Cyrus sifts through his belongings in the travel case for the umpteenth time. He'd packed it to the brim with books, inkwells, spare quills, stationary, scrolls, and filled journals of notes. It completely misses him that he should have spared more room for necessities like clothes or rations. He nods, satisfied with his choices, and looks over his finances. In his coin purse, there is about a thousand leaves. He hadn't much more left in his savings, and the field study grant to which professors were entitled was quite meager. He wouldn't be able to procure many books with this, but it would have to do. His tome of spells, now securely strapped to his belt, would suffice for now. He decided he wouldn't touch his tenure fund... that was for another day, perhaps when, if, he returned.

"Professor Albright?"

Cyrus looks up at the sound of someone outside his room, "Enter."

The nice lady who manages the faculty dorms enters with a wrapped package, "An admirer left this for you at the front."

"Oh, thank you, Gina," Cyrus takes the package without much thought.

Gina looks around at the clutter that was moved to pack, "Oh, I didn't hear you were leaving..."

In his rummaging for supplies, Cyrus disturbed just about every corner of his room to find what he needed. His room was never the neatest. Books were the best kept article, organized neatly in the many shelves he procured, but without any special order. His clothes often hung haphazardly from his closet, and he would often misplace clean and dirty laundry in piles, too busy to keep to the dorm's schedule. It was a miracle he never wore a dirty shirt by accident to class. Papers and writing utensils litter his large desk, completely covering the surface. Wax drippings from many late-night candles burned speckle the reams of notes and grades. His bed is no exception, often hosting books under its covers as well as its frame. For as long as Gina knew the young professor, Cyrus kept only two things ever consistently neat: his books, and his scholar's robe.

"I'm afraid so, my dear," Cyrus shrugs with a small, aloof smile, "I will be off on some field studies. The time of which is indeterminate."

"Hmf! Well, I suppose you can finally go out instead of just talking it up all the time!" Gina folds her arms with a confident grin, "A bit of air will do you scholars a world of good, gods know! Though I will say I always had a bit of a softer spot for you."

"You flatter me so."

"It isn't a secret, your charm with the ladies, you book nosed dullard," Gina laughs, "Aren't you going to open the gift? It's only manners!"

"Ah, well, if you insist," Cyrus sighs and opens the package slowly. It took him about a minute to unwrap the box, "Oh, interesting."

He opens the wooden lid curiously. Inside seems to be rows of chocolate.

"Oh, dear me, how expensive!" Gina gasps lightly as she peeps, "Gods know cacao is such a rarity these days from the southern nations.

"Indeed..." Cyrus frowns lightly, "Students ought not spend on such lavish things. The money could better benefit your studies through books!"

"Alephan's name, Cyrus! You don't understand the heart of the maidens," Gina sighs, "Tis a good thing you have your looks. Otherwise, you would be incredibly unpopular."

"Popularity is the fool's metric, Gina," Cyrus hands Gina the box, "Here. To remember me by."

"Ohh!" Gina brightens considerably, "Why, you needn't!"

"I'm not popular as it is, Gina," The scholar closes his valise, comfortable with his choices, "So let that tide you over with good thoughts in my stead."

"Such a dour farewell, I say. Tis just a field study, no? Isn't that a common exercise for you scholars?"

"Indeed. And tis not without risks. Remember Randall and Merril? The two of them never returned from their ethnography of desert tribes in the Sunlands. That was merely five years ago. And just two years ago, professor Nial perished on his excursion in the Highlands."

"Well, he fell from the cliffs and cracked his head open," The woman sighs and rubs her head, "Twas bad luck, yes. But it could happen to anyone."

Cyrus smiles lightly as he goes to leave his room. Ignorance is bliss for those who just carry on with their normal lives.

"Take care my dear. And thank you for cleaning up after me."

"Hmf!" Gina huffs, looking with distaste at the work to be done, "I feel sorry for the women who don't know what a packrat you are, Cyrus! Tis a horrible surprise to your future wife! Imagine, all this housework!"

Once, Cyrus had met a bookseller who set up a pop-up in the street, having come from out of town. His collection boasted of many old and worn tomes in other languages that Cyrus was greatly interested in. He bought many volumes without a second thought. Lucky for him, the books were authentic in their content. Unfortunately, the age of the pages, as well as the travel endured, made them dirty and hosts to unsavory pests. It was about two weeks before complaints emerged in that wing of the dorms about mites in the bed. Cyrus himself somehow never found issue with the mites that were biting his colleagues and leaving them looking like survivors of the plague. Regardless, the dorm had to be cleaned out and much of Cyrus' infected papers and literature had to be burned. That was quite a blow to the scholar. Gina shudders at the memory of the infestation.

"You need to go learn some things other than books, Cyrus! Take this chance, eh?"

Cyrus just smiles and waves as he closes the door after he leaves.

Gina gives an exasperated smile, "Such a hopeless schoolboy..."

It was very hard to hate the dashing professor.

Her eyes fall down to the opened box of gift chocolates. With a nonchalant shrug, she picks out the biggest one and pops it in her mouth. As she enjoys the rich flavor, she begins to straighten out the stacks of loose papers on the large desk. Her elbow strikes and knocks over a dusty book. When she moves to pick it up, her hand trembles and it slips out of her grasp.

"Hum? Oh, butterfingers..." She mutters as she goes to retry, ignoring the shaking.

Next her head spins. She falls over on the floor within the following seconds. Now slightly groggy, the fear becomes apparent. What was happening? Her limbs refuse to obey her commands, instead jerking about grotesquely. When she tries to cry out, she finds her voice weak, unable to pass the door even. Her voice slowly becomes a squeak as her throat tightens and closes up. Unable to draw breath and paralyzed on the floor, her body spasms for air. Her foot strikes the table where the box of chocolates was precariously placed, spilling out the sweets.

The sudden realization comes upon her when she sees the chocolate pieces.

