Eidolon Master 2: Tamer of Animal Women (epub) (2024)

Eidolon Master 2: Tamer of Animal Women (epub) (1)

Title Page

Books come out every Sunday!

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

End Notes

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Eidolon Master 2: Tamer of Animal Women (epub) (2)

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The late morning sun warmed my skin as I strolled through Asheville with my arm around Tala, my beautiful eidolon lover. We drank in the fresh air as we walked past families and groups of hikers struggling under heavy rucksacks.

It had been two days now since I’d returned from Fablewild with her after yet another successful temple raid, and I was still riding high on our victory. The raid on the Floating Temple was our most daring trip so far, although the reward had definitely been worth it. I couldn’t wait to get back to the dangerous life of being an adventurer in the magical land, but I have to admit, I was enjoying the feeling of relaxation that ran through me now that I didn’t have to be on constant high alert.

At least on Earth, there were no hideous monsters or flesh-eating plants. All I had to worry about here was avoiding the bears and the naked hippies who were known to roam the mountains.

Well, that and the crazy guy from the geocaching forum who was currently camping up there, determined to catch me as I traveled to and from Fablewild to reclaim ‘his’ portal.

I still couldn’t believe how much my life had changed in the past few days. A week ago, I was just a regular guy who’d quit his crappy job to pursue a passion for geocaching. Little did I know the box I’d found in the cache would actually turn out to be a portal that could transport me to a different world full of magic, danger, adventure, and treasure.

And beautiful spirit warrior women.

Not only was it the most fun I’d ever had in my life, but I was also getting rich from selling the artifacts I received as a reward for completing the temples. I now had enough money to pay my rent months in advance and to buy some cool new stuff for my apartment. If things carried on like this, I’d soon be able to move somewhere better, and I was well on the way to turning adventuring into my full-time job.

But I wouldn’t have been able to achieve any of this without Tala. She was the best prize I’d received in Fablewild.

I turned to my beautiful spirit warrior and smiled at her.

That was another amazing thing about how my life had changed. Now, I had Tala to protect, love, and fight alongside. In Fablewild she took on the form of a powerful wolf who appeared when I summoned her from the ring I wore. Here, she was an unbelievably sexy woman, and I was still blown away by how stunning she was every time I looked at her.

“So, what do you want to do today?” I asked her.

Tala turned to me and co*cked her head to one side as she thought. She gave a low laugh, but there was a trace of sadness in it, too.

“What?” I asked. “Did I say something funny?”

“No,” she replied. “No, I’m sorry. It just still feels strange when you ask me about what I want. None of my masters have ever done that before. I’m so used to following orders and only being let out of the ring to be used as a weapon. It’s going to take some getting used to.”

“Well, get used to it,” I chuckled as I pulled her closer to me. “You’re with me now. I want us to work together, and to have fun. You’ve been trapped for so long, now I want you to have whatever you desire.”

“Mmmmmm,” she growled and bit her lower lip as her striking eyes met mine. “You’ve already fulfilled quite a few of my desires.”

“And I’ll fulfill some more later,” I whispered in her ear as I slapped her ass playfully.

Tala giggled, and I could feel her excitement as we carried on down the street. I was still amazed at how in tune our emotions were, and how much stronger our bond was since we’d started sleeping together. We could read each other’s emotions with perfect accuracy, and she could even speak with me when she was inside the ring.

“Seriously, though,” I continued. “After all the assholes you’ve had to put up with in your centuries of being an eidolon, you deserve to be happy. You deserve to have whatever you want, and I’m going to make sure you do. It makes me sick to hear about how badly most adventurers treat their eidolons.”

“Yes,” Tala sighed. “They do not respect us, or our ancient wisdom. Eidolons with red manas like mine are particularly prized because we fight so well, but our insights are often ignored. All eidolons have different abilities and special powers, and you know we are all valuable. But most adventurers are especially interested in eidolons who are good in battle. They’re after claws and teeth. Not wisdom or experience.”

I felt her sadness and her fury as if they’d been my own.

Tala was the Wolf of Dusk Eidolon, and it seemed ridiculously shortsighted of her past masters to treat her as little more than an attack dog when she could offer so much more.

I thought about Neoma, the eidolon we’d rescued after our last temple raid, and I wondered if she’d experienced the same suffering as Tala.

I’d seen two men fighting over Neoma’s ring, but they’d killed each other in the brawl, and I knew we couldn’t leave an eidolon to fall into the wrong hands, especially when I could treat her with the respect she deserved.

Tala had told me nobody in Fablewild history had ever been able to wield two eidolons at once, but I’d succeeded, though I still wasn’t quite sure how my power worked, or how dangerous it might be.

Neoma had collapsed from stress and exhaustion almost immediately after I’d summoned her from the ring. I’d put her to bed, and she’d been sleeping pretty much nonstop ever since.

Tala and I didn’t want to crowd her, so we checked in a few times a day but otherwise, we’d decided to let her wake up of her own accord. Then we could find out more about her, and try to explain to her how she came to be in Asheville rather than Fablewild.

“Do you think Neoma’s past has been like yours?” I asked.

“I would imagine so,” she said, and I could feel sadness radiating from her. “Eidolons don’t need to sleep very much, but given her exhaustion, I would say her previous master never let her have a moment’s rest. Eidolons are incredibly powerful, but we need to recharge, too. Many masters do not recognize this. You are different, Colton.”

I couldn’t help but grin at her words.

“Well, speaking of recharging, how does lunch sound?” I asked her to try and lighten the subject and take her mind off the assholes she’d dealt with in her past. “There’s a great Italian place around the corner from here.”

“It-alian?” Tala asked, and the unfamiliar word sounded awkward on her tongue.

“Oh, yeah,” I chuckled. “Sorry, I forgot you wouldn’t know what that is. It’s another country on Earth, and they cook really good food. You’ll like it.”

She’d enjoyed the takeout pizzas we had on our first night together, so I figured Italian was a safe bet. It was really fun introducing Tala to new food and new experiences, and I thought excitedly of all the places we could go together.

“If you say I will like it, then I know I will.” She smiled.

“Great, it’s this way,” I said as we crossed the road.

Actually, I was just assuming the food in this restaurant was great. It had always been way out of my price range before, but I didn’t have to worry about that now. I’d sold a small portion of my Fablewild temple loot to a local jeweler, and he’d paid me thirty-two thousand dollars for it. Plus, there was much more coming once he’d sourced buyers for the other gems I’d shown him. I was finally going to be able to spend money without worrying about every little penny.

I also wanted to properly celebrate our successful raid of the Floating Temple. We’d been too exhausted to leave my apartment the first day after we’d gotten back from Fablewild, and instead, we’d spent the whole day snuggled up on the couch together, eating snacks and takeout food. It was incredibly indulgent, but I’d still been worried enough about Neoma that I didn’t want to go too far away from her.

And besides, I thought Tala and I deserved a little relaxation after the sh*t we’d gone through in Fablewild.

We reached the Italian restaurant and were greeted by an elegant waitress. I saw her eyes quickly pass over my scuffed jeans and dirty sneakers, and then she took in Tala’s sporty leggings and crop top. She cleared her throat, but she led us to a free table nestled in a cozy corner anyway. I realized, if I was going to take Tala out for meals in these kinds of places, I’d probably have to get us some fancier clothes. Our clothes were perfect for temple raiding, but perhaps not for when I wanted to spend our hard-earned cash in a fancy restaurant.

We sat down and browsed the menu, which was full of locally-sourced ingredients, handmade pasta, and fresh fish. It was certainly pricey, but the food sounded amazing, and my stomach grumbled.

“What do the symbols say?” Tala asked as she looked at the unfamiliar writing on the menu.

“Ah, I forgot about that,” I said. “You know how you were saying you could teach me to read in your alphabet so I can do it more quickly in the temples?”

Tala nodded.

“Well, I think at the same time it might be a good idea for me to teach you our alphabet.”

“There are no temples to raid here,” Tala said. “There is not much point in me being able to read your language,” she added with a wink.

“But you’d be able to choose what you wanted to eat,” I laughed.

“Choose for me,” she said.

“You sure?” I chuckled. “I mean you’re pretty feisty. I wouldn’t want to get on your bad side if I choose something you don’t like.”

Tala kicked me playfully under the table.

“I will eat whatever my master chooses.”

I smirked but stopped myself from making a joke because the waitress came over and asked what we wanted.

I ordered pasta with meatballs for both of us, as well as a sampler platter with things like bread and olives to nibble on. I also got us each a co*cktail. I chose something bold and spicy that I hoped Tala would like.

We passed the time until our drinks arrived talking about how crazy everything we’d experienced so far had been. I was glad there was no one sitting at the tables nearby because they’d have thought it was one hell of a weird date. With every other girl I’d taken out for a meal, we’d discussed our families and our childhoods, our jobs, our hobbies, and sometimes our hopes for the future. With Tala, I was talking about dangerous monsters, deadly traps, and priceless treasures.

“So, the artifact we get at the end of a raid depends on the route we take to get to the temple, and on the time of day, right?” I asked.

I was still trying to get my head around the crazy magical rules that governed Fablewild.

Tala nodded and pushed back a strand of golden hair that had fallen in front of her face.

“So the more dangerous the route, the better the artifact will be,” I continued. “And the tasks within the temples vary by the skills of the particular adventurer. So, basically, there’s no way of knowing what we’re going to face or what we’re going to get at the end of the trials.”

The wolf-woman nodded her head again. “But we know the temple will be dangerous, and we know the prize will be good.”

“It makes it difficult to plan what equipment to take, though,” I answered.

Until I got a magical bag to carry all my weapons and supplies without it getting any heavier, I had to be careful about what I took with me. Being overburdened in a temple was a bad idea because I often had to rely on speed and balance rather than brute force alone. But, obviously, I still had to bring enough weapons with me to be able to fight whatever vicious beasts the temple might have in store for us.

The waitress came over with our drinks and appetizers, and Tala sniffed the platter suspiciously. She bit into an olive and made a disgusted face.

“Those might take some getting used to,” I laughed as she wrinkled her nose. “They’re a bit of an acquired taste.”

“Are these a delicacy in your world?” she asked with confusion. “I mean, you get rich and these are what you order?”

“Not exactly,” I chuckled as I bit into some bread dipped in oil. “I was thinking we should go shopping this afternoon. There’s loads of stuff I’ve been wanting to get for ages to try and make my apartment a bit more comfortable, and it’s more important than ever now that there are three of us staying there. Hopefully, one day we’ll be able to move to somewhere bigger and nicer, but for now, I think we should try to make the best of what we’ve got. I need some new hiking boots, too. My old ones are falling apart, and I don’t want to die in a temple because of sh*tty footwear.”

I popped an olive in my mouth as I considered what else we should put on our shopping list.

“Perhaps we should also buy Neoma some basic clothes.” I tapped the table with a thoughtful finger. “I don’t know what she likes, but she was only wearing that slip dress, and she can’t leave the house like that. Can you help me with finding some things for her?”

“Of course,” she said.

Tala was trying to hide her uneasiness, but I knew she wasn’t entirely comfortable with Neoma. After centuries of being treated badly by her previous masters, I was hardly surprised she was worried about being replaced as my eidolon.

I reached across the table and squeezed her hand.

“I love you, Tala. And nothing is going to change that,” I said.

“I love you, too.” Although she smiled, I could still sense the tension in her.

I hoped she would relax soon and know I would never replace her.

I took a sip of my drink and watched Tala examining hers. She dipped a finger in the amber liquid and brought it to her mouth to taste it. As she licked her lips, I had a flashback to making love to her on the sofa in my apartment the other night, and my body grew warmer.

My vision of Tala’s beautiful body was cut short by our food arriving. I was ravenous, and by the way my eidolon eyed the steaming bowls of pasta and meatballs, I guessed she was, too.

“It turns out I like my master’s choice of It-alian.” She grinned after a few mouthfuls.

“I thought you might.” I smiled. The food really was amazing, and I made a mental note to come back here at some point. “So, what do you think we should do about Neoma?”

I saw a shadow of wariness cross Tala’s eyes.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Well, we didn’t really get a chance to speak with her before she crashed. We’re going to have a hell of a lot of explaining to do when she finally wakes up. Not only has she been transported to a different world, but she’s been summoned even though the person who possesses her ring already has an eidolon. You said that’s never been done before. Do you think she’ll understand it?”

“Even I do not fully understand it,” Tala murmured. “It is hard for many people to master one eidolon, but more than one is unheard of. And you do not seem to have suffered any ill effects at all, which makes me think it might be possible for you to use us both at once…”

She trailed off, and her icy-blue eyes met mine.

“It would make you an amazingly powerful adventurer,” she continued. “Definitely more powerful than you already are and almost certainly one of the most powerful in Fablewild. I think you should try it if she’s willing.”

“Yeah,” I sighed. “I hope she’s not too traumatized after her previous masters. Maybe she won’t want to work with us or share a master with another eidolon. Then what?”

“I had a bad time with previous masters, too,” Tala sighed. “I was reluctant to allow you to care for me at first, remember?”

“Yes,” I said, and I thought about how standoffish she’d initially been.

“And now look,” she went on. “I never want to be without you, and I am so excited to see what our future holds. I’m sure Neoma will wish to join us on our adventures and learn what the life of an eidolon can be like. What it should be like. No other master would have given her the choice.”

“Alright,” I said. “So once we’ve finished here, we’ll go shopping for some stuff, and then head back. Neoma didn’t look like she was going to wake up any time soon when I checked in on her earlier, but at some point, she will, and when she does we can try to explain the situation to her. Depending on what her answer is, we can either take her back to Fablewild and pass her ring on to someone of her choosing, or we can plan to all go on a temple raid. I’m missing the thrill of it already.”

“So am I.” Tala grinned.

“And I think we should aim to make the paths we take a little bit harder, too,” I added.

Tala raised her eyebrow at me, but this playfulness was undercut by the slight concern I could sense coming from her. I knew she was wondering if our success had gone to my head.

“No,” I laughed. “But we’ve completed three temples now, and I think we’re ready for a new adventure. If Neoma joins us, then it’ll be even easier to take a harder path. We could try approaching from the north this time, though I’m still not sure how late in the day I want to go. I’ve seen the kind of sh*t that lives in those jungles during the day, and I sure as hell don’t want to meet the night shift just yet.”

Tala chuckled, but her expression quickly became more serious.

“You know how dangerous the paths you’ve already taken have been,” she said. “I don’t want you to get carried away. I couldn’t bear to lose you.”

“You won’t,” I told her and took both of her hands in mine. “We’ll face it together, and perhaps even with Neoma. I know they’ve been dangerous, and we barely escaped some of them, but it’s worth it. I’m getting stronger all the time, and we’re becoming a better team with every passing day.”

She nodded, and I brought her hands up to kiss them.

“Besides, you know as well as I do,” I continued. “A massive part of it is the thrill we get from the danger. You love it as much as I do, if not more.”

“I know.” She smiled. “It’s what I was born to do. Just promise me you’ll be cautious, especially if we approach from the north rather than the east.”

“I promise,” I said. “I’m so excited about the possibilities! If we go for harder paths, then we should get a more valuable artifact. Think about how much more comfortable I can make our lives here! Plus, it would be good to get some upgraded weapons, and you mentioned, sometimes, the artifacts are enchanted.”

“That reminds me,” she said. “We still need to take your latest prize to a magic bearer and see what they say about it.”

I knew she was referring to the pearlescent box we’d won at the last temple. Tala had told me it was enchanted, but neither one of us knew what magic it contained.

“It’s our prize,” I reminded her gently. “You shared the dangers with me, and you will share the rewards, too.”

The beautiful woman’s striking blue eyes glowed, and I felt happiness coursing through her.

We’d finished our food and decided to hit the shops. I paid the bill, and I even left a generous tip for the snooty waitress before we headed out into the sunshine.

It wasn’t busy but there was a nice buzz as people enjoyed the weather. I was more relaxed and happier than I’d been in a long time.

We headed to an electronics store first. My old TV had been on its last legs for a while, and although I couldn’t think of when I’d be spending much time watching it, it was still good to have the option if we wanted a chill day at some point between all the fighting and adventuring.

Plus, Tala still hadn’t gotten over her enchantment with the moving images and all the different channels. I figured she’d like a bigger screen to watch, and I did love seeing how cute she looked when she sat cross-legged in front of the TV and stared at the pictures with puppy-like fascination.

I chose a slick fifty-five-inch screen that would fit perfectly in the corner of my living room, and I got a stand to replace the rickety one my current TV was balancing on. I was tempted by a projector but decided against it since I didn’t really have a wall that would be big enough for the screen.

Maybe I’d come back for it after we moved into a bigger place.

Next, I decided to invest in a new stereo, since my old one was even more faulty than the TV, and it was always a wild guess as to whether it would work or not. I chose a good quality one with big speakers so I could finally listen to my favorite tracks the way they’d been intended.

I wondered what Tala would think of Earth music and whether it was very different from the music in Fablewild.

I arranged for the store to deliver the stuff I’d bought that evening since I could hardly walk around town carrying it all.

When we left the store, Tala suggested I get a new coffee machine because my current one had to be coaxed into life each morning, and even then it grumbled and spluttered its way through the task grudgingly.

Tala seemed to have developed a deep mistrust of it ever since the first morning she’d spent on Earth, and I had a feeling the noise was too harsh for her sensitive wolf hearing.

So, we went into another store, and the guy working there helped me pick out a shiny silver machine. He claimed he had the same one at home and it made the best coffee he’d ever tasted. Best of all, it was pretty silent, and I hoped Tala’s acute hearing wouldn’t be offended by it.

It was mid-afternoon by the time we’d sorted everything out. I’d managed to spend more money in the span of a couple of hours than I used to dream of spending in a month. I kept trying to get used to the feeling, but it still seemed weird not to have to worry about where my next month’s rent was going to come from.

It felt good, though.

And best of all, I had the most stunning woman I’d ever seen holding my hand.

“Next up is clothes,” I said to her, and I gestured to a big department store that carried a large range of men’s and women’s fashion. “How about here? We can get some stuff for Neoma, and I wanted to stock up on a few more pairs of shorts, as well as some t-shirts. Most of the ones I’ve worn to Fablewild have become a bit ripped and… gunky.”

Tala laughed, and we headed inside the huge building. The interior was sleek and luxurious, with huge mirrors covering the walls and dazzling lights shimmering across rows of rails displaying everything the store had to offer.

Tala prowled around cautiously, and she looked unsure of the multitude of reflections at first. Soon, though, she was in her element. She seemed to have become more used to shopping since our first expedition when she’d thrown clothes she didn’t like on the floor.

The wolf-woman held up a beautiful midnight-blue dress made of some silky material. It was short with long, flared sleeves. She looked at me with her head to one side.

“How about this?” she asked.

“It’s pretty,” I said. “I didn’t know that’s the kind of thing you liked.”

After all, she’d always worn sporty stuff before because she wanted to be prepared to fight at all times, and I was surprised by her choice of something far less practical.

“Not for me, for Neoma.” She rolled her eyes, but there was a tingle of amusem*nt from her all the same.

“Oh, right,” I chuckled. “Yeah, it’s nice. I have no idea what she’ll like, but I think we should get her some things so she can leave the house if she wants.”

“Leave it to me,” Tala said. “Go and find some stuff for yourself, and I’ll meet you over there.”

She gestured to a group of plush-looking chairs that had been thoughtfully provided for weary boyfriends to rest their feet.

I was surprised by the certainty that rolled off her and across our connection. Sure, she was one of the most confident people I’d ever met, but she hadn’t struck me as someone who would take to shopping so easily.

Still, she had a big heart, and although she was wary of Neoma, Tala knew how it felt to suddenly be transported into a different world. I sensed my gorgeous eidolon wanted to make Neoma’s life easier and to be sure she felt comfortable in our presence.

I headed over to the men’s section and quickly picked out a couple of t-shirts and a pair of shorts I liked. The shorts had plenty of pockets which would come in handy on temple raids, so I grabbed three pairs to buy.

I knew Tala wouldn’t have finished yet, so I went over to browse the shoes.

I didn’t think there would be anything in the way of hiking boots, and there wasn’t. But I did find a cool pair of white sneakers with a red stripe on them, and also some leather dress shoes. I picked both pairs up and then carried on wandering around the store.

I came to a counter with a collection of watches inside an illuminated glass case. I’d always wanted to buy myself a nice watch, but I’d never been able to rationalize the expense until now.

The sales assistant asked if I’d like to try some on, and I only hesitated for a second before I said yes.

I tried on five different watches and admired the workmanship on each. There were a couple I really liked. One had a soft leather strap and elegant gold numerals on its round face. The other was silver with a square face. Its hour hand was a cool sword shape, and its minute hand looked like an arrow.

I knew I didn’t desperately need either of the watches, especially since their price tags weren’t cheap, but I shook myself and realized I didn’t need to think like that anymore.

f*ck it, I’d worked hard for this money. I’d fought off monsters, animals, and crazy guys trying to kill me, and I’d used my intelligence and quick thinking to solve the tricky puzzles in the temples. I deserved to spend some of my hard-won cash on something a bit frivolous.

I watched with pleasure as the woman boxed up both watches and gave them to me. I had a lot to carry now and decided to return and find Tala, and I hoped she was done with her shopping, too.

Tala was lounging on the comfy chairs, her arms full of tangled fabric and hangers, and a couple of pairs of shoes dangled from her hand.

“Success?” I grinned.

She looked up and smiled when she saw me.

“I’ve got her all the basics so she can come out of the house with us.” She gave the items a slightly annoyed look. “I don’t know what she’ll like, but I hope she’ll be happy with this. If not, she can choose her own clothes. Oh, and I got myself some shoes that will be better for climbing if we go back and train at the gym… and a coat. It’s colder on Earth than it is in Fablewild.”

We went and paid for our new clothes. Just last week, the total would have made my eyes water, but now I tapped my card without hesitation and picked up the bags.

When we left the store, the sun was starting to set over the mountains. The entire sky was filled with a wonderful mixture of orange and pink, and I was once again thankful to live in such a beautiful part of the world.

I turned to see Tala was entranced by the view as well. My beautiful eidolon loved the mountains as much as I did, and I couldn’t wait to explore more of both Fablewild and Earth with her.

“Do you think that guy is still up there?” she asked.

I knew she was referring to the crazy geocaching forum guy who was still pissed that I’d taken the portal box. I partly understood where his anger came from, but only a f*cking moron would leave a magical portal to a different world if they’d found one. If I hadn’t taken it, someone else would have.

“Probably,” I replied. “There haven’t been any updates on the forum yet, but he seems pretty determined to camp out on the mountain and try to find us. At least he doesn’t know what we look like or who we are.”

“You sure about that?” Her tone betrayed a hint of uncertainty.

“Pretty sure,” I said. “He knows where the original box was, and he’s found some of the places we’ve traveled to Fablewild from, but I haven’t seen anything on the forum to suggest he’s actually seen us. He’s definitely a bit unhinged, though. We’re going to have to be extra careful when we go back up there. He probably knows what the portal does, and it sounds like he’ll stop at nothing to get it back. He seems seriously pissed off about me taking it.”

“You should let me kill him,” Tala growled.

“I love how fierce you are, and I know you could easily beat that asshole,” I said as I pulled her closer to me. “But that might create a few problems for us here.”

I kissed her softly, and she sighed.

“Anyway,” I continued. “He probably can’t stay up there forever. He’ll get bored at some point and move on to being angry about something else. Hopefully, very far away from here.”

Even as I said it, I willed myself to believe it. It didn’t sound like he gave up on things easily, and I knew it was more likely we were going to have to come face to face with him at some point.

But we’d be ready for him if we did.

Tala and I started walking toward home. We passed a decent hiking shop on the way, so we popped in to see if they had any upgrades on my old boots. I found a pair that I’d eyed a few months ago before deciding I’d better save my money instead. I tried them on, and they fit perfectly.

“Whoa, temple raiding is going to be so much more comfier in these,” I said to Tala, and she grinned at me.

I might have said it slightly too loud because a middle-aged guy looking at the trekking poles shot me a weird glance, and I lowered my voice.

“We should think about any other equipment we might need before we head to the next temple,” I said to Tala.

“Yes,” she agreed. “And we should have a proper look at the markets in Fablewild to see if you can get any other weapons or potions to make life easier, especially if you’re planning on taking more dangerous routes.”

I paid for my new boots, and we staggered home under the weight of our many purchases. I hoped my ancient downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Wells, wouldn’t stick her head out and question us. She was pleasant enough, but so nosy, and I didn’t want to get trapped trying to explain all the shopping we’d done or the fact that it seemed like Tala had moved in.

Luckily, we got up to my apartment without trouble, and I fumbled in my pocket looking for the key while also trying to balance the many bags I was holding.

We fell through the door to find the lights were on, and the door into the bedroom was ajar.

Then I saw Neoma.

She was balancing on the arm of the sofa with her legs crossed and her hands in her lap. She was sitting bolt upright, and her huge hazel-and-gold eyes opened even wider when she saw us.

Finally, we were going to get a chance to speak with the mysterious eidolon.

I was so surprised to see Neoma awake and, apparently, in full health that I dropped the bags I was carrying, and they landed with a loud thud.

“Err, hi,” I said to her.

Neoma took the form of an owl in Fablewild, and the way she watched me with those massive hazel-and-gold eyes really reminded me of the nocturnal bird.

She tilted her head but said nothing.

I was starting to find her constant staring a bit mesmerizing in a bizarre way.

“You’re awake,” I continued.

Duh, of course she’s awake, I said to myself, and a ripple of laughter came from Tala. I picked up the shopping bags I’d dropped and slowly walked further into the apartment. I didn’t want to scare Neoma. She’d been through enough already.

Tala followed close behind me, and, although I could sense the unease radiating from her, there was also curiosity.

“Did you sleep well?” I asked, and her eyes carefully followed our every movement.

“Yes, thank you.” Her voice was gentle, and she brushed a strand of rich brown hair out of her face with small fluttering movements.

“Good. You seemed exhausted, and we didn’t want to wake you. How are you feeling?”

She stared at me intensely for a moment, and I saw a look of surprise pass across her gorgeous face.

I reminded myself how Tala had reacted when I’d first offered her comfort or asked about her wellbeing. So many eidolons were used to being treated as nothing more than tools instead of living creatures, and I guessed Neoma’s experience was no different.

“I am… fine,” she said, but her voice was uncertain.

“Do you remember what happened before you passed out?” I asked her as I tried to gauge how confused she would be by her new situation.

She hesitated and then got up gracefully from her perch on the sofa. I tried to stop my eyes from roaming across her curvaceous body in its scant coverings, but she looked f*cking incredible. She walked over to the window by the couch and gazed out at the setting sun with her back to us.

“You told me I was safe.” Her voice was so soft that I had to take a step forward to hear her properly. “Then you said…”

Her head swiveled slowly toward us, but her body didn’t move. sh*t, she really was behaving just like an owl. It was weird to see a woman be able to turn her head so far around but still quite cool.

“Eidolon,” she continued and stared hard at Tala. “You’re an eidolon.”

The wolf-woman strode forward a few steps and nodded her head in acknowledgment.

“I thought…” Neoma’s plump, pink lips parted as she gasped, and she turned to look at me. “I thought I’d dreamed it. How…?”

“We don’t quite know,” I said after she trailed off again. “We found your ring and decided we couldn’t leave you in the jungle to be claimed by some asshole or lost for eternity. Tala was the first eidolon I’d ever encountered, and I didn’t know anything about them before her. I’m still learning, in fact, but my connection with Tala is so unusual and so strong that we thought we should risk trying to summon you, too. We didn’t know what would happen, and I’m aware nobody’s ever been able to summon two eidolons before now… But it evidently worked.”

“That’s impossible,” Neoma whispered as her eyes grew to the size of saucers.

She looked at Tala for confirmation of what I’d said, and the beautiful wolf-woman shrugged her shoulders.

“I don’t understand it, either,” she said. “But Colton forged a strong and instant connection with me, and that bond has grown with every passing day. It’s something I’ve never experienced with previous masters, and I don’t know of any eidolon who has. I used to think it was simply luck that we found each other, but now I’m beginning to wonder if Colton has some sort of power inside him that allows him to work with eidolons more easily. Perhaps that’s why he could summon us both without harm coming to him. He’s the kindest, most generous master I’ve ever known, and I think the respect he shows to eidolons may be a reason he’s able to succeed where others have failed. He is not like other adventurers. He’s not like other men.”

I felt a rush of love for Tala when she said this, and I could sense her devotion to me.

“I see,” Neoma murmured as she turned her head back to the window. “That’s incredible.”

There was a moment of silence as she digested this information.

“How did you come to be in a different world?” she asked.

“This world is called Earth, and it’s where I live,” I explained. “I didn’t know there were any other worlds until I found a portal that transported me to Fablewild. I have to say, I’ve kinda fallen in love with the place. I’ve found out that my calling is to be an adventurer. Tala and I travel to Fablewild to raid temples and trade at the markets, and then we come back here.”

Neoma was silent.

Tala and I looked at each other, unsure of what to do next. The owl-woman seemed lost in her own world, and I reminded myself of how much it was to take in and how confused I’d been when I first found myself in Fablewild.

Traveling between worlds was no easy business, that’s for sure.

Neoma turned her full body around to face us, and I tried again to stop my eyes from wandering down to her fantastic cleavage.

“Thank you for saving me,” she said with a small smile. “I’m sorry if I sounded rude, but I’m still trying to process everything… How did you change my form?”

She glanced down at her unfamiliar body and smoothed the tiny slip dress over her hips.

I’d found it weird enough to be in a different world when I was transported to Fablewild. It must be ten times weirder to suddenly have a different body, too.

“I didn’t,” I began. “It just seems to happen automatically when eidolons are summoned on Earth. I know it must feel really strange. Tala was confused, too, when she first appeared as a woman.”

Neoma nodded and looked up at me. “This is a lot to take in. I can’t quite believe everything that’s happened in the last few days.”

“I know that feeling,” I chuckled. “Well, you’re safe now. Are you hungry?”

The owl-woman seemed to be turning the question over in her mind, and I thought about how surprised Tala had been when I’d first asked her that.

“If you’re not hungry now, you will be soon,” the wolf-warrior told Neoma. “I know we don’t usually need to eat in our Fablewild forms, but our human bodies need sustenance.”

Neoma nodded slowly. “I could try to eat a little, I think.”

I didn’t really feel like cooking anything, so I unlocked my phone and ordered us some burritos. I figured Neoma could pick at hers if she wasn’t that hungry. Besides, I was still quite full from lunch, and I sensed that Tala was, too.

“Okay,” I said and gestured to the shopping bags. “I’m going to unpack some of this stuff while we wait for the food. Tala, why don’t you show Neoma what you got her?”

Neoma’s big eyes turned with surprise to Tala as she padded forward with a couple of shopping bags. I set up my new coffee machine and took the old one out to the trash downstairs.

When I came back up, the two women were rummaging through the bags and discussing the various new items of clothing we’d picked up for Neoma.

Once again, I was surprised by Tala’s gentleness around her. She seemed to sense how overwhelmed the new eidolon was, and her usually blunt manner was softened. I even sensed a tingle of happiness coming from her as she held up various clothes for Neoma to see.

I put my new purchases in my closet and strapped the silver watch with the square face onto my wrist. I grinned, pleased I’d decided to buy it for myself.

A ring of the bell announced the arrival of the TV, stand, and stereo I’d bought earlier, and I hit the button to let them up.

Tala came bounding over to me as I instructed the delivery guys on where to put everything, and I was suddenly struck again by how much my life had changed in such a short space of time. I had new clothes, new electronics, and new watches.

But, best of all, I had an unbelievably sexy woman who loved me.

“She likes the clothes,” Tala told me.

I grinned and felt happy we’d managed to make Neoma’s life more comfortable.

The delivery guys also took away the old stereo, my ancient TV, and its stand. Their store had some kind of recycling scheme apparently, and I was glad I wouldn’t have to deal with it.

Just as they were leaving, the food arrived. I closed the door and walked back to the kitchen with our order, and Neoma emerged from the bedroom. She looked stunning in the blue dress Tala had picked out for her earlier. It emphasized her tiny waist and petite figure, and it highlighted her amazing curves.

“Tala has good taste,” she giggled.

“You look great,” I answered, and a burst of warm agreement radiated from Tala.

My apartment was too small for me to have a dining table in it, and although I offered the girls the sofa, Neoma said she preferred to perch. So Tala and I took the couch and Neoma hopped up onto one of the countertops in my tiny kitchen.

She seemed so much calmer than when we’d first come back to the apartment, and I was hoping her time with Tala had helped her to relax a bit. She daintily bit into her food, and a grin spread across her gorgeous face.

“Like it?” I asked her.

“Mmmmmm,” she agreed. “I didn’t know food tasted so good.”

There was a moment of silence as we all enjoyed our dinner.

“Does your new body feel strange?” Tala asked her.

“Hmmmm.” Neoma tapped a finger to her lips. “Not really. But it feels weird not to be able to fly. I did try flapping my arms before you both came back, but nothing happened.”

I hid my smile at how adorable she was, and I could feel Tala’s amusem*nt, too.

“You’ll get used to it,” my warrior lover said. “And it’s quite interesting to spend time in human form. There are all sorts of fun activities you can do.”

I glanced at her out of the corner of my eye, and she was smirking at me.

“So, you’re the Wolf of Dusk,” Neoma said to Tala after another moment of silence.

My lover nodded in agreement.

“What are your powers?” Neoma continued.

This was the one question I was hoping Neoma would not ask.

Tala had told me that, besides being super cool ancient spirit warriors, every eidolon had their own special powers they could harness. But the crappy behavior Tala had endured at the hands of her previous masters meant she’d never had the freedom to find out what hers were yet or how to use them.

I was certain that, with love and time, my stunning wolf-woman would soon discover her innate abilities, but I knew her ignorance was a source of great shame for her. I could feel her sadness and her embarrassment at Neoma’s question.

“I do not yet know,” Tala sighed, and I reached out to grab her hand.

“What are yours?” I asked the owl-woman as I tried to change the subject quickly.

“I’ve only recently found out,” she said with a look like she felt bad about upsetting Tala. “I’m the Owl of the High Tides. My form in Fablewild allows me to see in the dark and move swiftly and silently through the sky. My abilities are particularly acute at night, and when the moon is out.”

An immediate surge of interest came from Tala, and I was suddenly struck by all the new possibilities Neoma’s talents could open up.

Temples became more dangerous as the day went on, and the most deadly time to try and tackle them was after dark. But if Neoma thrived at night, that instantly became a hell of a lot easier, and I grinned as I thought of all the amazing prizes we might claim if she agreed to work with us.

“I’ve found I can summon a tidal wave using my lunar powers,” the owl eidolon continued. “And to some extent, I can control it to drown enemies. Or at least, those my masters perceive to be enemies…”

There was unmistakable grief in her voice as she said this, and I wondered who she’d been forced to kill for her cruel masters. She seemed so sweet, and I couldn’t imagine her ever being violent.

Then I reminded myself that, like Tala, she was a powerful ancient spirit who’d probably gone on loads of temple raids in her time. Of course, she’d have been forced to fight.

“You can summon a tidal wave?” I asked in disbelief. “That’s incredible.”

Tala said nothing, but I could feel her intense interest and even a twinge of admiration.

“I’ve only managed it a few times,” Neoma murmured. “My master was not so interested in letting me advance my powers. He had other plans, and toward the end, I was too drained to try and develop them anyway. ”

“Was that the guy who got killed in the jungle before we found you?” I asked.

“Yes.” Neoma nodded and took another small bite of her burrito. “At first, he seemed worthy. He was daring, brave, and more clever than most adventurers. We completed some spectacular raids together, and he was greatly admired by many. But the power of success twisted his mind, and he grew to need more and more to feel fulfilled. Eventually, he was impossible to satisfy. He always wanted something else. It was never enough.”

“Bastard,” I growled as Tala put her head on my shoulder and stroked my knee.

I could sense her anger, too, and knowing she’d experienced the same kind of terrible treatment as Neoma made me furious.

“What happened?” Tala asked the owl-woman as gently as possible.

Neoma heaved a deep sigh. “He decided the normal temples weren’t good enough anymore. He said they didn’t pose enough of a challenge for his superior intellectual and physical abilities, and that they were for weak adventurers, not glorious legends like him. He became obsessed with the idea of raiding a Grand Temple. Since he had me, he became fixated on the Grand Temple linked to black mana.”

“The Grand Temple of the Deep,” Tala muttered.

Neoma nodded. “At first, he would seek out any information he could and send me on the odd scouting expedition. But soon, he grew frustrated by our lack of success in finding it, and he took to drinking all night in the taverns. He would send me out looking for the Grand Temple while he frittered away his hard-won money and fame on women and wine. When I came back unsuccessful…”

Tears filled her beautiful hazel-and-gold eyes, and I was about to say something when Tala leaped up off the sofa and went to envelop the owl-woman in a hug.

“It’s alright,” Tala whispered. “You’re safe now, and Colton can protect you. That’s never going to happen to you again, do you understand? It’s over.”

My rage mounted as I thought about the asshole who’d treated Neoma like that. He’d been lucky enough to find an eidolon, an amazingly powerful one at that, and this was how he’d repaid her bravery and her loyalty?

f*cking disgusting.

The owl-woman sniffed and gave a weak smile. “When I came back unsuccessful, he would punish me in horrible ways. The worst part was he started to keep me out of the ring. Tala must have told you we need to recharge our mana inside the ring, otherwise, we’ll get exhausted. But he told me I’d only be allowed back inside once I’d found the Grand Temple of the Deep. He thought, since it’s linked to my mana, I should have known where it was, and if I didn’t, then I should be able to find it easily. He didn’t understand… It’s not that simple.”

I looked at Tala for clarification. I still had so much to learn about how Fablewild and its magic worked.

“People can spend their entire lives looking for Grand Temples,” Tala explained. “They’re incredibly well hidden and are often concealed by some sort of magic. They’re each linked to a different color mana, and the traps and the rewards are linked to that, too. Normal temples are dangerous enough, but Grand Temples are on a whole other level, and very few people make it out alive.”

A deep frown creased between Tala’s eyebrows.

“The rewards are spectacular, though.” My wolf lover sighed. “Apparently, anyway. I’ve never actually seen one.”

“But surely a few people must have raided them successfully,” I said. “So why don’t they tell everyone else where these Grand Temples are? I mean, adventurers boast and exchange stories all the time about the other temples they’ve raided.”

“The magic surrounding the Grand Temples is incredibly powerful.” Tala frowned again. “Most adventurers die trying to complete the challenges. Those who survive are often too scarred by the experience to want to talk about it. Some even give up adventuring afterward. I’ve heard stories that a few Grand Temples contain a magic that makes the adventurer forget the location once they leave.”

Holy sh*t.

“There are also myths and legends about what happens if somebody reveals the location of one…” Tala continued. “It’s said they experience terrible retribution, but I don’t think anyone’s ever lived to tell the tale.”

“So the only way to find a Grand Temple is to stumble upon it?” I asked. “That must be impossible.”

“It’s very difficult,” Neoma sighed. “There are clues and signs, of course, though they’re difficult to spot and even harder to understand. I would try to relay them to my master, but he wasn’t interested in working out what they meant. He wanted me to provide him with a location.”

“Do you know what the Grand Temple of the Deep is like or what the reward is?” I asked Neoma.

She shook her head. “All I know is its name and the fact that it’s linked to black mana like mine.”

“I’ve learned from Tala that red mana is fiery, loyal, and driven,” I said. “But what does having black mana mean?”

“It is linked to death, darkness, and decay,” Neoma began. “But it is much more than that. With death comes rebirth, and so my mana is also related to transformation and wisdom. It is a color full of mystery and magic.”

“It’s very powerful,” Tala added with her arm around Neoma.

I was delighted to observe the two women getting along. I could see how protective Tala was of Neoma, even though I could still sense her uncertainty.

“That power is one of the reasons I don’t understand how you could have summoned us both,” Neoma said to me as she fixed me with a hard stare. “My mana is so strong that I can drain a master’s energy far faster than most eidolons. My power requires great skill and confidence to wield, but it also needs to be handled by a master who respects it. Otherwise… It kills them.”

“Is that what happened to your last master?” I asked her.

“Yes,” she said. “His arrogance blinded him to the weakness caused by my exhaustion… and you know the rest.”

“He sounds like a real dick,” I muttered more to myself than anyone else.

I was tempted to ask Neoma about the clues she’d found for the Grand Temple, but I’d thrown enough questions at her for one evening.

“So, what do you want to do now?” I asked.

The owl-woman fixed me with her huge hazel-and-gold eyes, and she looked puzzled.

“I know, usually, eidolons don’t have a choice,” I continued in a hurry. “Tala was confused when I asked her whether she wanted to come on more raids with me, too, but I don’t want to force anybody to join me. It’s your choice. You can stay with us if you’d like. I know the apartment’s small, but I’ve got plans to move somewhere better soon, and at least it’s clean and moderately comfortable.”

