Voyages of the Cerberus 89: In Twain

Before I actually start this week’s instalment of Voyages of the Cerberus, I wanted to address why there wasn’t a Grand Pilgrimage last week. I’m truly sorry about that, but I had an accident and my leg fractured in multiple spots. So, I had to spend Friday in surgery and a couple days afterwards in hospital. The good news is that I shouldn’t miss any more story instalments because of it and, because it is a leg, the injury shouldn’t adversely affect my writing ability. So, I am sorry about that Grand Pilgrimage but things should be back on schedule as normal now.

And don’t worry about the leg. The Doctor says it will fully recover in 6-8 weeks. I just have to refrain from doing any excessive acrobatic stunts or doing my famous fan dance.

*****

The Radiant Healer, Cosmic Wyvern, Snarky Nebula & Elegant Simurgh arrived on the scene. The flying fortress was a pitted hulk, debris still spilling off of it and into space. The Cerberus didn’t look as bad. The Bridge, Engine Room, conference room and medical bay were in one nearly intact piece. The hangar, crew quarters, armoury and mess were missing. Most likely lost amid the other debris.

“Allison and I will latch onto the side of the ship and go in, full atmosphere suits,” Kat said. “Ophelia and Lucy may still be alive. You two get close to that thing and see if you can find any life signs. If you do…”

“Blast away until we don’t,” Leon stated. “We know.”

*****

Allison and Kat moved carefully past the jagged edges that remained where half the ship had been blown off.

“The engine room looks completely intact,” Allison noted.

“Must be the extra shielding power that Grace diverted,” Kat said. “Which is good. It means there’s hope for the Bridge as well.”

They made their way to the Bridge, with Kat making mental note of the visibly damaged areas.

The first thing they noticed was that the viewing screen was cracked and several work stations had been uprooted.

Kat knelt down, noticing something near the captain’s chair.

“Please tell me that’s ketchup,” Allison said.

“Blood,” Kat corrected. “But there isn’t too much. There’s still hope.”

“So, where did they go?” Allison asked.

“Maybe to Medical,” Kat deduced. “If Ophelia was bleeding then Lucy might’ve taken her there. You go back and check. I’ll look in the conference room. Contact me with your communicator if you find them.”

“Right,” Allison said. She hurried off towards Medical. Kat moved through the Bridge and into the conference room.

She spotted Ophelia and Lucy’s atmosphere suits. Lucy rose and limped over to her.

“Katie, you made it out okay.” Lucy said, her voice sounding laboured.

Kat looked down at her, noting the black blood caked on her forehead.

“Looks like you got a bit scratched,” Kat said. “Are you doing okay?”

“I’ll live,” Lucy answered. “Ophelia will too, probably. She was hurt worse than me.”

“How bad is it?” Kat asked.

“She hit her head and mangled her leg,”Lucy answered. “I did what I could and got her into her suit as a precaution, but I really will feel more assured when Paul’s looked at her.” She looked Kat over. “What happened to Paul?”

“I don’t know,” Kat answered. “The shuttle’s gone missing. I’ll make finding it the priority.”

“Start by taking the seating out of the fighters,” Lucy ordered. “You may have to bring them back without the shuttle. You may also want to send a pair to scavenge supplies so that Grace and Yuri have what they need to get us operational enough to get out of here. We definitely don’t want to be stuck here for very long.”

“Right,” Kat said. She switched on her communicator. “Allison, I found them. They’re all right, but Ophelia needs medical attention. We’ve gotta get the seating out of the fighters and find the shuttle.”

“Great,” Allison said. “Just remember which gaping hole we parked at.”

*****

“The missions dealt with,” Leon reported. “My weapons are nearly depleted, but we dealt with the situation.”

“Good,” Kat said. “You and Farah come back and latch on to the Cerberus. Remove your seating and help us look for the shuttle.

“Can we use the Cerberus’ scanner to get a good idea of where they are?” Farah asked.

“Unfortunately, no,” Kat answered. “The scanning system got trashed. We’re going to have to do it the hard way. I’ll work with Farah. Leon will work with Allison. Leon and Allison will find the shuttle. Farah, you and I will do a salvage operation. We need enough materials so that Grace can repair the engines. When we find her, any way.”

 

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Voyages of the Cerberus 88: Boom

Grace held onto Hyper, wincing as the kitten’s claws nervously dug into her arm. “We’re losing altitude awfully fast,” she called.

