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Crowquest – Chapter 4: Arcadia

Arcadia
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At last, the two of them were ejected by the portal, and flung headlong into Arcadia at the speed they had been traveling, skidding rather roughly across the ground as they landed. The baying of their celestial pursuers had faded some time ago; their jurisdiction did not extend beyond Lunia, after all. But that did not mean that the danger was gone- only momentarily abated. There were creatures here just as determined to vanquish evil as the archons. A gentle rain was cascading downwards, showering the fields around them with its soothing sounds and gentle touches. Nick moaned, opening his eyes and lifting his face from the muddy riverbank they had landed on, and immediately tensing in pain. A crossbow bolt, no doubt enchanted, had slammed through his wing and shattered his bone. “Are you alright, Anivari?” He looked over to the tiefling, his agony tempered with concern.

 

Anivari rolled onto her back, grasping her side. When she pulled her hand away, she noted that she had started bleeding again. Damn. “I… I think the wound opened again. I’ll be fine though.” She grimaced as she sat up, the rain feeling rather nice on her skin. The flapping of wings heralded the bird’s arrival as it landed on the ground nearby. She glared over at it, her brain finally catching up with what had happened. “Forget me, Nick. Your wing – are you alright?” She gave him a worried glance, moving to him as quickly as she could wincing slightly. She knelt next to him and frowned, concern lighting her golden eyes. “What happened? Is there anything I can do?” She didn’t bother glancing around yet; she needed to know that Nick was okay before they ventured forth again.

 

“Oh, um. Hm. Ow. Owww…” Nick screwed his eyes shut as the pain really began to kick in, pulsing through his wing down to his shoulder and upper back. He exhaled and bit his lip, trying to make himself focus. “…Break off the head of the bolt and pull it out. It’s going to hurt me, a lot, but my wing won’t be able to heal properly if it stays in. So…” The little devil’s tail tensed up in preparation, as did all his muscles. “Do it quick, please. Then I can tend to -ow!- that cut in your side.” His hands almost slipped in the mud, but he managed to keep himself upright. The devil’s now-crooked wing stretched towards Anivari, his blood bubbling through the edges of the wound and running down his wing membrane while the head of the bolt continued to shine with magical light.

 

Anivari’s frown deepened as she gripped the bolt. “All right,” she said. “I’m sorry about this in advance.” With a brisk flick of her wrist, she snapped the wooden shaft and pulled it out as soon as it was broken. It only took a second, but it made even the tiefling’s back hurt a bit. She threw the bolt to the side, almost tempted to go find another hound archon and rip it to pieces. Thankfully, she was able to dissuade her from that notion. She had to control herself; raging again would probably only make the bleeding worse. “There,” she muttered. “That’s it.” She was a bit pale, not sure how much blood she had lost quite then. But it didn’t matter to her – she was just glad that the bolt was out of his wing. She almost cursed herself, wishing she knew how to heal others. Normally, she just let the wounds heal on their own, ignoring their presence unless she couldn’t. “Are you going to be alright, Nick?”

 

Nick had to remember not to bite his lip for this, since doing so might result in him chomping straight through it. So instead, he just set his teeth and stared at a single point in the mud as Anivari went about the business of removing the bolt. He felt the shaft snap, and winced before the withdrawal of the bolt elicited a long, pained hiss from him. After a few moments, his breathing steadied, and he was able to look up and give his companion a shaky nod.

 

“…Yeah, Ani. Thank you.” The flesh of his wing was already starting to heal, but Nick knew that the bones would take quite a while longer. His eyes dropped to her midsection, and the same worry as before found its way back onto his face. “Come, let’s get out of this rain so I can tend to your side. There’s bound to be an orchard nearby – we can take shelter under a tree.” He picked his luggage up from out of the mud and, with a groan of exertion, pushed himself to his feet, looking around through the misty rain. Indeed, there was a grove of trees not far away, a few hundred meters through the field they now stood in.

 

In response, Anivari simply nodded. His words didn’t diminish her worry, but staying here wouldn’t either. She stood along with him, keeping her face as stoic as she could, while quietly reminding herself to breathe. She started walking over to the trees as well, grabbing her gourd from her hip and taking a long drink from it, noting that it wasn’t even halfway finished off yet. She held it out to Nick. “Need anything to drink? I promise I’m not trying to get you drunk.” Letting out a low chuckle proved to be a mistake, as it sent another jolt of pain through her side.

 

Nick also chuckled, in spite of the discomfort shooting down through his wing. “I would never think so lowly about your intentions, Ani.” He gratefully took the gourd from her and lifted it to his lips, drinking down the water like it was the first time he’d ever tasted it. “Ooh… that’s nice. Thanks.” The spinagon smiled and sighed, looking around through the rain. His Devil’s Sight pierced the mist and the downpour, seeking out any potential threats that might be coming their way. In the orchard ahead, there were animals – the metallically-coloured wildlife of Arcadia, as benign or dangerous as their counterparts on the material plane. Nick wasn’t troubled by their presence, and nor were they perturbed by that of the two fiends. He returned the gourd to Anivari, and half-consciously reached for her hand. Once more, he wanted her to be reassured, even if they were in hostile territory.

