Exalted: The Sun Also Rises

The Guardians of Three Oaks

Cerulean Wake crossed his arms in front of his chest, leaning back against a wall and trying to keep from appearing impatient. He was nearing his ninetieth nameday, but the village elders of Three Oaks still teased him for his youthful appearance. As if it were his fault that his Exaltation meant he still looked like a fresh-faced boy of barely more than twenty, and not the experienced shrine-guardian he had become over the decades. With aqua hair that curled ostentatiously no matter how tightly he pulled it back and the soft, subtle facial structure of his mother rather than the stark, chiseled chin of his father, he couldn’t really blame them for thinking of him as a boy still. But their jibes that he was still a restless youth were entirely unfounded, and he could prove them otherwise. If his charge would ever get her butt in gear, of course.

As the minutes drew on, Cerulean found himself pacing. His bare feet were practically silent against the sturdy, ancient wood of the floor, but his footfalls still sounded like drumbeats in his own ears, drumbeats that grew more urgent and insistent as time passed. He wasn’t at all anxious, so why did he feel so on-edge? It must have been his training earlier that morning. He felt like he had hit a wall in his progress, and that meant nearly everything else registered as secondary until he broke through it. His first instinct had been to return to his sifu, Seven Vaulting Staves, but the old man had said the same thing he always said: “You mastered my style twenty years ago. There is nothing you have yet to learn that I can teach you.” All while undoubtedly hiding a grin behind that teacup of his. It wasn’t that Cerulean suspected his mentor of holding out on him, but he did always refuse to spar with him when these blocks hit. Even just one or two days of instruction, and….

No. That was his frustration talking; he knew better. A shrine-guardian couldn’t spend his life looking to his elders for answers. At some point, it was important for him to push through his obstacles with his own willpower. That was why he was so antsy. Except, whenever his warrior’s spirit got like that, it always meant trouble was on the way. It might be two days or two months, but something was brewing, and he needed to be ready for it.

Forcing himself to stop pacing and settle into a seated position in the center of the floor, he drew in a few deep breaths, placing his palms at rest against each other and closing his eyes. “Focus, but do not fixate,” wrote the First Age philosopher and martial artist Whispering Leaves. Cerulean had read every one of her books – well, every one that had survived, anyway – cover-to-cover, and he had always thought her one of the most quietly brilliant minds who had ever lived. There was no need to fret; come what may, he would be ready. That was his duty.

Finally finding himself in a state of balance once more, Cerulean got back to his feet and walked over to the sliding door where he had been keeping his restless vigil. He didn’t hear anything from the other side, so he slipped off the pendant he wore – a deep blue magatama jewel – and hung it on a peg next to the door. Then he turned and walked out of the small room, opening a different door and stepping out to the wooden exterior flooring of the shrine, sliding right into his shoes. It was a beautiful day outside, the sort of day that made him feel more alive. “Control the rudder of your own boat,” went another of Whispering Leaves’s mantras, “and let the river flow as it may.” He would not rush her; Soaring Ibis would find him when she was ready. Until then, he would make good use of his time.

Lighting the last remaining sticks of incense, the priestess sat back on her heels once more and clapped three times, a loud echoing sound that filled the entire chamber as she closed her eyes and meditated. This particular ritual was always the longest of the month, but she was just about finished. Which was good, as even she was starting to wish she could go a little faster. Cerulean Wake would likely be beside himself with restlessness. Still, it was one of her many duties, and as the chief steward of the Three Oaks shrine, it wouldn’t do for her to give less than her utmost attention to them. Even if they were occasionally a little dry and lengthy.

Giving the prayer beads on her left bracelet a slight shake, so that the Eye of K’un Lao now faced toward the heavens instead of the earth, she formed the Four Seals of the Outward Winds, and then chanted the last series of incantations as she opened her eyes, each of the four votive candles positioned around her winking out in a steady cadence. North…west…south…east. Spreading her arms wide, she then gave one more loud clap, a sound that rang of closure and finality, and with one great whoosh of air that snuffed out the last embers of the incense and caused her obsidian hair to fly up like a whipped blanket, the room was suddenly quiet and still again. Quiet and still, and also unquestionably serene. It was finished: the nature gods of Three Oaks had been properly honored, which meant her duties were over for the day. Smoldering Cinder would be proud of her; she had taught Soaring Ibis everything she knew before taking up different pursuits, and though she still occasionally scolded her for letting her mind wander at times, the woman couldn’t hide her approval. But then, Soaring Ibis had always felt that Cinder couldn’t hide much from her.