“I am attempting to adjust,” Yuri stated. “I believe that I can bring us in for a survivable landing but it is highly unlikely that it will be soft. Please, continue to protect Baron Wolfgang Andres von Erstein and Hyper.”

They continued their descent. Gradually, Yuri managed to slow them from a plummet into a more controlled crash. They still came down hard, their shuttle tossing dirt around as it skid across the surface.

Paul was out of it for a moment when he felt two tiny paws press against his chest. He gingerly opened his eyes to look into the face of Wolfgang. The little dog was looking worriedly at his face and started enthusiastically licking him while pawing at his goatee.

“Wolfie, calm down,” Paul muttered. “I’m fine.” He talked softly to the dog, eventually managing to calm him. He unstrapped himself and looked around. The shuttle window was mostly covered by sand, making it impossible to get a good view outside.

Hyper was on the floor, licking his paws and looking over at Grace. Grace’s arm was bleeding from superficial cuts. She was examining Yuri. As for the android, she was completely still. Her head casing was damaged, circuits exposed.

“How is she?” Paul asked.

Grace shook her head. “Tough to say. I don’t have most of my equipment here. I can’t do a full diagnostic nor can I reboot her systems to bring her on line. The damage may be easily repaired or it may be bad enough to permanently damage her systems. Given that we all survived the crash, I’d say it’s probably more minor.”

Paul moved over to check the flight data. “There’s more bad news, I’m afraid. We seem to have landed on Arkasis and, unless things have changed for the better fairly recently, that means we have little time before scavengers come to tear the shuttle apart.”

“Then we should get out of here,” Grace said. “I’ll send up a beacon so that they can find us, assuming they live through this. You can help me carry Yuri out of here when that’s done.”

“First I’ll clean and bandage those scratches,”Paul said. “Just as a precaution.”

*****

“Can’t we do something to help?” Farah asked.

“We can stay back and not get in the way,” Kat answered.

“I don’t like waiting,” Leon muttered. “More importantly, where the fuck is that shuttle?”

“Did they decide to hide somewhere else?” Allison asked. “It wouldn’t be like Yuri to ignore orders, but I could see Paul and Grace wanting to stay somewhere closer so that they could hurry onto the scene.”

“Don’t go blaming my Paul for this,” Leon snapped. “We should look for them!”

“No,” Kat ordered. “I understand how you three must feel, but if we move in close enough to search, we’ll also be in the line of fire and we can’t afford to distract Ophelia and Lucy right now. We’ll wait until the Cerberus makes her play, then we’ll move in and search for them.”

*****

Ophelia moved the Cerberus around, making her movements as erratic as possible. Lucy fired their weapons,not bothering to look at where they were hitting or aim. She kept her focus on the readings of the enemy ship.

The juggernaut unleashed a barrage of missiles and lower-powered lasers. Ophelia mostly avoided them, taking some damage to the shields.

“You don’t suppose they can’t use the plasma burst again, do you?” Ophelia asked.

“They can,” Lucy said, certainty in her voice. “They just want to save the power. They’ll try to finish us with small arms until we make enough of a nuisance of ourselves.”

“My sister always said that I was good at that,” Ophelia joked. “I’ll just avoid taking damage until they decide we aren’t worth the time. Shouldn’t take long.”

“Agreed,” Lucy stated. “They’ll want to get past us and continue their pursuit before the trail gets cold.”

The Cerberus continued darting and weaving past the enemy ship’s fire, occasionally getting shaken by a near-miss or having their shields buckle from a hit. They had the advantage in manoeuvrability, but the enemy was larger, stronger and had a massive storehouse of weapons.

Fortunately, their opponent didn’t have the luxury of wearing them down slowly. “They’re charging,” Lucy cried.

Ophelia went in. Directly for the plasma weapon. Lucy waited until they were close and unleashed the full fury of the Cerberus’ arsenal just before they rammed the larger ship.

From a distance, Kat, Farah, Leon and Allison saw a breathtaking explosion.

“Are… are they?” Farah choked, unable to get the words out.

“I don’t know, but we’re finding out,” Kat said. “Move in!”

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The Grand Pilgrimage 32: Preparing for the Stakeout.

“Okay, so we’ve agreed to help you,” Inés stated. “That doesn’t give us a first move.”

“I did consider that,” Lais said. “Remember, I told you that it would be easier with an outsider’s help. I can point you to some places where people go to seek a good time. If you go there, then you can be on the lookout for anyone acting strangely.”