 

Anivari’s face regained its color as he squeezed her hand, and she smiled down at him. As long as he thought they were safe for the moment, her nerves would be relatively at ease. Her golden eyes scanned the area, but unlike him she couldn’t see anything unless it was within normal eyesight. She blinked in surprise, gazing at some of the strangely-coloured creatures there. She glanced down at him. “I know that any heavenly realm is dangerous. Especially for us. But on a scale of one to ten, how bad is this place?” She only asked since she felt as if he knew more than she did. In truth, she was quite certain he knew more than she did. Anivari barely knew anything about her father’s realm, and even less about Hellifyno, let alone the Outer Planes. All of this was new to her, especially the feelings that ran through her when she thought about Nick. But the feelings were something she embraced. Once the two of them stood under the trees, she remained still, listening to the patter of rain on the leaves above them. “Well, let’s do this. Don’t worry; I have a pretty high pain tolerance.” She was still, but she braced herself, fully aware that it might hurt. But she’d been through worse, right?

 

“’Ow dangerous is this place? …Well, it’s dangerous in a bit of a different way than the ’Eavens are. Back there, we were chased by the local guards and ’ad to deal with an angel lord. Here, it’s a bit more wild. People will still try and kill us, or at the very least stop and question us, but we’re less likely to encounter organized groups of, say, archons. And since this realm is also lawful neutral, not everyone will be wholly opposed to me bein’ ’ere, so… yay. Not as bad as the Seven ’Eavens.” Nick beamed up at her before tilting his head in confusion. “It’s not going to ’urt much. I’m just going to make a healin’ contract with you.” He fished around in his luggage, pulling out one of those expensive parchments and pressing it to Anivari’s side to soak up the blood dripping thenceforth. “So, you’re goin’ to owe me something in return for this. It’s not goin’ to be anythin’ big, since I’m just ’ealin’ a nonlethal cut and restorin’ your stamina. Just lettin’ you know.” He gave her a little smile, before prompting her: “Now, say ‘I accept this contract’.”

 

Anivari nodded. Well, that was good. Maybe, even if it wasn’t much, she would be able to relax ever so slightly. She glanced at him, her trust in him absolute. The knowledge that he had been true to his word this whole time helped a great deal with that. “Well. They might not try to attack you, but I’m not as lawful as you are.” She frowned slightly, but shook her head. “Right, the healing.” Another deep breath and… “I accept this contract.” The tiefling braced herself once more. Even if nothing attacked her, they might try attacking the bird; she knew it wasn’t any kind of lawful or even neutral alignment. Damn thing was probably evil, for all she knew.

 

A dazzling light shone from the paper, and a burning sensation throbbed in Anivari’s side as the contract was activated, the infernal script ablaze with power as it worked its magic. The cut had sealed in an instant, and the tiredness she felt from raging evaporated just as suddenly. Nick continued pressing the contract to her side until the light faded, at which point he withdrew it, carefully rolled it up, tied it with a pretty red bow and slid it back into his luggage. One it was safely tucked away, a look of great relief broke out on his face, and he went to sit beneath the gold-wooded tree, motioning for her to come join him there. “We can wait out the rain ’ere, and then get movin’ again when it clears up.”

 

Anivari let her head drop forwards, gritting her teeth while the burning sensation raged through her side. Once it was done, she looked over at him and smirked as she watched him put that ribbon on it. She started out next to him when she sat on the ground, but before long, she had leaned over and rested her head in his lap. “Thank you,” she said, looking up at him with a smile. She didn’t feel tired now, but she just wanted to sit with him in the relative peace. If she was being honest with herself, she liked being close to him like this.

 

The crow parked itself on a branch nearby, and its laughter could be heard echoing through the metallic orchard. “Looks like a match made in Hell,” it remarked. “What’re you gonna do when he leaves?” Anivari closed her eyes, shaking a little. The crow landed on the ground, then, well out of their reach. “Just go back to being big, red, and stupid? Let’s be honest, I liked you better that way. So much easier to get you riled up and ready to fight.” As she kept her eyes closed, trying to tune out the crow, a single tear slipped from her eye. She turned her head, trying to hide it. “Shut up,” she muttered, voice cracking a little.

 

Nick snarled at the crow, reaching down to tangle his slender fingers in Anivari’s hair. He loved her hair, the way it shifted from white to red. In fact, he loved just about everything about her, and the idea that he’d leave her was laughable to him. As he tried to accommodate his broken wing against the gold tree trunk at his back, his other hand ran gently up her side, along her muscular arm and up to her shoulder, resting there before trailing back down. “I’m not goin’ anywhere, Anivari,” he murmured, even as his diabolical mind schemed in regards to just what he would do to that bird when the time came for its comeuppance. “I’m stayin’ with you until you tell me to go. I…” He thought he might even love her, but he didn’t want to scare her by telling her that so soon after having met. “I’m goin’ to keep you safe, just like you’re goin’ to keep me safe. You’re precious to me, you beautiful tiefling, and don’t let that crow trick you into thinkin’ otherwise.” He slid his hand down to her face to wipe away that tear and softly stroke her cheek. “Please, always keep bein’ the strong, brave woman I know you to be.”

 

Anivari took a deep breath, smiling softly at his reassurances. She turned her face back to look at him, her eyes widening a bit upon hearing him say he wouldn’t leave her once their quest was finished. There was still some doubt in her heart as to that, but she hoped it would all be gone once the crow was. After all, that stupid bird was what had made her doubt herself as it was. She moved her hand, taking his free one in hers. “I don’t… I don’t want you to leave.” She knew that even if she didn’t have feelings for him, she would still want his company. She felt like an actual person around him, instead of all those horrible things the crow used to attack her. Brave. Right. “Why wouldn’t I keep you safe? You’ve… you’ve been nothing but good to me. You make me feel like… like someone finally, actually cares about me. And… I really, really like you, Nick.” She blushed again, ignoring the fake gags from the crow as it fluttered back up into a tree.

