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MHO - The Cult of the Crimson Isles - Chapter 23 by Lloxie

MHO - The Cult of the Crimson Isles - Chapter 23

Mystic Heart Odyssey

Part 5: The Cult of the Crimson Isles

Chapter 23

Hooookay going out with a long one here, but I guess there was more to wrap up than I thought. That does it for The Cult of the Crimson Isles! I hope you all enjoyed the ride. Spookytime is here, and the next, very fitting chapter is just around the corner!

-Llox

___________________________________________________________________________________

Kuna began to stir, then jolted awake all at once with a slight panic, panting slightly. “N-NO! I won’t-… I…”

“Shh, it’s alright Ku, I’ve got you,” Lykou said, cradling the shaky sereva in his lap. They were sitting on the beach, leaning back against a thankfully normal, non-burning boulder lodged into the sand. Kalei, Hoku, and Kani were splashing around in the water a short distance away. Hoku was practicing her magic, mostly as a meditative exercise to unwind. It was very pretty to watch, though, as she manipulated the water around in the air, making the light flicker and glint off of it as it twisted around in various shapes in the air. Kani and Kalei, meanwhile, were having some fun rough-housing and splashing each other like a pair of siblings. After Kuna’s little outburst, all three all turned to see him awake and hurried over to join the two, qith Hoku letting a long, worm-like mass of water splash back down into the rest.

“W-what… what happened?” Kuna asked, slowly relaxing back into his friend’s embrace. “I… remember a fight… T… Tuimana showed up… Zyn was there-”

“Still am, bud,” a voice said next to them. Kuna glanced over and saw the jarzin lounging against a mound of sand nearby and smiling contently. “Have a nice nap?”

“Hey, it’s good to see you awake, Kuna,” Hoku said as she approached and sat down near them. “I was starting to worry a bit.”

“Easy guys, give him a moment,” Lykou gently urged them. “He just woke up.”

Kuna furrowed his brow, then shut his eyes and rubbed his head a bit. “...I remember… bits and pieces…” his eyes shot back open after a moment and he shivered. “...T’nari… T’nari came and… and…”

“Threw that piece of shit into the hells where he belongs,” Lykou finished for him, then gave him a gentle squeeze. “Yep. Both he and Kairangi are now officially no longer a threat to anyone. So we can finally relax, for real this time.”

“Exactly,” Zyn agreed, winking at the sereva. “So take a deep breath and make yourself comfortable for a while.”

Kuna glanced around- there were some new boulders and large rocks scattered across the beach, and a huge pile of what looked like shiny, sharp rocks of different, mostly dark colors sitting off to the side. Many of them were straight-up black, but a few had varying shades of grey, brown, and even blueish tints. Miraculously, the beach otherwise seemed completely recovered from the chaotic fight.

Spotting the sereva staring at the strange, sharp fragments, Zyn chuckled a bit. “Yeah, I did some cleanup while you were asleep. Was a shame to see the beach in such an awful state.”

“Apparently when sand gets really hot, it can turn into those sharp rocks,” Kani explained, looking over at the pile as well. “Pretty weird, but neat!”

“Some of them are kind of like pelenock teeth, without the glowing red bits,” Hoku mused.

“Yeah, you see them sometimes up on the mountain. Even big chunks. S’what they used to make a lot of things up around the shrine,” Kalei added. “Really tough, and can hold a sharp edge.”

“Obsidian. It’s a kind of glass,” Zyn explained, then waved off the impending question. “Which is what happens when certain things get really, really hot for long enough. Sand, in particular. Other kinds can actually be pretty useful in other ways. Do it right, and it comes out pretty clear and colorless.” He glanced over at Lykou for a moment. “If I understand correctly, since they’re already experimenting with really heating things up, your tribe might very well start figuring it out at some point before long, depending on if they can get their hands on enough of the right kind of sand and such.”

“Oh really?” Lykou asked, is curiosity piqued. After a moment, he frowned. “Too bad there’s not exactly much sand around Lakefire. A little bit near the lake itself, but it’s pretty mixed up with other crap.”

“Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll figure something out.”

“What kinds of things can you do with it?”

“Just wait and see,” Zyn said, grinning and laying back again.

The canid just sighed and rolled his eyes a bit. “You and your selective helpfulness,” he playfully griped, then smiled and cuddled Kuna some more. “How are you feeling, Ku?”

“Yeah, you were shouting some pretty… vulgar things earlier. Really almost didn’t even sound like you,” Kalei commented.

“I… was?” Kuna asked, blinking a bit in bewilderment. “I honestly don’t really remember, it was all such a blur.”

Zyn frowned. “Yeah, getting jerked around by your soul is no fun, I imagine. Probably better you don’t remember too clearly,” he commented, then shot him a curious look. “I guess I missed this… ‘mouthy moment’ you had, though. That’s… interesting. And you say Tui cut the tie on his own?”

“I… guess? Like I said, it’s hard to remember much about the fight beyond broad strokes,” Kuna replied, then shivered a bit. “Which… honestly, I think I’m fine with.” He frowned and looked around at the others, then placed his hands on the arms wrapped around him. “I’m just glad you’re all okay. Uh… you are, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, Zyn was nice enough to help heal any scrapes and burns we had,” Kalei replied, then arched a brow at the jarzin. “In...cluding his own. Guess there’s no denying you’re technically still mortal now.”

Zyn shrugged. “Yep. I bleed just like anyone else. Just a lot less easily than most,” he said with a satisfied smirk.

“That sure was a hell of a fight. I’m so glad you showed up, Zyn,” Lykou said. “I’d hate to think what would’ve happened if you hadn’t.”

“Hey, I think it was ultimately Kuna that somehow did something to get the bastard to fuck up the way he did. I just helped get him good and pissed, apparently,” the jarzin replied, then rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “And good thing, too. He still had some small grip on the weave somehow up until then. Made some of my powers a bit tricky to use up close.”

“I’m… still not sure what I did,” Kuna said, wracking his brain for a moment. Then he sighed and laid his head back against Lykou’s chest. “But whatever it was, I’m just glad that shit’s over with.”

“Same. I’m so sick of running or fighting,” Lykou said, then glanced over at the jarzin. “By the way though, not to sound unappreciative, but what happened to your rule against not intervening ‘directly’? Are you going to be in trouble?”

“Welllll… doubt it, because of extenuating circumstances. The only mortals around were you five, so it’s not like I have to worry about a bunch of witnesses,” Zyn explained. “And your lives, at the very least, were in serious danger. You were fighting a particularly crafty demon that’d already evaded capture once, and clearly knew a few more weave-related tricks than everyone thought. I’m sure other jarzin would’ve done the same thing in my position, especially Ink.”

“That’s… good to know,” Kuna replied.

“Yeah, but all the same, I’ll probably need to be extra careful for a bit. Don’t count on me saving your butts from lesser dangers,” Zyn reminded them. “Much as I’d like to, other circumstances aren’t likely to be this extreme, so I won’t have as much leeway. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll still be checking in on you and give you info when I can, but that’s about it for a while.”

Lykou sighed. “Right… well, at least we know there’s a limit to what we have to handle on our own.”

