted to accuse you of having done something. You‘ve been out here for several minutes now,” she replied in a low, serious tone. 

I huffed, and growled, “Same to you. You were notably the last to leave the springs, and your partner would have little trouble subduing Pearl.” I had to stop myself from calling her ‘my Pearl.’ I’d already shown too much weakness as it was. 

The silent stalemate between us continued, neither making a move. 

“If they’re not out here, we should go check inside. Perhaps they managed to find some other way back in,” she said. 

My fingers fidgeted. I didn’t want to stop searching out here. What if I somehow missed them? What if they made their way back to the springs? But she had a point, and if we didn’t see them inside, we could easily come back out to continue. Plus, it was probably best that we stuck together, given the strange circumstances. 

“You left the other two inside, alone?” I hissed. 

She frowned. “I came to make sure Zarenna was alright.”

With another growling grumble, I shot forward back toward the changing room. It only took seconds before I was bursting through the doors, some amount of relief hitting me as I saw the two sitting on small stools in wait. At my flashy entrance, Rosetta yelped and fell back as Lena shot to her feet, seeming ready to either fight or run. 

“Pearl and Zarenna are missing,” I stated, my tone definitive and commanding. “We’re going to search the inn.”

Lena frowned. “Wouldn’t it make more sense to search outside?”

“I already have. Couldn’t find them anywhere around the grounds. If they aren’t anywhere in here, we’ll go back out and continue. It hopefully shouldn’t take long.”

The little noble considered my words before giving a nod. “Alright, that seems reasonable, I suppose.”

Seyari walked in, and I turned slightly, saying “Good, we’re all here. Let’s begin this search, then. We’ll start with our ‘rooms.’”

The half-angel scowled. “Who said that you were leading this?”

I gave her a dismissive glance, “I did,” and then strolled through the changing rooms, letting my shadows roll and billow behind me. 

She scoffed, but didn’t argue as the four of us marched back to our rooms. I could tell she was as eager to find them as I was. I kept my ears tuned to any sounds that were odd or which might indicate where the missing two were. Unfortunately, the place was as quiet as ever, and in short order, we found our way back to the rooms. Searching each one turned up nothing, though I admittedly expected it. 

“Now what?” Rosetta asked, upset but doing a good job at hiding it. 

“Do we split up?” Lena suggested. 

Split up? What was this, some kind of mystery novel? A bunch of teens looking for ghosts and monsters in some abandoned inn? I scoffed. Never in my life would I want to go back to my teenage years. 

“And risk more of us going missing? I think not,” I said. “We’ll start going room to room. I’ll rip this building apart down to the foundations, if we need to.” 

I turned to leave, only to be surprised to hear the sound of footsteps coming up the stairs at the end of the hall. With speed, I rushed out. Pearl and Zarenna stopped, both blinking my way with looks of surprise. My shoulders slumped in relief. 

“Thank goodness you’re both alright,” I said, feeling suddenly a little awkward. Were we supposed to hug now? 

 

***

Pearl POV

I rushed forward, jumping into Camilla’s arms and squeezing her into a hug. She gave me a soft smile, a hand reaching up to rub my tiny, growing ears. 

“—et’s no’ oo tha ‘gain,” I mumbled around the bare skin pressed against my face. 

“Agreed. We should probably stick together from here on. Are you alright?” She pulled me away from her, giving me an intense look-over. 

“I—I’m fine. I mean, a bunch of weird stuff happened. Spooky shadows and wine glasses falling.”

“And this entire inn becoming some kind of strange magical maze that we couldn’t make heads or tails of,” Zarenna interrupted. 

“That too.” I nodded. “Where did all of you go? You weren’t in the changing room.”

“We were wondering essentially the same, since you disappeared from the springs.”

Next to us, Zarenna walked toward Seyari with four open arms, smiling. “Well—” Zarenna made an ‘oomph’ sound as Seyari crashed into the hug at speed, arms wrapping tightly around her demon’s waist. The demonic woman looked surprised, then her smile widened. She carefully gave Seyari a four-armed hug back, saying, “I’m glad you’re okay, too.”