 

“And I really, really like you, Ani.” The little devil sighed, sitting up against the tree and sticking his tongue out at Yatagarasu before leaning down to give Anivari a tender kiss on the lips. His fingers entwined further with hers as he shifted to kiss her better. He couldn’t imagine leaving her. He liked her more than anyone else he’d ever met, and was more attracted to her than anyone else he’d ever met. As long as she wanted him to be with her, so he would be. To hear that she felt all those things because of him and his kindness towards her warmed his heart further, and he privately noted that the rain clinking off the metallic trees was a wonderful ambiance for a romantic embrace such as this. The crow could go die in a hole; he and the girl he liked could bloody well be affectionate if they wanted to.

 

She was a little surprised at the kiss, but her eyes closed after a moment and she relaxed into it. Feeling his hand in hers made her heart race. She didn’t mind; it was nice to feel wanted like this. As much as she enjoyed kissing him, she had no idea what she was doing, never having been this close to someone before. Part of her didn’t want the rain to end, since it meant they could stay there, under that tree, for just a little while longer. But the rest of her knew that the rain would have to end. And the sooner it did, the sooner she would be free of the crow. She knew, deep down, she’d never be truly happy with that thing hovering over her. Though, after a while, she realized that her own happiness wasn’t what mattered most to her. She knew that so long as the crow existed, Nick wouldn’t be able to be happy either, because Anivari would always be angry or doubting everything. And she felt like he deserved so much more than that. Soon, though, those thoughts were pushed away from her mind, and she focused solely on the feeling of his lips on hers.

 

Nick closed his eyes and dared to deepen their kiss just a little more, not wishing to go too far, but also longing to touch Anivari’s wondrous body, to explore it with his hands and tail and lips. Just kissing her was better than nice, though, and he would not go further while his wing was in this state, nor while the two of them were still in the Outer Planes. More than anything, he wanted her to be at ease, and to be happy. She deserved so much to be happy, and free from that nasty creature’s shadow. Until then, he’d give her what happiness he could. Her rage and doubt, he would happily deal with, if at the end of it all he could see her smile still. His unbroken wing curled around her torso, keeping her close as he kissed her softly, hoping that it reassured her, and that she could enjoy it as much as he. The rain would end, indeed, but until then he could keep her warm and snuggled and kissed, and fully intended to.

 

Anivari sighed softly, still amazed that she could feel like this. Her heart felt like it would burst from her chest, and her face darkened in color. That blush was spreading across her cheeks, and she wondered what it would be like to be held like this forever. She felt his wing curl around her, and her free hand moved a bit to gently stroke along it. All that anger, all that doubt was slowly being kissed away by the spinagon. And she didn’t mind it one bit. Was the rain ending? She wasn’t paying attention. Not until the crow ruffled its feathers and let out a harsh cry. “Hey, lovebirds. The rain’s letting up. Good thing, too – looking at the two of you might actually make me lose my lunch.”

 

Nick pressed his lips to hers just a bit harder before breaking it and looking cheerily up at the crow. “I’m goin’ to eat you, you know?” he said, as brightly as he could, before motioning for Anivari to get up. She was stroking his wing, which made him want to go right back to kissing her, but they did have to get moving, if they wanted to get to the nearest city before the rain started again. Gentle rainfall was common in Arcadia, being necessary to tend the endless gardens and crop-fields that made up the plane. In fact, with them now being in an orchard, Nick was relieved that they hadn’t come into contact with anything keeping it. He shivered at the thought of finding himself at the end of a planetar’s blade, or a hollyphant’s tusk. “…Let’s be on our way, then,” he murmured, giving the tiefling another kiss on the forehead before slowly unfolding his legs and standing up.

 

Anivari stood as well, giving the crow a glare. Her face was still that blush-tinted red, but she didn’t mind too much. She glanced around at the metallic orchard they were in, unsure of their next move. “Uh… which direction do we go in?”

 

She kept her voice a bit low, eyes narrowing as the crow landed on her shoulder. It clicked its beak at her angrily. “Look, stupid, I’ve been flying all day. Make yourself useful and give my wings a break.” The tiefling rolled her eyes, moving to stand closer to Nick.

 

“I’ll give them a break, all right,” she said. “When I snap them in my fists.” Her expression brightened a bit, though, when she turned to Nick. “As fun as the adventure has been, I can’t wait to get back home. We’ll…” She blushed again. “We’ll be able to spend more time together.” She fidgeted a little, thinking about reaching for his hand again but ultimately deciding against it. “Uh, your wing. How’s it feeling?”

 

“Hmm… not great, I’ll be ’onest, but I’ll be fine in a bit.” The comment about spending more time together got his eyes to widen, and caused a blush of his own to steal across his cheeks. “Yeah, we will.” What did she have in mind? The spinagon fidgeted nervously as well, wondering if she, too, though lewd things sometimes. “I’d like to be ’ome again before long. This place is… not for me.” That was an understatement. He was at constant risk of death in this plane. Devils weren’t well-liked anywhere – hardly even in their own home plane of the Hells. “Now, if you’re feelin’ better, maybe I can call in my favour…” The devil gazed longingly at her muscular shoulders, the treacherous wriggling of his tail betraying his desires.

 

Anivari nodded. She was still a bit worried about him, but she’d put on a brave face until he was better. She looked at him, tilting her head to the side a bit. Most had only seen that when she was cracking her neck before a fight. But, this time, it was in slight confusion. Incidentally, the tilting her head this way was almost cute. “I feel amazing,” she admitted. “Actually, I feel more rested than when we originally entered the Heavens.” She stretched a bit, disturbing the crow who fluffed up and clicked its beak again. “What’s the favor?” She had no doubt it would be something she could easily do. And she was trusting enough to know that it wouldn’t be something painful.

