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Two flaming cultivators ran into the suite. Steve knew they were intent on killing Matayal inside, but everyone also instinctively wanted to live. Thus, they were devoting a good portion of their energy to try to stop themselves from being on fire- but if his blue flames were so easy to put out, he would have hardly bothered putting so much effort into them. At a certain point anything could catch on fire, even other forms of spiritual energy- though it was far from a self-sustaining reaction in the long run.
Steve rushed after them, but something was wrong. They burst through the door ahead of him into a small private dining room, where a figure lay unconscious on the floor. He couldn’t catch them before they were in range to attack, throwing darts that were undoubtedly laced with further poison. He kicked out, another wave of flame washing over the two- but their attacks had already landed.
The situation continued to feel wrong when their attacks were blocked by a bubble of water forming around the prone form, and a figure Steve barely recognized stood up. To be fair, he’d only met Matayal on a handful of occasions… but he knew her face well enough. If that wasn’t sufficient, the fact that the woman was very clearly not pregnant was also an important factor. No wonder her energy hadn’t felt quite right.
Steve’s response to the deception was to continue to throw more fire at the two cultivators in front of him, the first of whose right sleeve was burnt off, revealing one of her arms. The arm itself was only minimally burnt for the moment, but Steve would fix that. As for the two darkness cultivators, they hesitated. It was only a moment, but it was enough for the second cultivator to be half a step short of dodging a spear thrust into his gut, stabbing through the right side of his abdomen as he moved. Dodging backwards would have just put him closer to Steve and still resulted in his impalement.
In the interest of finishing things quickly, Steve focused his attention on the first cultivator he’d seen. He charged forward towards her, reaching for her arm. She had failed to keep her focus on the concealing effects that made it hard for him to target precisely, and by the time she began to spin around it was too late. Even her dagger trying to drive into Steve’s wrist only penetrated skin deep. She had the option to twist and try to push it deeper, but elected to withdraw to try to save one of her hands.
That effort was momentarily effective, but even as Steve started to char the bones of her other arm he pulled her closer, slinging an arm around her neck from behind. Fire coated them both, but he was in control of it and it enveloped her entirely. With her defensive energy in disarray, she was unable to reform it in time to save herself. All that remained moments later was a charred corpse.
Steve hoped the other one knew just as much as she did, because obviously there would be no interrogation there. The man happened to no longer be on fire, though Steve honestly couldn’t say if that was a benefit to him. The woman he barely remembered- Livna- had spread her water energy to cover herself and her foe. It augmented her movements while restricting his, and the initial injury he’d taken put him on the back foot. Even before Steve came up behind him, it was obvious he wasn’t going to make it. Perhaps he was never meant to make it, because by the time he seemed to think to run, additional reinforcements had already shown up.
They were superfluous though. Steve had already whacked the guy on the back of the head, simple enough to do with him focusing on another opponent and injured. Steve reached into his storage bag. It was specially made to resist the effects of flame like everything else he had- because even his own control of energy wasn’t perfect.
He looked at the letter John had given him, really just a piece of paper with a few sentences in English. He needed to know what was going on.
“Sorry, but your princess is in another castle.”
Steve sighed. The rest of the letter explained a bit more, but he basically got the idea anyway.
“How do you think things are going back at the clan?” John asked Matayal.
“We’re going to have to rebuild our suite,” she replied coolly.
“Hopefully the fire will be contained to the less expensive parts,” John shrugged. “But there’s also some chance that nothing happens.”
“With Lucanus there?” Matayal raised an eyebrow. “He seems like the type to attract trouble.”
“I think it’s more like revealing trouble that was already going to happen,” John frowned. “People looking for conflict just do it more easily with him around. Doesn’t matter whether it’s a conscious decision on their part or not.”
“Do you think Livna will be fine?” Matayal asked.
“I hope so,” John said. “She should be able to defend herself from most threats, so it’s mostly a matter of whether or not she properly checks everything for poison.”
“I thought you trusted the kitchen staff.”
“Oh, absolutely. The suppliers on the other hand… my dad had some suspicions about one. They stepped up to provide some of the more exotic things you’ve been requesting lately.”
“Sorry…” Matayal hung her head.
“Hey, pregnancy cravings are normal. It’s just that you happened to have more knowledge of obscure things that you might want and ways to access them.”
“So, how would suppliers be involved in this? I would think it would be pretty obvious if they just gave us poisoned ingredients. I hope this doesn’t affect anyone else.”
“Just Livna,” John said. “And it should just be having to eat weird stuff for a couple weeks. The art of poisons is quite developed in the Darklands, including methods to have concoctions that only become poison when combined. Preferably after being eaten and while being digested. They can be detected separately, but they won’t have the same sort of feeling of danger. That’s the idea, anyway. They might not even try it.”
