A/N: Ah, so you made it back for some more adventures? Good to have you! As you may have noticed from Book One, these "books" are more like volumes in an ongoing serial, such as with comics or manga. It fits better to my delays in updating and in the episodic quality of the story-but I find it more fun since we get to pack more stuff in :).
For newcomers, I'd like to introduce to you...the Land of Min! A world similar to ours...except religion is no longer just pure belief, but real fact. The gods and goddesses of Ancient Greece are real, including all the consequences that come from it. I recently discovered the genre name "speculative fiction," and I find it perfect to describe this story. This is like an alternate history, with the deviations to be gradually revealed. It's also my big "what if?" with a set of characters, and all the crazy things that happen to them, so the term "heroic fantasy" I love, too. Whip those two ingredients together and here we are with a great mousse called this story.
I firmly believe in characters as real to life as possible. With all those nuances, there are some interactions I cannot ignore. Thus, pacing may suffer, but expect realness :).
This book is definitely ramping up the action: Gender bending (I won't say who), all the consequences of such an event, new main characters, and even the exam! (Oh and did I say action? :P )
But most important of all, this story will be FUN. It's fun for me to write, and I hope it's fun for you to read.
Suffice to say, it'll be one hades of a ride. All aboard!
O—O One Month Later O—O
Min. The land of possibilities. A place where anything could happen any time. Imagine a world with a medieval time like ours…except the Greek Pantheon was not only a world religion, but a world fact and way of life. Good things happened, like blessings from a river nymph, or bad things, like countries waging war on a god or goddess's whim. Well, there was less of the latter now, as the Pantheon realized less people alive meant less worshipers. And less worshipers meant less power for them…although who knows when the next god will insult another in a hissy fit just because his song was a bit flat (not calling out names, but a certain laurel-crowned god comes to mind…)
But enough of the bickering and silliness of those in the sky and the water. For the people on the ground, life was good these past fifty or a hundred years (depending on where you lived). Ellada, the cradle of life, was the still the center of the world, with several other nations nearby to keep it busy with politics. Always one for colonies, the birthplace of the first portal to the gods saw several colony countries sprout from it, one being Coleran, where our adventurers live now.
It was the newest one, still rough around the edges with pockets of civilization growing sparser as you near the untamed, undiscovered frontier by the Thalassa Argryos—the Silver Ocean. Like with most of Min, in between those cities and towns was the wilderness—the eskhata—which wasn't something so easy to traverse. Life was rough, but good, in the highly arable country.
And it was in the last city at the edge of the undiscovered lands, Arcolia, where our adventurers came together. It almost seemed like it wasn't going to happen, with Aneska almost getting killed several times. But they made it through the first hurdle, and chose jobs to accomplish as they trained for the akesomnos—the healing sleep. Such a sleep was key to the survival of all those who traveled to and from cities—and even while in the midst of a city, for some of the worst monsters weren't beasts at all, but humans (and elves, dwarves, halflings, etc).
It had been about three weeks since our three young women had begun earning an income. They had scraped by in the past month before that, with Xuan getting an allowance from the Medicus School tuition her parents had paid, and Aine living off the land in the grove. Aneska's money trail was less sure, probably illegal knowing her mentor Rem the Halfling. But this story is not about money, for they earned much more than money in those three weeks. They endured a slime, and a manticore, and grew stronger from it. But they needed to go farther, for the Akesomnos loomed near, just one month away.
To mention their first jobs: Xuan's was almost a farm fiasco, but she was able to manipulate the maneuvering of manure with a well-placed wind spell. The funnel of feces almost slammed into the farm house but disaster was averted when a larger wind spell was cast in the opposite direction. The spreading of fertilizer all over the field was a great success. She also learned that not everything happened as neatly as described in books.