Poison.

Realization brings dread.

Someone wanted to poison Cyrus.

She had to tell someone. Get help...

But it was too late now. She gasps and wheezes in vain a few more times before ultimately falling still on the floor.

"Excuuuse me!" Mattias enters the guild hall.

Business never sleeps. The merchant's guild is abuzz with activity as traders flocked in and out. Some looked for directions to venue points within the city's new mercantilism laws. Others sought licenses to participate within the various businesses in the city guilds, as well as noncompetitive petitions, violation filings, certificate of inspections, royal favor decrees ... No matter how early, the merchants seemed to always come upon problems in need of administrative fixing.

Mattias struts around a bit the reception lobby. He told Ophilia and H'aanit to go on ahead to the castle while he took care of something with the back end after they left the weapons shop.

Merchants of various backgrounds, dressed in many forms of clothing, walk about the exposition hall past the lobby. Some seemed well-off, with exotic silks of various colors, as well as strings of extravagant jewelry. Others were less showy, or just worse off. There were merchants who straight up look like beggars, with shabby rags for clothes, and a face of warts only their mom could love. But some of these peddlers carried things of surprising beauty, like statues made of animal tusks, jeweled blades, and corals from coasts overseas.

An assortment of live wares is present as well. While large beasts of burden like camels were not allowed, smaller prizes of poaching are quite commonly vied for by nobility as exotic pets. It was not a large market, but it could pay immensely. Mattias peers here and there at some cages with captive howlers, bats, even baby meeps.

At the back of the guild hall is the guild master's desk. The portly man's body is slightly squished behind his oaken table. He wears black with gold embroidery, sitting before a wall of tapestries from around the world. Smoking his short pipe leisurely, he looks with condescension at the paperwork that he occasionally stamps. Other times, he has an aide throw it away. A line of his underlings works with a queue of merchants before his desk in smaller cubicles.

"Hello, welcome to Atlasdam Merchant's Guild! How may I help you today?" A bubbly aide walks up to Mattias, "Have you filed your papers with our receptionist to comply with our sale fees?"

"Uhh, I'm not here to join or sell," Mattias chuckles, "I have an appointment with the guild master from the Leo Consortium."

"Huh?" The aide looks at him with surprised confusion, looking frantically through her clipboard, "O-oh, I wasn't aware the master had an appointment with your party..."

"It's last minute. An emergency. If you take me to him..."

"I-I'm sorry but the master is a very busy man-"

"Oh, come now, he'll know what this about once I see him, I assure you!" Mattias gives his best gentleman's smile.

"Uhh..." The aide nervously looks him over.

"... Oh hell, come on!" Mattias pushes past her towards the guild master's desk, "I don't have all day!"

"W-waiiit!" The aide trails after him, "You can't just...!"

The guild master looks up from his papers at Mattias and the aide coming his way, "Hm? What are you..."

As Mattias nears, he raises an eyebrow, "Oh, it's you."

"Yes, yes. We meet again, guild master."

"G-guild master, I'm sorry!" The aide tries to bar Mattias from approaching further, "S-sir, I'm asking, uh, that you'll have to leave…!"

"Go get to work and leave us," The boss mutters, placing down a count abacus on his desk.

"Yes! See he- huh?" The aide pauses like she heard wrong, "Uh, master?"

"Get the cotton outta yer ears and GET BACK TO WORK!" The guild master roars with the same rage and volume as last night, "I SAID LEAVE US!"

"EEEP!" The aide shrinks back, hurriedly bowing as she makes her hasty exit, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry!"

The loud bellow no doubt was heard by the surrounding cubicles, if not the entire guild hall. But few seem to pay any mind to it. It appears this may be a common occurrence in the guild. There is only a brief respite of silence. Then, the chatter and noise resume shortly after the outburst.

"…" The guild master sighs gruffly, "What do you want, Mattias?"

"So curt, Ian," Mattias chuckles and walks up to the desk, "Even after all the trouble I've taken to come visit you?"

"Hardly a quiet visit," Ian grumbles, "You come out of the blue in the middle of the night! I had to bite my tongue to resist acting like I knew you!"

"Well job accomplished then," Mattias smiles, "It's better for the ones I travel with that they ask less questions."

"What do you want, Mattias," Ian repeats, "I doubt ya came to pay your respects."

"A stopover, I assure you. I'm not that generous a man, Ian," Ther merchant looks idly down at the master desk, "So you've been quite busy hm?"

"It's hard work to manage markets," The guild master grunts as he moves around some papers, "Are ya going to answer me or what. What're you here for."

"How are the funds funneling?" Mattias lowers his voice an octave.

"... Very well," Ian takes out his stamp and goes at a slower pace, occasionally glancing back at Mattias, "No hitches. But the Left Wing's been taking a lot. Going on an excursion to check to houses on the continent. His expenses are ridiculous."

"Ah yes, he can be quite... extravagant."

"Well tell him to slow it down, will ya?" The guild master pulls on his peach fuzz whiskered lip, "Launderin' ain't easy with these big amounts. Keep it under the radar, low. If he's just checkin' out the whorehouse business, he shouldn't be taking detours to the fancy places."

"Oh, just keep it coming, Ian," Mattias smiles like a fox, "What's a bit of money compared to what you have here now? We didn't help you get here just to start having second thoughts."

"Hell, I know!" Ian hisses, "But there's a smarter way to play here! And not just about the Left Wing... Our Cliftlands division has been hemorrhaging money with the damn thief raids ramping up! The monster attacks are impacting the business that were raking it in too!"

"Well, that all sounds a lot like your problems."

"And don't get me started on the piracy going on in the Coastlands...! So many shipments have been lost to those sea curs!" The businessman draws a beleaguered breath to try and calm himself, a hand digging into his balding head, "I'm guild master, Mattias, but I don't have all the money in the world. And whatever's going on with the monsters' squeezing all of us of all we got."