Letting out a quiet sigh, the priestess gave her arms a long stretch that she then carried out through her shoulders, upper back, and ribcage. She had been performing that ritual since childhood, and yet she still had not figured out a way to avoid a bit of stiffness after kneeling over for so long. That was supposed to have ceased those several years ago; she chalked it up to a classic case of mind over matter. But that would get better once she got out of the shrine for a bit and out into fresh air – it always did. The copy of Machines of the First Age that Cerulean had let her borrow practically called out to her from its resting place in her shoulder pack outside the closed door, but she had other obligations to see to. And, besides, she could easily convince him to let her spend some time reading later on, maybe under her favorite tree.

And so she quickly packed up her materials, storing them away for morning prayers, her mind idling for a bit as she wrapped everything up. Once she finished, she brushed her hands along her wide red skirts, and then quickly hurried out of the chamber, scooping up her pack as she closed the sliding doors and making her way to the second set of doors. She nearly bolted off into a dash once she had those closed as well, but she caught sight of something hanging on the peg by the doorway and stopped. Cerulean’s magatama dangled from its leather cord, the crystalline surface catching the light streaming in from the windows and reflecting it in myriad directions. Closing her hand around it, the priestess lifted it from the peg, and smiled to herself. She had been right; her guardian was as restless as ever, it seemed. But she knew where to find him, so she looped the cord around her right wrist and left the shrine.

Stepping out into the clear summer day, she paused for a brief moment atop the hill where the shrine was located. The village of Three Oaks and its environs spread out before her. It was a small place, tucked away into some remote hills in the East far from the Blessed Isle, Nexus, or anything resembling a city. Even so, from atop her hill, the valley seemed to fill the world, an ocean of trees with the occasional building tall enough to peek up like the caps of scattered islands. The sound of wood clacking against wood drew her out of admiring the view, and she broke out into a run down the hill, her midnight tresses trailing behind in the cool breeze.

Cerulean Wake spun his practice staff over his head, eying his opponent warily. Across from him, just out of three steps’ distance away, stood Smoldering Cinder, the shrine’s other guardian and his most frequent training partner. A hair taller than Cerulean Wake, she carried herself with the casual, deadly grace of a hunting cat, and was known throughout the valley for her skill with a blade. It was hard to think that she had ever been only a priestess; even in routine, mundane practice with a training shinai, she looked as focused and serious as if she had been born with sword in hand. The honed calm that settled over her when she took a battle stance unnerved some folk who watched her, but Cerulean Wake had always envied her that stillness, even when they had been children.

“Ready whenever you are.”

Her even tone scattered his thoughts, and he came back to the moment at hand, studying her stance carefully. With the usual crimson headband holding her dark hair back away from her face, and her red skirts seemingly untouched by the dust of the practice ground, she looked as if she had literally just stepped out of the shrine. He was still pretty fresh himself, but he was jumbled and anxious on the inside, while she looked as stable as a statue. Why did it always seem as if she had no holes in her defense at all? Because she doesn’t, he wryly told himself. I don’t ever want to see the day where she fights me with her real blade. Drawing in a deep breath, Cerulean Wake settled back into the preliminary stance of his Crashing Wave form, his staff held behind his right flank while his left arm and leg slowly swept in the opposite direction. Though part of a combat form, the stance was meant more for promoting deep, even breathing and clearing one’s mind. He would need that before going on the offensive.

In fact, he was in the middle of just such a breath when Cinder suddenly flashed from her position to immediately in his face, her shinai barely more than a foot from his ribs. He hadn’t been expecting such a fierce attack during a pause, but he still reflexively swung his staff out in that direction, wood striking against wood as he pivoted with the force of the strike. He changed his grip on his weapon and continued on into one of the derivative steps of Crashing Wave, Breaker at Dawn. Cinder sidestepped the arcing sweep of his staff and attempted to strike him across the top of his chest, but he flipped backwards out of the way, and continued on through several handsprings until he had put some distance between them. She closed the distance in two rapid steps, and their sparring match resumed.

When their back-and-forth ended some minutes later, Cerulean Wake braced himself on his staff like a walking stick, breathing heavily. His entire body ached – particularly his ribs and back – but he had given as well as he had gotten. Cinder tried not to let it show, but she was also huffing and puffing, and her robe above the waist had slipped open a bit to reveal a glimpse of the sarashi underneath. It was difficult enough for her to keep her bosom restrained, anyway; with how forcefully they had been sparring, her cloth binding was starting to look more than a little tattered.