 

“Alright, you asked for it.” Nick wriggled some more, rubbing his hands together gleefully, and then proclaimed… “Gimme a piggyback ride!” Sure, he had ulterior motives, such as wanting to feel those glorious muscles of hers. Whatever. And ‘cute’ didn’t begin to cover what he thought of her tilting her head like hat. His eyes shone with whimsical light as he awaited her response.

 

Anivari blinked for a moment before laughing a bit. Well, she was right, it seemed. She wouldn’t have a problem lifting him, and it would be quite painless. She turned her back to him, crouching a bit, and smiled at him over her shoulder. “Now, you know you didn’t have to make a contract for that, huh?” She winked at him and chuckled. No, she didn’t mind at all – in fact, she actually felt more at ease when she was close to him. And this? Well, it was as close to him as she could get until…. well, that might come later. Even thinking about it made her quickly turn her head to hide the blush spreading across her face.

 

“I didn’t have to, but I did anyway!” Nick laughed and moved to stand behind her, tentatively running his hands up her back. Oh, wow. He felt his blush deepen as he climbed onto Anivari’s back, winding his arms around her shoulders and taking the opportunity to ‘accidentally’ jab the crow with his horns. “Oops.” He looked over her shoulder at the light beginning to stream through the orchards, and then at the city in the distance, past a field that gradually seemed to become an immense garden. “Okay, we’re goin’ to avoid that garden. Because there’s definitely some kind of guardian or warding mechanic in there, and we do not want to encounter it or any of its friends. We’ll be taking another way into the city. And when we get close enough, I will be turning into a rat and hiding in my luggage.”

 

She actually let out an almost girlish giggle when she noticed him poking the crow with his horn, while the nefarious creature swiveled its head to click its beak at him angrily. “You know, so far you’ve been useful. But you’re wearing on my patience, you little shit.” Anivari lifted an arm and flicked the crow, knocking it from her shoulder.

 

“Talk to him like that again, and you’ll be going into the city with a snapped neck.” She scanned the area. “So, we go around the field, right? I can do that.” She started to walk forward, angling herself around the field before she got too close to it. As she walked, she brushed her bangsaway from her face. “I’ve been thinking,” she said after a moment. “I think… if I have any of my mother’s magic in me, I might try using it. Or learning to use it, anyway. If she’s in a place like this, her magic couldn’t have been such a bad thing, right? And maybe if she had been around to teach me… I wouldn’t hate it so much now. I’d also not have to be stuck with this stupid bird.”

 

“That’s the idea, bird-brain,” Nick retorted in response to the crow’s grumblings, blowing a raspberry at the obnoxious avian before snuggling Anivari, hugging her tight and quite unable to keep himself from smiling. “Yeah, let’s just stick to the field. Maybe when we get inside we could ask about the garden, and see if it’s safe to traverse. As dangerous as this place is, gotta give credit where it’s due – Arcadia’s got some really beautiful places.” The Hells, in all their grandeur, didn’t truly have anything equivalent. There was majesty and wonder in the Hells, but never beauty. Evil could only pretend at beauty, at least for the most part – could only imitate it. “I think your mum’s magic must’ve been wonderful, to ’ave ended up ’ere. And, even if it’s only a guess, I’m of the mind that your magic will be even more so.” He scanned the fields as he spoke, hoping his Devil’s Sight would reveal any potential danger in their environs.

 

Anivari didn’t move any differently than she normally would have. She didn’t want to attract attention to herself. But at the same time, she was a little slower than normal. Not because of fatigue or being overburdened. She was simply being careful. She smiled. “I think your goal is to keep me a blushing mess the entire time we’re here,” she said with a gentle chuckle. “I don’t mind.” And it was true; that blush was ever-present on her face. It was the act, though, of knocking the crow from her shoulder that made her realize something. She’d actually be willing to do anything to protect Nick. Even if it meant “killing” something that couldn’t die just yet. So, to change the subject and possibly get the crow off of her shoulder once more, she spoke up again as she walked. “So, I’ve never eaten crow. But I wonder what spices would go best with it. I’ve never been much for spices and such. Usually salt and pepper. Mostly because I haven’t had much to work with, since most of what I eat is what I catch.” She grinned. “But if that chili earlier is any indication of your skill, I’m sure you’ve got some ideas.”

 

“Keepin’ you a blushin’ mess is only part of my goal, Ani,” Nick murmured, giggling a little before lightly kissing her neck. “Although your blush does make me a very ’appy devil indeed.” He moved his wing experimentally, wincing as he felt that familiar pain shoot down to his back. Right, not healed yet – those archon crossbows were real nasty pieces of work, especially when devils were the ones being shot at. “I… ’ave never eaten crow either, but I’m sure I could make it appetizing. Salt and pepper for sure, but I’ll ’ave to get creative from there on out.” He turned his mind to that, even as he continued scrutinizing the fields for possible threats. There were golden deer and silver ravens, and copper weasels slipping through the crops as they hunted iron mice, but he saw none of the usual suspects: angels, hollyphants, foo creatures and legion spirits. The spinagon let out a sigh of relief, though he kept his guard up in case such a creature decided to appear out of the blue. “I’m goin’ to spoil you for food once we get back to ’Ellifyno, Ani, just you wait!”

 

Anivari kept up her path, but at the same time, she was watching the different creatures. She had to admit, the weasels were kind of cute. “Really, now? Well, like I said: if your chili is any indication, I’m sure I’ll love anything you make.” She grinned and turned her head to look at him as best she could for a moment. “I wish I could say I was that talented. I’m great at cooking wild game over a fire. But after that…. I’m not good at much else. Unless you count fighting.” She glanced away, keeping her eyes in front of her. No. Cooking, sewing, all those things ‘ladies’ like her were supposed to know had been lost on her. For as soon as she had the chance, she had escaped her father and began living off the land. “Though, I would love to learn. Especially if you’d be my teacher.”