Neoma didn’t speak, and she continued to stare at me with those wide eyes of hers.

“We usually head to Fablewild every couple of days to do a temple raid,” I said. “I’ve only been an adventurer for about a week, but so far we’ve successfully raided three temples and received loads of cool treasure like this.”

I gestured to the amazing goblet encrusted with emeralds that I’d won on my first temple raid. I’d kept it as a memento, and it now sat proudly on my battered old bookshelf. It looked a bit weird surrounded by all my books, DVDs, and games, but I’d find a perfect place for it when we moved somewhere new.

“We can take you back to Fablewild and pass your ring on to somebody else, someone of your choice,” I continued. “Or you can stick with us. Tala and I are already pretty strong, but I bet the three of us would make an amazing team. Like I said, though, it’s entirely up to–”

“I want to stay with you,” Neoma interrupted. “You’re my master now, and I will follow you wherever you go.”

I grinned as I thought about how f*cking cool our next temple raid would be. I wondered what working with two eidolons would be like and how they could each use their unique skills to complete a temple.

“Great,” I said. “We’re going to make an awesome team!”

Then a wave of tension and anxiety came from Tala. She took her arm away from Neoma and sprang down from her seat on the countertop. The wolf-woman started to prowl around the small room as her worry grew.

“Do you think you’re strong enough to use us both in a temple?” she asked me. “What if our energies overwhelm you, and you can’t complete the challenges? You’d be trapped in there and die. We’d be trapped too until another adventurer came along. And then what? The life you saved me from, the life you’ve saved Neoma from, it would all start again.”

She stopped pacing and looked at me with her hands on her slim hips. Tala was the bravest woman I knew, and I’d seen her fight off ferocious creatures three times her size. She wasn’t scared of battle, but I knew she was afraid of being imprisoned and abused by another terrible master.

“You’ll just be one more adventurer lost to the temples,” she said as her voice trembled. “Nobody will remember you, but I’ll have to go on loving you through the centuries, trapped and tortured by countless greedy adventurers seeking their fortunes. And I’ll have to endure it all, despite knowing I’ll never see you again.”

Her voice wobbled once more, and I could sense the fear mounting in her as deeply as if it were my own. I rushed over and took her gently in my arms.

“That won’t happen, Tala,” I said in a soothing tone. “I’m right here. I’m always going to be right here and nothing will happen to us. You are my eidolon, and I’m bound to you. But we have to take risks sometimes, you know that as well as anyone.”

She looked up at me, and I kissed her softly. Neoma watched us with interest, and I realized she wouldn’t have known about our romantic relationship until that moment.

Tala was calmer as she turned to the owl-woman. “I’m sorry. It’s not you. I’m curious about working with you, really. But you’ll come to understand how different Colton is from your previous masters, and why I couldn’t bear it if I lost him. Your mana is so powerful, Neoma, and I’m afraid the two of us will be too much for him to wield.”

“I understand,” the beautiful brunette said. “But he’s already summoned both of us without anything terrible happening. And your connection is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before between a master and an eidolon. I’ve heard stories about how strong the bond could be, but I always thought they were myths.”

“Me, too.” Tala smiled. “But they’re not. Colton’s shown me what this relationship can really be like. And I hope he’ll show you, too. It sounds as if you’ve dealt with the same kind of men I have.”

Neoma nodded sadly.

“Listen,” I said as I gently moved Tala’s body so I could face Neoma, but I kept my arms around my lover. “I don’t want to take unnecessary risks either, and Neoma, you’re probably still not back to your full strength yet after what you’ve been through. How about I don’t summon you both at the same time while we’re in the temple? Not yet anyway, just to be on the safe side. We can see how the next raid goes, and take it from there.”

Both of the beautiful women agreed with my reasoning. After all, we were going to be trying something that had never been done in Fablewild’s history before now. I didn’t know for sure it wouldn’t f*ck with the magical rules of the world.

“Okay,” I continued. “So, now we have to decide which temple we’re going to aim for. If you two are up for it, I’d like to do another raid as soon as possible. Then perhaps we can think about moving out of this sh*tty apartment.”

“Is tomorrow too soon?” Neoma asked with a shy grin.

“Are you sure you’ll be strong enough tomorrow?” I asked her.

“I know I’ve been through a rough patch,” she answered. “But I’m the Owl of the High Tides, not some scrawny sparrow with a broken wing. I’ll be fine. Anyway, it would be good for me to test out my strength again so I know what areas I need to work on.”

I smiled at her enthusiasm and determination. “Alright then, if you’re sure that’s what you want.”

“Yes!” Neoma chirped excitedly. “So, which temple are we going to target?”

She’d jumped down from her countertop perch and started to hop from one foot to the other in the cutest way. A flood of warmth came from Tala that told me she thought it was cute, too.

I frowned. “I guess it depends a bit on where we end up, and there’s no real way of knowing until we’re there.”

“The portal takes us somewhere different every time,” Tala explained for Neoma’s benefit. “I know most of Fablewild, and I’m sure that, with you on our team, we’ll be able to work out where we are. We’ve always landed in the same general region. So far, we’ve explored some of the temples surrounding the cities of Steelgate, Amerd, and Pearlfall, and they’re all only a day or two walk away from each other.”

“It does make it hard to plan our expedition, though,” I said. “Well, at least we know most of the basic equipment we’ll have to take in terms of weapons and supplies. But it would be useful if we had an idea of some of the temples in the area we might want to aim for.”

“We can bring a selection of versatile items,” Tala suggested.

I nodded as I looked at my new watch, and the sword-shaped hour hand was nearing midnight.

“Alright then,” I yawned. “We should probably try and get some sleep. It’s been an exhausting day for all of us, and there’s been lots of new information to take in.”

Tala nestled closer to me, and the love she felt for me radiated from her. I still couldn’t believe how easily we could sense each other’s emotions. It was unlike anything else I’d ever experienced.

And it was only going to get stronger.

“You going to be okay in there?” I asked Neoma as I pointed to the bedroom.

“You two should take the bed,” she smiled. “It was sweet of you to let me recover from everything, but I’m sure you could both do with a more comfortable night.”

“It’s okay,” I insisted. “You need to build up your strength.”

“What did I say about sparrows with broken wings?” she asked with a wink.

“Okay, fine,” I laughed.

“I’ll be perfectly cozy here,” she said as she gestured to the couch. “I don’t tend to sleep much anyway.”

“You’re a night owl.” I grinned.

She looked puzzled. “Well… yes. You knew that, though. What else would I be?”

“Don’t worry about it,” I laughed. “It’s a figure of speech. Are you still hungry?”

Although she hadn’t seemed to be when I’d ordered the food, she’d devoured her burrito pretty quickly. I was hardly surprised. After all, she’d been forced to travel all over Fablewild in search of the Grand Temple without a moment’s rest, and then she’d slept for several days. I’d have been ravenous.

“I could pick at something,” she said.

I rifled through the cupboards and found her a couple of packets of cookies, some dried fruit, and some popcorn. Meanwhile, Tala showed her how to work the TV. I looked over at one point to find them both entranced by a documentary about the natural world. I smiled to myself, thinking again how f*cking weird my life had become.

I couldn’t wait for our next temple raid.

I wondered what the artifact would be, and how much I could trade it for. I had visions of being able to get us all a swanky new apartment with our riches.

Besides, I’d missed the insane adrenaline rush from raiding the temples, and the feeling of euphoria after successfully completing the challenges.

Tala arranged some blankets and cushions on the sofa to make Neoma a cute little nest. The wolf-woman looked up at me, and although I could still sense her fear, I could also feel love and desire radiating from her.

We left the new eidolon watching the TV and munching on popcorn. I headed into the bathroom for the fastest shower I’d ever taken, wrapped myself in a towel, and headed into the bedroom.

“Ahhhhh,” I sighed as I flopped back onto the bed. “I’m actually quite pleased not to be on the sofa again.”

I rolled over to see Tala staring thoughtfully out of the window with her back to me.

“Do you really want to try working with us both in the temple?” Her voice was uncertain, and it quivered slightly.

“Tala…” I got up off the bed.

She still had her back to me, so I went up behind her and encircled her lithe body with my arms. I rested my chin on top of her head. Immediately, I could feel the tension draining from her, but she was still upset and worried.

“We have to try,” I continued. “Think of everything we’ve done so far, and how much more we can achieve with another eidolon.”

“What if you decide you prefer Neoma?” Her shoulders shook slightly, and tears rolled down her cheeks.

I hugged her tighter. “Oh, Tala, you know that won’t happen. Our bond is unbreakable. Nothing can change that.”

“But she knows what her powers are,” Tala sobbed. “I have no idea what mine are. That’s why past masters used me as nothing more than an attack dog. Maybe they were right.”

“That’s not true.” I tried to comfort her. “They treated you badly because they were dicks, and they didn’t understand how special you are.”

I gently turned her around to face me and stared into her beautiful eyes.

“I love you,” I said. “You are mine, and you always will be. You’ll find out what your powers are soon enough. But you’re amazing exactly as you are.”

She nodded, and I kissed the tears from her cheeks. The weight of her worry lessened, and she reached around my neck to kiss me hungrily. Her desire grew with every second, and her tongue met mine as I slid my hands gently down to her perfect ass and gave it a squeeze.

She sighed deeply and ran her hands through my hair, and she gave it a little pull. My co*ck stiffened as we continued to kiss greedily. Our tongues danced together and made my whole body shiver with lust.

I needed to touch every part of my beautiful eidolon.

“Colton,” she murmured, and she pressed herself urgently against me.

I pulled her closer and brought one of my hands up to cup her gorgeous tit*, and I massaged them through the thin fabric of her top. I gave her ass a playful spank with my other hand.

I kissed her neck, and she gave a low moan of pleasure as her hands pulled my hair again. My whole body was on fire now, and I sensed my lover’s impatience for more.

“Take off your clothes, Tala,” I growled into her ear.

“Yes, master,” she breathed.

I stood back to watch her slowly undress, and I let the towel fall from my waist. Tala’s eyes landed on my erection, and she bit her lower lip as she looked up at me. Her icy eyes were on fire.

I admired her toned stomach, her curved hips, and her fantastic breasts. I couldn’t wait to taste and possess every inch of her sexy body.

But not yet.

I wanted to make her beg for it.

“Touch yourself,” I commanded her.

Tala licked her lips, and I watched as she slowly trailed her hands up to her nipples. She stroked and pinched them, and it took every ounce of my self-control not to throw her on the bed and plunge deep inside her.

“Keep going,” I growled.

The wolf-woman smiled as she moved her right hand slowly down over her stomach. Her sculpted legs parted, and she brought her hand up between her thighs and gasped as she touched herself.

It felt so f*cking good to watch this unbelievably sexy woman doing what I told her. She was all mine, and I could sense her growing pleasure as she gently moved her hand between her thighs.

She threw her head back and moaned. “Colton, I need you.”

I walked over to her as she continued to touch herself, and I gently ran my tongue along her lips.

My teasing was driving her wild, and her breathing was ragged. I picked her up, and she wrapped her legs tightly around my waist as I gripped her ass. My co*ck throbbed as heat sped through my entire body, and she moaned again as I began to lick and bite her nipples.

The air was thick with our desire for each other.

I threw her onto the bed and watched with pleasure as she writhed on the sheets. She opened her legs to reveal her gleaming, wet puss*.

“Please,” she whispered. “Please, I want you so much.”

I admired the view for another moment and then knelt above her. I rubbed my rock-hard co*ck along her cl*t.

She was so f*cking wet.

“Please, master,” she whimpered. “I need you now.”

“Are you sure you really want it?” I asked her playfully.

“Yessssss,” she hissed as she arched her back and rose up to meet me. “Please, give it to me.”

I couldn’t wait any longer, either. I grabbed her hips and plunged deep inside her. Tala gasped as our desires and our bodies united as one. The heat between us, and the intensity of our emotions, was insane.

I kissed her deeply and savored the warm wetness that was so tight around my throbbing co*ck.

“I love you, master,” she sighed with pleasure, and her beautiful, icy eyes met mine.

“I love you, my perfect eidolon.” I kissed her again.

I began to move inside her as she clenched around me. The heat flowed between us as we connected in a deep and primal way.

“Yes!” Tala moaned, and the walls of her puss* tightened. “I love feeling my master’s big, hard co*ck inside me.”

I groaned and sped up the pace as I slammed in and out of her. I grabbed her tit* with one of my hands and squeezed them tightly.

“Yes, yes, yes,” Tala moaned louder and louder. “I’m going to–”

Her org*sm came quickly, and her body convulsed. Fireworks exploded through our connection as her puss* clenched around me, and her juices ran down my shaft. Her writhing gradually subsided, and I sensed a warm feeling of pleasure coursing through her.

“Colton,” she whimpered. “That was amazing. You make me feel so good.”

I kissed her hungrily and softly toyed with her nipples. Instantly, I felt her desire to be f*cked growing again as she slowly scratched her nails down my back.

I gently slid my hard co*ck out of her and laid on my back. I guided Tala on top of me, and she slowly impaled herself on my shaft.

She gasped and started to rock her hips back and forth.

I groaned with pleasure at the amazing view. Tala’s golden hair was wild, and her huge tit* bounced every time she moved.

“f*ck, you’re gorgeous,” I groaned.

We moved and rocked together, and I drove up into her as deeply as I could. Our bodies were on fire with lust, and the fact that I could feel Tala’s emotions with every thrust of my co*ck made it even better.

We increased our speed and ground hard against each other. Tala’s breathing was rapid, and I knew she couldn’t hold out for much longer. I moved my hands down to cup her ass and squeezed hard as I rammed into her.

“Yessss, master. Yessss!” She moaned as she rocked faster. “Fill me with your cum!”

I groaned at her words as I moved faster, my hands gripped her tight ass, and lava flowed through me.

Tala’s cries increased, and I couldn’t wait any longer.

“Fuuuuck,” I groaned as I climaxed, and my cum shot up into her.

It was all Tala needed.

She moaned loudly as her own org*sm took over her body.

The intensity of our combined pleasure made me see stars, and my blood pounded through my veins as the electrifying ecstasy coursed through my body. Anything resembling coherent thought skittered out of my mind as the searing bliss crashed in waves over me.

Tala’s puss* quivered in trembling waves around my co*ck for several long seconds before our breathing finally eased back to a more normal rhythm.

Tala leaned down to kiss me softly.

We stayed like that for a long time with our bodies entangled as we savored the incredible joy we’d just experienced. Eventually, Tala shifted to lay down next to me, and she nestled into my arms.

“That was wonderful,” she sighed with satisfaction.

I held her tighter. “You’re f*cking amazing, Tala.”

She giggled and looked up at me. “You’re pretty incredible, too, master.”

There was no tension left in my beautiful wolf warrior anymore. Only love and happiness.

Our bond was even stronger now, and the contentment radiating from Tala told me she wasn’t worried about being replaced anymore.

We fell asleep wrapped up in each other’s arms.

I was woken by the morning light. For once, Tala was still asleep beside me, and she murmured something in her sleep as I gently moved her off my chest. I pulled the blankets back up around her, quickly put on my new pair of shorts and a t-shirt, and tiptoed out of the bedroom.

I walked into the living room to find Neoma perched happily on the countertop with a steaming mug in her hands.

“Morning,” she chirped. “Did you sleep well?”

I ran my hand through my hair. “Yeah, not bad, thanks. You?”

“Yes, thank you.” Neoma lept down gracefully from her seat. “I was curious about what that machine did, so I pressed some buttons on it, and it produced this.”

She gestured to the coffee machine and then to her mug.

“It’s great!” she added with a big grin. “I feel really bouncy.”

I laughed. “Yeah, that’ll be the caffeine rush. You might want to take it easy if you’re not used to drinking coffee.”

“Okay,” she called happily as she hopped from one foot to the other.

She really was unbearably cute.

“You want some breakfast?” I asked.

“Sure!” She grinned. “Turns out I really like Earth food.”

“Glad to hear it,” I said. “We’re going to need all our energy for today.”

She looked so different from the woman who’d fainted in my arms when I’d first summoned her, and I was glad to see so much improvement.

I made myself a coffee using the new machine and then started on breakfast.

“Do you want to take a shower before we head out?” I asked Neoma as I fried some bacon.

“Is that the watery thing that makes you go all soggy?” she asked.

I laughed and nodded.

“Tala told me about it yesterday,” she giggled. “I think I’ll try it. I can’t really preen myself in human form.”

She looked down at her body, and I tried hard not to stare at her amazing figure.

“There are some fresh towels in the bathroom,” I said. “It should be pretty self-explanatory, but let me know if you have any questions.”

Neoma trotted off to the bathroom, and I failed miserably at keeping my eyes off her gorgeous ass.

I took a sip of my coffee and thought about the day ahead.

I hoped we’d end up around the same cities as before, which would mean Tala could easily guide us to a temple. I was excited to see what the challenges would be, and hopefully, I’d even get a chance to work with Neoma.

If everything went well, we’d have an amazing artifact to trade by the end of the day.

We just had to make it to Fablewild without bumping into the lunatic living on the mountain.

Within fifteen minutes, Neoma was back. She was grinning broadly and wrapped up in a fluffy towel, and I realized she’d probably want some privacy to get into her clothes.

“Do you want to change in there?” I asked as I pointed to the bedroom. “You might as well wake Tala up, too, and tell her breakfast is ready.”

Neoma nodded and giggled.

I piled some eggs, bacon, hash browns, and toast onto plates right as Neoma and Tala emerged from the bedroom. Neoma wore the blue dress from the night before. Tala looked adorable in one of my old sweatshirts, and it barely reached the tops of her thighs and fell sensually off one shoulder.

I grinned. “Breakfast is served, ladies.”

“Eeek!” Neoma squealed and skipped over to the food.

“Mmmmmm,” Tala sniffed the air and padded toward me.

“Morning, sleepyhead,” I said as she lifted her face for a kiss.

“I was worn out.” She grinned wolfishly and winked.

We ate eagerly and discussed the possible challenges we might face. I could sense Tala’s excitement at the prospect of another raid, and Neoma’s enthusiasm was clear in her huge hazel-and-gold eyes.

Once we’d finished, Tala went to get changed, Neoma moved the plates into the sink, and I packed my bag.

As always, I packed the golden mallet and the beautiful dagger I’d had since my first trip to Fablewild, as well as the long curved blade I’d taken from a dead guy in the second temple I’d raided. I’d have to chuck my jacket over my magical crossbow for the walk to avoid attracting any unwanted attention.

I considered bringing my gun but there wasn’t much room left for it, and it didn’t work in Fablewild, anyway. I kinda wanted it just in case we stumbled on the crazy forum guy, but I decided a mallet, two blades, and a crossbow would be enough.

Not to mention my two sexy spirit warriors who would fight right alongside me.

I also grabbed a couple of bars of gold for currency in Fablewild. Most things were free for adventurers, but it was always good to be prepared.

I checked my phone in case Mr. Crazy had left another deranged message on the forum. He hadn’t, so when the two women were ready, we set off.

It was still early, and the morning sun was bright. Neoma’s eyes grew wider with everything she saw, and I reminded myself that this was the first time she’d left the apartment since getting here.

The walk was uneventful, and soon we were on the mountain. I led us off the main trail and steered clear of the location where the forum guy had last taken a picture.

I realized we hadn’t explained to Neoma yet about the nutty tent-dwelling asshole who seemed intent on trying to murder us, but I decided not to worry her before a big raid.

I led us into a quiet clearing and looked around cautiously.

There was no sign of anybody, and I shot Tala a glance to confirm she couldn’t smell or hear anything out of place.

“Let’s do this,” I muttered. “You two should probably get back into your rings because we still don’t know what would happen if you traveled through the portal outside them.”

They nodded in agreement. I’d put Tala’s ring on my left hand, and Neoma’s on my right. I flicked each wrist in turn, and the gorgeous women disappeared in a haze of gold and purple.

It felt weird being alone again, but I could still feel Tala’s presence as strongly as if she were next to me. I took one more careful look around and opened up the portal box.

The force of the whirlwind immediately yanked me into the air as I held onto the box for dear life and shut my eyes firmly.

Going to Fablewild was incredible, but I really wished the journey wasn’t so uncomfortable.

Finally, I was spewed out by the tornado, and the wind was knocked out of me for a second as I landed hard on my back.

I blinked and saw a canopy of thick, dense trees above me. I didn’t recognize this place as I slowly got up, but then again, the whole of Fablewild was still new to me.

The sunlight filtered down through the canopy of leaves and gave a weird dappled effect to everything. It looked as if hundreds of eyes were staring at me from all sides, and I shivered.

“Tala,” I said. “Any clues?”

She was silent, and I quickly checked to make sure I hadn’t lost her ring in the whirlwind, but it was there on my finger.

“Tala?” I asked again. “You okay in there?”

Yes, Colton, she said. I can hear you.

I breathed a sigh of relief.

But I have no idea where we are, she continued.

f*ck.

“This is going to be interesting…” I groaned.

This wasn’t great. I didn’t know how big Fablewild was, but I guessed it was big enough that we might have ended up in some part of the f*cking wilderness several days from the closest town.

Well, at least we could just take the portal back to Earth if we needed to.

“Right, first things first,” I said.

I was still holding the portal box, so I carefully put the magical box back into my bag. Next, I took out my mallet and attached it to the leather loop I’d acquired at a market in Steelgate. I was convinced it was magical because it made the huge weapon impossibly light as it swung from my belt. I attached the curved blade on the other side but decided to keep my dagger in my hand in case anything tried to sneak up on me. I also uncovered my crossbow, put my jacket in my bag, and swung the weapon onto my shoulder.

“Still no ideas?” I asked Tala.

I was hoping she might have been mistaken about not recognizing the jungle, but I knew she probably wasn’t.

No, Colton, she said with a touch of irritation at her lack of recognition.

“Well, I guess we’re just going to have to see what happens.” I sighed and looked around. “Any thoughts about which way to go?”

There was really nothing to indicate which direction we should take, but I trusted Tala’s keen instincts.

The wolf-woman was silent for a moment, and I could feel her thinking.

Go straight ahead, she eventually told me.

I set off warily through the trees with my dagger at the ready.

The jungle was full of sounds, and every time I looked around, I saw something new. There were animals everywhere, from iridescent beetles and butterflies to birds squawking at the top of tall trees.

I heard a rustle in a bush to my left and stopped. My heart raced as I shifted into a defensive stance.

But what hopped out was one of the cutest creatures I’d ever seen.

It looked a lot like a rabbit, but it was a bit bigger with more pointy ears. It was white and fluffy, and it had beautiful golden spots on its luscious fur.

It stopped and sat up on its hind legs when it saw me.

“Hey, little guy,” I said.

I was half-tempted to go over and pet it, but I sensed Tala’s impatience.

Colton, now is not the time, she said.

“But he’s so sweet,” I laughed and felt her soften.

At that moment, I sensed a tingle of something like excitement, and I knew it was coming from Neoma. I could imagine the owl-woman hopping about and squealing at the sight of this fluffy little dude.

“Tala, I think I can feel Neoma’s emotions!” I said with delight.

Already? She asked, surprised. That’s great, Colton. But keep your mind focused. You don’t want to be caught unaware in this jungle.

I knew she was right, so I gave the little rabbit a wave and carried on.

I tried to keep my path straight, but it was difficult to navigate through the dense trees.

Tala was silent, but I could feel how alert she was. I knew she was concentrating on possible dangers, and I could sense her mounting unease. The number of animals in this jungle was unreal. As well as beetles and birds, there were loads of snakes lounging on the trees. At first, I was wary of them, but Tala assured me they weren’t poisonous. There were also quite a few rodent-type animals, but they were multicolored and bigger than the ones on Earth.

Suddenly, a warning signal came from Tala, and I stopped.

“What is it?” I whispered.

I’m not sure, she answered. But something’s not right… Get off the ground.

I didn’t need to be told twice.

I scanned the nearby trees, spotted one with some low-hanging branches, and scrambled up it as fast as I could. Then I waited and watched the jungle below intensely.

Nothing happened, and I was starting to think Tala had overreacted when I saw the long grass part right in front of where I’d been walking.

The creature that emerged was f*cking huge, and I shuddered to think I might have stumbled straight into it. It looked a bit like a panther, but it was at least twice the size. Its fur was a dazzling deep green color, but the tip of its tail and some of the markings on its face were amber.

It padded softly forward on its velvet paws and stopped to sniff the air.

“Erm, Tala,” I whispered. “That thing looks like it can climb trees.”

It can, she told me, and I gulped. But you stand a much better chance up here than down there. That’s a clancat. They hunt in packs, and they can change color. They’re incredibly skilled predators.

“But that one’s by itself,” I hissed.

Hush, Tala answered. They also have great hearing. I’d advise you to be quiet if you want to make it to a temple alive.

I smiled, and I kept my mouth shut.

Sure enough, the clancat walked a little further and then rubbed itself against the bark of a tree like it was nothing more than a giant housecat. Gradually, its fur went from emerald green to mottled brown, and I put my hand over my mouth to smother my gasp.

The animal gave a low roar which was answered by several softer roars and purrs.

Six other clancats joined the first. They all gradually changed color as they moved through the trees, and I watched them until they were out of sight and I was sure they were far enough away to risk descending to the ground.

“Well, those were f*cking scary,” I said as I climbed quietly back down the tree.

Yes, Tala agreed. They’re very dangerous, but luckily, they only live in a few areas of Fablewild.

“So, does that mean you’ve narrowed down where we landed?” I asked her as I carried on walking.

Possibly, Tala replied in a worried tone. But I hope I’m wrong.

“Well, that’s comforting,” I said in a dry tone.

Worry about what Tala had said shivered through me, and I was about to ask her some more questions when the earth started trembling.

“f*ck me, what’s that?” I asked.

I don’t know, she said quickly. But you need to hide. Now!

I looked around frantically, but none of the trees looked climbable. Finally, I saw a hollow in one of their trunks. I ran across to it and wedged myself inside. It was just big enough for me to crouch in. Bits of bark and debris rained down on my head as the earth shook more violently.

It sounded like footsteps.

It sounded like something big.

And angry.

An enormous beast came crashing through the trees to my left and stopped right in front of my hiding place. It must have been about fifteen feet tall with thick muscles on every part of it. Green and brown scales covered its body, and a spiny tail swept the jungle floor behind it. Red eyes set far apart on its ugly head, and as it gave another roar, I saw rows of sharp teeth in its drooling mouth. And two sharp tusks were covered in blood.

A human hand was wedged between the beast’s teeth.

“Poor bastard,” I muttered, and there was a rush of agreement from Tala.

Stay still, Colton, she said. I don’t know what this creature is, but I’d prefer not to fight it.

“Agreed,” I murmured.

The beast trampled around in circles for a bit and sniffed the air.

My legs and back were starting to ache from the cramped tree trunk I was confined in, but I forced myself to stay as still as possible.

Finally, the monstrous animal gave a last roar and traipsed back off into the trees, but I gave it a few minutes before I crawled out of the trunk.

“sh*t,” I said as I dusted myself off. “This is turning into one tricky journey.”

Colton, Tala said. I’m almost certain I know where we are. We’re–

A strange grunting sound cut off the rest of Tala’s words, and I turned around quickly.

“Oh, f*ck,” I groaned. “This is turning into a really sh*tty day.”

About ten yards in front of me was a big, ugly, mean-looking bastard.

And he didn’t seem like he was going anywhere.

This f*cker was about the same height as a garbage truck, but his legs were short and his belly wasn’t far off the jungle floor. His thick, gray fur was matted with mud, and a horn jutted out of his face. He pawed the ground with sharp-looking claws, and he made a deep snorting noise.

Holy sh*t, this guy was scary. He looked like some insane cross between a grizzly bear and a rhino.

Then, he gave a throaty growl and the low noise reverberated through the jungle. His glowing amber eyes fixated on me as he let out a snarl and pawed the ground again.

It was obvious he was getting ready to charge.

“f*ck,” I whispered.

My dagger looked like a toothpick in comparison with this bastard, so I quickly grabbed my crossbow instead.

I tried to think. This guy was way bigger than me, and his skin looked tough and leathery. But I also got the impression he couldn’t maneuver himself that quickly, which meant I’d have the advantage of speed and agility.

Tala seemed to sense my plan. Plant your feet firmly, and remember everything I taught you about how to dive.

I nodded as I fitted a bolt and took aim.

Then the beast let out a loud roar, and I saw the rows of huge teeth in his mouth.

He started to charge, and the ground vibrated. As he ran, he lowered his head and his huge horn came thundering toward me at what felt like a million miles an hour.

I loosed the bolt. For a split second, I thought it was going to hit him in the forehead and kill him instantly, but he turned his head at the last moment and it grazed his shoulder instead.

“f*ck you!” I yelled as I swung the crossbow onto my back and grabbed my mallet.

There were only a few seconds left until I’d be impaled on his horn, but I held my ground until the last possible moment. Tala’s wolf instincts were coursing through me and made my reactions insanely fast. Just in time, I leaped nimbly to the left as I swung my mallet as hard as I could into the bastard’s right flank.

I’d put all my strength into that swing, but it didn’t seem to do much more than leave a slight bruise and make the f*cker angry. I started to realize how thick his skin was and how difficult he’d be to bring down. I needed something sharp.

He bellowed as I grabbed the curved blade, and I slashed the back of his left leg. I did some damage, but the cut still wasn’t deep enough to get past more than the first few layers of his leathery skin.

I ducked behind a tree and hoped it would give me a few valuable seconds to think of another plan. My heart was pounding, and I needed to think of something fast.

Release me, Colton! Tala said urgently.

I flicked my wrist, and Tala’s magnificent ghostly wolf form emerged.

I peeked out from behind the tree.

The monster had fully turned around now and was pawing the ground as it prepared to charge again.

I pointed to the left of the tree. “You take him from that side, and I’ll go to the other. We’ll hit him on both flanks. Ready?”

Tala howled her agreement, and I sensed her enthusiasm for the fight.

“Go!” I yelled as we both sprang from the cover of the tree at the same time the beast charged.

He let out a snort of confusion at the sight of Tala, but he had no time to change his direction as we ran at him simultaneously.

I aimed my curved blade low and managed to get a good slash at the big f*cker’s stomach where the skin was softer. I heard him roar with pain as the blood gushed down his side.

I ran behind him and saw Tala had aimed for his stomach, too. Her razor-sharp teeth had torn a big chunk of flesh away, and there were deep scratch marks from her claws on either side of the bite.

He was definitely injured now, but it wasn’t enough to bring him down. His skin was so tough that it would require a lot more force to puncture it properly and create a mortal wound. The crossbow would work, but I’d need him to be distracted enough so I could load up, aim, and shoot.

Tala let out a short bark and looked at me. I sensed she was thinking the same thing.

“Can you distract him for me?” I asked.

I felt like she was giving me a raised eyebrow, and there was a ripple of amusem*nt coming from her.

“Alright, stupid question,” I laughed.

The monster had lumbered around to face us again, and I fumbled for my crossbow as Tala ran up to him and growled.

I slid a bolt into my weapon and steadied my feet to aim. The beast was distracted by Tala, who ran around him in circles and made frequent lunges at his ankles. He tried to kick her, but she was too fast for him.

I aimed carefully at his forehead and let the bolt fly.

He turned again, and the bolt sank into his eye with a sickening squelch.

He howled in agony and fury as I quickly reloaded.

He tried to run toward me, but Tala’s darting attacks and his semi-blindness made it hard for him to move steadily in one direction. He lashed out at my wolf-warrior again, and his hoof missed her by a fraction of an inch.

“You’re going down, you f*cking bastard,” I growled as I let a third bolt fly.

This one hit him squarely in the forehead and embedded itself deep into his ugly skull. His legs buckled immediately, and he sank to the floor with a loud crash.

He was still alive, and Tala lunged immediately for his throat with a vicious snarl. Her sharp teeth sank into his neck, and I heard the sound of flesh being ripped apart.

Within seconds, the horned asshole was dead.

Pride surged in me as I looked at my magnificent eidolon. Her eyes were on fire, and adrenaline coursed through both of us. Tala let out a low growl of victory as she stood over her kill.

“f*ck, yeah!” I hissed as I looked at the size of the huge creature we’d brought down together.

Our connection was just as amazing in battle as it was in bed. It felt like our souls had fused to become one being, and I had every confidence that it was only going to get stronger.

Tala watched me intently, and I knew she wanted to speak to me about something.

“You want to get back in the ring?” I asked her as I dried the sweat dripping from my brow.

I felt a burst of agreement from her, so I quickly flicked my wrist, and she disappeared in a gold mist.

I checked that I still had everything and that my magical crossbow’s bolts had returned to my quiver, and I started to walk.

I’d been unable to feel Neoma during the fight, but I guessed that was because my connection with Tala had overwhelmed everything else in the intensity of the battle. Now, I tried to tune in to the owl-woman’s emotions again, and I was sure I felt a soft glimmer of relief coming from her.

“And how are you doing, Tala?” I asked.

I’m great, she answered.

“We really showed him,” I chuckled.

Yes, but we haven’t even reached the temple yet. Tala’s tone was worried. I’m almost certain we’re in the Jungle of the Beasts. It’s notoriously dangerous, and after those encounters, I imagine you can guess where it got its name.

“The Jungle of the Beasts, huh?” I asked. “Sounds pretty unpleasant. Are there any temples around here?”

Yes, she answered softly. The Temple of the Beasts is nearby. I can direct you to it now that I have my bearings. We need to get out of this jungle as soon as possible. The smell of death and blood will bring other animals, ones even bigger and hungrier than that one.

“Noted,” I said as I sped up. “I’m starting to understand why so many adventurers don’t make it to the temples in the first place. I guess I’ve had a relatively easy time up until now.”

You’ve been lucky, she said. The jungles claim almost as many lives as the temples.

We were silent for a few moments as I continued to walk. I was even more alert than usual after what we’d just experienced, and I was glad to have Tala’s calming presence guiding me.

“How far away are we?” I asked her.

Close, she said. We’re currently approaching from the north, but it would take over an hour to change our route…

My pulse quickened. “We’ll stay on this path.”

I’d been wanting to try a northern path, and I was pretty sure we were ready for it.

Hell, whatever was in the temple was unlikely to be much worse than what was lurking in the jungle.

Probably.

I walked down a steep hill, and the trees thinned out a bit.

It’s right down here, Tala told me.

When we reached the bottom of the descent, I pushed my way through the final few trees and found myself in a clearing.

An enormous building made of red stone stood in front of me. There were large steps made of the same material, and the entrance of the temple was carved into the shape of a huge lion’s head. We had to walk through its jaws to get inside.

“sh*t,” I whistled as I started to climb.

On either side of the steps were ornate sculptures of different creatures. I recognized some, but others were more unfamiliar and looked like something out of a myth.

My legs were burning by the time I reached the top of the steps, and I stood facing the lion’s jaws. Warm, rank air came from inside the gloomy temple, and I took a deep breath before I plunged into the belly of the beast.

I was used to the wall-mounted torches that sprang to life once I’d stepped inside. The smell intensified, and I tried not to retch as I inhaled the putrid air.

The room was vast, but there was only one wide corridor at the end of it.

“Do you want to come out?” I asked Tala as I started walking.

What about Neoma? she asked.

I felt a tingle of warmth from Neoma that told me she didn’t mind staying in her ring.

“She says it’s okay,” I told Tala. “I think it’s probably best if we start off together anyway since we’ve worked as a team so much.”

I flicked my wrist, and my beautiful wolf lover emerged. It felt good to have her prowling silently at my side again, but I did miss her being able to talk to me like she could when she was in the ring.

The passage gradually started to slope up, and then it curved to the left. After a few moments, I realized it was a kind of spiral. I didn’t like not being able to see very far in front of us, but I was relying on Tala’s wolf instincts, and she was calm.

The spiral corridor eventually opened out into a large room, and I stopped as I tried to work out the first challenge. No torches started to flicker, so it couldn’t be timed in the same way most of the rooms were.

There was an elegant dark-red podium in the center of the space, and it was surrounded by four large statues of the same color. Each of the statues depicted some sort of mythical animal, and all of them had their mouths wide open. There was a big door with a keyhole at the end of the room.

I had no idea what this challenge was, but I figured we had to somehow find a key to unlock the door.

There had to be a catch, though. I could feel Tala’s bewilderment as she surveyed the scene but there was nothing to suggest she could sense any danger.

I cautiously approached the podium in the center. It held an ornate painting that depicted the four mythical animals whose statues were in the room. They looked similar to the kinds of creatures I’d learned about from reading and playing video games.

There was a griffin, a pegasus, a dragon, and a basilisk. In the painting, they were all in a beautiful jungle. The griffin held a rodent in its talons. The pegasus had a red rose in its mouth. The dragon’s claws were planted firmly on a skeleton. And the basilisk was wrapped around an ornate vase.

“What the f*ck?” I murmured and looked up at the statues.

Tala prowled between them. She circled and sniffed each one in turn, but her bewilderment was as obvious as mine.

It seemed clear that the key to the door was linked in some way to the statues. I approached the griffin and looked at it carefully. Its jaws were open and showed sharp rows of metal teeth that gleamed in the torchlight, but the back of its mouth was shrouded in darkness.

I guessed the key was in the mouth of one of the statues, but those teeth were making me uneasy. I’d probably be able to squeeze my arm into the creature’s mouth, but I’d learned enough in these temples that I didn’t want to risk my limbs yet. I drew out my dagger and lightly touched the metal teeth.

The griffin’s mouth slammed shut as I leaped away, and Tala barked in surprise.

Yep, I wasn’t about to start rummaging around in each creature’s mouth for a key.

The griffin’s mouth slowly opened once more.

“Okay, think,” I said as I went back over to the podium and looked down at the painting. “The answer must be here, I just need to work it out…”

Suddenly, I heard a mechanical noise, and Tala emitted a low growl.

The mouths of all the beasts were slowly shutting.

f*ck, so that’s what the timer was in this room. If those jaws closed, there was no way I’d be able to open them again.

We’d be trapped

Tala’s anxiety flared in me as I stared down and tried to concentrate on the image.

“A rodent, a rose, a skeleton, and a vase,” I muttered. “The clue to the key must be here somewhere.”

My eyes strayed over the picture and fixed on the skeleton.

“That must be it,” I said. “Skeleton key. It has to be… right?”

I felt a rush of warmth from Tala as she told me to trust my instincts.

The jaws of the statues were closing, and we were running out of time.

I had to go with it.

I approached the dragon statue and thought about using my dagger to try and hook the key out, but my dagger wasn’t long enough so I’d still need to put my hand in there anyway. Plus, it would be faster to try and search for the object using my fingers.

The dragon’s jaws were slowly inching shut, and I held my breath as I reached into its mouth.

Sweat poured off me as I eased my limb further into the statue’s jaws.

Suddenly, my fingers felt something cold, and I grasped it.

I wanted to yank my arm back but forced myself to continue carefully. I estimated I had about ten seconds before the jaws shut around my arm, but I gently wiggled it further out, and eventually, my hand emerged with the key.

I rushed to the door. The timer hadn’t stopped counting down, and I suspected something nasty might still be in store if we didn’t make it out before the statues’ jaws shut.

The key slid easily into the lock and turned. I twisted the handle, and we both fell through it, shutting it quickly behind us.

I grinned at Tala. “First challenge done.”

The wolf-woman’s happiness flowed through me like a wave as we carried on through the temple.

We walked along a narrow corridor that ascended sharply, and it wasn’t long before we reached another door. I thought about how high up we must be by now and wondered what might be in the next room.

Tala’s eagerness radiated through our connection, and there was no point in even asking her if she was ready.

I turned the handle and pushed open the door. My breath caught in my throat as I looked at what I had to do next.

We were standing on a narrow stone ledge, and there was a massive chasm in front of us. Two ropes were strung across the void. One was positioned to walk on, and the other was at shoulder height to hang on to. It was a bit like a tightrope, and I’d seen this kind of thing plenty of times before in climbing centers and adventure parks.

But here, there were no harnesses to catch me if I fell, and the drop must have been well over a hundred feet.

Thick fog rose through the room, and I couldn’t even see where the ropes ended on the other side. I had no idea how long it would take me to get there.

Bodies in various stages of decomposition littered the bottom of the cavern below. From what I could see, some looked like they’d fallen fairly recently. Others had chunks of flesh missing and appeared as though something had been eating them. A few were nothing but skeletons.

Tala sniffed the air and growled. I sensed a rush of warning coming from her, but I couldn’t see anything to suggest this was going to be any more difficult than the tasks we’d completed before. After all, I was a good climber, although my crossbow and bulky backpack weren’t going to make things easy.

Still, nothing in these temples was ever quite that simple.

The torches suddenly burst into flames, and I realized the countdown had started.

I really didn’t want to be on the rope when it ran out.

Tala nudged my hand, and I sensed her impatience.

“Yeah, I suppose you’ll have to get back in the ring,” I sighed. “I know you’re athletic but I’m not sure those paws are going to do you any favors on a rope bridge.”

I felt her amusem*nt as I flicked my wrist, and she disappeared in a flood of golden light.