“Hey, after this shit? There’s nothing you guys won’t be able to handle,” the jarzin assured him. “Seriously, I’m not just trying to build you up or flatter you. You guys have done some seriously impressive shit for-”

Lykou and Kuna shot him a look. “...’mundanes’, right?” Kuna snarked.

Zyn smiled a bit sheepishly. “Well… yeah….”

“’Mundanes’?” Hoku asked incredulously.

Lykou chuckled. “Yeah, it’s apparently what jarzin call non-jarzin mortals,” he said, then turned back to Zyn. “Relax, I’m just giving you a hard time. And thanks.”

“I mean, given the power they wield- and if I understand correctly, you’re still pretty, er, ‘new’, right?” Kalei interjected.

Zyn shrugged. “Yeah, technically. At least in terms of being let out into the world finally.”

“Right. So even given that he’s fairly new, he’s got more magical power and experience than anyone I’ve heard of even in old legends,” Kalei continued. “So, fuck it, I’m not offended. Compared to that, I’m sure we do come across as ‘mundane’.”

“Nice of you to say, but I’m trying to wean myself off the word,” Zyn said with a half-smile, glancing around at the group. “After seeing what you guys are capable of and willing to do even with your comparatively limited powers is far from mundane. Honestly has me rethinking some things. And for the record, that goes for you three, too,” he continued, gesturing to the raptuvan trio. “Heck, Sunny told me what you did up on the mountain, Kalei. You know, in his own way. That took serious guts, buddy.”

Kalei blushed a bit and rubbed his neck. “Well… I just figured I might as well do something decent with my life for once.”

“And we can’t thank you enough for it,” Lykou said, smiling at the former Order recruit. “Without you, none of us would be here, you know.”

“That’s the truth. Really glad we gave each other another chance up on that mountain,” Kuna added, smirking a bit. “Considering how it started out.”

Kalei winced slightly. “Oof, don’t remind me.”

Kuna chuckled a little, then turned back to Zyn. “Hey, speaking of Sunny, anyone seen him?”

“He most likely went to check back in with Whironui at some point,” Zyn explained. “After being freed from being unable to interact with the isles for so long, Whironui is probably looking at helping him revive the species, if you know what I mean. They kind of got rare for a while there, and he wants to fix that.”

Kuna’s eyes widened and Lykou snorted, then started snickering. The others shared similar reactions. “You mean…?”

“Oh yeah. Little guy literally has a god helping him get laid,” Zyn pointed out with a big grin.

“Lucky bastard,” Kani snarked with a grin, causing a new, enthusiastic burst of laughter from everyone.

Suddenly, the water began to bubble and churn in the distance. Something was making its way up towards the shore, but they couldn’t initially see what it was. Zyn just watched with a neutral expression while the others tensed up, contemplating if they should be prepared to flee or not. Eventually, a chunk of the water started to rise out above the rest and slowly drift up the shore towards them. Inside it, they could just barely make out one of the eldritch… things they’d seen before.

<[(Greetings, mortals,)]> the entity said in a strange voice that seemed to come not from the creature directly, but the water around it. <[(I come bearing a message from T’nari.)]>

Zyn waved nonchalantly at the entity, smiling a bit. “Forgive these guys, they’re not used to, uh… folks from the Abyss.”

“That’s a-an understatement,” Kalei muttered quietly, shrinking back a bit from the strange being.

<[(Understandable. We hail from very different worlds. I find yours to be...)]> the entity said, then visibly winced within the water- or at least shifted in a way that might be construed as displeasure. <[(Uncomfortably bright, to say the leasr. And dry.)]>

“S-so what does T’nari w-w-want?” Kuna asked nervously.

<[(Firstly, to both congratulate and thank you for your services to the natural order.)]>

“We mostly just ran around while Zyn here tried to keep him at bay, until Kuna did… er, something,” Hoku said, glancing at the sereva briefly.

“Hey, you all worked together to sever the pact, which is incredibly important,” Zyn reminded her.

<[(Precisely so. Whatever occurred here on the beach would not have even been possible without that critical first step. So praise is in order. Secondly, we have been informed that two of you seek a certain ancient Sylthean gateway to continue a long journey, yes?)]>

“Uh, yeah, that’d… be us,” Lykou chimed in, raising one hand slightly. “We’re… not in a hurry at the moment, but why do you ask?”

<[(Understandable. T’nari simply wished to indicate that we are happy to assist you in reaching the gate whenever you are ready. Given its current location, it would likely be exceedingly inconvenient for you to reach on your own.)]>

Kuna gulped and nodded. “That’s… an understatement.”

<[(When you are ready to leave, simply come to the sea and place your feet at the edge of the water,)]> the entity explained. A strange, twisted shell suddenly flung itself out of the water and landed a few feet away from them. It was bigger than most they’d seen, an similar to a conch- but it had a sparkling, mulit-colored shine to it, both inside and out. <[(Then speak T’nari’s name into the opening of this shell. A path will be opened, and you will need but follow it to your destination. Be careful not to stray out into the water, as it will prove deadly to you further down. It would be advisable to bring your own source of light as well.)]>

Kani picked up the shell and looked it over, fascinated by how pretty it looked. After Hoku cleared her throat, she sheepishly smiled and handed it over to Kuna.

“Wow… alright,” Kuna said, examining the object for a moment before looking back at the bizarre being. “Thank you…”

<[(You are most welcome. I must now depart. Enjoy the rest of your day, land-dwellers.)]> The entity didn’t wait for a response before turning and hurrying back into the ocean.

“I appreciate the help, but fuck do those guys give me the creeps,” Lykou said after the entity was completely gone.

Zyn chuckled lightly. “Some of them would probably take that as a compliment, honestly.”

“I guess that answers how we’re getting to the arch, at least,” Kuna said, then sighed. “Not that I’m in a hurry to go anywhere just yet.”

“Good, because we still have the rest of the day!” Kani said, then clutched her belly as it rumbled. “Aaaand it’s definitely late-breakfast time.”

“Oof, yeah, after all that activity this morning, we definitely need to grab some food,” Lykou agreed.

“Sounds good to me,” Kuna agreed.

“So you’re still going to take the whole day off before continuing your journey, right?” Hoku asked hopefully, wanting to confirm it explicitly.

“Fuck yes we are,” Lykou stated emphatically. “The fight up on the mountain was bad enough. After this morning, traveling is the last thing I want to think about.”

“Same here,” Kuna quickly agreed.

“Good. Because I’m also not in a hurry to say goodbye,” Hoku said, reaching out and putting a hand on Kuna’s with a small smile.

“Me either!” Kani agreed.

“Yeah, it’s been nice getting to know you guys,” Kalei added. “So by all means, stick around as long as you feel you can.”

“Oh, hey! I have an idea!” Kani blurted out, then grinned eagerly at Hoku. “I know exactly what we can do for some fun! We haven’t been on this side of the island in a long while, you know. Perfect opportunity~!”

Hoku furrowed her brow in confusion for a moment. But then it slowly dawned on her and her expression grew excited as well. “Ohhh, yeah! We haven’t done that in ages!”

“What are you two talking about?” Kuna asked, somewhat warily.