 

“I’d love to eat your cookin’ anyway.” Nick shifted slightly to make himself more comfortable, before tensing up suddenly, his eyes darting this way and that. “I feel… like there’s somethin’ nearby that I don’t want to meet here.” And then, in the distance, out of a grove of metallic trees walked a creature not unlike a unicorn, if said unicorn were as big as an elephant and infinitely more graceful. Golden scales adorned the creature’s body, shining even from such a distance, and along its neck was a great silvery mane that flowed even in the absence of wind. Fortunately, it wasn’t looking at them, though Nick felt his heart beating frantically nonetheless. With a stamp of its hoof, the golden beast took flight without any wings to speak of, galloping into the clear skies over Arcadia and making for a faraway orchard. “…A ki-rin,” the devil whispered, his throat having gone completely dry. “I do not fancy meeting that thing face-to-face.”

 

Anivari froze. She was prepared to run if she had to, turning her head to look at the creature. She steadied her own breathing, clenching her fists at her sides. When the ki-rin took flight, she relaxed and began walking again. “Something tells me I wouldn’t want to meet it head-on either.” She kept her voice low, making her way towards the city. She picked up her pace, though, not wishing to meet another creature like that out in the field. Or anything else that might want them gone. She thought about it, a hint of worry creeping through her. “Those scales… I think even I would have had a hard time actually damaging it.” And that bothered her. She liked being able to defeat things, especially if they were threatening to Nick. The crow, however, would have been thrown right in harm’s way if it meant getting Nick out alive.

 

“Ki-rin aren’t to be messed with. They’re even stronger than low-rankin’ angels.” And just as intolerant of evil beings. Sariel had only been persuaded not to destroy the both of them after watching them ascend the tower, and even then most other celestials wouldn’t have given them the benefit of the doubt, much less upon a sudden encounter. Nick shivered at the notion of encountering such a monstrous foe on the road. It also bothered Nick – that was, the knowledge that if they came into danger, he couldn’t properly help Anivari fight either. “Well… let’s not think too ’ard on it.” They were in the effect of circumventing the garden at this point, and an obstacle that Nick hadn’t previously noticed had appeared – a stream, running through the fields from either side of the entrance to the garden. A ways down, there was a simple wooden bridge that provided passage over the water. With the ki-rin apparently gone, the devil was able to relax somewhat. “I’ll definitely teach you cookin’ if you like, Ani. It would be my pleasure.”

 

Anivari lifted a hand, giving his hand an affectionate squeeze. She had seen the bridge, as it wasn’t too far out of her line of sight. The tiefling made her way to it, slowly and steadily; no need to stir up trouble. She couldn’t get his words about the ki-rin out of her head, not liking the sound of that one bit. Well, that was something she’d have to remember never to pick a fight with. The only thing she could think about at the moment, however, was whether the bridge would hold her weight. Only one way to find out. “Well,” she muttered. “Here goes.” And then, slowly and carefully, she stepped onto the bridge.

 

The wooden supports creaked menacingly under their weight as Anivari stepped onto the bridge, but they did not give; rather, it was the stream beneath them that seemed to shift and stir. Waves began building on the rushing water, until a vague, gaping visage rose from the stream, and long, amorphous arms lashed out at the two of them. Nick yelped in surprise and leapt off Anivari’s back, just as the bridge began to crumble beneath their feet. Within moments, his fork and tail-spines were ready. They had to pass this way, and this bound elemental was definitely not going to let them across, which meant there would be no option but to fight. “I ’ope your weapons are enchanted, Ani.”

 

“Of course they are.” She slipped the naginata from her back, hating what she was about to do next. Closing her eyes for a brief moment, Anivari allowed the rage to overtake her again, that fiery aura surrounding her once more as she took a ready stance and nimbly twirled her weapon. It occurred to her that something more up close and personal would be better suited for fighting this creature – perhaps something like a club. “Mind you,” she said. “I have no idea what I’m doing. Not with… whatever this is.” A growl ripped from her throat as she sliced her naginata at one of those arms. She kept herself light enough on her feet to move back if it missed, and to keep herself from stumbling if she connected.

 

“Oh, wonderful. Because this fork is, as luck would ’ave it, not enchanted. Lesser devils don’t get magical weapons – Infernal Law strikes again.” Nevertheless, he put his tail-spines to use, flinging them at the elemental in quick succession. When they hit it, instead of simply passing on through, they burned some of its body away, causing it to roar with rage and lash out. Nick was sent flying, tumbling back through the rushes along the riverside until he caught himself with his fork. Damn, his broken wing was making this a lot more difficult than it would be otherwise. When the naginata cleaved one of the water-thing’s arms off, it sloshed and gurgled indignantly before surging forwards in one big rush, trying to whelm Anivari and trap her inside its body.

 

She braced herself for impact, and there became apparent her biggest weakness in that state: she wasn’t very strategically capable. While she was undoubtedly an absolute tank, Anivari didn’t think tactically when doing so would save her a great deal of pain. She smirked, her battle aura growing as she crouched low. One hand gripped the naginata, the other being placed on the ground. “Bring it, you son of a bitch.” Speaking in such a way was also unlike her. She suddenly rushed forward, leaping up into the air and aiming to bring the blade right down on the center of the thing, hoping to give it a good cut down the middle. Even if it wouldn’t hit dead-on, she hoped at least to catch it somewhere. She wasn’t considering that, at this angle, she’d still be directly in the elemental’s path.