“Tala, I’m going to get Neoma out so she can help me,” I said. “That fog is making it really hard to see.”

Okay, Colton, Tala said. Be careful. That’s a big drop, and I don’t think it’s the only challenge this room is going to throw at you.

“Neither do I,” I muttered as I flicked my wrist.

Neoma suddenly appeared in the air in front of me in an explosion of purple light. I’d never seen her as an owl before, but I recognized her hazel-and-gold eyes instantly. Her dark-brown feathers seemed soft and were flecked with silver, but her curved talons and orange beak looked like they were viciously sharp. I estimated she was about three feet tall, and her wingspan was probably double that. Just like Tala in wolf form, there was a ghostly glow to my owl eidolon, and she shimmered slightly when she moved.

“You okay after all that stuff in the jungle earlier?” I asked.

Neoma hooted and flapped her wings.

“Good,” I chuckled. “Okay, first challenge as a team. Can you fly across to the other side of this gap and see what it’s like? I’m going to make a start across the ropes.”

Neoma hooted again and set off. She soared effortlessly through the air, and a warm buzz of happiness came from her.

I firmly gripped the top rope with my hands and gingerly stepped each foot in turn onto the bottom one.

“I’m an adventurer and a climber,” I said to myself as I started to shuffle my feet along the rope. “I can f*cking do this. Just don’t look down, and don’t get distracted.”

I inched along the rope as fast as I could without slipping and forced myself to tune out everything else. The further I got, the more the rope started swaying.

“f*cking amateurs,” I muttered. “You need tension on a rope like this. Don’t you know anything?”

Tala’s amusem*nt flowed through me, and I smiled.

Neoma came soaring back over and hooted again. It would have been helpful if I could understand her like Tala, but I had every confidence I would be able to soon. The hoot hadn’t sounded urgent, and I couldn’t sense any fear in her. The owl eidolon flapped her wings slowly, and she circled above my head as I carried on making my way across the rope.

The fog enveloped me further. I still couldn’t see the end of the rope, but I f*cking hoped it wasn’t going to go on for much longer. My palms were sweating, and my back was aching from the equipment I carried.

Suddenly, the rope swayed violently, as if a strong wind had hit it.

“f*ck!” I yelled as I clung on with all my strength.

Then I heard what sounded like millions of wings flapping, and high-pitched screeches filled the air.

I looked up to see hundreds of small dark shapes filling the air. They seemed to be coming from everywhere, and Neoma screeched loudly as their numbers continued to grow.

“sh*t,” I hissed as I tried to move my feet faster.

Bats. Tala’s voice was grim. In Fablewild, they’ve developed a taste for human blood… You need to get out of here quickly!

I nodded my head and tried to keep moving. I could feel bats whooshing past me in thick waves, and a few started trying to bite my hands and legs. I looked up again and saw a thick cloud of them obscuring the ceiling.

There was nothing I could do but keep moving. Neoma was darting above my head, and I could hear bats squealing as she grabbed them with her vicious talons. She was managing to keep the worst off me, but soon there would be too many for her, and I couldn’t stop to help her.

“f*ckers!” I yelled and lashed out at one that almost hit me in the face.

Go! Tala hissed at me. I think you’re almost there.

That spurred me on, and I looked ahead to finally see the mist was clearing and there was a ledge in sight with a slope that led up to a door.

A couple of bats settled on my hands and started to bite them. I tried to move my fingers, but the bastards sank their teeth in harder. Neoma lunged at them, and they screamed as she tore their heads from their bodies.

The ledge was right in front of me now. I scrambled off the rope, but I was immediately swamped by bats. They were everywhere, and their teeth dug into my flesh as they started taking small, sharp bites. I could hear Neoma trying to disperse them, but there were too many of them.

Let me out! Tala demanded. I can deal with them.

I didn’t have enough time to think properly. I flicked both my wrists simultaneously and Neoma disappeared as Tala emerged. She was already snarling.

My beautiful wolf-warrior was far bigger than Neoma. She lunged at the bats and made a lot of them scatter, then she wheeled around and closed her jaws around at least four of them at once. I watched as she spat them out in a congealed mess of blood and broken bones.

I got to my feet and ran.

“Come on!” I yelled to her, and we both sprinted up the remaining path to the door.

I pushed it open and slammed it behind us to the sound of a hundred bodies throwing themselves against it.

I leaned against the door and panted. Tala came over and gently licked my hand, where one of the bats had managed to get in a decent bite.

“Thanks, guys,” I said to them both. “Those bastards were tough.”

A flood of pride and pleasure burst from Neoma and there was a rush of love from Tala.

“Wait,” I said as a thought struck me. “Are those f*ckers venomous?”

Tala licked my hand again. Her calmness assured me they weren’t, but I knew I’d have to clean the wounds when we got home.

“Okay, no time to lose,” I said. I picked myself up and carried on as Tala trotted eagerly at my side.

We only had to walk a short distance before the next door appeared. Tala let out a deep, throaty growl. Her teeth were bared, and her warning signals were coursing through me urgently.

I grabbed my mallet. “Well, we’re going to have to go through it, whatever it is.”

I felt Tala’s agreement as I turned the handle and pushed the door open.

My blood ran cold, and I gripped my mallet tighter.

The room was long and narrow, and the door was at the far end. A series of iron rings were bolted into the floor, and there were thick chains attached to them.

And at the end of each chain was a massive wolf.

I counted ten of them. They were at least twice the size of Tala, but their fur was a thick, white color, and their eyes were jet black. I had to admit, they were beautiful.

The iron rings were placed exactly far enough apart so the wolves couldn’t reach each other, but they still strained furiously at their chains.

Almost immediately, though, their attention turned to us, and they snarled in unison.

“Ready?” I asked Tala, and her determination ran through me.

The first few were easy enough to deal with. Since the wolves had all started straining toward us, I simply loaded the crossbow and fired. I managed to kill three before the others got wise to it and began to run around in crazy patterns so I couldn’t get a shot in.

“Time for the next phase,” I said as I grabbed my mallet. “You take the two over there, and I’ll deal with these three. Then we just have the two at the end.”

Tala growled her agreement and immediately sprang toward the two snarling wolves to our left. I dashed to the right and swung my mallet with all my force into the shoulder of the first one. I knocked it to the ground, and the impact of the blow reverberated up my arm.

The wolf growled and tried to get up, but I quickly swung the mallet again and hit it in the face this time. The disgusting crack of its skull caving in turned my stomach.

I briefly looked over to see Tala poised above her first wolf. It had a nasty wound on its side, and she tore into its throat with glee as it howled.

Meanwhile, I approached the next two wolves I had to deal with. I pretended I was going for one, and then feinted to the other and hit it hard in the chest with my mallet. It gave a grunt of surprise and pain. It opened its jaws to try and bite me, but I quickly grabbed my dagger and stabbed the bastard in the back of the throat. I put all my weight into it, and the creature collapsed with a gurgle and died.

My heart was beating insanely fast now, but I focused all my attention on the next beast. I was barely out of its reach, and it was trying with all its might to get to me. It was going crazy, and its dark eyes gleamed with bloodlust.

“Not today, f*cker!” I yelled and threw my dagger straight into its face.

The wolf howled as the dagger hit it square in the eye socket, and then I grabbed my mallet, lunged, and hit it hard in the face.

The wolf’s lifeless body twitched as I pulled my dagger out of its skull. I looked up to see Tala’s snout dripping in blood and the bodies of the two dead wolves behind her.

“Good job!” I said. “We’re almost there.”

The remaining two wolves were prowling and snarling. I thought I might be able to get a shot in with the crossbow now that I was at closer range, but just before I was about to swing it off my back, Tala threw back her head and emitted a loud, long howl.

I stopped and watched her as I tried to work out what she was doing. It was unlike any noise I’d heard her make before. It was full of power and confidence, but there was something mesmerizing about it, too.

I turned to see the two remaining wolves flattening themselves to the ground and whining softly. They looked like they were submitting to her.

“What the hell?” I murmured as I looked at my beautiful eidolon. “How the f*ck did you do that?”

Tala’s icy eyes stared at me as she swished her tail, and I felt her confusion as well as her pride.

She cautiously approached them. It looked as if one was about to lunge for her, but she simply snapped her teeth, and it instantly cowered back into its original position.

“That’s awesome!” I grinned at her.

There was no doubt she was top dog.

I didn’t entirely trust the wolves, but I had to pass between them to get to the door where Tala stood proudly waiting for me.

After a deep breath, I started to walk. When I looked down at the creatures as I passed, they were no more vicious than a couple of lap dogs.

As soon as I reached the door, I pushed it open. I threw one last look at the wolves and walked through the exit with Tala.

“Well, that’s the easiest I’ve ever gotten through a temple door,” I said. “Do you think that’s your power?”

Tala’s pride bloomed warm in my chest, and she co*cked her head to the side as she thought.

“Can you imagine how amazing it would be if you could control wild animals like that?” I asked with excitement. “Even just wolves… Those jungles would definitely be less scary!”

Her eyes glowed, and she came and pressed herself against my legs, nudging me forward ever so slightly.

“Alright,” I laughed. “We’re going, we’re going.”

We had to climb a steep slope to get to the next room, and the hallway opened into a large space with a high ceiling. There was a huge, humanoid-looking creature chained up at one end, and a key was tied to his wrist.

Then, the two long walls on either side of me slowly started to move in.

This temple just got a whole lot harder.

“f*ck.” I groaned as I passed a hand over my eyes. “This temple is sad*stic.”

The big f*cker at the far end was about eighteen feet tall. His skin was a dirty, sickly yellow color, and he had two curly horns sticking out of his head like a goat. He was bald but had a long, matted beard. His arms were thick and muscular, and he carried an ugly club with spikes in one hand. The weapon must have been at least seven feet long, and it was twice as wide as my body.

Around both of his legs were heavy chains that clanked when he walked. He might be restrained, but those chains looked long enough to give him a decent range of movement, and he could still use his arms with no problems whatsoever.

This was going to be tough.

Tala barked and stared at me with her icy eyes.

I had a feeling she needed to tell me something, so I flicked my wrist and watched her disappear.

The beast at the far end saw us and started to run. He could only get two-thirds of the way down the room, and he began to howl in frustration at being able to see us but not reach us.

You need Neoma for this challenge, Tala told me. She can fly at him and avoid him. My teeth are good, but he’s so big I’m not sure I’d be able to do much damage. I doubt I could even reach his waist.

“Yeah, you’re right,” I told her as I flicked my other wrist and Neoma appeared in a purple cloud.

She flapped her wings and hovered right in front of me, and I could sense her excitement.

“Okay,” I told her. “I’m going to use the crossbow to shoot him, but I want you to attack him from the air. That should also distract him enough so he doesn’t lunge out of the way of the bolts, but be careful of his club. And we need to be fast. We don’t have much time before those walls crush us all.”

Neoma hooted as she flew off toward the creature, and he started to try and chase her back up the room.

I grabbed my crossbow and loaded it. Tala’s calm determination ran through me, and I knew we could take this ugly f*cker on if we all worked as a team and kept our cool.

Neoma had stopped about halfway up the room and was flying circles above the yellow creature’s head. She called shrilly and forced him to cover his ears. He snarled, looked up, and tried to swing his club at her, but she dodged it with ease and then took the opportunity to dive down and land a deep scratch on his bald head.

I grinned. This was going to work.

I ran closer so I could get a better shot. I took aim, and the bolt flew straight and true. I wanted it to pierce his neck, but he kept craning his head as he tried to swing his club at Neoma and it struck him in the left shoulder instead.

He cried out in pain as the bolt buried itself into his flesh, and then he grabbed it with his huge free hand and yanked it out with a snarl.

His attention turned back on me, and he seemed to be ignoring the blood gushing out of his shoulder. He started striding toward me with purpose and emitted a deep growl. I wasn’t sure if his chains could reach me where I was standing, but I wasn’t taking the chance, so I ran backward until I knew I was safe. No way was I going to take my eyes off this f*cker.

He kept pace with me until his chains halted his movements. He roared at me and swung his club in frustration, but there was no way he could reach me.

I loaded another bolt.

“Bring it on, you bastard!” I yelled as I took aim and fired.

The bolt embedded itself into the center of his chest and made him howl. Blood was dripping from the wound, and he reached down with his free hand to try and yank the bolt out.

Neoma had been making vicious, darting passes at his head and shoulders, but now that he’d looked down, she saw her chance to dive for the back of his neck.

The owl-woman was in the air again within seconds, and she was carrying a large chunk of the f*cker’s flesh in her orange beak. He snarled, tried to bat her away, and let out a howl of exasperation when he realized she was already far out of his reach.

“Yes, Neoma!” I yelled.

I loaded my crossbow again, and I was about to shoot when I saw the beast had stopped trying to chase Neoma away. Now, he was straining at the chains that bound him with all his strength.

I heard an ominous cracking sound, and the pillars he was chained to were starting to crumble.

“f*ck,” I breathed, and my pulse quickened.

The walls were closing faster now, and I knew we didn’t have much time before either the f*cker broke free or we were all crushed.

“We need to hurry up!” I shouted to Neoma.

I shot the loaded bolt into his stomach. It made him double over in pain and drop his enormous club to the floor with a colossal crash.

The enormous club started rolling toward me, and I jumped out of the way just before it impaled me on its ugly metal spikes.

“We’ve got him now!” I shouted to Neoma as the sweat poured down my back. “Go for his face and his throat!”

Neoma hooted and circled around as she waited for him to look up, and I loaded the crossbow again.

When the creature raised his head, it was clear he was in a lot of pain from the wounds we’d inflicted. He roared again and pulled at the chains. He was evidently weakening, but there was still fight left in the f*cker and the pillars were crumbling quickly.

Neoma dove suddenly for his throat and ripped a piece of flesh away. He brought his hands up to his neck, but she was already out of danger. I loosed the bolt, and it sailed through the air and plunged into the base of his throat.

The monster groaned, but a terrifying crash drowned it out, and I realized one of the pillars holding his chains had collapsed. I was pretty sure the last bolt had inflicted a lethal blow, but I didn’t know how long it would take for him to die, and we needed to hurry up.

I turned my head and saw the walls were less than ten feet apart from each other.

We were running out of time.

“We need to kill him now!” I screamed to Neoma.

She renewed her attack with ferocity, and I decided I’d have to get up close and personal with the f*cker. He was already unsteady on his feet, so I grabbed my mallet and ran toward him when he was distracted by my owl eidolon.

I swung my weapon at his shins with all the force I had, and the impact vibrated up my arm. I sprinted through his legs and swung the mallet at the back of his ankles.

The loss of blood and the force of my mallet seemed to be enough to bring him tumbling to the ground, and I managed to run out of the way of his falling body just in time.

My heart was pounding and my throat was dry, but I guessed we only had a minute left before the walls flattened us into horrible pancakes.

I was sure the beast wouldn’t recover now. He was barely moving, but I guessed he’d still be able to do us some damage, and I didn’t want to take any risks.

I ran to his left arm where I’d seen the key attached to his wrist, but he’d used his hands to break his fall and was now lying on top of his left one.

“f*ck!” I yelled.

I tried to drag his arm out from beneath him, but it was no use. The bastard’s arms were as wide as tree trunks, and I didn’t see how I was going to get the key out from beneath him.

The ominous sound of the walls getting closer to each other filled my ears.

Colton, try stabbing his arm and see if he moves it, Tala told me. The pain might be enough to make him shift.

I started to stab the monster’s huge arm. Neoma landed by my side, and, when she saw what I was doing, she helped me by using her beak.

The bastard was moaning with every jab of my dagger. His arm was a bloody mess by now, but he still wasn’t doing much beyond twitching it.

“Come on!” I yelled as I looked up at the walls that were less than five feet apart from each other.

Eventually, the huge f*cker gave a heavy groan and rolled over onto his right side. He tried vaguely to slap us with his freed arm, but he was too weak. Finally, he let out a guttural sound and went still.

“Yes!” I shouted when I saw the key.

It was tied to his wrist by some sort of strong cord, but I grabbed my dagger and quickly cut through it.

The walls were only two feet apart now, and we still had to get to the other side of the room. I realized there was no way Neoma would be able to fly in the confined space, so I flicked my wrist and drew her back into the ring in a haze of purple clouds.

I sprinted toward the exit like there were rockets attached to my feet. When I got there, I started fumbling with the key, but my hands were shaking so much with adrenaline it was hard to fit it into the lock, and we only had a few seconds before the walls crushed us.

Finally, the lock clicked, and we burst through the door.

I collapsed in a heap inside the next room with a thud. My blood was pumping and my body was trembling, but I was high on the feeling of victory.

“We f*cking did it,” I panted.

You were both amazing, Tala told me.

I felt a buzz of excitement and happiness from Neoma, and I laughed with exhilaration.

I heaved myself up and looked around.

In the center of the room was a large red podium, and on it stood a dazzling golden candelabra.

I gasped and went up to take a closer look.

“This must be our prize,” I said as I grasped it.

The artifact was heavy, and I guessed it was made of solid gold. There was space for eight candles in it, and as I turned it over in my hands, I marveled at the exquisite detailing on it. A snake coiled around its stem, and each of the candle holders was in the shape of a different animal’s head. All the creatures had different colored gemstones for eyes, but they were nothing compared to the huge stones set into the gold throughout the elaborate piece.

“Wow,” I breathed.

That looks really valuable. Tala’s voice was excited. Old-money families love artifacts like those in their homes, and they often pass them down through the generations.

I grinned. “We did it! Our first raid as a team!”

A wave of elation came from Neoma, and a warm flood of love and pride from Tala told me everything I needed to know.

“Woohoo!” I whooped.

Colton, Tala said. We should get going. It’s never wise to linger in temples longer than necessary.

Tala’s gentle reminder was enough to make me come to my senses. I grabbed my jacket from my bag and carefully covered the candelabra. There was no way it would fit inside my rucksack, and I wished again I had a magical bag.

There was only one corridor leading out of the room, and I hurried down it. I was eager to get out of the building, even if it meant returning to a jungle full of creatures that wanted to eat me.

I was riding too high on our success to care about the dangers outside.

A light appeared at the end of the corridor, and I stumbled gratefully into the sunshine. The fresh air was wonderful after the rank warmth of the temple, and I grinned happily as I looked around.

I took a quick glance down at my hands to make sure my two rings were still in place before I started through the jungle again. I was determined to keep both of my eidolons safe. Plenty of people were prepared to kill for just one of these amazing spirit warriors, and I could understand why. But I could only imagine what they’d be willing to do for two of them.

I recognize this part of the jungle, Tala told me. There’s a city called Redrest not too far away. I can guide you there. We can relax for a bit, and then head back into the jungle to use the portal.

“That sounds good,” I said as I started walking. “I think we should try to trade the candelabra there, too. I don’t even know where I’d start with selling this back home, and it would be cool to explore another city. I’d like to see if there’s anything I can get at the market to help our future raids, too.”

That’s a good idea, Tala said. Since we approached by the north this time, I’m guessing you want to carry on trying the harder routes and temples.

“Sure do,” I grinned. “That was amazing! I can’t wait to see more of what we can do together.”

We worked our way through the jungle, and although I was on an adrenaline high, I was still keeping a cautious lookout for any more dangerous creatures like clancats hiding among the trees. I didn’t want to get careless and be eaten after such a successful raid.

I was so pleased by how well I’d worked with Neoma, too. True, our connection wasn’t as strong as mine and Tala’s, but that would probably come with time, and we’d made a good start by bringing down the big horned f*cker in the temple.

It wasn’t long before I pushed through the last of the trees and was confronted by the huge walls of Redrest.

“Wow…” I breathed as I looked up at the enormous defenses of the town.

The walls were made of the same red stone as the temple we’d come from, and they were twice as high as the walls around any of the previous cities we’d visited. There were tall towers at intervals along the walls, and in them were large manned ballistae. The guards were keeping a watchful eye on the jungle surrounding the city.

Around the base of the walls were large pits with spikes at the bottom. I saw the body of some big jungle creature impaled on one, and I thought about how many threats this town must face from the Jungle of the Beasts.

Approach the gate and knock, Tala said. The inhabitants of Redrest aren’t used to people passing through their town, and they’re rarely able to leave the walls of the city. They can be a little unfriendly to newcomers, but an adventurer will always be welcomed. Especially a victorious one.

I approached an enormous wooden gate and knocked. A small hatch opened to reveal a guard’s helmeted face.

“Yes?” he asked.

“Err, hello. I’m an adventurer, and I’ve just come from the temple nearby. I was wondering if I could–”

The moment I’d said “adventurer,” I heard the sound of bolts sliding and then a cranking sound as the doors were pulled open.

A small gap opened up for me, and the guard beckoned me through. I stepped inside and saw it had taken six men on either side of the door to pull the huge contraption open. They were now busily engaged with pushing it shut again, and I could see how seriously they took their defenses in this place.

“You completed the Temple of the Beasts?” the guard who’d greeted me asked with surprise.

“Yeah,” I grinned.

“That’s quite an achievement for a young one.” He smiled, and then his eyes widened. “Are you the new adventurer everyone has been talking about?”

“Errrr…” I hesitated. It was true, I’d been recognized once or twice before.

But I didn’t want to sound big-headed, and I wasn’t sure how news of me would have traveled this far, anyway.

“Colton, yes?” the guard asked.

“Yeah, that’s me.” I couldn’t stop the grin from spreading across my face.

“It’s an honor to have you in Redrest. We’ve heard many stories of your exploits, and you are very welcome to stay as long as you like. Eat, drink, rest, and enjoy yourself after such a remarkable achievement.”

He left me, and I started to head into the heart of the city.

You are making quite the name for yourself, Tala said. Don’t let it go to your head.

A ripple of amusem*nt skittered across from her, and I knew she was teasing me. I laughed and thought about how ridiculous all of this would have seemed a week or two ago.

“Have you been here before, Tala?” I asked her quietly.

Once, she told me. One of my masters was killed in the jungle, and when the next one claimed me, he took me here. We stayed a few days, but it was a century or two ago, so it’s probably changed a lot.

I chuckled. “Probably. Let’s go find a market.”

The town appeared to be quite large, and most of the houses seemed small by comparison. Most of them sat on large plots of land, and I was wondering why people hadn’t extended their houses when I saw vegetable gardens growing everywhere.

People here can’t rely on the rest of the world, Tala said as she sensed my confusion. They have to make sure they can survive on their own produce. The last time I was here, there was only room for a few farms within the city’s walls, and so the inhabitants were constantly wary of famine. I can’t imagine that’s changed much. It’s hard for caravans with goods to get through the jungle and rare for traders with luxuries to pass through as well. That makes the candelabra’s tradeable value especially high, Colton.

“I see,” I muttered.

The houses were mostly built of gray stone, but the paths through the city were paved with red tiles. The majority were plain, but some contained detailed engravings of terrifying monsters.

I believe it’s a reminder to the people of the dangers that lurk outside the walls, Tala said. When I was here last, there were lots of statues depicting dangerous animals dotted throughout the city. People made offerings to them before they went on a journey through the jungle hoping it would keep them safe.

“It must be a weird existence,” I said quietly.

Despite the lack of trade with other cities, Redrest still seemed relatively prosperous. The shops I passed were busy, and I followed the general stream of people into a large marketplace bustling with activity.

“If they’re so cut off from the rest of the world, how come there’s still a demand for material things?” I asked Tala.

As I remember, the inhabitants worked hard to establish an eastern trade route, she said. They managed to build forts at intervals throughout the jungle and clear a rough path so they could trade with cities in that direction. It was still dangerous, but it did mean there was some regular trade coming in. I guess that’s still the case.

I looked around and took in the inhabitants. Most people had dark-red skin that reminded me of the stone walls, and their eyes were a dazzling range of blues and greens. Their hair was generally long and thick, and a few had tusks sticking out of their faces. I’d seen some weird-looking people in the other towns I’d visited, but the inhabitants of Redrest had an intense, otherworldly beauty that was hard to describe.

The market seemed to have no structure to it whatsoever. Stalls were scattered everywhere, and people had to push and shove each other out of the way to get through.

I remember this behavior from my last visit, Tala told me. It’s a hard life here. People are used to fighting for survival, and it’s made them blunt and tough. They are kind at heart, but this isn’t always evident in their actions.

“Where do you think we should head with the prize?” I asked her quietly as I tried to avoid getting knocked over by the crowd.

Go further back, away from the center, she told me. Usually, merchants who are worth visiting get stalls that are a little out of the way. They know people will come and seek them out, and there’s no point in being in the middle of the crowds.

I pushed my way forward and made it to a slightly quieter part of the market.

Now, I could look around properly and take in the huge variety of stalls. One guy with turquoise eyes was roasting meat on a long spit over an open fire. The smell wafted up to greet my nostrils, and my stomach rumbled.

It’s cooked clancat, Tala told me with amusem*nt. It’s a real delicacy because of how hard it is to hunt them. Why don’t you try it? I hear it’s very good.

I went up to the guy, and he greeted me with a smile.

“You an adventurer?” he asked as he slid the meat off the spit and onto a plate.

I nodded. “I just completed the Temple of the Beasts.”

His mouth fell open, and he almost dropped the meat.

“Very impressive,” he said. “I haven’t heard of anyone completing that one in a while. If you want to trade your prize, I’d suggest you go visit Horvar over there.”

He pointed to a large stall nearby and handed me the plate.

“Thanks, I will,” I said as I reached into my pocket for a bar of gold.

I knew the gold bar would be way more than I needed, but the guy waved my gesture away anyway.

“Surely you must know by now, adventurers don’t pay for food and drink,” he chuckled. “You enjoy your meal and then go visit Horvar.”

I grinned as I took a bite of the meat. It really was delicious, and I only wished I could share it with Neoma and Tala.

I realized I needed to get a hold of some other currency I could use in Fablewild. Sure, everyone had told me adventurers paid nothing for food, but I never knew when it might come in handy to have a few coins for minor expenses.

I finished my food quickly, returned the plate to the turquoise-eyed guy, thanked him, and then headed over to see Horvar.

He was middle-aged and at least a head taller than me. He was bare-chested, and his bulging muscles were evident. Tattoos and scars intertwined along his enormous arms, and his beard was plaited with beads.

He actually looked pretty terrifying, but then I remembered what Tala had said about everyone around here being tough and blunt. I guessed some market traders would also need to make trips to other cities to trade, and maybe that accounted for those scars on his arms.

When I approached his stall, his eyes lit up, and he smiled.

“And what can I do for you today?” he asked me in a deep voice as he looked me up and down.

“I have an artifact to trade. I just raided the Temple of the Beasts, and I was told you might be interested.”

I uncovered the candelabra and passed it to him.

Other than a tiny quirk at the corner of his lips, his face barely changed, but I could tell he was impressed.

“I know it’s very valuable,” I added as he turned it over in his meaty hands.

The market behind me had quietened down significantly, and I turned to see a crowd of people watching us. Their excitement was barely contained, and I heard the words “young adventurer” and “temple” whispered several times. It was like being a f*cking celebrity.

While Horvar was examining my prize, I spent the time looking over his wares. There was a huge array of different things. He had several beautiful pieces of jewelry, some large gemstones, a selection of ornaments, paintings, and a few books.

Horvar nodded and looked up at me.

“Valuable indeed,” he said with a smile. “You’ve done well, young adventurer. And what might you be seeking in exchange for this?”

I hadn’t expected this question. After all, it was only my second time trading an artifact, and I was still learning about all the weird and wonderful things Fablewild had to offer. But I remembered how excited the jeweler in Asheville had been about the red beryl I’d gotten in my last trade. Tala said it was called heart crystal in Fablewild, and that it wasn’t especially rare. But on Earth, I’d gotten fifteen thousand dollars for two pieces of it, and the jeweler had promised me at least another sixty thousand once he found buyers for the rest of it.

“Have you got any heart crystals?” I asked Horvar.

He shook his head. “I haven’t seen heart crystal for years. There are no deposits of it to mine around here, and the cities on the eastern trade route don’t have much of it to sell, either.”

“Hmmm, okay,” I said. “You don’t have one of those magical bags by any chance, do you?”

Horvar laughed and set the candelabra down.

“You’ll be lucky if you find one of those,” he chuckled. “You’re not from around here, are you? If you were, you’d probably be asking me for some of this.”

He picked up one of a small number of highly-polished dark stones from his stall and handed it to me. It was about the same size as my fingernail, and when I looked more closely, I saw vibrant flashes of color running through it. The different hues sparkled in the light, and it looked like the stone was on fire. I was completely mesmerized.

“This is what we mine around here,” Horvar continued. “There’s some deposits of it in the jungle not far away. It’s rare because it’s so hard to transport the stones from the mine to the city, given the kind of creatures that live out there. I have to go to the mines myself and choose the pieces I want before I cut and polish them back here. The trips through the jungle have left me with scars, but they also mean I have Redrest’s finest supply of firejet.”

I’ve heard of firejet, Tala said as I turned the stone over in my hands. It’s highly prized in many cities.

I nodded. Although I didn’t know a whole lot about gemstones, the amazing colors and patterns in this piece reminded me of some type of opal, and I did know good quality opals could sell for a lot of money back on Earth.

Horvar grinned as I examined the stone, and then he crouched down behind the stall. I heard the sound of a box being unlocked, and when he stood back up, he was holding four pieces of firejet. They were each about the size of a walnut once the green outer covering had rotted off and left the harder inner shell, and a dazzling rainbow of colors ran through them.

I had a feeling the Asheville jeweler’s eyes would light up when I brought them to him. If not, then at least I knew they were seriously valuable in Fablewild.

“So,” Horvar said as he looked at me. “I’ll offer you these four large pieces of firejet, a big bag of my highest quality gemstones, and thirty gold bars.”

I considered the deal for a moment. I hadn’t been able to sell my gold from Fablewild on Earth yet because it was unmarked. But I could use it now at other market stalls to upgrade my weapons, and I’d still have some expensive-looking gemstones to sell to the jeweler.

And maybe I could find another jeweler who wouldn’t care if the gold was marked or not.

I felt a warm wave of agreement from Tala, and that cinched it.

“Okay.” I grinned. “Throw in that necklace and those earrings, and you’ve got a deal.”

I pointed to a beautiful gold necklace set with a fiery red stone, and to a delicately-worked pair of silver earrings studded with purple gems. I wanted to treat my two eidolons to something special as a memento of our first temple raid together.

Horvar thought about it for a second, but then he reached out and shook my hand.

“Alright, young man.” He smiled. “You drive a hard bargain.”

I grinned but quickly withdrew my hand before he’d had a chance to see the ring I wore. Now that I had one on each hand, I’d need to be especially careful.

Horvar carefully wrapped up the bars of gold, the gems, and the jewelry, and placed them all in a beautifully-embroidered bag after he saw my rucksack was already bulging.

“Where’s the best place to buy weapons around here?” I asked as I took the bag from him.

“You need to visit Diopatra,” he said. “Her stall’s right over there, and she’s the finest blacksmith in Redrest.”

I thanked him and made my way to Diopatra’s stall. She was a tall, elegant woman with fiery-red hair that reached down to her ankles. Her eyes gleamed a brilliant green color, and her hands and face were marked with soot.

An array of weapons were on display at her stall, and each looked like it had taken real time and expertise to make. There was a bunch of knives with gemstones embedded into the handles, swords with elaborate scabbards, a collection of meaty clubs, and some very long spears.

Diopatra smiled when she saw me. “Ah, the young adventurer the entire city is talking about. You must be very skilled to have completed the Temple of the Beasts. Most who leave to raid it never return.”

“Thanks.” I grinned. “I need some new weapons, and Horvar recommended I come and see you.”

“I’m very pleased you have.” Diopatra’s brilliant eyes sparkled. “Are you looking for anything in particular?”

I needed a better sword. The curved blade I had was okay, but it wasn’t really long enough, and it was slightly awkward to wield. Plus, it was starting to lose its edge. I guessed I could have it sharpened somewhere for a fee, but I’d rather replace it with something more to my liking.

I took the blade off my belt. “I want to get a replacement for this.”

Diopatra took the weapon and examined it.

“This is made from good steel,” she said. “But it’s certainly seen better days.”

She put the blade down, and her green eyes inspected me. I shifted uncomfortably on my feet, and she laughed.

“I can always tell the weapon that will suit somebody,” she explained. “And looking at you, I believe this will be the perfect fit.”

She passed me an elegant, perfectly-curved saber. The metal glinted in the sunlight, and there was a complicated geometric pattern etched into the single-edged blade. The hilt and enclosed knuckle guard were gold and studded with small blue gemstones that looked like sapphires. They matched the gems on the ornate scabbard still on the table. It was a beautiful weapon.

“It’s incredibly light, but swift and strong,” Diopatra told me. “It took me three days to forge it from the finest steel. Try it out.”

She watched as I checked to make sure there was no one too close to me before I gave a couple of practice swings with the saber. The weight and balance were perfect.

“It’s one of my best weapons to date,” she said. “I’d like it to go to someone worthy.”

I looked up and smiled. It was pretty amazing that a renowned blacksmith thought I deserved such a beautiful weapon.

“How much?” I asked her.

“Twenty gold bars,” she said instantly. “And I would like you to give me this curved blade you’ve been using, too. It’s good material, and I can rework it into something worth selling.”

I considered the offer for a moment. “How about fifteen gold bars?”

Her eyes glinted. “Seventeen and it’s yours.”

It seemed like a reasonable price for such a beautiful weapon, and a gentle wave of agreement from Tala confirmed my decision.

I nodded. “Have you got anything else I might find useful?”

She looked down at her wares and gestured to a collection of small blades.

“These are throwing knives,” she told me. “I see you have a crossbow, but these will be much faster in an emergency if you don’t have time to load a bolt. They’re well-balanced and incredibly sharp, so they’ll pierce even the toughest skin. I will offer you the saber and two throwing knives for twenty-two gold bars and your old blade.”

“Make it twenty,” I said.

Diopatra took a deep breath and smiled. “Alright. But only because you’ve already proven yourself to be a worthy adventurer.”

I grinned. “Thanks!”

I passed her my old weapon and carefully counted out twenty gold bars. She put the sword in its scabbard and the throwing knives into a sheath I could hang from my belt.

“Take care in your next temple,” she said as she passed me my new purchases. “I hope these serve you well.”

I smiled and said goodbye. I couldn’t wait to try out my new weapons in a fight.

As I left Diopatra’s stall, I looked up to see the sun was starting to set. I was really tempted to stay in the city for longer and keep exploring. Every time I came to Fablewild, I fell more in love with its magic and its beauty. But I also wanted to get back and sell my new stones at the jewelers. Besides, I didn’t feel entirely safe staying the night in a tavern here with two eidolons to protect and a bag full of precious gems.

Perhaps one day I’d be able to afford a house in one of the cities of Fablewild. Although I’d then need to make sure I could get back to the same city every time, and at the moment, I didn’t really know how the portal worked.

“Better get going, then,” I muttered under my breath as I started to weave my way back out of the market.

I’ll direct you back to a similar area as before, Tala said. I don’t think we should go back to exactly the same spot in case any of those monsters or clancats are still around.

“Good plan,” I said as I started to walk back toward the gate.

The guards opened it as soon as they saw me, and before I knew it, we were back in the jungle.

I kept my hand on my new sword at all times. I was almost hoping we might run into something so I could test it out.

Colton, Tala laughed, and I knew she’d sensed my excitement. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to test the new weapons in the future, but right now, we need to go. We don’t want to be stuck in this jungle after dark.

I chuckled because she was right, of course. The sh*t that lived in this jungle had been terrifying enough in the daylight, and I could only imagine the horrors that might emerge once the sun went down.

Luckily, our trek back through the trees was uneventful, but that didn’t stop me from jumping at the slightest noise. The light of the setting sun elongated the shadows of the trees and made the whole place slightly spooky. I tried not to think about the various creatures that could be lurking in the bushes.

Tala’s gentle guidance took me back to an area she said was only a short walk to where we’d originally landed. I looked around to check for predators or thieves and then took out the portal box.

I closed my eyes as I lifted the lid and braced myself for the assault of the tornado. Its violence swung my body around with so much force that, for a minute, I thought I was going to be sick. But then it spewed me out, and I collapsed on the ground with a thud.

When I opened my eyes, I saw the tall trees of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and I smiled at the prospect of an evening with Neoma and Tala in human form again.

I shut the box as I got to my feet and realized we were in almost exactly the same place we’d left Earth from.

That’s when I saw the tent.

I recognized it immediately. It was bright orange and pitched only a few yards away from me. There was a flickering campfire outside it that looked as if it had been lit relatively recently, and a pair of muddy boots lay discarded by the tent flaps.

This wasn’t a designated camping spot, so there was no way a tourist or casual hiker had pitched a tent here.

It had to be the crazy forum guy.

f*ck.

Suddenly, there was a rustle of movement inside the tent. Tala’s alertness had been running through me, and now her wolf instincts helped me to bolt as silently and quickly as I could.

I was pretty sure we could have taken the asshole on, but I really didn’t want to if it could be avoided. Asheville wasn’t like Fablewild, where people disappeared into the jungle and it was normal to stumble across dead bodies. If we fought this guy, I knew there would be consequences.

I darted through the trees like lightning. With Tala’s instincts and my sure-footedness, I managed to get out of the area fast and quietly.

But I still wasn’t sure we were safe.

It was possible he’d stuck his head out of the tent just in time to see me disappearing, and my heart pounded as I tore down the mountain with all the speed I could muster.

My legs ached, and my chest was on fire, but I tuned out the pain and forced myself to keep running until I was at the bottom of the mountain.

Only then did I turn around and check intently for any signs that he’d followed us. There didn’t seem to be any madmen running through the trees, and the only noise I could hear was the chatter of the birds as the sun set.

I was trying to catch my breath after the exertion, and I was about to ask Tala if she thought we were safe, but she beat me to it.

I can’t sense anything, she said. I don’t think he followed us.

A flood of relief washed over me, and I allowed myself a minute to quickly take my weapons off my belt and put them in the pack before I threw my jacket over my crossbow. We were lucky we hadn’t bumped into any hikers on the way down or they’d probably have called the cops, given that I was basically a walking armory at this point.

“I want you guys to stay in the rings until we’re back in the apartment and I know we’re definitely safe,” I said as I walked quickly toward home.

Okay, Colton, Tala answered, and love radiated from my beautiful eidolon. But promise me, if he appears suddenly, you’ll release me to fight at your side.

“I promise,” I said. “f*ck, that means he’s figured out our latest portal spot on the mountain. I’m running out of quiet places we can use without being seen. The asshole seems to figure out where we leave from while we’re in Fablewild. I bet he goes around to the locations he knows we’ve used and checks every day if there’s any signs of us.”

But so far, the portal has always taken us to Fablewild from every spot on the mountain we’ve tried, Tala reminded me. We’ll just have to be extra careful and keep changing where we leave from. Maybe we could risk some more popular paths. He won’t expect us to do that, and it might throw him off our scent. So long as there’s nobody around when you open the portal, it should be okay.

“True,” I muttered. “I suppose it only takes a second to open the box. It’s weird, though, how easily he can track us. I wonder how he’s doing it…”

I pondered the question as I made my way home. Not for the first time, I wondered if we even needed to be on the mountain for the portal to work. Up until this point, I hadn’t wanted to f*ck around with what I knew definitely worked. But I was starting to think I might not have a choice soon.

Every few minutes, I turned to look over my shoulder to check if the tent guy had followed us, but we made it to the apartment without any problems.

I started to relax as I made my way up the stairs, but then I saw Mrs. Wells’ wrinkled face sticking out of her apartment door, and I groaned internally. I was too exhausted for this.

“Colton!” She smiled widely. “I haven’t seen you for a while. How’s your lovely young lady? Have you taken her dancing yet?”

“Not yet, Mrs. Wells,” I said as I gave her a tired smile. “I’ve been kinda busy with other stuff.”

Like fighting crazy monsters and getting super rich, I silently added to myself.

“Well,” she said. “You make sure you treat her right. She’s very pretty!”

“I know she is.” I smiled. “I’ll catch you later, Mrs. Wells.”

Mrs. Wells continued to smile at me as I made my way up the stairs. I chuckled as I thought of what she’d say if she knew the truth about Tala.

I opened the door and closed it behind me with relief. I’d never been so pleased to see my shabby little space before now.

I made sure I double-locked the door, and I looked out of the window to check whether anyone had followed us. Finally, I flicked both of my wrists and grinned as my two gorgeous eidolons emerged in a haze of purple and golden mist.

“Nice to see you both again,” I chuckled.

“We did it!” Neoma screamed with excitement and started to dance around the room.

I laughed and remembered she hadn’t been able to communicate properly with either one of us all day.

“We sure did!” I grinned. “Our first temple raid as a trio.”

Tala smiled widely at me, and then Neoma ran over and grabbed us both in a fierce hug.

“I can’t believe we did it!” she squealed again and hugged us tighter.

“You were amazing, both of you,” I told them. “Okay, who’s up for dinner? I’m starving.”