“I’m sure we can borrow a few boards from the village!” Kani continued, seemingly ignoring the question.

“Sure. We’ll have to go slow with them though, mind you. To start, at least.”

“Ah, messing up is part of the fun!”

“Do you know what they’re talking about?” Lykou asked Kalei curiously.

“Not a clue. Must be some coastal thing.”

Zyn chuckled. “Oh you guys are in for a treat. Hope you don’t mind getting even more soaked, though.”

*****

“W-w-oah!” Kuna cried out as he hunkered down, tightly gripping the edges of the sleek wooden board that separated him from a sudden swimming session. He was further out from the shore than he cared to be, let alone on a single smooth, flat chunk of wood by himself. Well, alone on the board anyway. The others were all on their own as well, floating nearby. He had by far taken the most convincing, and now he was having very serious second thoughts… and third, fourth, and fifth ones, too. “H-how did I let you guys t-talk me into this… this isn’t relaxing at all!”

“Don’t worry! Just go with the flow,” Hoku assured him from nearby. “You practiced plenty in the shallows, you’ve got this!”

“Easy for you to say, you’re used to this stuff!” Kalei retorted. He was only somewhat less anxious than the sereva. Being from one of the mountain villages, he wasn’t even accustomed to being on a boat, let alone doing anything like surfing. It was a small miracle he could swim.

“Oh come on, there’s nothing to be afraid of!” Kani insisted. “It’s just water! Worst case, you fall off and get some up your nose and shit! Annoying, but that’s all!”

“Look out guys, here comes one of the big ones!” Lykou said, grinning as he tried to prepare for the oncoming wave. Even though he clearly wasn’t as skilled as the girls, he’d taken to the whole concept surprisingly well. And of course, he’d never pass up a chance to find fun things to do in the water- even saltwater, if it came down to it.

“Okay, get ready!” Hoku said, bracing herself.

Kuna anxiously got to his feet and struggled to stay steady on the board, even as he remained crouching down low as the wave reached him. The wave arrived, and he felt himself both lifted up and propelled forward as he did his best to manipulate his direction like Hoku had shown him. Still, he couldn’t help but let his mind wander to the terrifying creatures he knew lurked deep down in the ocean’s depths. Sure, they weren’t hostile- at least, not the last time they met. But that’d been special circumstances. And who knew what else lurked down there that wasn’t part of that group?

Kalei was going through similar thoughts, and struggled to maintain his balance and direction. He eventually started drifting closer to Kani, who called out to him in warning. Unfortunately, he didn’t hear her, because he was too focused on trying to keep from losing his balance. She made a valiant effort to veer out of the way, but they soon collided and ended up in the water together as the waved rolled over them. Fortunately, they were both unharmed- just inconvenienced and momentarily disoriented.

Lykou beamed and leaned over, just barely hanging onto one side of the board as he let his hand briefly glide through the cresting wave. But after a moment, he had to stand back up and narrowly avoided falling over. The whole thing was surprisingly similar to when he and Kuna escaped down the mountain from the giant in some ways. Unfortunately, this time he didn’t have the benefit of whatever strange ability he sometimes manifested. Still, he was having a blast, even if he occasionally came dangerously close to wiping out.

Hoku, of course, was navigating her way through the water with masterful precision and ease. It might have been a while since she and Kani had done this, but it was like second nature to her. Even without actively using her magic, the fact that she could sense the water’s energy flowing around and below her gave her an edge in itself. She glanced over at Kuna after a moment, then winced as he finally jerked a bit too much to one side and flipped over into the water. Suddenly, she manifested her blue glow and managed to flip her own board up into the air and spin it around, partly with her magic and partly with raw agility. She quickly slid over towards the somewhat panicked and sputtering sereva, then deliberately tipped over and dove into the water next to him. Her board coasted on, then got washed towards the shore by the wave as it passed.

Using her magic, she helped Kuna reunite with his board and climbed onto it with him, chuckling softly as he clung to it on the other side, shaking slightly. “See? Even wiping out’s not so bad.”

The sereva spat out some salt water and gave her a flat look. “If you say so…”

She reached over and poked his belly a few times, then tickled him, eventually eliciting a reluctant grin. “Admit it, you’re having fun.”

“...okay maybe a little.”

They both looked over as a loud splash in the distance finally announced that Lykou was the last to lose his battle against the waves. Moments later, he popped back up out of the water and clambered onto his board, then threw his fists up in the air triumphantly despite it all. “WOOO! Let’s go again!”

Hoku and Kuna both snickered a bit. “I think he’s having enough for the both of us, though, anyway,” Kuna commented. “So, worth it.”

Hoku arched a brow at him thoughtfully, then booped his nose slightly. “Well, shall we?”

“Uh, where’s your board?”

Suddenly, a miniature wave that somehow went against the rest approached them, carrying the board along with it. She smirked, wiggling some fingers surrounded with a blue aura at him. “Forgetting who you’re talking to?”

“Show off,” he teased.

“Yeah, what of it? I finally get to, so I’m gonna,” she retorted playfully, then dove under the water and popped back up on the other side of her own board before grabbing ahold of it. “Come on, let’s get back out there.”

The group continued surfing throughout a large chunk of the day, with varying results. Kuna and Kalei gradually got a bit better at it, as well as overcame their anxieties a bit, but were often the first two to wipe out. The sereva managed to do a bit better, both in terms of his nerves and ability, when he started trying to focus on sensing the water energy around him. It was a lot harder than life or soul energy, so it took more concentration, which of course backfired at times. But all in all, he did end up enjoying himself.

Lykou was arguably having the most fun of all, though. And by the end, he was keeping up with Kani, and even occasionally Hoku. But even when he wiped out, he always popped back out of the water with a big grin on his face, eager to try again.

Eventually, they stopped for a fairly late lunch. Kuna and Kalei were the first to go ashore. Lykou, Hoku, and Kani started playfully competing in various ways, both trying to do tricks and seeing who could go the furthest, though Hoku always seemed to win. Kani came back shortly after that. But Hoku and Lykou stayed at it for a fair bit longer, only coming back ashore once the others had finished bringing some food and drinkable water down to the beach from their campsite.

Lykou flopped down near Kuna and sighed contently, with Hoku quickly grabbing up a water jug to take a big gulp next to him. Kalei passed him some fish, while Kuna munched on some pineapple rings and coconut next to him.

“Well damn,” Kani playfully complained. “All that time out there, and your shorts didn’t accidentally come off once, Lykou.”

The konuul snorted and laughed. “So sorry to disappoint you, Kani.”

“You should definitely go again a little later and give ‘em another chance.”

Hoku just rolled her eyes and smirked as she re-corked the jug and sat down with it. “You’re hopeless, Kani.”

“It’s called being determined, thank you,” Kani retorted, crossing her arms stubbornly.

“Hey, you don’t have anything to be stressed about now,” Kalei pointed out with a smirk. “So what’s your excuse this time?”

“He’s still fucking hot, and I still need to get laid,” Kani said matter-of-factly.

“Yeah he is,” Kuna said with a subtle grin, averting his gaze with a faux-innocent look.

Lykou gave him a playful look. “You’re a fine one to talk, mister sexy-ass adorkable cutie.”

