Chapter 9

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When the away team returned to Onestrio's tradepost, they switched out party members. Arina and Cethin were itching to get back out exploring, and they left with Argus and Sky.

At the tradepost, Ayaki and Davona spent some time looking over the prisoners currently engaged in building their new accomodations. To encourage them on their rehabilitation, Ayaki gave them a passionate speech about how their hard work will make their lives better.

"I know that this is not the type of work that you came out here for, but know this. Your decision to take this path will reward you. Together, all of you, along with all of us, are building a better future here for everyone here. You are taking part in building something great, and you should all feel proud of that."

The kitsune ronin had a way with words. She had learned well from her father. A stab of sorrow once more followed that memory, but discipline was another thing Ayaki had learned. Any visible sign of sadness was well hidden.

Instead, Ayaki projected a voice full of confidence. Accompanying her words were sharp and precise gestures and poses, captivating attention at key moments in her speech. 

The ronin princess had succeeded. The former bandits were visibly enraptured throughout her speech. When they resumed their work, it was with higher spirits and enthusiasm, and their productivity noticeably increased. 

Davona looked in on Guido in particular, and gladly found that the young man made no further attempts to escape. Joram approached Ayaki and told her that her speech inspired him as well. He promised to help guide the prisoners on their rehabilitation. 

Ayaki thanked him. It was a small act in the grand scheme of things, but perhaps this was the way forward to honour her father.

-----

Out in the wilds, Sky and Argus woke up one morning to find their inventory laid out before them, rearranged in an absurd order. It was quite a mess, actually. Arina explained to her confused companions that there were fairies following them, and that they likely did this prank on the newcomers. 

"Why didn't you tell us sooner that you have invisible pursuers?!" Sky exclaimed, frantically scanning around him left and right.

"You needn't worry, they've been quite friendly," Arina assured the sylph. "They even saved our lives one time, including Davona's."

"That's not very reassuring, but I am grateful to them for aiding my sister." Sky took out a potion of healing out of his pack, and left it out for the fairies.

Sky and Argus continued to be victims of harmless pranks, like getting their water swapped out with potions of reduce person, which thankfully lasted only a minute, and their gear hidden nearby and replaced with illusions. On another day, Arina and Cethin noticed signs stuck to Argus' and Sky's backs, with the former saying "I'm a big blockhead" and the latter saying "Full of hot air". Arina discreetly removed them before either of them noticed. Perhaps the worst was the two waking up to droppings hitting their faces from a flock of birds passing by. It seemed like it would take them some time to appease the little pranksters.

The Company delved further into the Gnarlwood. If their tracking was accurate, they were heading near the centre of the forest. Their trek was becoming more and more difficult. The brush had grown more tall and wild in this area. The trees were much older here, and their branches were long and gnarly. A significant overgrowth of brambles was the greatest obstacle in their way.

However, before they fully realised it, the Company suddenly found themselves no longer hacking through brambles. Instead, the gnarled branches opened up to reveal an amazing sight.

In front of the Company was a large clearing, but it was far from empty. At its centre was an exquisitely carved stone pool.A statue of a leaping elk, now covered in grime and moss, was erected at its centre. However, the pool's water was murky, and covered in patches of filth.

Behind the pool was a structure composed of a circle of trees enveloped by decoratively carved walls and roof of stone and timber. A giant, stone-carved elk's head hung above the entrance, supported by the branches of the neighbouring trees. The head drooped downwards, and its long and exquisite antlers reached down to the ground to frame the entrance. The entire structure was wrapped in thick layers of vines and moss. 

This was no doubt the lost Deianeiran Temple of the Elk, for it matched Father Joram's description almost perfectly.

The tranquillity of the site was broken by the sudden roar from within the temple's structure. With heavy stomping steps, an enormous bear emerged. Its eyes were bloodshot, and thick saliva drooled out of its maw of large fangs.

Arina stepped forward, and called out to the beast in the most soothing manner she could. "Please, calm yourself, we mean you no harm!"