The suggestion of food was met with approval all around, so I grabbed my phone and ordered us some burgers with fries. I decided we deserved some junk food after the challenges we’d overcome today.

We all had time for a quick shower to wash the Fablewild gunk off before the food arrived. I went last, and when I emerged, I found Tala and Neoma happily curled up together on the sofa. They seemed to be discussing their individual experiences of being an eidolon in Fablewild, and I smiled when I sensed the happiness coming from both of them.

I quickly put some antiseptic on my bat bites and wrapped them in bandages. They weren’t too deep, but I didn’t want them to get infected.

Just then, the bell rang and told me the food had arrived. I let them up and tipped the delivery guy, then handed out plates piled high with fries and burgers to the two women.

Tala and I took the couch again and Neoma perched on the countertop. There were a few minutes of happy silence as we all dug into our food.

“This is delicious,” Tala said, and a muffled hoot of agreement came from Neoma.

“I can’t believe how well we all worked as a team,” I said after a few moments.

“Yes,” Tala agreed. “And Neoma was incredible!”

The two women smiled at each other, and any worries Tala had about the other eidolon’s presence were finally evaporating.

“It was so cool to be able to work with both of you,” I said. “Those bats definitely would have gotten me if it hadn’t been for each of your unique skills.”

“Plus, Neoma was amazing with that monster at the end.” Tala grinned.

Neoma blushed at our praise. “But look at what Tala did with those wolves!”

“I know,” I said and turned to my eidolon lover. “We didn’t really get a chance to talk about that. Do you know how you did it?”

Tala shook her head. “Something just came over me. I felt… like some powerful energy was running through me as if I could do anything.”

Neoma nodded. “That’s how I felt when I summoned tidal waves.”

A rush of interest and excitement bloomed from Tala.

“Really?” she asked. “So… that might be my power?”

“It sounds like it.” Neoma smiled. “I think you’ve started to unlock it. It requires a lot of training and practice to fully harness your power, but it looks like yours is to control wolves in some way. Or perhaps it’s all wild animals. Either way, you’ll find out soon enough with a bit of practice.”

“That would be incredible,” I breathed.

“Since you’re the Wolf of Dusk, I’m guessing your power is at its strongest when the sun sets,” Neoma continued. “Next time we’re in Fablewild, perhaps you should try it then.”

Tala smiled. “I can’t believe I’m finally working out my powers…”

I put my hand lovingly on her thigh. “I told you it would come one day.”

“Thank you,” she whispered to me, and then she turned to Neoma. “To both of you. We’re going to be an incredible team.”

We all smiled, and my heart swelled with affection for both women.

“I wasn’t sure we were going to make it out alive when that creature fell on the key,” Neoma said after a pause. “I really thought that was it.”

“Me, too,” I said as I shuddered at the memory. “But we made it.”

“I can’t wait to raid more temples with you guys,” Neoma chirped. “I never realized how much fun it could be before now to work with my master, not for him.”

“That’s how we do things around here,” I chuckled. “I was glad you were with us.”

“Me, too.” Neoma blushed. “By the way, why did you run from the tent on the mountain?”

I sighed. “It’s a long story, but basically, the portal into Fablewild that I found was buried on the mountain by some guy. He advertised its location to a load of people as part of a sort of game, but I found it before anyone else, and now he’s angry that I took it.”

Neoma frowned in confusion. “Why would he tell everyone where it was if he didn’t want to risk losing it?”

“I don’t know.” I shook my head. “But he seems like a really strange guy, and he claims he’s going to camp out up there until he gets it back. Luckily, I don’t think he knows what I look like, but I really want to avoid getting into a confrontation with him if I can.”

Neoma shrugged and shook her head at the guy’s bizarre behavior. But then she brightened up.

“So, what’s the plan for tomorrow?” she asked with a smile.

“Well, we need to head to the jewelers and see what we can get for the latest haul,” I said. “And then… Who knows? I reckon we should spend the day enjoying our spoils after all our hard work.”

“You should spend some money on yourself,” Tala told me. “You’ve been amazing today, and we wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.”

Neoma nodded in agreement and giggled. “Yeah, you were incredible. I’ve never had a master who could think so quickly on his feet before.”

“Awww, that’s sweet,” I said. “But I couldn’t have done it without you both. Oh, that reminds me.”

I put down my empty plate and went to have a look through my rucksack. I pulled out the two small boxes Horvar had put the jewelry in.

“These are for you,” I said as I handed them each a box. “I guess it’s not a surprise, since you were with me when I got them, but I wanted you each to have a memento of our first raid together.”

Love and affection radiated from Tala as she put the necklace around her beautiful throat. Neoma’s big hazel-and-gold eyes grew to the size of saucers when she saw the earrings, and after she put them on, she ran up and threw her arms around me.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

I grinned. “It’s nothing.”

I glanced down at my watch and sighed at how late it was.

“Shall we head to bed?” I asked them. “I’m exhausted after today, and I’m guessing you guys are, too.”

They both nodded, and I reached for Tala’s hand to draw her up from the sofa.

“Goodnight.” I smiled at Neoma.

“Goodnight, you two,” she called happily as she started to arrange the blankets on the sofa.

“Sleep well,” Tala told her.

I went into the bedroom with my beautiful eidolon and shut the door. I kissed her softly and marveled at the bond we’d built.

“I’m so proud of you,” I whispered to her.

She nuzzled affectionately into my neck, and I held her quietly for a moment.

Then, we got undressed and fell into bed. I could barely keep my eyes open, and the last things I remembered were the smell of Tala’s hair as she nestled into me and the feeling of her warm skin under my hand.

The next morning, I woke to the sound of Tala growling in her sleep and pawing at the covers like a wolf. Then, she began to howl quietly, and I guessed she was dreaming about the moment she’d discovered her powers in the temple.

I gently kissed her neck and woke her up. She gave a happy sigh and rolled over.

“Mmmm, I was dreaming,” she said sleepily.

“I know,” I chuckled. “You were growling.”

Her eyes snapped open with playful indignation. “I was not!”

“And howling,” I added with a grin.

“Well, if it comes to that, you were snoring all night,” she teased me.

I kissed her deeply, and she sighed again. I felt her desire for me, and a huge part of me wanted to spend the entire day in bed making love to her.

But we had stuff to do, and Neoma would be waiting for us.

“When we get a new apartment, we’re going to spend a full day in the bedroom together, naked,” I growled into her ear, and she giggled.

We eventually got up and threw on some clothes.

Neoma was awake and perched on the arm of the sofa. She announced she was on her second coffee with a giggle, and it explained why she seemed extra bouncy and why her huge eyes were even bigger than normal.

“I’ve been awake for ages!” She grinned. “What are we going to do today? I’m so excited to spend time with you both, and explore more of the city, and go to the jewelers, and–”

She paused for breath, and I laughed.

“First thing I’m going to do is wake up properly,” I said as I wandered over to the coffee machine.

We all agreed that we were too full from the night before for a big breakfast, but I made us each some toast to keep us going for the morning ahead.

“Okay,” I said as I bit into the toast. “Let’s go to the jewelers first. He was a bit suspicious last time about where we got the gems. I told him I’d found them in the attic of my grandparents’ house after they’d died, and that seemed to settle him down. I also said the estate was huge and I might find plenty more, so I don’t think he’ll be too surprised to see us.”

“And then you should enjoy some of your newfound wealth,” Tala said.

“Our newfound wealth,” I corrected her, and she smiled. “Yeah, let’s go shopping after the jewelers.”

We finished up our breakfast as we discussed what stores we might want to visit, and then we went to finish getting ready for the day.

I checked my phone as I was waiting for Tala and Neoma. I’d meant to look last night and see if the crazy forum asshole had left any other pictures with furious captions, but I was so tired by the time we got back that I’d forgotten.

There was still nothing. I was partly relieved, but the radio silence was kind of disconcerting after all of his manic posts.

I also saw a couple of texts from Owen, my little brother, asking if I was okay. I realized it had probably been about a week since I’d spoken to him. The last time I’d called, I’d told him I was going on a camping trip with Tala to make sure he wouldn’t worry if he couldn’t get hold of me when we were on a temple raid.

He’d been excited there was a girl in my life, but I couldn’t exactly tell him how I’d met her, or what we were really doing. Traveling to a different world to raid temples for treasure still sounded insane to me sometimes, and Owen would think I’d lost my mind.

I quickly texted him and said I’d just gotten back from the trip and I’d call him the next day. Then I took the bag of gems and the firejet out of my bag and put them into my roomy jacket pockets. By then, Tala and Neoma were ready, so we set off.

The air outside was crisp and cool, which was a relief after the humid jungle heat of Fablewild. I could sense how relaxed Tala was, and I was glad she no longer sensed a threat in everything like she did when I’d first brought her to Earth.

I walked with my arm around Tala’s waist, and Neoma skipped along in front of us.

“What’s that?” she asked as she pointed to a parked car. “I meant to ask you when I saw them yesterday.”

“It’s a vehicle,” I said. “It’s called a car, and it’s one of the main ways we get around here. I guess you wouldn’t have that problem, since you can fly.”

Neoma laughed and spread her arms wide. “I love flying. It’s interesting being human, but there’s nothing like soaring over the world.”

She twirled around with her arms outstretched and made both Tala and me chuckle.

I had a feeling the owl-woman wanted to take in some more of the city. She’d really only seen the inside of my apartment and the trails up to the mountain, so I took us along a scenic route to the jewelers.

We were nearly there when Neoma suddenly stopped right in front of us, and we almost plowed into her. I was immediately on my guard, and I sensed Tala was, too.

“What did you see?” I asked the owl-woman.

“Those people have wheels where their legs should be,” she breathed.

I looked over to see she was staring at a group of cyclists, and I burst out laughing as my body flooded with relief.

“No, that’s another way of getting about, Neoma,” I said. “See? They have pedals, and they use those to move the wheels. It’s called a bike, and it’s faster than walking.”

She was absolutely entranced by the cyclists. We waited as she watched them until they were out of sight, but eventually, we made it to the jewelers.

The bell rang automatically when we stepped inside the small building, and it made Neoma jump. I put my hand on her arm to steady her, and she flashed me an adorable smile.

“Colton, Tala, good morning!” the man behind the register said cheerfully.

“Hi, Edgar,” I replied with a smile. “This is Neoma, a very good friend of ours. She’s been helping us to look through the estate.”

“Hello, Neoma,” he said.

I could sense Neoma’s excitement at being introduced, and her big eyes sparkled as she waved her fingers at Edgar.

“Have you found buyers for the rest of the red beryl?” I asked him.

“Oh, yes,” he answered. “I was actually going to call you this afternoon to tell you I’ve sold all of the remaining pieces, and I will be transferring sixty-three thousand dollars to your account today.”

The breath rushed out of my body.

“That’s amazing news!” I grinned after a moment.

“Yes.” He smiled. “In fact, I was hoping your visit might mean you had some more to show me.”

“Well, I took another look through the house,” I said with a frown. “I haven’t found any more red beryl yet, but I did stumble on these in one of the attic boxes. I’m not sure what they are, but I figured it was worth asking you about them.”

I pulled out the four pieces of firejet and placed them gently on the counter.

I watched Edgar’s face carefully. He almost choked when he unwrapped the first stone, and he looked as if he was about to faint by the time he reached the last one.

“Are you alright, Edgar?” I asked.

He coughed. “Yes, quite alright, thank you. I just… I can’t believe you’ve really brought me four black opals of this size.”

“Black opals?” I asked.

“My dear boy, black opals are among the rarest stones in the world,” he said with his eyes bulging. “Large, good quality ones are worth more than emeralds! And I have to tell you, these are easily the finest specimens I’ve ever seen.”

A double surge of excitement came from the two women next to me, and my own pulse quickened.

Edgar quickly grabbed a glove so he could examine the stones more closely.

“They are extraordinary,” he murmured to himself as he held each one up to the light. “The depth of color and the patterns are exquisite. There’s not a flaw in them.”

I pulled out the bag of smaller gems. “There are these as well.”

Edgar gently emptied the bag onto his table and gasped.

“White opals,” he said as he looked through them. “Rubies, sapphires, emeralds, garnets…”

His eyes darted up to meet mine with a mixture of confusion and excitement.

“How on earth did your grandparents come by these?” he asked. “Between the red beryl and the opals… Well, they’re not exactly your average family heirlooms, if you know what I mean.”

There was a lingering trace of suspicion in his voice, so I decided I’d better give my imaginary grandparents a credible backstory.

“I’m not entirely sure.” I shrugged. “But I’ve heard an old family rumor that someone far back on my grandmother’s side worked with rare gemstones in some way, so I guess they were passed down through the generations.”

He seemed satisfied with my answer and pulled out a jeweler’s loupe for a closer look at the stones. When he’d finished his inspection, he put down the magnifying glass and turned back to me.

“Good quality black opals start around ten thousand dollars per carat,” he said in a soft voice. “And these are extremely good quality. They’re also about five carats each.”

I gulped as my brain rapidly processed the information and did the math.

“I have a few clients who’ve been wanting to get their hands on some black opals for a while now,” Edgar continued. “So I believe I could sell these instantly. Since I still need to make a profit, I will offer you one hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars for all four of them, and a further twenty-five thousand for the bag of mixed gems.”

I felt like I was floating above my body and watching this happen to someone else. I’d just been offered two hundred thousand f*cking dollars, and that didn’t even include what I was owed for the red beryl.

It was more money than I’d ever dreamed of, and it didn’t even account for all the temple treasure we could still win.

I was going to be f*cking rich.

“That sounds great to me,” I croaked, and there was a twinkle of amusem*nt from Tala.

“Wonderful!” Edgar grinned. “I’ll just sort out a receipt for you. As before, the money should go through instantly, but you’ll have to allow up to three business days for it to clear. And of course, I’ll send over the sixty-three thousand for the red beryl at the same time.”

I could feel a warm buzz of elation from Neoma and Tala, and my wolf lover squeezed my hand tightly. I tried to control my breathing and stop myself from leaping around the room with excitement when Edgar handed me the receipt for two hundred and sixty-three thousand dollars.

“Thanks,” I whispered. “I’m sure I’ll see you soon, Edgar,”

“I certainly hope so,” he chuckled. “Your grandparents’ estate seems like a treasure trove, and I can’t wait to see what you turn up next. Happy hunting!”

I left the shop with Tala and Neoma. The cool air helped to clear my foggy brain, and I walked a few paces to make sure I was out of sight of the shop window. Then, I turned to the two beautiful women and let out a whoop of excitement as I pulled them into a big hug.

We drew a few weird glances from passersby, but I was too overjoyed to care much what we looked like.

“f*ck.” I exhaled as I held my two eidolons. “We’re rich!”

Affection and excitement rippled through our little group, and when I released them, both women had enormous smiles on their beautiful faces.

“You’re a true adventurer, Colton.” Tala’s tone was loving. “This is only the beginning of what you can achieve.”

“We all did it together,” I said as I wrapped my arm around her small waist and kissed the top of her head.

Neoma hopped from one foot to the other with excitement.

“So that was a lot of Earth money, then?” she asked me with sparkling eyes.

I realized the owl-woman hadn’t been in my world for long enough to understand how much f*cking money we’d just been offered.

“Yeeeaaah,” I breathed with a big smile. “You know the car you pointed out when we were on our way over? Well, on average, a new car would probably cost you forty or fifty thousand dollars, and most people will have to save to afford that.”

Neoma’s eyes grew wide. “That is a lot of money…”

“It really is,” I chuckled.

“So, when are we going back for another raid?” she asked with enthusiasm.

I laughed. “First, what do you say we go shopping and spend some of our hard-earned money?”

“Yes!” the owl-woman chirped.

“Sounds good.” Tala smiled.

“I’m taking us all out for an amazing dinner tonight,” I told them as we started walking. “But the place I have in mind is unlikely to let us in unless we’re dressed the part, so eveningwear should be our first stop.”

I took them to a part of Asheville where there were some expensive designer stores and boutiques. Before I’d discovered Fablewild, I’d been barely making ends meet, so I’d never shopped there before. But now, I knew I could easily afford to buy us all some swanky outfits without worrying about the cost.

I was still feeling slightly dazed from our experience at the jewelers when we stepped inside a store Neoma liked the look of. It was sleek and minimalist with a polished marble floor and gleaming cream walls decorated with large, colorful canvases.

A sharply-dressed sales assistant greeted us with a polite smile, and she immediately took us over to the eveningwear section when we explained what we were looking for.

Tala and Neoma spent time looking through the racks and picking out things to try on, and I browsed the shirts and jackets.

I looked over at one point to see them both laughing with each other, and a happy tingling sensation swirled through my chest at the sight of them continuing to get along so well.

We’d spent over an hour in that store by the time we’d tried on the clothes and decided what to buy. In the end, Neoma chose a dark-purple velvet evening dress with flared sleeves and a plunging neckline, and Tala decided on a tight, black leather jumpsuit. I grabbed myself a couple of nice shirts, some tailored trousers, and an evening jacket.

When the cashier totaled up our bill, it came to over a month’s rent. There was a time when I would’ve felt sick at the thought of spending so much on clothes. Now, I grinned as I tapped my card and thought about how good it felt to have no money worries.

Over a quarter of a million dollars would be hitting my bank account any minute now, and that was only the start.

Besides, we’d worked f*cking hard for that money. I’d lost count of the number of deadly creatures we’d killed and the amount of puzzles we’d had to solve to get through the temples, and it felt fantastic to be enjoying our rewards together.

We left the store and carried on down the row of shops. I felt myself going into a daze as I calculated. Since I’d first been to Fablewild, I’d earned about three hundred thousand dollars from trading temple artifacts at the markets in the magical world, and then selling the gems I got in exchange back on Earth.

And that was only from taking eastern and northern paths, which were the easiest. My mind raced ahead as I thought about how much more I could earn if I chose harder routes and more dangerous temples.

At this rate, I would be a f*cking millionaire within a month or two.

The next place we went to was a shoe store. Sneakers and hiking boots were fantastic for raiding temples, but they weren’t going to suit the expensive new clothes I’d just bought us.

Rows and rows of shoes gleamed invitingly on wall-mounted floating shelves. There were plush velvet chairs and sofas dotted around to allow people to try the footwear on and shining floor-to-ceiling mirrors.

Neoma instantly fell in love with a pair of dazzling green stilettos and tried them on. I was a bit worried about whether she’d be able to walk in them, given that she was still getting used to her human body, but she strode through the store as confidently as a model on a catwalk. She looked like she’d been wearing them all her life.

“I’ve always wanted to be taller,” she chirped.

“You’re already the perfect height.” I smiled at her, and she blushed.

Tala quickly picked out an amazing pair of knee-high red leather boots with a small heel.

“I still want my clothes to be practical,” she told me with a grin as she pulled them on.

“Mmmmm,” I growled into her ear. “At some point, you’re going to have to wear those with nothing else for me.”

She giggled as she looked up and bit her lower lip. I could feel the heat and desire radiating from her, and my own body was starting to tingle.

“And what are you going to get, Colton?” Neoma asked with a grin.

I forced myself to stop picturing Tala naked in the boots.

“I’m not sure,” I said once I could form words.

I didn’t need another pair of dress shoes since I’d bought some when I went shopping with Tala a few days earlier, but I had a quick look through the men’s section anyway.

Immediately, I spotted a pair of black patent leather loafers that I loved. Part of me still wavered when I saw how much they were, and I began to put them back as I told myself I didn’t really need them.

But then I remembered I didn’t need to count every penny anymore, either. I had loads of money coming into my account, and there were plenty more temples waiting to be raided.

By the time we left, it was early afternoon, and our arms were full of shopping bags.

We passed a small café, and Tala and Neoma both sniffed the air. My own stomach rumbled in response to the amazing smells coming from the eatery, and we sat down at a free table outside.

“Hmmmm,” Neoma murmured as she picked up her menu. “Let’s see…”

I glanced at her, and she was holding the menu upside-down as confusion radiated from her beautiful hazel-and-gold eyes.

She looked up. “I can’t read this.”

“You’ve got it the wrong way round, for a start,” I laughed. “But you can’t read it because our alphabet is different from yours. Tala and I have been saying for a while that we should learn to read in each other’s language to make life easier, but we haven’t found the time yet.”

“We’ve been too busy raiding temples,” Tala said.

I nodded as I scanned the menu.

“And doing other things,” the wolf-woman added with a wink.

I laughed, and I’d just started explaining to the two eidolons what was on the menu when the waitress came over. I was about to ask her for another few minutes, but Neoma suddenly pointed to a table next to us.

“I’ll have what the bald man over there is having, please,” she said loudly.

The waitress looked over in confusion, and I felt Tala’s amusem*nt as I tried to muffle my own laughter.

“The one with the big nose,” Neoma added, just to clear up any possible doubt surrounding who she was talking about.

I did my best to avoid the bald guy’s irritated glare as I ordered myself a sandwich, and I looked at Tala.

“Just choose for me.” She smiled.

Once I’d placed our order and the waitress left, I turned to the owl-woman.

“Err, Neoma,” I said gently. “It’s considered kinda rude to point at people and talk about them like that.”

“Why?” she asked with wide eyes. “I didn’t say anything bad about him, and I’m sure he’s a very nice man. I liked the look of what he was eating. It’s not like I was trying to steal his food from him… That would be rude.”

I couldn’t help but laugh at how adorable she was, even if I did have to avoid the bald guy’s angry scowls for the rest of lunch.

When our food arrived, we ate hungrily and discussed whether we needed to get anything else on our shopping trip.

“You still haven’t really bought yourself much,” Tala said.

“I’ve got everything I need with you two.” I grinned and took a bite of my sandwich.

“There must be something you’d like,” Neoma chirped. “Maybe something that’s exciting as well as practical, if that will make you feel better.”

I paused for a moment. “Well, I’ve always thought having a car could be quite cool. I never had the money to consider it before now, but it would mean we could go for day trips to other places. We could even go on vacation one day.”

“Sounds like that’s what you should get, then.” Tala smiled.

“Yeah,” I said. “But on the other hand, my apartment block doesn’t have any parking spaces, so perhaps I’d better wait until we move somewhere better. I prefer walking to places when I can, anyway.”

“Well, you’ve been talking about getting a new apartment ever since I’ve known you,” Neoma pointed out as she nibbled on her food.

“That’s true,” I said. “Tell you what, after lunch, I’ll take you by the apartments I’ve always dreamed of living in, and you can tell me what you think. They’re beautiful buildings overlooking the mountains, and I know a lot of them even have balconies. I don’t actually know if any are being leased, or how much they are, but it would give you an idea of the kind of place I think would suit us.”

The two women agreed, so once we’d finished our meal and I’d paid the bill, we walked the twenty minutes to the apartments. They were in a really nice area of the city, and each block had a large communal garden for the residents to enjoy. The red-brick buildings gleamed in the soft sunlight, and I imagined how great it would feel to go back there after a long day of adventuring.

As I looked up at the apartments, I saw a ‘For Lease’ sign with an agent’s number. Neoma and Tala instantly agreed I should call and ask if we could arrange a viewing.

The woman on the other end of the line was really friendly. When she heard that we were outside the buildings, she told me there happened to be an estate agent in the area who had the key to one of the apartments being leased, and he’d be with us in a couple of minutes to show us around.

“Well, that’s lucky,” I said to my two eidolons as I hung up and explained the situation.

They were as excited about this possibility as I was, and I decided even if this apartment wasn’t the right fit, I’d still make sure we moved out of my old place as soon as possible.

The agent greeted us with a handshake and a warm smile. He led us into the lobby. It had shining parquet floors and a number of elevators which all opened smoothly for us. I grinned as I thought about what a relief it would be to not need to carry heavy grocery bags up the stairs anymore.

“So,” the agent said as he pressed the elevator button for the fifth floor. “This place is a corner apartment. There are three bedrooms, and the master bedroom has an ensuite and a walk-in wardrobe. It’s recently been refinished, and it’s move-in ready. I must say, it’s one of the best properties we have on the market at the moment.”

The elevator doors pinged open, and we stepped out into a wide hall with four doors leading into what I assumed were the apartments. He led us to the one on the far right and turned the key in the lock.

An outpouring of excitement washed over me from my two eidolons as he pushed open the door to reveal a small entry foyer, a large living area, and a spacious kitchen. The space was flooded with sunshine that came pouring in through the huge windows and the balcony’s sliding glass doors.

I gave a low whistle. “This is beautiful.”

The kitchen’s black marble countertops gleamed in the light and contrasted with the pristine white cupboards. There was a breakfast bar, and plenty of extra space left for a couple of sofas, a coffee table, and a dining table.

“Please, feel free to have a look around,” the estate agent said. “I’ll be right here if you need anything.”

The three of us explored the rest of the apartment, and I could easily feel how much Tala and Neoma loved it already.

The master bedroom was huge, with plush new carpet and sliding doors that opened onto the balcony. Its ensuite had a soaker bathtub, and the walk-in closet was so big that, even filled with all my clothes, it would probably still be half-empty.

We headed onto the balcony, and I gasped when I got a proper look at the view. The Blue Ridge Mountains looked magnificent, and I was already picturing the amazing sunrises we’d see if we lived here.

“This is incredible,” Tala breathed.

I knew my wolf eidolon loved the mountains as much as I did, and I imagined how it would feel to wake up beside her every morning and take in this view.

“Look at how much space there is,” Neoma whispered with wide eyes.

We went to explore the second bedroom and found there was a deep bench built into the windowsill. Neoma squealed and immediately ran over to perch on it.

“We have to take it!” She grinned. “It’s perfect! You two can have that big bedroom, and I can have this one.”

I smiled. “It does look pretty perfect, doesn’t it?”

Tala nodded, and I could feel the excitement flowing through her.

The main bathroom was bigger than the entire bedroom at my current place, and it had a huge tub with enough space for two people, as well as a walk-in shower.

The third bedroom was a pretty good size, too. We didn’t really need the extra space, but we could always turn it into a gym or a training area, and I supposed it would be useful in case Owen came up to stay at some point.

“I love it,” I said.

Neoma and Tala agreed with me, and we decided we should see whether we could afford it.

We returned through the sun-drenched living room and found the agent.

“So, what do you think?” he asked with a smile.

I took a deep breath. “How much?”

“Three thousand dollars a month,” the agent said.

The room spun slightly. A couple of weeks ago, that sum would have been impossible for me to even contemplate paying. Now, I realized we could easily afford this place and still live luxuriously.

I felt a warm wave of agreement and enthusiasm from my two eidolons.

“Okay,” I told the agent. “We want it.”

“Alright,” he chuckled. “Just fill out these forms for me, and I’ll process your application. You’ll hear back within a couple of days at the latest, but I can’t imagine there’ll be any issues. Welcome home!”

My heart was racing as I took the pen he offered me and started to fill in the forms. I decided to put the lease in my name alone because neither Tala nor Neoma would have a social security number to provide for the background check. Hell, they didn’t even have last names.

I smirked to myself as I signed on the dotted line.

This was really happening. I could actually afford one of the apartments I’d always dreamed about, and it had felt so right to look over the mountains with my two beautiful eidolons at my side.

My scruffy old home had served me well, but we all deserved better.

This was going to be a new start, and I couldn’t wait to see where it would lead us.

By the time I’d filled out the forms and we’d left the apartment, it was early evening, and I was riding high on the events of the day. Neoma and Tala agreed when I suggested we should head back home and get ready for dinner at the restaurant I’d booked.

My apartment looked even sh*ttier than I remembered after the clean lines and sleek beauty of the place we’d just seen. It wasn’t all that bad, but it felt good to know that, assuming my application was approved, it wasn’t going to be much longer before we could move in.

We all took quick showers and got changed into the fancy clothes I’d bought. My new shirt felt soft and crisp against my skin, and I was enjoying the feeling of wearing something other than practical adventuring gear for once.

My two eidolons looked stunning. Neoma’s dress hugged her body tightly and showed off her voluptuous curves. The neckline plunged so low that it only stopped a few inches above her navel and made it easy to see the shape of her amazing breasts.

She grinned when she caught me staring at her.

“You like it?” she asked.

“Yeah, you could say that,” I chuckled.

Tala looked f*cking incredible. The tight leather jumpsuit fit her so well it looked like it had been made specifically for her. It clung sensually to her lithe frame, and the way it highlighted her perfect tit* and ass left very little to the imagination. Her red leather boots added a whole new level of sexiness to the outfit, and I could barely take my eyes off her.

“You look gorgeous,” I said.

“You look pretty good yourself,” she growled, and Neoma nodded.

“Thanks.” I grinned. “We’d better get going. I booked the table for seven.”

I’d decided to take my two eidolons to a rooftop tapas bar I’d been wanting to try for a long time. It was a really pricey place, and I’d never had the money to eat there before. But the reviews online said the food was incredible, and I knew the two women would appreciate the view.

The streets were quiet, and I could feel happiness radiating from Tala. Unsurprisingly, dusk was her favorite time of day, and she sighed contentedly as I put my arm around her waist while we walked.

When we reached the restaurant, a smartly-dressed waiter welcomed us and took us straight to a table on the rooftop terrace near the parapet. The evening wasn’t very cool, but the firepits were lit, anyway, and they added a cheerful ambiance to the place. The chairs all had plush, velvet cushions on them, and I was already beginning to understand how this place could charge so much.

“This is lovely.” Tala smiled as she looked around and sat down.

Neoma walked up to the parapet and leaned over it, then she looked out at the gorgeous view. The sun looked like it was setting fire to the mountains as it sank slowly below the horizon, and I thought once again about how lucky I was to live in such a beautiful place.

“You’re not thinking of trying to fly, are you?” I teased her.

She spun around and grinned. “No, I’m just happy.”

The owl-woman sat back down right as the waiter arrived and asked us if we wanted drinks. I ordered some co*cktails and told the two women what was on the menu. It all sounded so good that we ended up deciding we should get one of everything. It was a celebration, after all.

Once the drinks arrived and I’d placed our order with the waiter, I lifted my glass.

“I propose a toast,” I announced.

Neoma and Tala looked at me with confusion.

“We had toast this morning,” my wolf-lover said with a frown. “I’m not sure I want any more.”

“Me, neither,” Neoma added. “Anyway, I thought we were here to have tap-a-passes,”

“Tapas,” I laughed. “Yeah, we are. But when we toast something, we say a few words in honor of something and then clink our glasses together.”

“Why?” Tala wrinkled her nose.

“I don’t know, really,” I chuckled. “It’s just what we do. Like now, for instance, I’d say here’s to a new apartment, a new life together, and plenty more successful temple raids. And then we’d clink our glasses and say cheers.”

“Ohhh, I see,” Neoma said. “We have something a bit like that, don’t we, Tala?”

The wolf-woman nodded. “But in Fablewild people pour the drink over themselves instead of clinking their glasses together.”

“Yes,” Neoma said and grabbed her glass. “See, we hold it up like this–”

I managed to stop her from pouring the co*cktail over her head just in time.

“Err, maybe we could do the Earth version for now?” I asked with a laugh.

“Okay,” Neoma shrugged and gave me a wink. “But it doesn’t seem as fun to me.”

“No, but Earth people can be really weird,” Tala said with a wry smile.

We clinked our glasses together and toasted the new apartment right as the food started to arrive.

“So, we took a northern route at the Temple of the Beasts, right?” I asked Tala as I bit into a croquette.

She nodded and sniffed a plate of fried fish suspiciously.

“It was the hardest path you’ve taken so far,” she said as she tasted the fish, and her eyes lit up.

“Yeah, I know,” I said. “But hey, we did it. I’ve gotten so much better at fighting, and together, I know we can defeat whatever those temples throw at us. I was thinking… perhaps we should try a southern route next.”

Neoma’s hazel-and-gold eyes widened. “Are you sure about that? I think we should get some more practice coming from the north first. The south is the third most dangerous direction you can pick.”

“I agree,” said Tala as she gave a bowl of olives a disgusted look and pushed them away from her with disdain.

“But there are three of us now,” I insisted. “We’re getting stronger all the time, and we need to push ourselves to discover our full potential.”

“Yes, but we shouldn’t push ourselves too fast.” Tala frowned. “You know how dangerous the routes you’ve already tried have been. You’ve raided four temples so far and been incredibly successful when faced with some very hard challenges, but you’ve only experienced a fraction of what those temples can throw at you.”

“Don’t forget, we know Fablewild far better than you do,” Neoma said gently. “We’ve seen hundreds of adventurers die during that time because they took things too quickly and didn’t consider the very real dangers they were facing. I don’t want the same to happen to you.”

“We’d be lost,” Tala added in a soft voice. “I can’t bear the thought of returning to the life I had before you. I’m excited to try harder routes and temples, but we have to build up to it, otherwise…”

The wolf-woman trailed off, and I could feel the anxiety in both of my eidolons.

They had a point, and I reminded myself how dangerous mountain climbing alone could be if I got too co*cky. I tempered my excitement and decided their reasoning was sound. There would always be time for harder challenges in the future.

Besides, an easy temple meant easy money, and I had zero problems with that.

“Well, maybe you’re right,” I said. “I suppose we could take a few more northern paths to train ourselves properly first and make sure our teamwork is slick. After all, I’ve only just learned how to fight with both of you, and that last temple was pretty hard. Approaching from the west must be almost impossible.”

The two women nodded, and I felt their relief washing over me.

“Only a handful of adventurers successfully complete temples if they’re coming from the west,” Tala said.

“Well, let’s make sure we feel confident on the northern paths first,” I said. “Then, we can try approaching from the south or southeast, and maybe, eventually, we could even move on to the west.”

“That sounds like a good plan.” Neoma smiled. “The temples aren’t going anywhere, and we have plenty of time.”

“I know we can overcome any dangers if we prepare properly and work together,” Tala said. “All skills require training and practice to perfect, and it would be foolish to rush the process.”

“You’re right,” I grinned. “Let’s head back to Fablewild in the next couple of days and try another northern route.”

“You’re getting addicted,” Tala teased me as she nibbled on a bite of salad.

I laughed. “The only way we’re going to get better is by practicing, you said so yourself. And the only way we can practice is to go and raid temples. There’s no equivalent for it. It’s especially important since there’s no way to be sure where we’re going to end up in Fablewild, or which temples will be around. We have to be prepared to face anything.”

My heart raced with excitement at the prospect of the next raid. My wolf-lover wasn’t wrong. I was getting addicted to the thrill of victory and the adrenaline rush after a successful raid, but I knew I needed to be smart about it all. Tala and Neoma had experienced plenty of masters whose success had gone to their heads and stopped them from seeing clearly. They’d forgotten they were just men who could be killed the same as any other man, and I wasn’t going to let that happen to me.

I was proud of how far I’d come already, but I was determined not to let it cloud my judgment. So what if it took a few months before we were ready for a southern path? There was no rush, and even the artifacts we’d won on the easiest routes had brought us plenty of money.

We spent the rest of the evening discussing the types of temple challenges we might face. Tala and Neoma began talking about some of the things they’d encountered with their past masters, and as I listened, I realized they’d been right to suggest we take things slow. I’d already faced hard challenges and barely escaped some of them with my life, but judging by the two women’s stories, this was only the start of what those temples had in store for me.

But I couldn’t wait to take it on.

By the time I’d paid the bill and we’d started walking home, I was tired, and I could sense Tala’s sleepiness, too. Neoma was wide awake, though, and she was reveling in the darkness and the cool night air.

I was glad when we finally got back to the apartment, and I made us all some tea before bed.

“Perhaps we should get in some training tomorrow,” Tala yawned, and she sipped her drink.

“Oooh, what kind of training?” Neoma chirped.

“We went to the gym last time and did some bouldering,” I told her. “That might be worth doing again. It’s a good workout, and those temples seem to like hitting me with climbing challenges. We did some practice fighting, too.”

“What’s a gym?” Neoma asked.

“It’s a place where Earth people go to exercise,” Tala told her. “It’s quite strange, but the climbing is enjoyable. It’s great exercise, too.”

“Sounds fun.” The owl-woman grinned. “Strength and stamina are really important for the temples. Too many adventurers focus solely on building up huge muscles, but they forget they need endurance and speed as well. I think Colton’s got the perfect build, actually. Muscular and strong, but athletic and fast, too.”

Tala nodded, and I felt a gentle tingling in the base of my spine at Neoma’s words.

“Thanks,” I smiled. “It seems to have worked so far. “I also want to practice with my new sword, but I doubt I’d get away with that in the gym. If we’re approved for the new apartment, I was thinking we should turn that spare bedroom into a little gym so we can exercise at home.”

“That’s a good idea,” Neoma said. “I think you should also learn some basic moves so you can fight without any weapons if you need to. It probably won’t happen, but I’ve seen a few adventurers get mauled to death because they relied solely on blades and clubs and didn’t know how to defend themselves without them.”

I shuddered as I considered battling some of the huge f*ckers I’d encountered in Fablewild without any weapons.

“sh*t, I hadn’t thought of that.” I frowned. “But those temples are so brutal I wouldn’t be surprised if they made me fight something like a f*cking ogre with my bare hands.”

I paused for a moment and took a sip of tea.

“I’d also feel better about the crazy forum guy being on the loose if I knew a few moves,” I continued. “Just in case he somehow stumbles on us in the city and works out who we are. He’s kept to his mountain hideouts so far, but it might only be a matter of time before he comes down to look for us, and I can hardly stroll through Asheville with a sword and crossbow.”

“I can teach you how to fight with no weapons,” Tala said as her icy eyes gleamed.

“That’d be great.” I smiled.

My eidolon lover was a fantastic warrior, and she’d already taught me so much about how to fight better. I wanted to learn everything I could from her so I’d be able to protect both her and Neoma at all times.

“I’d like to work on my arms a bit,” Neoma said. “I’m used to flying most days, which keeps my wings strong. But since that’s impossible here, I need to make sure I don’t lose my muscles or I’ll be no good in temples.”

“Agreed, then,” I said as I drained the rest of my tea. “Tomorrow, we’ll go to the gym to get some training in, and then we can think about heading back to Fablewild in the next couple of days. I also need to call my brother so he doesn’t get worried about not hearing from me.”

Tala yawned again, and I smiled at her.

“Ready for bed?” I asked.

She nodded so we said goodnight to Neoma, headed into the bedroom, and sunk happily into the mattress.

I sighed with contentment as I nuzzled my face into Tala’s golden hair and encircled her beautiful, lithe body with my arms.

“Goodnight, my gorgeous eidolon,” I said. “I love you.”

“I love you, too,” Tala said as she pressed her body closer against mine.

We fell asleep almost instantly, and I dreamed about fighting my way through temples with the ghostly forms of an owl and a wolf beside me.

Tala woke me up the next morning by planting a series of light kisses along my neck.

“Mmmmm,” I moaned. “If you carry on like that, we’re not going anywhere today.”

She laughed as I opened my eyes.

“Sleep well?” I asked, and she nodded.

We got dressed and went into the living room. Neoma had already made a cup of coffee for me and a cup of tea for Tala, and she was bouncing around with excitement for the day ahead.

“Do you ever sleep?” I asked her with a laugh.

“Yes, but not much,” she giggled.

“I never used to sleep long before I was with you,” Tala said as she looked at me.

“Hmmmm, maybe that’s the secret,” Neoma said with a wink, and I felt warmth coursing through my body.

“Why don’t we grab some pastries on our way to the gym?” I suggested. “A friend of mine works at a diner two blocks away, and I need to say hi to him before we head back to Fablewild, anyway.”

The two women nodded, and I tried to work out how I was going to explain our relationship to Greg, my buddy at the diner. I obviously couldn’t tell him about eidolons and portals to a crazy world filled with magical temples, but I didn’t want to lie, either. In the end, I decided I’d settle for the truth, just not the whole truth.

We finished our coffee and got ready. Neoma’s floaty dresses weren’t going to be much good at the gym, so Tala lent her some sportswear, and I made a mental note to get the owl-woman her own workout gear next time we went shopping.

A gentle breeze ruffled my dark, messy hair as we stepped out onto the street. We wove around the hikers with their heavy packs and the tourists with their cups of coffee, and I reflected on how lucky I was to live in such a beautiful place.

I thought about the last time I’d been to Reggie’s. I’d called in for some breakfast the morning I’d headed out on the geocaching expedition that led me to the portal box. That morning had changed my life forever, and it felt so f*cking weird to look back on. I hadn’t even thought about geocaching for ages.

After all, treasure hunting in temples with two badass spirit warriors was way more fun.

And way more lucrative.

We arrived at the little diner and stepped inside. The delicious smell of coffee and bacon hit me instantly, and I felt Tala’s and Neoma’s confusion when they saw the eccentric décor of the place, with its gnome figurines along the bar and the random collection of art hung on the walls.

The diner was never packed but there were a couple of tables occupied by people sipping drinks and digging into plates piled high with waffles or pancakes.

Greg was slouching against the counter as he flicked through a magazine. He looked up when he heard the door, and his face broke into a wide smile once he saw me. Then, he saw the two gorgeous women behind me, and his eyes almost popped out of his head.

“Hey, Col,” he said and cleared his throat. “And hello, Col’s…”

“Friends,” I said firmly. “Greg, this is Tala, and this is Neoma. We’re gym buddies.”