"Ian, my dear fellow," Mattias leans in so that he and the guild master's eyes are level. Then he lowers his voice and his eyes seem to darken menacingly, "Please do remember... that what we gave you, we can take away."

Ian pales at the change in tone. But he is paralyzed now, and can do nothing but sit and listen to the merchant.

"We paved the way for you and Yvon to get to these positions, not out of the goodness of our hearts... You owe us for all you have, and it is a debt we will see repaid. If not, I can assure you a far worse fate than being homeless again awaits... Is that clear?" Mattias' voice drops so low that it begins to sound demonic, "So I don't want to hear your whining anymore."

At that moment, like a wave, visions from memory wash over Ian's mind. All he could see, briefly, was once more that pitiful sight...

His failing business, his degenerating marriage... His wife took the children and left him in the house with overdue bills and unpaid debts whilst she ran back to her parents in the Riverlands... It was all because of the current merchant guild master and his strict laws. While penny merchants like him were being squeezed to obey, the master was likely reaping a heavy pay enforcing the fees for keeping to sale standards as well as membership. How Ian despised him and his adherence to the laws, not showing a speck of mercy for his pitiful self.

He couldn't fathom his losses. Even after selling everything he had, it wasn't enough to pay off the creditors. He ended up living like a rat in the derelict house, fearing for his life. They were going to send their men after him soon, and take everything he had. He wasn't going to go down... not without a struggle...

Strangely enough, there was a sound of breaking bones that night. In his horror, he killed, not the thugs from his creditors, but the collectors themselves. This was supposed to be the end for him. He was ready to hang himself from his own rafters at this point. Just as he was fumbling with the rope...

"My, my, what a mess you've caused..."

At the door way was the sandy-haired merchant and a woman in black and dark purple with red eyes. They smile, despite the blood and broken bodies on the floor. Ian had seen the merchant before. He called himself 'Mattias.'

"We're looking for a bit of a cash cow, Ian..." Mattias sweeps his arm a bit over the bloody scene, "How would you like to make this all go away?"

If he had killed himself right then and there, would it have been more merciful? But he was a man who was grown to stand and fight, not run. At this glimmer of seeming hope, he lunged for opportunity.

They taught him how to act and where to be. In the shadows, he knew things were going on. But he looked the other way as instructed. The old guild master was found dead in his bedroom, passed peacefully despite no former ailments. Miraculously, Ian secured the necessary votes to take his place. He ignored the shadowy hands tugging the strings on the voter's souls.

Now, he was the big cheese. He had the guild coffers at his disposal, and could buy pleasure women whenever he wanted. He forgot all about that sniveling loser and his old bygone family. It was a good life from here on out...

At least, that is what's promised... as long as he does what he is told.

Ian swallows, eyes wide with fear, and nods. The unpleasant memories make him docile. He had experienced all his failure again in a span of mere seconds. No one else around seems to have noticed anything strange due to how quickly the threatening message was processed. Mattias continues, with a slight smirk.

"So, will you be continuing your laundering to the Obsidians without question?"

Another fearful nod.

"Good. We'll be back from the Coastlands in another day or so, and I would like to have a drawn carriage to return to Flamesgrace when we return. Is that acceptable?"

Ian nods again. His pipe has gone out on the table, but there is nothing to be done about it.

"Monsters these days can be such a bother. But I suppose it can't be helped," Mattias pulls back at last, with a sunny smile like nothing happened, "So, we understand? Great!"

Ian meekly nods on, "Y-yes..."

"Oh, and don't forget the monthly shipments to Wispermill. The date is coming up and they do rely a bit on that," Mattias now turns to go, "Try to send some mercenaries and clean out the road a little too, will you?"

The guild master sputters slightly before regaining his tongue, "Yes..."

But just before Mattias leaves his earshot, Ian sits up, rattling his desk a bit and rallying a final farewell cry, "H-Helgenish...! He's late on his payments too, you hear!"

Helgenish?

The merchant sighs. He'd only just gone to Sunshade a few days ago, and the fat man was already delinquent? Rufus really needs to keep a better leash on who he appoints to head those whorehouses of his...

He waves a hand blithely as he keeps walking, "Heard, heard, o' guild master."

Mattias makes his exit coolly from the guild hall. He winks slightly as he passes the aide who tried to stop him earlier. Once outside, he glances up at the sun. It would soon be time to disembark from the wharf. He ought to go find the two girls.

As he walks toward the main street to reach the castle, he smiles lightly, seeing some crow perched on the eaves of a nearby house.

Atlasdam castle boasts perhaps one of the largest estates of grandeur in all of Orsterra. For one thing, its monarchy is rather unique. Not all of the other regions have such a governing body with such centralized power. The highlands used to house more kingdoms, but war in the last few millennia rendered those primarily rubble. There was still an old castle of lost splendor in Everhold, but it was no longer a place of power. Word has it that it is being used as a theater these days, and some of the best parts of its yard were demolished when the Ventus Dynasty suddenly ended.

Perhaps the only match against Atlasdam castle would be the palace in Marsalim, the heart of the Sunlands. The special stone from the quarries half-buried in the sands create magnificent marble and ivory towers. The architecture of the peoples there was most unique, with curves and detailed intricacies that made their kingdom pop, not to mention their rich arts of tapestry and dance.

Anywhere else, these castles would be an embarrassment of riches. The Coastlands and Cliftlands were similar in that many rich nobles took to those locations and built their villas and mansions there. But they were hardly governed strictly with a centralized government. The Riverlands and Highlands both were relatively low populated areas. The Riverlands had Saintsbridge, which held another Cathedral of the Flame, but it was hardly as grand as a castle. The wild Woodlands were known to be pristine in nature, and so such grand projects like a castle were never attempted.