“I get you,” Inés said. “We find out who’s doing it, catch them in the act and clobber them.”

“No,” Lais corrected. “You find out who’s doing it and you bring me all the information on them that you can. Then I’ll clobber them.”

“Right,” Inés stated. “Sounds easy enough. Just tell us where to go.”

“The Great Birch Pub & the Yew Inn would be the places to start,” Lais informed them.

“Then we’ll split up and scope both of em out tonight,” Inés said. “That okay with you, Serena?”

“It’s fine,” Serena stated. “We don’t have to fight, after all.”

“I’ll send a messenger for your report bright and early,” Lais said. “It’s best if I don’t see you directly again until it’s sorted.”

“I guess that means our night together will have to wait,” Inés teased.

“I suppose,” Lais agreed. She rose from her cushion. “I’ll show you two the way out.”

“No need,” Inés said. “We’ll fly.”

“Thank you both,” Lynai said. “My father may have his flaws, but he’s always done his best for our people. He doesn’t deserve to die.”

Inés & Serena mounted Blitz and Dusk, flying from the maze.

“What next?” Serena wondered. “Right to work?”

“Not yet,” Inés said. “There won’t be many people there at this time of day. We’ll go later when they’re busier. I doubt the troublemakers are going in when it would be super conspicuous. They’ll be there when it’s bustling and they’re harder to notice. First, we return to the temple and tell Sylvie what’s going on.”

*****

“So, you two have committed us to watching some random dives for possible subversives that may or may not even exist,” Sylvie stated, tapping her foot. “Do I have that right?”

“Oh come on!” Inés exclaimed. “You think it’s just a coincidence that they’ve had four attempted assassinations in such a short time?”

“It may be people copying the first assassin,” Sylvie said. “For that matter, the king may have done something fairly recently that made a lot of people angry and we’re just looking at the resulting outcry.”

“Well, maybe,” Inés admitted. “But it doesn’t hurt to help check, does it?”

“Fine,” Sylvie said. “I’ll go along with this on the condition that we end our part in the whole investigation after seven days, regardless of whether we’ve found anything or not.”

“That’s…” Inés began. “No, that’s all right. I guess that we don’t wanna be waiting around here for too long.”

Sylvie nodded. “Then tonight I’ll take the Inn. You can take the Pub.”

“What about me?” Serena asked.

“You stay here with the pegasi,” Sylvie stated.

“But we’re just supposed to watch for them,” Serena protested. “We shouldn’t be getting into fights or anything.”

“I know,” Sylvie stated. “But we need someone to watch them.”

“Serena can come with me,” Inés said. She noted Sylvie’s glare. “Blitz and the other’s will be safe here. You saw the way that guard talked to Demure. No elf would try to separate a horse, pegasus or any other animal from someone the animal wanted to be with.”

“Fine,” Sylvie conceded. “Just don’t drag her into any fights and actually pay attention to your surroundings.”

“I always pay attention,” Inés protested.

“You always look for pretty ladies,” Sylvie corrected her. “If these subversives actually exist, they might be men, ugly or old.”

“I’ll make sure she pays attention,” Serena volunteered.

“Not you too,” Inés muttered. “You’ll both see. I can pay attention to everything around me just fine.”

“Then we’ll stay out and meet back up here in the very early morn,” Sylvie said. “I’ll tell Lowe that we’re going out and roughly when to expect us.”

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Voyages of the Cerberus 87: Flying Fortress

“Yuri, I want you to keep taking readings of that thing,” Ophelia continued. “Patch them though to Grace.” She grabbed her communicator. “Grace, prepare for readings on an unknown ship type. I want any potential weaknesses as soon as you notice them.”

“Understood,” Grace said.

“Umm, Captain,” Farah said. “Shouldn’t we deploy in the fighters? We might be able to get in close and do some damage.”

“Not unless I find a weakness that you four can get to,” Ophelia said. “That thing is way too massive. Too heavily armoured. You four might be small targets in your fighters, but you also don’t have much defence. It’s simply too dangerous. Put me on speaker with the other ships, please.”

It only took Farah a couple seconds to comply. She nodded at Ophelia.

“Attention all ships,” Ophelia said. ” Ophelia of the Cerberus speaking. If we’re going to complete this mission and get back in one piece, we’re going to need to work together. In the interests of cooperation, I’m asking your advice in how to approach.”