Greg nodded, but he could barely tear his eyes away from the two stunning women in their tight leggings and tiny crop tops. I could feel their amusem*nt running through me, and I smiled as I tried to imagine how I would’ve reacted if Greg suddenly showed up with a couple of otherworldly beauties in the camping store I used to work at.

I couldn’t help but feel a little bit smug by how impressed he clearly was.

Greg forced his gaze back to me. “Haven’t seen you for a while, man. I thought you’d been eaten by a bear or something on one of those hikes.”

“I’m glad to see how concerned you were,” I chuckled.

Greg laughed but couldn’t stop his eyes from drifting back to Tala and Neoma.

“Where’ve you been, then?” he asked me as his eyes roved over their bodies with barely-concealed desire.

“Oh, the usual,” I answered. “Hiking, working out, you know.”

“Yeah…” he gulped. “I’m beginning to think I should start going to the gym myself.”

I smirked at the infatuated expression on his face. He looked like a lovesick teenager, but my eidolons were so fiercely loyal to me, they’d never even think about paying him a single second of attention beyond what was polite.

Greg had no f*cking chance.

“You three eating in?” he asked eventually.

“Nah,” I said. “We’re just on our way to work out and thought we’d pick up some breakfast.”

“Shame,” he murmured and continued to stare at the two gorgeous women.

Tala returned his gaze coolly and with a hint of humor, and then she turned away and started petting the old sheepdog who inhabited the diner.

Neoma seemed to have entered a staring contest with the poor guy, and I knew there was no way he was going to win against her amazing owl eyes.

“Greg,” I chuckled. “Can we have some food?”

That seemed to snap him out of it, and he ran his hands through his hair as he turned his gaze back to me.

“Yeah,” he laughed and turned professional. “Sorry, Col. What can I get you?”

Neoma examined the pastries with curiosity and asked excited questions about how they were all made and what was in them, which Greg tried and failed to answer. Tala left the dog, approached the counter, and sniffed the various possibilities cautiously.

Eventually, we all made a choice, and I tapped my card as Greg bagged them up for us.

“I’ll catch you later, Greg.” I smiled.

“Yeah,” he said. “Enjoy your workout, and I hope I’ll see you all again very soon.”

I ushered the two women out before Greg started salivating, and we began to walk in the direction of the gym.

“He was strange,” Neoma said as she bit into a croissant. “I mean, he was nice, but why all the staring?”

“Because he’s not used to seeing such beautiful women,” I laughed.

Warmth radiated from the two eidolons as we strolled along the sidewalk in the gentle sunshine.

We carried on downtown, and I smiled as I saw the amount of stares Tala and Neoma attracted. The two women didn’t even seem to notice, and I felt their loyalty to me flowing through our incredible connection.

Once we reached the gym, I scanned my membership card and paid for Tala and Neoma to come in with me, then I led us over to the climbing area.

Neoma’s eyes widened as she tried to make sense of all the machines and noises, and Tala attempted to explain them to her. The wolf-woman had been equally confused when I’d first brought her to the gym, and although she now seemed far more at ease, her suspicion around some of the equipment lingered. I had a feeling it would be a while before I could persuade her to try a treadmill or a bench press.

The climbing walls were pretty empty, but I decided it would be simpler if we did some bouldering because I wouldn’t need to get harnesses and explain to the two women how they worked. Bouldering would still get us warmed up and make our muscles work hard, and it would allow me to practice my climbing and Neoma to strengthen her arms.

Tala immediately started clambering up the wall we’d used last time, and I was pleased to see how much she’d improved. Her confidence in which hold to go for next had massively increased, and it only took her a couple of minutes to reach the top.

“You look like you’re really getting used to your human body,” I said once she’d made her way back down again.

She grinned wolfishly. “Yes, my master has introduced me to a lot of the wonderful things it can do.”

I could feel the heat rising in my body and tried to push away images of her writhing and moaning underneath me as I f*cked her.

I loved that Tala had learned how to enjoy herself without necessarily having a reason for doing something. The last time I’d taken her climbing, she’d admitted that she’d never done anything purely for fun before. She was still proud, fierce, and stoic, but I knew she was allowing her playful side to come out more and more.

I turned to Neoma. “Do you want to give it a go?”

She grinned. “Absolutely. That looked really fun!”

“You’ll be great,” I said as I led her over to the wall and showed her a good place to start.

Tala leaned her head against me, and we watched as Neoma scaled the wall. I was seriously impressed by her muscles. She was so petite that it was easy to forget her physical strength, but the way she hauled herself up using her arms made me realize how much power she needed to soar through the air, and how much of a workout her wings must get when she flew all day.

Neoma reached the top easily and then started to clamber back down. But she stopped halfway and looked at the fall mats below, and I could tell what she was thinking.

I moved forward. “I’m not sure that’s such a good–”

But she’d already jumped and landed on the mats with a thud and a giggle.

“–idea,” I finished as she leaped elegantly to her feet.

“That was fun,” she said with sparkling eyes. “Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. It was as close as I’ve got to flying in my human body so far.”

I laughed. “At some point, I’ll show you both how to use a harness and climb the taller walls over there. When you jump back down them, it feels a bit like you’re flying.”

It was my turn to go bouldering next, and I quickly scanned the wall to work out the most difficult path I could take. I was already a good climber, but I needed to up my game for the harder temple routes.

I gripped the holds and set off. Although there were some really tricky points where I thought I’d overstretched myself, I managed to reach the top quite fast, and I was pleased with how well I’d done, despite my bat-bitten hands.

I came back down and saw admiration plastered all over Neoma’s face.

“That was amazing!” she breathed.

“Thanks,” I chuckled. “I’ve been doing it for a long time. But I could have been quicker.”

We climbed the wall several more times each and got faster with every go. By the early afternoon, we’d worked up a good sweat, and I figured it was time to move on.

“What do you think?” I asked the two women. “Shall we head out and practice some fighting?”

They nodded, and we went back through the doors into the main gym. It wasn’t busy, so I found a quiet corner relatively easily and went to grab some floor mats.

When I returned with the mats, I saw Neoma was entranced as she gazed through the glass walls of one of the studios, where hoops and long pieces of colored silk hung from the ceiling. There were a few women in leotards who were stretching and getting ready for a class, but it looked like there were still empty spaces.

“It’s an aerial fitness class,” I said to Neoma. “Why don’t you go see if you can join? I’ve heard it’s really good for upper body strength, plus, it’ll probably feel a bit like you’re flying.”

I could feel Neoma’s excitement at the prospect as she trotted into the studio. Through the glass, I saw her introducing herself to the instructor, and within minutes, she was happily dangling from a hoop as she contorted herself into various strange poses like all the other students.

I turned back to Tala and chuckled. “Okay, looks like we’ve lost Neoma.”

“It’s better she practices something that uses her unique skills.” Tala smiled. “Neoma is obviously best suited to aerial attacks, so where possible, she should try and work on her strength and precision in the air.”

I nodded. “So, what are you going to teach me?”

“Alright,” Tala said. “I hope you won’t ever have to engage in unarmed combat, but if you do, there are a few moves you should know.”

The wolf-warrior spent the next hour or so showing me how to punch, kick, and break free if someone held a knife to my throat. We must have looked pretty weird, but I knew these were skills that could save my life, so I didn’t really care.

By the time we’d finished and Neoma’s class was over, it was getting late in the afternoon, and we decided to call it a day.

Neoma was delighted after her experience of dangling from the aerial hoops and silks, and we were all pleasantly tired from the physical exertion of the day.

I’d always been relatively fit, but I noticed I was less out of breath and achy than I would have been before I’d started to raid temples. There was some serious physical work involved in many of the challenges, and I was pleased to see my body was getting stronger and adapting to the challenges.

As we headed out into the street, I wondered whether I’d ever need to use the moves I’d learned today with Tala. I hoped not, but seeing the forum asshole’s tent had unsettled me. I realized we didn’t only need to be cautious when we were going to Fablewild. We also had to be cautious when we were coming back.

“I can sense you’re troubled,” Tala said as she reached out and grabbed my hand.

“Yeah.” I frowned. “It’s the mad tent guy. He still hasn’t posted anything on the forum”

“Isn’t that good?” Neoma asked. “You said he kept writing crazy messages before, so perhaps this means he’s calmed down a bit.”

I shook my head. “I think it’s even creepier that he hasn’t said anything… It’s like he’s busy plotting his next move or something. I just have a really bad feeling about it.”

“I still think it would be best to kill him and be done with it.” Tala growled.

I laughed and pulled her in for a kiss. “Tempting, but too problematic. We’ll have to hope we can avoid him, and maybe, in time, he’ll give up.”

“I wouldn’t count on it.” Tala frowned.

I knew she was right, but there wasn’t much else we could do. His silence was bothering me, though, and I tried to think of what he might be planning. I was almost certain he didn’t know what we looked like, and even if he’d seen the back of my head and my rucksack as I ran, it still wasn’t much to go on.

The real problem was finding secluded places where we’d be able to use the portal box. The main paths were usually frequented by hikers and tourists. I knew a lot of quiet spots from my time walking in the mountains, but the tent asshole had tracked us to all of them. I was running out of ideas.

Tala sensed my worry and gripped my hand tighter.

“It’ll be okay,” she said in a soothing voice. “We’re prepared to face him if we have to, but he’d need to be really lucky to stumble on us when we were using the portal. It only takes a second to open the box.”

I nodded, but I couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that had lodged itself in my gut.

When we got back to the apartment, Tala and Neoma took turns showering, and I gave my brother a call.

“Hey!” he answered after a couple of rings. “I was beginning to think you’d gotten lost out in the mountains with your girlfriend.”

“She’s not my…” I paused, as I tried to work out what the hell I was supposed to call Tala. “Anyway, we’re back in town so I thought I’d check in on you.”

“I’m glad you remembered your little brother,” he chuckled. “How was the trip?”

I heard the sound of traffic and car horns on the other end of the line and guessed he was heading to a seminar.

“It was great,” I said. “Very adventurous.”

“Ah, so lots of climbing, killing wild beasts, and fighting off crazy mountain men?” Owen teased.

“Something like that,” I laughed as I thought about how close to the truth he really was. “We’re actually thinking of heading on another trip in the next few days.”

“Already?” Owen asked with surprise. “Wow, you must really like her.”

“Yeah, I do.” I grinned.

“Look, Col, I’ve got to go,” he said. “I’ve got a seminar, and they’ll kill me if I’m late again.”

“Yeah, sure,” I said.

“But listen,” Owen said before I could say goodbye. “I wanted to talk to you about coming up to visit. I need a break from studying, and I miss you.”

“Yeah, that’d be great,” I said as I tried not to think too hard about how much explaining I’d have to do.

“So keep the sofa free for me,” he chuckled.

“Actually, I’ve applied for a new apartment with a spare room,” I said. “So you might get a bed if you’re lucky.”

“Seriously? How can you afford to move?” he asked.

“Long story,” I answered. “I’ll explain when I see you. Listen, let’s speak when I’m back from the next trip, but don’t worry if you can’t get in touch with me for a week or so.”

“Alright, Col,” he said. “Look after yourself and your not-girlfriend.”

“I will.” I smiled. “Don’t study too hard.”

“No chance of that,” he laughed. “Talk soon!”

I hung up and thought about what he’d said.

Although I was glad to have spoken to him, it felt weird not to be able to tell my little brother about Fablewild. He’d loved hearing about my geocaching adventures but this was a whole other ball game, and I wasn’t sure how I’d even start to explain it.

Perhaps I’d be able to if he came up to visit. If we got the new apartment, I could always say Neoma was Tala’s best friend and we were all splitting the rent or something. But I’d still need an explanation for where the money came from, so it might be the perfect opportunity to tell him the truth.

My thoughts were interrupted by Neoma announcing the shower was free. I quickly jumped in, washed off the sweat from the gym, and thought about how good a long soak in the tub of the new apartment would feel.

When I’d dried myself, put on some comfy clothes, and returned to the living room, I checked my phone and saw a missed call from the leasing agency.

Neoma and Tala stood up excitedly when I told them the news, and they hurried over to me so they could hear what was said as I hit the call button.

My heart thudded in my chest as the phone rang. I imagined the elation if it was approved and the crushing disappointment if not.

“Hello, Mountain Homes, how can I help you?” a man’s voice answered.

“Hi, this is Colton Davis,” I said. “I’ve got a missed call from you… probably about the apartment we viewed yesterday?”

“Colton!” the voice said. “Hi, I showed you around the place.”

“Hi,” I said again and heard Tala giggle.

“There’s news,” the agent continued, and I gulped. “Congratulations, your application has been approved! I’m delighted to tell you that you can pick up the keys one week from now. Just pop over to the agency to sign the papers on the day of collection, and it’s all yours.”

My face broke into a wide smile. “That’s amazing, thanks!”

“Not a problem,” the man chuckled. “Goodbye.”

“Bye,” I said.

When I put the phone down, I was immediately swamped by Tala and Neoma who jumped at me simultaneously. Pure euphoria flowed through my connection with each eidolon, and there were a couple of minutes where we were all too excited to speak coherently, so we danced maniacally around the room instead.

“I can’t believe it!” I eventually yelled. “We’re going to live in the dream apartment!”

Neoma squealed with excitement, and Tala’s body radiated with enthusiasm.

“It’s the start of our new life,” I continued as I gazed into their sparkling eyes.

Just then, my phone buzzed.

I assumed it would be the alert I’d set to tell me if the crazy forum guy posted anything, but when I looked, it was a message from the bank confirming that Edgar’s payment had been received. Two hundred and sixty-three thousand dollars.

Holy sh*t. I was officially rich.

I grinned as I looked at Tala and Neoma. There was now over a quarter of a million dollars in my bank account, two amazingly beautiful women by my side, and the apartment of my dreams waiting for us to move in.

Life was f*cking good.

The three of us had a fantastic evening. We ordered food and ate it as we excitedly planned our future. We talked about what we’d need to buy so we could furnish the apartment, the cool ways we’d decorate it, the next temples we were going to raid, and the prizes that were going to make us even f*cking richer.

I still found it hard to believe I was finally going to move out of the tiny apartment I’d called home for so long.

And the fact that I got to share it all with two sexy women just made everything even better.

We agreed to head to Fablewild early the next morning and raid a temple from the north, and I could sense my two eidolons’ enthusiasm for the challenges ahead. We were all too excited about the money and the apartment to feel tired, but we decided to head to bed anyway so we could make it to the mountain before it got busy.

Tala and I left Neoma curled up on the sofa and fell into bed together. I was still buzzing with elation after the news we’d had, but as Tala laid on my chest, I soon found my body relaxing and my eyes closing.

Before I knew it, the alarm I’d set to wake us up was beeping. I yawned and stretched as I opened my eyes to see the gray gloom of the pre-dawn sky. Tala was already awake and dressed in a pair of dark red leggings and matching crop top.

“I was too excited to stay asleep.” She grinned. “I can feel this is going to be a good day.”

I loved her confidence and her enthusiasm, and I couldn’t wait to get back to Fablewild.

I got dressed, and we headed into the living room where Neoma was also awake, and we had a quick breakfast of eggs and toast. I checked to make sure I’d hidden the gold bars as best I could under the bed, and that I’d packed everything we needed into my bag.

Before we left, I removed the bandages from my hands and inspected the bites. They’d healed over pretty well, and I didn’t need to have them wrapped up anymore.

Finally, I threw my jacket over my crossbow, and we set off.

Walking through the empty streets of Asheville in the early morning reminded me of all the times I’d climbed the mountains alone to watch the sunrise from one or another of my favorite secluded spots.

Except this time, I was going up there with two stunning women so we could travel to a magical world filled with temples, riches, and adventure.

All we had to do was dodge the crazy stalker guy living in a tent.

The sun was starting to peek above the horizon when we got to the area of the mountains I’d been aiming for. It was still quite close to some of the previous spots we’d used to travel to Fablewild, but I made sure to avoid the place where we’d last seen the orange tent.

I didn’t feel entirely safe, but the forum guy had to sleep at some point, and I was hoping he wouldn’t be awake yet.

Besides, if it came down to it, I knew we could win in a fight.

I led Neoma and Tala to a clearing off a popular trail. I was uncomfortable about its proximity to a main route, but it was hidden from the path by trees, and there was barely anyone around this early, anyway.

Still, I didn’t want to hang around.

“I’ll see you on the other side.” I grinned at the two beautiful women as I flicked my wrists and watched them disappear.

I immediately missed their physical presence next to me, but at least this way, I knew for sure they would be safe as we traveled to Fablewild.

I took a last look around the clearing and opened up the portal box. The tornado yanked me up instantly, and it spun me around with such intensity, it felt like my limbs were about to be wrenched from my body.

But when it spat me out this time, I somehow landed on my feet and managed to keep my balance.

“Must be getting better at this,” I murmured as I looked around to see where we’d landed.

As usual, we were in a jungle. It was dense and dark, although the tree trunks were spaced quite far apart. When I craned my head toward the sky, I saw their upper branches had become entangled with each other and created an almost impenetrable canopy overhead, which explained the lack of light. The leaves on the trees were black and shriveled, and when I looked closer, I saw gray maggots crawling on many of them.

A thick smell of rotting flesh hung in the air, and I almost gagged when I inhaled. The ground beneath me was soft and boggy, and my feet made a squelching sound when I moved them.

The whole place made me think of death and decay.

“This is interesting,” I muttered. “Do you know where we are, Tala?”

No, she replied. I’ve never seen anything like this before.

“sh*t,” I murmured as I looked around. “Well, we survived an unknown jungle last time. Here we go again, I guess.”

I unpacked my crossbow, then started to take my other weapons out of the pack and attach them to my belt when I sensed a surge of excitement from Neoma. I looked down and the black stone in her ring was glowing gently, and then I felt a pull of urgency.

“I think Neoma’s trying to tell me something,” I said to Tala. “Maybe she recognizes this place. I’m going to get her out.”

Good idea, Tala replied.

I flicked my wrist, and Neoma exploded into the world in a thick haze of dark purple clouds.

She hovered in the air for a second and stared intently at me with her enormous hazel-and-gold eyes, and I could sense how desperately she wanted me to understand what she was trying to communicate.

“What is it?” I asked her.

Neoma hooted and flew a few feet so she faced the trees to my right. She made a kind of clicking sound in that direction and then circled back around so she was at eye level with me again.

“Something over there?” I asked her.

She hooted in agreement and flapped her wings urgently.

“It can’t be danger,” I murmured as I thought about how excited she seemed.

Neoma let out a short bark-like noise that sounded as if she was agreeing with me.

I thought about following her, but I didn’t really want to go blindly stumbling through this jungle full of decay without knowing what I was going to face. I wished my owl eidolon could speak with me inside her ring like Tala could.

“Okay, so not a predator,” I said with a frown. “But there’s definitely something over there you want us to see. Tala, have you got any ideas what Neoma is trying to tell us?”

None, she replied. I’m completely stuck.

I looked at Neoma. “Err, do you think you could… you know, act it out?”

The owl eidolon gave a high-pitched screech of annoyance at her inability to communicate with me like she could in human form.

She flew off again in the same direction, hovered in the air, and hooted. Then, she flew a small circle and swooped back down to the ground. When she landed, she fell over onto her left side and gave a feeble croak.

“sh*t, Neoma!” I hissed as I ran to her.

What’s wrong with her? Tala asked in a worried voice.

“I don’t know,” I said as I knelt at the owl eidolon’s side and stroked her feathers.

Neoma gave another feeble croak, and my heart plummeted when she closed her huge eyes.

“Neoma!” I whisper-shouted. “What’s wrong?”

Just then, my owl eidolon opened her eyes again, righted herself, and took off into the sky with an excited squawk.

Realization and understanding hit me.

“She’s miming what she’s trying to tell us,” I said with relief and felt the tension draining from Tala.

I took a couple of steps back and watched as Neoma repeated the sequence of actions a couple of times, but I still had no clue what she was trying to tell us. Every time she got back up from the ground, she gave a frustrated hoot, and by the third time, she flew up into the air and then plummeted straight to the ground.

She landed with a soft thud on the rotting leaves, and I rushed over to check she was okay and hadn’t hurt herself. She laid on her back with her wings outstretched at an unnatural angle. Her talons were sticking stiffly up into the air, and she gave two weak croaks before letting her eyelids flutter shut.

“Neoma, are you still acting?” I hissed.

One of her eyelids opened and then closed as if she was giving me a wink.

“She’s alright,” I chuckled.

That’s pretty good acting, Tala said with a hint of amusem*nt. It looks like she’s dead.

I had to admit, if the situation hadn’t been so important, I might have been laughing. Neoma’s miming was so over the top, she looked like some dead animal in a cartoon.

That’s when it struck me.

“Dead animal…” I murmured. “Could it…?”

Have you solved it? the wolf-woman asked.

“Maybe,” I said. “Tala, you know those graveyards you told me about once?”

Neoma came back to life the moment I said this, and quickly got herself upright to give an excited hoot. I had the feeling I was on the right track.

Yes, Tala said thoughtfully. Colton… This jungle looks like it could be surrounding a graveyard. The feeling of death lingers in the atmosphere around them, and it even infects the plants and trees. I think you might be right!

“Neoma,” I said. “Are you trying to tell me there’s a graveyard nearby?”

The owl-woman soared up into the sky with glee and gave three loud hoots. She did a kind of somersault movement in the air and then glided back down and perched lightly with one talon on each of my shoulders. I could feel her shifting her weight from side to side, and I chuckled as I thought about how cute she was when she hopped from foot to foot in human form. The soft feathers of her belly brushed up against the back of my head and neck, and I reached a hand up to stroke her.

“Alright,” I laughed. “Tala, I think we’ve figured it out. We have to go see!”

Yes, we do, my lover replied. Graveyards are very difficult to find. You can’t miss this opportunity, Colton.

“Can you take us there, Neoma?” I asked my owl eidolon.

I felt a rush of pleasure and excitement from her as she hooted and took off from my shoulders. She flew a little way and hovered in the air in the direction of the graveyard. Then, she turned her head around and gave a squawk of impatience.

“Let’s go!” I chuckled.

A whole new part of Fablewild had just opened up to me, and I couldn’t wait to see what we were about to discover.

My feet squelched beneath me as I followed Neoma’s lead. She darted nimbly through the trees, and every ten yards or so, she would stop and hover in the air to let me catch up.

Her enthusiasm was palpable. She emitted frequent hoots as she flew, and little impatient clicking noises as she waited for me to reach her.

The jungle was gloomy and sinister, but I was too excited by the prospect of a graveyard to worry much about the possible dangers lurking in the trees. But I didn’t let my guard down.

“So, tell me more about these graveyards,” I said to Tala as I followed Neoma.

They are ancient places filled with old magic, Tala began. Although we sometimes refer to “the graveyard,” most people believe there are, in fact, several graveyards. But still, nobody knows exactly how many there are throughout Fablewild.

“How come?” I asked. “Is it a bit like the Grand Temples, where nobody actually reveals their locations if they make it out alive?”

In a way, Tala replied. Adventurers who claim to have been to the graveyard can never agree with each other about where it was or what it was like. Some people think it means there is only one graveyard but its magic allows it to change location and appearance. Others think it’s proof of several graveyards. I’ve heard stories that adventurers who try to reveal the location to others never find another graveyard. Very dark and powerful magic surrounds these places, but the truth is, very few people understand how it works.

“sh*t,” I said. “That’s some pretty strong stuff.”

I made a promise to myself that I would never reveal the location of a graveyard to another adventurer. These places sounded amazing.

“How do people usually find them?” I asked my wolf-lover.

It’s hard to say, she said. Some people are just lucky, and others spend their whole lives searching but never find one. In that way, they are very much like Grand Temples.

Holy sh*t. My pulse quickened as I thought about stepping into a place so few adventurers had set foot in before.

They are very difficult to stumble upon, Tala continued. Even now, we’re so close, but I’m not sure we’d be able to find it if it weren’t for Neoma. Adventurers with eidolons who have black mana are more likely to find a graveyard since that mana is linked so closely to death.

I smiled as I thought about how f*cking cool it was to have two eidolons when most adventures never even had one. And Neoma’s ability to lead us to this graveyard was incredible.

Are you feeling smug, Colton? Tala teased me.

I smiled. “I’m just in awe of my two eidolons’ abilities. I can’t believe we’re actually going to get to a graveyard when so few people have ever seen one.”

Yes, Tala replied. Graveyards are always well-hidden inside dangerous jungles, too, which makes finding them even more challenging. Even when adventurers locate the right area for the graveyard, they often don’t make it through the jungle.

I gulped and started to pay closer attention to my surroundings as I made my way cautiously between the trees.

Tala was right, this jungle looked pretty f*cking evil. There was so little sunlight that I figured it must be evening, and the smell of rot and decay that permeated the air didn’t fill me with confidence, either.

I knew there were probably some really nasty bastards living here, and I sure as hell didn’t want to meet them if I could avoid it.

Some of the trees now had trunks covered in thorns dripping with some sort of sap. It was probably poisonous, so I made sure to carefully avoid getting too close to any of them.

“And you said loads of things end up in graveyards, right?” I asked Tala as I looked ahead to keep Neoma in sight.

Yes, you never know what you might find, my wolf eidolon replied. They’re usually filled with pieces of armor and weapons that were never claimed after their owners died. When you think about the number of adventurers who go missing in jungles, you’ll understand why there are so many unclaimed items.

It was sobering to think about how often adventurers never made it through the jungles they set out to cross. I knew I was lucky that I got to see so much of Fablewild since the portal could take me somewhere different every time. Many people probably lived their entire lives in one small area because it was too dangerous to travel far.

The graveyards are huge, Tala continued. Some of the weapons and pieces of armor will probably be enchanted, and other items will be normal. Sometimes there are artifacts, too, if an adventurer died on the way back from a successful raid.

My heart quickened when I thought about all the things I could find in one of these places.

“So, what, these items are just… up for grabs?” I asked Tala. “That doesn’t seem very Fablewildian to me.”

No, Colton, Tala laughed. The items are bound by the magic of the graveyard. The only way to acquire one is to make a trade, but only a worthy trade will be accepted. So while you probably couldn’t trade your mallet for a magic helmet, for instance, you might be able to get a different weapon.

“Who decides whether a trade is worthy, though?” I asked.

The graveyard decides, Tala said. I don’t know how it works. In fact, I’m not sure if anyone does, though you might be able to ask a magic bearer. The graveyard’s magic is very ancient and complex. I have heard stories about adventurers who try to cheat and take items without performing a proper trade, but apparently, they experience terrible retribution, and they’re never given the opportunity to try their devious tricks again.

I shuddered. “Okay, I promise I won’t try and trick the graveyard. Sounds like it really doesn’t pay to piss it off.”

I felt Tala’s amusem*nt as we carried on through the jungle. The black leaves on the trees had enormous holes in them, and even the trunks and branches looked like they were rotting.

Neoma hovered up ahead and hooted urgently at me. When I got to her, I saw she’d found a body. It looked as though it had once been human, but it was hard to say. Something had evidently made a good meal of it, and now it was crawling with maggots.

I covered my mouth and nose with my t-shirt and tried not to vomit from the disgusting sight and smell as I skirted around it.

It was a timely reminder of the danger of the jungle.

Neoma soon led me to a large swamp. It was so wide I couldn’t see a way around it, but it was quite narrow and looked like it would only take a minute to cross.

The problem was, there were no stepping stones, and there wasn’t a shot in hell I was going to walk through it, even though it didn’t look too deep. I could only imagine the horrible things that might be living in there, and the sight of the maggot-infested body had shaken me.

As I looked at the swamp, I tried to make a plan. There were several large trees growing in it. Their branches had no thorns, and many of the trees had mature roots above the water level. The roots were entangled with each other, and it looked as if it should be simple enough to pick a path across them.

Neoma was hovering in the middle of the swamp, and she let out a hoot of disappointment at the obstacle.

“It’s okay,” I told her. “I’m going to make my way over the tree roots.”

Be very careful, Colton, Tala warned.

“I will,” I promised her.

I stepped onto the first set of roots and easily made my way across to the next tree.

“How do items end up in the graveyards from all around Fablewild?” I asked as I continued my journey.

You want to talk about this now? Tala replied in a wry tone.

“Sure.” I grinned. “It’ll keep my mind off all the dangerous animals that might be hiding in the swamp.”

I jumped onto another set of roots but almost lost my footing, and I had to reach out for a low-hanging branch to steady myself.

Tala laughed softly. The nymphs take them from the jungles. When an item goes unclaimed for long enough–

Tala’s words broke off suddenly, and her warning signals radiated down my spine. Before I had time to think, something closed around my left ankle and pulled. If I hadn’t been holding on to the tree branch, I’d have toppled over into the swamp.

“What the f*ck?” I shouted as I looked down.

Colton, it’s the tree roots! Tala’s tone was urgent.

Sure enough, a few of the black roots had coiled themselves around my ankle and were starting to pull. The rest of the roots were snaking up, too, and they were trying to grab my other leg.

I lashed out with my free foot, but that only made them tighten around my left ankle even more, and they pulled with so much force, I almost let go of the branch I was clinging to.

“sh*t!” I hissed and grabbed my dagger with my free hand.

Can you try to cut them off? Tala asked.

The roots were slowly getting further up my left leg. I tried to swipe at them, but I couldn’t reach many. Then, another section tightly grabbed my right ankle.

I was trapped.

“f*ck!” I yelled and lashed out as hard as I could.

Neoma had circled back around when she heard my shouts, and now she was swooping down at the roots around my legs in an attempt to free me.

But they continued to tighten and climb. There were some around my waist now, and they were pulling me down with such force, I knew I couldn’t hold on to the branch for much longer.

I tried desperately to cut through the roots at my waist, but they wrapped themselves around me so tightly, I could barely take a full breath.

The more I struggled, the more the tree roots tightened and pulled me down.

“f*ck!” I yelled. “Get off me, you bastards! I am not going to die because of a f*cking tree!”

Stay still! Tala commanded.

“What?” I asked incredulously.

Stay still, she said again. I remember hearing about these trees. I think they’re called Tangletendons, and they’ll keep contracting the more you struggle. They pick up on people’s feelings. Try to relax and stay completely still, and hopefully, they’ll let go.

I gulped. All my instincts were telling me to lash out and get these f*ckers to release me, but evidently, this wasn’t working, and I knew I had to listen to Tala.

Neoma interrupted her darting attacks when she realized I’d stopped struggling. She landed on my shoulders instead and rubbed her feathered face against mine. I guessed she was trying to comfort me.

I stopped moving and attempted to steady my breathing.

That’s good, Tala told me. Keep going. The more relaxed you are, the calmer the tree will be.

For a terrible moment, it looked like Tala had been wrong because the tree roots kept climbing further up my body. But I forced myself to continue to stay still, and within a few seconds, the vise-like grip on my ankle started to release a little. I resisted the temptation to instantly kick out and make a run for it, instead, I waited until all the roots had relaxed their hold on me and sunk back to their original spot.

“f*cking f*ck,” I exhaled some of the tension from my body.

Well done, Colton. Tala’s voice was calm, but I could tell how worried she’d been.

Neoma rubbed her head against me again, and I felt a buzz of admiration and affection from her.

I was still standing stock-still. I didn’t really want to move again, but I was now stuck in the middle of a swamp, and I had to continue across the tree roots to get to the other side.

“Now what?” I asked Tala as I sheathed my dagger again.

Very slowly and calmly make your way forward, she said. But you have to stay relaxed. If they sense that you’re nervous or tense, they’ll reach up and grab you again.

“That’s very comforting,” I said with a small smile.

A ripple of Tala’s amusem*nt flowed through me as I cautiously picked my way across to the next set of roots. I held my breath and expected to feel that grip on my ankle again, but nothing happened.

Eventually, I made it across the swamp and onto drier land. I exhaled a huge sigh of relief when I stepped off the last set of roots.

“Thanks, guys,” I said shakily as I started walking. “That was unpleasant.”

Neoma nuzzled my face one last time and then took off into the air again with a happy hoot.

This is why so few adventurers make it to the graveyards, Tala said grimly. The jungles that surround them are even more dangerous than the Jungle of the Beasts.

“f*cking hell,” I said as I followed Neoma’s path. “This world is intent on killing people.”

Tala laughed. Sometimes it seems that way. But the thrill of victory against the deadly aspects of Fablewild makes it worth it.

I couldn’t disagree with that.

“The treasure helps, too,” I chuckled. “Right, let’s hope we get to this graveyard without any more trouble.”

Do you still want to know about the nymphs? Tala asked.

I smiled. “Yes, please. I’d forgotten all about them. People on Earth used to believe in nymphs but not anymore. For us, they were basically minor goddesses linked to a certain place like a tree or a river.”

They are not too dissimilar in Fablewild, Tala said. But here, we do not need to simply believe in them. We know they exist. They are immortal beings who serve the graveyard and are closely linked with death and rebirth. When an item goes unclaimed for long enough, the nymphs are drawn to it, and they take it to the graveyard. Nobody truly knows their origin. Some believe they have always been here, others say they were once women, and when they died, they were reborn as nymphs.

I loved learning more about Fablewild’s traditions and history. The fact that magical creatures, that were just myths on Earth, actually existed here was so f*cking cool.

Mermaids were real here, and I wondered if unicorns or dragons were, too.

My thoughts were interrupted by a hoarse cackling noise above us. It didn’t sound like Neoma, and when I looked up, I saw about a dozen large vultures flying in circles.

That means we must be getting close, Tala said.

Neoma swooped swiftly back toward me and started to fly slowly about five feet in front of me. I guessed the vultures had made her nervous, given how many there were, and I was glad she was close so I could protect her if I needed to.

They usually feed on carcasses, Tala explained. But sometimes, they go for smaller creatures they think they can easily kill. It’s safer if Neoma stays with you for now. When they hunt, they’ll choose creatures that are alone or injured.

I gulped.

Those vultures were much bigger than the turkey vultures I was used to on Earth, although it was hard to gauge their exact size, given their distance. But I really hoped their circling movement didn’t mean they were preparing to attack us. I guessed we might have been a tempting target, since Neoma and I were probably much smaller than the average creature living in this jungle.

Maybe they were waiting to see if something else would kill us so they could have a free meal.

Just keep going, Tala said. They’ll probably move on to something else, anyway, but the best way to show them it’s not worth attacking is by moving boldly and swiftly. They like to prey on creatures that are already injured because they put up less of a fight.

I nodded my head and picked up the pace as I followed Neoma.

I really didn’t like this jungle. The putrid air and the general atmosphere of death sent shivers down my spine, and I could sense Tala wasn’t keen on it, either.

But Neoma was thriving. I could feel her happiness, despite the vultures, as she flew through the fetid jungle.

Neoma’s mana is so closely linked to death that this is her perfect environment, Tala explained. It’s like how I thrive in battle because of my red mana.

I nodded, but I still found it hard to understand how beautiful, bouncy Neoma could be tied so closely to death. She was cute, funny, and sweet, yet she loved this jungle and its atmosphere of misery and decay.

On the other hand, if black mana was also linked to rebirth, then perhaps that explained the owl-woman’s bubbly personality.

Either way, she was an eidolon, and these ancient spirit warriors could be utterly deadly. I was sure I’d only seen a small part of what Neoma could do in the Temple of the Beasts, but she’d been f*cking vicious when she’d fought off those bats and the big horned bastard at the end.

I don’t think it’s much further now, Tala said. I can sense death even more keenly.

Neoma had stopped ahead of me and flapped her wings steadily to hover in mid-air.

I quickly realized we’d hit another swamp, but this one was even bigger than the one I’d just crossed, and there were fumes rising from the sludgy-gray water.

It was dotted with the same species of tree as the previous one, and I groaned at the prospect of crossing via those creepy roots again. But when I looked more closely, the water seemed a lot deeper than the last swamp, and I could barely even see any roots sticking above the surface.

Then, I spotted some rough slabs of stone laid down around the edge of the swamp on the right like a makeshift path. They were only a couple of feet wide, and they were bordered by the murky depths of the swamp on one side, but it seemed like the best solution.

“I’m going to go along this path here,” I said to the two eidolons as I started walking.

Neoma hooted and flew a little way ahead of me over the swamp.

Stay as far away from the edge as you can, Tala told me in a warning tone, and I could feel her alertness coursing through our bond.

I nodded and took a breath.

The water looked deep enough to be hiding some seriously big creatures, and I didn’t want to run into them. I kept my hand on my saber hilt as I walked.

The slabs were covered in algae that made it hard to keep my footing. Once or twice, I almost slipped off, but I managed to use my rock-climbing experience to stay balanced.

I kept half an eye on the swamp to my left as I walked, but the makeshift nature of the path meant I also had to concentrate on where I was placing my feet.

A squelching sound from up ahead made the hairs on the back of my neck rise up, and I immediately felt Tala’s warning signals.

A pair of gray, emaciated hands with long black nails were emerging from the swamp about fifteen yards ahead of me.

“What the f*ck is that?” I whispered as I stopped walking and drew my saber from its scabbard.

My question was soon answered when the hands were followed by two scrawny arms with bits of flesh hanging off them. Then, the thing hauled itself out of the water and turned its hideous, hunched body toward me.

“Oh, sh*t,” I groaned.

It was a weird zombie-type creature with rotting gray skin covered in swamp slime. Its body was humanoid and about the same size as a grown man, and although it seemed mostly to crawl on all fours, it looked like it could spring quite easily. Its face was little more than a skull, and there was a disgusting rag of a bandage wrapped around its head where its eyes were.

Or where its eyes should have been.

There were two large blood stains over the area where I imagined its eye sockets should be. It sniffed the air as it cautiously turned toward me, and I guessed it was blind and relied on its sense of smell.

I didn’t bother trying to figure out how it could smell when it didn’t seem to have much of a nose. In my experience, magic didn’t tend to make that much sense.

Regardless, the creature made its way in my direction at a surprisingly rapid pace.

“I’m going to keep Neoma out so I can practice fighting with her,” I told Tala quickly as I planted my feet. “But I’ll switch you around if it looks like we need a set of fierce teeth.”

Okay, Tala said. Just watch out. That might not be the biggest thing you’ve fought, but it still looks dangerous.

Neoma hovered over the swamp on my left, and I could tell she was waiting for my instructions. I clutched my saber and tried to decide where the best place to strike the f*cker would be.

The zombie thing was crouching a few feet away from me now. It snarled and revealed rotting teeth in the black chasm of its mouth. The stench coming from it was unbelievable like a combination of rotten eggs and blocked drains, and I guessed it was a result of the swamp slime dripping off its foul, decayed body.

I was considering trying to rush it with the saber when it suddenly sprang up toward me with unexpected agility. Its arms were outstretched in front as if it was planning to grab onto my face with its bony hands, but I dodged to the right just before its jagged nails could sink deep into my eyes.

At the same time, I swung my saber and managed to land a light cut on the f*cker’s left shin as it sailed through the air and skidded to a halt on the stone slabs behind me.

I quickly spun around to face it and took a few steps back so it couldn’t leap toward my face so easily. My feet were sliding dangerously on the algae-covered path, but I tried to plant my body weight firmly as I thought about how best to tackle this slime-covered f*cker.

The creature made a low growling noise as it turned its head in my direction and readied itself to spring again.

And this time, I was ready for it.

I dodged to the left as it jumped up and reached toward my face again. I cut a deep gash across its hip and swiftly pivoted around in time to see foul-smelling gray slime ooze liberally from the wound.

The swamp-zombie let out a screech of pain and anger at my blow and then emitted a threatening snarl.

I think it’s trying to go for your eyes, Tala said in a worried tone. You have to keep it away from your face, Colton. Its nails could blind you in a second.

She was right. This bastard had no eyes and seemed determined to inflict the same thing on me. I pushed away the image of it ripping my eyes out of their sockets and instead concentrated on the task ahead.

I took a few steps back to give myself some more space, and then I looked over at Neoma. I’d kept the owl-woman out of the fighting so far because I wanted to use her as a surprise attack. If this f*cker was relying on smell and hearing, it probably had no idea about Neoma’s presence, since she was gracefully and quietly hovering over the swamp.

This seemed like the right time to deploy her.

“Now, Neoma!” I shouted as the zombie scuttled forward and leaped toward my face for a third time.

It had evidently learned from its past two attempts when I’d dodged to either side because, this time, it sprang higher and stretched its arms wide as it opened its mouth. It tried to wrap its arms around my head so it could bite my face, and I slid swiftly underneath its leaping body and scrambled back to my feet behind it.

Neoma swooped for the f*cker’s shoulder and sank her beak into its gray flesh.

It snarled at the unexpected attack and tried to grab at my feathered eidolon, but she was way too fast, and she flew off triumphantly with a piece of gray flesh oozing with slime in her beak.

The zombie sniffed the air quickly and turned its attention back to me.

I had a plan for its next attack. I was going to ram my shoulder into its body and send it flying to the ground, and then, hopefully, I’d have enough time to make several stabs with my saber at its soft abdomen before it could get up.