“You’re the one going around shirtless,” the sereva retorted with a small smirk, turning and unabashedly eyeing him up for a moment. “Showing off those muscles. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you’re trying to make people want t-… mmmnevermind,” he trailed off, blushing as he failed to muster the nerve to finish the sentence.

“To ride that bad boy!” Kani helpfully finished for him instead. “Mount him, jump his bones- you know, fuck him! Don’t be so shy Kuna, eesh!” she teased, grinning.

“Good grief, Kani,” Hoku said, facepalming.

Lykou flushed and rolled his eyes, then took a long sip from his waterskin. Kalei just shook his head, then glanced back over his shoulder at the jarzin lounging in the sun a short distance away. “Hey, how come you didn’t want to join us out there?”

“Eh, not in the mood,” Zyn replied, looking fairly content. “I can do that any time I want, technically. Never been a huge fan of the water, though- especially not saltwater.”

“Well then at least come over here and give Kani one more fuzzy, muscular guy to ogle,” Kalei playfully suggested.

“Hey yeah, I like the way you think Kalei!” Kani said, beaming. “Come over here, mister mighty magic-pants!”

Zyn chuckled. “Maybe later. Sounds like you’ve got plenty to keep you occupied over there as it is right now.”

“Yeah but they’re not taking me up on the offer, dammit.”

“Wait, you’re really serious??” Lykou asked, blushing a bit more with an amused, if slightly awkward smile. “I thought you were just messing with us this whole time.”

“...only halfway. Say the word and I’ll meet you in some private spot out in the woods, though. Or not so private, I’m good with whatever,” Kani said with an impish grin. She shot a glance between him and Kuna briefly. “Unless of course you’re saving yourself for someone else or something, that is.”

“Right, before this gets any more awkward, let’s change the subject,” Hoku declared in mild exasperation. She glanced over at Zyn. “So Zyn, can you tell us anything about where else these two are going to end up?”

“Only a few bits. When you all go to bed tonight, I plan to sort of… ‘scout ahead’ a bit and see if I can find out more. I know most of the general locations, but not much else.”

“He did tell me about one place that sounds pretty interesting. Another mountain- but bigger than any we’ve ever seen, and in a much colder place,” Lykou said, then grinned and shot a glance back at the jarzin. “Apparently jarzin can’t even visit the peak of this one, either.”

“Oh shit, I hope it’s not another demon,” Kalei said with a frown. “You know, with all that… ‘weave’ stuff.”

“Nah,” Zyn replied. “Good old Devashan… a legendary mystical, spiritual place sought by people from far and wide, looking for answers to all kinds of grand, philosophical questions. But also mostly the secrets to a whole other kind of magic that even we jarzin don’t understand. I’m jealous, but also excited for you two.”

“Wait, other kind of magic?” Kuna asked, perking up. “You mean like…”

“Mhmm. Probably related to some of the crazy shit Lykou can do.”

“It’d be fantastic if I could start learning to really harness that at will,” Lykou said excitedly.

“I’ll say, you’d be unstoppable!” Kalei said. “What’s on the mountain that could help with that, though?”

“Nobody knows, or at least nobody that’s willing to talk about it. Very, very few people make it to the top to begin with. So… you know, do be careful when you get there,” Zyn commented. “Just because there are no demons doesn’t mean there won’t likely be other dangers.”

Lykou frowned a bit. “Hmm, that’s concerning…”

“Hey, after what you two have been through, you can kick any danger’s ass!” Kani assured him. “I’m sure you’ll make it to the top of that mountain faster than anyone and figure out your super awesome power before you know it!”

“Hehe, thanks for the vote of confidence, Kani,” the konuul replied.

“I do look forward to being back some place cooler,” Kuna said, stretching out a bit. “The sun really gets to you quick here.”

“Hey, you could always strip down,” Kani pointed out with a grin. “Take off that sareo and bask in the nude~”

Kuna smacked his hand to his face and sighed, blushing. “Really, Kani? I’m not even remotely built like ‘Kou or Zyn. Are you that desperate?”

“Hey, everyone loves twinky cuties too!” Kani retorted, waggling her eyebrows.

*****

After lunch, the group hung around on the beach a bit more. Kalei ended up joining Zyn, basking in the sun and chatting idly. Kuna started sculpting shapes in the sand, with Lykou helping out for a bit. Later, after their stomachs had settled, Lykou, Kani, and Hoku all went back to surfing and just generally enjoying the water. Eventually, they managed to convince Kuna and Kalei to join them again as well. Even Zyn formed a board of his own with his magic and ended up joining them for a time.

Eventually, the group decided they’d had enough time at the beach, and went to return the boards. Zyn bid them farewell again, for the time being, and walked off into the forest, vanishing into the shadows of the underbrush. When they arrived, they were greeted with cheers and an enthusiastic welcome.

They were surprised to see Anaru had shown up, having recovered and heard the news, then rushed to meet up with his cousin and her fellow heroes. Together, he and a group of other repentant members of the Order brought a large supply of haze nectar and food, along with a collection of pelenock teeth and various other supplies. While they’d been out spending the majority of the day surfing and having fun on the beach, he’d organized a celebration for them that evening. Even if there was still clearly some resentment towards the Order after the truth was revealed, the alcohol, food, and genuine signs of good will went a long way towards smoothing things over. It also helped that Anaru in particular had always had a good reputation even outside the Order.

Anaru and Hoku embraced, relieved to see one another alive and well. Anaru’s neck had only a faint scar left from the wound, and although Kuna offered to try and remove it with his magic, he refused, insisting that it’d serve as a reminder to keep an open mind and not rush to judgment. He and the five heroes sat down to chat while a feast was being prepared a short way away.

“I’m glad everyone seems to finally have accepted the truth,” Lykou commented.

“Well, it’s really hard to argue when the gods themselves sent terrifying representatives to let everyone know, and the false-god in question gets sent to the hells right in front of everyone on this side of the island,” Anary pointed out, then shivered. “That… was quite a sight.”

“Eesh. They showed up here too, huh?” Kalei asked.

“Literally all over the island, as far as we can tell. Which I suppose makes sense, if they really wanted to be sure everyone knew the truth.”

“Makes sense to me,” Kuna added. He shuddered slightly. “Doubt anyone’s going to pick an argument with those… uh, ‘representatives of the Abyss’ or whatever they were.”

“No kidding. Hey, what’s going to happen with the Order, anyway?” Lykou asked Anaru. “How are people, you know… taking things?”

“It’s… complicated. Honestly, the more I think about it, the more I think it was a mistake having one big organization committed to a single being. Or pair of individuals, if I’m being honest,” Anary replied, rubbing his head thoughtfully. “I’ll admit even before it all came out, I had my moments of doubt, but I always tried to push them back and use it as an excuse to commit myself even harder to things.”

“Hey, in your case at least they were good things,” Hoku pointed out. “I remember when you spent a week helping to fix up those huts that got damaged after that one nasty storm. I’m betting you could have easily used your status as an excuse to be elsewhere at the time, but you didn’t.”

Anaru shrugged. “I joined to help people. That’s one point no demon can take from me.”