However, the beast was clearly overcome with a berserker rage. With a mighty roar that shook the trees, the bear charged out of the temple and towards the Company.

"Guess it's not in the mood to play!" Argus exclaimed. 

The large man charged ahead of Arina, and met the bear head on. With a mighty swing, his earthbreaker slammed into the beast's chest, knocking the wind out of its charge. 

Argus' action gave the rest of the team time to spread out and surround the bear. Hanging back a bit further away than the others, Cethin began reciting an encouraging limerick.

"Trekking through forest with brambles in our hair,"

Sky slicked the ground underneath the beast by conjuring a large puddle of magical grease. The bear slipped, and both Argus and Arina seized the opportunity to strike at it with deadly accuracy.

"We found an old temple guarded by a mad bear!"

The wounds and blood merely drove the bear further. The massive beast surged forward, and ripped into Argus with both of its claws. Tightening its grip of the man's torso, the bear lurched up, and sank its bloodthirsty maw into Argus' shoulder. Argus roared in pain as blood gushed out freely from his wounds.

"Claws splash our blood onto ground,"

Arina reacted immediately. She mentally called out to Mister Angelcakes, and she felt a familiar, painful sorrow flow through her. Droplets of Argus' spraying blood suddenly froze, seized midair by an unseen force. They exploded into a fine, red mist, then suddenly flew to envelop the bear. The beast roared as Arina's sorrow transformed into pain into it.

"But we will win this round,"

Arina followed up by executing shattered mirror's left-hand strike. She stabbed the bear once, then multiple mirrors appeared all around the beast. Within them, Arina's reflections all stabbed at the same point, the bear's heart. Blood sprayed out, and the bear bellowed out in pain. It collapsed to the ground in a pool of its own blood.

"And Evergreen Company are victors with flair!"

Upon its death, the grizzly let out an almost human sigh of relief. It then reverted to the shape of an old human man with a look of peace on his face, then rapidly decomposed to dust. The temple suddenly grew more vibrant as a breeze of fresh air swept through. The water in the pool was magically cleared of its algae. 

"Amazing..." Arina whispered at the magical renewal around them.

"I think... the Lady of Frontiers has purified this place," Cethin surmised. "I believe we can tell Father Joram that this temple can once more be used for its sacred role."

Meanwhile, Sky was particularly drawn to the now-clear pool. He turned to the badly wounded Argus.

"Argus, try taking a drink of water from here," he told the bleeding mercenary.

Argus shrugged, then immediately regretted it as pain shot through his wounds. Yeah, he could definitely use a fresh drink right about now. Cupping his hands together, he scooped up some of the water from the temple's pool, and gulped it down. The wave of refreshment that filled his body was expected, but the warmth of healing magic that followed was a pleasant surprise. Argus checked, and yes, his wounds were not as bad as before.  

"I suspected as much," Sky mused.

"Wait, you had me drink this without being sure of its effects?" Argus gave the wizard an accusing look.

"I concluded that your build is sufficient to ward off any potential ill effects. If you'll excuse me, I'm going to examine the temple's interior." Sky turned away, and quickly scurried away to escape the mercenary's glares. 

The away team made camp within the temple. When they awoke, they found that their fairy tricksters had made a visit, but no tricks were played upon them this time. Instead, the only sign of their presence was a newly placed offering of forest fruits and sweets upon the altar of the goddess.


Back at Onestrio's, one of the guards assigned as lookout cried out, "Riders! Riders incoming!"

Ayaki and Davona rushed up the rampart. Lorenzo told them that they were not expecting any group this large. They had their working prisoners take shelter in the supply shed, and had the gates closed.

The new arrivals rode up into view. There were seven of them, armed and armoured. A dark skinned woman was leading them.

"Beware, this might be Vico's lieutenant, Ravenna!" Davona warned in hushed tones. She drew her sword, and Rishoi drew her revolver.

"Well, what's all this then?" the leader of the riders shouted. "Where's Onestrio?"