 

When the elemental met with Anivari’s naginata, it let loose another burbling howl of pain, its body writhing as the tiefling slashed down into it. However, as the blade carved through it, so did it envelop her, since she hadn’t moved out of its way. From there, in spite of the damage the naginata was doing to it, it began to compress, hundreds of pounds of water pressure suddenly punching inwards in an effort to crush and drown its captive. Nick’s eyes widened in alarm upon seeing this – at once, he raced forwards, leapt off the riverbank and smashed his tail into the elemental, his spines dragging brutally along its body and carving several deep gashes into it. That, at least, took its attention off Anivari for the moment. “It’s all you now!” Nick called, springing and ducking about madly as the monster tried to beat him down with its water-whips. For his alleged lack of skill in combat, the devil was a masterful dodger.

 

As Anivari felt it enveloping her, she held her breath and released another wave of her rage. This time, she brought out her Earth abilities, hardening her skin and making it take on that greyish colored tones again. She lashed out with the naginata again, trying to hold back grunts of pain as she felt the pressure crushing her slowly. It was time! She glowed brightly, her own skin beginning to heat up as she did her best to crouch. With all her strength, the tiefling launched herself upwards through her captor’s body, aiming to punch as hard as she could and break through the elemental. If her weapon could slice it, her mind had seized on the notion that her hands could get her out if she needed to. And as her head made contact with the outside, she took in a deep breath and pushed herself the rest of the way out.

 

Steam rose from her extremely hot skin. Her eyes had darkened to red once more, and she let out a growl. One more ability was being put to use, but this would take the place of a different one. Her skin lost its grey tones while her teeth lengthened into fangs. Her fingernails had also extended into claws, and once her transformation was finished, she launched herself at the elemental again. This time, she altered her path, aiming for its side as she brought the blade down once more. If the blade missed, she would double back with a fierce claw attack and hope for the best.

 

The conflicting elements within the elemental seemed to be doing an excellent job of damaging it, causing it to quiver and writhe in distress as its water body was brutalized by the overheating tiefling. Where Anivari emerged, she left a massive, gaping hole in its body, which steamed and failed to seal. Partially having been boiled away and evaporated, it abandoned its assault on Nick to try and defend itself from the barbarian’s furious assault, but to no avail. Her blade tore through it once, eliciting a hiss from what passed as the elemental’s mouth, before her claw came back around to finally slam the life out of it and cause it to collapse with a huge, almost visceral splash. The river in which it had dwelt still ran, albeit noticeably slower and lower than before. Having been splashed and soaked to the bone, Nick shook the water from his hair and hurried to make sure Anivari wasn’t hurt. “Are you alright, Ani?”

 

Anivari let the rage subside, falling to her knees and letting out a hoarse cough as she retched up water. After a few seconds had gone by, she composed herself enough to answer”Y-yeah… I think so.” She didn’t think she was injured. A little shaken, certainly, but mostly alright. “The…” She took a breath. “The stone-skin helped, I think. N-nothing feels broken. Just… really wet now.” Slowly, she pushed herself to her feet, wringing water from her hair. The crow, though he was nowhere to be seen, could be heard laughing at her. Finally, he popped back into existence and landed on her shoulder. “Shame. Thought that thing would have crushed you. Might have finally learned your lesson about taking on things better than you.” Another sigh issued from the tiefling, but she was overall able to ignore the bird’s taunting and keep her attention focused on Nick. “We should keep moving. I’d rather not have to fight something like that again. And… maybe the movement will dry me off a bit. You too, I think.” She smiled at him, finding it cute how he shook the water from himself.

 

Upon realizing she was fine, Nick let out a sigh of relief and patted her shoulder, noting she was still very warm to touch. “Well, I’d say you’ve carried me far enough. Let’s walk together from here on out.” The crow’s taunting he refused to dignify with a response, on account of how very stupid and specious he found it to be. And the more he thought about how ridiculous everything that bird said was, the less he found himself bothered by it. In fact, he found it in himself to smile at the nasty avian – an unpleasant smile, that hinted at his true fiendish nature, but a smile nonetheless. The devil extended his hand to Anivari, offering it to hold as they walked. “Not too much farther now. We’ll probably be able to make it over one of the walls without causin’ a panic, especially if I turn into somethin’ little. What would you like me to become? A bird, a rat or a spider?”

 

Anivari gladly took his hand, chuckling a little. Despite her disdain for the crow, she didn’t mind it when Nick was a bird, for the simple fact that he remained pleasant company regardless of the form he took. “I wouldn’t mind a bird. Not from you, at least.” She chuckled, waving the crow away. Of course, it would sink itself into her shadow, more to show off than anything else. Anivari had taken to doing what she usually did: ignoring him for the sake of her own sanity. “At least when you’re a bird, I know that it’s still you.” There went that blush again. “And I just…. really, really like having you nearby.” She continued walking, though, and doing her best not to stumble on her words. “I mean… I… uh… yeah. I do like you. And…” She trailed off, almost chuckling to herself at how sappy she was being. Sooner or later, she’d get it together.

 

“Aw… you’re so cute, you know that, Ani?” Nick found himself blushing as well, and didn’t mind letting her see it in the slightest. The little spinagon shifted to walk closer to her, resting his head against her muscular side and letting out a quiet sigh. He never thought he’d feel safe in a Celestial dominated Plane, but she managed to make it seem like everything would all be alright in the end. “Okay, a bird it is. Anythin’ would be better than that filthy Yatagarasu, anyway. I bet I could even be more endearin’ as a spider than he is as a crow.” Nick squeezed her hand gently, beaming up at her with a sparkle in his blue eyes. “I really, really like ’avin’ you nearby too. I don’t think I can tell you how much yet, but… it’s a lot.” His tail wriggled with sudden shyness as his blush deepened and his heart rate quickened. Oh, dear… he figured he should probably calm down before they reached the wall.