“It… is good to know there are still people that joined for the right reasons,” Kalei said, staring off into the middle distance thoughtfully for a moment.

“Kalei, I am so sorry I didn’t back you up more. I figured the others were just trying to toughen you up, but it’s obvious to me now that the Order is rife with… less than honest sorts,” Anaru said with a frown. “I should have spoken up…”

“Hey, you were always nicer than the others,” Kalei replied, shrugging. “Honestly, that’s plenty in itself.”

“It really isn’t, but I appreciate you trying to assuage my guilt. You know, you showed more bravery and integrity than most. I don’t know what will become of the Order, but if we manage to reform it like I hope, do know that you have a High Watcher’s cloak with your name on it, at the very least,” Anaru assured him, then thought for a moment. “Although... we’ll probably be changing titles and structure an awful lot if the Order does stick around. You know, less a paranoia-inspiring authority and such.”

“Heh, thanks but no thanks,” Kalei said. “For now at least, I think I want to… I dunno, re-evaluate things. I kind of like being down here on the coast. For the time being I might see of Hoku and Kani’s village need an extra hand at fishing.”

“Hey, there’s always room on our boat for one more,” Hoku invited him with a smile.

Kani gasped. “Who are you and what have you done with Hokulani??”

“Hey, Kalei’s obviously a good guy, why shouldn’t I?”

“Since when do you invite people without someone twisting your arm?” Kani teased, then turned back to Kalei. “Seriously though, say yes before she changes her mind. She never invites people without being pressured!”

Kalei snickered. “Hey, if you’ll have me, sure. You’ll have to teach me things, though.”

“Of course,” Hoku assured him. “Now that I don’t have to worry about hiding my abilities, it should be a bit easier anyway.”

Lykou turned back to Anaru. “So you think the Order will try to stick around, huh? It is a good idea to have people around who are knowledgeable about spirits, heh.”

“As long as it’s actual knowledge and not just dogma,” Kuna warned, arching a brow. “Might want to break it up into smaller, more local groups.

“Perhaps. We’ll just have to see how things play out,” Anaru replied. “Smaller does have its appeal, but personally I wouldn’t want to be tied to one village. I like visiting different place around the island. But you’re definitely right about the rest. We should definitely take some time to re-learn about all the different spirits these islands have.”

“And teach people to live in harmony with nature,” Kuna added, nodding. He smirked and glanced over at Hoku and Kalei. “I know at least two people that have plenty they could share.”

Kalei chuckled and rubbed his arm with a sheepish expression. “Well, mostly Hoku. It’s a lot more hazy and limited in my case.”

“No doubt that was reinforced by our thick-headed dogma,” Anaru pointed out sadly. “I am glad you didn’t let the Order completely ruin that for you. I dare say perhaps there’s a positive side to you not moving past recruit.”

“...now that you mention it, yeah, I guess there is, isn’t there?” Kalei said with a smirk.

“Whoooo’s hungry?” the local chieftan asked as he walked over, with a procession of other raptuva bringing out platters full of freshly-prepared food. They set the trays up on a long, thick log that had been carved flat on the top and bottom, making a long and simple ground-level table, around which many other members of the village started to eagerly gather. But the heroic five were of course given the honor of first go at the makeshift buffet of various delicacies.

It was by far the most varied assortment of food Lykou and Kuna had seen yet on their journey, even taking the shrine into account. Of course, a good chunk of it was out of the question for Kuna- a whole plethora of different seafood and several land-critters cooked up, some adorned with bits of fruit and soaked in its juices. Still, he had a wide variety of fruit to choose from, as well as a large bowl of seaweed broth that’d been cooked up just for him, with whatever herbs the locals could find in the forest nearby. Some of the fruit was carefully cut into artful decorative shapes, which made Kuna almost reluctant to consider eating it. Almost.

The platters themselves were ornately carved. And the canopy-covered structure they all sat down in was lined with large, highly-fragrant flowers. Lykou noticed how much Kuna seemed to be admiring them and rubbed his chin thoughtfully, after having a private side-conversation with Kani, who had a certain impish look of her own. After he finally replied to something she’d asked, she split off for a few minutes to arrange something.

And, of course, there was the haze nectar. Lots of it. And they were each given large cups of the stuff right away. Lykou grinned at Kuna before taking a quick sip. “Well, now we’re definitely at the ‘relaxation’ point.”

Kuna just smirked and rolled his eyes. “I’m still not going to embarrass myself in front of everyone, you know.”

“Awww come on, live a little!” Kani insisted.

“...alright, alright, I’ll… indulge a bit I suppose,” the sereva relented. “But I’m not getting totally fucked up.”

Lykou found himself thoroughly relishing the wide variety of food options before he started getting too far into the booze. He’d clearly gotten over his wariness of some of the more ‘bug-like’ seafood options as well, and ended up devouring some crab with enthusiastic zeal. Kalei ended up thoroughly enjoying some right alongside him- he may have been familiar with it, but he was rarely in a position to enjoy it. Hoku ended up enjoying some oysters, which Kalei balked at, and Lykou tried to enjoy but ended up not being able to stomach.

By the time the five had eaten their fill, the shows started. Stories were told, musical instruments were brought out, songs were sung, and overall much revelry was had. Lykou was especially delighted to watch a group perform a special fire dance that reminded me somewhat of Spark Night back home. Of course, that brought a far-away, slightly sad look to his eyes despite his smile. But a quick embrace from the sereva at his side, brought him back to the joyful mood.

A while later, as the cups gradually piled up and the sun started dipping down, the jokes and playful banter picked up. Kuna stuck to his commitment not to overdo it, but Lykou, Kani, and Kalei didn’t hold back. Eventually, Kuna and Hoku excused themselves as they both decided they needed a break from the crowd.

Much like that first night on the island, the two of them went walking down the beach together as the sun was being split by the horizon and the stars started peeking out in the opposite direction. The breeze wafted the salty smell of the ocean past them and they both sighed in a shared moment of contentment.

“I can’t remember the last time I felt so… at peace,” Hoku said, twirling around gleefully in the breeze as they walked.

Kuna giggled. “The drink probably helps,” he teased. Neither of them were drunk, but that didn’t mean they didn’t have a very comfortable buzz going. “But yeah, I know what you mean. Feels great to know such a huge weight has been lifted. I can only imagine how much moreso for you.”

“Definitely… almost don’t want tonight to end at this rate.”

“I know the feeling.”

“You did pretty well with the surfing today.”

“No need to lie,” Kuna retorted with a smirk. “The sea and I are acquaintances at best, and I’m fine with that.”

She snickered. “Alright, you won’t be winning any competitions anytime soon, but hey, you still stuck with it.”

“The company helped,” he said, then nudged her playfully. “So did the teacher.”

Hoku smiled back and wrapped an arm around him briefly. “What can I say? You’re a good student.”

“Hey, that reminds me, did you want me to teach you about life magic?”

She thought for a moment, then shook her head a bit. “Nah, couldn’t focus on that kind of thing right now. I’d rather just enjoy taking things easy.”

“Fair enough,” the sereva replied. “...I guess you’ll have enough spirit friends around now that I’m sure one of them could probably help you learn it eventually anyway.”