A response was forthcoming. “Yolli of the Tiikeri. I recommend an exploratory D12 spread. We go in, quickly pull back and hopefully get some data on its abilities.”

“Any objections?” Ophelia asked. There was silence.

“Then it’s agreed,” Yolli stated. “I’ll be the centre, flank me.”

“We’ll keep the comm link open,” Jivun said. “Better to confer on the go.”

The five ships moved forward, cautiously, swiftly. Closer and closer to the target.

“Captain, I am reading a massive energy build up,” Yuri reported.

“Disperse,” Ophelia shouted. Her hands already frantically working the controls.

The enemy ship fired. The Cerberus narrowly evaded the beam.

“Status?” Ophelia asked.

“The Tiikeri & Zivotinja were both destroyed,” Yuri reported. “The Pantera has taken heavy damage. Correction, enemy vessel has fired a minor laser burst. The Pantera has been destroyed.”

“Damn,” Ophelia gasped. “What did they hit us with?”

“It appears to have been a wide area plasma burst,” Yuri stated. “The technology required to make it functional is not in my data banks.”

“I’m pulling back for now,” Yuri said. “Duplith, are you with me?”

“The Levhart is with you,” Duplith answered. “Not like we have a bloody choice. It’s fight together or die separately at this point.”

“Grace, did you get anything?” Ophelia asked.

“I may have something for you,” Grace answered. “But…”

“Hurry,” Ophelia said.

“They have to drop their shields for a couple of seconds to fire their plasma weapon,” Grace reported. “In theory, if you got a ship close enough to fire directly at the weapon, you could destroy it, possibly even bring the ship down with it. But neither the Cerberus nor the Levhart has enough fire power to pull it off. We could do some damage, but nowhere near enough.”

“The fighters?” Ophelia asked.

“I’m factoring in their power as well,” Grace answered. “Even with the four of them, it’s not gonna be enough. If we could use the tractor beam to crash an asteroid into it or something, that might just work.”

“Too bad we’re not near a field,” Lucy said. “I don’t suppose we have anything else to crash into it?”

“We might at that,” Ophelia said. “I have a very stupid, crazy idea. but it might be our only chance.” She grabbed her communicator. “Grace, I want you to route all the ship’s power to propulsion and to shielding, especially around the engine room and bridge. Then report to the docking bay. Take both the Baron & Hyper with you. Everyone else, to the bridge. Now.”

“Don’t leave us in  suspense,” Duplith said. “What are we doing?”

“Take the Levhart and retreat,” Ophelia said. “No need to risk both of us.”

“Fine, but I’m keeping the log of you saying that,” Duplith said. The Levhart turned about and retreated.

Ophelia turned to her crew. “I’m going to crash the Cerberus into that thing’s plasma weapon,” she said. “It’s obscenely dangerous and I don’t like my odds. That’s why I’m going to have all of you evacuate. Kat, Leon, Allison and Farah. You four will take the fighters and get to a safe distance. If this doesn’t work, scarper. Get as far away as you can. Kat will go first and select a rendezvous point for all of you. Paul, you and Grace will take the animals and go in the shuttle piloted by Yuri. Lucy…”

“I’ll unload the weapons to soften them up,” Lucy said.

“I can’t have you…” Ophelia began.

“Stop,” Lucy interrupted, her eyes opening. “Together always. Through times of danger and safety, good and bad. To only be parted in death. That’s what we vowed. that’s why I’ll stay with you.”

“All right,” Ophelia nodded. “All of you, get out of here. Quickly. We’ll only have a small window for you to get away before they close in. It’s been an honour to serve with all of you.”

“Captain,” Kat knelt down and hugged her. “I’ll definitely see you again.”

“Don’t you dare die on us,” Leon said.

“The odds don’t exactly favour you,” Paul sated. “But losing the two of you would be devastating.”

“Just hurry!” Ophelia ordered.

The crew hurried out, making their way to the docking bay. In short order, the ships began trickling out.

*****

The shuttle was the last to leave. By the time it had disembarked, the enemy ship was upon them.

“The Cerberus is moving about to face the enemy,” Yuri reported.

“Just get us out of here,” Grace muttered. “I don’t want to see this.”

“Understood,” Yuri stated. “The enemy is firing its smaller lasers. The Cerberus is taking evasive manoeuvres. We…”

the shuttle rocked.

“What was that?” Grace asked.