Ophilia and H'aanit walk slowly into the castle walls with Linde and Hägen. The initial inner yard is a brief space between the castle's foyer and portcullis. From here, one can see the actual walls of the castle front, as well as the dome towards the back, and the shape of the antechamber. There were some other scholars here, as well as Academy students, all dressed rather posh. A guard can be seen at each entryway performing their duties. Some are monitoring vehicles carrying castle dinner ingredients, and others are pulling in an arrested criminal before his majesty.

"I'm innocent, I swear!" The prisoner whines, hands shackled before him.

"Uh huh, get on with it," The guards escorting him impassively shoves him forward.

"Oh my..." Ophilia stares a bit, "Do they have to be so harsh with him? He's already shackled..."

H'aanit looks off elsewhere, "... Tis their way here."

There was the slightest bit of distaste in her voice when she spoke about anything in the city. Linde and Hägen strut about a bit but remain near the huntress. Every now and then one of them tosses a dirty look at some social degenerate or frisky looking civilian.

"Uhm, H'aanit..." Ophilia approaches the huntress from the side, "If you're not comfortable being out here..."

"Hm?" H'aanit looks to Ophilia, "What doest thou mean?"

"I mean, you don't exactly... seem to like how this trip's gone?" Ophilia winces a bit, "I feel a bit like I dragged you out here..."

"... Thou aren too considerate," H'aanit says quietly, "Tis no fault of yours. I hadde knowen that we woulden be in such burgs, but I assented to cometh none the less."

"But..." Ophilia sighs, "I just wish … you could enjoy it too..."

"People haven different tastes," H'aanit shrugs, "One cannot enjoy everything."

"Well, that I know," Ophilia points at the castle door with a resigned smile, "Shall we go then?"

As they go to enter, Hägen's gaze lingers on the eastern wall of the castle. He eventually follows after them as they enter. The guards at the antechamber before the red-carpet innards stop them with a metal gloved hand.

"Halt. What bring ye beasts here for?" The guard on the right arches an eyebrow at the odd group.

"Oh, uh, these are companions," Ophilia says hopefully, "I assure you they are no trouble."

"Uh huh... What's a sister like you doing in such company, eh?" The guard folds his arms with a nonchalant attitude.

"That's a bit rude of you!" Ophilia furrows her brow with slight indignance in her voice, "What are you trying to say?"

"Whoa, we're just security here, sister," The guard raises his hands in mock defense, "No need to get uppity about questions."

As Ophilia is about to berate further, the guards suddenly straighten and salute stiffly. They both shout promptly, "Hail, Princess Mary!"

"What's going on here?" Ophilia hears a voice behind them.

The cleric and huntress turn around to look. They see a beautiful young woman with pale golden hair, dressed in white and gold finery. Her hair is neatly braided from the sides of her head and tied from behind, hanging down to her lower back. She looks curiously at the strange party assembled before the castle doors.

"Ah, hello!" Ophilia realizes the guard's formal address to the stranger and curtsies, "Uhm, Princess Mary?"

H'aanit, Linde, and Hägen sort of just look on at the recent development.

"Oh my, at ease, please," The princess' eyebrows arch upward, "Whatever might you be waiting for out here?"

"Well, we wanted to enter the castle and look around, since we heard it was allowed for the public to tour," Ophilia starts, "But the guards don't seem to approve."

"Ah, it must be because of the beasts you bring. But I assume you to be a hunter, from the looks of it," Mary looks definitively at H'aanit, "The companions of a hunter are known to be extremely well-behaved. And, judging from them, it seems to be no lie. I approve of it."

She nods and looks now to the guards. They remain stiff in salute.

"You may enter," Mary chuckles, "They shan't give you any more trouble."

"Oh, thank you!" Ophilia brightens, "Come on then!"

Mary enters with the ragtag party into the stone-laden interior of the castle. The nation's coat of arms hangs from banners on the walls and a double staircase leads up to the upper level. At the lobby area is a wide space before the two wings which split left and right down long corridors to the castle sides. Statues and paintings dot the walls. Hanging from the ceiling are elegant chandeliers, providing light. Well-dressed people of nobility and a few scholars can be seen here, as well as guards and some more plainly dressed laymen.

"Oh, wow!" Ophilia's head swivels about this way and that, taking in the sight eagerly.

"Enjoy your visit!" Mary smiles at the cleric's excitement, "I must say, we don't get many visitors like you every day."

"Ahaha, well this is a bit of an occasion, I suppose," Ophilia looks to the princess, "So you're the princess I heard of who attends the academy?"

"Ah, so you've heard of me? I suppose that explains the lack of shock," Mary laughs lightly, "Yes, I was, in fact, just returning from my morning classes to my instruments lesson here. It's all quite conveniently within walking distance."

She looks to the huntress with interest, "So, what brings you to Atlasdam? This is one of my first times seeing a hunter, accompanied by a cleric of the Flame nonetheless!"

"We cometh to taken a ship southerward," H'aanit nods slightly with affirmation, "Time be'en plentiful at the moment so we did thinken to peruse about the burgh a mite."

"Ah, I see," Mary puts a finger to her chin, "I surmise that would be the SSS Tecura. It is bound later this morning for Rippletide."

"Oh, why yes!" Ophilia stares a bit at the princess, clearly surprised by her deduction.

The princess sees her surprise and chuckles, "This is what I get for attending all of Professor Albright's lessons, haha. I've picked up a bit of his logic habits."

"Professor Albright…" Ophilia remembers the black-haired scholar, "Ah, so he is one of your teachers…"

"Indeed. Do you know him? He is perhaps one of the best professors at the Academy."

"We haven into him runneth," H'aanit says a bit on the side. Ophilia nods to corroborate.

"Ah, I see," Mary nods, "Well, I shan't keep you any longer from your visit then. I hope you enjoy your stay in the city. Oh, heavens, I forgot to ask your names."

"I'm Ophilia. This is H'aanit, Linde and Hägen."