Seyari nodded into Zarenna’s chest.

“So it’s rather like the fog outside, then,” Rosetta said and crossed her arms. “Disorienting, weird things happening, and getting lost.” She ticked each off with a finger. “Also, why are you two dressed like that?”

“W-well our clothes weren’t in the changing room. And so we rang that bell for Genevieve. And she gave us this.” I pulled at the ends of the white dress, feeling exceedingly shy about just how short it was. Why would a dress not go down to your feet? So strange and weirdly erotic for an inn. 

Camilla gave me a teasing grin. “Well, I can’t say it doesn’t suit you.”

“Y-you shush.” My cheeks turned rosey red. “There’s more important stuff happening right now to worry about my lower legs showing.”

The sorceress tapped her chin. “Still, perhaps an idea for the future…” 

I fidgeted with the white fabric, as though I could somehow lengthen it by pulling it down in my flustered state. 

“Back to the matter at hand,” Seyari interrupted us, still in her hug, and I sighed, thankful. “What do we do now? If we leave and the fog’s still out there, we’ll be no closer to finding our way out.”

“Perhaps the source is here somewhere?” Rosetta ventured.

“Someone’s causing this, I’m sure, yeah,” Zarenna agreed. “I saw something in the bell tower from the dining room, and I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a bell tower when we got here.”

Camilla gave her a look as though she was losing it. 

I tugged at her arm. “No, there really was a bell tower, or there certainly appeared to be one. I saw it as well. This place isn’t normal.”

“If this is what we’re dealing with, then it’s serious. I think we all know what the next step is,” Seyari declared, though her position in Zarenna’s arms compromised the finality of her words.

I smiled. “It’s like an adventure!” A rather spooky one.

Lena rolled her eyes and Rosetta covered a snicker with her hand. 

Decision made, we left the room, each of us staying close so that we wouldn’t be easily separated again. I really didn’t want to somehow end up lost in the place by myself. 

 

***

Seyari POV

I didn’t argue the point and let Camilla take the lead, watching her angrily stalk through the halls in search of a way up to the bell tower. She reminded me a bit of myself, when I was younger. Headstrong, opinionated, powerful, and desperately desperately craving affection. I didn’t miss how she treated Pearl.

I looked up at Zarenna beside me, comforted by the fear on her face. She was powerful, ludicrously so, but she had a naive sort of humanity that endeared me to her ever more. I’d hugged her earlier so quickly I was surprised by the strength of my own emotions. I hadn’t really known how worried for her I was until Pearl and Camilla had shared a similar moment.

Whatever those two were—and I knew Pearl was something because her aura was more than that of the mundane Lena and Rosetta—I hoped they found happiness once we got out of this cursed place.

I’d been angry a lot until recently. I still was, honestly, but this whole adventure had taken my mind off revenge if only for a moment. I took one of Zarenna’s clawed hands in my own. It was warm.

The first hallway ended in a door. Camilla wrenched it open and we kept walking. The few windows I saw revealed a much larger building than when we’d gone in. The bell tower was getting closer, but we didn’t seem to be moving in a straight line.

We found a staircase up to the third and top floor in the next hall. This floor was much less lavish than the previous one. A fine coat of dust lay atop the bare wood floor, our footprints the only mark of passing. The doors here were thinner and shorter, and Zarenna hit her horns on the first crossbeam we walked under.

Pearl giggled, and instead of silencing her with a glare, I giggled too. Camilla turned around when we stopped, and her fierce red eyes softened upon seeing Pearl laugh.

We turned a corner to the wing of the building where the bell tower almost certainly was, and Camilla stopped with a growl. “What do you want,” she asked, shadows roiling around her.

I followed her around the corner and saw Genevieve standing formally in the hallway with a blank look on her face. Behind her, a heavier door unlike the others adorned the right wall. The others pulled up around me.

“Guests are not allowed in the bell tower. It isn’t safe,” Genevieve said while looking squarely at Camilla. She had that same placid expression as always, as though the woman was completely devoid of emotion. 

Camilla growled again. “Move aside, or I will move you aside.”

