“Briney!” Nova shouted and took a step forward.
The kraken scrunched up and scrambled up the guard’s arm, pressing into the nook where her shoulder and neck met. Briney peeked out, giving Nova a guilty look before waving one tentacle at her. Nova’s lips pressed into a tight line of disapproval.
“So this sweetheart is yours?” the guard said and reached down, scratching around Briney’s beak. The kraken cooed.
Definitely a traitor.
“What are you doing here?” Mathius demanded of the guard.
The guard crossed her arms. “Is that any way to speak to me, Crux? You do realize I work with the city guard?”
Mathius glared. “I haven’t done anything for the city guard to invade my home.”
“Is that true?” the guard asked and turned to Nova. “What’s your name, Miss? I haven’t seen you around before.”
“You don’t have to answer that,” Mathius said quickly.
“On the contrary, you do,” the guard said with an easy smile on her lips.
Mathius balled up his fist.
It was becoming pretty clear to Nova that Mathius and the guard had some history. Nova stepped forward. “I’m Nova Davis.” She nodded to Briney. “If you’re here about Briney then that has nothing to do with Mathius. Briney is my responsibility.”
Mathius looked surprised at her words and then shook his head. “Don’t be foolish.”
Nova ignored Mathius. She knew this situation wasn’t the best but she couldn’t deny Briney was hers when she just shouted his name. She wasn’t willing to let Mathius take the fall for him, especially since she had dragged him to the market for mana crystals in the first place.
“Now this is just getting curiouser and curiouser.” She plucked Briney off her shoulder. “This fella here caused quite the stir in the market. There have been a lot of complaints. I believe a fine for disturbing the peace is well in order.”
Nova simply nodded. She knew a fine was a small matter. It would be a lot worse if she had been arrested. Still, it was one more thing to add to the growing debt she was building.
“Of course, the pet would be confiscated until the fine has been paid,” the guard said casually.
“What?” Nova’s eyes widened.
“Well, I would be willing to look the other way,” the guard said. “If Crux here would be willing to have a little talk with me.”
Mathius gritted his teeth.
Nova swallowed. She wasn’t sure what to do. She needed Briney in order to contact Jace and Miko. She wasn’t sure if she should try to convince Mathius to talk with the guard or if it would pull them deeper into trouble.
“Fine, but inside. I’m not going to the Tower,” Mathius said, taking the decision away from her.
“Great. Let’s head in then,” the guard said, sliding away from the door.
Mathius grunted and turned to Nova, lowering his voice. “Leave it to me.” He gave her a meaningful look which she gathered meant don’t talk about anything unnecessary.
Nova nodded and followed Mathius in, passing the guard as she did. To her surprise, as she walked by, Briney jumped onto her shoulder. She poked the purple kraken. “I’m mad at you.”
Briney let out a sad warble and Nova felt her anger slide away. “I’m glad you’re safe. I got you something.”
Briney let out a curious squawk and immediately began crawling down her as if planning to search her pockets.
She caught him and placed him firmly back on her shoulder. “Later.”
“Greedy little thing, isn’t he?” the guard said.
Nova jumped. She hadn’t heard the woman sneak up behind her. “Yes,” she said, keeping her tone easy. “Something I’m recently learning.”
“Where did you get him?” she asked.
Nova met the woman’s blue eyes. Though her words were conversational, she knew she was fishing. “From a friend.”
“It sounds like you have interesting friends,” the guard said with a sharp smile. “Just like Mathius, here. He’s quite unique.”
Nova felt her heart speed up and she got the feeling the woman knew more than she was letting on.
“Cadet Jercari, our deal was to talk to me not harass my guest,” Mathius said sharply before settling down in a chair.
Cadet Jercari laughed and walked over to Mathius, patting his shoulder. “I’m not harassing anyone. I’m just having a friendly chat.”
“When did interrogations become friendly chats?” Mathius shot back.
She looked between Mathius and Cadet Jercari and felt she was missing something. Mathius was wary of Jercari but he didn’t seem scared of her, which she assumed he would be since she was a guard. While Jercari seemed overly familiar with Mathius.
“It’s a habit now,” Jercari said and looked at Nova. “Why don’t you join us, Nova?”
Nova wasn’t sure if that was an invitation or an order but she was curious so she decided to play along. There were only two chairs at the table. Jercari waved for Nova to take one while she wandered around the room.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been in here,” Jercari said, with an almost nostalgic tone to her voice.
“Get to the point, Helena,” Mathius said, leaning back in his chair.
