Arthur smiled when Ariana complimented him. "Thanks. Though I only really learned how to play at her insistence." He nodded toward Valery. "She insisted musical education was a big part of culture that... Important people would need to be familiar with."
When Ariana confessed about the training dummy, Arthur and Val looked at each other. "Wow, that's pretty impressive," Val said.
"You don't need to worry about it. We've got plenty of spares," Arthur said. "I'm just glad you had fun out there."
"And now we want to go have fun even further out! It's time! For! Our ruin adventure!" Loveline shouted enthusiastically, provoking another smile in Arthur and Val.
"Alright! Make sure you've still got everything you packed." Arthur said as he stood up. "And have these." He gave them each a necklace with a frozen drop on it, a magical rune inscribed on both of them. "If you're in serious trouble, I'll show up if you've got these. Or you can just shatter them if you just want me around."
Loveline had seen these necklaces before. She took hers, hugged her dad and kissed him on the cheek. "Thanks, Arty." Then she fumbled behind her neck as she tried to put it on.
“Oh good!” Ariana breathed a sigh of relief. She tried to control her face, but couldn’t stop a burst of pride from curling her lips up. She was impressive! She wasn’t just praised by Loveline but by the adults! It was with reverence that she received the summoning trinket. “Woahhhh.” She mumbled. Even simple magical devices felt like divine artifacts to her. “That’s super cool! Super scary though. What if we used it when you were in the shower? Or on the toilet? That would be horrible!” She shuddered. What a dangerous life, being a summoned person! “Here, let me help.” She noticed Love struggling with the necklace and took the ends. It took some effort, but she managed to put them together and turned. “Could you do me?” She pulled up her hair, allowing access to the back of her neck. Her eyes were squeezed tight, bracing herself against the tickly feel of Love’s hands on the back of her neck.
Love turned to let Ariana help her out. She felt happy, both because Ariana was helping her out and because she was so close, even though it was such a simple little action. Was that weird? Loveline didn't know. She'd never really felt that way before. She'd spent so much time hanging out with Ariana and helping her out or being helped out never made her feel that way. Even when her feelings grew into something more, she didn't think she changed much and never felt awkward. But ever since her feelings came to light, as poorly as that went, she couldn't stop second-guessing herself and every little thing had a hidden meaning. In truth, even though she always thought she was pretty mature for her age, she knew there were many experiences she was missing. Despite all her memories and all the sensations she would always remember, she couldn't tell if what she felt was what she was supposed to feel.
But she was happy.
Even if it was just a little thing, if it made her happy, surely it wasn't bad.
"Thanks, Riri," she said and moved quickly behind Ariana so she couldn't see her cheeks slightly redden. She helped her put the necklace on, careful to not mess up Ariana's hair, beautiful and wave despite already being slightly messed up by the wind from riding on Fang's back.
"Oh, don't worry about me." Arthur snapped Loveline out of her thoughts. "I'm gonna be ready, just in case you need me. Though you're capable, I'm sure you two can deal with almost anything if you work together."
"So," Love said, "do you think we're ready to go out now?" She looked at Ariana with a smile.
Love helping her put the necklace on was tickly, as she expected. Well not quite tickly. Tingly. Every time Love’s fingers brushed her neck, she felt weird. Did she want to be touched more, or less? Everything about this was so weird! When the necklace clicked, she stepped forwards. At least what Love was saying now made total sense. “Yeah, let’s do it! Lead the way, uh, leader!” Ariana cheered, bouncing in excitement.
Arthur smiled at the excitement the girls showed. While he hoped it wouldn't lead them into being too careless, he was glad their youth held an adventurous spirit. "Alright, I'll follow you to the edge of the safe zone and then you're free."
And he did as he said, following them to the faintly glowing barrier in the nearby forest. As they approached, letters appeared on the barrier. "Level one protective barrier. Beware if you plan on passing through." A moment later the letters changed. "Ability level scanned. Danger: minimal."
"Alright, first zone is mostly slime variations." Arthur pointed at small blob shuffling close to the barrier. He created a frostorb and threw it through the wall, freezing the blob before making it crack apart. "Be careful, but don't worry. They don't stand a chance against you. Have fun now!" Arthur waved after them as they entered the monster zone.
"The ruins should be toward the end of the second zone and the entrance to the third." Love said after a bit. "It doesn't really matter which way we go exactly, we'll run across some sooner or later." She looked toward the direction they were going in. Not far from them was a pack of slime mindlessly shuffling around. A bit away from them, she could see some movement around a thick tree with a redish bark. And then there was a wide trail of what seemed like corroded ground and half-melted greenery leading away from them.