Genevieve’s eye twitched. “Would you like me to lead you back to your rooms? The bell will soon toll the morning.” 

My eyes narrowed. “What does that mean?”

She blinked. “It is late.”

I wasn’t sure if that was supposed to be an answer or a deflection. If only I could get a read on this woman, conversing would be a lot easier. 

Lena stepped forward. “I’m sorry, but we have to go through here. I’m afraid it’s of grave importance.”

The woman’s face twitched, her lips appearing to want to curve into some form of emotion, but struggling. 

“Are you alright?” Pearl asked her, tilting forward around Camilla’s side.

Genevieve was silent in apparent thought. Though at least Camilla’s aggressive posture lightened. Unless I was reading things incorrectly, I didn’t believe there was a need for physical force here. Strange as she was, Genevieve seemed fairly harmless to my eyes. 

“I am…” Her voice trailed off, sentence unfinished. Then she looked at Lena. “You… are entering the tower?”

Lena gave her a nod, and I looked closely at Genevieve’s face. The emotions were brief and subtle, but there. Fear, horror, and if I wasn’t mistaken, perhaps hope?

“I’m not—you shouldn’t—they will—” Her words were jumbled and stilted, though I tried to follow them, regardless, picking out whatever clues I could. Was the ‘they’ referring to us, or some other group of people? Perhaps to whoever the cause of this whole mess was? “D-do not linger in the—the—breakfast—after the bell tolls.” The way she spoke was peculiar, as though she was piecing together fragments of phrases she’d spoken countless times before. Then she paused, did a snail’s-paced blink, and gave a bow. “Thank you. I hope you have enjoyed your stay at the Heartspring Inn,” she said, as though we were already leaving. 

She stood there, and I noticed a flicker of uncertainty cross her otherwise expressionless face.. 

“Don’t worry,” I said. “We will find our own way out. Do not feel the need to stay for our sake.” I hoped I was interpreting things correctly, here. It might be messy, otherwise. 

She hesitated, before giving a simple nod and turning to leave, moving off to a small side door that I didn’t remember seeing before. 

“That was weeeird,” Pearl commented, thankfully well after Genevieve was gone. 

I looked up and Zarenna met my gaze. “Did you get anything from that?” she asked.

“I think Genevieve is trying to help us,” I replied slowly.

“Good enough for me!” Zarenna smiled and gave a thumbs up or three to Camilla who’d been oddly quiet.

“There’s something very wrong with her. Though not of her own doing, I don’t believe. I’m very much getting the impression that whoever truly owns this place is not someone we want to encounter,” the sorceress said. “Let’s hope they aren’t at the top of these stairs.”

“From what she said, I do not believe them to be.” My gaze moved to the door ahead of us. “I think we’ve dawdled enough. Let’s get to the end of this.” 

 

***

Pearl POV

As we entered the base of the bell tower, the six of us stared up the winding staircase all the way to where it ended. It was unfortunate that we couldn’t look up through the ceiling high above and get a glimpse of just what we were up against. Then we looked at the stairs themselves, and the partially missing railing swirling up alongside it. The rail along the last stretch at the top appeared to be entirely gone. 

“As we go up, everyone spread out. Stay close enough to help the person in front or behind you, should something happen, but far enough away that we aren’t stepping on the same steps,” Camilla said. “I’ll go first. Then Pearl, Seyari, Rosetta, Lena, and finally Zarenna.”

The demon woman frowned. “Why am I last?”

“Because you weigh the most, and if the stairs break out from under you, the rest of us won’t have to try and navigate past them. And also because if anyone falls, I believe you or I would be the most likely to survive.”

Zarenna hummed and gave a shrug. “Yeah, okay. Good enough for me. Though I’d really prefer being in front for whatever is up at the top. You seem a bit flimsier, no offense.”

“I’ll be fine. Is everyone ready?” Camilla scanned over everyone.

We each gave her a nod and then began our ascent up the stairs. It was easy going at first, but not too far in I began to realize just how tiring it could get going up stairs nonstop. The upside was that we were being careful enough that it didn’t truly end up a problem. Mostly, we were held back by Zarenna. Despite her size, or rather because of it, each step she took made the wood give out heavy groans and the occasional loud crack. It was not encouraging in the slightest. Even the steps I took had little accompanying creaks as my weight pressed into the old wood. 