She twirled around to face Mathius with a wide grin. “It’s been a while since you called me that as well.”
Mathius narrowed his eyes. “My mistake. Get to the point, Cadet Jercari.”
Helena smiled brightly. She didn’t seem bothered by Mathius’s attitude. “You always were impatient.”
Mathius bristled. “Don’t speak like you are any better?”
Helena laughed. “You’re probably right. You were always better at studying than I was.”
For a moment, a shadow of a smile crossed Mathius’s lips.
Listening to them, the pieces came into place. The two had been friends, possibly even lovers. Nova studied them. They looked around the same age and Helena was incredibly beautiful. Mathius, despite his almost permanent scowl and flare for the dramatic, was good-looking.
“Look, Mathius, a lot of people have been talking about you,” Helena said.
“People always talk about me,” Mathius said stubbornly. “Why does that matter?”
“People saying you’re getting into stuff. Looking into things you shouldn’t be. There’s even talk you took on some work for the Sanitation Guild.”
Nova frowned. Why would Mathius working for the Sanitation Guild be frowned upon? She was starting to get the feeling the Sanitation Guild might not exactly be what she thought it was.
Mathius narrowed his eyes. “As I said, people always talk.”
Helena gave him a searching look. “There are even rumors that you might be dabbling in the old traditions.” She glanced over to Nova.
Nova felt a wave of nerves go through her. Did she know Mathius had summoned her? If they found out, would they send the Fixers after her? After a moment she realized it wasn’t her Helena was looking at but Briney. Did she think Mathius had summoned Briney? From Mathius’s reaction to the kraken when he first summoned her, she figured small purple krakens weren’t exactly normal. Though the fisherman thought Briney was just a normal octopus. She would have to find out more about it later.
Mathius laughed and it was harsh. “The old traditions? Despite what people think, the traditions died when my grandfather did.”
“But your mother-” Helena started.
Mathius slammed his hands on the table and stood up. “My mother is dead! You should know that better than anyone.”
Helena paled and an awkward silence filled the room. Finally, the guard sighed. “Look, Mathius, I’m not the only person looking into this. There was some strange magic that happened the other day. You’re going to be on everyone’s list with your background.”
“What a surprise?” Mathius said bitterly, sagging down into his chair.
Helena shook her head. “Just stay out of trouble. If not for yourself, then for those who care about you.”
“Like I said, my mother is dead,” Mathius said and stood up. “Is our talk over or was there anything else you wanted to drag up?”
Helena rubbed the bridge of her nose. “I’ll take my leave.” She turned to Nova. “Nice to meet you, Nova. Make sure that pet of yours doesn’t get into any more trouble.”
“I will,” Nova said.
Helena’s gaze lingered on Briney before she turned to the door and left. Silence filled the air and with it a hundred questions. Nova looked at Mathius, not sure where to even start.
“It’s getting late,” Mathius said, looking down at the table. He gestured to one of the drapes. “You can sleep in there.”
Nova nodded. “Mathius…”
“Thanks,” Nova said. “You really helped out me and Briney.”
Mathius nodded though the tension didn’t leave him.
Nova wanted to say more but she figured Mathius needed space so she went to the room behind the drapes. It was more a corner than a room but despite that, it had a cozy feel to it. It had a small bed on the floor or more what went for a bed. It was mostly a bag stuffed with straw and old rags. Near it was a basket, filled with a few odds and ends. Nova went to the bed and sat down. Immediately, Briney jumped from her shoulder and into her lap. He looked at her and squawked.
She laughed and reached for the small bag she had tied to her belt and opened it. She pulled out a couple of crystal shards. Briney immediately pounced on them, gobbling them down. In the distance, she heard Mathius’s footsteps followed by the sound of water. She took a breath and held up Briney.
“Can you get in contact with Jace?” she asked.
The kraken nodded and then pointed a tentacle at the bag of shards. Nova frowned. She wasn’t sure how many she needed to feed Briney but he ate an entire crystal plus several shards. She didn’t think he needed anymore. In the end, she gave him three more and then waited as Briney got comfortable in her lap. He let out a small squeak.
There wasn’t any outward sign that she was communicating so she just had to trust Briney. “Jace?” she asked.
“Ah! You got your hands on some mana crystal. Looks like you’re pretty resourceful,” Jace said flippantly.
“You knew it would be hard to get,” she said flatly.
“Aye, I did. The guilds have a stranglehold on mana crystals.”
Nova wished Jace was there so she could have the pleasure of strangling. “Then why did you send me to get them?”
“Because you needed them,” Jace said simply. “Just because something is hard to get doesn’t change that.”
