Someone was licking me. That was the first thing I was aware of as I stumbled back out of sleep. Licking my chin, to be exact. Giving a grumbling protest, I blearily opened my eyes, trying to find the source of the assault on my chin.
Dawn was still asleep next to me, but when I looked down I caught a glimpse of a small dragon head staring at me from my chest. The thing was only just visible below my chin it was so small. It took me a few moments before I remembered why I had a tiny creature on me. That egg had hatched. Great, now I had to feed a poor lost little dragon whose mother was probably long dead.
“Squaaa,” she burbled quietly, giving my face another lick.
“Okay, we’ll get you food,” I mumbled only semi coherently, leaning over to nudge Dawn awake.
She didn’t look like she woke up gently as her eyelids stuttered open. “What time is it?” she groaned.
“Time to feed our kid,” I said wryly, indicating the expectant little rascal on my chest.
“Right,” she sighed, closing her eyes for a moment.
When she’d centered herself a little, she reached over and picked up the bowl with the meat in it, then took a small chunk and tore it up a little more. Reached over, she offered the portion to the small girl, who sniffed it once, then snatched the morsel up and downed it in one go.
“You feed it too,” Dawn told me, passing the bowl to me.
I took it with a tired nod, then began to feed my new pet a few more scraps of bacon. I was starting to get alarmed by how much food was disappearing into her gullet, when suddenly she decided she didn’t want any more, and promptly curled up again between my boobs.
“I guess that’s that then?” Dawn asked with a quiet laugh.
“Yeah,” I said, smiling down at the already exhausted dragon on my chest.
“What time is it though?” My girlfriend wondered aloud, her eyes flicking up to look into her display. “It’s seven, so we actually did pretty well.”
“Yeah,” I mused. “I might get up and make everyone breakfast actually.”
“I’ll help you, my pretty little housewife,” she laughed, giving my head an affectionate little pat.
Narrowing my eyes at her, I watched, alert for more teasing. None came and she just winked rolling haphazardly out of bed. I let my head flop back into the pillow for a moment, but this turned out to be a mistake as I felt the call of sleep begin to beckon once more. I lay there for a minute or two anyway, just resting my eyes. Yesterday had been exhausting, I felt like I needed a rest day just to recuperate from it.
“Here let me take her from you,” Dawn said, now standing next to the bed and reaching down to gently scoop the baby dragon off my chest.
“Thanks,” I said, opening my eyes to smile tiredly up at her.
Her response was to lean down and give me a light kiss. “Meet you out there.”
I got up as she left the room and lazily equipped todays travelling clothes from my inventory, rather than putting them on manually like I normally did. I was too tired to bother with immersion right now.
Leaving our room, I stumbled to the bathroom and freshened up, then headed into the common room. Light was streaming in through windows near the entrance, and it lit my girlfriend’s hair on fire with gold as she played with the small creature on her lap. I stopped and watched with a smile as she tumbled it playfully around on the couch, until it latched on to her finger and didn’t let go. So damn cute.
With those two occupied, I moved about the kitchen and began to prepare a light cooked breakfast of eggs, toasted bread and some sausages. My cooking profession was improving by leaps and bounds already, clearly understanding that I had some outside knowledge and adjusting accordingly. Still, I had a lot to learn when it came to cooking with rustic equipment like this. Humans had been cooking over temperature perfect electric hobs for almost a century now after all.
Light footsteps coming down the hall heralded someone arriving in the room. “What is that?” Millie asked with excitement, and I turned to see her staring in wonder at Dawn and the Amaru playing on the couch. My girlfriend had said she’d help me, but I guess keeping the little thing busy was help enough.
“It’s a Storm Amaru,” I replied with a grin. “I’ve been carrying the egg for ages and she hatched just last night.”
“She’s so cuuute!” Millie exclaimed, tiptoeing forward towards a suddenly very suspicious little dragon creature. “Does she have a name?”
“Not yet,” I said thoughtfully.
What sort of name would be good for her? She seemed to enjoy playing, maybe a cute name? Or should I make a more aggressive one for her, something bold? Maybe I should ask her?
I picked up a little chunk of sausage and walked over to Dawn, then knelt down in front of her and the little dragon. “Hey kid, what do you think your name should be?”
It gave me one long very confused look, then spotted the sausage and tried to bumble its way across the couch towards the morsel. Alright, clearly the little tyke wasn’t some ultra intelligent savant. Or maybe it was, food was probably way more interesting than silly things like names to the newly hatched girl.
I fed it the food while I thought, then inspiration struck. “Ryana.”
“Ryana?” Dawn asked, tilting her head. “Where’s that from?”