“Heh, maybe,” Hoku replied, staring off into the distance thoughtfully. “...you really think they’ll start showing up around me more?”

“You just played a key role in freeing a fuck ton of them from that demon asshole,” Kuna replied, smirking. “Yeah, I definitely think you can expect plenty of friendly visits. And you heard what Whironui said, after all.”

The raptuva grinned, her tail notably swishing a bit more as they progressed along the beach. “...well that’s definitely something to look forward to.” She nudged him playfully with her hip. “You know, I’m really glad I met you, Kuna. Even aside from all the shit with the Order and Tuimana, and Kairangi.”

Kuna folded his ears down and smiled. “Likewise, Hoku. You’re really easy to get along with, you know?”

She smirked. “I think there are a number of people that’d disagree with that. But hey, right back at ya.” She tussled his hair playfully, and he giggled and nudged her slightly, then sighed in contentment.

They walked in silence for a little bit, just enjoying one another’s company.

“I just hope those three don’t overdo it with the haze nectar, heh,” the sereva commented, glancing back towards the village for a moment.

“I’m sure they’re fine,” Hoku assured him, smirking. “Though I can’t promise Kani won’t be desperately trying to seduce your… best friend back there.”

Kuna arched a brow at her, not quite missing the dubious emphasis. “Er. Yeah. Heh… you… really think she’s gonna try to go even further?”

“Hmm… maybe,” Hoku said with a shrug. “With another raptuva, there’s the whole risk of pregnancy, but I’m pretty sure konuul and raptuva can’t have babies. And it’s been a while since I’ve seen her that freaking openly horny for someone.”

“Huh…”

Hoku eyed him curiously. “What, are you jealous?” she suddenly asked, taking him thoroughly off-guard.

“W-what??”

She grinned. “You are, aren’t you?”

“Jealous o-of what?” Kuna sputtered, blushing. “I don’t know what you’re-”

“Kuna. Come on,” Hoku insisted. “Sorry, maybe it’s the alcohol talking, but I’ve got to press you on it. You’ve genuinely got the hots for that boy in a big way, and everyone else in the world can see it. Why deny it?”

The sereva blushed furiously and looked away with a bashful grin. “O-okay yeah, he’s fucking hot. You got me. But he can fuck whoever he wants.”

“Have… you two ever, y’know. Done anything?” she asked curiously.

Kuna nearly tripped and started sputtering again for a moment before he could collect himself enough to reply. “N-n-no! We’re just friends! Best friends b-but that’s all!”

“You sure flirt a lot for ‘just friends’.”

“We’re just m-messing with each other!” Kuna insisted, blushing brightly. “I-It’s just this… game he and I play, that’s all!”

“Suuuure,” she replied, feeling more playful than usual thanks to the lingering effects of the nectar. “Friends can fuck too, you know.”

“I-” Kuna started to reply, then paused and stood there, looking mildly perplexed and thoughtful. “...they can?”

She giggled. “I was kind of teasing you, but yeah, it’s a thing, technically. ‘Friends with benefits’ some people call it. It’s not for everyone, but it’s not like everyone just hangs around celibate their whole life until their eventual mate comes and sweeps them off their feet, either.”

“They… don’t?”

She stared at him for a moment, then facepalmed, smirking. “I’m sorry, sometimes I forget about your, uh…”

“Stunted social life?” he commented with a flat expression and a renewed blush, then sighed slightly. “Yeah. Guess I’ve still got… a lot to learn.”

“I guess so…”

“But you seriously mean… people just, um,” Kuna continued, rubbing his arm thoughtfully. “...what, hook up for some casual fun? Not just… m-messing with each other, or…” He paused and rolled his eyes slightly. “’flirt’ with each other for fun?”

“Sure. It’s not for everyone, and I mean I’m not exactly a people person myself usually, so it’s not like I have a whole lot of first hand experience,” Hoku replied. “But sometimes strangers hook up for a bit of fun, and sometimes certain friends do, too. Not nearly as much as some, like Kani, might have you believe, but it’s definitely a thing. Like I said though, I was kind of just messing with you.”

“Huh…”

She stopped walking and crossed her arms, sizing him up thoughtfully. “...but there’s more to it than just physical attraction, isn’t there?”

He paused and blushed furiously as he tried to avoid meeting her gaze. “H-huh? W-what… what are you-… what do you mean?”

“Kuna.”

After a moment of awkward silence, he finally glanced back at her and saw her giving him a knowing look. He looked around, frantically trying to think of something snarky to say or something to distract them and maybe change the subject.

“...Who do you honestly think you’re kidding, Kuna?” she probed playfully. “It’s pretty obvious you’re smitten with Lykou, and I mean more than just on a sexual level.”

Finally, Kuna let out a small, drawn-out squeal that turned into a groan as he brought his hands up to cover his flushed face. “Okayokayokay fuuuuuuck,” he said, then took a deep breath. “I… fuck it, I don’t know what my feelings are, Hoku.” He dropped his hands after a moment and just stared off into the distance for a moment. “I… I never even had a real friend before him. I wasn’t kidding about being socially stunted, I’m new to… well, all of this!”

Hoku winced slightly. “Sorry, didn’t mean t-”

“He pulled me out of the deepest darkness you can imagine! He’s helped me in ways I can’t even describe!” Kuna pressed on, finally unleashing some emotional pressure that he’d been subconsciously bottling up for a while. It wasn’t directed at Hoku, though, as he avoided facing her as he continued. “He’s just… so amazing, you know? He’s sweet as fuck, funny, playful, affectionate, just… I’ve never met anyone like him and I just can’t… tell what it is I’m feeling. Am I just clinging to him because he’s the first person to ever make me feel happy and worth something, because he’s literally saved my life in multiple ways multiple times, or do I have actually have some kind of… of…”

“...crush on him?” Hoku hesitantly suggested, both slightly stunned but also intrigued by the emotional flood coming out.

“...yeah,” Kuna replied after a moment, then finally shot her a sheepish look, still blushing. “...sorry…”

“Don’t be. Obviously you’ve got a lot more got a lot going on up there, and it makes sense you’re still trying to figure things out,” she replied, smiling a bit and rubbing his head lightly. “Maybe you should… you know, talk to him about your feelings sometime.”

“Hahahahano,” he quickly retorted, tensing up a bit at the thought as his eye twitched. He shook it off after a moment and rubbed his face. “Even… even if it wasn’t for the fact I still haven’t figured out my own feelings for sure, there’s no chance I want to risk making the rest of this journey awkward or…” He paused for a moment, a faint frown creeping across his face for a moment. “...or messing up our friendship...”

“Has it ever occurred to you he might feel the same way? Seems to me he really likes you too.”

“Hoku. Lykou likes everyone,” the sereva mildly snarked. “It’s one of the things I lo-… like about him, even if it occasionally backfires. He’s friendly and affectionate to people, to a fault.”

Hoku chuckled a bit. “Yeah… I guess I can see that. But you should still at least think about it.”

Kuna sighed and rubbed his neck. “...maybe. Not until this journey is over, though. Don’t need to risk… complicating things. Especially when I’m still trying to figure things out.”

“Fair enough,” Hoku said. She stared at him thoughtfully as he took a moment to try and collect himself. “...you gonna be alright?”