When we got about halfway up, I noticed a breeze picking up in the air around us. With every step it got worse, until it was very obvious that the effect was unnatural. 

As the air began to whip by, blowing at the fabric of our clothes and nipping around our hair and faces, Camilla yelled out, “Everyone grab hands. Don’t let anyone fall.”

I gave her a nod and reached for the hand she held out to me, slipping my fingers into hers. From behind Seyari grabbed my other, giving me a small smile in return. For a moment, my mind conjured images of being properly sandwiched between the two, before I managed to shake the thought from my mind. 

“I believe I can counter it for the moment, but if it continues to worsen at the rate it has been, my control will diminish before long,” Seyari yelled ahead, and then gradually the wind around us lightened, becoming a simple breeze once more.

“Good, hopefully it’ll be enough. Let’s keep moving.”

For a minute or so, the gentle breeze stayed, before picking up again as Seyari struggled to fight against it. I didn’t want to imagine just how powerful it truly was at this point. The sound of it alone as it rushed past our little bubble of safety made me want to cover my ears. It was like being near the train as it rolled into the station at home. 

“We’re getting close!” Camilla shouted. 

I braved a look upward to find that we’d made it around three fourths of the way, if my guess was right. Only two steps further there was a loud crack. Seyari’s grip tightened and then pulled me back and I let out a squeal of surprise. Twisting my head, I watched in horror as most of Zarenna’s upper body fell through the steps. One of her hands was still gripped around Lena’s who’d lost her balance and was on her knees. Two gripped the steps in front and behind her, and the last arm had clawed its way into the wall, leaving a long gash from where she’d fallen. 

“Ow,” the demon grumbled. “Stupid wood sliced right into me. What kind of steps are these?” I could barely make out the words over the wind, which had picked up slightly from Seyari being distracted. 

“Everyone hold tight, and we’ll try to help pull you back up,” Camilla yelled out down to her. 

Her grip on my arm tightened, and then she pulled. So hard that I thought she might pull my arm right off. Luckily Seyari put her own strength into it, lessening the pain in my limbs slightly. With that, plus Zarenna’s three other arms, she was able to get back into stable footing, tearing out a few more loose stairs along the way. 

Afterward, we let out a collective sigh of relief. The woman was strong, but that was a pretty big fall at this point. And even if it didn’t affect her, she’d have to make her way all the way back up to this point without Seyari’s bubble of wind protection. 

Far too soon, Camilla asked “Everyone good? Then let’s continue!”

“Gee, thanks for all the concern! I'll be fine though, go on ahead,” Zarenna yelled back as we continued forward. 

As we got closer to the top, the wind became progressively worse, until we could no longer hear each other, and if not for Camilla’s tight grip, I was certain it would have tossed me through the air and down to the very-far-away floor. At this point I didn’t dare try looking down through the holes and cracks in the stairs, keeping my gaze steadily forward. We were all pressed up against the wall, and I could see Camilla somehow clawing fingers deep into the stone with each step. 

I took a daring glance up. 

“The door!” It was close. We were nearly there!

I didn’t know why I bothered shouting it. Even I couldn’t hear my voice through all the wind at this point. Somehow Camilla heard me, the woman glancing back to give me a loving smile. We were going to make it! 

We took another step, and a vortex of flames lit up the air above us. I stared in horror, the heat of it threatening to sear my skin even from a distance. The occasional flame would lap downward near us, and I worried that my dress would eventually catch fire from one. How were we supposed to deal with that?

A wrathful growl echoed from the wind below, and I turned to see Zarenna moving forward up the stairs. I watched with wide eyes as her claws dug into the stone to our right, along with each step, keeping most of her weight off the fragile wood at our feet. 

She moved up and into the flames, disappearing from sight. Seconds passed, and I worried that something might have happened. Then as quickly as the flames appeared, they vanished, taking the heavy wind along with them. I stumbled forward to my knees, nearly falling and rolling off to the side, before Camilla managed to grab an arm and stop me. I noticed that even she and Seyari had fallen down against the steps due to the sudden pressure of the wind ceasing. 