"A pleasure to meet you all," The princess starts towards the stairs, "Ah, I shan't keep my tutor waiting either! Bye!"

Ophilia waves her goodbye before looking to the huntress, "So she's the Atlasdam princess… She seemed very nice."

"Aye… And not nigh as clueless as her teacher," H'aanit folds her arms a little. Hägen nods affirmatively with a slight snort.

"Ahaha, indeed… Well, she certainly didn't scrutinize as much."

H'aanit nods, "Tis the duty of a student to learnen from the faults of the master, so as not to repeateth them."

"You speak as if from experience, H'aanit," Ophilia tilts her head and looks curiously at the huntress, "Is it that way with your master?"

"…" H'aanit sighs as though the question was inconvenient, "He… hasen a small problem with how he keepeth the strings of the purse."

"Oh, a big spender, is he?"

"Nay… gambler," The memories make H'aanit feel a bit prickly, "He cannen burden a general's wages with whatten he doth spendeth chancing the fates."

She missed the man a lot, but he had his bad moments as well. Sometimes they would make her second guess traveling Orsterra in search of his whereabouts, especially that time he needed Eliza to bail him out of debt as they were literally throwing him in the stocks… Maybe he'd learn his lesson then. It was a jest of course. She wasn't going to abandon him for that. Maybe. Yet.

"Ehehe, I'm glad you aren't like that then, H'aanit," Ophilia giggles, "And not just because I'm broke as it is."

H'aanit breaks into a small smile, "Alrighten. Shallen we looketh about?"

Atop the pier to board the SSS Tecura was a rather long queue. Mattias stood at around the middle of the line with their horses and luggage. He had contemplated leaving the horses for Ian to take care of, but ultimately decided to have them along in case of an emergency where travel by land would be necessary. Rippletide, despite all its commercial hoopla, did not have ready-to-rent mounts. Even if they did, they likely wouldn't have a good quality.

He sees the girls and beasts coming from the main stairwell down from the square and waves to get their attention. Ophilia waves back as they reunite.

"Mattias!"

"Ophilia! H'aanit! How was the castle?"

"Oh, it was quite wonderful! We even met the princess!" Ophilia beams, "Did you take care of what business you had?"

"Oh yes, totally," Mattias nods, "For now, it's farewell to Atlasdam then!"

"Mm, how exciting..." Ophilia looks up at the seafaring vessel, "Were there any weather forecasts?"

"Tis looken a mite clouded," H'aanit remarks, looking towards the sky, "But it shoulden be calm. Tis not a sky for storms."

Out towards the south of the waters, where the horizon could be glimpsed slightly before a blockade of mountains, is a small cluster of clouds. From the wind, the seasoned huntress could surmise the cover would be blowing their way over the course of the days, and rather soon too.

"Leave it to the huntress to tell the weather," Mattias shrugs, "The sailors said similar. It should be easy sailing. But it might be a bit choppier when we return."

"Ah... But this ship looks quite splendid!" Ophilia says hopefully, "I'm sure we will be fine."

"Aren we not riding another ship back?" The huntress inquires.

"Well, yes, we are," The merchant points a thumb at the docked ship, "They're supposed to be in Rippletide for the next three days. We're on a tight schedule so we'll be taking the Nightingale on the route back. But! With Ophilia as my lucky charm, it should be fine!"

"I'm not a charm, Mattias! It's all the guidance of the Flame...!" Ophilia blushes lightly.

The first mate calls out and the sailors throw out the boarding plank for the passengers to begin getting onto the vessel. The SSS Tecura is a packet boat, one of many who travel the crowded Middlesea of Orsterra. It is slightly bigger than the normal packet boats which usually ferried mail and fewer passengers but narrow all the same. The boards of the ship's sides are anchored with sea scum and barnacles, telling of its voyages. The sailors had not time to scrape the hull clean between their stops yet. Fluttering from the ship's highest mast is the flag of Atlasdam and the royal coat of arms. The boat figurehead is a pigeon, one of the birds sacred to Bifelgan, god of merchants and trade. How appropriate.

"All aboard!"

The line of passengers slowly files onto the deck of the ship. The ship captain addresses them all once the heads and tickets had been accounted for.

"Alright, welcome aboard the Tecura! I am your captain, Smith. We're pleased to be having you. Don't you worry a thing. She's handled longer trips than this without a hitch! Our crew'll see you down to the barracks. We'll be down in Rippletide in no time. Please, enjoy the ride!"

With that, the passengers were promptly led towards the lower levels. Mattias hands off the horses to be placed in a separate compartment for the animals. As they carry their luggage, some of the cabinmates move to help with the heavier trunks of passengers.

"Oh, no, no thank you!" Ophilia waves politely at a burly cabin mate in ill-fitted clothing who comes over to help, "I can carry this."

The cabin mate shiftily looks elsewhere and nods before leaving her alone. The puzzled cleric files with the rest of the passengers below deck. Hägen rears his head slightly and stares at the cabin mate for a moment before following the others below deck.

The passenger's cabin is a rather cramped quarter with hanging beds along the wall, straw on the floor, and lanterns overhead. A small series of portholes line the outer wall, peering outside. It seems to have been recently cleaned at least, but the air is a little stale. Such was the nature of these ships.

"Well, this isn't so bad!" Ophilia says optimistically as she sits down on a cot, "And we can see the sea from here too!"

"They'll allow us up on the deck again after we've taken off, I think," Mattias puts down their luggage, "The portholes are fun except when you get a face full of spray haha. Usually, people just barf out of them."

Linde and Hägen prowl about with a tense gait on the vessel. The other passengers seem wary of the huntress and her beasts. She does not pay them much mind.

"Ah, maybe they'll let us see when we leave the port!" Ophilia stands and looks to the huntress, "Do you want to come with me?"

H'aanit nods, as does Linde, "Linde and Hägen art a mite perturbed aboard this … ship. The open air willen doen them well."

