The next morning, Ibis awoke feeling happy and refreshed. Cinder still snoozed across from her with her head against Wake’s chest, so Ibis just lay there and enjoyed the intimacy of being with them. When Wake stirred and opened his eyes, he smiled, gave her a tender kiss, and then buried his face into her hair. Cinder roused with a yawn not long after, and rubbed her eyes. “Good morning, lovebirds.”
Ibis giggled, and Wake tapped Cinder’s nose lightly. “Good morning. Sleep well?”
“Mm-hmm.” Cinder sat up and stretched. “But I want to get some practice done before I head to the springs. You two go ahead, and I’ll meet you in a few.”
Not long after, Ibis and Wake sat relaxing in one of the valley’s numerous hot springs. After the energetic night, it was nice just relaxing with him, sitting side-by-side with the water level just over her breasts. Wake massaged her shoulders and left little kisses along her neck and ears, making her smile and laugh, and every so often she reached up to fiddle with his aqua curls. Of course, he eventually shifted her over to a higher rock, and worked himself inside of her, but even then, he moved steadily, unhurried and methodical as he held her up in his arms. Her eyes locked onto his as she supported herself upright, and she panted openly at their lovemaking, drawing her toes along the backs of his legs and keeping her thighs spread open for him.
As her excitement neared a fever pitch, she placed a hand on his chest, and wrapped his love around her heart and mind. It cradled her like the calm waters at the bottom of Lake Noamin, a feeling every bit as strong as Cinder’s fiery heart, but also just as unique and tailored for Wake. Just as perfect. He rested his face against her neck and pulled her hips more firmly towards his, driving deep into her and then practically moaning right into her ear as he orgasmed. The warmth of his ecstasy pushed her over the edge, and she rubbed her breasts against him as her body shook, her breathing limited to eager gasps.
When Cinder arrived minutes later, they were still arm-in-arm, sharing each others’ warmth and exchanging loving kisses. The other woman let slip the tiniest of sly grins – Ibis wagered that her delay had been quite intentional – and spent a few moments sitting on the bank washing her legs and feet to let the two finish cuddling. They finally broke apart, and Wake moved to say hello; this time by bending her over the bank, hiking her robe up over her hips, and plunging into her completely. Ibis couldn’t hold back a laugh at the look of surprise, likely only partially feigned, on Cinder’s face. Nonetheless, the woman didn’t fight Wake’s aggressiveness, her eyes lidding in a sultry manner as his hands clutched her hips and his arousal disappeared inside her. She visibly bit her lip to hold back her cries as Wake eagerly rammed her from behind, but she gave that up not long in, and even began howling in lust, clawing the stone under her hands. Cinder begged for more, forcing her rump back against him, and she got what she asked for, right up until he arched toward her and seized up, groaning out. She shuddered noticeably, made a sound that was part mewl, part throaty moan, and leaned forward onto her breasts when her peak passed.
Wake finally pulled away from her, and once she had discarded her robe and turned to sit down, he claimed her torso with both arms and nibbled her lower lip with a growl. “That was for last night.”
“Oh my. But Wake,” Cinder replied with a smirk. “I ride you until you nearly break, you respond by mounting me like a jungle cat, and call that punishment? How many more decades before you figure out my evil scheme?”
“Hush, you.” He pulled her into a deep kiss, she bit the tip of his nose afterward with a quiet snarl and then they both came to sit with Ibis, who was quite relaxed by that point.
The rest of their visit was mostly tame. Mostly. Emerging from the springs, they ran into Lilac, who was waiting leisurely with his arms crossed. The man took one look at them, clearly noticed the several bite marks on either side of Wake’s neck, and gave an amused grin. “Well, someone had a pleasant morning.”
“Hey, protecting these ladies is a full-time job,” Wake replied. “I have to be with them as much as possible, ready to jump onto or behind them at a moment’s notice.”
“Don’t you mean ‘in front of’ them?”
“I know what I said.”
“Uh-huh.” Lilac laughed quietly. “Well, I need to borrow Ibis for a bit to help me with my essence converter. You’re all welcome to come along as well, but you’ll likely get bored. Especially you, Wake.”
As Ibis walked over to Lilac, Wake looked thoughtful, then shrugged. “I’ll probably go bug Sifu for a while instead. I should at least do a little work today.”
“I’ll be at the shrine,” Cinder chimed in. “So I’ll see you all later.”
Ibis looked up to Lilac and nodded. “Alright then. Shall we?”
Lilac’s home was a short walk away, out at the edge of a thicker area of forest. Though a small structure, it would have been easily visible from nearby, if not for the immense flowering vines that hung dozens if not hundreds of feet down from the surrounding treetops to create an obscuring curtain. Behind the vines, there were scores more towering plants in myriad colors, clearly not forced into the organization of any garden yet still seeming to grow around the house instead of over or under it, almost as if they were conscious of the house itself.