“Hah!” Zarenna said from the top of the stairs. “You’ll need something a lot hotter than that to bother me.” She grinned toothily down to us. 

Looking past Zarenna, I could see what looked to be a shattered red gem or crystal that sat partly in the door, missing numerous pieces. Was that what was causing all the wind and fire? I feared what would be in the actual bell tower room ahead, if this was just the stairs leading up to it. 

I gulped as we all stood and made our way carefully the rest of the way to the door. At Zarenna’s feet was the rest of the strange red gem, scattered into pieces. The door itself had a strange array of symbols and circles surrounding the hole that the gem was previously held within. 

Zarenna stepped aside from the door to allow Camilla to pass. “I’ll go last, like we agreed.”

“Wait,” Seyari said. We all turned to her. “Let me heal your shoulder.”

Camilla eyed her for a moment, before giving a nod.

Seyari walked forward and laid a hand on Camilla’s shoulder. A bright golden glow appeared from the spot she touched. Camilla tensed, and Seyari’s brow knotted in concentration. The glow soon faded, and Seyari stepped back with a wordless nod.

The sorceress strolled forward, cracking open the door with a thrust of her apparently-fixed shoulder. I peered into the room around her. Inside, a set of stone stairs led up, and just above them I could see a dark metal outline I assumed to be a bell. A steeply peaked roof angled above it all, with the bell hanging from a heavy wood frame attached to two large pillars. There were no walls, and a thick fog roiled outside the threshold of the room itself.

Camilla strode inside, each hand on a knife. I followed her carefully, and the others after me.

“Pearl, down!” Camilla shouted right as she reached the top.

Instinctively, I ducked, and the others did as well. A flurry of objects flew just over our heads. Camilla stood through the torrent, knives rising and clashing against them. It was over as quickly as it began. The sorceress turned to us, looking me over. To my amazement, it seemed not a single one hit her. 

“W-wha—“

“Are you alright?” she interrupted. 

I nodded, still shocked at how quickly it had all happened. 

“Those things really stung,” Zarenna muttered behind me, standing from a crouch. 

I turned to see her pulling out a small spike that was still poking into her. 

“They’re poisoned, I believe.” Camilla bent down to pick one up, holding it between two claws. “A last attempt to take out anyone who’s made it this far.”

“Magicked poison?” Zarenna asked. “I might be in trouble if that’s the case.”

“You can still form mostly complete sentences. You’re fine,” Seyari said, taking the needle from Zarenna and inspecting it with glowing eyes. “I don’t know the poison, but there’s no lingering aura.”

“If you fall over, we’ll drag you out,” Camilla told her. 

“Thanks,” the demonic woman deadpanned back. 

Almost as one, our gazes turned once more to the large bell. The mist continued to swirl up and around it, like an eerie caress. 

“Let’s end this, shall we?” 

Camilla strolled forward, still on guard. I held my breath, waiting for the next attack. But as she approached, nothing happened, beyond the strange mist swirling around her feet. For a moment she stared at it and the strange symbols that covered its surface. 

She turned to us, uncertain. “I… do we destroy it?”

Zarenna shot a questioning look at Seyari and shrugged. “No idea. Maybe try ringing it first?”

Camilla turned back, and hesitantly reached out a hand. I held my breath once more as she gripped the rope, and a moment later, gave the massive bell a loud ring. It echoed out and around us, ringing in my ears. The sound slammed down into the mist circling our feet like a bucket of water. The fog seemed to shudder and flatten, before fading. 

The tower gave a low rumble and shook.

“That’s probably not good,” Zarenna muttered. 

A crack appeared between us and Camilla in the stone, and she rushed over, hopping across it. “Down—now!”

She swept past me, pulling me up into her arms. I found myself in a familiar position to the beginning of the night, though this time with quite a few more people around to see it. The tower shook again, and I decided I didn’t mind so much this time. 

“Do you mind if I, uh…” Zarenna asked the others quickly, motioning as if to carry them.