"Animals do have a bit of a skittish streak if it's something new I guess," Mattias shrugs, "You two run along then. I'll watch the luggage. But if they say no, don't insist alright?"

"Mm!" Ophilia takes one of the huntress' hands in her own and trots out of the cabin with the beasts following. At the stairwell back up to the deck, she sees some of the cabin mates moving some larger luggage into the cargo. The burly one she saw earlier seems to be anxiously situated by the side of the corridor, his back towards them.

"…?" Ophilia approaches him, "Are you alright?"

The cabin mate flinches at her voice and mutters something nondescript before shuffling upstairs. The cleric frowns slightly as she and the huntress follow. Atop the weather deck, they could see some of the sailors scurrying around to perform last minute riggings, checking the sails, and the like. Captain Smith stands, surveying, atop the quarterdeck before his cabin. Seeing a thumbs up from his first mate, he hollers for them to pull up the anchor.

Suddenly, from the pier below, there is a frantic shout from a familiar voice.

"STOP, STOP!"

Ophilia and H'aanit hurry over to the ship's port side and look down. They see the black-haired catch of a professor waving his arms, a suitcase beside him.

"Forgive my tardiness, but I'm here now!"

H'aanit's face is unamused, "… I had thougten it too still."

"Eh… Oh, what a coincidence!" Ophilia blinks, "So he is a passenger as well!"

"You're late, professor!" The captain sighs as he gestures for the plank to be taken out again for the professor to board.

"Apologies, Smith," Cyrus chuckles slightly as he climbs the plank aboard, "I had gone to say my farewells to some students and, my word, time completely escaped me!"

"Too busy chattering up, I'll bet," The captain disapprovingly scoffs, "Anyways, you're a lucky lad. We were just about ready to depart."

"Oh, splendid!" The scholar smiles. As the crew resumes their preparations, he notices the cleric and huntress, "Ah, hello again!"

"Hello!" Ophilia looks him over curiously, "You're leaving for Rippletide as well?"

"Indeed. I am searching for an old colleague of mine, who I am afraid I lost contact with a bit ago. But I was informed that she has someone who might be able to point me in the right direction in the Coastlands."

He turns to go below deck promptly, "I shall go and put down my things now. Excuse me."

As he leaves, Ophilia hears something. The whisper of a soul. But unlike those she had heard before, this one sends a chill down her spine instantly.

Oh good, he's here. I was beginning to freak out…

Just like with the scholars' circle's thoughts, it fades rather quickly. But the chilling tone left a lasting effect on Ophilia. It was malice laced into the voice, perhaps the purest she had sensed before. She snaps out of her brief trance when Linde brushes against her leg. Quickly, she looks around only to see the huntress and the ship crew running around.

The ship crew… The thought made Ophilia uneasy. To her surprise, H'aanit is looking with some scrutiny at the sailors.

"Is something the matter?"

"Hägen… hath a scent smelt," H'aanit says in a low voice, "Twas the same from in the city… it doth perturbeth him."

"What is it about the scent?"

"Tis unpleasant. When a creature doth haven spilt much blood… a scent doen followeth which be'en acrid to others. An ill omen."

"By creature, you mean…" Ophilia follows the huntress' eyes warily, "That includes humans, right?"

"… Aye."

"Anchors up!"

The ticking sound of chains being hauled up, link by link, ends with a loud thunk of the anchor being retracted. There is a brief flutter of the sails filling with air as the ship begins to move under the wide sky. Despite her apprehension, Ophilia looks at the departure with slight glee. Behind them, the port of Atlasdam slowly grows smaller as they move towards the other end of Middlesea.

The ocean spray and gulls overhead were wonderful experiences for the cleric. She could not believe how big Middlesea was. Seeing it on a map was certainly misleading. Compared to a world map, Middlesea was certainly a little small, as Orsterra was not the largest continent by any means. But one should keep in mind how measly humans were in the scope of even the smallest of the continents.

"This is quite incredible… And we're only just entered the afternoon," Ophilia looks up at the blue sky, "Not a cloud in sight just yet…"

Other passengers had come out to enjoy the sea air as well. Some complained of feeling ill. True to her kind nature, Ophilia offered her alleviating touch to those who needed it, much to their relief.

"Oh, thank you, sister…"

"May the Sacred Flame guide your path," She smiles warmly as she performs her duty.

"Say, anyone know where Aron is?" A sailor hollers to another, "'E said 'e was goin' down t' get some extra riggings!"

"I 'unno. Haven't seen 'im much, come t' think it."

Ophilia goes to move back downstairs. As she passes under the quarterdeck, the second sailor goes up to the captain atop. Whatever he tells Smith, the captain gives a loud exclamation.

"Well, FIND the dirty rat!"

That made her jump a bit. Nonetheless, she continues down below to the passenger level. As she passes the gun deck, she sees Hägen sniffing around all on his lonesome.

"Huh? Hägen?" The cleric carefully steps over to the wolf, avoiding coils of rope on the floor, "What are you doing here? Where's H'aanit?"

The wolf looks towards the stairs down to the lower decks.

"But what are you doing here...?" Gingerly, she reaches out a little. The wolf does not back down from her gentle touch.

"Smell. Blood on him. Bad coming."

"Eh..." Ophilia blinks. She heard him clearly, she hoped. But she had never heard Linde's voice. Somehow, the wolf had a much clearer consciousness she could understand. Hägen's voice is husky and deep in her head, "O-oh wow, it worked! But what do you mean...?"

The wolf sniffs and pushes past her, going towards the breadroom, on the opposite side of the ship from the passenger hold. When they boarded, the sailors were rather clear that it was not an area open to the public.

"Wait, Hägen!" She follows the wolf, "We can't go there!"

