Voyages of the Cerberus 85: Government Work

Ophelia called everyone into the conference room for a meeting early in the morning.

“Well done on the last mission,” she began. “It was nice and simple but you all performed your duties well and, mostly, professionally. Mostly.”

“Not that we really care on this ship so long as it gets done,” Lucy added, a smile on her face.

“True enough,” Ophelia agreed. “Our next mission may not be so easy. We’re going to Akumil for an official job.”

“An official job?” Kat asked.

Lucy nodded. “I don’t even know the details yet. They just called us up and said to come hastily.”

“Is that an unusual occurrence?” Yuri inquired.

“It’s never happened before,” Ophelia stated. “We’re technically an akumillian ship, but we have a commercial registry.”

“There are rare cases of them summoning a commercial craft for government work, but they’re exceedingly rare,” Lucy said. “I believe the last known case was a good eight years ago.”

“And now they want us,” Grace muttered. “Curious.”

“They could at least make it a job offer,” Leon muttered. “I don’t like being tossed into shit without having a say or being told why.”

“It has to be something really important,” Kat observed. “Something they couldn’t afford to hear no over.”

“True enough,” Lucy agreed. “Whatever the case, we’ll find out when we get there. Ophelia and I are going to meet with the official. The rest of you will be on stand-by. Make sure we’re ready to launch the moment we return.”

*****

The Cerberus landed on Akumil. Ophelia and Lucy hurriedly prepared to disembark, the two of them each donning strange necklaces.

“Hey, what are those for?” Farah wondered.

“They’re a signal,” Kat answered. “Akumil has a very poly-amorous culture. So, they have special jewellery to signify that someone’s not interested, only interested in men, only interested in women or bound in monogamy. Those necklaces signify the latter. Without them, both of those two would find themselves getting propositioned a lot.”

“Is it really that easy?” Allison wondered. “Too bad I’m taken or I could go out and try my luck. After grabbing the thing that keeps men away, of course.”

“I’m going to tell Yuri you said that,” Kat stated.

“I said I wasn’t going to because I’m taken,” Allison protested. “I wouldn’t cheat on her or anything.”

“I was just teasing you,” Kat said.

“Good,” Allison breathed a sigh of relief. “You sounded really serious.”

*****

Ophelia and Lucy found themselves in an office where absolutely everything was perfectly organised. There wasn’t so much as a speck of dust to be seen.

Eight other people crowded around, all akumillians and all trying to touch nothing. A well-muscled woman walked i and took a seat at the desk. She shuffled some papers and glanced around.

“Captain Fimoly with aide Vuxith?” She asked.

A middle-aged man and his young assistant stepped forward. “As ordered,” he stated.

She nodded. “Captain Yolli with aide Nerth?”

An older looking woman stepped forward. “We came like you wanted.”

“Captain Wester with partner Wester?” She asked.

“We’re here,” Ophelia offered.

“Captain Jivun with aide Rhilon?” she asked.

Another pair stepped forward.

“Captain Duplith with aide Bimils?”

The final pair stepped forward. “This better be bloody important,” she muttered.

“I’ll ignore that,” the woman at the desk said. “We’ve called the five of you here today because we need your ships. You will escort the Stylx to sector 5732. You will wait while it completes its mission. You will escort it back and you will receive your payment. Any objections?”

No one spoke up. “Good,” she said. “Be ready to depart within the hour.”

Ophelia and Lucy left quickly.

“What do you make of that?” Ophelia asked.

“There’s something gravely important to this mission that they aren’t telling,” Lucy stated. “But that much is obvious. It’s also one they can’t afford to have failed but they want kept in the dark. They wouldn’t draft so many ships otherwise. There’s one other thing we can glean from that conversation.”

“And that is?” Ophelia asked.

“They consider us expendable,” Lucy answered.

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The Grand Pilgrimage 29: Entering Elvish Lands

The priestesses made it back to the Inn with plenty of time to sleep. In the morning, they packed their gear and went to the stables to retrieve their pegasi.

Wolfgang and Heidi were waiting for them. His chest had been heavily bandaged and he was moving with a slow, measured stride, but he looked like he’d recover.

“Here you are, Dearies,” Heidi said. “Do come back and see us on your way back.”

“We will,” Inés said. “Unless we take some weird route back.”

“Thank you,” Sylvie said. “And I’m sorry for doubting your family.”

“No need to make a fuss about that,” Wolfgang said. “You doubted. You saw your error. Nothing more needs saying.”

The three resumed their trek towards Drahaven while Wolfgang and Heidi waved goodbye.

Hildegard came from the Inn and approached her parents. “Mum, Dad,” she said. “I’ve thought about it a lot and I want to be one of Athena’s priestesses.”

Wolfgang and Heidi looked at each other.

“You’re certain?” Heidi asked.

“I am!” Hilde declared.

“Then we’d better pack your things,” Wolfgang said. “The great temple is far.”

“You’ll allow it?” Hilde asked, her tail wagging.

“If that is your path, then it’s right that you follow it,” Wolfgang said.

“As much as we would have liked you to inherit the Inn, we won’t stop you from following your dream,” Heidi added. “Come along, I’ll pack you as much preserved food as you can carry.”

“Mum, I can hunt,” Hilde protested.

“But it won’t be the same as a hearty home-made meal,” Heidi said

*****

“Let’s see,” Sylvie muttered. If we head up through Het Wald we can travel north past Ghuji into the desert, stop at Malachi and then go over the mountains into Drahaven.”

“I think we should head out of Malachi to Frinma and charter a ship,” Inés said.

“You just want to swim around,” Sylvie said.

“True,” Inés said. “But it’s also faster.”

“And how, pray tell, will we afford to charter a ship?” Sylvie inquired.

“Maybe they’ll take us for free since we’re priestesses,” Serena suggested.

“Not a chance,” Sylvie said.

“Yeah,” Inés agreed. “Too far and too expensive for them.”