Around the back of the house, Lilac and Ibis tinkered away on a small device no larger than a wash bin. She did most of the actual work; though he had learned the ins and outs of the converter’s functioning, Lilac preferred to just watch Ibis and stay out of her way. It was always an interesting experience – she was so intuitive and affective, yet once that switch flipped, she was all logic and structure. A miko scientist; fascinating, indeed.
“I think I’ve found why your arctic deepblooms are wilting.” Ibis leaned up from the converter, her sleeves rolled up to her shoulders, and pinned her hair back again. “There was a minor error in the chilling mechanism’s relay, but it should be easy to finish smoking out.”
“I very much appreciate the help.” Lilac watched with a silent smile as she returned to work. She had really grown up in those eight years. Gone was the gangly, often clumsy girl he had first met, replaced by a graceful, stunning young woman as poised and dignified as Smoldering Cinder. The outside world desperately needed her spark – he knew that better than most. But there were still too many enemies, and they were still not ready to fight them. So he would keep her here, and safe, as long as he could. He wasn’t officially a Guardian, but he had his own oaths to keep.
Ibis finished up a few minutes later, sliding the finely-detailed pieces of the essence converter back into place and then lowering the device back into the earth. A moment later, there was a pulse of rainbow light as it came back online, and then a section of Lilac’s plants, giant ice-blue bell-shaped blossoms that had started looking forlorn, began to recover immediately. “Ah, excellent! Exactly what they needed,” the man said with a smile.
“I can never believe how pretty your plants are.” Ibis walked over to one of the blossoms, dwarfed by its fifteen-foot petals, and touched it gently. “Where did you find these again?”
“A few days north of a Northern city named Whitewall. They grow far out on the frozen plains, but normally reach maybe two feet in height. The East is, of course, far more fertile.”
“And you’re the best gardener anywhere,” Ibis said with a grin.
Laughing, Lilac shook his head. “I just have certain advantages. You should see the flowers I’m engineering for the birth of your and Wake’s first child.”
She punched him playfully in the shoulder. “You know that’s a long way off! We’re not even trying yet, nor is Cinder.”
“Perhaps,” he said with a sly smile. “But I like to think ahead.” Even as he spoke, he could see a thoughtful look enter her eyes, and her hands fidgeted with her skirts around her belly.
“What about you?” she asked shortly after. “You’d make a great father. Why aren’t you finding yourself someone special?”
He raised one hand and wagged a finger in response. “In due time, Ibis. For the foreseeable future, I’ve simply too much work.”
“Of course,” she said with a slight roll of her eyes. “You should take more time for yourself. You’re not officially a Guardian, yet you work harder than any of us, and you always rush to our aid when we need you.” Turning from the deepblooms, she clasped her hands behind her back and tilted her head, giving him a cute look. "Eight years, and still so enigmatic. Are you ever going to tell me why you’re really here in the valley?”
She pouted slightly in response. “You always say that! Maybe I should use my scary Anathema powers to make you talk.” Waving her hands in the air and making spooky noises, Ibis made herself look so ridiculous that Lilac had to chuckle.
“Well, in that case, I’m here for your smiling face and sense of humor, Lady Songstress.”
She giggled and shook her head. “Uh-huh. Well I suppose I can let that do for now. But I’m keeping an eye on you, fella’.” Crossing to him, she narrowed her eyes, and then tapped him on the nose with a light “boop!” before turning and scampering off. “Heading to visit some folks, see you later!”
“Until then.” Waving, he watched her go with another smile, then turned back to his vast wild gardens. So very much work to do….
There were no two ways about it: Cerulean Wake was antsy. He had resisted the urge to just head straight to his sifu’s home on the Mountain of Elders. But as he wandered through the streets of his home village, his mind was entirely elsewhere. Fighting Ravinius hadn’t quieted the little voice in his mind. True, these days, the Cataphract raksha was more nuisance than threat, unless only one of the Guardians could respond, and thus the faerie only pinged Wake’s senses weakly. But the uneasiness had been strong and persistent, and was even now a dull thrumming in his awareness. Something was still coming.
Gradually, he found himself at Lake Noamin again. Clasping the blue gem of the magatama around his neck, he focused on the black jade beads around it and closed his eyes. When he reopened them, the tranquil surface of the lake was alive with activity normally obscured from his vision. The forms of spirits and tiny elementals danced and cavorted above and just below the surface, creating the impression that the lake itself was a huge creature, constantly jittering and fidgeting. After a moment, a larger form broke the surface, and sunlight scattered in rainbow hues, as if through a prism, off of a serpent slightly longer than a man was tall, with iridescent scales. It swam casually to the shore, and rose up to its full height once it reached Wake. “Ah, Wavestrider,” the spirit said lazily, yawning openly. “I sensed your arrival. You wished to speak with me?”
“Yes, Jorudo. Thank you for answering.”
“It was…no trouble,” Jorudo responded around another large yawn. “I was simply napping. I will gladly hear you out, young one.” The serpent coiled himself atop the water, shook his head as if trying to clear it, and then trained his solid aquamarine eyes on the Water Aspect.