"Who are you, and what is your business here?" Ayaki shouted back from atop the rampart.

"My business is with Onestrio! Now bring his fat ass out here!"

Ducking out of sight, Ayaki used her kitsune powers to disguise herself as Onestrio. Jupus told the real Onestrio and his wife to hide back into their house, then he and Rishoi moved to hide nearby. As Onestrio, Ayaki opened the gates.

"So Onestrio! What's this business of closing your gates to the Stag Lord? And where is Vico?" Ravenna bellowed, then she paused. "Wait, who's that hiding over there?" Rishoi cursed as she was spotted.

"Looks like the fat trader grew a spine, boys!" Ravenna shouted as she drew her handaxes. "Let's teach'em a lesson!"

With deception no longer necessary, Davona came charging out, eager to deal pain to these outlaws. As she delivered a deep cut to Ravenna, Jupus conjured a ball of fire in one hand, and threw it at her, giving the bandit leader a nasty burn. Ravenna snarled, but her attention was taken up by the aggressive Davona.

Rishoi took aim at another bandit, and fired using the variable flux technique. There was a crack of thunder as the electrified bullet pierced its target's gut. The malephilim bounty hunter continued to provide cover fire for her new companions, including shooting a sword out of one of the bandit's hands.

The bandits in the rear, armed with longbows, returned fire, and Davona was badly hit. The forward line of bandit riders began closing around her. By rushing out so forward at the enemy, Davona left herself greatly exposed to enemy attacks. Although her armour was tough, enough arrows, axes, and swords found enough gaps to make her bleed heavily. The bandit who had his sword shot out of his hands scooped it up, and swung it down upon Davona's sword arm. Although it did not cut through the armour, Davona gasped as she felt the bone break, and collapsed to the ground, passing out from the pain.

Ayaki, having dropped her guise as Onestrio, charged out to support Davona. "You dare defy the heir of Iku?" she roared out, swinging her large katana, cutting a bandit across the chest. Despite her bravado, she was put on the backfoot with the bandits' retaliation. A swing of an enemy greatsword nearly lopped off her head, but she narrowly raised her hand to deflect it. She saved her neck, but at the expense of her hand, now mangled.

Over her shoulder, Jupus fired an arrow with deadly accuracy into one of the other bandits. He then rushed ahead to join Ayaki. "Lorenzo, Vittoria! We need your help up here!" he shouted on the way, and then pulled power from nature to heal Ayaki as she battled the bandits. The two hired guards left their post guarding the prisoners, and joined the fight at the tradepost's entrance.

One of the bandits in the rear returned fire, but at Rishoi, piercing her hand with an arrow. The malephilim cursed, and switched hands on her revolver. She fired back, taking out the bandit.

Lorenzo and Vittoria now joined the melee. With a deadly swing, the experienced mercenary decapitated one of the bandits. This allowed Ayaki to fall back. With a whistle, she called her trusty steed Thunder to her. As she mounted, Joram ran over to her, and called upon Deianeira's power to heal some of her wounds.

Jupus hustled over to Rishoi's position, and bestowed some nature healing of his own upon her. Reinvigorated, Rishoi fired strikes the hourglass at Ravenna, hitting her in the gut, and the bandit let out a string of curses. Ayaki then charged at her upon her thundering steed, and gave the bandit leader a nasty, bleeding cut.

The curses kept spewing out of the bandit's mouth. "Don't think you can get away with defying the Stag Lord!" Ravenna spat.

"You talk a big game, but you're going to die like a dog," Rishoi retorted. The malephelim charged her gun with supernatural fire, and shot the bandit. The burning bullet slammed into her chest, and Ravenna fell to the ground, unmoving.

The three remaining bandits glanced at each other once their leader went down. Having not expected this kind of resistance, and already hurt to varying degrees, they all had the same idea. As one, they turned their horses around, and galloped away from the battle as fast as possible.

The Company let them go. They were in no condition to chase after them until Joram and Jupus administered healing magic to the wounded. But one thing was for sure, today was their victory.

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