“We have taken a stray blast,” Yuri reported. “The shuttle is damaged. There is a planet nearby. I will effect an emergency landing. I suggest that you two strap in and cushion yourselves as much as possible. It will not be a pleasant landing.”

“Hold Wolfgang,” Grace said, handing the pup to Paul. “I’ll take Hyper. do not let him get hurt.”

“I’ll do my best,” Paul promised.

The shuttle began its downward spiral to the planet.

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The Grand Pilgrimage 31: Lais’ Request

Inés and Serena followed Lais and her entourage riding atop Dusk & Blitz, their prisoner was sent away with a pair of guards. It wasn’t exactly a palace. The tree they inhabited was, maybe, ever so slightly larger than the other trees they’d seen elves living in. It was the area around the tree that was different. There was a massive garden surrounding it. Massive enough that the space it took up could have housed another two, maybe three massive trees with plenty of space among them to allow for full privacy.

Some other guards saluted Lais as they advanced. “Is it okay to be doing this without Sylvie?” Serena whispered.

“It’s fine,” Inés answered. “We’ll hear what she has to say and then we’ll do the same thing we did in Wicadia. The two of us will discuss what we wanna do and, if we disagree, we’ll have Sylvie break the tie.”

“That sounds fair,” Serena admitted. “And I’m sure she doesn’t want to leave Demure behind.”

“She is super protective of her,” Inés said. “I wonder if it’s the injured wing or the way Demure carries herself very reservedly.”

“This way,” Lais beckoned. “We can talk in the guard room.” She led them inside a massive hedge maze. They followed her closely as she moved with practised ease through the various turns, choosing her path without hesitation.

After some time they reached the centre. There were several practice dummies lining the area as well as a stone table. Cushions had been set around it. Lais sat on one in the lotus position and waved towards two across from her.

Inés and Serena dismounted and took the seats.

“So, what do you need help with?” Inés asked. “Please say it’s dealing with your sexual frustrations.”

Lais laughed. “Maybe later. For now I’d prefer to talk business.” She leaned forward. “The truth is that the young woman you helped apprehend wasn’t acting alone. She’s the fourth assassin we’ve had to contend with in the past few months.”

Inés whistled. “Sounds like your king isn’t too popular.”

“The Royal one is a good man,” Lais stated. “I guarantee that personally. It’s my belief that someone is spreading dissatisfaction and otherwise coercing certain rash youngsters into this. That’s why I need your help. Priestesses, will you help me find the culprit? It would be far simpler with an outsider. I won’t ask you to bring them down, but if you can just point me in the right direction, I’ll go in and deal with them personally or my name isn’t Lais Elivy.”

“Elivy?” Serena muttered. “Are you, by chance, related to the headmistress of Wicadia’s mage academy?”

“She’s my little sister,” Lais answered. “I’m sure you’ve studied under her.”

“I haven’t yet,” Serena said. “Inés has.”

“Inés?” Lais asked. “As in the same Inés who covered her room with flower petals and tried to serenade her when she returned?”

“In my defence, I thought that would work,” Inés said.

Lais had a good chuckle. “Oh my. It is a true pleasure. Luc’s letters have gotten so much less interesting since you finished your studies at the academy.” She took a moment to settle down. “So, will you help me investigate this matter?”

Inés and Serena glanced at one another. “I’d like to,” Serena said. “Wouldn’t you like to help, Inés ?”

“I don’t know,” Inés  said. “Investigations can take a while. Do you have a plan for where to start?”

“Good question,” Serena muttered. She leaned back, deep in thought.

“Lais!”

Inés and Serena turned. A beautiful elvish girl with blonde hair and bright green eyes approached.

“Princess,” Lais rose and bowed.

“You don’t have to do that,” the princess stated. “I’m not here on official business.” She stared at Inés and Serena. “Who are your friends?”

Inés rose and knelt before the princess, taking her hand and kissing it. “Inés, priestess of Athena, at your service.”

“Oh… Oh my,” the princesses face flushed.

“Likewise, Serena Rabelle, though I’m still a first year initiate.”

“Inés, Serena, allow me to introduce the royal daughter, Princess Lynai Elblood,” Lais said. “I was just seeing if the priestesses would help me find the culprits behind the attempts on your father’s life.”

“Is that so?” Lynai asked. She grasped Inés’ hands. “Please, aid us in this matter. It would mean ever so much to my people.”

Inés looked back at Serena and sighed “All right. We’ll help.” 