“Sorry,” Serena said. “I didn’t know.”

“It’s fine,” Inés reassured her. “You’re still inexperienced.”

“You do need to learn not to rely on meeting the right people,” Sylvie stated. “A good warrior priestess graciously accepts help when offered, but can always find her own way.”

“Always,” Inés agreed. “And that’s why I’ll get the coin together to charter that ship.”

“Then I’ll make you a deal,” Sylvie said. “If you find a way to pay for us to charter a boat, without breaking any of your vows, we’ll take the sea route. Otherwise, we go with my plan.”

“Deal,” Inés said. She mounted Blitz and took to the air. Serena and Dusk quickly followed.

Sylvie gently pat Demure’s side. “It’s all right. You’ll be able to fly with them soon.”

*****

It wasn’t long before they reached the forest. The woods were thick. Inés and Serena had to land and let their pegasi trot on the ground.

“What’s that?” Serena asked, gesturing towards a small opening in a massive tree.

“A lookout post,” Sylvie answered. “The elves have them stationed throughout the area”

“Well spotted,” Inés praised her.

“So, the tree is a fake?” Serena asked. She looked back at it. “It looks so real.”

“It is real,” Sylvie stated. “The elves make their homes in living trees, carefully shaping them to their needs without harming them.”

The three rode on, eventually reaching a spot where two huge trees stood close together with vines running between them.

“It looks like a gate,” Serena observed.

“I’ll bet that’s exactly what it is,” Sylvie agreed.

Inés turned, hearing very light footfalls behind them. A dark-haired elf nearly 188 centimetres tall approached them from the side.

“And what business do three of Athena’s priestesses have in elven land?” he asked. “And how did they acquire such magnificent beasts?”

“Well met,” Sylvie said, bowing her head. “We are on a pilgrimage to Drahaven. It is our intent to pass through your great city and make our way to the desert. We will cause no trouble.”

“Won’t you?” he wondered.”Excuse me. I must have some reassurance on your character.” He knelt down beside Demure and made a series of horse-like whinnies, groans and neighs.

Inés glanced around the trees, trying to spot just how many elves were up in the branches, watching them. She caught glimpses of five, but was certain that she had missed some.

Demure looked back at Dusk and Blitz for reassurance before answering him in kind.

“Well well,” he said. “It seems I underestimated you. When I noticed this lady’s wing I…” He bowed. “Do forgive my rudeness. I am the captain of this outpost, Linton Eldell. We will allow you to pass.”

He moved over to the vines and did a quick chant. They retracted, opening the path.

“One piece of advice, Miss Priestess,” Linton said, looking at Sylvie. “I would humbly suggest that you seek out our temple of Demeter. They may have the clerical magic to help your companion’s wing.”

“I’ll do that, thank you,” Sylvie said. The three continued on their journey. He  waited for them to leave before repeating the chant, the vines moving back into place.

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Voyages of the Cerberus 84: Kat and Angela

Allison felt a hand on her shoulder and hurriedly turned, relaxing immediately. “Where have you been? I’ve looked all over the ship.”

“I was conversing with the Doctor,” Yuri answered. “He advised that I speak honestly with you.”

“Please don’t say you’re breaking up with me,” Allison said. “I can learn to be boring and not make jokes, maybe.”

“I have no intention of terminating our relationship,” Yuri stated. “I do, however, possess concerns regarding our relationship that require addressing.”

“Concerns? Allison asked. “Is this about the underwear thing, cause that was an accident. It was dark and…”

“That is unrelated,” Yuri interrupted. “I am concerned that you are overly focused on physical intimacy.”

“You want to have sex less?” Allison asked.

“It is more than that,” Yuri stated. “Ever since we first engaged in physical relations, you have requested them thrice daily. Is that all you desire from me?”

“Of course not,” Allison declared. She moved closer and hugged Yuri. “I want to be close to you, both physically and emotionally. As much as possible. Don’t I always stay to cuddle up to you and talk after?”

“You have on all occasions save two,” Yuri answered.

“Exactly!” Allison exclaimed. “Because I want that emotional connection too.” She sighed. “Look, if you really wanna spend more time talking and doing things together and less with the sex, I’m okay with that. As much as I love making love to you multiple times every day, I’d rather do it less and make you happy.” She gently squeezed Yuri’s hand.”I do love you, a lot.”

“And I possess great affection for you,” Yuri said. “I apologise for being overcome by insecurity.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Allison said. “Everyone feels that way sometimes. To be honest, I still worry that you’ll leave me for a better girl.”

“From my perspective, I already have the optimal girl in my possession,” Yuri stated.

“Aww, that’s so sweet of you to say!” Allison exclaimed.

The two women tenderly kissed, allowing themselves to be caught in the moment.

“So,” Allison said. “How many times can I ask to make love to you in a day?”

“You may make a request once,” Yuri answered. “I will make further requests unless you ask me not to.”

Allison sighed. “Okay, I can live with that.”

“I must be honest,” Yuri stated. “I feel exceptionally close with you at the moment. Will you go to bed with me?”

“Absolutely!” Allison declared.

*****

“We’re about to arrive at our destination,” Ophelia announced.

“About damn time,” Leon muttered.

“Oh, stop whining,” Ophelia said. “We can’t always get into massive fights or have something serious go wrong.”

“It’s more interesting when we do,” Leon stated.

“I rather like it better this way,” Farah said. “It’s a nice change to just have a relaxing mission.”

“I’m with you,” Ophelia agreed. “I’d much rather not expend a bunch of resources on repairs when my ship gets caught between two fleets or some such thing.”

“Farah and I will get our guest ready to disembark,” Lucy said. “Call me if anything goes wrong.”

“I will,” Ophelia said.

*****

The Cerberus landed. Lucy and Farah opened it up and helped Angela down to the planet where more guards in her future husband’s employ were waiting.

“I’m so excited,” Angela said. “Thank you so much for all your help!”

“We just gave you a ride,” Lucy said. “It was no trouble.”

