65: Pillarfort
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"I wonder how things are going back in CORA," I mused without opening my eyes.

Dawn and I were spread out across one of the sofas in the upstairs living area, our limbs a tangle and our hearts full. We’d renamed this ‘room’ the Den, and it was smaller than the downstairs one and had a view over it all and out into the arcology below. It was the perfect perch for us.

My girlfriend made a thoughtful sound and put her phone down next to her. “I haven’t checked, to be honest. I’m sure we’d get messages if anything important was happening.”

I had some earbuds in and a vidshow playing idly on a holoscreen I’d set to float at a comfortable position. Audio passthrough was enabled though, so I could hear her reply.

“Taylor hasn’t said anything,” I told her, then a smile tugged at my lips. “Might be fun to drop into her stream though, talk in chat.”

“Is she live right now?” Dawn asked, in the process of answering her own question by pulling up a holowindow.

God, that was another thing about this place. The home holosystem was fucking wild. Like, almost as good as it was in VR. You could still sometimes see through it when there was a dark scene in a show or whatever, but it was leagues better than what we had at my parents’ place.

“She is indeed live,” Dawn told me with a sly grin. “I’ll leave you to cause trouble, though.”

“It’s what I’m good at,” I laughed, pushing myself up to kiss her.

I’d only intended it to be a small one, but the moment our lips met, I fell into it with a sigh. Pulling at her soft, warm bottom lip with my teeth, I let out a tiny involuntary sigh of contentment. Somewhat surprisingly, we didn’t let the kiss go further and instead pulled back.

We were silent for several long moments, just watching each other with little smiles on our faces. God, her eyes were incredible. Warm, dark, and brown, they looked almost black in the low light. I could only just make out the lines and flecks of green within her irises.

“You are so beautiful,” I told her, voice aching with love. My fingers found their way onto her cheek where they traced the sharp line of her cheekbone. It was a defining characteristic of her ancestry, that and the gentle brown skin.

I didn’t know much about her heritage. Apparently her great grandmother on her mother’s side came from way down in New Zealand, and the old Bridges dude had been old money from the USA. As things started to go south in the old superpower, he had followed the lead of many of his peers and built a bunker down there. It was still a trendy thing to do even now, what with how their laws worked. I heard they had made it so you could do almost whatever you wanted on your own land, provided it followed with broader UN law. That could be just talk though, I wasn’t the most savvy when it came to politics and stuff.

“So are you,” she said, leaning in to place a small peck onto my lips. “I love you.”

“I love you too,” I said, grinning. “I’m so glad you went down on me out behind that inn.”

“Oh my god, Tami!” she whined, throwing an arm over her eyes so she didn’t have to look at me. Her cheeks were going all cute and blushy too. “We were having a moment!”

I leaned down and placed a kiss gently at the base of her neck. “You knew what you signed up for when you asked to date me.”

“That’s the worst part!” she exclaimed, pulling her arm back to glare at me. Well, attempt to glare. It was somewhat undercut by the big grin. “I knew exactly what I was getting into. You were a little shit when we were five and you’ve only refined the process since.”

“I’m refined?” I joked, pretending to not understand.

She rolled her eyes. “Yes Tami, refined. Distilled mischief. Hand crafted trouble. Artisanal mayhem. All of it. That’s you.”

“Ohhh,” I cooed, sitting up. “Artisanal mayhem. I like that.”

“Oh no,” she giggled, covering her face with her hands. “You have that look in your eyes again.”

“The look of gentrified chaos?” I asked sweetly.

She let out a half exasperated, half amused laugh that echoed into her cupped hands. “Go and direct it at your sister.”

Staring at her being all cute, hiding her face and shit, I briefly considered escalating things. Sadly, I was way too sore after last night. Any more lovemaking and I'd break my new custom-made pussy. That shit was expensive.

"Fine," I said, turning myself back around so I could be the little spoon again.

She laughed again and draped one arm over my stomach while the other picked her phone back up. Lips touching down on the top of my head, she murmured, "I really do love you though."

"Love you too," I said with a happy sigh.

Loading up Taylor’s stream, my eyebrows rose when I saw her perched on an outcropping of rock, wings spread wide for stability. What was going on here?

I didn’t engage with chat immediately, deciding instead to watch and see what was up. I didn’t want to distract her while she was doing something important.