“Yeah, just…” the sereva smiled sheepishly at her. He hadn’t stopped blushing through the whole awkward conversation. “I guess it does feel kind of nice to finally voice some of that out loud. I’ve been trying to avoid even thinking about it too much for a while now… thanks for prying it out of me, heh.”

She chuckled and rubbed his arm. “No problem, Ku.”

He blinked a few times and smirked. “You just called me Ku.”

“Oop! Sorry-”

“No, no, it’s fine,” Kuna replied with a mildly amused grin. “It’s just… you’re the first one besides Lykou to call me that.”

“You… don’t mind it?”

“Nah,” the sereva replied. “I mean, I’ve been using your short name- er, ‘nickname’ I think L… Kou called it? This whole time. S’only fair.”

She smiled. “Good. Ku it is.”

“Might get confusing if you use it around both of us at some point though.”

Hoku blinked, then snickered. “Hey yeah, that’s a good point. You both basically have the same one, huh?”

“Yep, hehe…”

“And you still doubt you two were meant for each other?” she teased playfully.

He blushed and rolled his eyes in response. “Aaaanyway…”

Hoku giggled and patted his back lightly. “I’m sure you’ll figure out it sooner or later.”

*****

The next day, everyone slept in a bit. Even when they finally got up, they moved a bit slow, with none of them particularly wanting to say goodbye. Eventually, Sunshine returned, seeming a bit tired but quite cheerful. Lykou and Kani tried to tease the bird, but he just played ignorant and proved himself quite immune to teasing. The group took their time with breakfast and lingered a while, with residents of the village and members of the Order coming to chat with them intermittently. But they knew they couldn’t stall forever, so once they’d had plenty of time to let breakfast settle, everyone packed up and bid farewell to the locals and the thankfully very contrite and much more friendly red cloaks.

Anaru in particular embraced each member of the group in turn, wishing them well and promising to come visit Hoku again later- this time without a bunch of nagging and preaching. He also reiterated his offer to Kalei, who eventually said he’d consider it but couldn’t make any promises.

Kalei, Hoku, and Kani then walked Lykou and Kuna back to the more secluded area of the beach, with Sunshine riding along on Kalei’s shoulder. The boys had been given fresh supplies- even a fresh bag of salt, which Hoku managed to fill using saltwater and a neat trick she’d learned over the years with her water magic. They’d replaced the very worn-down food bags Kuna had made back at the start of their journey with newer, better ones as well, allowing them to both carry a bit more and better organize their food. Kuna was also given a proper pack to carry non-food items, much to his relief. And fortunately, while he was still by far physically the weakest of the group, all the time on their journey had helped him build up a bit more strength, so he was able to carry more.

When they reached the water, they stood around, chatting a little bit, still putting off having to say goodbye. But eventually Lykou pulled out the shell and looked it over. “Well… I guess this is it then.”

“Yeah… guess it’s time to continue your grand journey,” Kalei said. “I hope you get home soon.”

“And stay safe,” Kani added, then shrugged. “Or just kick danger’s butt. Either works.”

Kuna chuckled a bit. “Hopefully more the first one,” he commented, then turned to Hoku, who, despite smiling, had a slightly sad, distant look in her eyes. “You alright, Hoku?”

Hoku shook her head and snapped out of her thoughts. “Yeah, sorry, just… hard to believe this is goodbye, I guess. The last time we’ll ever see each other…”

“Well, for now,” Lykou pointed out.

“...huh?”

“Oh yeah… he got this idea back in Clovaria that some day after we’ve been back home for a while, he wants to try and set up some kind of traveling caravan thing through the gates to revisit some of the places we’ve been,” Kuna said, then crossed his arms and smirked. “In theory so Lakefire and various villages we’ve seen can trade with each other, but that’s just an excuse, really.”

“But… this one’s deep underwater. Once you go through it with T’nari’s help, you probably won’t be able to come back through safely,” Hoku pointed out sadly.

“Oh…” Kuna’s expression fell, as did everyone else’s.

“...guess this really is goodbye then,” Lykou said.

Kani crossed her arms and stomped lightly in annoyance, trying to mask her sadness with exaggerated drama. “Dammit. Life’s a jerk sometimes.”

“I suppose we could… try and find our way back to the other one from some other place. There’s probably more than one way to get there,” Kuna suggested, after a minute. “No telling for sure though…”

“...hey,” Hoku said, her smile coming back after a moment as she took Kuna’s hand, then, after a pause, Lykou’s as well. “We met. We became friends. We had an adventure together. Even if we never see each other again, at least we have our memories.”

“Right,” Kuna said, smiling and squeezing her hand gently. “Thank you guys… for everything.”

“Pfft, thank you guys for helping us free this place from that demonic duo,” Kalei said, then grinned sheepishly at Kuna. “And, uh, on a personal note, talking some sense into me and giving me another chance, heh.”

“Ah, there you are. Getting ready to head off, I take it?” Zyn said, startling the group as he stepped out of thin air and walked up to them.

“Yeah… we were just talking about how the whole ‘arch being stuck underwater’ thing kind of… puts a kink in my idea of starting a trade caravan back to the places and people we’ve visited,” Lykou replied.

“Oh. Well… not necessarily, there’s a number of those things and most places have multiple paths to them if I remember correctly. This one might be tricky though, and given where the one on the other island links to… well, I’m guessing you probably don’t want to take a caravan through that place,” Zyn said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.

Lykou frowned again. “Right, the ursarans…”

“Not to mention that monster,” Kuna added with a small shudder.

“Well… tell you what, when I get the chance, I’ll have a chat with T’nari and some of the other local spirits. Maybe the chunk of land the gate’s on can be lifted back up at some point,” Zyn suggested, reviving the group’s spirits a bit. “Could take a while, but I’m sure we can arrange something.”

Lykou smiled, his tail swishing very lightly behind him. “That’d be great! Thanks, Zyn.”

“You know, I’ve been thinking,” Hoku said, then crossed her arms, grinning. “You don’t have to always be the one doing the visiting, either. I’ve been thinking about bringing back certain… old traditions.”

Kuna perked up some and smirked. “Like… exploring?”

“Exactly,” she replied, then glanced at the other two raptuva. “You two are welcome to join me, too.”

“Ooo, sounds fun!” Kani said, bouncing on the spot.

“You know, that does sound pretty intriguing…” Kalei responded thoughtfully. After a moment, he grinned and shrugged. “Fuck it, why not?”

“Does this mean you guys want to come with us?” Lykou asked cheerfully.

Hoku sighed. “Much as I’d love to, we’d need more time to prepare, let people know, and so on. Plus, while I definitely want to take up exploring, I’m not really in a hurry to leave the sea behind… I was thinking we could put together a bigger boat, then sail out and see if there are other gates around on more islands out there somewhere. Maybe even see how close the ocean gets to… wherever Lakefire is.”

“Sounds nice,” Lykou replied. “You know, I can’t wait to tell folks back home about those ‘sail’ things. If nothing else, I might have to see about making a small one for my parents’ canoe and see how it works out.”

“Heck yeah! Maybe surfing, too!” Kani eagerly suggested.