“Have a nice wedding,” Farah said.

“Thanks, you’re so sweet!” Angela declared. She looked around. “Where’s… Never mind.” She waved. “Goodbye, Katie! Send me a message really soon!”

Farah looked back. Kat was standing in the ship’s exit, watching expressionlessly.

She nodded to Angela and waved goodbye, retreating back into the ship.”

“Excuse me,” Farah said. She ran back towards the ship, managing to catch up to Kat.

“Kat, is something wrong?” Farah asked. “You haven’t been yourself lately.”

“It’s nothing for you to worry about,” Kat said.

“But it is,” Farah stated. “We’re friends, aren’t we? Tell me. Maybe I can help.”

Kat sighed.”Persistent, aren’t you? Fine, I’ll tell you, but it’s nothing you can help with.” She looked back to the door, a distant look in her eyes. “I used to be in love with Angela but I quickly realised that nothing could ever come of it. When she met her first husband, I supported her. I just wanted her to be happy, even if it wasn’t with me. Seeing her go again, getting remarried, it’s just bringing up some old memories. See? Nothing you can do.”

She began walking away but Farah grabbed her hand. “Let’s play around a bit,” Farah said. “We’ll take your mind off of the whole thing, okay?”

“You should be more careful,” Kat warned. “Someday, that kindness of yours could get you hurt.”

“Don’t worry,” Farah laughed. “I’ll be careful of who I’m kind to. Come on!”

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The Grand Pilgrimage 28: Bandit Hunting

Hilde led the way, her body hunched over as her snout eagerly sniffed at the ground.

“This way,” she whispered. Her voice so low that Serena could barely make out the words.

She, Inés and Sylvie followed the lupine girl, their eyes adjusting to the darkness as they went.

Hilde stopped abruptly, her ears perked up, her body tense and frozen.

Serena looked around, unable to make anything out but the trees and open space.

“Are they around?” Sylvie whispered.

“Right there,” Inés declared, gesturing. Serena followed her arm and stared. It was faint and virtually impossible to see in the darkness, but there was the outline of an opening hidden right beneath a large tree.

“Serena, you and Hilde stay up here,” Sylvie whispered. “The mermaid and I will go down after them.”

“You just want me away from the fighting!” Hilde whispered, her voice harsh.

Inés put a hand on her shoulder. “I know how you feel,” she whispered. “They hurt your dad and you want to get them back for it, but that kind of thing can lead to mistakes in a battle and they outnumber us. We have to be smart about this. Let Sylvie and I go down there and flush them out. You two deal with them as they try to escape. We’re counting on you, okay?”

Hilde visibly calmed. All right, you can count on us,” she whispered. “We’ll make sure to bring them all down.”

“Good girl,” Inés said. She kissed Hilde’s forehead.

She and Sylvie moved quickly, but soundlessly towards the entrance. Serena watched them go, knowing that they had no intention of letting any of the nine bandits reach the surface.

*****

There was a ladder leading down. Inés and Sylvie both had trouble squeezing in and into the underground hideaway.

They reached the bottom of the ladder without incident. There was no sign of guards. There was a single door.

“Curious,” Sylvie whispered.

“Definitely a trap,” Inés said. “We’re going in regardless, right?”

“Right,” Sylvie agreed. “How many do you think there really are?”

Inés shrugged. “Nine left over from the earlier attack. Who knows how many stayed behind. I can’t imagine many did, considering that they were trying to steal pegasi.”

“Me neither,” Sylvie said. “I’d say there are a dozen at most. You ready?”

“Always,” Inés said. “I’ll open the door, you keep them off of me for a second.”

“Fine, just close your eyes,” Sylvie whispered.

Inés took a couple steps back and rushed the door, kicking it off of its hinges in a mess of splinters.

There were eleven bandits in the room, fully armoured. Humans, trolls, vampire and one feline feralial. Some were taken aback and involuntarily moved back. Most ran forward.

“Bolt Flash!” Sylvie shouted. A bright flash of lightning lit up the chamber. The charging bandits fell back, covering their eyes.

Inés and Sylvie ran in. Sylvie’s rapier went right through a troll’s heavy armour, impaling him all the way through. Inés swung her staff, hitting a human and a vampire. The blow crushed their helmets and skulls, sending blood and brain matter splattering.

The feline feralial leapt at Sylvie. She turned her hand towards him.”Bolt Burst.” Several small bolts of lightning slammed into his face. He moved back, bringing his arms up to protect him. Sylvie freed her blade from the troll’s corpse and jabbed it directly through his neck.

A pair of vampires abandoned their armour and transformed into bats. They flew for Inés, returning to their human forms to lunge down at her. She vaulted up using her staff and executed a flying kick up at them, hitting each one with a different foot. Then she twisted in the air, slamming her staff into their sides and sending them plummeting into the ground.

“Chain Lightning!” Sylvie cried. Lightning burst from her fingertips and travelled through three of their foes, leaving their chest armour visibly scorched. The three dropped, writhing around the ground.

Inés ran for the final two, a troll and a vampire. The vampire gestured and a mist covered the room. The troll brought up a large kite shield to block her staff. The shield broke in twain and the staff crushed his helmet inwards. He collapsed lifelessly onto the floor.

Inés looked around for the vampire, the mist still obscuring her vision.

“Group up!” She felt Sylvie’s back move against hers. “I can’t see a bloody thing.”

The two stood there, looking around for their enemy. Finally, the mist cleared and he was gone.

“Damn,” Inés muttered. “Outside!”

*****

Serena was watching the entrance with Hilde when Hilde’s fur started sticking up. “Someone’s coming,” she said.

A bat flew from the underground. Hilde lunged for it, her claws scraping against it. The bat  shifted and changed into a vampire. He bared his fangs and grappled with the lupine girl, trying to rip her throat out.