Aft in the ship, Ophilia sees that there is a small trapdoor on the side, leading down to the lower levels. People can come up to this area from either end of the ship from below. What really caught her eye though was the small bits of what seemed like ice clinging to the edges of the trapdoor.

"Huh?"

Hägen barks toward the back. Ophilia glances back towards the breadroom, where the door is ajar. As she reaches the door, she sees more traces of ice on the floors here. Call it a hunch, but she was getting a very bad feeling. Holding her breath, she peeps in through the crack at the door.

Once he was settled in, Cyrus immediately was taken to the structure of the ship as they were starting to set sail. He peered here and there in the passenger cabin. People whispered a bit about the oddly refined looking man knocking on the wood walls and such like a woodpecker. Mattias stares at him with slight annoyance.

"Fascinating..." Cyrus mutters to himself as he continued his inspection in deep thought, "The structure of ships is so variable and terminology so relative. This would normally be considered steerage since it is the cabin of the lowest, just above the hold, I believe. Hum, but this is nowhere like the bilge descriptions I read of... amazing how it is to see it in person...!"

As the voyage continued, the scholar inspected about each and every inch of the passenger level. Some had departed to get some fresh air on the weather decks.

H'aanit comes back down with Linde and Hägen. She sees Mattias asleep in a cot, one hand draped over their belongings. Linde perks up seeing Cyrus come their way.

"Ah, hello again!" Cyrus says cheerily, "Is the ocean air not for you?"

"Nay, tis fine. But there be'en no beds there," H'aanit says curtly, "What aren thou doing, scurryen like a rat amid the vessel."

"Haha, I am merely admiring the ship Smith has. It was formerly a clipper, but he had it repurposed for more commercial purposes following its de-enlistment. Interestingly, the width of the ship is much wider from other packets indeed. At least, from my measurements here in the cabin... Perhaps I should see if the sterncastle proves otherwise..."

"Thou stoppen not at this."

"Hm?" Cyrus blinks.

H'aanit sighs, "There be'en something amiss on this vessel. Thou shoulden keepth thine guard up rather than runnen around."

"Ah, thank you for the warning," Cyrus smiles, "Hunter senses are rather sharp, hm?"

"Tis needed in the wilde," The huntress says tersely, "To matchen the instinct of the beasts."

"I see, I see," Cyrus holds his chin pensively and nods, "To catch the beast, one must match it... That is sound logic indeed."

This sort of talk bored H'aanit and she wordlessly goes to sit down on one of the cots to clean and tune her bow. Cyrus watches her do so for a few moments before waving and leaving the cabin. H'aanit sees the dire wolf leave shortly after the scholar and says nothing. She glances at the scholar's things just lain there on the floor by an empty cot.

"... Careless."

Cyrus wanders out to the corridor before the stairs up. Looking down the corridor, he sees a series of doors on both sides, as well as a ladder at the end leading to the upper level. With a shrug, he goes down the corridor, peering around and muttering.

"Hm, yes, indeed, the crew cabins... There is about the same number as standard..."

As he nears the last door, he hears a low growl behind him. Turning, he sees the dire wolf at the other end of the corridor.

"Oh? Whatever are you doing without the huntress?"

Suddenly, as the last word of the question falls from his lips, he feels his breath catch in his throat as a meaty arm wraps tightly around his neck in a headlock. The grip is so tight that he had no time to even squeak. His arms grab a bit haphazardly around and his legs flail as he gapes in vain for air. He could feel his magic slightly ooze out, but not to a strong effect. Unfortunately, a scholar's best magical potential comes from the combined use of verbal components as well as their tome arcane focus. Without it, all he does is leave small bits of ice everywhere.

He sees the wolf running towards him and feels the strong arm of his captor pull him up the ladder swiftly. The hold on his head is making him woozy from lack of breath.

Up the ladder, his vision begins to get a bit hazy. But he can see that they were up where the cannons were. His captor drags him through some doors in the ship's aft portion into a room. He spots some provisions on the walls. The breadroom? He croaks out bare gasps, unable to scream for help.

He hears something squeak slightly before the sound of the sea overtakes it. A porthole might have been opened. Was his captor planning to throw him into the sea?

"Nn...!" His struggles were weaker than before.

"Quiet down and it'll be over soon," His captor says in a low voice. The grip on his neck increases as he feels a head force his head down. At this rate, either he was going to black out or his neck would snap.

Suddenly, there is a loud bark outside.

"What...?! Grr, fucking dog..."

The grip on him loosens briefly and he gratefully gulps down some air. Unfortunately, he also receives a vicious smack to the head, probably to knock him out. Black and white spots blink in his vision as his body drops onto the floor. He was down but not out. But getting hit like that wasn't something he was used to, and the impact left him extremely disoriented.

As he lay there, stunned, he sees the burly shape of a sailor move to the door, a knife at the ready. His captor. To the scholar's horror, he glimpses the face of the blond cleric peering through the crack between the door and the frame. From her angle, there is no way she can see the assailant lying in wait. He had to act.

Don't come in!

"Mnuh..." He shifts his hand a little as his head clears. He needed to reach...

"Ah?!" Ophilia throws open the door hurriedly, seeing Cyrus on the floor, "Professor?!"

Cyrus sees the sailor lunge to strike the unsuspecting cleric from behind as she enters. The dire wolf with her gives a loud bark. The scholar's own hand manages to touch the book tied to his belt. He forces his thick tongue to form words before his brain had even thought of them.

"ICEWIND!"

From his spot on the floor, ice bursts out along the wooden planks and sweeps the captor up in its icicles at an arc, narrowly avoiding the wolf and cleric. The assailant is thrown hard, hitting the door frame with a crack.

"AUGH!"

"What-" Ophilia glances back briefly before running to the scholar, "Are you alright?"

Hägen growls at the sailor who is slowly picking himself up. Where the ice should have pierced him through shows that he was wearing leather armor. He glares murderously at the wolf, cleric and scholar, still holding his knife.