It sprang again, and sharp, ragged nails came straight for my eyes, but I was ready. I dodged slightly to the right and smashed my shoulder into the bastard so it flew backward and landed on the stone slabs with a painful-sounding crunch.

But my foot slipped on the algae, and I lost my balance.

My left shoulder and hip collided with the ground hard, and my legs splayed out at a weird angle. I managed to keep hold of my saber but found my right boot was only a foot or so away from the zombie’s head.

It hadn’t had a chance to recover from my attack properly yet, so it was still lying with its back on the ground, but it evidently sensed my proximity. Before I could scramble to my feet, it grabbed hold of my right ankle with its long, scrawny gray hands and it was trying to bring my leg toward its open jaws.

Don’t let it bite you! Tala said urgently. It’s probably poisonous. The venom might rot your flesh and brain to turn you into something similar.

Sweat poured down my back as I thought about that terrifying possibility. It reminded me of those zombie video games I’d sometimes played with Owen, except now, I couldn’t hit restart if I got bitten.

I’d turn into a f*cking swamp creature like this bastard.

I kept shaking my right leg as wildly as I could to prevent the zombie from sinking its poisonous teeth into me, but it wouldn’t let go of my ankle. I swung my saber as best I could from the position I was lying in, but the weapon was a couple of inches short of the bastard’s head. Try as I might, I just couldn’t reach it, so I lashed out hard with my left leg instead, and my boot connected with the side of its jaw.

It grunted at the impact, but otherwise, I didn’t seem to have made much of a difference. It still kept a tight grip on my right ankle, and its jaws were getting closer.

Neoma seized the opportunity while the creature was distracted with both hands occupied. She swooped down and dragged her sharp talons across the bloodied bandage covering its eye sockets.

The bastard shrieked in agony and let go of my ankle immediately so it could bring one skeletal hand up to the bandage as it tried to swipe at my owl eidolon with the other.

Once again, she was too fast, and the swamp zombie found itself attacking empty air.

Neoma circled around, darted down, and landed a vicious peck at the waving hand of the creature. It lowered its arm with a snarl, rolled onto its side, and tried to cover its head to protect itself from further aerial attacks.

Meanwhile, I’d scrambled to my feet.

Once the bastard heard me moving, it seemed to forget about the danger of Neoma’s talons and looked like it was going to try and get back into a springing position.

I quickly kicked, and the heel of my boot connected hard with whatever was left of the bastard’s stomach. The impact forced the creature straight onto its back, and it had no time to react before I stabbed it through the abdomen with my saber. I twisted the weapon in the wound and watched the gray, sludgy matter ooze out of it.

The swamp-dwelling bastard shrieked in pain, and its arms flapped around. Its jagged nails narrowly missed me, and when Neoma saw this, she darted straight down toward its face and dragged her talons across the disgusting, bloody bandage again.

The zombie f*cker howled in agony and seemed to forget all about me as it brought both hands straight back up to try and cover its face. It even seemed to forget there was a f*cking saber sticking out of its abdomen.

This was the opportunity I needed to completely annihilate the slimy bastard. I’d seen enough films and played enough video games to know I had to destroy its brain, so I unhooked my heavy golden mallet from my belt and raised it high above my head.

I swung it down hard against the creature’s face before it could recover from Neoma’s attack.

There was a sickening crunch as the mallet collided with cartilage and bone, and the zombie let out a terrible howl of agony. But I didn’t even wait to see what damage I’d done before I swung the weapon again and brought it down with furious force.

A repulsive explosion of gray matter flew up like some disgusting firework and spattered over the ground. When I raised my mallet, I saw I’d completely smashed the f*cker’s face in, and it was impossible to really tell it had once been something’s head. Gray slime poured over mangled flesh and splintered shards of bone, and pieces of what I guessed were fractured teeth were strewn all over the ground.

I actually felt slightly sick at the sight.

The zombie creature’s entire body was twitching uncontrollably, but it no longer had a functioning mouth to cry out with. After several seconds, the twitching stopped. I stood back and waited for a moment to be sure, but there was absolutely no sign of life, and I knew it was over.

“No coming back from that, f*cker,” I growled triumphantly and kicked its body into the shallow edge of the swamp.

It started sliding back into the disgusting water it came from as I sheathed my weapons at my belt and began to walk away.

Well done, both of you, Tala said warmly as her pride in me washed over my body.

I heaved a sigh of relief that I still had both of my eyeballs and that I hadn’t been infected by a zombie bite.

“Thanks.” I grinned. “Never thought I’d have to perform the old double tap to the head in real life.”

The what? Tala asked with confusion.

“It’s not important,” I laughed and imagined Owen’s reaction if I told him I’d killed a real-life f*cking zombie.

Are you absolutely sure it didn’t bite you? Tala asked in a worried voice.

“I’m fine.” I smiled but quickly looked myself over just to be certain.

Then, I glanced up to check on Neoma. The owl eidolon was swooping and somersaulting through the air as she let out frequent ecstatic hoots of victory.

“Neoma’s good, too,” I chuckled.

I’m sure we must be close by now, Tala said after a pause. Either way, I hope we get out of this swamp soon. There’s no telling what else lives in there, and the dead body might attract other creatures.

I nodded and moved my feet a little faster. Fighting one undead swamp bastard intent on tearing out my eyes had been enough. I didn’t need to do it again.

Luckily, there were no more encounters, and I easily skirted the rest of the swamp. When I reached the end, Neoma let out three hoots of excitement that told me we were almost there.

I stayed keenly alert as I marched through more of the decaying jungle, and I noticed there were no more spikes on the trunks of the trees, and that the ground finally felt a little firmer. I even saw some delicate, white flowers peeking out of the ground in a few places.

Those grow in normal graveyards all over Fablewild, Tala said. They’re sacred to the dead, and people hang them on the door when a loved one dies. They must mean we’re almost there.

We walked up a gentle hill, and I saw we were finally leaving the jungle behind. The trees thinned out a bit to allow more light through, the flowers were more numerous, and the air started to smell cleaner.

When we reached the top of the slope, I gasped at the view before me.

Below us was a huge, walled graveyard. Mist hung over it, and there were more headstones and monuments than I could count. A pair of enormous metal gates shimmered faintly in front of me, and I guessed there was some sort of magic running through them.

The whole place stretched out further than I could see, and I estimated it would take days to walk around all of it.

Neoma hooted with delight at the scene in front of us, and I knew she couldn’t wait to get down there.

“Wow,” I breathed. “It’s incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it!”

I know, Tala said quietly. You’ll never forget a graveyard after you’ve seen it… Are you ready?

I nodded and followed Neoma’s feathery form as she flew down the slope and toward the gates to the graveyard.

As we approached the gates, a weird, cold, tingling sensation ran down my spine. Although this place didn’t feel exactly threatening like when we were in the jungle, there was definitely an eerie atmosphere, and I felt as if I was being watched the whole time.

The wall must have been about twenty feet high. It was made of a beautiful gray stone that reminded me of granite or marble, and it shimmered slightly in the pale sunlight. There were two thick gateposts made of the same material, and each was embellished with a delicately-carved statue of a beautiful, veiled woman. I guessed they were representations of the nymphs who tended the graveyard. The elaborate metal gate was the same height as the wall, and it was studded with large gems.

I felt tiny in comparison.

Two spectral creatures were standing on either side of the huge gate, and when I approached, I saw they were several heads taller than me and dressed in armor with large swords hanging at their belts. The ghostly guards were slightly translucent when the light passed through them, and they were sort of fuzzy around the edges.

“Halt!” the one on the left boomed when I was just a few feet from the gate.

I stopped walking and waited as my heart rate quickened.

It’s alright, Tala said. There’s always some test to make sure you’re a true adventurer before you’re allowed in.

“Now you tell me,” I said quietly and sensed her smile.

“Who wishes to enter the realm of the dead?” the other guard asked in a stern tone.

“Colton Davis,” I answered in the most confident voice I could muster.

“And what does Colton Davis want from the graveyard?” the same spectral guard enquired.

I thought about how to answer for a moment. More than anything, I hadn’t wanted to pass up the opportunity of seeing such a rare place, although I was also excited about the possibility of trading something.

“I want to learn about the graveyard and the laws that govern it,” I said loudly. “I may wish to make a worthy trade, but mostly, I am an adventurer who would like to experience this unique and special part of Fablewild.”

That’s good, Tala told me. It shows you’re not just there to try and claim as much loot as you can.

The two guards were silent for a moment, and I wondered if they were going to refuse me entry.

“How can you prove yourself to be a true adventurer?” the first guard asked.

I paused and considered whether or not I should reveal that I had two eidolons. Obviously, they’d be able to see Neoma, who was hovering next to me, but they didn’t know about Tala yet.

My limited experience in Fablewild so far had been enough to teach me I should be extremely cautious in revealing any information, especially when it came to eidolons. But I thought it would probably be safe to tell them since these guards didn’t seem as if they had any plans to rob me.

I decided I’d keep Tala hidden for now but tell them if I really had to.

“I’ve only been an adventurer for a short time,” I began. “But in that time, I have already started to make a name for myself by successfully raiding the Emerald Temple, the Sting Temple, the Floating Temple, and the Temple of the Beasts. I have also acquired the Owl of the High Tides Eidolon, as you can see.”

I felt a rush of affection from Neoma at my mention of her, and Tala’s pride in me coursed through my body like electricity.

I hadn’t actually considered all my achievements together yet, but when I said it aloud to the guards, even I had to admit it sounded pretty f*cking impressive.

And that was even without mentioning I also had the Wolf of Dusk Eidolon.

The first guard went over to the second. He moved like a cloud of mist, and his already blurred edges became even more indistinct. The two guards spoke quietly for a moment and threw the occasional glance in my direction. Then, the first one cleared his throat and turned back to me.

“The adventurer Colton Davis has proven himself worthy,” he announced. “He has gained permission to enter the sacred graveyard of the dead.”

There was a brief but blinding flash of light by the metal gates, and I realized the gates had disappeared and left a hole in the wall where they’d been.

“Enter,” the second guard told me and gestured to the gap.

“Thanks.” I grinned broadly as I started walking toward the entry with Neoma flying slowly at my side.

I was a little uneasy at the prospect of passing the huge ghostly guards, but they’d seemed reasonable enough, and I guessed that so long as I didn’t screw with the magical rules of the graveyard, they wouldn’t bother us.

Once we’d passed through the gap, there was another flash of light on the edge of my vision, and when I glanced over my shoulder, the gates had magically reappeared.

I turned my head back around to look over the vast expanse of land that stretched in front of me, and I wondered how I was going to remember the route back here after we’d finished in the graveyard.

It’s okay, Tala said as if she sensed my thoughts. The gates and guards appear in whatever section of the wall you’re closest to once you’ve decided you’ve had enough.

I grinned. This place was so f*cking cool.

There wasn’t really a clear-cut route I could take because there was absolutely no pattern or symmetry to the layout of the gravestones. It reminded me of those old country churchyards with really ancient, crooked monuments scattered about, but on a vast scale. So I decided to meander around and see what happened.

The fresh air smelled wonderful after the stench of death in the jungle. The emerald-green grass was overgrown enough to reach my mid-shins, and those little white flowers were everywhere. Tall, bare trees grew intermittently throughout the graveyard, and charcoal-colored birds with gold-tipped feathers perched in their naked branches. They looked a bit like ravens or crows, and they watched me walk with their beady black eyes.

Neoma was even more elated now than she had been in the jungle, and I could feel the happiness pouring out of her as she soared easily through the clean air.

Leaves crunched underneath my feet as I wove through the complex maze of tombstones. Most were simple stones and slabs with inscriptions I couldn’t read, and others were more elaborate structures like obelisks and pyramids. Some were embellished with statues of heroic-looking people who were dressed in armor and brandished their stone weapons at the sky.

There was a stunning array of monuments of different shapes and sizes, but the thing that struck me most was the sheer number of them. There were thousands upon thousands of tombstones everywhere I looked, and I wondered who the hell was buried here.

They were lost souls, Tala said as I stared at the monuments. In the same way the nymphs bring unclaimed objects and weapons here, they also bring the bodies of those who will never be found. Some were ordinary citizens who fell through the cracks of Fablewild’s society and were not missed when they died. But most were adventurers lost to the jungles or the temples.

I inhaled sharply as I looked around the graveyard and thought about the number of men and women like me who’d fallen in the jungles.

It’s sobering, isn’t it? my lover continued. The life of an adventurer is often a short one, and it’s always brimming with danger. Many are never remembered because they lasted for so little time. But you, Colton, are going to be glorious.

My whole body tingled with pride at Tala’s words, but it was still weird to be surrounded by the bodies of so many dead adventurers. I thought about how easily I could have died when I’d first stumbled through a jungle in Fablewild with nothing to defend myself with.

But I didn’t brood on that thought for too long. I was alive, and I had two eidolons to love and protect.

I was also in a graveyard, one of the places so many adventurers dreamed of visiting, and as I walked further into this bizarre place, I could see why.

On the ground next to the graves, were gems, jewels, gold, weapons, armor, and relics of every kind. My eyes roamed over the glittering treasure trove, and I struggled to take it all in. There must have been more items in a twenty-foot radius within the graveyard than there had been in some entire markets I’d visited.

“It’s extraordinary,” I said as I continued to walk.

I know, Tala replied. You don’t have anything like this on Earth, do you?

“No,” I chuckled. “I mean, we do have some very large graveyards, but they just have graves in them. This is unbelievable.”

Neoma let out a couple of happy hoots, and I glanced up. She was twisting elegantly through the sky to my left, and when she saw me looking at her, she did a couple of cute little somersaults, just for the hell of it. Pure joy flowed out of her, and I smiled as I sensed how happy she was.

I stopped walking for a moment and crouched down to take a closer look at one of the items. It was an elaborately-worked silver sword that laid on the ground next to a simple grave. There was a glowing, pale-blue light that reached out of the earth and looped around the sword.

It’s the binding, Tala explained. It keeps the item firmly rooted to the soil until the graveyard accepts a trade. It’s scorchingly hot, so don’t touch it.

I stood back up and carried on walking as I thought about how amazing this place was.

“We have to find something I can trade,” I said with enthusiasm. “I can’t miss the opportunity to trade in a graveyard when so few adventurers even make it here in the first place!”

Ripples of Tala’s laughter flowed through me.

What do you want to trade? she asked, and there was a smile in her voice.

“Well, my new saber and my magical crossbow are out of the question,” I said. “But I wouldn’t mind exchanging my dagger.”

I’d acquired the dagger on my first day in Fablewild when I’d stumbled across a dead body in the Emerald Temple. I’d felt slightly guilty about taking stuff from a dead guy, but I’d needed it in that moment far more than he did. Besides, it had actually been the body of Tala’s old master, and he turned out to be a prick, anyway.

The dagger was beautifully crafted, but its blade had already been badly scratched when I’d gotten it, and now it was showing even more signs of wear. I didn’t really like using Tala’s previous master’s weapons, given how he’d treated her. I’d taken the mallet from him, too, and although it was a good weapon, I’d willingly trade it if I found something better.

“Neoma?” I called out to the owl eidolon.

She was several yards ahead of me but instantly swooped elegantly back around. Within an instant, she was perching on my shoulders and rubbing her head against my cheek.

I reached up to stroke her soft feathers. “I want to trade my dagger for a new one. Maybe the mallet, too. You’ve got amazing eyesight, so if you see something good, can you let me know?”

Neoma made several excitable clicking sounds and took off into the sky again.

I kept a lookout, too, as I wove through the stones and made my way further into the graveyard.

The amount of weapons and armor was amazing, and with every new thing I saw, I thought about how much easier fighting in temples would be.

“I wish I had more to trade,” I said. “There’s so much cool stuff here!”

There is, Tala said with amusem*nt. It would be useful if we could find this place again one day.

“Yeah, but then we’re back to the old issue, aren’t we?” I sighed. “It’s really irritating to never know where we’re going to end up in Fablewild. I love this world, and I love being able to explore so many different parts of it, but it means we can never plan very far ahead, and it makes it virtually impossible to come back to the same spots.”

I know, Tala said softly. But we might be able to use the same place we set off from to come back here, so long as that guy doesn’t find it.

“But he probably will find it.” I frowned. “That’s the other problem… He’s found every single launch spot we’ve used so far. So we aren’t only unsure where we’ll end up in Fablewild, but we can’t really come back anywhere for a second time because the crazy f*ck is stalking us.”

I stopped and knelt down to examine a dagger that caught my eye. But upon closer inspection, I didn’t like it so much. The handle looked too chunky, and the blade was a bit short.

“I have wondered whether we actually need to be on the mountain at all,” I continued as I stood up. “I mean, that’s what we’ve done so far because we didn’t want to f*ck around with something we didn’t understand, right? But we’re running out of options for places in the area we can set off from, so it might be time to try somewhere completely new.”

Tala’s unease coursed through me at this suggestion, and I could’ve sworn I sensed her frowning and biting her lip.

What if we killed the tent man and took his body into Fablewild? she asked suddenly. You say it would cause too many problems if his body was discovered in your world, but this way, there would be no chance he’d be found. We could even take him into Fablewild and kill him here, to limit the chances of anyone seeing us.

“I hadn’t thought of that,” I admitted as I turned the idea over.

I didn’t know if it would even be possible to take a body through the strange wormhole that connected our worlds. First off, we’d have to find the f*cker in his orange tent, and then we’d have to kill him without anyone seeing. Then, we’d need to dismantle the tent and clear any evidence he’d camped there, and finally, we’d have to take his body and all his equipment into Fablewild so we could dump it.

And to kill him in Fablewild, we’d have to either drag him through the portal with us, or persuade him to come of his own accord.

Yeah, right.

It was true his disappearance would solve a lot of our issues, but I could sometimes barely hold onto the portal box when we were swept up in its vicious tornado as it was. I couldn’t imagine trying to cling onto a sh*t-ton of camping gear and either a dead body or a struggling prisoner as well.

Besides, I didn’t really want to kill him if I didn’t have to. Even ignoring any consequences we might face on Earth, some part of me still felt sorry for the guy. If he was really this irate about the box, I guessed he didn’t have much going on in his life. And I was sure I’d be pissed off, too, if I felt like somebody had stolen the portal from me.

Then again, I wouldn’t have left it in a geocache and posted the cache’s location on the internet. I still didn’t know what kind of moron did something like that, and it made me wonder what led him to the decision in the first place.

“It wouldn’t work,” I said to Tala. “There would still be too many problems and logistical issues. We might have to try the portal from a different location. There’s plenty of trails in the area, but we’d need to be aware that we could land somewhere completely random in Fablewild. I suppose we could even end up in an entirely different world.”

Just then, my thoughts were cut off when I heard Neoma hooting excitedly up ahead. I rushed over to her and found her hovering next to a large, elegant grave with a statue of a weeping woman.

At the statue’s feet was a black dagger sheath with elaborate golden patterns inlaid into it. Small, green gems that I guessed were emeralds were studded throughout the metalwork, and next to the sheath lay a gorgeous dagger. The hilt was gold and had a large emerald embedded into it. The blade had razor-sharp edges and looked like it was made out of steel. There was no pattern on it, and it was completely unscratched as it gleamed tantalizingly in the light.

I knew instantly, this was the one.

“It’s perfect.” I grinned at Neoma. “Thank you!”

The owl eidolon hooted happily and settled once more on my shoulders.

“Do you like it, Tala?” I asked my wolf-lover.

I do, she answered. It looks like a strong blade. It’s very beautiful, too.

“It is,” I agreed. “Okay, so how does this work? I put my old blade down and…?

And wait to see what happens, Tala finished for me. If the graveyard accepts the trade, it will release the item you want. If it refuses, then you’ll have to find something else.

I had no idea if my old dagger was anywhere near good enough for this trade, but there was only one way to find out. I unhooked it from my belt and laid it gently on the ground.

For a couple of seconds, nothing happened, and I was beginning to think I’d have to go and find something else to trade for it.

Then, a high-pitched ringing that sounded like windchimes reverberated around the graveyard. I was entranced as I watched the glowing blue binding around the gold and steel dagger uncoil itself before it reached out to wrap around my old weapon instead.

My heart fluttered as I tentatively reached forward and gently touched my new blade.

I’d assumed it would be hot after what Tala had said about the blue binding, but when my fingers grazed the metal, it was perfectly cool. I picked up the sheath with one hand and my new dagger with the other, then got to my feet so I could inspect them properly.

They really were beautiful, and the glinting blade looked like it was as sharp as broken glass. The weapon felt perfectly balanced in my palm, and I knew for certain that it had been a good exchange.

I was determined to somehow find my way back to this graveyard in the future so I could trade some more things. I knew it would be easier to come back now that we had Neoma to lead us, and perhaps we’d still be able to travel to Fablewild from the location we’d used earlier, even if the crazy guy found it. After all, he could only guard one launch spot at a time.

It would still be risky, though, and I wished again there was a way of knowing where the portal would deposit us.

I sheathed my new dagger and hung it on my belt. I didn’t desperately need to trade anything else right now, but I decided I’d still keep half an eye out for some sort of blunt weapon I could trade my old mallet for as I explored more of the graveyard.

Other than the birds I’d seen earlier, we were the only living creatures in sight. It felt so weird to be in such a deserted area of Fablewild without needing to worry about dangerous, wild creatures and hostile adventurers trying to kill me. The graveyard’s huge walls and spectral guards were already impressive defenses, and I guessed the magic surrounding the place was strong enough to keep out most intruders.

Just as I was wondering whether it would soon be time to head back into the jungle, I spotted a small hill protruding from the earth. It was ahead of me, and slightly to my left. I thought if I climbed to the top, I might be able to get a better view of where I was in the graveyard, which would allow me to get my bearings, and see if I could work out how f*cking big this place really was.

As I walked further toward the base of the hill, I saw a group of about twelve figures gathered in a circle around a large tree roughly two-thirds of the way up the slope. I couldn’t see their faces clearly, but they looked female, and they were all dressed in long, white gowns.

“Who are they?” I whispered to Tala as I stopped to stare at the strange figures.

They’re the nymphs, she said in a quiet, distant voice. They never usually appear together as a group like that. In fact, there’s only one possible reason why they would.

Her words were somehow worrying and exciting at the same time.

“What’s the reason?” I asked.

Tala paused for a moment. They must be guarding an eidolon.

“What?” I asked. “How…?”

Eidolons can get lost the same way as anything else, Tala said sadly.

I peered up at the slope. “I can’t see her.”

You wouldn’t, Tala answered. The nymphs can’t wield eidolons, so she won’t be released until someone claims her.

I sighed and thought back to what my wolf-lover had told me when we’d rescued Neoma. She’d said if we left the owl eidolon in the jungle, she might have been claimed by another adventurer, but she could also have ended up being taken to the graveyard by the nymphs. And that might have meant she would never be released again.

The moment I’d seen Neoma’s ring waiting in the jungle by the body of her dead master, I’d known I had to save her. There were so many asshole adventurers out there who treated eidolons like sh*t, and I’d known I couldn’t leave her for just anyone to claim.

And now that I’d seen the graveyard she might have ended up in, I was even happier that I’d saved her. The thought that beautiful, bubbly Neoma could have been trapped here within her ring filled me with a powerful ache.

I’m glad you decided to rescue Neoma from this fate, Tala said softly. I can’t bear the thought that she might have ended up here. It’s so cold and devoid of life.

“I know,” I sighed and looked over at Neoma.

The owl eidolon was perching on a gravestone next to where I stood. She stared at me with her huge hazel-and-gold eyes, and affection radiated from her. Although she couldn’t speak, I could instantly tell she was thanking me for having saved her.

I turned my head in the direction of the nymphs again.

I couldn’t leave an eidolon here.

Colton… Tala said as she sensed my feelings.

“I can’t abandon her,” I replied. “No eidolon should suffer like this. The least I can do is go and find out more from the nymphs.”

Tala was silent for a moment.

You’re right, she said eventually. At first, I was unsure about your choice to claim Neoma because I didn’t know if you could handle two eidolons, but I was wrong. I trust you with all my heart, and I’ll support whatever decision you make.

Warmth coursed through my body at her words, and I started walking slowly up the hill. Neoma took off from her gravestone perch so she could fly next to me.

“Do the nymphs find these eidolons the same way they find the weapons?” I asked Tala.

Not exactly, my lover answered. Nymphs are immortal, sacred creatures in this world, and no person or animal will attack them, so they travel in complete safety wherever they want. When they roam the jungles and temples of Fablewild, they stumble upon bodies and items, and they bring those here. But an eidolon’s mana can only be contained for so long, and if they’re left unclaimed for an extended period of time, it overflows. This draws the nymphs, and they bring the eidolons to the graveyard for safekeeping.

“But surely that doesn’t happen often,” I said as I processed this information.

No, Tala replied. It’s very rare. I’ve been to a few graveyards over the centuries, but I’ve never seen an eidolon in one. Mostly, we’re passed swiftly from one hand to the next because our masters are killed so frequently by other adventurers. Although, since my last master died in the Emerald Temple, it could easily have been a long time before anyone found me. If you hadn’t passed through the same spot where he’d been killed, it’s possible no one else would have… And so I might have ended up claimed by the nymphs, too.

My heart ached when I thought about my beautiful wolf-lover trapped in a graveyard. Eidolons were powerful ancient spirits who should be free to roam the world alongside their masters, not imprisoned for eternity.

I’d almost reached the tree where the nymphs were gathered, now. It was bare like the rest of the graveyard, but a flowering vine twisted around its trunk, and small white buds shot up from the ground near it.

The nymphs were chanting in a rhythmic, musical way as they lifted their hands and looked up. It was beautiful, but I couldn’t understand the words.

It’s a prayer, Tala said. They’re asking the graveyard to keep this eidolon safe and to accept an honorable trade if it’s offered. Although it may seem cruel to keep her here, the nymphs really have her best interests at heart. They share many similarities with eidolons, and they won’t let her be taken by someone unworthy.

I stopped a few feet away from the nymphs. I thought it would be rude to interrupt their prayer, so I waited and watched as they continued to chant with their faces raised to the sky.

Their white gowns shimmered silver in the sun, and the nymphs themselves had very pale skin with dark, crimson lips. They all had long, elaborately-braided hair, and they wore veils over their faces. They were tall and willowy, and one wore a golden belt wrapped around her waist.

The golden-belted nymph was taller than the rest, and she seemed to be leading the prayer. Her dark hair cascaded down her slim back, and when the chanting was over, she made a quick gesture with her hand to disperse the rest of the nymphs from their circular formation around the tree.

As they moved, they revealed a pedestal. On top of it was a beautiful golden pendant set with a green stone like an emerald. Etched into the gem was a golden pattern that looked a bit like a stylized sun within a circle, and I knew it was the eidolon’s symbol.

The pendant seemed to be fixed to the pedestal by the same blue band of light I’d seen wrapped around the other items in the graveyard.

“I thought eidolons were always in rings,” I whispered to Tala.

No, she answered. We can live in many items, it depends on what our spirit is bound to. Rings are more common than pendants because they make it easy to summon eidolons quickly with a flick of the wrist.

I wanted to ask her more questions, but I felt a desperate pull of energy from the pendant, and I could practically hear the eidolon trapped inside calling out. Then the tall nymph turned toward me, and she stared at me with dark, mysterious eyes.

“Speak,” she said in a soft tone.

“I’m an adventurer,” I began. “I’d like to know about the eidolon you’re watching over.”

“What do you wish to know?” she asked, without taking her eyes from me.

I paused for a second. “Well, who is she, for a start?”

“We cannot say,” the nymph told me. “We do not have the strength to wield an eidolon, and we do not recognize her symbol. She must wait in the pendant until she is claimed by someone worthy in the greatest of trades.”

“Okay,” I said as I thought quickly how to handle this. “How long have you been guarding her?”

The nymph’s eyes flickered. “Time is of no importance to us.”

“And how will you know when a worthy adventurer comes along?” I asked.

The nymph smiled for the first time. “We will know.”

I ran my right hand through my hair and saw her eyes follow the ring I wore.

I took a deep breath. “I’d like to make a trade and claim this eidolon.”

Her eyes drifted from Neoma’s ring to the owl eidolon herself, who was hovering by my side.

“You clearly already have an eidolon,” the nymph said slowly. “No adventurer can wield two such powerful spirit warriors at the same time. It has never been done. It cannot be done.”

I brought my left hand out of my pocket and held it up so she could see Tala’s ring, too.

“I’ve done it,” I said in quiet triumph.

The entire group of nymphs was silent for a moment and stared at my two rings. Then, they started murmuring with each other as the lead nymph approached me and took both of my hands in hers. Her skin was cold, and once she’d examined the rings, she took a steady step backward.

“The nymphs have walked the temples and jungles of Fablewild for eons,” she announced. “In that time, none of us have ever seen a thing like this… What is your name, adventurer?”

“Colton Davis,” I said. “My eidolons are the Wolf of Dusk and the Owl of the High Tides. They are both happy with me as their master. I treat them as my equals, I fight and live alongside them, and they have both my admiration and my respect.”

Tala’s love flowed through me at these words, and Neoma came to perch on my shoulders affectionately.

The nymphs watched me with awe, and it was clear that I’d won their trust. Then, their leader turned and exchanged a few quiet words with the rest of the group.

They can feel how happy we are, Tala explained. I really think they might agree to let you trade for the eidolon!

My heart thudded in my chest as I thought about rescuing another eidolon from a terrible fate. I knew I could protect her, and with three ancient spirit warriors on my side, I’d be f*cking unstoppable.

Eventually, the lead nymph turned back to me and smiled warmly.

“Colton Davis, the nymphs have decided you are worthy,” she said. “You may propose a trade, but the graveyard will decide if what you offer is a fair price.”

I was pleased they’d agreed to let me try and save the eidolon, but finding something worthy of exchanging for her was going to be f*cking hard.

But I didn’t want to ignore her and let her potentially be snatched up by some piece-of-sh*t adventurer. Besides, I was honestly curious if I could wield three eidolons.

I couldn’t just leave her there.

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll come back the moment I’ve found something worthy. Please look after her, in the meantime, and don’t let anybody else claim her.”

“This is something we cannot promise,” the nymph said. “We will watch over her, but there are many worthy adventurers in Fablewild, and if one can offer something for her before you return, we will be powerless to stop the graveyard from accepting the trade.”

I sighed. This was going to be tough.

“I’ll return as soon as I can,” I said, but then I had an idea. “I don’t suppose you can tell me how to find the graveyard again?”

The nymphs looked at me without much expression for several long seconds, and it was pretty clear, even if they could give me information like that, they weren’t going to.

“Right.” I nodded once. “Thanks.”

I figured that would’ve been too easy as I threw one last look at the glowing pendant and turned on my heel.

“Can you show me the best way to get out of here?” I asked Neoma.

She hooted, took off from my shoulders, and flew a little ahead of me so I could follow her path.

The graveyard had been cool, but it was no place for an eidolon, and I was determined to save the spirit in the green-and-gold pendant as soon as I could.

“So what do you think?” I asked Tala as I walked. “We’re going to have to level up our pathfinding, that’s for sure.”

Yes, she answered. And you have to be quick about it before somebody else claims her. Many adventurers don’t deserve an eidolon, but the nymphs were right when they said there are plenty who do. We probably don’t have much time.

“I know,” I grumbled. “So we need to go for more dangerous routes. Perhaps we could approach a temple from the west, late on in the day… Or maybe we should try after dark.”

Even as I said it, I knew how difficult this was going to be. But failure wasn’t an option. I had to save that eidolon.

Maybe, Tala said thoughtfully. Although frankly, I’m not sure that anything other than a relic from a Grand Temple will do.

I exhaled sharply. “sh*t, I don’t know where we’d start with that. Even Neoma didn’t find the Grand Temple of the Deep after all those months of searching…”

I know, Tala said, and I could feel her frowning. But eidolons are so rare and so prized, I think that’s the only real option. We might have more luck in finding a Grand Temple now that we’re all working together. And being able to communicate with you so easily is a huge help. Most masters and eidolons can’t do that.

“That’s true,” I agreed as I followed Neoma’s path through the gravestones.

If anyone can find a Grand Temple and save that eidolon, it’s you, Tala continued softly.

Our mutual love and admiration flowed through our bond, and I marveled at how easily we could sense each other’s emotions.

Neoma finally led us back to the edge of the graveyard, and I saw another glowing gate in the wall. It was the same as the one we’d come through when we’d arrived, but this time, the guards merely nodded to me when I approached. Once again, a flash of light revealed a gap in the wall for me to pass through.

On the other side, we found ourselves back in the gloomy jungle with its desiccated trees, and I stopped for a minute as I looked around and considered the best route to take.

“Do you recognize this at all, Tala?” I asked.

No, she said. But I imagine Neoma does.

“Neoma,” I called. “Do you know where we are?”

The owl eidolon hooted in agreement. I thought about asking her to take me to the nearest temple since we’d come here for a raid, but I decided we could all do with a rest first.

The temple would still be there later, and in fact, it would be better to approach it later in the day, since I could get some practice in with harder challenges. And besides, it had already been an eventful morning, and I wanted a moment to process the information I’d learned from the nymphs before I went off raiding.

“Is there a town nearby you can take us to?” I asked Neoma.

She made a happy clicking noise in response.

“Alright,” I chuckled. “I’ll follow you.”

We started trekking back through the creepy jungle. I kept a close eye on my surroundings and made sure to avoid any tree roots. Luckily, we didn’t have to cross any swamps, and we didn’t see any more mutilated corpses, either.

Although I heard several animal noises that made my spine tingle, we didn’t actually encounter anything, and it didn’t take long before the trees thinned out again.

Neoma then led us slightly to the left and around a bend. When we emerged from the trees, I was greeted by the largest town I’d seen so far in Fablewild.

In fact, I guessed it was big enough to be called a city. Flags waved from its many pointed towers that jutted confidently into the sky. The exterior walls were made of jet-black stone, but vines with bright flowers trailed along them and up the tall towers.

The contrast between the black stone and the vibrant flowers was shocking, and I couldn’t wait to see what the inside of the city was like.

A large, dazzling blue lake encircled the walls like a defensive moat, and I had to cross an elaborate stone bridge to reach the gate.

“Thanks, Neoma,” I said as I stared at the city in front of me. “I think you should get back in the ring, now. It’s too dangerous for you or Tala to be out when we’re in an unknown city full of unknown people, and I want to keep you hidden if I can.”

Neoma made an agreeable clicking kind of noise, so I flicked my wrist and watched her disappear in a swirl of purple clouds.

I could still clearly feel her presence, though, which meant I was getting better at sensing her feelings when she was inside the ring. Tala’s emotions were more dominant because we were so close, and it probably helped that she could speak with me when she was in the ring. But my bond with Neoma was getting stronger all the time, too.

And the next temple we raided as a trio would only strengthen that connection even more.

Hell, perhaps one day I’d even be able to speak to her when she was inside the ring. Although that had only happened with Tala after we’d had sex.

Once I knew both my eidolons were safe, I started walking along the bridge. I stopped about halfway and peered over the edge into the bright blue lake below me. There were large, murky shapes moving ominously through the water, and I shuddered as I thought about how big those f*ckers’ teeth probably were.

I shook myself and carried on walking. There were guards posted in the lookout towers and all along the walls, but they seemed incredibly relaxed, and the large metal gate to the town was wide open and welcoming. A couple of guards were posted outside it, but that seemed more for show than anything else. When they saw me, they simply called out a greeting and waved me through.

“This is the most chill place I’ve been to in Fablewild,” I muttered under my breath as I stepped through the gates.

It does seem that way, Tala said. But I suppose the tall towers mean they can spot any threat coming toward them, and then close the gate quickly if they need to.

I gasped as I walked into the city. The paths were vibrant mosaics of multicolored pebbles and tiles in crazy, swirling patterns, the large houses were all vibrantly painted, and many had flowers growing in their front gardens. The streets were alive with people, and I could instantly tell that many of them were adventurers, thanks to their general air of confidence and the multitude of weapons hanging at their sides.

That must be why the guards had been so relaxed at the gates. In most cities, an adventurer arriving was a cause of great excitement, but here, they were f*cking everywhere.

A couple of adventurers nodded to me as we crossed paths, and then they headed out through the open gate. I guessed they were off to raid a temple, and I wondered which ones were around here.

Although the streets were busy, there was no pushing or shoving like there had been in Redrest. The atmosphere was relaxed and happy, and I could feel the tension of the jungle trek draining from my body as I walked along the colorful paths.

The city seemed to be thriving. There were rows of shops selling all kinds of goods, and I could see a bustling market at the end of the street. The sound of laughter and music grew louder as I approached, and I realized there was a group of people playing instruments on a makeshift stage near the market.

They’re minstrels, Tala said. They sing about glorious deeds and great temple raids. All adventurers dream of being the subject of a minstrel song. It confirms their place in Fablewild’s history, and they will never be forgotten.

I nodded and paused for a moment to hear some of the song. The minstrels were singing about someone called Agann, who’d apparently been a daring and glorious adventurer.

No one knows what happened to Agann in the end, Tala informed me. He completed many different temples all over Fablewild, and apparently, he even raided the Grand Temple of the Deep. But soon after that, he disappeared. Most think he died in the jungle somewhere. Others believe he’s waiting to return and carry out one final glorious raid. He’s a legendary figure.

“Sounds like a pretty amazing guy,” I murmured.

I was just considering whether to explore the market when I heard someone call my name. I looked around to try and locate the mysterious voice.

“Colton!” the voice shouted again.

I turned to my right and saw a man walking toward me from a large building. He was short and squat, and he was waving his huge, muscular arms over his head to attract my attention. His fiery-red hair was slicked back from his wide forehead, and his broad face lit up with a grin when he realized I’d seen him.

“Colton!” he cried out again as he approached.

When he got to me, he reached out a burly arm, grabbed my hand, and shook it enthusiastically. His movement was so vigorous that, for a few seconds, it felt like he was about to yank my arm out of its socket.

“This is an honor.” He grinned even wider.

“Err… hello,” I said in a confused voice. “Have we met before?”

The man chuckled. “Oh, I wish we had. It’s wonderful to meet you, young adventurer. We’ve heard tales of your exploits, and I would like to be the first to welcome you to the colorful city of Shimmermire.”

So that was the name of the town.

“Thanks.” I smiled as I extracted my hand from his grip.

“My name’s Krubrid,” he continued. “And I am the proud owner of the Drunken Flute right over there. It’s warm, friendly, and the ale flows freely. Why don’t you come in and get yourself some food? My wife’s made a delicious stew.”

My stomach rumbled at the thought of food, and I nodded. It would be good to be able to rest and recharge somewhere before we headed out raiding.

Krubrid led the way into the large, colorful tavern. It was so big, I couldn’t even see the back wall, and there were tables and chairs crammed into every corner. The air was stuffy from the amount of people inside, and the atmosphere was raucous but friendly.

Krubrid led me over to a free table in a corner.

“Sit yourself down there,” he chuckled.

“Thanks,” I said as I pulled out a chair. “Why’s it called the Drunken Flute?”

Krubrid’s eyes sparkled, and he pointed to a large table on the other side of the room where some sort of drinking game appeared to be in progress. There were six people sitting at the table, and four goblets sat in front of each of them. They all held some sort of wooden flute in their hands.

“I invented that game,” Krubrid laughed. “You have to use the flute to drink the contents of all the goblets in front of you as fast as you can. But if too much liquid comes out of the finger holes, you’re disqualified.”

“Right,” I chuckled.

“I’ll go and get you something to eat and drink,” Krubrid said with a smile.

He shambled off and let me take in my surroundings properly.

In the center of the room were three long tables with benches on either side of them. They were crammed full of men and women excitedly talking and laughing with each other. There were also some smaller tables like mine dotted around the edges of the room or tucked away in corners.

The drinking game was in full swing now, and a crowd had gathered around the participants to watch and encourage them. Nearer to me, a small group of young people all lifted their goblets up with a cheer and poured the contents over their heads.

I guessed I’d just witnessed the Fablewild toast that Neoma had been telling me about.

When Krubrid returned, he was carrying a tray with an overflowing goblet of beer, a huge bowl of delicious-smelling stew, and a side plate containing thick slices of bread and cheese.

“Here we are, young Colton.” He grinned and set the tray down.

“Thanks.” I smiled. “What do I owe you?”

“Don’t be daft,” he chuckled. “I’d go bankrupt if I let every adventurer in here eat and drink for free, but a first visit is always on the house. You enjoy yourself.”

“Thank you, I will,” I said as Krubrid bustled off.

The smell of stew drifted tantalizingly up to my nostrils, and I was about to grab the spoon and dig in when I felt a tingle of warning coming from Tala.

“What is it?” I muttered as I tried to make it look like I wasn’t talking to myself.

Don’t look yet, she said. But a few tables to your left, there’s a group of four men watching you. I don’t know who they are, but there’s something not right about them.

I glanced as casually as I could over to my left and found the group she was talking about. They were all huge and tough-looking. One had a scar that ran across his right cheek, and another was missing three fingers from his left hand. They weren’t eating or talking much to each other, but they were drinking steadily.