Serena rushed to her aid, slamming his head between her tonfa. To her surprise, the weapons emitted a blue, fiery flash upon coming into contact with his flesh. He screamed in pain and reared back. Hilde pressed the advantage, ripping his throat from his neck with her fangs. She quickly spit it onto the ground.

Shortly after, Sylvie and Inés returned to the surface.

“Did everything go okay?” Serena asked.

“Yeah,” Inés answered. “We were a little worried when that slippery bugger got past us, but I see you got him.”

“It was weird,” Serena said. “When I hit him some incredible fire magic came from my tonfa.”

“Sylvie shrugged. “Not surprising. These are weapons we got from Hephaestus. My rapier is sharp enough to pierce through armour easily and Inés’ staff seems to have its own advantages.”

“Heavy enough to do massive damage and so sturdy that I can swing it with all my strength without any problems,” Inés confirmed.

“You guys got weapons from Hephaestus?” Hilde asked, her eyes wide.

“Long story,” Inés said. “For now, let’s head back to your inn and let your parents know that we dealt with the bandits.”

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Voyages of the Cerberus 83: Yuri Seeks Advice

“Katie!” Angela beckoned for Kat to join her in the mess hall. Kat moved over and sat down next to her.

“I’m relieved the you’re still doing well,”Angela said. “I was worried that you’d fall in with a bad crowd after your peace keeping career ended.” She leaned back. “But working on a ship, even a small one like this, that’s a nice little path, isn’t it?”

Kat nodded. “I think it suits me quite well.”

“It must have been frightening though,” Angela stated. “When you were between jobs, I mean. How long did it take before you found this position?”

“Couple years,” Kat answered.

“A… my word, it’s amazing your credits held out that long,” Angela stated.

“They didn’t,” Kat stated. She held her right shoulder. “I had to do some odd jobs for a while.”

“I see,” Angela muttered. She scratched her head. “Nothing bad, I hope.”

“I worked for a respected family,” Kat answered. “They own quite a few companies.”

“That’s good,” Angela sighed with relief. “I was worried that it might have been something shady.”

“So, what’s this guy of yours like?” Kat asked. She examined Angela carefully. “He treats you well, I trust?”

“Oh yes!” Angela declared. “My Alastair is a very kind-hearted man. He retains that kindness even when he’s mad.”

Kat let out a sigh of relief. “That’s good to hear. I wouldn’t want to see you like that again.”

“Now Katie,” Angela chided. “My Will wasn’t a saint, but he did care about me. Even if the poor dear didn’t always show it well. Let’s not speak ill of the dead, okay?”

*****

“We’re still all clear,” Leon yawned. “No sign of anyone in pursuit or in ambush.”

“That’s good, isn’t it?” Farah asked.

“Definitely,” Ophelia agreed. “But Leon is the type who needs something to hit. Monitor duty doesn’t suit him well.”

“I’m fine at monitor duty,” Leon grunted. “It’s just really boring when nothing happens. I could write Paul a ballad, play with the Baron and do my exercises while half keeping an eye on the situation and it wouldn’t make a difference.”

“Don’t you dare,” Ophelia warned. “We can’t afford to let our guard down just because things look quiet right now.”

“I’m keeping n eye on it and not doing most of that stuff,” Leon said. “Don’t you worry.”

“You’re composing a ballad?” Farah asked.

“Just in my head,” Leon said. “I’m not writing it down or anything.”

The bridge door slid open. “Hey,” Allison said. “Yuri around here?”

“Haven’t seen her since I relieved her,” Leon said.

“Weird,” Allison muttered. “She wasn’t in her quarters or engineering either. I wonder where she wandered off to?”

*****

“Doctor, I require your assistance,” Yuri stated.

“A medical consultation won’t really help you,” Paul said. “You’d b better off going to Grace for maintenance.”

“It is not that,” Yuri stated. “I require advice.”

“Is that so?” Paul said. “What kind of advice do you need?”

“You and Leon have had a relationship for many years, correct?” Yuri asked.

“Yeah,” Paul answered. “For most of our adult lives, actually.”

“What elements have been essential to the continued smooth operation of your relationship?” Yuri asked.

“Smooth, huh?” Paul sighed. “It’s never been smooth. Keeping a relationship going takes a lot of effort, a lot of compromise and hard work. There will always be rough patches. You just have to be there for one another, listen to one another and operate as partners. Why do you ask? Are you and Allison having a rough time?”

“Lately I have had the impression that her interest is solely in physical pleasure and not in an actual relationship,” Yuri stated. “Every time we see one another, she hurriedly begins steps towards physical intimacy.”

“And it makes you feel unimportant,” Paul stated.

Yuri nodded. “I do not believe that is her intent, but the consequence is the same.”

Paul was silent for a moment. “Have you talked to her about it?” he asked.

“I am concerned that I will give her the wrong impression,” Yuri answered. “I have no desire for her to think that physical intimacy is a part of relationships that I do not wish to engage in nor do I desire to be perceived as paranoid or unreasonable.”

“All right,” Paul began. “You wanted my advice, so here it is. Talk to Allison about your feelings. You won’t connect with her by hiding them. She won’t be able to read your mind. Even a telepathic species like the Zognors or Bjoryils couldn’t read your mind. A human certainly won’t be able to. I understand that it’s difficult to share your feelings and thoughts sometimes. But a successful relationship needs open and honest communication. You need to be able to safely share your thoughts and feelings with her and she needs to be comfortable doing the same with you. If the two of you can establish that rapport, then your relationship may very well last for a very long time.”

“Communication,” Yuri muttered. “I understand. I will locate Allison and speak with her. You have my gratitude, Doctor.”

Paul watched her go and then hurried after her. “Yuri!” Paul called. The android turned to him. “Be mindful that some things need to be communicated in private, okay?”

Yuri nodded. “I comprehend. I will refrain from communicating our relationship business in public.”

Paul let out a sigh of relief, getting the distinct impression that he’d just prevented an awkward scene.

 

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The Grand Pilgrimage 27: Hilde’s Curiosity

Hildegard led the trio upstairs.