“Just an old book I read once,” I shrugged, giving little Ryana a one fingered pat before standing up and moving back to the kitchen.
“Yeah but which old book?” Millie pouted. “I want to read it now.”
“I’ll tell you some other time,” I teased, knowing it would annoy the both of them.
I was saved from retribution when Taylor joined us with a yawn and a stretch, halting midway through when she saw Ryana.
“Yo, what?” she blinked. “Where did you get that?”
“It was in my pocket,” I grinned, feeling like stirring yet more shit.
“Yeah sure, you just happened to have a baby dragon in your pocket,” Taylor smiled, rolling her eyes. “Really though, where did you get it?”
“Technically she’s an Amaru,” I corrected her while I tended to the sausages that were cooking. “We found her egg on a pirate ship, and she hatched just last night.”
“Amaru? That’s just a dragon with feathers,” my sister said, waving her hand dismissively. “Still, she’s gorgeous. I’m kind of jealous, I’ve been meaning to get myself a pet or a mount for awhile. Do you know how big she’s going to get?”
“No idea, she got changed right along with me when we fell into weirdness space,” I said, shaking my head. “She’s just as unique as I am.”
“That’s exciting,” Taylor said, smiling down at Ryana as she stared curiously up at my sister.
“Squaa!” Ryana said to the room at large.
“God damn she’s cute though,” Taylor grinned, sitting down to better introduce herself.
Breakfast got made slowly as everyone else came down. Of the two who hadn’t met Ryana yet, it was actually Rusti who had the negative reaction. While Civette didn’t really pay it or anyone else much mind, Rusti gave it a wide berth, complaining about how it gave them the “heeby jeebies”. Rusti was an odd one, that was for sure. Then again, I’d met a fair few odd individuals recently. Pretty much every SAI had some sort of odd quirk, with Civette and Millie also being a little hair raisingly strange sometimes too.
Once dinner was eaten, we headed out towards the mysterious door that Taylor intended for us to explore.The journey was thankfully uneventful until we began to near the site. I carried Ryana with me, watching as she murmured and cooed at the strange new world she’d hatched into. It was kinda precious seeing her stare down a flower that was bobbing in the breeze, before pouncing on it and promptly deciding she didn’t like the taste.
Contrary to how Civette had been acting lately, she seemed to be warming up to the little girl as Ryana blinked cutely up at her. She even went as far as giving what I thought might be the first openly genuine smile I’d seen her make.
I had to unsummon her as we got closer to danger, but only after assurances from Taylor that she would be alright. Apparently to any player owned pet it would seem like no time had passed between their unsummoning and their next summoning. Sounded a little terrifying to me, but I had to remind myself that my new pet was just digital. Dawn promised that we’d get a cat outside if we stopped playing VR games long enough to commit to it.
The slopes of the Corugh highlands were quiet as we approached the area where Taylor and Millie had only barely escaped with their lives. Everyone was suited up into their combat outfits, with the exception of Taylor and myself, because if we put our armour on, sneaking would become a hell of a lot harder.
“Wait,” Rusti urged us quietly, motioning for the party to stop. Their ears were once again on full alert, tail straight out and still with concentration.
My eyes scanned the nearby terrain, trying to make out anything other than tortured, jagged rock, gravel scree and the ever present small shrubs and twisted little trees. I was surprised that any plants could find purchase on the slopes at all, it seemed like there was so little actual dirt up where that nothing should be able to grow. Although, what did I know about the biology of random plants?
It was hard to stay still as the minutes wore on and Rusti continued to indicate that we should stay still. Sweat trickled down my back, not even making it all the way down before it evaporated to the hot sun beating down on us from above.
It was Civette who broke first, her footing giving out for a moment, leading to a scrambling squeal as she tried to keep herself from tumbling down the high slopes. Taylor moved quickly, her hand grabbing the distressed girl’s robes and hauling her back to safer ground. A tense moment followed the slip as everyone waited for something to happen. I could hear everyone’s breathing being held, but when nothing jumped out at us for a few seconds, we all sighed in relief.
We let our guard down too quickly, because no sooner had we given that sigh of relief, than a set of terrible talons came whistling down from above. Taylor was the one who saved us again, her shield phasing into existence on her arm faster than I could process the danger. The loud crash of a gong sounded, ringing out across the sunbaked slopes as she deflected the blow.
“Run!” she yelled urgently, pointing forwards.
Trying to keep my footing level was difficult as I fumbled with my menus for my armour, my hands shaking as adrenaline took control. I got the armour on with a little effort, taking my lightning form as I did so. The Roc come in for another dive and before it could hit Taylor’s shield again, I raised my hand, lightning already wreathed around it. The thump of thunder startled it, sending it tumbling to the side with an angry cry. It didn’t look hurt by my attack, but at least I was able to ward it off.