“I wish. But nah, no ocean near Lakefire, remember? And the lake doesn’t get nearly big enough waves for that.”

“Oh. Darn,” Kani said. “Well, guess that’s just all the more reason to come back for a visit!”

“...if you guys go off exploring though, there’s a good chance we’ll miss each other,” Kuna pointed out.

Hoku grinned, then booped the sereva’s nose. “Hey, someone taught me how to use the stars to find stuff. I’m assuming that applies to people, too,” she said, then her grin faltered a moment as she turned to Zyn for confirmation. “Uh, right?”

Zyn nodded. “Yep. Well, as long as you have a strong enough to connection to them anyway. But I’d say that’s not a problem for the five of you, given what you’ve been through with each other recently.”

“Right!” Hoku turned back to Kuna, beaming. “See?”

“Guess that solves that at least,” the sereva said, smiling back.

“Well… I guess we can’t keep stalling forever,” Lykou said, adjusting his food back a bit before picking up the pelenock-tooth-tipped spear he’d made in preparation for continuing their trip, with some help from a skilled local. After a moment, he planted it right back in the ground and reached out to start hugging people. “I’ll miss you guys. You be safe too, alright?”

“Same to you, buddy,” Kalei said, embracing him, then Kuna.

“Did you get the-?” Lykou whispered to Kani as they hugged.

“Yep! In a bag inside your pack,” she whispered back, then winked as she leaned back.

“Thanks,” he mouthed, winking back.

Meanwhile, as Hoku tightly embraced Kuna, she snuck in a small peck on his cheek while the others weren’t looking. “No more excuses when you get to Lakefire. Go get that fluffy boy,” she whispered in his ear, then winked subtly as she pulled back.

Kuna blushed and rolled his eyes slightly, but grinned. “Yeah yeah, I know,” he replied quietly, then turned to busy himself with ‘double-checking’ his bag to hide his flushed face from the others for a moment. Except for Zyn, that is, who just arched a brow and smirked, without commenting.

Sunshine suddenly hopped onto Kalei’s head and spread his wings, facing Lykou and Kuna. “Goodbye friends,” he squawked. “You are good fucks.”

Everyone giggled a bit at that. Suddenly, the bird’s wings glowed a bit and he flew up over Lykou and Kuna, dropping something down over each of their heads and around their necks, alongside their medallions- two silvery chains made of something like silk, yet stronger, each holding a vibrant feather attached on the end. He whistled and clicked cheerfully as he landed back on Kalei’s shoulder, the glow in his wings fading.

“Woah, Sunny… thank you,” Lykou said, holding up the feather charm to look it over.

Kuna smiled and marveled at his own for a moment, then reached over and stroked the bird’s head softly. “Yeah, thanks little buddy. For this and everything else. I hope I see you again someday, too.”

“I think he’s inclined to join those three on their own explorations,” Zyn chimed in. “So assuming you manage to meet up with them again someday, he’ll probably be along for the ride.”

“Is that so?” Kalei asked, smirking over at the bird. “You gonna be our little assistant navigator?”

Sunny bobbed his head and whistled cheerfully. “Keeping eye on friends.”

“Sounds good to me,” Kani said, grinning at the bird. “The more the merrier!”

Lykou picked up his spear again and nodded to Kuna, handing him the shell. “Alright Ku. Ready?”

“As I’ll ever be,” the sereva replied, then took the shell and raised it to his mouth, but then paused and glanced over to Zyn. “Oh, uh… are you going to walk with us?”

Zyn shrugged. “Nah, but I’ll meet you on the other side. I scouted ahead a little last night- not much to tell you yet, but I’ll let you know what I can when you get there,” he said, then turned to the others. “Guess this is it though. Do me a favor and don’t tell anyone about me, alright?”

“Your secret’s safe with us, Zyn,” Hoku assured him.

“After how you helped us, it’s the least we could do,” Kalei replied. “But don’t be stranger, alright?”

“Yeah!” Kani said, then grinned impishly. “Feel free to visit me at night some time, if you know what I mean~”

A group of groans and snickers filled the air. Zyn just rolled his eyes and smirked. “...jarzin don’t usually just casually visit other mortals, but…” he paused for a moment, then shrugged. “Fuck it, obviously I’m not real keen on rules these days. So we’ll see.”

“Woo!”

Zyn chuckled, then turned back to Lykou and Kuna. “Right, see you two soon.” He nodded to them, then, without another word, he vanished in a puff of dark mist.

Kuna took a deep breath and straightened up, then lifted the shell up again and whispered T’nari’s name into it. Everyone waited a few minutes in tense, somewhat awkward silence. But then, a long stretch of water started churning and bubbling curiously. Slowly, it started to rise up, forming a long, swirling tunnel down into the ocean. It was larger than the one Hoku had made before, and went much, much further out- and down. Kuna took out the crystal Whironui had given him and focused for a moment, thinking of the sunrise. A moment later, it lit up brightly, giving them a light to travel into the tunnel with.

Both of them stepped forward into the waiting maw of swirling seawater, then turned to wave at their newfound friends one last time before continuing down into the underwater world. Eventually, the tunnel entrance closed up behind them as they got past a certain point.

Hoku sighed as she watched them go. “Those two are something special.”

“Sure are,” Kalei agreed.

“In general, and to each other, even if they won’t admit it,” Kani said, giggling.

“...not yet anyway,” Hoku said, smirking. “But I at least got Kuna to admit it to himself last night. So… progress, I guess.”

“Awww! Fuck yeah, they’re gonna be smoochin’ in no time!” Kani said.

“I doubt it’ll be that quick, but who knows?” Kalei commented, then turned to Hoku and arched a brow. “So… you’re taking it well.”

“Hmm?” Hoku responded, only half paying attention as she stared out at the water.

“...you totally had a little crush on Kuna, didn’t you?” Kani teased, then wrapped an arm around her old friend. “Feeling a bit jealous?”

Hoku’s eyes widened as she turned to her friend. “...I didn’t-”

“Come on, I caught it too,” Kalei said with a smirk. “It was subtle, but you clearly took a special liking to him.”

Hoku blushed slightly, then rolled her eyes with a sheepish grin. “Yeah alright, maybe a tiny bit. Nothing compared to what those two have though. I’m just glad I got to know him. Both of them, for that matter. Anyway,” she said, then took a deep breath and started walking off towards the village. “Come on, we’ve got a couple days’ hike ahead of us. I want to get back and get to work on that bigger boat.”

“Fuck yeah, high seas here we come!” Kani shouted, pumping a fist into the air as she followed after her.

Kalei smiled and looked back out at the ocean for a moment, appreciating the way the mid-morning sun glinted on the waves, then turned and followed the other two. “Well you heard them, Sunny. Adventure awaits!”

MHO - The Cult of the Crimson Isles - Chapter 23

Lloxie

Here it is, folks! The final chapter of The Cult of the Crimson Isles. Isn't it hilarious that I thought this would be a short episode?? And here it turned out to be the longest so far, by a good margin. Ah well, I hope you all enjoyed it! Got a spooky episode right around the corner!


Please remember to leave a comment to share any thoughts you have about this chapter! I can only grow with feedback!


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