“Here you are,” she said. “The nicest rooms we have left.”

“We only need two,” Inés said, putting an arm around Serena. “And you don’t have to give us the best. There’s no need to put yourselves out so much for us. We’re just happy to be inside and have beds tonight.”

“It’s fine,” Hildegard said. “We don’t have many rooms left, honestly. So, don’t worry about it. While you three settle in I’ll grab you some food.”

She handed them a couple keys, keeping the third, and hurried off.

“She seems like a nice girl,” Serena stated.

Inés nodded. “She seems interested in us too. Her tail has been wagging like crazy.”

“You two, this way,” Sylvie beckoned for them to join her in one of the rooms.

“My, how bold,” Inés said. “I never would have expected that from you. Serena, are you okay with that?”

Serena felt her face flushed. “It’s not for that!” Sylvie declared. “I just need to talk with you two real quick.”

“Aww, too bad,” Inés teased. “Would’ve been a fun night.”

Sylvie glared at her.

The three went into the room and Sylvie closed the door.

“So, what’s up?” Inés asked.

“This situation seems awfully convenient,” Sylvie said. “I have trouble believing that these Esarosas have our best interests at heart.”

“You worry too much,” Inés said. “They’re a nice family.”

“I got that sense as well,” Serena agreed. “Mister Esarosa seems a lot like my own dad.”

“You two are too trusting,” Sylvie stated. “Remember what happened at Ghiana?”

“Hey, all of us got chained up there,” Inés reminded her. “And frankly, I think you’re letting that one incident make you paranoid.”

“Let’s just say, I don’t fancy being drugged and left as giant food again,” Sylvie stated.

“If I may,” Serena said. “I understand the concern. I don’t like being in danger either, especially when all I can do is rely on Inés’ strength. But I also don’t want to be suspicious of everyone we meet. Isn’t it better if we take sensible precautions but don’t get crazy over it?”

The three were interrupted by the sound of the door opening. “Sorry for the wait,” Hildegard said. She was carrying a tray with three bowls, three cups and a loaf of bread. “I brought you some of my mum’s special stew. It’s really good for you! I also brought some tea.” She put the tray down for them.

“Thank you,” Inés said. She took a bite. “That is good!”

Serena grabbed a bowl and tried it herself. “You’re right, it is!” She took a second bite. “What kind of meat is that?”

“It’s got beef, lamb and fish,” Hildegard stated. She sat down, observing Inés and Serena for a moment. “So, you two are a couple?”

“Not quite,” Inés said. “Serena is one of my girlfriends.”

“Oh, I see,” Hilde said. “So, why did you three become priestesses?”

“Well, ever since I was a girl I admired Athena’s priestesses,” Inés said. She sipped her tea. “I wanted to go on adventures, travel across the land and find beautiful girlfriends from far and wide.”

“In my family, it’s considered a great honour to serve the Gods,” Serena said. “I always wanted to be a priestess. When I got old enough I thought long and hard about who I wanted to serve and decided on Athena.”

“That’s really nice,” Hilde stated. She looked at Sylvie, expectantly.

“I was called,” Sylvie stated. “Athena herself appeared to me in a dream and told me to follow her.”

“Is it hard to be a priestess?” Hilde asked.

“I don’t know if it’s hard,” Inés said. “But it requires dedication. And each sect is a bit different. As warrior priestesses, we travel around righting wrongs, helping people and sharing Athena’s wisdom. Which means we have to stay in good shape and study a lot.”

“Are all of Athena’s priestesses like you three?” Hilde asked. “You know, interested in other women?”

“It’s not a requirement,” Sylvie said. “But it does help since we’re forbidden from any kind of romantic or sexual contact with men.” She glared at the young feralial. “How did you know I like other women, anyway?”

“You humans have a physical response when you’re around people you find attractive and it has a faint scent,” Hilde answered.

“You find me attractive?” Inés asked. “So it was like that!”

“Oh please,” Sylvie scoffed. “You might be physically good looking, but you aren’t my type in the slightest.” Inés laughed.

“Why are you so curious about priestesses, Miss Esarosa?” Serena asked. “Were you thinking about becoming one?”

“Well, maybe,” Hilde said. “It’s just… it’s not normal for feralials. It’s not that we don’t thank the Gods but we also don’t take our worship of them as seriously as humans or elves. I don’t know if my parents would understand. They…” She was interrupted by the sound of a loud howl followed quickly by a high-pitched yelp.

“That’s my dad!” Hilde shouted. She ran from the room, accidentally knocking over Sylvie’s untouched cup of tea with her tail.

Inés and Sylvie looked at one another and nodded. They followed after her. Serena took a big gulp of tea, checked her tonfa and followed after them.

*****

They reached the stable pretty quickly. There were four bodies strewn around. Two humans, a troll and a vampire. Wolfgang was leaning against the stable wall, his side slashed open. Heidi was bent over the wound, trying her best to clean it.

“Priestesses,” Wolfgang gasped. “Your mounts are safe. Don’t worry. I managed to drive them back.”

“Don’t try to talk, Dear,” Heidi said. “It’s a nasty wound.”

Hilde sniffed the air. “There were thirteen of them. Mum, the others could…”

“If they come back here I’ll rip their throats out myself!” Heidi snarled.

“Which way did they go?” Inés asked.

“Don’t worry about that,” Heidi said. Her voice more measured. “You just rest up. I’ll make sure the stable’s guarded.”

“It’s not about that,” Inés said. “Your family has been kind to us. We can’t sit by and let a group of bandits get by with this.” She turned to Serena and Sylvie. “Right?”

Serena nodded.

“It is our duty as Athena’s warriors to mete out justice,” Sylvie agreed. “Dealing with these bandits is a part of that.”

“I’ll track them,” Hilde volunteered.

“Then it’s settled,” Inés stated. “Lead the way and leave the fighting to us.”