“You fought well,” she spoke suddenly, “but you’re frustrated about something.”

Cerulean Wake winced. “You could tell?”

Cinder relaxed her stance finally, and shook her head. “I could see the restlessness in your motions; you were practically screaming it the entire time we fought. But it’s more than that. You haven’t been sleeping well, and your sifu has been particularly evasive as of late.”

He felt his face flush at that, and scrubbed a hand through his hair. “Damn, I guess I really have been transparent, huh?”

“I wouldn’t exactly say that.” Walking over to the practice rack, Cinder put her shinai back in its place, and took a moment to retie the knot of her long headband, gathering her long, crimson-streaked hair in a more orderly fashion again. “But I know you too well by now to miss something like that. What’s going on?”

“I can’t put a finger on it. It’s just…I feel like I’ve hit a plateau.”

“Your ’warrior’s intuition’ acting up again?” She said it with only the hint of a smile, which helped to soften the sarcasm. “I’m kidding. I do believe you, Cerulean Wake. But I think you’re worrying too much.”

“But Cinder, you know as well as I do that this almost definitely means we’re soon to see a big fight.”

“I do. And we’ll handle it, just like we always have.” Finishing with her knot, Cinder nodded once, as if the matter were entirely decided. Looking at her resolute expression, it was all-too-tempting for Cerulean Wake to believe it so. “It won’t do any of us any good to fret about an indefinite future. Better for you to calm yourself and deal with the present.”

“You should know better than to argue that point with him, Cinder.” Cerulean Wake turned, and there was Soaring Ibis, a quiet smile on her face as she regarded the two in their conversation. “Wake’s an incorrigible worrywart. You should have seen how he was pacing around up at the shrine.”

“You’re late,” Cerulean Wake said after clearing his throat abruptly. “And I wasn’t pacing. I was simply waiting for a certain priestess to finish the rituals she should have been about earlier in the morning.”

“Uh-huh. You should know by now that my schedule is different. I can’t start the offerings as early as Cinder did because of my other responsibilities, silly.”

“It’s true,” Cinder chimed in as she crossed her arms underneath her breasts. “I was never a Songstress, so I could afford to get an earlier start on the day. Cerulean Wake is just sore that his mental state kept him from putting up a good showing against me today.”

“Suddenly, I find myself feeling much better,” he responded with narrowed eyes. “Care to go for another round?”

Now who’s the one holding us up?” Soaring Ibis said with a laugh, stepping in between the two and looking up at him teasingly. “Did you forget where we should be going? That wouldn’t make you a very responsible guardian, you know.”

Turning slightly, he flushed in embarrassment. Of course he hadn’t forgotten her schedule – it had just slipped his mind for the tiniest fraction of a second, naturally. “Alright, alright. It can wait for later.” As he finished turning towards the practice rack, he felt someone leap onto his back, and Soaring Ibis’s arms wrapped themselves around his neck, his magatama dangling from her wrist. He raised a hand to lay fingertips gently against that wrist as she hugged him from behind, and as she slid off again, letting the pendant fall into his hand, he set his staff on the rack and then reached up to loop his pendant back over his head. “So, Cinder, are you coming right away, or should we expect you later?”

“I’ll be just a few minutes behind you,” the other woman replied, tucking her hands into her sleeves. “Don’t dawdle on the way, and don’t wait up for me, Soaring Ibis. I expect you to go ahead and start if I’m a little late.”

“Of course, sempai.” Schooling her face to the image of perfect propriety – she was good at that, at least when she was around Cinder – Soaring Ibis gave a deep bow, and then promptly grabbed Cerulean Wake’s hand, tugging him her direction as she turned to head towards the village. “Now come on, Wake!”

Catching a quick glimpse of Cinder’s tight-lipped but serene expression, as well as the slightest hint of what looked to be amusement, Cerulean Wake followed behind Soaring Ibis, his fingers locking snugly with hers as he couldn’t help smiling himself. “Okay, take it easy. I’m right behind you.”