My sister shifted position, shaking a leg out with a wince. It looked like she’d been there a while. The view of the camera was currently on her face, so I couldn’t see what she was looking at, but behind her were several other aurellings from her clan. Each was wearing lighter armour than their usual plate, which had me guessing that they had been flying for some time.

With a sigh, I let my curiosity get the better of me and typed into chat, Hey sis. Whatcha lookin at?

When my message dropped into chat, it overrode the average message, sitting at the bottom while everything else scrolled past. My name had a few little symbols next to it, one to indicate that I was important to Taylor specifically, but the second one was one I didn’t recognise. Hovering over it made my eyebrows rise. Dang, Izetta worked fast. The digital tag was already in.

“Hey Timtam! We’re just creeping on our shiny new estate,” Taylor replied with a smile up at the camera. “Here, let me show you.”

Taking control of the stream’s invisible camera, she turned it around to show a large terrace attached to the side of a mountain. The rest of the area was a broken mess of stone pillars and steep cliffs, a distinctive feature of the Corugh Highlands. Up this high, the golden hues that dominated the Jinganese Lowlands were replaced by a muted green. Hardy coniferous trees clung to every available scrap of dirt, except where they had been cleared off any land wide enough to farm on.

The terrace that she’d centered the camera on was large enough to allow for a village and the farmland to sustain it. A waterfall fell from the top of the cliff far above, piercing the mists to land in a lake that dominated much of the terrace before it continued its journey down to the sea.

What really drew the eye though, was a massive pillar of rock that stood out beyond the edge of the terrace. Built atop and partially carved into that pillar stood a moderately sized fortress of dour grey stone. Its only access to the terrace came from a sturdy wooden bridge that spanned the gap.

“Wow,” I breathed, tapping Dawn to get her attention while I swapped the audio to speaker mode.

My girlfriend being who she was, her first thought was the architecture of that fort. “That fort doesn’t look like it was made by Jingan or any other humans.”

“Yes, but look how cool it is!” I exclaimed, gesturing at the image. My arm went through the holoscreen, causing the image to wobble and bounce for a few seconds.

“It’s really beautiful,” she agreed, but her keen mind had already latched onto a thread and she was going to tug that thread until she had an answer. “See how the top of it is built in a much more ornate and modern style, while the base seems almost spartan in appearance?”

“Uh, I don’t see oiled abs,” I joked.

“Haha, very funny,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I mean in the sense that it appears to be built very much for function rather than form. Then, later down the line, someone added the rest of the fort on top.”

“I’m sure we’ll figure it out,” I sighed, turning back to chat. “For now though, I’m going to ask what Taylor is up to.”

Okay, that’s a pretty sweet little castle. Makes me wonder how anyone lost it in the first place, I typed out. It was true though. I was guessing there was a siege or something and it ran out of water? We’d have to ask around, that was important to know.

Taylor laughed when my message popped up. “Apparently the lord was a bit of an idiot and had ideas of living up to his ancestral name or something. Rode out and got cut down.”

Right. Okay. That would do it.

Behind me, Dawn groaned, “Wow. That’s pretty stupid, yeah.”

Taylor kept talking, saying, “We’re just scouting it out for now. They know we’re coming, word has gotten out. I don’t know if you can see it on the stream but they have an uncomfortable amount of archers stationed on the walls.”

I’m sure you’ll kick their asses, I told her.

“We’ve had a few ideas, but nothing I can say on stream,” she winked. “Don’t want them to know, after all.”

Alright. Well, how is everyone doing then? I asked her instead. We’d probably call each other later and talk. I still hadn’t told her about the sponsorship and she evidently hadn’t noticed it yet.

“Uh, Millie is fine. Rusti is… on a mission…” Taylor replied, and then her expression turned to one of concern. “I’m not getting anything from Civette though. She said she was logging out for a week, but she didn’t say anything about being completely unreachable.”

As she spoke, I felt a frown crease my own brow. Worried, I pulled up my contact list and scrolled down until I found Kimberly Gray.

My eyebrows rose. No devices connected.

She wasn’t logged in anywhere, not even a home system or whatever. That was super odd. It should have shown that her phone was connected at least, right? It was near impossible to completely lose coverage these days unless you literally smashed the hardware you owned.

After a few seconds, I typed a response into chat, I’ll look into it.