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Voyages of the Cerberus 82: A Piece of Kat’s Past

“Farah, Yuri, come with me,” Ophelia ordered. “It’s time to greet our passenger.”

“Acknowledged,” Yuri stated.

“If she gets too friendly remind her that she’s getting married soon,” Allison called out to them as they left.

“She’s marrying a man,” Kat said.

“Doesn’t mean she won’t be interested in my girlfriend too,” Allison said.

“You have nothing to worry about,” Kat said. “She has no interest in women like that.”

“How do you know?” Allison asked.

“I… I did some research,” Kat muttered.

“Someone’s evading the question,” Allison observed.

“Play nicely or I shall have to separate you two,” Lucy said.

*****

She arrived in a copter with two armed guards by her side.

“Hello, thanks for picking me up,” she said, brightly. She had dark hair and dark brown eyes. “Sorry about the guards. My fiancé is a bit paranoid.”

“No problem,” Ophelia said. “Farah, why don’t you take Miss Theris on board?”

“Please, call me Mrs Nipbur,” Angela said, winking. “Even if it is a little premature.”

Farah led her on board while Ophelia and Yuri spoke with the guards.

“What kind of threat are we looking at?” Ophelia asked.

“Nothing definitive,” the first guard answered, wiping her brow. “But Mister Nipbur is the heir to a quite lucrative textile company. It behoves us to take every precaution. I trust you’ll do the same?”

“Absolutely,” Ophelia agreed. “Just entrust her safety to us.”

*****

“Your guest quarters are this way,” Farah said. “Right through the bridge.” She led Angela into the bridge.

Allison looked up and Kat hurriedly tried to hide her face.

“Katie!” Angela cried. She ran up and tightly hugged Kat. “Why, it’s been an age since I last saw you.”

“The plot thickens,” Allison whispered.

“You two know one another?” Farah asked.

“I should say so,” Angela declared. “Katie was my best friend all through University and for years after.”

“So, what happened?” Allison inquired.

“Oh, it was a dreadful business,” Angela said. “My first husband, may he rest in peace, was found murdered. The peace keeping forces suspected poor Katie for a time, but she was dropped as a suspect. The whole thing made a right mess of her career though, and I lost track of her.”

“How wonderful that you found one another again!” Allison declared. “I bet you have all kinds of catching up to do.”

“Yeah!” Angela agreed.

“Kat, are you feeling okay?” Farah asked, noting that Kat had been looking at the floor during the entire exchange.

“Just tired,” Kat muttered. “Take over for me for a while, okay?” She hurriedly excused herself.

“Come find me later so that we can talk!” Angela called.

“I’ll go check on her,” Lucy said. “Farah, help our guest settle in. Allison, watch the bridge for a couple seconds while Ophelia and Yuri return.”

*****

Lucy found Kat in her quarters.

Kat was holding a book, looking only slightly less shaky.

Lucy moved inside and closed the door behind her. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Ophelia and I should have recognised the name. Still, you should have told us. We could have taken you off of active duty.”

“It’s fine,” Kat said. “I needed to face this, face her, at some point.”

Lucy nodded. “I understand. Just don’t push yourself.” She sighed. “I’ll put you on a self-set schedule. Come in when you’re feeling up to it and return to your quarters when you need to. At least as long as she’s here.”

“Thank you,” Kat said. “And I’m sorry.”

Lucy shook her head. “Don’t be. We all have times in our life that we’d like to forget. But, for your own sake, I’d suggest trying to remember the good times the two of you had. Don’t just fixate on how everything fell apart.”

“That’s not an easy thing to do,” Kat said.

“I know,” Lucy acknowledged. “But I also know Katie Horne. I know how strong she is. And I know that Katie Horne can face her past, no matter how difficult, and hold her head up high. After all, you don’t regret anything you did, do you?”

Katie shook her head.

“And you didn’t do anything wrong, right?” Lucy added.

“I didn’t!” Kat declared.

“There you have it,” Lucy said. “Just remember that while we complete this mission.”

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The Grand Pilgrimage 26: The Beastly Innkeeper

The three priestesses followed the path with Inés and Serena keeping an eye on Sylvie from the air. After all, a pegasus, even an injured one like Demure, would make a tempting target for bandits.

They stopped on several occasions to allow Blitz & Dusk to rest their wings and drink. It was starting to get late in the day.

“What now?” Serena asked. “Do we find an Inn?”

“Probably not the best idea,” Sylvie said.

“Not unless we know we can trust the innkeeper at any rate,” Inés added. “It would be way too easy for them to nab our pegasi while we’re sleeping.”

“Oh, I see,” Serena said. “I didn’t know that pegasi were so rare.”

“Super rare,” Inés said. “At least when it comes to tame ones.”

“We can make camp here, Sylvie suggested, looking around. “It’s within easy distance of the road but out of sight enough that no one will notice we’re travelling with pegasi unless they move in close.”

“Fine by me,” Inés said. “Serena?”

“Yeah, it works for me,” Serena said.

They began unpacking their few possessions for camp when a cloaked figure approached them from the road.

“An odd place for a camp,” he muttered, his voice low and guttural. “And with daylight yet. I don’t mean to pry, but there is an Inn shortly ahead. You could make it just before nightfall.”

Serena studied the man. His face was hidden under a hood, but he was massive. Nearly two hundred centimetres tall with a broad, muscular frame.

“I’m afraid we have no money,” Sylvie said, not really having to lie since they only a small amount. Certainly not enough for rooms.

He scratched his chin. His hands were covered with coarse, pure white fur and ended with long, sharp claws. “Is that so? Odd that three ladies travelling on pegasi would have no money.” Sylvie tensed up. “But you are priestesses of Athena, I recognise,” he continued. “I think that you could get rooms free of charge. In fact, I know it.”

“And what do you know of the Inn ahead, Mister Feralial?” Inés asked.

“Feraliel?” Serena asked.