“Don’t piss it off too bad,” Dawn puffed next to me, her cheeks flushed with exertion.
Turns out it wasn’t the Roc she should have been worried about though, because as we reached the summit of a ridge, the ridge began to move around us.
“Oh,” Millie said conversationally. “We probably should have mentioned those.”
All around us enormous figures rose up out of the loose scree like whales breaching the surface of the ocean. They weren’t just golems made of random loose stone, pulled together by some ambient magic. The colossal fifteen foot beings were made from carved blocks of stone, and although time had worn the intricate carvings down, they were still noticeably made by the hands of sentients.
“Follow me! Don’t get left behind!” Taylor yelled, rushing forward down the slope at a diagonal.
We followed after in a mass, rushing as fast as we could before the golems got their bearings. Even as we made for the dubious safety of the door, I noticed that other players had already tried to get in. The belongings of a few dead adventurers lay strewn across the slope, with blood the only other sign of their failed attempt to gain access before us.
I felt a surge of relief as the door came into view and the whole party put on an extra little burst of speed. The door itself was still half submerged in gravel scree, the face of the cliff it was built into having been mostly weathered away, only simple geometric shapes were visible.
So distracted by the sight of our destination were we, that no one saw the rock sailing through the air. The football sized lump of rock hit Civette on the upper arm, spinning her around entirely with a spray of blood. She gasped with surprise and pain, her eyes wide as I caught her before she fell the rest of the way to the ground.
“Taylor!” I called, but she was too far forward to cover us right away.
The golems surrounded us from afar, but Taylor tried to push back to us anyway. She didn’t make it more than two steps before the Roc came at her again, its shrill angry cry almost too much for our ears. Wincing as the sound lanced pain into my skull, my eyes fell on a golem winding up to throw another rock.
I placed a whimpering Civette on the ground as quickly and gently as I could, then stepped with one foot on either side of her and wound up my fist for a haymaker. The lump of rock sailed towards us, but when it impacted my fist it exploded like a ripe watermelon. The collision sent shards of rock and dust in all directions, and I made sure my armoured body shielded Civette from the worst of it.
Even before the dust had cleared, I reached down and scooped the incapacitated healer up off the ground and called to the rest, “I’m going to try and get her to safety as fast as I can!”
My legs coiled then threw me into the air, my charge ability already building with energy. As soon as I had a clear path to the door, I released it and we flew through the air. I really hoped it wouldn’t hurt her any more than she already was.
Landing a few feet before the entryway, I slid with one foot first and leaned back, holding my breath as the stone doorway flashed past. We only just cleared it, but damned if I wasn’t relieved that my maneuver had been successful.
We came to a stop in what appeared to be a wide antechamber of some kind, half full with more dirt and gravel. A quick look around revealed nothing hostile, just strangely carved pillars, so thin they looked almost delicate and far too weak to hold the roof up, despite all evidence to the contrary.
“My arm!” Civette cried out, staring at the mangled limb with open horror.
“Hey,” I said, gently but firmly cupping her face with one gauntlet. “Civette, hey. You can heal it. Remember?”
“What?” she asked, moving to stare at me, her eyes dazed, her expression confused.
Brushing some hair out of her face, I said, “Use your powers, you can heal it. You can do it.”
“I can’t! I can’t!” she mumbled, her eyes rolling wildly. “It hurts, oh god, it hurts!”
“You can,” I urged, shaking her in an attempt to get her attention. “Concentrate, use your healing.”
She seemed to hate that, her whole expression changing to one of confusion and anger. “You fucking awful, disgusting…” she spat, before she caught herself, gulped and then nodded.
Shit, what was that? That was one hell of an outburst, but I said nothing as she scrunched her eyes up tight and concentrated. I breathed a sigh of relief when her magic swirled up and around her, the bones in her arm setting, the flesh knitting back together and the skin returning to its flawless prior state.
As soon as she was healed she pushed me away, stumbling to her feet and glaring daggers at me. I thought she was going to spit more vitriol at me, but she visibly controlled herself, the anger vanishing from her expression.
“Thanks,” she said, glancing awkwardly away. “Sorry for getting angry.”
“No problem,” I said, shrugging off the weirdness and moving back to the entrance. “I’m going to help the others now.”
I wasn’t entirely happy, not by a long shot, but I had more important things to deal with than our healer revealing more of her shitty personality. The others were almost to the door, and I launched myself back out into the fray.