The waters of Lake Noamin reflected the late morning sun as if the entire surface were made of millions of glittering jewels. A flock of wading birds stood in a small adjoining pool, their high-pitched calls sounding every so often and mingling with the other sounds of nature, all part of the same song that Cerulean Wake had grown familiar with all of his life. As he sat on the largest rock of a formation by a small grove at the lake’s edge, he closed his eyes and leaned his head back, breathing in the scents that surrounded him. Cherry blossoms. Crisp, cool water. Fresh bread baking somewhere nearby. It was all so very serene that it was a little hard for him to notice the small crowd of people who had gathered a short distance away – their voices were just an underlying accompaniment to the song.

But then suddenly, the melody took a different – but no less familiar and wondrous – turn. As he listened, it became a voice, a beautiful soprano tessitura that moved through the air like a needle and thread, piecing together the myriad sounds around him into a functional whole. Wake smiled, and opened his eyes, turning towards the direction of the voice. In the midst of a semi-circle of people, from weathered old Ichigoya who had seen more decades than anyone could count, to the Sun Mi Yo triplets who were barely taller than the grass around the lake, stood Soaring Ibis. Well, she didn’t exactly “stand” – she spun in slow circles and danced with sinuous grace, her wide sleeves making flowing lines in the air. And none of it appeared to interfere in the slightest with the dulcet tones that left her lips.

“…I am the sky and the dawn and the sun. I bring you the morning, I bring you the sun….”

As she danced, Ibis’s voice rose and fell, cavorted and sailed, moving many times more dynamically than even her fluid steps.

“…I give light to the world, I give sight to your eyes….”

How many times had Wake heard that song? And, yet, even though it was her favorite of the hundreds – or thousands – of songs she knew, Ibis always sang this one a little differently each time. Wake certainly never tired of it.

“From the first of all time, until time is undone…” Ibis spun again, and as her dark locks swung away from her face, she caught Wake’s eyes with her own, and her smile lit up even more. “Forever, and ever, and ever and ever….”

The song continued on, and more people gradually joined the crowd. Including Cinder, who seemed to just pop up one moment next to him.

“Careful, Wake,” she said in her sly manner, “you’re gawking.”

“And you don’t like what you see?” he responded with a smirk.

“I’m here to watch my kohai perform.”

“That doesn’t answer the question in the slightest.”

Ibis finished that song, and went through five more of varying tempos and rhythms. She sang about the sky, the trees and flowers, the waters and woods which provided them such beauty and bounty. But mostly, she sang of the sun, of its life-giving warmth, and of the boundless love at its center, the heart of Sol Invictus. This hadn’t been a formal ritual, but she was still a Songstress of the Unconquered Sun, and the people of Three Oaks had passed down many, many songs about their chief deity throughout the years.

As the notes of her last song trailed off, Ibis bowed deeply, and over two hundred pairs of hands burst into loud applause. She blushed and smiled brightly, then went through greeting anyone she encountered until she reached Wake and Cinder. She leaned up and kissed Wake on the tip of his nose, and then did the same to Cinder, who actually blushed very faintly. “So, what now, my guardians?”

“We could go for a dip,” Wake offered.

“You always want to swim,” responded Cinder.

Wake shrugged. “I like water, and I like seeing you two naked. Should I apologize?”

Ibis laughed out loud before covering her own mouth, then grinned widely at Cinder, who looked as if she’d just swallowed a toad. “I think he got you that time, Cin.”

“Rubbish,” the other woman said, her face tinged pink. “He simply doesn’t know how to-”

A loud warning siren interrupted her, and all three of them immediately snapped to awareness. They knew that siren well, as did everyone else in the valley. The villagers were already departing, grouping together into orderly units. “Looks like my intuition was right,” Wake said bitterly. “They’re coming from the south this time.”

“Well, it has been some months,” Cinder said as she checked the sword at her waist. “We’re about due.”

“Miko Ibis,” spoke a young woman who stood nearby. Her husband had nearly been taken the last time this happened. “Please, you and your guardians be careful.”

“We will, Gladiolus,” Ibis replied, putting her hands reassuringly on the woman’s. “Get to safety, and give Whispering Hare my regards.” As Gladiolus left with the others, Ibis turned back to her companions, her expression serious. “To the Wyld Barrier?”

The pack of disfigured mutants quickly sped through the forest, ignoring any signs of trails and making a beeline for the settlements ahead. They were a motley, heterogeneous bunch – once something at least trivially similar to men, their already grotesque features had been distorted still further by constant proximity to the Wyld. Many had extra legs, or arms protruding from their torsos at odd angles, or tusks that had grown from simple prominent teeth into hulking monstrosities that stretched up past their eyes to the their hairlines. And those were the tamer of the mutations. Yes, they were revolting, disgusting creatures, but even this lot had their uses. It was a shame they lacked the forced of will to penetrate the barrier on their own. But that also meant they could not steal all of the fun for themselves.