I didn’t get to hear their responses. Camilla flowed down the stairs, taking several at a time. Rapid, heavy footfalls thundered behind us. Hopefully Zarenna wouldn’t fall through the steps again… I winced as I heard the cracking of wood behind us.

 

***

Zarenna POV

I followed Camilla down the stairs, moving fast enough that I was airborne by the time the step under me had broken. I had Lena over one shoulder and Rosetta over the other. Seyari, I held in a princess carry in front of me. We made it out of the tower, and I snuck a quick glance back, finding the door no longer there. Yep, time to get out of here! Just ahead, the sorceress swept through the halls with unnatural agility, and I followed suit, careful of the people I was carrying. 

I didn’t have much time to look at the decor, but I couldn’t help notice that the previously well-worn, but tidy inn was in shambles. Windows I passed were broken, the paint was peeling, and the paintings were moldering in the moist air.

This time, no magical trickery barred our path. The hallways were shorter, and the stairs less grand as we descended into the ruined lobby. I half expected to see Genevieve there to see us off, but there wasn’t a soul in sight as Camilla opened the door with a leaping kick, Pearl safe in her arms.

The courtyard outside was a mess of dead plants and crumbling, mossy statuary. Half of the gate ahead of us was lying on the ground, and the other half tilted open on a single hinge. We passed through the threshold into the dense wood and dissipating fog beyond.

Once we left the gate, a shudder seemed to swell from behind us. I turned just in time to see the old building behind me age rapidly until it collapsed in a pile of rotted, splintered planks. I could swear I heard a sigh, and then the whole thing started to disappear, including the trees around us.

I set Seyari down and she huffed. Then I placed Lena and Rosetta on their feet as well, just in time to notice they were starting to become translucent too.

“Umm, it was nice to meet you!” Pearl said, standing next to Camilla. 

“You too!” I shouted back. “Good luck avoiding that Praevus person. If you do meet him, kick his ass for me, alright?” I pounded one clawed fist into another for emphasis.

She smiled and giggled. “I’ll try.” Twin furred lumps twitched on her head as she spoke. Ears? 

Camilla looked over at Sey. “It was… well, not entirely fun, but nice to meet both of you, as Pearl said.”

“Agreed,” Rosetta said, Lena giving a nod. 

“Perhaps we’ll meet again some day,” the little noble added. 

“Perhaps,” Seyari said with a real smile. “I think it’d be nice to visit under better circumstances.”

We waved at each other until the four faded and Seyari and I were left alone in a much more familiar-looking forest, although I didn’t recognize the exact area. A small clearing was all that was left of the Heartsprings Inn that stood just moments ago. Thinking about it, we never did figure out what the deal with that ghost was. Nor the strange feeling of being watched and Genevieve’s cryptic warning there at the end. Hopefully, the four of them will be alright? Not much we could do about it at this point. I turned to Seyari, pushing the worry from my mind.

“Hey Sey, are we still lost?” I asked.

She looked around and groaned. “What do you think?”

Announcement

Hiya! So that was a trip and a half!

This "Chapter" is a bit of a Halloween trick, but hopefully also a treat! It isn't canon. (And it's a bit late because we were editing this monster holy moly). This has been a crossover with Flitterpuff's Lunar Marked, which you should go check out if you haven't! Lunar Marked is a "smutty" story (Flitter approved terminology), so there's explicit scenes and the like, just so you know. This crossover took a ton of time and work from both of us, but it was super fun and I hope you enjoyed it!

Anyway, you can also go check out her Patreon if you're so inclined! (You should, just saying).

You can also go check out mine, where there's a bunch of advanced chapters (18 at the top tier currently) and some side stories that can get a little silly (like this one) and that you can vote on monthly!

Lastly, you can come on into my discord and say things like "Hi, this story's okay!" or "You tricked me into reading a 20,000 word crossover novella instead of a normal chapter!" Normal people things.

Oh, and before I forget, yeah the next chapter is going to be real (and a bonus upload on Monday). We'll finally be diving into the last arc of the first volume, so stay tuned for feels!

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