Nova groaned. “But Briney can eat fish which is a hundred times easier to get.”
“Briney does love fish but he’s a mana beast and so needs mana crystals. Fish is just a nice treat for him.
Nova grumbled. “Fine, fine. Let me speak to Miko.”
There was some fumbling and then Miko’s voice came through. “Nova! You called me back.”
Nova chuckled at Miko’s wording. Was Briney an octophone? “Yeah, I promised, didn’t I?”
From there the two began to talk with Nova explaining to Miko about everything that happened to her. A few times Jace inserted some commentary into the conversation until they finished up.
“It sounds so exciting there,” Miko said. “I can’t wait to go there.”
Nova frowned but didn’t say anything about it. “I think Briney is getting low on batteries. I need to talk to Jace before he tuckers out.”
“Okay,” Miko said reluctantly. “Can we talk again tomorrow?”
Nova hesitated. “I’ll try but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to. There’s a lot of things I have to do, but I’ll at least try to check in every few days.”
“Okay! I can’t wait to hear more stories from you,” Miko said.
A few seconds later, Jace returned. “It sounds like Briney was a handful.”
“He was and now the guards are watching us,” Nova said.
“Ugh. Sorry about that. Briney is usually good about not drawing attention but it’s been a while.”
Briney let out a mournful wrabble and rubbed against her arm.
“Yes, you’re forgiven,” Nova said and rubbed around the kraken’s beak like Helena had done.
Briney made several happy squeaks.
“There’s something else, isn’t it?” Jace asked.
“Yeah…” Nova said.
“Give me a sec.” There was silence and then Jace’s voice again. “The kid’s busy so feel free to speak.”
Nova was struck by how Jace figured out that she wanted to talk to him alone. The pirate was quick to pick up on things.
“Have you heard of the Fixers?” Nova asked.
“No,” Jace said, confused.
Nova sighed and began to explain what she learned from Mathius about the Fixers. By the end of it, she could almost feel the scowl on Jace’s face through the connection.
“That does put a damper on things,” Jace said.
“That’s putting it mildly,” Nova said. “If I do manage to get Miko to this world then she’s going to be attacked. We’ll have to fight and win.”
“Or we can hide,” Jace said.
“How?” Nova said. “If the portal draws them and we need a portal to get her out then we can’t really hide.”
“True, you’ll need a way to hide the portal’s presence.”
“Hide from a god?” Nova asked, doubtful.
“You’re already doing it,” Jace said.
Nova frowned. “I’m not sure if I am. Mathius thinks another god might be shielding me.”
“Hmmm,” Jace said. “Now that’s an interesting thought. Galius sure has changed. The gods were never this direct before.”
“They weren’t?” Nova asked curiously.
“Nope. Don’t get me wrong, they talked through their priests and some summoners could make deals with them but most of the gods were pretty hands-off unless you begged them to interfere,” Jace said.
“I wonder what changed things,” Nova said.
They were silent.
“In any case, I think you have exactly what you need to figure this out,” Jace said.
“What?” Nova said.
“You’re an Artifactor, so make an artifact.”
Nova groaned. “You make that sound so simple.”
“You said it was your class.”
Nova sighed. Jace was right. “I’ll look into it.”
“By the way, don’t feed too many of those mana crystals to Briney. Too many and he’ll get out of hand.”
Briney squawked indignantly.
“How many should I give him then?” she asked curiously.
“You said they were shards, not full crystals, right?”
“Yeah,” Nova said, patting the bag of shards.
“Then 2-3 shards a day should be more than enough. If you notice Briney getting bigger then cut it down further.”
“All right,” Nova said, looking at Briney. The kraken was sagging and she figured he was running out of juice.
They ended the connection after that and Briney promptly wiggled out of her lap to commandeer the pillow. Nova sighed and got undressed, wearing only the under-shift of the dress before sliding into bed.
She looked up at the ceiling and then pulled her system window up. Everything was the same as before. Nothing had changed which worried her. She had expected that at least her mana sight would go up or something. There had also been that message about an artifact being detected.
Sighing, her gaze drifted to the message at the bottom of the screen.
[A diagnostic check is needed. This can take several days to complete. Would you like to run a diagnostic check?]
[… … … Calculation complete. The Diagnostic check will take 192 hours to complete. During this check, several aspects of your system will be unavailable. Would you like to proceed?]
Nova took a deep breath. That was around eight days. She couldn’t keep delaying this. There would be a time when she would need her system to actually work. She sighed and focused.
[Diagnostic check initiated.]
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