“Thank you!” Lynai exclaimed. She gave Inés a big hug.

“Rather weak to cute young ladies isn’t she?” Lais whispered, winking at Serena.

“A bit,” Serena answered, keeping her voice low.

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Voyages of the Cerberus 86: The Long Route

“Farah, keep us in contact with our comrades,” Ophelia ordered. “Yuri, the scanner is yours. Lucy, take the weapons. In ten hours we’ll switch with Allison, Leon and Kat and we’ll keep swapping every ten hours. Yuri, I’m sorry but you’ll have to keep working.”

“That is acceptable,” Yuri stated. “Though shutting my systems down at times is beneficial, I am capable of running for an extended period without doing so.”

“I know,” Ophelia said. “But I still feel terrible for making you do it.”

*****

The group of ships was making good time, but only the Stylx knew their destination. Sector 5732 was a large area. So it was impossible for the rest to calculate how long the job was going to take.

Ophelia and her group were in the middle of their third shift. “Any idea where we’re going?” Ophelia asked, looking at Lucy.

“It’s a circuitous route,” Lucy answered. “We’ve retraced our steps several times so far. The Stylx really doesn’t want us to figure out where we’re heading, either that or they’re really paranoid about getting spotted. Either way, if I had to guess. I’d say we’re going to Nimwuk.”

“But there aren’t even any active colonies there,” Farah stated. “Just a research satellite.”

“It may not be as it seems,”Ophelia said. “There are a bunch of rumours about that place. Some people say there’s a secret military station. Some say they do classified research. Some even say that there’s a secret information repository of all the Alliance’s most classified files.”

“We wouldn’t be going there chasing rumours,” Lucy declared. “The Akumillian government knows something about that sector. Something definitive.”

“It is also a possibility that your conjecture is mistaken,” Yuri interjected.

Lucy turned and stared at her, her normally closed yellow eyes opening very slightly. Farah shuddered at the sight but Yuri seemed unaffected.

After a moment, Lucy’s eyes shut again and her usual smile returned. She shrugged. “I suppose that is possible.”

*****

“We’re getting a transmission,” Leon reported. “The Stylx is ordering all ships to prepare for a full stop.”

“Understood,” Kat said.

“Just point me in the right direction if I have to aim,” Allison said.

“Luciverianna’s calculations were correct,” Yuri reported. “We are bearing directly for Nimwuk.”

“I don’t really care where we go,” Leon stated. “I just want to know why I’m the one who has to talk to people.”

“Because you can be polite when you need to be and Allison kept getting into radio contact for pranks.”

“I only did it four times,” Allison protested. “Not my fault they have no sense of humour.”

“They’re ordering a full stop,” Leon said.

Kat brought the Cerberus to a halt. The other four escort ships did so as well.

“And now they’re ordering us to stand by,” Leon stated. “If they don’t return within thirty hours, we’re to return to Akumil and report that their mission was a failure.”

“We are incapable of scanning Nimwuk from this locale,” Yuri reported.

“That could be the idea,” Kat muttered.”Yuri, let me or Ophelia know the second that the Stylx gets back in range. Allison, keep the weapons ready. Leon, let me know if one of the other ships has anything important to say.”

“They won’t,” Leon declared. “They never do.”

“Do me a favour and pay attention anyway,” Kat said. “Please?”

“Fine,” Leon sighed.

*****

Ophelia tapped her fingers on the console. After her conversation with Lucy, she’d anticipated something more… exciting. So far all they’d done was fly the painfully long way to a point just outside of sensor range of Nimwuk and stopped to wait for the ship they were escorting to return.

“Stay focused,” Lucy said. “Things could still get difficult.”

“I’m perfectly focused,” Ophelia said. “The second that Yuri reports seeing the Stylx or the time elapses, I’ll take the controls.”

“The Stylx has entered long range sensors,” Yuri reported. “They are moving at maximum velocity.”

“They’re trying to transmit something, but I can’t make it out yet,” Farah added. “They’re too far away.”

Ophelia grasped the controls, ready to make a hasty retreat.

“Got it!” Farah exclaimed. “They’re ordering all ships to block pursuit.”

“I am picking up a second ship,” Yuri reported. “It has just entered our scan range. the configuration is unknown.”

“Send all the data you can pick up to me!” Lucy ordered.

Yuri complied. Lucy checked over her console in silence.

“How bad is it?” Ophelia asked.