Aine surprisingly did not melt in front of the ovens, but discovered new-found strength and determination that could only come about after lugging three drachmas of flour (no, not the money but rather the weight. It was about the weight of twenty five pounds in our time). Her back and arm muscles ached for sure, but she found that her arrows flew faster from the work out, and that now she could bake a decent loaf of bread if given an oven of decent temperature. Perhaps such a skill could be used in the wild, where breads could provide more energy to adventurers.
And Aneska? She barely had to do anything. The library was a private one of some wealthy noble family, heavily secured or else why would they hire a stranger for work? She walked the aisle, shelving books with at least five grey appendages doing the work. She finished in such good time that an impressed servant asked for her to return another time. The well-built ventilation of the place did well to cool, and a return seemed desirable in the midst of this summer heat. That, and a chance to be away from Rem.
All in all, the women learned a great deal as they flitted from one task to the next. Xuan whittled away at her studies at the Medicus school, finishing assignments ahead of time and even asking exams to be taken early (although she had to swear on the River Styx not to tell other students the answers).
Aine began to connect how everything influenced everything, with even the smallest soapnut grown in the forest finding its way to a peasant's bathtub. This connectivity intrigued her greatly, and she put her observational skills to use as she went through each of her exercises. Survival was something they'd need to know very well if they were to leave Arcolia, the last city before the wilderness.
Aneska minimally obeyed Rem during that month, although he sometimes had some relevant things to say. Minimizing her presence was no easy task when amid professionals, but Rem encouraged her to keep trying to pick pockets. She doubted the money was going to return to their owners, but the Halfling insisted they had picked them from others anyway, so what was the harm? Aneska refused, and they resorted to distracting the city guard and sneaking past them at night. Rem comforted himself with the fact that she continued to train her power.
Group training was not neglected in the slightest. Setiri found great amusement in designing an obstacle course for them out in the woods, with magic traps laid by Enezi at inopportune moments. Combined with Rem's goading (and occasional trap), completing the course was difficult, indeed. Puzzles to be solved combing their efforts occurred almost daily. strategies thought up of by themselves to approach such problems presented by their mentors soon became second nature to them.
However, one obstacle had arisen that seemed impossible to climb over: that of bringing a cat down from a tree.
"I can just enchant it to sleep!" Xuan offered, craning her neck up to see a white puffy blob in the branches. Her bobbed black hair shifted, and some of her short bangs fell into her face. Her wide brown eyes were narrow now as she peered.
Aine raised an eyebrow at the Kalnasian. Her straight brown hair was tied up in a ponytail, as always, and her form was almost as slender as the tree they stood beside. "And have it fall out of the tree?"
Xuan shrugged, smiling weakly. "I can…catch it?" Although she needed her hands free to cast the spells…apparently skilled spellcasters could just use their voice, and then just their mind. But Xuan expected none of that in one month's time…let alone one lifetime.
The white fluffy cat hissed and clawed at the humans and elf on the ground as if she knew what they were planning. Aine supplied the gender at first sight, but the cat seemed appropriately temperamental to be female.
They had been strolling back from the Agora to drop Xuan off at the Medicus school when they came across this sour puss, right by the border between the Holy Quarter and the Merchant quarter. The cat definitely looked like it belonged to someone wealthy—and perhaps nearby. White fur that spotless might mean her owner was not far.
"I could easily get a hold of it," Aneska commented with a smirk, nonchalantly looking off. She was quite different from her friends, both in personality and in looks. Having blue-grey eyes instead of pale green or brown, and her hair was unruly and wavy instead of ordered and straight like she wanted. At least she had more of a figure than the other two combined. "But why bother?"
Xuan immediately frowned at that. "Aneska! Because someone is looking for this cat and we have to get it down for them!"
Aine just shook her head and got busy devising a way to climb the tree without frightening the cat. Aneska was just goading the human, in a much more smug manner than her master Rem would, but goading nonetheless. It was very amusing to see the two in a friendly argument, and she knew when to stay out of it.
Aneska raised her eyebrows as she watched Aine with newfound interest—interest not focused on Xuan in the slightest. "What? Worried I might grasp it a little too tightly? In that case, I don't even have to touch it."