Their master was dimly aware of their location, but he followed at a much more unhurried pace, striding along with his hobgoblin servants attending. They too were abhorrent, with patchy, leathery skin and eyes that were far too large and misshapen, but at least they were true creatures of the infinite chaos. They were acceptable accompaniment, and could even be trusted with very minor tasks. If one could adapt to the stench of their barbaric raw meat diets.

Ignoring them all, the figure leading them, tall and slender as a willow with luxurious unbound silver hair, stared off into the forest, focusing. They would come – they always responded to his playtime invitations. When he heard the first mutants cry out in pain, he smiled cruelly. They had arrived.

A second later, there were more howls, and then a man in blue tumbled into the clearing through the air, landing in a perfect combat stance and wearing a severe expression. “Ravinius,” he bit off with loathing as he clenched his fists. “So it is you.”

“Of course it’s me, Cerulean Wake,” the silver Noble responded, reaching into thin air and forming his long-handled axe. “You’d better have brought the others. I’d hate to have wasted a trip.”

His axe solidified just in time to parry a red streak of light, and then Ravinius was looking right at Smoldering Cinder from merely inches away, her red jade daiklave pushing against one of the two half-moon blades of his weapon. “He did, naturally.”

“Excellent.” Ravinius forced her back with a mighty push, and summoned his full armor with a thought, leathery green scales interspersed with actual emeralds flowing onto his skin. “With two of you here, I may actually get a workout.” The serpent-headed hobgoblins quickly leaped to the assault, mobbing Cerulean Wake and coming to flank Smoldering Cinder, and an all-out melee ensued, with Ravinius bringing his axe to bear against Smoldering Cinder’s vicious swordplay. Occasionally, he had to chase Cerulean wake off, but for the most part the boy was kept busy by the hobgoblins, his weaving and bobbing fighting style keeping him mostly unharmed. That was good; Ravinius fully intended on killing him personally soon enough.

Before the fight could truly intensify, though, and just as Ravinius was warming up, a bright arc of lightning struck the ground to block him from rushing Smoldering Cinder. He looked up, and smirked. “Well, the princess herself joins us.”

A few dozen feet up above them, Soaring Ibis stood in midair, a coiled band on her wrist still crackling with electricity. “How many times must we have this fight, Ravinius?”

“Until I’ve removed your heart from that pretty chest of yours.” He chanted a short incantation, and black flames began to seethe from and surround his body. “Come on down! The more the merrier!”

Letting the coil on her wrist fade, Soaring Ibis held out her right hand, a bright blue disk appearing before it. The disk became two concentric rings, and twin crosses divided the rings like spokes, creating a pattern like a spider web that began to rotate. At the same time, she began to glow with a brilliant azure light, and a symbol appeared on her forehead, the setting sun of the Twilight Caste. A moment later, she grasped the junction of those crosses with her right hand, and halted the pattern’s motion. Her left hand moved to the web, and then she drew it back, forming a spirit arrow of the same color as the light pouring from her body. When she released, a barrage of such arrows left the elaborate spirit bow, raining down towards Ravinius just as Smoldering Cinder appeared behind him.

He caught enough of the ground with a wide swing of his axe to throw protective chunks of earth in the path of the arrows, and deflected the other woman’s attack as he spun, returning to the offensive against Smoldering Cinder even as her Solar companion blinked in and out of focus, loosing arrows each time before vanishing and reappearing elsewhere. Lesser creatures would have been intimidated by the odds – his horde of hobgoblins and mutants were really little more than distraction, naturally – but Ravinius hadn’t earned his nickname “the Relentless” for nothing. Indeed, this was where he was most at home, dancing with the massive heft of his axe among worthy foes with hardly a thought to anything else. Smoldering Cinder moved to block one of his powerful sweeping swings, then thought better of it at the last moment and phased out of the way, to which he responded by slamming the blade down into the earth and using the momentum to hurl himself into a kick that met Cerulean Wake’s, sending the boy flying some distance away just as Soaring Ibis reappeared barely a pace away, launching another wave of arrows from that bow of hers and forcing Ravinius on the defensive. Yes, given the dreadful ennui of everyday life in the staid, inflexible Creation, fighting the Exalted was a breath of fresh air. And if Ravinius actually managed to drag away a couple of villagers for later entertainment, that would just be a bonus. The oblivious Exalts would just show up and rescue them, anyway, which meant even more fun.