“So if this suspicious supplier sets something up, you then go in and wipe out their local branch for ties to the Society of Midnight?”
“Oh no. You know us better than that. We’ll do something much worse. We’ll get them audited. We’re keeping careful track of exactly what we get and when.”
While there were somewhat relaxed laws with regards to shipping, given that each city or county was in the control of different sects or clans, working alone or as a group… it also meant that when investigations happened a widespread shipping company could find themself running afoul of dozens of different local laws they hadn’t been in complete compliance of. The Tenebach clan only operated in Marble County and any shipping of spirit stones was handled by the groups they sold to.
“That’s pretty evil,” she admitted. “And any of their supporters won’t be able to say you overreacted to a simple attempted poisoning.”
“It’s bound to cost them more than one local branch is worth just to fix or cover up every little thing they have wrong, even if there’s no solid connection found to murderous foreign sects,” John grinned.
Though they’d left the Tenebach clan separately- Matayal sneaking out with only a few specific people being aware and John riding openly in a different direction- through a series of convoluted trades of carriages and the like they were now traveling in a ‘new’ carriage that the Tenebach clan had never used before.
“I wish we didn’t have to do this,” Matayal sighed. “Maybe it’s too much.”
“You’re not going to hear me complain about trying to achieve elemental balance,” John said. “Especially for the sake of our children. And if all goes well with the travel, it will be safer for them to be born in the Shimmering Islands.”
That was the point at which something would have gone wrong, if the world were a little bit more cruel- or perhaps if they had been a little bit less well prepared. But they had all of the guards that had gone with John, as well as some that had been waiting for Matayal outside of the clan for the initial leg of her journey. The only people who knew the whole plan were extremely well trusted. All of that, just to go on a journey that had been done many times before.
If there was one ship that the Tenebach and Brandle clans would trust, it would be the Wavecutter. Years of history built up a solid working relationship, and they were good at what they did. Which was to be a ship that went from place to place in the Shimmering Islands swiftly. It didn’t necessarily sound like something amazing, but it was worthy of praise.
Even if John had seen the other ship tailing it out of the port, he wouldn’t have been worried. And that wasn’t just because he wasn’t on the Wavecutter. It was also because Captain Sohan was heading straight for the nearest storm, and the Wavecutter was swift enough it was nearly impossible to catch them before then without being literally attached to them upon leaving the harbor.
The ‘ship’ John was actually getting on was much less trusted, though the one controlling it he would bet his life on. Which was good, because that’s basically what they were doing as they climbed down the cliffs a good distance away from Dolomite Harbor, finding their way to the small boat that waited below.
“I see you got an upgrade,” John commented on the boat as they got close enough to easily converse with Kusuma who was standing in it.
“Of course,” the old woman grinned widely. “Did you think I’d bring a pregnant woman with me on that little dinghy?” John refrained from comment. “Besides, it can’t really hold up to my maximum speed now.”
The boat was still basically just a mast and sail, but it was at least a little bit wider and more spacious, which was good because John, Matayal, and Aydan all needed to fit in with Kusuma.
It was far too late for John to wonder if they needed all these layers of deception. If one or two layers was good, three or four were better. And underestimating the Society of Midnight at this moment would have resulted in the disaster they sought to cause.
Matayal settled into the boat nervously. “Normally I don’t have trouble with boats, but at the current moment…”
“Don’t worry,” Kusuma said gently. “I promise it will be the smoothest ride of your life.”
There was no way Kusuma could move them along speedily and perfectly fulfill her promise, but it was extremely close. Some rocking and bumps were inevitable on the sea, especially over long distances. Smaller boats felt it worse, and going so fast that John could have sworn he should have heard an outboard motor cranked up to its maximum didn’t help. But somehow, Kusuma not only pulled in the wind to press against their sails but also created a small cushion of air under the boat to smooth out their journey.
It wasn’t perfect, and if John wasn’t helping a bit by directly affecting the water ahead of them it could have been pretty uncomfortable… but that was a thousand times better than the last time he’d been in a boat with Kusuma. There was nothing technically wrong with how things had been before, but whether or not he’d been safe before he felt safe on the current trip. Which was important, because his wife and their nearly-born triplets were present.
The boy made himself known only a short way into their journey, greedily drinking up the water elemental spiritual energy of the Shimmering Islands. Though the formations had supplied him with what he needed, the natural density in the area seemed to suit him much better. And perhaps it was jealousy of his sisters, who had gotten ahead of him.
Matayal meditated at the most stable section of the boat, her eyes closed as she helped direct the flow of energy. On a normal journey John would have needed to help her while she was asleep, and it might still be required for a brief period… but at their current speed he didn’t expect them to take much more than a day to arrive at the familiar islands of Pualani.