Xuan smiled tightly at her friend. Sometimes she could be so annoying! "I agree, you don't," she replied, all seriousness for once. That lasted a brief second before her eyes brightened in an idea. She came up with a lot of those. "Wait, your stuff isn't sticky, right? Maybe you could…make a net! Then you don't even have to grasp it with those gross tentacles." Although tentacles weren't that gross on an octopus, those little guys were pretty cute.
Aine nodded. "That would work."
"Well?" Xuan asked Aneska. "Can you do it?" She smirked just the slightest at her friend, almost challengingly.
"Are you playing at my vanity?" Aneska looked up at the stupid cat. "It's working."
Aine grinned. "Xuan, I admit you're good with people, like this shred of a person named Aneska. But I'm better with animals, so I should try to coax the thing down."
Xuan nodded, relieved at an actual formation of a plan. "Yeah, that's a good idea." Then she turned and glared at Aneska, a look made playful by her perpetual smile. "And what about you, oh vain one? You never said yes."
"You're right, I didn't." Aneska took a few steps away from the group and began people watching.
Xuan's mouth dropped open as she stared at the difficult woman in shock. She quickly closed her mouth in a huffy frown—some called it a pout but she didn't want to think of that right now. No, right now she was thinking of how Aneska was only goading her because this wasn't serious, not life-threatening like their training exercises. But this was serious! A poor cat was stuck in a tree! She turned to Aine, chin lifting slightly. "Fine. We can continue without her. I just remembered my sleep spell is for human, elves, dwarves, Halflings, and other sorts of sentient beings…but not animals." She tapped her chin and tilted her head, bobbed hair shifting as she assumed her usual thinking stance. "I think…maybe a feather spell. She'd float to the ground—but only if you can get her to let go of the branch."
Aine frowned at that. An important question. "I'll…think of it on the way up." She eyed the slender birch and wrapped her arms and legs around it, hoping the dryad inside wasn't going to take offense at such mounting.
Xuan smiled at that, but then her smile quickly turned upside down as she glared at Aneska. "Yes or no, Aneska."
Aneska rolled her eyes and turned back around, muttering as she rejoined the group, "I hate cats."
Xuan lifted her chin and looked away. "Well, don't let Lady Artemis hear you. I wish I didn't." She smiled over at Aine. "So, got any ideas?"
Aine was busy trying to convince the cat she was her friend, sending positive vibrations and everything, but the elf had a sneaking suspicion the cat was friends with no one but her food bowl. Aine glanced down at Xuan, frowning. "Not really…anyone have any fish or anything?"
Xuan frowned as well and turned to look in the direction they had come from. "I mean, I could go to the Agora and get some, but that would take almost an hour!" She tapped her chin and her eyebrows shot up. "I do have a spell on reserve in case we ever got stranded and needed food. I doubt that'll happen today, so I could try it." She raised her hands, but then her eyes looked at Aneska and she frowned. "Net, please."
Aneska smiled at her and started summoning the grey mass. In mid-air a grey pool slowly appeared, as if an invisible person was tipping over an invisible canister of grey paint. "You suuure you don't want me to grab it?"
Xuan frowned at her friend, poking at the mass. It felt cold and…not of this world. "I'm sure! Now let's begin." She motioned with her hands, then tugged toward the sky. Cats like fish, right? But maybe this one was picky and liked other meats. Cooked or not? Well, maybe the cat liked some seasoning and—
A bowl suddenly materialized in her hands and Xuan knew the spell was on. Inside it was some small fish, still whole. Xuan smiled. But this wasn't enough to for one person to eat. Wasn't there more to appear?
"Look out!" Aine called, seeing hunks of chicken start to fall from the sky.
Xuan looked up and the meat plopped into the bowl. Beef followed, as well as pork. But the smell…these weren't raw at all! She frowned dejectedly at her friends. "Guys, this is cooked meat. I have no idea if the cat likes it like that!"