“Very,” Lucy answered. “It appears to be some kind of massive war ship. Easily five times our size and with really heavy duty armour. I don’t even recognise some of these weapons.”

“Farah,” Ophelia said. “Patch me through to the other ships. If we’re going to survive this, we’re going to need to coordinate our efforts.”

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The Grand Pilgrimage 30: Disturbance at Market

Het Wald was a city of green. Massive trees were everywhere, adapted into living buildings by the elves. The temple of Demeter was no exception.

The priestesses squeezed into the entrance, feeling the smooth bark of the door frame as they did so. The inside had rooms built in a circular pattern with a staircase in the very centre of the ground floor.

The three of them were greeted by a blue-haired elf in green robes. “Peace be with you,” he said. “I am Lowe, a priest here. What errand brings Athena’s faithful here?”

“We’re passing through on a pilgrimage to Drahaven,” Sylvie explained. “My pegasus has an injured wing. I was told that you might be able to help her.”

Lowe whistled. “A noble creature. I was not aware that Athena’s priestesses had tamed them.”

“We haven’t, as a group,” Inés stated. “The three of us just happened to befriend some on our journey.”

“Oh, I see,” Lowe said. “You must have great hearts. Please, show me the patient.”

They led him outside and he carefully looked over Demure’s wing.

“It is not a severe injury,” he mused. “I can repair the damage, but it will take some time. Please, go out into the city and amuse yourselves. If you return in three hours time, this lady will be well.”

“Sounds fine to me,” Inés said.

“You two go ahead,” Sylvie said. “I’ll stay here with Demure.”

“I understand,” Inés said. “Serena, let’s check out the city, give Blitz and Dusk a tour and find a place to stay for the night.”

“Sure,” Serena said.

“If I may,” Lowe interjected. “We have some rooms for travelling priests and priestesses. They’re humble, but good. Perhaps you’d like to make use of them? Of course, we can make room your flying friends as well.”

“We graciously accept,” Sylvie said.

“Then we’ll come back by nightfall,” Inés said.

*****

The marketplace wasn’t as unusual a sight. Elves sat on the ground with blankets laid out to demonstrate their wares.

“It looks like so many other markets,” Serena said.

“Not quite,” Inés stated. “See those couriers running around everywhere?”

Serena nodded. The couriers were carrying carts full of goods to various merchants. “They sure are working hard.”

“They have to,” Inés said. “The merchants keep their goods at home and employ couriers to bring them more stock throughout the day. Busier merchants hire several. Most merchants who sell that many wares would just open a store, but elves consider that a waste of trees.”

“They really love their trees, don’t they?” Serena said. “I think it’s kind of amazing.”

“Seems a bit extreme to me,” Inés stated. “It takes so much time and effort. Plus there’s a lot of wildlife just running around. That’s gotta be a nuisance.”

Blitz let out a sharp neigh.

“I’m not talking about you or any other pegasus,” Inés said.

“Maybe she feels a kinship with other wild animals,” Serena suggested.

“That’s…” Inés began.

“Halt!”

The two of them turned. Several armoured elves were chasing a young elf as she bolted through the marketplace. Inés noticed the emblem of a unicorn and large tree on the armour of her pursuers.

“What do you suppose that’s about?” Serena asked.

“Don’t know,” Inés said. “But I’ve gotta find out. Those are the king’s personal guards!” She mounted Blitz. “Wait here.”

Blitz flew her into the air. They kept low and darted for the fleeing elf.

“Go as fast as you want, just watch out for low branches,” Inés said.

Blitz dashed forward. Inés almost fell off during the initial surge, but quickly grew accustomed to it. They soared over the heads of the guards and quickly closed in on the fleeing woman.

Inés dropped from Blitz and landed atop their target, pinning her to the ground. Blitz landed right beside them.

“You were told to stop,” Inés said. To her credit, the young woman did struggle but Inés was far too strong for her.

The guards quickly caught up. One of them stepped forward and bowed, removing her helmet. She had curly pink hair and fair features. “Thanks for the assistance, Priestess,” she said. “My name is Lais Elivy, Captain of the Royal One’s guard.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Inés said. She dragged her prisoner up. “So, what’d she do?”

“Captain…” one of the guards began. Lais raised her hand to silence him.

“She attempted to assassinate our Royal One,” Lais said. “Priestess, I ask that you come to his residence with us. I would ask your further assistance.”

“Sure,” Inés nodded. “Just let me get my companion and we’ll hear you out.”

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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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