And, as Tala had said, they were watching me as if their lives depended on it.

I forced my eyes back to my food and tried to seem relaxed.

They didn’t look like adventurers, and I really didn’t like the way they were staring at me.

“Do you think they know about you and Neoma?” I murmured out of the corner of my mouth.

I’m not sure, she answered. But perhaps you should take one of the rings off and put it on your other hand to be safe. Then, you can use your free hand to eat.

I hated removing my eidolons’ rings even for a second, but Tala had told me before that, once the link was made between master and eidolon, nothing except death could sever it. I still needed to wear the rings to summon them or communicate with them, but removing them wouldn’t break the connection.

I quickly took Neoma’s ring off and slid it onto my left index finger, so I could eat with my dominant hand. Eidolon rings had the amazing ability to expand or shrink according to the size of the finger they were on, which meant I could easily move them around my hand without worrying about losing them.

When I’d done this, I threw another casual glance over at the group of men. They were still watching me, but I tried to seem normal as I brought my right hand up from under the table and started eating.

The food was delicious, and so was the beer, but my appetite had been dampened by the creepy guys on my left. Still, I tried to eat as much as I could, since I knew I was going to need my strength if we went raiding that afternoon.

I was reaching the end of my meal when I saw Krubrid go and sit down at the end of the long table closest to me. He began talking quietly with a group of two men and a woman. One of the men was tall with dark-green hair, and the other was bald with pointy ears. The woman had incredibly pale skin, spiky black hair, and purple lips.

Suddenly, Krubrid laughed and pointed in my direction.

I felt my blood run cold as three sets of eyes turned to stare at me. For a second, I wondered whether this had been some sort of elaborate trap designed to kill me and steal my eidolons.

But then, the tall guy with the dark-green hair smiled.

“So, you’re the young adventurer everyone has been talking about?” he asked.

“Well, I’m not sure about that,” I chuckled.

You really need to get better at accepting this recognition, Tala said with amusem*nt.

“He’s being modest.” Krubrid grinned at me. “But yes, that’s him, the famous Colton. He’s making quite the name for himself. They say he’s already raided four temples… or was it five?”

“Four,” I confirmed. “But I’m going to raid a fifth this afternoon.”

“And which one are you going for?” the woman with the spiky black hair asked in a curious tone.

“I haven’t decided yet,” I said slowly.

I wanted to disguise my ignorance of where I was within Fablewild. It would obviously be too dangerous to reveal that I had a magical portal to travel between worlds. But luckily, I’d become good at disguising my outsider identity by being deliberately vague with information.

“Any thoughts about which one I should pick?” I asked the group.

The three adventurers immediately started talking at once about which temple I should raid. It seemed each of them had a different opinion and thought the others’ suggestions were wrong, but I couldn’t actually make out what they were saying because their words were so jumbled, and they kept talking over each other.

“By the devils!” Krubrid called out eventually. “Calm down, all of you.”

They fell silent.

“How any of you ever get it together to go and raid temples is beyond me,” he tutted. “You can’t even have a simple discussion without arguing!”

Despite his words, it was clear Krubrid was actually very fond of the three adventurers in front of him, and they, in turn, were smirking like naughty children at his admonishment.

“Sorry, Colton,” the man with the pointy ears laughed. “We can get a bit carried away. Let’s start again and introduce ourselves properly. I’m Lekvire, this guy with the green hair is called Morsh, and this lady here is Trismae.”

“Lady,” Trismae scoffed. “I don’t know where you got that impression.”

Lekvire laughed again. “We’ve each been adventuring for about twenty years, so we know what we’re talking about. As for your question, it depends on the difficulty level you want to try. Out of the four temples near the city, I’d suggest the Stone Temple is the easiest.”

“Rubbish,” Trismae snapped. “You only think that because you approached it from the north at dawn. I’ve been there from the west, after dark, and it’s no joke, let me tell you.”

“I actually think the Lotus Temple is the easiest,” Morsh said. “I approached it from the south only last week. It was getting late in the day, but it still wasn’t too hard. For a temple, anyway.”

“You were lucky,” Lekvire spat. “I’ve done that one twice, and I barely escaped with all my limbs last time.”

“You simply need to up your game,” Trismae smirked. “You call yourself an adventurer?”

They were evidently teasing each other in a good-humored way, and I wondered how long they’d been friends. “Are all four temples the same distance from here?” I asked casually.

“Haven’t you looked at a map?” Lekvire’s voice was surprised.

“Oh, well, I sort of stumbled through the jungle,” I said quickly. “I didn’t have that much of a plan. I kinda made it up as I went along.”

“You’re lucky you haven’t been killed if that’s how you go about things,” Trismae growled. “Mind you, given how hard it is to get hold of maps, I’m not really surprised that’s your tactic.”

I was about to ask what she meant when Krubrid laughed loudly.

“The boy’s a true adventurer,” he roared. “He doesn’t need a map! Look at what he’s done already!”

“Still…” Lekvire murmured thoughtfully. “Anyway, the temples form a diamond shape around Shimmermire. They’re all equidistant from the city and from each other.”

I nodded. “So, that’s why this place is full of adventurers, then?”

“You’ve got it.” Morsh grinned. “It’s a real hotspot. We get all sorts!”

“All sorts is right,” Trismae muttered. “The good and the bad…”

I glanced back to the rugged guys on my left. They were still staring at me, and I was pretty certain they easily fell under the category of “bad.”

“By the way, Colton,” Lekvire said. “I believe we have something in common. I hear you’ve raided the Floating Temple, and I was there about three months ago. Did you have to face the submersion challenge?”

Trismae groaned. “Not again, Lekvire. How many times? Yes, you succeeded. No, it didn’t sound pleasant. But you’ve asked every single person you know, and nobody who’s raided the Floating Temple had that challenge!”

“Other than me.” He grinned. “I’m just curious!”

Trismae rolled her eyes and sighed audibly.

“No, I didn’t have the submersion challenge,” I said with a smile. “What was it?”

“I went into a small room,” Lekvire began. “Then, these ropes reached out of the walls and grabbed me firmly by the ankles. I couldn’t break free from them, and they weren’t even very long, so I couldn’t move far. But somehow, I had to find three keys hidden in different places around the room to unlock the door before the rising water drowned me.”

“That sounds brutal.” I frowned. “How did you manage it?”

“Oh, I have my ways,” Lekvire answered with a wink. “But so far, nobody else seems to have experienced it. I’m wondering why the temple singled me out for such a sad*stic task!”

“It certainly had a sense of humor.” Trismae smirked.

I shrugged. “I had to fight off a group of vicious mermaids who were trying to drown me. And work out how to get the artifact from a pool with a huge shark in it.”

Lekvire shook his head. “No, I had none of those.”

“Was your first raid really on the Emerald Temple?” Morsh asked after a moment.

I nodded. “I had to defeat two trolls.”

“That’s very impressive for someone new to adventuring,” Morsh chuckled. “When I did the Emerald Temple a few years ago, there was one room where the lights went out, and I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. Then, the temple released various huge creatures, and I had to fight them off in the dark.”

I shuddered. It was so weird hearing about how different everyone’s experiences in the same temples had been. I was amazed the challenges could change so drastically, and it reminded me of how important it was to carefully choose the path beforehand.

“Have you been hired for a bounty job, yet?” Trismae asked suddenly.

I’d heard of bounty jobs, but I still didn’t know much about them.

“No,” I said cautiously. “How do you get hired for them?”

“The rich families will get in contact with you somehow.” Trismae said bitterly. “They always find a way. Often, they already have a temple, path, and time of day in mind, but sometimes you get a bit of leeway.”

“Trismae doesn’t think much of bounty jobs.” Lekvire smirked.

“No, I don’t,” the spiky-haired woman snapped back. “I mean, we’ve all done them in our time, and the pay is good, but those old-money families make my skin crawl. The point of adventuring is to be rewarded after the thrill of fighting for your life. But they just want something impressive to add to their collections so they can show it off.”

Morsh chuckled and turned to me. “Take no notice, Colton. Some old-money families can be a bit stuck-up and difficult to deal with, but if you want to get rich, they’re a great way to go. Some will pay you in gold and gems, others will give you valuable weapons and armor.”

“And some will let you marry their rich daughters,” Lekvire added with a wink at Morsh.

The green-haired man smiled. “Yes. Once, I was honored to be offered the hand in marriage of a family’s daughter. And it’s been a wonderful marriage for the past fifteen years. I recommend it, if you’re looking for a wife.”

“I think I’m okay on wives, thanks,” I laughed. “But enchanted weapons sound good.”

“If you’re as skilled as they say, it won’t be long before you’re asked to do a bounty job,” Trismae said in a matter-of-fact voice.

I was about to ask more questions when a cheer erupted throughout the tavern, and the three adventurers’ faces lit up.

“She’s back!” Krubrid roared happily as he turned toward the door.

A tall, lean woman stepped into the tavern. She was immediately mobbed by people patting her on the shoulder and asking excited questions, but she brushed them off and marched swiftly over to the three adventurers I was speaking with.

“Welcome back.” Morsh grinned.

The woman’s clothes were covered in mud and blood, and I saw several weapons glinting from her belt. Her white hair had blue streaks, and it was piled in a messy bun on top of her head. She looked exhausted and triumphant as she smiled at her friends, chucked the bag she was carrying on the floor, and sat down in a free spot on the bench.

I recognized that feeling, and I guessed she’d come from successfully raiding a temple.

“How was it?” Krubrid asked as he set down a beer and a plate of food in front of her.

The woman gave him a grateful look and then took a long swig of her drink before she answered.

“f*cking hard,” she said as she wiped her mouth.

“This is Thengra,” Lekvire told me. “She just raided the Temple of Illusions. I think we can all agree, in answer to your earlier question, Colton, it’s the hardest of the four temples around the city.”

The rest of the small group nodded.

“And Thengra approached it from the west in the dead of night,” Trismae added quietly.

The triumphant adventurer woman paid no attention to me whatsoever as she dug hungrily into her food.

There was silence for a minute or two as Thengra chewed her food. Then, Lekvire cleared his throat.

“So, are you going to keep us in suspense all afternoon?” he teased.

Thengra grunted and gestured toward the bag at her feet.

The pointy-eared man chuckled as he bent down to open it and then brought out a beautiful sword.

The small group gasped, and I saw the majority of the tavern look over in awe at Thengra’s prize. But the warrior woman took no notice, and she carried on eating as if she was the only person in the room.

“That’s enchanted steel!” Krubrid breathed. “What a find!”

The others nodded and gazed with a mixture of admiration and envy at the beautiful weapon.

I could tell how respected Thengra was in this place. But she seemed reasonable enough, so I thought it would be smart to try and gain some information about the Temple of Illusions.

“What sort of challenges did you face?” I asked her.

Thengra stopped chewing and raised her eyes to mine. She sat stock still and stared at me hard. But she didn’t say anything. After what felt like an age, she finally lowered her gaze again and carried on eating.

Lekvire sighed. “Thengra never answers questions about the challenges until after she’s eaten and washed the temple muck off herself.”

“Sorry,” I murmured. “I didn’t know.”

Although I’d seen the other three adventurers had been impressed by my achievements so far, Thengra’s attitude reminded me that, compared with these guys, I was a small fry. I’d barely been adventuring for two weeks. They’d been at it for twenty years.

But still, if I was doing this well at the start of my adventuring career, I could only imagine where I’d be when I was their age.

I’d be a f*cking legend.

Thengra swallowed the rest of her food and drained her beer, then she got up, stretched, grabbed her things, and headed to the stairs.

“She’s gone to the room she rented,” Morsh chuckled when he saw my confused look. “She’ll be back down in a couple of hours after she’s rested and washed, and she’ll be in a far better mood. Don’t take her bluntness to heart. She’s very good at what she does, but that means she gets a lot of questions and a lot of attention. You caught her at a bad moment.”

I understood the toll raiding could take on a person, and I understood that she just wanted to eat and rest after her victory.

“So, the Temple of Illusions is the hardest?” I asked the remaining group.

“Yep,” Lekvire said. “It’s due north of the main gates of the city. If you walk in a straight line, it’ll take you half an hour, and you’ll be approaching from the south. You can deviate from that route if you want to choose a different path, but it’ll take you longer to get there.”

“Alright,” I said as I stood up. “Thanks for all your help. It’s been good to talk to some adventurers with more experience. Perhaps we’ll meet again.”

“We all travel around.” Morsh nodded. “Most adventurers stay in one area, but we’ve mastered these jungles by now. You might see us pop up in taverns all over the place since I hear you’ve somehow crossed through jungles and escaped unscathed, too. I still don’t know how such a new adventurer can do that.”

He was looking at me quizzically, so I shrugged.

“Must be my good luck.” I grinned.

“Well, I hope it stays with you for the Temple of Illusions,” Trismae said softly. “Maybe we’ll see you when you come back.”

I nodded. “I hope so. Thanks for the food, Krubrid. See ya!”

I took another quick glance at the rugged men who’d been watching me throughout my meal. They were still staring, so I quickly swung my bag onto my back and strolled out of the tavern.

I felt better with some hot food in my belly, and I smiled as I headed back toward the main gate I’d entered through.

So, are you going to approach the Temple of Illusions from the south? Tala asked.

“I think so,” I said quietly as I wove my way past people. “I know we agreed to try coming from the north, then make our way around to the southern paths, and eventually the western routes, but this seems like the perfect opportunity to test ourselves. And we have to level up quickly, or we might not be able to save that eidolon.”

I sensed Tala’s hesitation, but she seemed really excited about the idea of approaching a temple from a much harder route. She loved a challenge as much as I did, and I could tell how badly she wanted to save the graveyard eidolon. There was also a buzz of enthusiasm from Neoma, and I knew the owl-woman couldn’t wait to be out of the ring again.

Alright, Colton, Tala said softly. I trust you to make the right decision, and you know I’ll fight by your side, whatever happens.

“I know,” I said as I felt her love and trust in me rushing through our connection.

I did think about visiting the market in Shimmermire before we left to see if I could get anything useful for the upcoming raid. But I didn’t really have anything to trade, other than a few gold bars I’d thrown in my bag.

I was going to have to face this temple with what I had.

But what I had was my smarts, quick-footedness, two badass eidolons, and a sh*t-ton of cool weapons.

We could do this.

I was just imagining how much we might get for whatever artifact this temple gave us when I heard footsteps pounding urgently down the street behind me.

“Excuse me!” someone shouted as the footsteps drew nearer.

For the split second it took me to turn around, I thought it might be those staring guys from the tavern, and my hand flew to the hilt of my saber.

But I instantly relaxed my grip and withdrew my hand when I saw the man who was running toward me. He carried no weapons, and he was dressed in elegantly-embroidered clothes. He wore a golden chain around his neck, and there was a silver crest embroidered on the front of his tunic.

“Excuse me,” he said again as he finally reached me. “Are you Colton?”

The guy was panting after the exertion of the run, and his face was slightly flushed. He really didn’t seem like a threat, but I’d experienced enough of Fablewild to know I could never be entirely sure.

I nodded but stayed silent.

“Hello,” he reached out his hand. “Please, forgive my intrusion. I didn’t want to make such a scene, but I have to speak to you.”

I shook his hand. “Can I help you?”

“I hope so,” he said. “My name is Smukwick, and I work for the Amberstones. They’re one of the oldest and most prestigious families in Fablewild, but I imagine you know that already. Anyway, the Amberstones have heard about your exploits. They have a… proposition for you.”

“A proposition?” I raised an eyebrow.

“Yes,” Smukwick continued. “They would like to hire your services. They have something particularly exciting in mind and would very much like to meet you.”

This was interesting.

“What exactly are they proposing?” I asked.

“I’m afraid it’s not my place to tell you,” Smukwick said hastily. “But I can assure you, if you agree, you’d be well compensated with glory and riches, not to mention the Amberstones’ gratitude and friendship.”

I paused for a moment as the three adventurers’ words about bounty jobs came back to me. It sounded like the Amberstones could offer some serious payment, and it wouldn’t hurt to at least check it out.

“Where do I go to discuss this with them?” I asked eventually.

Smukwick smiled, reached into his pocket, and pulled out an amulet on a heavy chain. It was a circular brass pendant with elaborate markings around its edge and a large piece of polished, orange amber in its center.

“Take this anchor,” he said as he handed it to me. “It will always lead you to the family’s estate, wherever you are. They don’t live far from here, in fact, and they require an answer from you within three days. You are the first adventurer they’ve asked, but if you say no, or if you fail to show up in the allotted time, they will offer the contract to someone else.”

I nodded and clutched the amulet. sh*t, this was amazing. If the family’s estate was near Shimmermire, that meant it was also close to the graveyard. Maybe, if I wore the amulet as I opened the portal box, it might transport me straight to the estate.

And from there, Neoma would probably be able to lead us back to the graveyard.

Suddenly, a whole lot of my problems had been solved.

“I’ll hope to see you soon, then.” Smukwick grinned and turned on his heel.

He’d only walked a few paces when he spun back around.

“Oh, by the way,” he said with a frown. “I was in the Drunken Flute just now, but I didn’t want to disturb you when you were eating. Did you notice four men in a corner watching you?”

“Yeah,” I said warily. “It was pretty disconcerting.”

“It should be,” Smukwick answered. “I believe they were graverobbers… Watch yourself. They seemed unnaturally interested in you.”

“Thanks, I will,” I said.

“It would be a shame to lose an adventurer with the makings of a hero to a band of desperate graverobbers,” Smukwick added with a wink.

Then, he turned around and strode off.

I headed on toward the gate, but an uneasy feeling settled in my stomach.

As if I didn’t have enough to contend with at the moment, now there were f*cking graverobbers to add to my list of things to worry about.

I didn’t know exactly who they were, but Smukwick’s expression had confirmed their interest in me wasn’t friendly.

“Bastards,” I growled.

I went through the open gate, passed the guards, and began walking over the bridge that led me back to the jungle.

I glanced around, but there was nobody near me, and I quickly transferred Neoma’s ring back to my right hand so I could be ready to summon either eidolon if I needed to.

“So,” I muttered to Tala. “What can you tell me about these graverobbers? They don’t sound good.”

They’re not, Tala said bitterly. They’re very unpleasant people, and I’d like to sink my teeth into every single one of them. I had a feeling that’s who they might have been, but I wasn’t sure. It’s been a while since I’ve dealt with any graverobbers.

“Dealt with them?” I asked with surprise. “What do you mean?”

Occasionally, adventurers form hunting parties to go and track down groups of graverobbers, Tala answered. My previous masters have taken me on such raids once or twice, but it’s been a while.

“Well, I bet the graverobbers didn’t last long once you’d got your teeth into them,” I chuckled. “But who are they, exactly?”

They’re groups who travel around Fablewild and rob adventurers, basically, my wolf lover informed me. They move around a lot to ensure they don’t get caught, and some of them have hideouts in small villages or hidden deep in the jungle.

“They rob them?” I asked. “sh*t, everyone always seems so respectful to adventurers here.”

I know, Tala replied. But graverobbers are different. They don’t abide by the honor system or the laws of Fablewild. And, as their name suggests, they also frequently dig up graves in normal burial grounds to steal valuable items the corpse was interred with. Rich families are at particular risk because they almost always bury their dead with a lot of valuables.

“They sound pretty f*cking ruthless.” I frowned.

They are, Tala growled. They have no respect for the living and even less for the dead.

I could feel my beautiful eidolon’s rage toward graverobbers flowing freely through our connection, and I could imagine how much she’d enjoy ripping them to shreds.

“But Smukwick guessed they were graverobbers,” I pointed out. “And you said adventurers sometimes go and hunt them down. So if people hate them so much, how come they’re able to sit in a tavern and drink beer without being attacked?”

Tala sighed. It’s complicated. You can usually make a good guess at who the graverobbers are if you know what you’re looking for. Typical signs are small, rugged groups who look like they’ve had plenty of vicious combat experience, but who clearly aren’t adventurers because they don’t speak to anyone else.

I nodded and thought back to the group from the tavern. They matched Tala’s description pretty perfectly, I had to admit.

The problem is there’s no proof, my wolf-lover continued. So unless they’re caught in the act of stealing from someone, there’s nothing anyone can do. The guards who enforce order won’t stand for brawling and fighting inside the city walls, so even if everybody knows who the graverobbers are, the only real choice is to ignore them or organize a secret hunting party to deal with them outside the city.

“But surely they’re caught in the act sometimes,” I said.

It’s actually rarer than you might think, Tala answered. The graverobbers will almost never attack someone in a city because there are too many people around. Instead, they’ll either wait in the jungles and pounce on lone adventurers, follow people out of the city and attack them when they see the opportunity, or lurk outside temples and attack unsuspecting adventurers on the way out. And the jungles are so vast, they usually get away with it, too.

“Assholes,” I muttered as I felt Tala’s agreement course through me.

I’d reached the end of the bridge and remembered Lekvire’s instructions to go straight on. I stepped into the trees and figured the graveyard must be somewhere to my left.

The trees in this part of the jungle were still black, but the canopy above me wasn’t as dense, so it let more light through. The ground was firm underfoot, and it was a relief not to feel my boots sinking with every step. Colorful flowers grew on vines that twined around the trees, and I saw various animals like lizards and rodents darting along the jungle floor.

It was certainly a lot less creepy than the jungle near the graveyard.

“So, once they’ve killed the adventurers, where do the graverobbers sell the stuff they’ve stolen?” I asked Tala.

They have connections in some of the towns, she said. I’ve heard sometimes they can bribe corrupt guards to turn a blind eye. Often, one of them will enter a market and disguise themselves as an adventurer, then sell to traders there. It’s harder to tell when there’s only one of them. Apparently, they sometimes ransom certain items back to the dead adventurer’s family, too.

“That’s disgusting,” I spat.

Yes, Tala said sadly. They’re ruthless, violent, and completely uncaring.

“Damn,” I sighed. “They seem like real assholes, but it sounds like they have their whole system worked out.”

Unfortunately, yes, Tala said. Welcome to the darker side of Fablewild… As I said, occasionally, there are pushes by adventurers to eradicate them. The guards won’t go and deal with anything beyond the city walls, and to be honest, it doesn’t really affect them. But members of the adventuring community have an honor system and hate when it’s abused, plus they’re the ones suffering.

“Exactly,” I muttered. “If I ever hear about a hunting party, I’m going to join it.”

Most adventurers feel the same way, Tala said softly. Then again, even if a hunting party tracks down the graverobbers, kills them, and destroys their hideout, another group will pop up somewhere else sooner or later, and then the whole thing starts over again.

I sighed and pushed on through the jungle as I thought about what Tala had said.

My blood boiled when I imagined these guys attacking and then robbing people like me. Granted, not all the adventurers I’d met had been pleasant, and I’d heard plenty of stories from Tala and Neoma about the asshole masters they’d had to endure. But I’d met several great people, too, and I hated the idea of them being cheated like this.

It was especially galling because of how f*cking hard adventurers worked. We went through hell to earn our artifacts. We had to cross jungles, find temples, choose paths, fight off monsters, and work out puzzles. That’s why we were so respected by the ordinary citizens of Fablewild, and I’d been made to feel like a f*cking king by most of the people in the towns I’d visited.

But these graverobbing bastards didn’t give a sh*t about that. They were just out to make easy money.

I clambered over a fallen tree and tried to work out why the guys in the tavern had been staring at me in particular. The most obvious answer would be because of my eidolons, but I was used to hiding the rings around people, and I thought I’d done pretty well.

“Maybe those graverobbers in the Drunken Flute were eyeing up my crossbow,” I suggested to Tala. “I mean, it’s a really beautiful weapon, and it’s easy to tell that it’s expertly crafted. And that’s even without knowing it has magical properties linked to the Mist Hare Eidolon.”

It’s possible, Tala said thoughtfully. It’s certainly very valuable, and graverobbers are always particularly interested in magical weapons. But their interest was…

Tala trailed off as if she was searching for the right word to describe how those guys had been watching me. It was as if they’d wanted to observe my every move to work something out. It had been creepy as hell, and their predatory glares had been really unnerving.

“I know,” I sighed and looked quickly over my shoulder to check I wasn’t being followed.

But, aside from the lizards and rodents, the jungle was empty.

“To be honest, I’ve got a horrible feeling they somehow knew I have two eidolons,” I said as I picked my way through the trees. “I don’t know why else they would’ve singled me out. Other than the crossbow, it’s not like I’ve got incredibly valuable weapons or armor, and I wasn’t carrying any artifacts. There were adventurers in there with gear worth a lot more than mine.”

I know, Tala said. And they didn’t take a second look at Thengra’s enchanted steel sword, either.

“That’s true,” I said as I thought back. “They weren’t interested, even though it looked seriously valuable… In that case, it must be my eidolons they were after.”

If they know about me and Neoma, you have to be really careful, Tala said in a worried tone. They’d have absolutely no qualms about killing you to steal our rings.

“Just let them f*cking try,” I growled.

Waves of Tala’s love washed through my body as I spoke, and I felt her emotions mixing with ripples of deep affection coming from Neoma.

Nobody was ever going to take my eidolons away from me. I was their master now, and it was my duty to protect them with my life.

We carried on in silence. I kept an eye and an ear out for possible signs that we’d been followed by the graverobbers, and I threw the odd glance back over my shoulder, but there was no sign of anybody.

We’d been walking for about twenty minutes, and, according to Lekvire’s instructions, we were nearing the temple. The jungle was even more colorful than when we’d first entered it after leaving Shimmermire. Some of the leaves on the trees had gone from black to deep purple or blue, and there were loads of multicolored birds flying overhead.

Just as I was thinking how amazing it was that the jungle could change so much in such a small area, the ground started moving beneath me. I reached out a hand to steady myself against a tree trunk, but I missed it and fell to the ground instead.

Colton! Tala’s voice was urgent. What’s the matter?

“I’m not sure,” I whispered as I tried to get to my feet and fell over again. “Everything’s spinning.”

I took a deep breath and tried to calm my racing thoughts. The way the ground was rocking beneath me made me feel like I was onboard a boat being tossed by the waves in a ferocious storm.

“What the f*ck?” I muttered and tried to reach my hands out again to grab onto a tree trunk.

But my vision was blurred, and I was seeing double. The tree trunks moved away from me as I reached toward them, but eventually, my hands grabbed onto something solid, and I used it as support to get to my feet.

Are you okay, Colton? Tala asked in a concerned voice. What’s going on?

“I don’t know,” I said as I looked around and tried to focus. “Everything feels like it’s moving in a weird way…”

I paused for a second and looked up at the sky. The clouds had turned bright green and they were swirling around in strange spirals. Then, they all started transforming into grotesque faces that looked as though they were laughing at me.

I shook my head and screwed my eyes shut. When I opened them again, the purple leaves of the canopy above me all fell from their trees at once. Thousands of them started raining down toward me, and I was sure I was about to be covered in them.

I removed one arm from the tree trunk I was gripping and reached up to cover my face.

But nothing landed on me.

Was I going crazy? Had I imagined everything?

I opened my eyes again and looked around, but the world kept moving up and down, and I couldn’t focus on anything.

Perhaps I’d been drugged.

I cast my mind back to what I’d eaten recently. I’d made our breakfast that morning, so it couldn’t be that, and anyway, Tala and Neoma had eaten it, too, and they were fine.

So was it what I’d consumed at the Drunken Flute?

My heart hammered in my chest, and I considered the possibility that the graverobbers had added something to my food or drink so it would be easier to kill me in the jungle and steal my eidolons.

But I hadn’t left my table at any point, so they wouldn’t have had the chance to slip something into my meal. And anyway, Krubrid had brought me the food and beer personally. Plus, everyone else in the tavern was eating and drinking the same stuff as me.

I wondered for a moment whether Krubrid had been in league with the graverobbers and added something to my beer or my stew before he’d brought it out.

But then I remembered his bright, kind eyes and his wide grin. There was nothing malicious about the owner of the Drunken Flute, I was sure. And if he was trying to kill me, why would he have got me talking to the other three adventurers?

Then it dawned on me. The weird visuals were clearly some sort of trick, and they were in keeping with the theme of the temple I was nearing.

“So this is all some sort of illusion,” I murmured. “f*ck, this temple must be powerful if its magic extends out into the jungle like this.”

I raked a hand through my tangled hair and tried to slow my heartbeat. Everything still felt like it was swaying beneath me, and my vision was still really f*cking weird, but I was glad to know at least I wasn’t going crazy.

This was what I imagined hallucinogenic drugs felt like.

I breathed deeply and took a cautious step forward. The ground shifted, but I still had a grip on the tree trunk with my left hand. I took one more step, then reached out with my right hand to see if I could find another tree to grab onto. Finally, I did, and I brought my left hand over to meet my right as I took a couple more steps.

“This is f*cking crazy,” I muttered to myself. “It’s going to take me hours to get to the temple like this.”

You’re doing well, Tala said. You have to remember it’s not real. It’s just one of the temple’s mind games.

I nodded and carried on laboriously. My progress was slow, but if I didn’t hold onto the trees, I knew I would only topple over again. Every time I moved forward, it felt like the earth was trying to slide out from beneath my feet.

“How the hell did Thengra do this in the middle of the f*cking night?” I asked myself.

She did say it was hard, Tala chuckled.

“She wasn’t kidding,” I murmured. “My vision better calm down once we get inside the temple. I’m not sure I could fight a f*cking sheep right now, let alone a troll. And I definitely can’t run anywhere.”

Tala’s comforting warmth glided through my veins and helped keep me calm, and I sensed steady ripples of affection and encouragement coming from Neoma.

“I’m really glad there’s no one around right now,” I grumbled. “I probably look like I’m completely wasted. I’d end up as a funny video online somewhere.”

I could sense Tala and Neoma’s confusion, but I didn’t have the energy to explain what I meant, and they didn’t ask.

After what felt like a decade, I managed to get to the edge of the trees. I had a moment of clarity, where I saw steps leading up to a temple made of blue stone in the middle of a clearing, but then my vision started playing tricks on me again.

The temple turned from blue to green and then started shimmering in a rainbow of different colors. As I watched, suddenly, it wasn’t one temple anymore, but three, and then they all merged together to create one vast temple with six different sets of stairs and six different doorways. As if it couldn’t get any worse, the enormous temple started shifting backward and forward.

“Ugh,” I groaned.

How the hell was I supposed to work out where I was going when the damn thing wouldn’t stop moving?

I felt Neoma pulling urgently to get my attention, and her desire to be let out of the ring coursed through me.

I flicked my right hand and clung onto a tree trunk for dear life with my left.

Two luminous orange owls appeared in a haze of bright pink clouds. I covered my face with my right hand and blinked hard. When I looked again, there was only one Neoma, but she was still a lurid orange color.

I had no idea if these weird optical illusions could affect eidolons in the same way they affected me, but Neoma seemed calm and undisturbed by the strange sh*t that was messing with my vision. I guessed her ability to fly had something to do with how composed she was since she wasn’t having to deal with the earth moving about beneath her.

She hooted softly but insistently, and I knew she wanted me to follow her.

I let go of the trees and stumbled forward into the clearing. The ground seemed slightly less wobbly now, but maybe I’d simply gotten used to it. Either way, I somehow managed to keep my balance as I staggered ahead. Neoma only flew a couple of feet in front of me, and I made sure to keep my eyes fixed on her as I shuffled one foot in front of the other.

You’re doing so well, Colton, Tala’s soothing voice said. You’re almost there, and I’m sure the illusions will start to wear off once you’re inside the building.

I could only nod in response. I was concentrating so much on not being sick and not falling over that I didn’t think I could form words properly.

Neoma led me to what looked like the fourth set of stairs from the left, and she hooted softly again.

When I placed my foot on the bottom step, I was half-expecting it to give way underneath me, but it was mercifully solid.

In the end, I decided to crawl up the stairs. It wasn’t elegant, and I didn’t feel very heroic, but I knew I’d look even less impressive if I fell backward on the steps and smashed my head to pieces against the stone.

Although I’d never been much of a drinker, I’d experienced being too drunk a few times, and this was so much worse.

Not only did I feel like I was hammered, but it was as if I was trying to clamber up an escalator that was going down. I didn’t feel like I was making any progress at all. If anything, it felt like I was going backward.

You’re nearly there, Tala said comfortingly.

I was glad to hear this, but I didn’t even bother to look further in front of me than my fingers. I knew if I did, I’d only see endless moving steps and get discouraged.

As it was, if this sh*t didn’t stop by the time I got to the entrance, I was probably going to have to turn around. No way was I going to get myself killed by entering a temple that made it impossible to walk in a straight line.

Neoma had stopped flying and was hopping and fluttering up each step slightly ahead of me instead, which meant I could keep my eyes on her. I forced my mind to concentrate and my body to cooperate, and eventually, I found there were no more steps to climb.

Well done, Tala said. Just the last little bit now, and then you can rest.

I managed to get to my feet and hold my balance as Neoma flew into the air again. To me, it now looked like there were four different entrances to the temple, which had gone from being multicolored to a deep turquoise.

But my owl eidolon slowly led me through the right archway, and I collapsed on the floor inside as the wall-mounted torches sprang to life.

The small entry hall was spinning wildly, so I leaned back against the wall and closed my eyes as I willed the nausea rising in my stomach to stop.

Neoma landed next to me and rubbed her head against my hand. She made an affectionate clicking noise as I reached up to stroke her soft, downy feathers.

I felt my body starting to relax, but I still didn’t want to open my eyes yet.

That’s it, Tala said. Take your time. We haven’t entered the first challenge yet, so there’s no rush. Let yourself readjust for a moment.

I nodded, and within a few minutes, the combination of Tala’s soothing words in my ear and Neoma’s soft feathers beneath my hand were making me feel a lot better.

I risked opening my eyes.

The walls of the temple were covered in brightly-painted patterns that made me feel slightly dizzy again. But I forced myself to breathe slowly and then got to my feet.

When I looked down, I gasped and pressed myself back against the temple wall.

It looked like there was a huge hole in the middle of the floor just inches from where I was standing. It appeared to go on forever, and I felt slightly sick when I looked into it for too long.

But my brain also rationally knew this was almost certainly another of the temple’s evil tricks. I kept my body weight back and gingerly reached out with my toe to test it.

My foot landed solidly on the ground and confirmed what I’d already suspected about it being an optical illusion.

“Okay,” I muttered. “This is going to be f*cking hard.”

But you can do it, Tala said reassuringly. We both believe in you.

I smiled at her confidence, but I still knew this was going to be the toughest temple I’d faced so far. Everything was so trippy that it made it hard to focus on anything at all. I was also well aware there might be real traps concealed behind the illusions.

I think you should keep Neoma out, Tala said. You two should keep strengthening your bond as much as possible and get some more experience of working together.

“I was thinking the same thing.” I grinned. “Plus, her eyesight and ability to fly are probably going to be really helpful.”

A happy rush of affection from Neoma coursed through me, and I looked down to see her shimmying from side to side as she watched me with her huge eyes.

“Okay,” I chuckled. “Let’s f*cking do this.”

I took a deep breath and forced myself to look at the gaping hole illusion in the floor. Everything in my body rebelled at the thought of walking across it, but it was the only way to the other side of the room.

After a couple of small steps, I bit the bullet and sprinted the rest of the way to a large, black door. I turned the handle and yanked it open.

When I saw the corridor in front of me, I groaned.

The walls, ceiling, and floor were all painted in a black-and-white checkerboard pattern that completely screwed with my perspective. I strained my eyes, but it looked like it went on forever.

There didn’t seem to be any other choice, though, so I started walking as Neoma flew in front of me. There were a few torches illuminating the corridor, but they did nothing to make it any easier to see where the damn thing ended.

My head was throbbing from the tricks this temple had played on me already, and I was pretty sure the challenges were going to be the toughest I’d faced so far.

Although, logically, I could tell my brain this was all an optical illusion, it was still hard to think rationally at times, especially when the world around me felt like it was spinning.

At least it was less intense in here than in the jungle outside. It was as if I’d started to sober up after being really drunk, and even though I was left feeling slightly sick and dazed, I could, mercifully, walk in a vaguely straight line. I’d always loved optical illusions when I was younger. I remembered being given a book with pages and pages full of them, along with explanations of how they were achieved. Owen had been fascinated by them, too, though I suspected it was because he was trying to copy me, and we’d spent whole afternoons poring over the pages of that book together when we were kids.

The memory made me smile and wonder what Owen would make of this crazy, f*cked-up temple.

But I was jolted out of my thoughts when an ominous crunching sound filled my ears. I turned my head, and my heart sank when I saw the sound’s source.

There was a huge f*cking boulder rolling toward us. The checkered walls made it hard to work out its speed and distance, but I couldn’t imagine it would be too long before it crushed us.

I started to run. Although I had a feeling the boulder might not even be real, and that this could be another one of the temple’s tricks, I couldn’t really afford to hang around and find out.

My feet barely touched the ground as I sped down the corridor after Neoma. I had no idea where we were going, but my only option was to keep running. I risked a quick look behind me, and I was certain the boulder was gaining on me.

“sh*t!” I panted.

Just then, I thought I spotted a kind of alcove in the wall up ahead. It looked like it would just be big enough for me to squeeze into and wait for the boulder to roll past.

I forced my legs to work even harder and threw myself into the alcove.

But my body collided with solid stone.

“What the f*ck?” I hissed as I patted the area where I was sure it had been.

I quickly realized it was another trick, and I’d lost valuable time in falling for it.

Neoma was still ahead of me, and she called out a warning as I started to run again. I skidded to a halt beside her and felt the air leave my lungs when I looked down.

We were standing on a wide ledge above a sheer drop, but the black-and-white checks of the corridor had disguised it so well that I’d probably have tumbled straight over the edge if it hadn’t been for Neoma.

When I peered over into the drop, I saw that was exactly what had happened to plenty of other adventurers whose bodies were lying strewn across the ground.

f*ck.

The boulder was still gaining on us, and as it drew nearer, I estimated we only had about fifteen seconds left.

I turned my attention back to the void I was facing. Although it was deep, it was only about twenty feet across. Still, there was obviously no f*cking way I’d be able to jump it.

Three thick ropes hung from the ceiling about six feet in front of me spaced around ten feet apart from each other. When I looked up at the tall ceiling, it seemed they were attached to some sort of mechanism that ran along deep grooves over to the other side. I guessed I had to jump for one of the ropes, hold onto it, and wait as the mechanism moved it across the twenty-foot gap to the other side.

But I was pretty certain two of the ropes were going to be fake, and if I jumped for them, I’d plummet to my death.

Neoma knew what I needed her to do without me even asking. She swooped over to the left and headed for the rope.

She flew straight through it, and the rope didn’t even move.

“We can rule that one out then,” I muttered.

The owl eidolon then darted swiftly to the middle rope. Once more, it offered no resistance, and I could instantly tell it was just an illusion hanging in the air.

That left the rope on my right.

I would have preferred it if Neoma could check to make sure it was actually real, but there was no time. I turned my head, and the boulder was only a few feet away from me, so I focused my eyes on the rope, tensed my muscles, and sprang with all my might.

I sailed through the air toward the rope. For a horrible moment, it looked like I didn’t have enough power to make it.

But then my hands closed firmly around it, and I wrapped my legs around it, too, to stop all my body weight from pulling on my arms.

For a split second, I was convinced the rope was going to disappear in a puff of smoke under my fingers and leave me plummeting to the floor below.

But it didn’t.

I craned my head around just in time to see the boulder falling from the ledge and ricocheting off the walls of the chasm below. I still didn’t know if it was real, but the sound it made as it hit the bottom sounded real enough, and I shuddered as I thought about how close we’d come to finding out.

But I wasn’t safe yet, and as I looked down at the drop, my stomach lurched.

A rusty screeching sound made me look up. The mechanism above had started to creak into life, and I stared at the gap we still had to cross and grabbed the rope more firmly with my arms and legs.

At first, I was grateful I hadn’t needed to swing across the gap using my body’s momentum alone. I wasn’t even sure if I would’ve made it with a decent run-up, but I was certain I couldn’t have done it from a standing start.

But the mechanism was moving so slowly that my already sweaty palms were getting even more damp from the physical exertion of clinging onto the rope in such an uncomfortable position. The rope suddenly slid through them, and I felt my body lurch as I pressed my knees together to stop myself from sliding down further.

And we weren’t even halfway there yet.

“Oh, come on, you bastard!” I shouted at the empty air. “Hurry the f*ck up!”

The mechanism ground to a halt.

“f*ck,” I hissed.

I had a horrible feeling the temple had taken offense to what I’d said. It was sad*stic enough that it might just leave me hanging there to remind me of its own superiority.

I groaned. “Okay, I’m sorry. Take your time…”

There was a long pause, and my blood ran cold at the prospect of being trapped on the rope. Then, the mechanism slowly started moving again.

Temples can be very fickle, Tala said. It’s unwise to insult them.

“Well, it pissed me off,” I hissed.

Shhh, Tala hushed me with a hint of amusem*nt. Concentrate on keeping hold of the rope and conserving your strength until we reach the other side.