The cat made her decision and lifted her head, sniffing at the air. The meats did smell wonderful. Xuan had fortunately thought of the great feasting halls she read of in books, and so these meats smelled great.
"I think it's working," the elf called. She smiled at the cat, cooing to her. "Now just jump down…"
"C'mon!" Xuan beckoned, holding the meat up. "You want some, don't you?"
The cat actually stood, tail slowly rising in great interest. The elf bore two arms that could hold her, and so she lifted a paw and stepped toward Aine.
"Hurry up." Aneska moved and extended a tentacle to lightly tug on the cat's tail.
The feline poofed anew and hissed at the tentacle, smacking it with her clawed paw and disintegrating the tip.
Aine rolled her eyes. "Thanks, Aneska." She motioned to the cat. "C'mon…"
Satisfied the intrusive tentacle had a piece of her mind, the cat was just about to leap down from the tree when a loud CLANG, CLOP, and CLASH resounded, and the cat ran up the tree and onto Aine. The startled elf tried to keep the cat in her arms, but the cat scratched at whatever limbs were around and sprang out of her arms, plummeting to the earth with a loud yowl.
"Aneska!" Xuan exclaimed.
At the same time, a helmet-clad knight had dismounted from his horse, his helmet falling off as his foot was stuck in the stirrup. Sir Upton fumbled with the riding equipment as his manservant jumped off of his pony and picked up the helmet, a simpering smile on his face. "Here you go, sir."
Sir Upton had managed to untangle himself by then, and he smoothed out his knight's tunic. His short-cut blonder hair was a little squished to the side where the helmet had tilted off, and his cheek rosier than usual. However, nothing was better than a simpering manservant to make him feel in charge, and he straightened and smirked. "Ah, thank you, Jack, but I won't be needing that right now."
He stepped toward the women, smiling confidently, as his presence would be sure to bring great pleasure to these fine ladies. However, he frowned upon seeing them preoccupied.
Aneska had quickly brought the "net" under the cat and suspended the fussy feline in mid-air, safe from the earth. The cat did not think so and thrashed wildly. The human held back a smile and focused her attention on the cat. Who was this moron?
Xuan frowned and brought the bowl of meat to the cat, totally ignoring the knight and his servant. In fact, she didn't even see him at all, her concentration was so great. "Can you make it kind of like a cage?"
"Sure." The net thinned and rose up and to the sides to give the cat more room. She lowered it to the ground, and Xuan stuck the bowl inside before Aneska sealed it up. The cat was very, very fat, and to keep its fine figure proceeded to gorge on the bowl of cooked meats.
The blonde woman looked over at the two weird onlookers, her face expressionless. "Can we help you?"
Sir Upton's eyebrows rose in surprise. "Jack, they don't know who I am."
Jack gasped a laugh of surprise. "Really? But everyone knows who you are!"
Xuan frowned as well at the pair. "I know who you are," she said solemnly. Her brows were slightly lowered and her gaze a bit accusatory. "You're the man who caught that manticore displayed at the menagerie." The face painted on the poster was enough to be an identifier, but they did more than just look at his prey.
Aine jumped down from the tree and frowned at them. "Display?"
Xuan nodded, frown deepening. "I heard from reputable sources that he was the one who pushed for it."
Upton smiled at that, very smug. He stood with his chest jutted out, the glittering red swirly-lined rivers of Arcolia also jutting out along with the dragon of the city. "Well, of course! The people of Arcolia have to be reminded of my powers of protection. I'm here for you, after all." He smirked a little. "Ladies." His blue eye roamed over Aneska, his smirk widening.
She smiled coyly, looking to the side with such modesty. "So you're the great Sir Upton? I'm forever in your debt." Aneska glanced at the other two, smirking ever so faintly.