He laughed. “As expected. An observant one.” He pulled back the hood covering his face. He had a lupine face with long ears, a snout and sharp teeth. All covered by the same white fur as his hand. His eyes were a bright crimson. He bowed. “Allow me to introduce myself, Miss Priestess, my name is Wolfgang Esarosa. I’m the proprietor of the Inn.”

“And why would you let us stay for free, Mister Esarosa?” Sylvie asked.

“Because you’re priestesses,” Wolfgang answered. “It’s natural for an Innkeeper to show generosity to those holy folks who serve the Gods.” He glanced at their mounts. “And don’t you worry about your mares there. I’ll guarantee their safety personally.”

“I don’t kn…” Sylvie began.

“Great,” Inés interrupted. “We could use the rest and sleep in a real bed.”

“What are you doing?” Sylvie demanded.

Inés shrugged. “Feralials don’t lie, right?”

Sylive paused. She’d always heard that too, but never really believed it.

Wolfgang laughed. “Then it’s settled. Here, let me help you carry your things.”

“Thank you kindly,” Serena said.

Sylvie kept to the back with Demure, keeping a suspicious eye on Wolfgang while Serena and Inés walked ahead with Blitz & Dusk.

“Hey, Inés,” Serena whispered.

“What’s up?” Inés asked.

“Mister Esarosa seems very interested in helping us,” Serena observed. She kept her voice low. “But I thought that feralials didn’t like the Gods.”

Behind them Wolfgang burst out laughing. “Wherever did you get that notion, Miss Priestess?” he asked.

“They have very good hearing,” Inés stated. “At least the lupine ones do.”

Serena felt her face flush. “I… I just heard that you were mad over the Gods supposedly cursing you.”

“Oh, that old legend,” Wolfgang said. “Personally, I’ve always thought that something humans came up with to make themselves feel better. After all, we can do things you lot can’t.” He shrugged. “In any case, I’ve got no call to be mad at the Gods. I’ve got a fine mate, some great pups and my Inn does just fine. If anything, the Gods’ve been kind to me.”

*****

It was starting to get dark when they reached Wolfgang’s Inn. It was large and built right at the crossroads with Wicadia to the east, Strecner, a nation primarily of undead to the south-west, the troll’s of Relna to the south-east and the elves of Het Wald to the west. The Inn had a stable built next to it for its guests’ animals. They were greeted by a lupine feralial with light grey fur.

“Found some travelling priestesses,” Wolfgang explained. “I’ll take their mounts to the stable. Find rooms for them, yeah?” He dropped the bags he was carrying by the door.

“Of course,” she said. “Good to meet you, Priestesses. I’m Heidi Esarosa. Come in, come in. Hilde!”

A young lupine woman with grey and white spotted fur ran in. “Yes, Mother?”

Heidi nodded towards her daughter. “This is Hildegard, my oldest. Hilde, show the priestesses to some rooms, okay?”

“Priestesses?” Hildegard asked, her tail wagging. “Please, follow me.” She hurriedly gathered the bags, lifting them as easily as her father had.

Sylvie looked back outside but reluctantly followed. She had a definite bad feeling about this whole situation.

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Voyages of the Cerberus 81: Damian

“Doing a final check,” Grace reported. She looked over the results as the data came in. “All systems are online. Everything looks good. We’re nearly at our peak.”

“Can you get us to our peak while we’re on our way?” Ophelia asked.

“Assuming that we don’t get attacked by pirates or someone coming after the bride,” Grace answered.

Ophelia nodded. “Good, we pick her up in the morning.”

“I look forward to my ship being back in stellar condition,” Grace said. “Try not to wreck her for a while.”

“But that was on my list of things to do this mission,” Ophelia joked.

“My heart,” Lucy’s voice came in over Ophelia’s communicator.

“Right here,” Ophelia answered.

“We have an unexpected guess,” Lucy said. “You should come to the bridge and say hi.” The communicator shut off.

“What’s up with that?” Grace asked.

“It’s someone I know,” Ophelia answered. “I’d say someone I haven’t seen for a while, given her reaction.” She shrugged. “I’ll go find out.”

She made her way to the bridge. Farah and Kat were sitting at their stations. Leon was leaning against the wall, glaring at a handsome young man with dark hair and a cleanly shaven face.

“Damian!” Ophelia cried. “Good to see you.” She gave him a quick hug. “What brings you here today? What have you been up to?”

“I heard that you lot were about,” Damian answered. Just thought I’d come see everyone. I’ve found some work in the private sector designing racing craft.” He waved to Leon. “It’s good to see you too, Mate, even if you are still mad.”

“Just stay away from my Paul,” Leon said. “If you pull the shit you pulled last time, I’ll break your skull.”

“I know I buggered up badly,” Damian said. “I’m sorry and I’d like to apologise to him. Please, Leo, it’s been too long since we saw one another. There’s no need for past bitterness to get to us, is there?”

“Fine,” Leon muttered. “But I’m going to medical with you and I’m going to be watching everything you do.”

“Deal,” Damian agreed. He looked over to Ophelia. “I’ll come back and talk with you some more in a bit. You too, Kat.”

“Yeah, sure,” Kat stated.

Farah watched Leon follow Damian out before turning to Kat. “He seemed nice enough. Why’s Leon so mad at him, anyway?”

“Oh, reasons,” Kat said.

“Kat, be nice,” Lucy chided. “It’s not like she want privilegiad information.” She turned to Farah. “Before Damian left us, he got rather nasty towards Paul. There was some misdirected anger after his girlfriend lost her life. I suppose that Leon still hasn’t let it go.”

*****

Leon followed Damian closely. Damian stopped outside of medical, took a deep breath and knocked before entering.

Paul looked up from his work, surprise registering on his face. “Damian,” he said, uncertainly.

“Paul,” Damian said, looking at the floor. “This… I didn’t expect this to be so awkward. Look, I just… I want, no, I owe you an apology. After losing her like that… I was just so angry, so upset..” He shuffled his feet. “That doesn’t excuse it, I know. The point is, I shouldn’t have blamed you. You did everything that you could and I do appreciate that.”