Ariana was antsy to get away from the adults at last. She wiggled with excitement as they came to the first barrier, but that quickly became disappointment. “Slimes?” She mumbled. They didn’t seem much more dangerous than slugs, crawling aimlessly through the forest. “Uh yeah, I wasn’t worried, Arthur.” She waved him off, skirting around a blob. She waited until he was out of earshot to look at Love. “These guys won’t make us naked like Jamie, right?” She asked, keeping clear of the pack she saw until her eyes picked up on the trail. “Oh my god let’s follow that! That must be the biggest slime ever!”
"We're fine if they don't stick to us too long. Though if a lot of them surround us, we might have a fight on our hands." Love told Ariana when she expressed her concerns. And just as Loveline expected, Ariana was most excited about the large trail. Love knew what that meant. A King Slime. When a pack of older slimes decides to stick together a bit more literally, they become a much bigger problem.
The girls followed the trail Not for long. The slime was still nearby. The first sign of its presence was the snarling of a different beast followed by barking, a whimper, and then a sound like a wave crashing against the beach. Then, as the girls got even closer, they heard shuffling. Something wet and sloppy dragging itself across the ground. And then they saw it.
A large green blob, more than twice Ariana's size, scrapping along the forest floor, leaving a trail of half-melted grass and leaves in its wake. Its body squeezed between trees, but the bark it brushed up against stuck to it and got sucked inside, disappearing almost as soon as it got in. A swarm of red orbs floated inside the jelly and around what were now just bones of some quadruped.
"King Slimes are a bit more potenent... We shouldn't let it touch us." Love explained.
One of the red orbs stopped inside the slime and went toward what Love assumed was the back of the slime. Closer to Love and Ariana. Then it rumbled and more orbs joined it.
"I think it noticed us. Uh, slimes can be destroyed if you destroy its core, the red things that thing has several of, or by completely splattering it everywhere. I'm sure we can do one or the other as long as we don't get close."
The King Slime undulated in response and a pair of green globs flew from its body, straight at Love and Ariana.
“Don’t think surrounding us is very likely when we can fly.” Ariana said, already following the king slime’s trail. She paused to observe its jelly-like surface from a distance. “You know, it’s not really in our way, maybe we should-” Ariana couldn’t finish her sentence before the slime shot a glob her way. “Whoops!” She was transformed in an instant, stretching out her hand and flash-freezing the glob. The frozen orb slammed into her stomach, sending her sprawling. “Oof… I’m okay!” She tossed the chunk off and floated upright. After a moment’s consideration, she went straight up, making distance. With her vantage point, she fired off more pure cold, seeking to ice over the whole blob so that it couldn’t shoot them anymore.
Loveline jumped behind a tree to avoid the slime coming at her. Luckily the globs didn't splash when they hit the ground. She peeked out from behind the tree to see a few shots hitting the slime, creating patches of ice it absorbed into itself to degrade them faster. After the first few hits it, it started countering, firing smaller slime balls at the cold bullets before they could reach the giant body.
Not sure how long Ariana could last firing ice blasts like those, Love decided to get out of her cover and whistle at the giant slime to grab its attention. Unfortunately, the slime didn't change focus to easier pray like her, focusing still on the more dangerous pray. So Love changed strategies, creating a fake Ariana that moved away from where the real one, now turned invisible, fired her attacks from. The slime's shots followed the fake, leaving it open.
"If you can do a big attack, now's the best time!" She yelled up.
“Woah!” Ariana dodged the slime bullets by dropping, steering herself as she went down to evade the barrage of globs. The attacks ended suddenly and she stopped to look around. It took her a second to notice the fake her flying away. Huh. She was surprised that this thing hunted by sight at all. “Big attack? Coming right up!” Ariana held out her hands and ice formed. She couldn’t make complex shapes like Arthur. If she tried, it always defaulted to the same configuration. That was just fine with her. The anchor she formed grew bigger, soon stretching taller than the trees below. “Gonna want to move, Love!” She yelled as she threw it. Ice peeled away, leaving steel. It didn’t fall long, but its mass more than made up for it. Trees were thrown loose of the ground at the impact, a wave of dirt kicking up to brush the leaves of those who stayed intact. “...overkill?” She asked the air.
Seeing the giant anchor, Love's eyes shone. Following Ariana's instructions, Love ran away from the slime. The ground shook, trees creaked and snapped and flew off, and the gust of air sent bits of green jelly flying everywhere.
Loveline picked branches and bits of dirt out of her hair. "Wow, I don't think Arthur can do anything like that. It seems we'll have even less trouble with this level than we thought! Except..."
Love looked at slowly approaching green globs. The mess Ariana made must have drawn some attention. Some parts of the destroyed King were also large enough for cores to take root in. Now they were a green sea approaching Love, surrounding her just as she'd said they might.