But a few minutes later, the fun came to an end. Just as he had managed to put Smoldering Cinder back on the defensive for a bit, Ravinius noticed a long vine twitch to life in his peripheral vision, and shunted himself some distance away as the plant grew thorns the size of caltrops and lashed at his previous location like a whip. Several more times he had to perform such an evasive maneuver, until he was perched atop a rock outcropping on the other end of the clearing, axe braced over his shoulder as he surveyed the scene in front of him. Soaring Ibis reappeared next to Smoldering Cinder, her bow held low but quite ready to fire again, while the other woman had replaced her daiklave, Ivory Blaze Dancer, back into its sheath in preparation for another iai maneuver. Ten of his hobgoblins collapsed in a neat ring away from Cerulean Wake, who stood at the center in the low pose of his Undercurrent’s Fury form. And the other hobgoblins Ravinius had brought, scattered about the clearing in various states of unconscious or entirely broken, were starting to be covered with ivy that rapidly grew up from the forest floor, as another figure walked into the clearing. This one was a tall man, nearly as tall as Ravinius himself, with sharp, refined features, long orange locks that traveled to his lower back, and blossoms growing above his temples, but a ruthless cast to his expression at the moment. His perfection was nearly on-par with Ravinius’s own; it was a shame he was still one of these limited creatures.

“I believe you’ve had enough fun for one day, Ravinius,” the man spoke as he approached. “You’re clearly outmatched. Withdraw.”

“Always a pleasure, Lilac at Dusk. I had wondered where you were hiding.” Glancing around at the other Exalts, and at the remains of his servants, Ravinius sighed in disappointment and shook his head. “I had hoped to continue for a while, but seeing as how you’ve gone and broken all of my toys, I suppose I should retreat. ‘He who fights and runs away,’ and all that.” Enhancing the flames at his feet, Ravinius melted away from the ground-up, casting the center of his Essence in a random direction away from Three Oaks. He knew they wouldn’t chase him – they were largely too “honorable” to attack a retreating opponent. All except for Lilac at Dusk; Ravinius did keep an eye on him until he was finished dissipating. Enough fun for one day? Perhaps. But there was always another day.

Soaring Ibis let out a deep breath as the last of Ravinius’s form melted away into goo. That bothered her every time she saw it, but she imagined that was part of the reason why he always did it. She really wished he wouldn’t attack the village, even if he rarely got close enough to actually pose a threat over the past year or so, but it was apparently all part of some game he was intent on playing. Fair Folk – who could even begin to understand them? The important thing was that he seemed to be satisfied if he could get a good fight out of them, so at least there was that. She put him out of her mind quickly, though. After all, Lilac at Dusk had returned! Turning to the tall man, Ibis bowed deeply, and smiled. “You returned just in time.”

Laughing quietly, he gave her a respectful dip of the head. “Nonsense. You more than had the situation in hand. But I appreciate the thought, Lady Songstress.” In his white suit with gold trim, Lilac didn’t look at all as if he had been on a long journey. But he had always been unpredictable and mysterious, ever since that day he had first shown up in Three Oaks when Ibis had been just a teenager. She had still been studying under Cinder back then, and her sempai had been suspicious of the outsider – after all, what sort of person willingly traveled so far from the civilization and safety of the new Realm to a place so close to the Wyld? But after fighting him once, Cinder had claimed she had seen all she needed to know about the man in order to trust him. So Ibis had decided to trust him, too, even if he seemed a little too guarded for her to ever feel as close to him as to the shrine’s – and more accurately now, her – guardians.

That didn’t stop her from crossing the intervening space and hugging him around his torso, though. “Regardless, it’s good to have you back. Things just aren’t the same here without you around.”

He stroked the top of her head in a brotherly fashion. “And it’s good to be back. But I’m afraid the news I have isn’t very good. We should return to the village and let everyone know the attack is over.”

Ibis nodded, and looked to Cinder and Wake. “I agree.”

“I don’t particularly care for sticking around here,” Wake said with a sour look at the ivy-covered hobgoblins. “If not for your plants, Lilac, I don’t know how we’d ever get the stink of hobgoblin out of the ground after they show up. You’re a lifesaver.”

Cinder just nodded her agreement, and with that the group turned away from the battleground and made for Three Oaks, large flowers sprouting from the ground to cover the dissolution of their fallen foes.


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