Paul walked over and gently pat Damian’s back. “It’s okay. I understand. You were in mourning. It’s natural that you would lash out and it means a lot that you would come back to apologise, old friend.”

Damian hugged Paul tightly, tears starting to come to his eyes. “Thank you. Thank you so much.”

Leon watched from the door, noting the hug. “Guess I’ll allow it just once,” he muttered.

*****

Damian spent some time with Paul and Leon before making his way to his old station, engineering. He opened the doors when a wrench hit the door frame beside him, causing him to jump back.

“Who are you and what are you doing here?” Grace demanded.

Damian quickly composed himself. “Damian Jackson,” he answered. “This used to be my station.”

“I’ve heard your name,” Grace said. “If you’re here to try and retake your old post, you’re out of luck. They’ve found a better engineer.”

“Not at all,” Damian said. “Just got a bit nostalgic for the old place. Wanted to see everyone and see my old section. Do you mind or are you going to toss another wrench my way?”

“Suit yourself,” Grace said. “Just don’t touch anything.”

“You really don’t pull any punches, do you?” Damian asked. “May I ask what I messed up that’s got your knickers in a twist?”

“Besides the wiring for the main engine?” Grace countered. “Well, that aside I mainly increased efficiency after coming on board.”

Damian snapped his fingers. “Oh yes! I do remember that.” He scratched his head. “Sorry about that, it was meant as a temporary fix, but I’m afraid I left rather abruptly before actually getting it patched properly.”

“Oh,” Grace said. “So, you left your comrades with a hasty patch job and without anyone to fix it?”

“I don’t feel great about it,” Damian said. “But I was in a bad spot.” He sighed. “Well, it was nice meeting you. I’ll be off then. Perhaps someday I can tell you all about what happened Miss?”

“Albrecht,” Grace said. “Grace Albrecht.”

“Oh, Paul’s little sister,” Damian said. “Well, maybe your brother can fill you in.” He hastily retreated and ran towards the bridge.

Grace picked up her wrench and went back to her work.

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The Grand Pilgrimage 25: Disturbing Speculations

 

Sylvie and Serena led their pegasi on the ground while Inés flew overhead on Blitz.

“Are you sure that you don’t want to be up there with her?” Sylvie asked. “I won’t take offence.”

“That’s okay,” Serena said. “There’s something I needed to talk to you about.”

“Oh?” Sylvie asked. “Go ahead.”

“We meet a very skilled, lame weapon smith who asks us to get pegasi for him, leaves us with amazing weapons and abandons his house before we return, leaving us with the weapons and the pegasi. It doesn’t feel normal,” Serena observed.

“Clearly,” Sylvie agreed. “I’d say that we met Hephaestus himself.”

“That’s what I was thinking. But why would Hephaestus be interested in initiates like us?” Serena asked.

“I haven’t the foggiest,” Sylvie admitted. “Perhaps Athena has a plan for us on our journey and these weapons & mounts are to improve our chances.”

“But why us and not more experienced priestesses?” Serena asked. “There are certainly enough of them travelling around.”

“You say that like you have some idea,” Sylvie muttered, scratching her head. “Go on, out with it.”

“I think it’s her strength,” Serena said. “There’s something special about her. Don’t you think?”

“I think that your feelings for her are affecting your judgement,” Sylvie answered. “Although, I suppose it is possible that she was gifted with great strength for whatever’s coming up. But, for your sake, I hope that’s not the case.”

“What do you mean?” Serena asked.

Sylvie kept walking, avoiding looking at her.

“Sylvie! Sylvie!” Serena pulled at her armour. “Hey, can you please answer me?”

Sylvie sighed. “There are two types of power granted to mortals by the Gods. The first is cleric magic, it’s strong but also temporary and requires communion between the cleric and her God. In contrast, mortals who are granted divine strength, divine intelligence, divine speed or have any other physical or mental attribute permanently enhanced by the powers of the Gods don’t live very long.”

“They… What, why?” Serena demanded.

“It’s too much of a strain on them,” Sylvie answered. “It’s not something mortals are meant for. If her absurd strength is natural, she could very well live a long life but if it’s divine…” Sylvie looked up towards Inés. “If it’s divine she’s only got a year or two left at this point.”

*****

Inés directed Blitz to fly low. The pegasus rolled, letting Inés look at her companions from an upside down position. “Hey, Serena!” she called. “Come on up and join me. It’s a magnificent day for flying.” She studied Serena’s face. “Something bothering you?”

“No, not at all,” Serena said. “I’ll get on Dusk and join you right away.”

She mounted her pegasus and took to the sky. Flying beside Inés.

“Seriously, what did Sylvie say to upset you?” Inés asked. “Don’t hide it from me just to keep the peace. I won’t have her or anyone else talk down to you or belittle you. Okay?”

“It’s nothing like that,” Serena said. “We were talking about the weapon smith and… other things.”

“Were you surprised that he was Hephaestus?” Inés asked.

“You knew?” Serena exclaimed.

“Not until he disappeared,” Inés stated. “At that point, I put the pieces together. Still,” she stroked Blitz’s mane “they gave us a lot of help. There must be something really dangerous ahead!”

“Why are you so excited over that?” Serena asked.

“Because it’s just what I always wanted,” Inés answered. “I started down the road to becoming a warrior priestess for adventure and beauties. During this journey, I’ve found plenty of both. And I can only imagine what the future holds!” She laughed.

Serena forced a smile but she couldn’t stop thinking about Sylvie’s words. “they don’t live very long.” She knew that there were smarter people than her out there, but she was certain of one thing. The kind of strength that Inés possessed was not possible for an ordinary mortal. “a year or two left,” she whispered.

“What was that?” Inés asked.

“I’m going to make you as happy as possible!” Serena declared.

“What’s up with that?” Inés wondered. She shrugged. “That’s fine. In return I’ll do the same for you.”

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