“Woo, put a little too much into that.” Ariana puffed, drawing in air to offset her lost mana. She was ready for high-fives and a victory dance when she saw the scattered slime congregating with newcomers attracted by the sound of the fight. “Wha-oh.” Ariana cut off her flight, letting gravity take her, only controlling her trajectory as she plummeted. “IIIIIII’ve got you, Love!” She yelled, stretching out her arms. She tackled Love right off the ground, peeling up just in time to clear the canopy without striking a tree head on. “Yeah! You see that! ...hey wait, you could have just flown on your own! Did you do that on purpose so I would rescue you?” Ariana asked the girl in her arms.
Before she knew it, Ariana swooped in and scooped Loveline up. She carrier her off to safety. And then she proceeded to accuse Love of staging the situation! "Heeey, I'm not that big of a schemer. I was just about to transform and fly away when you swooped in. That's why I was so calm." Love pouted, but then smiled. "I appreciate the rescue though. I guess being a damsel isn't so bad sometimes."
She looked at the forest below them. "There. That seems like a clear spot." She pointed at a less forested area near another slightly shimmering wall, like the one in front of the forest. "You'll be able to turn back and let your mana replenish. And we'll be at the second level, so the ruins will be closer."
“Oh. Okay.” Ariana blushed. She was being dumb, expecting that. It was still really nice. Felt good saving her. Felt good holding her too. So that’s what it was like being on the other end of a rescue. It was exhilarating. “Uh, yeah, landing!” Ariana turned her feet to the ground and drifted down, landing mere feet from the shimmering wall. She released a deep breath she hadn’t realized she was holding and turned back in a flash and shattering of ice. Her knees bent a little with Love’s weight and she set her down on her feet. She was blushy and confused, trying to set her head straight. “...pay me back next time!” She finally blurted. “Uh, I’m saying I would like it if you saved me too. I get into lots of dangerous stuff, so you’ll have a chance I bet.”
Loveline was a bit sad when they landed. She enjoyed being held by those strong arms. And Riri didn't even topple over after she turned back and she was s soft while still being decently muscular. Back on her two feet, she had a sudden surge of boldness. She kissed Ariana's cheek. "Thanks again. And I'd love to rescue you." Love blurted out. "Uh, not that I want you to be in danger." She turned red enough to match Ariana now that her inexperience and teenage awkwardness caught up to her again.
Her fingers started fiddling with her hair on their own. She needed a distraction! Now! "Ahem, right. Level two. Now we have proper monsters. Mostly just large animal-like things. And then we have the ruins. They're all toward the back of the level I'm not sure where exactly they are from here, but if we head in one direction, we'll find one for sure."
"Uhhh, maybe no kissing right now..." Ariana blushed, even more confused about the situatio now. How do you tell somebody that you want to be in danger? Not thoughts of self harm, or even a will to face any real risk. But the thrill of a situation where she really could get hurt? It was what she wanted most of all. “Oh, yeah! Let’s go, then! Keep ready to transform! If there’s monsters here, they’re gonna wanna tussle.” Ariana stretched, prepping her gem in one hand.
Being denied like that hurt. Shit, was she messing up? Did she say something she shouldn't have? God, oh god... No, calm down. It's only the start. Just... Relax. Try harder. Or, try better. No panicking. She can do this. She just needs to properly convey her feelings. She needs to find her moment.
"I'm sure we'll do fine. Just keep an eye out." As if to make her point, nearby trees rustled. "Yeah, we've been noticed already. Don't forget to look up. The forest isn't as thick as in the last section, but there are hunters in the trees."
Having said that, Loveline started leading the way, making sure to pay attention to their surroundings.
Ariana perked up when Loveline told her to keep an eye out. She looked a second after Love indicated movement to her, only catching the last bit of rustling. Love was observant! When it came to this, anyway. “What should I look for?” Ariana stepped up next to her, staring into the trees. This was cooler than the slimes! Ambush was exciting! “And, uh… stop panicking about that… other stuff, okay? I think you’re cool no matter what!”
"Look for... Weird monkeys." Love said. It wasn't the best description, but it was close enough. Ariana wasn't done though. She noticed her panicking! Was Ariana secretly a mindreader!? And! And... And she said Love was cool no matter what. It put a wide and honest smile on Love's face. "Thanks." She said, too distracted to notice a furry four-armed creature on the branch above her. Rather, four-limbed, as one set of monkey-like arms served as its legs. It had a long boney face on a stubby body that it propelled down onto Love.
“Weird monkeys…” Ariana thought for a second, then chuckled. “That’s one of the things Huntsman calls humans. Especially me.” Another moment’s thought. “Honestly probably the only thing he calls humans I can repeat without- woah!” Her hand shot out, grabbing the back of Love’s shirt. Her transformation started as she pulled Love back with normal human strength, whipping her away without excessive force. She was completed transforming just as Love left her hand, closing that hand an instant later around the shaft of a materializing anchor. She threw it instantly, still small but hopefully enough to deflect the monkey.