"Damn pests...!"

"Who are you?!" Ophilia holds her staff, its head glowing. She casts a shimmering veil over the three of them and Cyrus feels himself feeling a little bit better. Well, however better he can feel with a growing bump on his head and bruises on his neck.

"He's after me..." Cyrus lightly pulls Ophilia back as he stands with a slight sway, "I shan't let a lady get marred for that...!"

The sailor charges now, aiming to stab the scholar. When Hägen tries to bite his throat, he roughly swipes with his free hand, slamming the wolf into the shelves. His knife goes straight for Cyrus.

Before Ophilia can even scream, Cyrus gives a loud battle cry that no one would ever really figure from him on a glance.

"LIGHTNING!"

Above deck, where clouds had begun to cover the blue sky, there is a sudden rumble. The people on the weather stare up with slight surprise. There was no forecast of a storm after all.

Back down below, from Cyrus' outstretched hand, a spark of lightning leaps forth and sends jolts through the sailor, frying part of his clothes and frizzing his hair. His grip on the weapon drops from the shock.

"GAAAH!"

Smelling burnt, the sailor scrambles to get out of the room. He runs right into the huntress. With a solid fist to his face, she knocks him back. Linde topples him with a low swipe. Once down, he is out for the count, giving only a low groan.

"H'aanit!"

"I hadden hearde Hägen," H'aanit looks down at the fallen sailor then to the cleric and scholar, "What hath happened?"

The dire wolf shakes himself off from the slam and trots it off. Some sailors from the upper deck come on their way to the lower rigs. They see the commotion. A collapsed person dressed as one of their own. The breadroom with contents spilled about. A huntress with two beasts, a cleric, and a scholar. Oh my.

"'EY! What's going on here- Aron?"

One of them runs over to the collapsed sailor. Upon getting a better look at the face, he looks up with a start.

"Hey, this ain't Aron!"

"What!"

The sailors squabble a bit over the discovery of a stowaway. Quickly, they truss him with rope after checking him for weapons. One goes to warn the captain of the situation.

"A disguised assassin..." Cyrus says pensively. He had to sit down after nearly being choked to death. He doesn't even realize the blood caked on the side of his head.

"Hold still..." Ophilia holds the head of the staff near the scholar's head as she begins to heal him and clean off the blood.

"Ah, thank you... I must say, that is the second time you have saved my life."

Hägen snorts. H'aanit lets out a small scoff, "Hägen sayest thou needeth mind thine surroundings more."

"Well, I think that's a bit unfair..." Cyrus starts.

"What's going on here?" Smith arrives with his first mate, "What's this I hear about a stowaway?"

"He tried to murder the professor here!" Ophilia says, pointing at the passed-out infiltrator.

"Wait, then where's Aron..." Some sailors murmur worriedly.

Smith purses his lips and barks to his men, "He could still be on this ship! We'll take the stowaway and have 'im tell us everything!"

He looks to the odd party, "And I'll be charging you lot for the food ruined in our breadroom!"

After some first aid, Cyrus and the others return to relaxing a little in their cots. Mattias made a small fuss after hearing about the whole thing, especially since it once again involved the scholar.

"This guy is bad news!" Mattias says accusingly, pointing at Cyrus.

"Mattias, calm down! We're fine! The professor protected me..."

"My dear, you are not one of my pupils," Cyrus chuckles blithely, "Please, call me Cyrus."

"Aren thine head wanted?" H'aanit raises an eyebrow, looking at the scholar, "For one versed in books, thou hath fast near died twice in the day."

"I'm not sure what fate has for me today," Cyrus sighs, "Quite a lot has happened indeed. But I know not of a price on my head, I assure you!"

"Cyrus!"

All heads turn to see the captain enter the cabin, looking rather grumpy.

"Ah, Smith! How did the man confess? Has he woken up yet?"

"Quite. A sad thing to happen too. He killed Aron... Threw him in the wharf before we even left," Smith takes off his hat, "Hasn't said a word about you though. But we saw a black symbol on his chest. The Obsidians."

The Obsidians...

Despite the removed natures of H'aanit and Ophilia's upbringing, everyone in the cabin knew more or less about the shadowy Obsidians and their reputation. They were known to be a sort of guild specializing in unsavory behavior, with chapters spread in secret about Orsterra. Tales of their infamy range from assassinations, to mugging, to just straight up bedtime stories to scare children with.

"You've got yourself in a bad lot, Cyrus. The man bit off 'is own tongue when we pressed 'im," Smith sighs, "'E won't say no more, so I dunno if there' others after ya."

"Thank you, Smith," Cyrus seems to think a bit. The captain leaves them now. The scholar rests his face on his hands for a moment before looking back up with a trace of glumness.

"Uh… Are you alright?" Ophilia lightly pats his shoulder. It wasn't much but what else could she say? That the mystery assailant killed a sailor and bit off his own tongue... She shuddered at the thought.

"Yes, thank you," Cyrus sighs and pats her hand to her surprise, "This shan't stop me from my quest! On my honor as a scholar!"

He stands suddenly, cape flapping dramatically and a twinkle in his eye. There is a brief silence as they stare at the pose.

"Good grief…" Mattias shakes his head with disapproval, "No wonder you keep needing a rescue..."

"Thou oughten watcheth thine surroundings more," H'aanit repeats, "Foren now, the threat hath abated. But thine path forward is unknown."

"Yes, wise words. Twould be too fortunate for me to always run into saviors like yourselves."

"Yes, our paths don't coincide..." Ophilia says thoughtfully, "You'd best take care of yourself once we arrive to Rippletide... Cyrus."

"Thank you for your kind words, Sister," Cyrus chuckles, "I have always found my course of action, one way or another, out of such dire straits. It seems there is luck in my favor."

Mattias and Hägen roll their eyes.


No particular meaning in the ship names.

Tressa next chapter.