 

Anivari flushed even further, chuckling quietly to herself. She searched for a reply, but found that she couldn’t actually talk, instead only managing a sheepish grin. While she may have looked like an adult, she still had that mind of an older teenager. Mostly due to her upbringing. She squeezed Nick’s hand in return, clearing her throat as they neared their destination. The wall was approaching. She needed to calm herself as well. That was hard with Nick so close, but she would manage. Taking a long breath, she turned her golden eyes to Nick. “As much fun as I’m having here with you, I still can’t wait to get back. Simply because… well, we can be together more. And it’s something wonderful to look forward to. I mean that, Nick.” The burning in her cheeks had yet to lessen. She was almost surprised that she was able to be so sentimental at that moment, even with her fear and apprehension.

“Yup! You and me, Anivari. I’m lookin’ forward to it.” The devil grinned, fluttered up to give her a peck on the lips, and transformed himself into a raven, luggage and all. He hovered there, gazing at her with eyes that had suddenly gained a faint reddish glow, and fluttered up to perch on the walltop and await her ascent. His cheerful telepathic voice beckoned in her mind: Come, Anivari! We’re close, I know it! All we’ve got to do is find a certain kind of person, and we’ll be able to pinpoint your mum’s exact location. He sounded very sure of himself, almost as if he’d somehow foreseen these exact circumstances.

 

It was at times like these that Anivari was glad for her height and her level of fitness. She backed away from the wall, crouching a bit, before running at the wall and leaping into the air, her palms landing on the walltop. She vaulted herself over it, landing on the other side in a crouch. She straightened up, smiling at him. It had been easier than she had thought it would be. Mostly because it had been a while since she had vaulted over something like that, but she had handled it well. She turned her head to face Nick, still grinning, obviously proud of herself. Since she had already accepted him into her mind, she was able to communicate telepathically back to him. Well, what’re you waiting for? I don’t mind you being on my shoulder. It’s nice, actually.

 

Your invitation, that’s all I needed. The Nick-bird tapped his beak on the walltop once before hopping onto her shoulder, making sure his talons didn’t dig into her skin too much. He could balance just fine, being more agile than most humans – or most birds, for that matter. His faintly glowing eyes scanned their new surroundings: a cul-de-sac lined by houses on either end. There were spirits here, simply going about their business and ignoring Anivari and the bird on her shoulder with the exception of a few sideways glances. They hadn’t any reason to start trouble, and so it seemed the two of them would proceed unimpeded. Nick reached out with his mind, delicately searching among the spirits’ consciousnesses. …Not here. We’ll have to go for a walk, I think. He was seeking something in particular, it seemed – or someone.

 

Anivari was… relieved that most people didn’t give her more hate-filled looks. She took a deep breath, almost feeling nervous again. But, she still willed herself to step forward and start walking. However, the more steps she took, the calmer she felt. She felt better with Nick around, a sentiment that was clearly displayed via the small smile on her face, her golden eyes flickering about once more. She felt the crow in her shadow, and that was the only thing that bothered her. Just stop me if you see… or feel her. Or anything else that can help.

 

That’s what I’m looking for at the moment – help, that is. Nick likely wouldn’t be able to pick out Anivari’s mother from among a crowd of people, spirits as they all were, but the one he was searching for would be quite distinctive. And as they moved out of the cul-de-sac and into the broader city, Nick felt his mind begin to loosen up. Arcadia was a realm of peace, and that peace and tranquility put his mind at ease and made it easier for him to search. And then, amidst the throngs of spirits with which Anivari walked, one mind pushed back reproachfully. Nick hopped up and down on the tiefling’s shoulder, motioning with a wing. There! I have found the person we need. He seemed to be pointing to a shop, over which hung an awning declaring it to be The Dragon’s Eye. The owner, a fey-featured man who lacked the tell-tale glow of the spirits, appeared to be on the verge of closing up.

 

Anivari blinked, feeling him hopping on her shoulder. Oh, it was adorable! She almost chuckled. But, instead, she put on her best friendly face and stepped forward. She wanted to catch the man before he actually closed up his shop. Wait. What am I… what do I have to say? She was sweating a little – at least, she was internally. While she was perfectly fine talking to Nick, doing the same with strangers was still a bit weird for her. Or… s-should you do it? I don’t know… She was stammering, mentally, again, as she lifted her hand to nervously rub the back of her head.

 

Oh! Of course. Sorry to have made you uncomfortable. Here, I’ll take care of it. Suddenly Nick was feeling a bit self-conscious himself. Talking birds speaking for their masters was uncommon, and might arouse some suspicion, but he really didn’t want Anivari to be forced into a situation she wasn’t ready to handle. So, with a rustle of his feathers, he tipped off of Anivari’s shoulder and soared over to the window, giving it a tap with his beak. Hello! He cawed mentally, hoping the owner would recognize him as the owner of that telepathic voice.

 

The fae-faced man looked around in confusion before zeroing in on the bird at his window, eyes narrowing. He came to the door, standing on the threshold and staring at Anivari. “Is this your familiar?”

 

Anivari blinked. “U-uh… well… he’s m-more of a friend.” She fidgeted a bit, brushing her hand through her hair. “I…. uh….” She paused, giving the crow time to appear it seemed.