Xuan was never gruff to strangers, but for this occasion the Kalnasian frowned the most she ever did at the so-called knight. "More like the other way around!" She stepped toward the man, a move so confrontational Aine's slender eyebrows shot up. "Your manticore almost killed us!" She pointed at Aneska, still glaring at him. "And it stabbed Aneska through the leg!" Her tone took on an edge. "You should've left the manticore where it was."
Upton, although frowning uncomfortably throughout the lecture, suddenly stood taller and frowned back at her. "If I had left it alone it would've eaten up the entire village I was staying at while on the frontier." His smile was slightly smug, screaming, Now what do you say to that?
Xuan planted a hand on her hip and continued frowning. "I know that. What matters is what you had done afterward. Instead of destroying, imprisoning, or sending the beast off to an island, you dare plant it in the middle of other defenseless people—people you say you serve!" She frowned to the side, quite shaken from anger as she added, "And I don't mean Aine, Aneska, and I were defenseless, but we were pretty darn close."
Upton's jaw had dropped slightly in indignation, maybe even shock. The ladies never yelled at him like this! At least, not until after the first date…and that was only very rarely.
Aine's eyebrows remained raised. "Some knight."
The victim of his quarry shrugged, dully examining Upton's outfit. Was that dragon supposed to be intimidating? "I'm still trying to figure out why you had so much trouble dismounting your steed."
This proved to be the last straw for Upton. His composure melted and he frowned with extreme discomfort, straightening his tunic. "I…I was taken by surprise by your…special ability," he managed to say to Aneska.
Xuan frowned at him in doubt. Sure. She crossed her arms and looked off.
Aneska's smirk widened. "That's not all I can do." She winked at him before walking up to the goo-trapped cat and teasing it.
The feline flopped onto its side, stuffed and not really caring. It didn't even bother to look at Aneska.
Upton could not stop staring, blue eyes widening. This…young woman! He turned to Jack, whispering with great emotion, "I must have her. At least one date. I can do it, right?"
Jack smiled stupidly at him. "Of course, sir! You're the—"
"—best, yes, I know," the knight finished for him. Upton's brow furrowed as he switched tactics. "Your efforts at getting this animal down from the tree were most impressive…" He ventured to step toward the women, even though none of them were looking at him.
The women were saved from answering him by the abrupt arrival of another lady rushing toward them.
She was a pretty girl with braided brown hair, and her eyes were wide in worry. "Mrs. Precious!" She knelt by the cage, not even noticing the strange shine the "bars" had. "Oh, we were so scared you were lost forever!"
Precious lifted her head to glance disdainfully at the girl before returning to her lounging, the folds of her fat pressed up.
"This is your cat?" Aine asked.
"Yes!" the girl exclaimed. Her relief was contagious, and Xuan was quick to notice that her hems were embroidered. The girl went on. "We thought she was gone, but thank gods you found her!" She clasped her hands and gazed gratefully at the tree and the earth. "Mother Gaia and Lady Artemis, you have my thanks!"
Xuan blinked. Oops. Speaking of the gods…she stuck her finger in between the bars to get some meat, managing to get a small fish. At the nearest fire she'd make sure to sacrifice it. She smiled over at the girl. "Do you live near here? We can help bring the cat home if you're worried she'll run off again."
"And I, too," Upton added, a little put out at being ignored for so long.
The girl beamed at them. "That'd be great, thank you!" She bowed slightly at them. "I'm Eudane, servant of the house of Markus."
Aine gracefully bowed back. "I am Aine."
"And I'm Xuan!" the Kalnasian offered, smiling widely.
"I'm Aneska." She glanced over her shoulder. "And as for these two…" She looked at that "knight," her brows raised. "I got this one's name earlier, but... it seems to have escaped me."
Upton's mouth opened to resupply a name he personally thought was hard to forget.
"Sir Upton!" Eudane exclaimed. "My mistress is a huge fan! You are more than welcome to come along!"
His frown turned upside down as he smirked over at Jack, who choked a laugh back.
Xuan rolled her eyes. She was usually optimistic, but even she had her doubts at how well this evening would go.