Wake took a deep breath. Matsuri-Ono was god of the valley, but Jorudo held dominion over the lake. The two had both been freed from debilitating essence drain when Ibis had repaired Argus, and were old friends. But while Matsuri-Ono took a very active role in the valley’s life, viewing himself as a protective father, Jorudo was far more “hands-off” in his approach, preferring to get involved only when the lake itself was affected. Wake would have called him “lazy,” but perhaps “exceedingly patient” was better. He couldn’t complain, though – Jorudo had formed an excellent rapport with him, and was nearly always willing to listen, even when Wake himself felt he was being too worrisome. “My inner sea is turbulent, Joru-jii.”
“Your inner sea is always turbulent, water child.”
Wake sighed a bit. “I suppose you’re right.”
“I do not mean that in insult. You compare yourself to the flameborne Smoldering Cinder unfairly. She is measured and temperate, a fire that burns slowly and carefully, because that is where her strengths lie. You are not a slow-burning flame. You are water itself – quick to shift, quick to adapt, and never truly contained. That is where your strengths lie, young one. Your Songstress has need of those, as well.”
Standing in silence for a few moments, Wake turned that over in his mind. “You already knew why I came to see you when I called, didn’t you?”
“You have lived close to my domain, as an enlightened soul of my own nature, for more than seven decades. Lake Noamin’s waters resonate with the spirits of all in the valley, but yours is a waterfall among babbling streams.” The serpentine face became something very close to a grin. “So yes, I knew. Do not burden yourself with worry, Wavestrider. No storm lasts forever, and a captain always dwelling on the next one misses the joy of the voyage.”
Wake smiled, then gave him a deep bow. “As always, thank you for your wisdom, Joru-jii. You’ve been a great help.”
“You always have my ear, young one. Come back whenever you need to.” Turning back towards the lake, Jorudo’s form slid under the surface without disturbing it, and moments later the other spirit beings faded from view as well, as Wake ceased concentrating on his necklace. Turning to leave, he glanced at the water one more time, then headed back towards the villages, the water god’s words still playing in his mind.
Pushing through yet another tangle of thick foliage, River Rat mopped his forehead with a filthy rag, and surveyed the landscape stretching out before him. Trees, verdant, ancient, and colossal, surrounded his vantage point and continued on as far as the eye could see. He hated the East so very, very much. It was all obscene overgrowth and backwards hamlets and predators just looking to gobble up a fat little morsel like himself. And it was always so damn hot! The Far East was the worst. It didn’t matter that he had been born there – the whole stinkin’ direction was a blight compared to the perfect jewel that was the Blessed Isle.
Ah, the Realm. Now there was a fine place. River Rat had never been handsome, or strong, or fit, or intelligent, or talented in any real fashion. But, by the Empress, he could damn well do as he was told, and that sort could always find a place in the Realm. Dining with a Dragontouched courtesan beat endless nights of gator stew hands-down, even if it did mean he was broke most of the time. Luckily, the Rat knew where to find the lucrative jobs, which was how he got the inside line to his current employer in the first place.
Say what you would about the Immaculate Order, but those wild-eyed bastards often compensated their help handsomely. While working for the higher muckety-mucks, he could drink the good stuff and eat his fill every single night. Whether he had any use for their religion was irrelevant. It had its down sides – like being assigned back to this stinking pit – but he knew it would wind up being worth his while.
So as he had dutifully done for months, River Rat peered through the paired viewing lenses he possessed, looking out over the treeline. They were on loan from his employers, and fascinating things which let him see easily for miles. He didn’t understand how they worked; all he knew was that they would reveal what he was seeking. Chewing a knot of sourthorn root – the succulent was one of the few things he did like about the East – he scanned back and forth, keeping his eyes peeled.
Despite his diligence, he very nearly missed it. As he shifted his view away from a gently sloping mountain, he caught the slightest shimmer in the air through his lenses. Pressing a button on the side, he activated the higher-power setting that fed off of ambient essence, and watched as a translucent glow shone in his heightened senses, touching that mountain and continuing into the distance for miles. River Rat’s jaw dropped, his chaw nearly tumbling from his gap-toothed mouth. Then he started dancing a jig. It lasted for a full minute before he finally settled down, marked the location on his map, and touched his earpiece. “Master! Agent Rat reporting in!”
“Acknowledged, Agent Rat,” spoke a coarse voice over the channel. “What have you to report?”
“I’ve found, it, Eminence. The Wyld Barrier we’ve been seeking!”
“Are you certain?” The voice grew excited, but was still a croak.
A long pause followed, then the voice resumed. “Very good, Agent. Hold position: we move to join you before nightfall. Field Command out.”
As the link faded, River Rat began to shuffle and caper again. Soon – very soon – this assignment would be over, and he would return to the Isle. Yep, working for the Wyld Hunt wasn’t so bad. Not at all.