 

It turned its eyes to the man and sighed. “She wants to get rid of me. And is looking for her human mother to do it. A woman. Amaryllis, though that’s as stupid a name as her own.” The crow fixed the man with all eight of its visible eyes. “Because she’s too stupid to say this herself. I’m her real familiar. And I would much rather I not be.”

 

“Uh… stupid? Sure. I’ll take your word for it, other… talking… bird.” The man gave Nick and Yatagarasu each a disgruntled look before sighing and beckoning to Anivari. “Alright, sure. I guess I can take one last customer today. C’mon in.” For someone who so closely resembled an elf, he seemed fairly laid back. The elf-like being walked into his shop, which appeared stocked with all manner of scrying tools. Enchanted kaleidoscopes, crystal balls, seeing bowls, some… ridiculous-looking goggles, and a wooden warhorn wreathed with laurels, among others. Nick quickly followed through the open door, perching atop a map of the Great Wheel as the elf-like man sat down in a comfortable velvet-lined sofa. There was a table before him upon which was set a large crystal ball, and on the other side of this table was a similar chair, though slightly less plush-looking. “So. Need help finding your dead mom, huh?”

 

Anivari followed the man inside, her heart racing. She wished the crow had stayed hidden and let her handle this! With a glance towards Nick, she fought the urge to throttle Yatagarasu. Instead, she sat in the less comfortable chair, gathering her courage. After all, this was not the time to face her fear in her usual way: with rage. “Y-yes,” she managed. “My mom. S-she was a priestess…. and she would know… b-better than anyone, I think, h-how to get rid of the rude one.” She wouldn’t even dignify the crow with a name. That would only make it more… vocal.

 

“The rude one. As opposed to the… less rude one?” Nick shuffled his taloned feet bashfully, recognizing that he had, in fact, taken a poke at the man’s mind without asking permission. “Alright. So, you want me to find your mum, huh? What’s in it for me?” The shopkeeper leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs, eyeing Anivari skeptically. She seemed like a nice girl, for a tiefling, but completely out of place in this sort of environment.

 

Anivari paused again. Damn her and her awkwardness. She glanced at Nick. Better to talk about him for a moment. “H-he’s not so bad. A-actually…. he’s the only reason…. I was able…. to g-get here.” She fidgeted again before taking a deep breath in. And, privately to Nick, she said. I forgot how hard it was to talk to people. What do… what should I do? She was no good at this. “S-sir,” she said. “I… I don’t know what g-good I’d be. I’m… only really good at hitting things. Never been good at magic. Never really… liked it, to be honest. Cause…. well, it bothers me.” She wouldn’t admit she was afraid of magic. Never. At least, not to anyone who wasn’t Nick. She had to think, though, about what she could offer the man. Other than her own array of violent skills, the only other thing she had on her of value was the naginata. An heirloom of sorts… since she was never any good with her magic.

 

Referring to your bird for help, huh? The mental voice, rich and powerful, was different from the casual, droning tone of the shopkeeper, but it undoubtedly came from the same man. The elf-like person narrowed his eyes and looked at Nick, who suddenly felt a lot more uncomfortable. You can shed that disguise now, devil. The blinds are down, and besides, if you come to a diviner wearing a magical disguise, you should be aware you’re not gonna be fooling them. Now, let’s put our real cards on the table. You- -He pointed at Anivari here- -have nothing to offer me, besides your strength, which I don’t need, and your body, which I don’t want. But you. The shopkeeper stared down Nick, who had hopped down from his perch and transformed back into his default form. You’ve got anything and everything to bargain with, don’t you? So. Let’s play.

 

Nick wasn’t the only one who felt uncomfortable. Anivari was clearly uneasy, fidgeting almost like a child who had been caught with her hand in the cookie jar. Yatagarasu, however, had a smug look in those red eyes of his. The crow clicked its beak, chortling at their discomfort. Thankfully, though, even the rude crow had the decency to remain silent beyond that. Anivari was used to being practically dismissed like she was bein now, but she wasn’t too happy with how this was going. She remained silent, trying to keep her thoughts in a positive place. Mainly thinking about the weight that would be lifted from her soul when the crow was gone.

 

“…Alright.” Nick’s usually emotive countenance suddenly seemed to lose all discernible expression, reduced to a blank, illegible face. But now, of all times, the sinister light of the inferno seemed to choose to blaze through his eyes, reflecting the Hellfire of Stygia’s Archdevil. He cracked his knuckles, his tail whipping about behind him, spines raised in suppressed fury. “Name your price, seer. We’ll see if I am willing to return it.” Even a lesser devil like Nick possessed a modicum of Hell’s fearful aura that he could project. The shop became suffused with the smell of brimstone as Nick stepped forwards… and promptly sat on Anivari’s lap, staring across the table at the seer. Awaiting his response.

 

The seer tilted his head, as if weighing the gravity of the coming deal, and a slow smile crossed his fair features. “Make me an Archdevil,” he said simply. Nick tensed – only barely, but enough for Anivari to feel it.

“…In exchange for telling us exactly where to find Anivari’s mother’s spirit, I will make you an Archdevil,” said Nick Shadow, lifting his chin. He opened his palm, and within it appeared an unbound contract. “We’ll make… a Warlock pact.”

 

The shopkeeper’s brows lifted, revealing an intense pair of emerald eyes. “I see. Clever little fiend, aren’t you? Trying to wind me up in your net like that… if I weren’t so tempted, I’d say no, but I am so tempted.”

 

The diviner practically snatched the contract from Nick’s hand, produced a pen, and signed with a flourish, maintaining eye contact with the spinagon all the while. Neither flinched, until at last the contract was handed back. The devil’s mouth tightened into a thin line as he rolled up and sealed the contract, and promptly stood and made to leave. “Come on, Anivari.”

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