I nodded and gritted my teeth. My arms were aching from the effort, and my entire body was drenched in sweat. But I was not going to let go.

Neoma had been flying circles around my head, and she gave a worried hoot when she sensed how much I was struggling. Then, she suddenly darted down into the chasm.

“Neoma?” I called out. “Where are you going?”

I felt a tiny tingle of enthusiasm from her which reassured me, but I was still uneasy about not knowing where she was.

Where’s she gone? Tala asked in a worried tone.

“I have no idea,” I said.

I tried to crane my neck and look down into the chasm to see if I could spot her, but she seemed to have disappeared into thin air.

We were about two-thirds of the way across the gap now, and I didn’t even notice how hard my body was working to stay on the rope because I was so concerned about Neoma. I was reassured that I could still feel her, but not being able to see her filled me with concern.

A couple of muffled hoots echoed up the chasm, but they didn’t sound distressed.

Maybe she’s found something, Tala suggested. After all, she has such good eyesight, she could easily have spotted something from up here.

“Maybe.” I frowned.

Finally, I heard the flapping of wings and turned my head to see my beautiful owl eidolon rising out of the chasm.

She was carrying something in her beak, and I sensed a flood of excitement coming from her. She flew over to the ledge in front of us and dropped her prize proudly, then hopped happily from foot to foot as she waited for us to arrive.

What is it? Tala asked.

“I’m not sure,” I said as I strained my eyes. “It looks like a crumpled piece of fabric.”

Eventually, we reached the other side. The temple still had one last trick up its sleeve, though, because it stopped several feet from the ledge.

“Oh, for f*ck’s sake,” I hissed.

It wasn’t exactly a huge gap, but after the physical exertion of running from the boulder and holding onto the rope for so long with a relatively heavy bag, it wasn’t going to be easy to make the jump, either.

I studied the spot where I wanted to land and then tried to swing myself on the rope to gain some momentum.

With a grunt of effort, I flung myself off the rope, and my feet barely cleared the ledge. I landed on my stomach, and it took me a few seconds to get my breath back.

But Neoma came up and started pecking at my ear affectionately, and I knew she couldn’t wait to show me what she’d found. I heaved myself up and went to investigate.

It was a bag. And I was pretty sure Neoma wouldn’t have gone to all that effort to replace my scruffy rucksack with a new one.

“Is that a magic bag?” I asked her with a grin.

She let out an excitable hoot and flew up into the air joyfully.

“I’ll take that as a yes, then,” I laughed as I picked up the bag.

It was incredibly light, and the dark red fabric it was made from looked strong and tough. Although it was a little bit smaller than my current rucksack, I remembered what the sorceress at the market had told me. These magical bags never increased in weight, and there was endless room inside them. They also somehow protected all the items inside from any damage, and I’d been searching for one for what felt like ages.

That’s wonderful, Tala said happily. She must have found it on one of the dead adventurers in the chasm.

I nodded as I turned the bag over in my hands.

“This is amazing, Neoma,” I said. “Thank you.”

I was tempted to transfer everything from my old bag to my new one right then and there, but I also saw there was a door ahead of me, and I wanted to get out of this room as quickly as possible. I didn’t trust this temple not to come up with some other horrible surprises.

I took the bag, and we fell through the door. Only then did my body finally relax after the challenge, and I sank down with a mixture of elation and exhaustion.

Neoma rubbed her feathered head against me, and I smiled as the relief from both my eidolons mingled with my own.

How the f*ck did people without eidolons complete this temple? If I hadn’t had Neoma, I guessed I might have been able to shoot my crossbow at the ropes to see if the bolts moved them, but my aim would need to be perfect, and I might have damaged the real rope. And I probably wouldn’t have had time to load it, anyway.

This temple was brutal.

I allowed my body a few minutes to recover, then I took a couple of swigs of water and quickly transferred everything from my old rucksack across to the new magical bag.

It was amazing how it held everything, and I’d even be able to put my crossbow in there when we were on Earth, rather than throwing my jacket over it.

“f*cking awesome.” I grinned.

As I swung my new magical bag onto my back, I truly understood why they were so rare and went for so much money. It was so light that it was like I wasn’t carrying anything at all. It was going to make temple raiding a lot easier.

“Okay,” I growled and started walking. “Bring it on.”

The corridor we’d found ourselves in was just as trippy as the last one, but this time it was because it looked like it was spiraling as I walked down it. I knew perfectly well it was, in fact, straight, but that still didn’t make it any more pleasant.

Luckily, there were no massive f*ck-off boulders trying to crush us in this one, and it wasn’t long before the corridor opened out into a room.

I glanced warily at my surroundings as I tried to work out where the next threat might come from.

The room wasn’t huge, but it was utterly crammed full of objects. On the far side, a large mirror ran the entire length of the wall and reflected the room.

There was a long table in the middle, and on it stood ornaments, candlesticks, books, and vast quantities of food. On the walls were shelves with more books and ornaments, and there were also chairs strewn around that were draped with various items of expensive-looking clothing.

It looked like some kind of crazy cross between a hastily-organized yard sale, a bizarre dinner party, and an attic that hadn’t been cleared out for years.

The wall-mounted torches flared suddenly.

Our timer had begun.

I cautiously stepped into the room as Neoma hovered above me. I paused for a second, but no crazy monsters emerged from the ceiling or the floors, so I made my way carefully over to the mirror. I scanned the ground as I walked to make sure I wasn’t about to step on a tripwire or something, but it was clear.

The mirror was spotless, and when I approached, I noticed a glass panel in the center that protruded slightly. It looked as though it could slide to one side, and I guessed it was the door we were supposed to leave through once we’d completed the challenge.

“But what is the f*cking challenge?” I muttered. “Can you spot any clues, Tala?”

I felt my lover frowning. Not yet. Is there any writing anywhere to give us a hint?

My eyes roved across the room and the mirror, but there was nothing I could see.

“No,” I said. “I mean, presumably, there’s some in the books, but I don’t really want to pick up anything in this room unless I absolutely have to. I have a feeling there might be a nasty surprise in store for us if we disturb anything.”

Yes, I think you’re right, Tala answered.

“Okay,” I said and took a step backward. “We have to think logically. This temple enjoys making us work out what’s real and what’s not. It likes mind games, it likes tricks, it likes illusions. It likes forcing us to look at things carefully and from all different angles.”

Suddenly, I had a lightbulb moment.

“It’s got to be in the mirror!” I grinned. “Something must be wrong with its reflection.”

Colton, that’s amazing! Tala said warmly. You worked it out so quickly!

My lover’s pride in me enveloped my body and tingled down my spine.

I smiled. “Right, so we have to look at the mirror really carefully, and then we’ve got to work out what the difference is between the reflection and the room. Something might be missing, or it might have been added. Maybe it’s even been moved around within the space.”

Neoma made her cute, excitable clicking sound as I spoke, and then she swooped down toward me. She lightly flapped her wings so she could hover in front of the mirror, and her beautiful hazel-and-gold eyes stared at it intently.

My first approach was to scan the mirror carefully and try to remember significant objects, then turn around to look at the room and see if there was a noticeable difference.

But the place was so crammed full of junk that I couldn’t immediately spot anything. And besides, when had temples made anything that simple?

Evidently, whatever was wrong between the reflection and the room wasn’t going to be anything major, or else I would’ve spotted it.

So that meant it must be a detail, something small and insignificant. Something that was easy to miss.

This was going to be really f*cking hard.

I turned back to the mirror and decided to work logically by starting on the far left-hand side. I observed a small part of the reflection, looked back at the room, and if I didn’t see any differences, I took a step to the right and examined the next section of the mirror.

I had to work quickly but methodically. The torches were growing dimmer all the time, but if I didn’t look hard enough, there was no way we were going to get out.

And I really didn’t want to know what happened when the torches went out.

Meanwhile, Neoma’s tactic was to dart quickly between the mirror and the objects in the room. Every time I saw her, she was somewhere different. It looked kinda chaotic, but I knew the owl eidolon’s amazing eyesight meant she didn’t need to spend as much time looking at the objects. Plus, her sharp eyes would allow her to quickly pick up on the tiny details I might miss.

But, by the time I was about halfway across, I still hadn’t seen any discrepancies between the reflection and the room, and I was starting to panic.

Then Neoma let out a shrill, excited hoot, and I ran over to her. She was hovering in front of a high shelf on the right-hand side of the room. It was an area I hadn’t reached yet in my examination of the reflection, and the shelf was cluttered with various objects.

When I reached the owl eidolon, I had to take a few steps backward to see what she was looking at, since the shelf was so high up. I turned my head from the shelf to the mirror a couple of times as I tried to work out what difference Neoma had spotted.

It soon became clear there was a necklace lying on the shelf that didn’t appear in the reflection. It was gold and very elaborate with a huge blood-red gemstone centerpiece.

I didn’t want to touch anything until I was totally sure it was the right item, since I was pretty certain picking the wrong object would have drastic and deadly consequences.

But once I’d double-checked, I was confident the necklace really didn’t appear in the reflection. Or at least, it didn’t appear on the shelf in the reflection, and that was good enough for me.

I reached my arms up and stood on my tiptoes, but I still wasn’t quite able to reach the necklace. I thought about moving a chair to stand on, but I suspected even that might trigger something in this room.

“Can you get it without disturbing anything else?” I asked Neoma.

My owl eidolon gave a couple of happy hoots, and I held my breath as she very delicately picked up the golden necklace in her beak.

I’d hoped that would be enough to make the mirrored door slide open.

But nothing happened.

The torches continued to dim, and the door in the mirror didn’t move. Clearly, this necklace belonged somewhere else in the room.

“f*ck,” I muttered. “So we’ve got the right item, but we need to put it in a different spot.”

I ran frantically back over to the mirror and started to scan the reflection. Neoma was still clutching the necklace in her orange beak, and she began to dart back and forth again in an attempt to find out where it belonged.

As I urgently searched, the reflection gradually became harder to see. I rubbed my eyes, but then I realized the mirror was slowly fogging up like the one in my bathroom did when I had a hot shower.

I tried to wipe the glass with my sleeve on the off-chance that it behaved like condensation, but obviously, it didn’t. If anything, the speed with which it was fogging up increased.

The mirror was enormous, and I was pretty sure it would be totally impossible to see any sort of reflection before we’d had a chance to search it properly.

“No, no, no,” I hissed as the glass clouded over more and more. “Where the f*ck is it?”

Maybe something’s wearing it, Tala said suddenly. Some sort of statue or ornament.

Tala’s suggestion seemed likely, given the sense of humor this temple had, and I started to search desperately for something with a necklace around its neck. There were plenty of marble busts and small figurines dotted around the room, and so I concentrated on locating them.

Finally, my eyes landed on a small marble statue of a woman’s head. Her face was turned slightly toward me, and although the mirror was almost opaque by this point, I could barely make out the glint of red at her throat, and that was our best chance.

Besides, the light in the room had become really dim. I didn’t think we had more than a minute before the torches went out.

And I didn’t want to stick around to find out what happened next.

I reached out for the necklace, Neoma dropped it lightly into my hand, and I dashed back across the room. When I reached the statue, I took a deep breath to try and stop my hands from shaking from the adrenaline coursing through me. I really didn’t want to brush the edges of the marble bust as I put the necklace onto it just in case that was enough to set off some hideous trap concealed in the room.

I undid the necklace’s clasp and very carefully draped it around the statue’s neck. I held my breath as I fastened the necklace and let it drop down to sit elegantly around the marble figure’s throat.

A grating noise came from behind me, and I turned to see the mirror sliding open.

“Yes!” I yelled and started to run.

Neoma flew alongside me, but when we reached the door, her six-foot wingspan was too wide to fit through the gap. So she landed nimbly on my shoulders instead, and we made it through the exit together right before the torches went out.

The mirrored door slid firmly shut behind us, and we found ourselves in a long corridor. There were no weird visuals or illusions in this one, which was a relief, but I was still cautious of any potential traps as I started to walk. My owl eidolon let out a joyful hoot at our success, and then she took off from my shoulders and began to fly lazily by my side.

“Well done, Neoma!” I grinned. “Tala, we did it!”

I was answered by silence.

“Tala?” I asked again as fear invaded my body.

My lover didn’t reply, and I looked down hurriedly to check I still had her ring on my hand. The black band with its glowing red stone was there, but my wolf eidolon was silent.

“Tala!” I shouted as I looked around wildly in the hope that she would suddenly appear.

She was nowhere to be seen.

I flicked my wrist to see if I could summon her, but no golden burst illuminated the room and no ghostly wolf form emerged.

Could she have slipped out of the ring? Did I move my hand as we were coming through the door and accidentally release her?

The blood rushed to my head, and my heart started to beat wildly. I threw my body weight against the door we’d just walked through, but it wouldn’t shift.

What if she was trapped on the other side?

“Tala!” I yelled again as my body became numb with panic.

Then, I heard a woman scream up ahead.

It sounded like Tala, and my mind went blank as I dashed up the corridor. I didn’t care about the possible traps or monsters lurking around every corner. Nothing was in my head now except pure, desperate determination to find my wolf-lover.

I heard another scream as I raced up the passage. This time, I knew for sure it was Tala.

But how the hell had she been pulled out of the ring?

I flew through the corridor and found myself facing two identical doors. My heart felt like it was about to explode out of my chest, and I knew I had to decide which door to pick.

Based on my experience so far in this temple, I knew choosing the wrong one might mean I never saw my wolf-lover again.

The next scream was much louder and sounded like it was coming from the door on the left. I moved forward and pressed my ear against it just in time to hear another scream and a distressed whimpering noise.

My concern for Tala almost made me yank it open right then and there, but something made me stop. This temple loved playing mind games, and I forced myself to consider the possibility this was another one. Perhaps she was actually in the other room, and the temple was trying to trick me into picking the wrong door.

I went over to the door on the right and pressed my ear against it. There was silence on the other side.

“f*ck,” I muttered.

I closed my eyes and tried to focus on the connection I had with Tala. I could still feel a hint of her presence, and although it was way weaker than normal, I directed all my attention to it.

It was pushing me toward the door on the right.

When I opened my eyes, I went and stood with my ear to each door again. The screams from the one on the left were even louder now, but I couldn’t feel my wolf-lover’s presence from behind it.

When I did the same thing to the door on the right, the silence was total, but I could sense Tala’s presence.

Was this another of the temple’s sad*stic tricks? Rationally, I should choose the door the screams were coming from, but my connection to my eidolon lover was rebelling against that and pulling me to the door on the right instead.

I took a step back and looked at both options. Then I glanced at Neoma, who was hovering next to me. She seemed to sense my question and flew over determinedly to the door on the right.

“You think it’s that one, too?” I asked her.

She hooted her agreement and stared at me resolutely with her huge eyes.

Another scream came from behind the door on the left, and although part of me wanted to follow the sound, my bond with Tala was telling me to choose the other one.

And so was my owl eidolon.

I took a deep breath and launched myself through the door on the right. My connection to Tala was so powerful, and I had to trust it.

I burst through the door with Neoma behind me.

My wolf-lover was in the room in her human form.

And she was locked in a metal cage suspended about twelve feet above the center of a deep pool of water.

Her arms and wrists were shackled to the thick metal bars of the cage. She looked at me with imploring, icy eyes, and let out a blood-chilling scream.

“Tala!” I yelled.

The cage suddenly jolted, and Tala screamed again. I watched in horror as the thick chain that held the cage began to slowly lower toward the pool.

Tala was going to drown unless we saved her.

I looked around the room quickly and tried to figure out the challenge. My head was scrambled, and I could barely think straight through my concern for Tala. Questions about how she’d been taken out of the ring and why she was human raced through my mind, but I pushed them away and tried to focus. The best thing I could do for my lover was to keep calm and think logically.

Apart from a door with a metal lock on the opposite wall, there was nothing in the room except the cage and the pool of water.

The pool was square. Each side measured about twenty feet, and I guessed it was around fifteen feet deep. There was a load of buoys bobbing at different depths throughout the water, and they were held in place by thin chains anchored to the bottom of the pool by heavy-looking weights.

Most of the buoys had small silver keys attached to them, but some had gems of different shapes and colors instead, and I guessed these were meant to be a distraction from the keys.

I glanced back at the cage Tala was trapped in.

There were a number of complex locking mechanisms on its door, and the shackles that bound my wolf-lover to the bars would need unlocking, too. The cage was still slowly descending, and my eidolon let out another imploring scream.

“I’m coming, Tala!” I called. “It’s okay, I’ll get you out of there.”

I wasn’t sure I’d have enough time to dive for all the keys, free them from the buoys, and unlock the cage before it was lowered so much the water went over Tala’s head. I guessed not all of the keys would fit the locks because that would make it too easy. Plus, the bottom of the cage was still about ten feet above the surface of the water, and I’d have to wait until I could reach the damn locks before I could help her.

But it was my only option.

I took my bag off my shoulder and dropped it with a thud. I was just about to unhook my weapons and dive into the pool when something held me back. I couldn’t quite place my finger on it, but it was some sort of instinct, and I wondered whether it was the same thing I’d felt when I had to choose which door to enter.

I’d listened to it then, and I’d picked the right room. I had to listen to it now, too.

I glanced back up at Tala and frowned. Something wasn’t quite right, but I didn’t know what it was.

“Are you alright, Tala?” I asked.

She looked at me with fear etched across her beautiful face, but she said nothing. As I looked closer, I realized there was something vacant about her eyes, which were always so fiery and so alive.

“Can you speak?” I asked her.

My wolf-woman whimpered, but she still didn’t say anything.

I closed my eyes and focused all my concentration on Tala. I thought about the smell of her hair in the morning, and how she’d smiled at me in Asheville as the sun danced across her face. I thought about her wolfish grin, the way she loved to tease me during the day and give herself to me at night. I had a vision of her in wolf form as she sank her teeth into some monster’s flesh, and I heard her triumphant howl of victory when she’d won a battle.

Then I felt a flicker of her presence somewhere inside me, and I opened my eyes.

The woman in the cage was still staring at me with her empty gaze, and I knew instantly the flicker hadn’t come from her.

That meant the real Tala must be safe. This was another one of the temple’s f*cked-up ideas of fun. It had taken the thing I loved most in the world and placed an illusion of her inside that cage to distract me.

And it had almost worked, but there was no way the bond with my eidolon lover could be severed that easily.

Now that I’d focused, I could feel a tiny spark of reassurance, and I knew it was coming from the real Tala. I was grateful she’d managed to let me know she was safe, but I was still uneasy about the illusion in the cage. The doppelganger screamed again, and every part of me was crying out to dive into the water, find the keys, and rescue her, just in case I’d got it all wrong and my lover really was in there.

But rationally, I knew this was all one of the temple’s twisted tricks, and I didn’t have time to f*ck around and rescue some illusion. Hell, even if I broke this vision free from her cage, there was no guarantee she wouldn’t rip my throat out.

I had to get us out of here so I could be reunited with my true lover.

“Okay, so what’s the real task?” I muttered as I stared into the pool of water.

If the keys were to unlock the cage, how the hell was I supposed to unlock the door?

That got me thinking, and I ran over to the exit on the other side of the room so I could investigate the door properly. Once I got closer, I could see there was a small wooden box attached to its face. The box was placed at about chest height above the lock. I tried to lift the lid, but it wouldn’t open, and there was no keyhole, either.

The box was simple, but, at each corner of the lid was a small, differently-shaped indent, as if something had been gouged out of the wood. Each indent had traces of color in it. One was a purple star, another was a blue circle, the third was a red diamond, and the final one was a black heart.

Tala’s double in the cage screamed again, and my heart clenched. It wasn’t my lover, but the temple knew perfectly well this trick was still enough to unnerve me. All I wanted was to break my wolf eidolon free and wrap her in my arms.

But I had to focus.

A trickle of calmness ran gently through my body, and I knew that was the real Tala reassuring me again.

I guessed there was a key locked inside this box, and I had to find the objects that would fit the lid and make it open. I suddenly remembered the gems attached to the buoys, and I ran back to the pool.

As I stared into its clear water, I saw a red diamond-shaped gem attached to a buoy nearby and decided to test my theory.

I quickly unhooked my mallet and saber from my belt so they wouldn’t weigh me down in the water, but I kept my dagger on me just in case.

It was never wise to be entirely unarmed in Fablewild.

It was also never wise to plunge head-first into things without checking them out first. I didn’t trust this temple for a moment, and I had a horrible vision of jumping into the pool only to discover it was actually full of acid or something equally vile.

I cautiously knelt down and dipped my pinkie finger into the water. The shock of the cold traveled up my arm and down my spine. It was f*cking freezing, and I was worried that if I plunged into it, I wouldn’t last very long before hypothermia set in.

“sh*t,” I hissed as I thought hard about what to do.

I could try to hook the gems out using my weapons. That might work for the red diamond, which was near the edge of the pool and not too deep, but it would be difficult at best, and I had very little time.

Besides, I hadn’t even located the other gems. What if they were further out?

Neoma was flying anxious circles over the pool. I could sense she wanted to help, but owls weren’t really designed for swimming. Anyway, I knew eidolons were ghostly spirit beings, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t be able to feel the cold.

Then suddenly, it dawned on me. Before I’d gone to raid the Floating Temple, a water sorceress in Pearlfall had given me three potions. I’d used two in that raid, but I still had the third. The water sorceress had said it would heat up any body of water I might find myself in, and now seemed like the perfect time to use it.

I ran to my bag on the other side of the pool and searched through it. My hands finally landed on the small, warm bottle with the glowing lilac liquid, and I grinned.

When I looked into the pool from where I was standing, this time, I saw the black, heart-shaped gem. It was closer than the red one, and I decided I’d try to go for it first.

I didn’t know if the potion would work unless I was actually in the water. It was better to be safe than sorry, so I took a deep breath, braced myself, and lowered my body into the pool.

The cold hit me like a thousand jagged shards of glass, and my chest was so tight I could barely breathe. I opened the potion as fast as I could with my shivering hands, and I poured it into the water.

Instantly, I felt as if I was lying in a warm bath. The transformation was unbelievable, and my body warmed back to a normal temperature immediately.

I heaved a sigh of relief that the liquid had worked. I really needed to find another water sorceress, or go back and visit the one in Pearlfall. Her potions had been indispensable in the Floating Temple, and I had no idea what I would’ve done in this challenge without the water-heating liquid.

I swam over to the black gem I wanted, took a deep breath, and dove below the surface.

The gem was bobbing about two-thirds of the way down, and I opened my eyes as I propelled myself through the water. The shapes of the buoys were blurry, but at least I could vaguely see where I was going, and the black heart stood out relatively clearly against the numerous silver keys.

I grabbed the gem with my hands and pulled, but it wouldn’t break free of the buoy. A groan escaped my mouth, and I mentally kicked myself for wasting precious oxygen. Although I couldn’t see the details of the gem, as I ran my hands over it, I realized it was actually attached via some sort of tiny carabiner clip like the ones I used for climbing. Once I’d worked this out, it was just a case of twisting the lock, opening the clip, and sliding the gem off.

I swam victoriously back to the surface and took a long gasp of air. Neoma was still flying in circles overhead, so I called out to her and reached up my hand with the gem.

“Take this and put it on the heart-shaped indent of the box over there!” I called. “I’m going to get the others.”

Neoma hooted, flew over, seized the gem delicately in her talons, and flew off toward the door. I treaded water as she maneuvered the stone into place since I wanted to see if it worked before I started to dive for the rest.

After a moment, there was a click and the box briefly lit up. Neoma let out an excitable squawk, and I knew I was on the right track.

All I needed was three more stones.

Tala’s double screamed again and tried to pull at the chains that bound her. The cage was around five feet above the water now, and although my heart ached every time I looked at the illusion, I kept trying to tune into that tiny spark of reassurance from the real Tala that she was, in fact, safe.

I located the red diamond, swam over, and once I was almost above it, I took a deep breath and plunged down.

My foot kicked out at something as I moved, and I figured it was just another of the many buoys in the pool. But right as my hands were about to wrap around the carabiner to release the red gem, something sharp sank deep into my calf.

As I kicked my leg and tried to twist around to see what the f*ck was going on, my arm collided with the key attached to another buoy.

There was a small flash of light, and a large eel emerged from where the key had been.

The creature was about five feet long, and its skin was bright green. Its body was around the same width as my upper arm, and its evil red eyes lit up when it saw me. It launched itself toward my neck, but I managed to grab onto it below its head and keep it at arm’s length. It thrashed around wildly and opened its jaws, but the angle of my hands meant it couldn’t bite me.

I just couldn’t let go.

My breath was running short now, and I desperately needed to get up toward the surface. I was only a few feet below it, but both my arms were slightly occupied holding on to a murderous f*cking eel, and I managed to twist around enough to confirm my suspicions that there was another one attached to my calf, but that one was blue.

I tried to kick my legs, but the one with the eel chomping down on it was too painful to move much, which left me trying to swim with one leg and no arms.

I reached my hands above my head and hoped the eel I was holding would be long enough for Neoma to grab from the surface.

Sure enough, my owl eidolon’s talons suddenly appeared out of nowhere and grabbed hold of the wriggly green bastard, then flew off with it.

That left me with enough free limbs to get to the surface, and I took several gulps of revitalizing air as Neoma completely eviscerated the green eel.

Then, I brought both my legs up toward my body so I could get the blue eel closer, and I tried to ignore the shooting pain in my calf. I seized the dagger on my belt and lunged for the blue f*cker.

I got a good stab in, but it still wouldn’t let go of my leg.

I grunted and lunged again at the blue bastard. I stabbed it hard several times, and its jaws started to weaken. I had to be careful not to stab my own leg in the process because the f*cker was wriggling so much, but eventually, it let go, and its body sank toward the floor of the pool.

As it sank, though, it dislodged another key.

“f*ck,” I hissed and splashed toward the edge of the water as fast as possible.

I managed to scramble out of the pool right before the third eel lunged for me.

Neoma seized the opportunity while it was in shallow water to dart down and scoop it up in her beak. She flew up high and over to the floor surrounding the pool, then dropped the blue bastard with a hoot of satisfaction. I grimaced as it exploded all over the hard surface.

It was clearly a lot easier to fight these snake-like f*ckers on land, but I needed to get the rest of the gems, and the only way to do that was to get back into the water.

My leg was stinging, but nowhere near as badly as it had been when the blue eel had its teeth sunk into my flesh. And I didn’t have time to think about that now, anyway.

I climbed into the water and dove down toward the red, diamond-shaped gem for the second time. I found it easily and had no problems in unscrewing it from its moorings.

I surfaced and pulled myself onto dry land, then I held out the red gem to Neoma. My owl eidolon swooped down and delicately took it off to the box.

I started to walk around the pool’s perimeter and scan the water for the next gem. I began to notice quite how many buoys were in the area underneath the large cage. Once it hit the surface and started descending through the water, it was going to collide with a lot of them.

Which would release a whole lot of eels.

And as soon as they started swimming, they’d crash into other buoys and there would be a chain reaction. The whole pool would become infested in no time.

I had to get the rest of the gems before that happened.

I hobbled around the edge of the pool and examined the water carefully. There were so many keys and so many gems of different shapes and colors that it was hard to see what I was looking for.

Finally, I spotted the blue circle. It was at one end of the pool and fairly deep, but there weren’t too many other buoys around it, and I hoped I could get it without dislodging any more eels.

Just then, the cage hit the water, and Tala’s double screamed wildly. I covered my ears and tried to stop my heart from somersaulting, then I looked over to work out how much time I had.

That’s when I saw the purple star bobbing just below the surface, about a foot underneath the cage.

The buoy was small enough to fit through the bars of the cage, and if that happened, we’d have no way out.

I couldn’t imagine Tala’s doppelganger would help me to retrieve it, and I definitely didn’t have time to f*ck around with all the keys to unlock her cage and get it myself.

Which meant I wouldn’t be able to open the box and retrieve the key for the exit.

The water was still warm as I carefully slithered in and swam toward the cage. I maneuvered myself around the numerous buoys as cautiously as possible, and even though it slowed my progress a bit, it was still faster than trying to fight off a f*cking eel.

When I reached the edge of the cage, I took a deep breath and dove under the surface.

Tala’s illusion screamed again, but the sound was muffled by the water above me. I kept my limbs as close to my body as I could to minimize my chances of unleashing an eel.

I focused on the blurry shapes in front of me and grinned when my hands clasped around the purple star, and I quickly freed it.

The cage was only a couple of inches from my head, but I managed to twist around without knocking any other buoys and head back toward the blue gem.

It wasn’t far away, and I still had enough breath to make it. Plus, there was no time to waste. It was only a matter of seconds before the cage started to hit other buoys.

And that would release a sh*t-ton of savage eels.

Just as I reached the blue circle, something started tugging at my boot, and my heart sank. I knew instantly what it was, and I guessed the cage had collided with the first of the buoys.

There wasn’t much time before the whole pool became a f*cking feeding frenzy.

I had to release the last gem and get out of the water as soon as possible. I could deal with the bastard attached to my boot once I’d made sure the gems were safe on dry land.

I clamped the purple star between my teeth and used both hands to unclip the blue circle from the buoy.

Then, I swam hard toward the surface. The eel on my boot slowed me down, but it still wasn’t long before I could grab the side of the pool and deposit both gems on the edge.

“Neoma!” I shouted as I twisted around and tried to shake the eel off.

It wouldn’t budge, but I knew it would soon grow tired of chomping on my boot and decide to go for my flesh instead.

My owl eidolon was far quicker at killing the snake-like bastards than I was, so I raised my legs as much as I could and hoped she’d be able to grab it.

Neoma swooped down like a rocket and seized the eel in her razor-sharp talons. Its body twisted in the air, and it tried to bite her legs, but she simply squeezed her talons tighter and then dropped it onto the hard ground.

It exploded on impact, and its guts flew everywhere.

Meanwhile, I hauled myself out of the pool just before two more eels lunged for me. As I grabbed the gems from the side, I realized the bottom of the cage was now about five feet below the surface, and more and more eels were being released with every passing second.

“Let’s go!” I shouted to Neoma.

I tuned out the screams of the illusion in the cage and ran around the edge of the pool to grab my discarded weapons and bag, then carried on toward the door.

Neoma joined me there. I quickly put the last two gemstones in their correct places, and the box glowed brighter as its lid was lifted as if by magic.

Inside was a heavy golden key. I grabbed it and swiftly turned it in the lock, then I pushed the door open.

Just before I stepped through the exit, I turned my head. The pool was alive with brightly-colored eels, and the cage was almost entirely submerged.

But Tala’s double had disappeared.

I grinned. Even though I knew the woman in the cage was only an illusion, I still wouldn’t have felt good about leaving her to drown in an eel-infested pool.

I stepped through the door after Neoma and shut it firmly behind me. We were in a wide, dimly-lit corridor, but once again, there didn’t seem to be any weird optical illusions. My heart was pounding, and my clothes were soaked, so I allowed myself to sink down against the wall and rest for a second.

Just as I was about to call out to Tala and see if she could hear me, her presence rushed over my body like a tidal wave. She filled me with love and happiness, and I realized how much the adrenaline from the challenge had masked my longing for her.

It was like a part of my soul had been missing when I couldn’t feel her, and my body instantly started to relax now that she was back.

It’s alright, Colton, my lover’s soothing voice said. I’m okay.

“f*ck, I was worried about you,” I exhaled raggedly.

I know, Tala said. I was worried about you, too. That was a really hard task, and I was scared you wouldn’t realize it wasn’t me in the cage.

I chuckled. “Well, the temple got it almost perfect, but that illusion’s eyes were… vacant. They didn’t have your passion in them.”

Tala’s warmth flowed through me.

“Plus, you’d have tried a lot harder to get out of that cage,” I continued with a smile. “I know you better than to think you’d just be screaming and rattling your chains.”

In fact, I wouldn’t have needed your help at all, Tala teased.

I laughed and stood up. I felt more or less completely recharged, and it was as if my lover’s presence had somehow poured calm energy into my veins.

This temple had already thrown some tough challenges at us, but I was ready for whatever was next.

An insistent buzzing sensation came from Neoma.

“What’s up?” I asked. “You want to go back in the ring?”

My owl eidolon hooted, and I guessed she wanted to give Tala the opportunity to see me after the last challenge.

It had also been an intense few hours since we’d left Shimmermire, and Neoma had been out pretty much constantly. I knew eidolons needed to reset sometimes, too, and I didn’t want to exhaust her before the end of the temple.

I flicked my wrist and watched as Neoma was pulled back into the ring in an explosion of purple clouds. I could still feel her presence keenly, and I was sure our bond was getting stronger.

“Do you want to come out?” I asked Tala.

Yes, she said firmly. I need to see you.

I moved my other hand to release her, and she emerged in a blinding flash of golden light. Her reddish-auburn coat glowed ethereally in the dim light, and her icy eyes bored deeply into mine.

She was f*cking magnificent.

My beautiful wolf eidolon came over and rubbed herself against my legs.

“Hey,” I said as I stroked her soft fur. “I missed you.”

I missed you, too, Tala’s voice said.

I jumped. “What the f*ck? You can… answer me in your wolf form now?”

Tala looked up and a wave of excitement ran through me.

Apparently so, she said.

“This is so f*cking cool.” I grinned and knelt down so I could throw my arms around my wolf eidolon’s neck.

She nuzzled into me, and love danced across our amazing connection.

I couldn’t imagine my life without her. In a couple of weeks, she’d become the most important thing in my life, and seeing her illusion in that cage had only confirmed what I already knew.

I would protect her to my dying breath.

“I’m so happy you’re okay,” I said as I planted a kiss on her snout and stood back up again.

I’m fine, Tala said warmly. I was in the ring all along, but the temple’s magic somehow blocked my connection to you, which meant you couldn’t sense me that well. I kept trying to speak to you, but it didn’t work.

“Well, it’ll have to do a lot better to stop me feeling your presence at all,” I growled.

Yes, she replied. But that’s only because our bond is so strong. With all other master and eidolon relationships, it would have worked.

“But our relationship isn’t like other masters and eidolons,” I reasoned.

That’s true, Tala chuckled.

“We better get moving,” I said. “Never wise to linger in temples and all that.”

I swung my bag onto my back and clipped my weapons back onto my belt, then began to walk up the corridor as my wolf-lover’s ghostly presence trotted silently by my side.

How are your bites, by the way? she asked with a glance at my legs.

I’d completely forgotten about them, but the pain was starting to come back. When I looked down, I saw the eels had only really gotten one spot on my calf, but there were still some fairly deep puncture wounds.

Tala sniffed them as she walked. Well, it would be better to bandage them up now, but so long as you can clean them when we get back, they should be fine.

“Okay,” I said. “And now that I have a magic bag, I’ll start bringing bandages and disinfectant with me on raids for when things like this happen.”

That sounds sensible, Tala said and swished her tail from side to side. I still can’t believe Neoma found a magic bag! She’s been amazing during this raid.

“I know,” I grinned. “It was so f*cking cool the way she dropped those eels on the floor in the last challenge, too. Bastards didn’t know what hit them.”

Warmth infused my body as I said this, and I could tell it was coming from Neoma. I was able to differentiate my two eidolons’ emotions with complete accuracy now, and I knew it was a sign I was getting better at wielding them both at once.

My bond with Tala was stronger than ever after that challenge, and I couldn’t wait to see what would happen to my connection with Neoma.

Hell, maybe one day I’d be able to release them both at the same time.

Even though it was fine when they were out of their rings and in human form together, the ancient magic surrounding eidolons was so powerful in Fablewild that I didn’t think it would be a good idea to try until I was completely confident in my abilities.

We turned a corner, and the corridor suddenly split into four different paths. I stopped as I assessed the options.

Temples loved throwing this kind of sh*t at adventurers. There was absolutely no indication which might be the best path to choose, and yet I knew they would all have very different outcomes. Some of those outcomes would certainly be deadly.

“What do you think?” I asked Tala.

My lover prowled back and forth, and she sniffed the air in front of each path. Her wolf instincts meant she had a kind of sixth sense, and I trusted her judgment entirely when it came to determining which would be the best route.

Tala let out deep growls at the passages on the far left and the far right-hand side, so I ruled them out immediately. Then, she focused her attention on the middle two and spent a couple of minutes pacing between them.

I’m not sure which one’s best, she eventually said with a hint of disappointment. If I had to choose, I’d go for the left one out of these two, but I really couldn’t say for sure.

As Tala said this, Neoma sent a surge of confirmation coursing through me, and I knew she agreed with my wolf-lover’s choice.

“Neoma thinks it’s that one, too,” I said.

Then you’d better listen to both your eidolons, Tala said and looked at me over her shoulder with what I swore was a wink.

I chuckled and headed up the passage Neoma and Tala had chosen. I wondered again how the f*ck people without eidolons completed this temple. I’d have had trouble even getting through the front door in the first place after all the crazy sh*t that happened to my vision in the jungle.

But then I reminded myself that I was still new to adventuring, and from what I’d heard in the Drunken Flute, this temple was hard even for experienced adventurers. Based on that, I didn’t think I was doing too badly at all.

Tala led the way on her silent, ghostly paws, and it wasn’t long before we emerged into another room.

It was long and narrow but enormously high, and I half-grinned and half-gulped when I saw what was in front of us.

It was, essentially, a huge climbing wall. It looked very similar to the ones at the gym in Asheville, and it had all the same types of differently-colored grips, but it was split into three different sections stacked on top of each other.

The first part was a vertical wall that must have been about thirty feet high, and it looked like there was some sort of platform at the top of it where I could rest.

The second section was an overhanging wall. It jutted toward me at an angle of around forty-five degrees, and it was about twenty feet long. I’d climbed enough overhanging walls at the gym to know that was going to be tough, especially without any safety harness. Only experienced climbers tackled the ones at the gym, and this wall was longer than any of those.

Then, there was another small platform to rest on before the final stretch of the wall. That one looked pretty vertical, but it tapered toward a tiny point with only a few handholds at the top. Right above it was a ledge with a door, and I estimated that the ledge must be about one hundred feet in the air.

sh*t, this was going to test my climbing skills to the limit. It would have been difficult enough with ropes, but there weren’t even any fall mats here.

Not that they’d make much of a difference if I fell from that height.

Nothing was simple in the temples, so I looked cautiously around to see if there were any horrible monsters lurking in the shadows. The last time a temple had made me do a challenge like this, it decided to chuck in a pit full of snakes below me, and they’d started to climb up the walls.

But nothing moved, and I wondered whether the temple had decided that the height and angles of these walls would be challenging enough. I knew they’d be pretty much impossible for an inexperienced climber, and there were points where I was pretty sure I’d struggle.

Still, as temple tasks went, this one played to my strengths.

My eel-bitten leg ached, but I ignored it and focused on trying to plot my route instead. Although the torches on the walls hadn’t started to dim, I knew it was possible there was some other type of timer that had already started ticking down, and I didn’t want to waste time.

Tala prowled around the bottom of the wall and sniffed the air suspiciously, but she wasn’t sending me any danger signals.

Just watch out, she said as I approached the wall. I know you’re great at climbing, but I can’t believe that’s all this challenge is going to involve. There’s always a surprise somewhere.

“I know,” I sighed as I surveyed the wall. “It’ll be tough, but I can do it. I guess you have to get back into the ring. You’re getting really good at climbing the gym walls on Earth, but I think the lack of opposable thumbs might work against you here.”

Tala laughed, but then she became serious. Promise me you’ll be careful. I’ll miss you.

I nodded. “I promise, and I’ll miss you, too. I’ll see you on the other side.”

I flicked my wrist, and Tala disappeared in a flood of warm, golden light. But I felt her presence as keenly as if she was standing beside me, and at least I could still speak to her as I was climbing.

I thought about getting Neoma out for this challenge, but I couldn’t really see what she’d be able to do, and I still wanted her to rest up in case I needed her later.

My hiking boots lacked the flexibility and tactile feedback I really needed for climbing, so I decided to take them off and go barefoot. It wasn’t ideal, but the boots’ thick soles and ankle support would be too clunky for some of the tiny grips on the wall. I chucked my boots and socks into my bag and took a final look up at my route.

“Okay,” I growled. “Let’s do it.”

I grabbed onto the first hold and felt my body relax as it fell into the familiar exercise. Although climbing was a good physical workout for the muscles, I’d always found it incredibly calming. It forced me to focus all my energy and concentration on one particular thing, and I’d been practicing it for so long now that deciding where to place my feet and hands was second nature, even on unfamiliar routes.

My progress was swift, and I was soon about six or seven feet off the ground. I swung my right arm to reach a small, blue grip above me, but just as I was pulling myself up and lifting my left leg to another hold, the blue grip disappeared beneath my hand. The surprising sensation unbalanced me, and my right toe slipped off the grip

“sh*t!” I yelled as my body slammed hard against the wall, and my left arm was forced to hold all my body weight.

Tala’s concern coursed through me, but she said nothing, and I knew she didn’t want to distract me.

I quickly moved my right hand to grab the same large grip my left hand was holding onto, and I swung my feet up until they were back on the same holds as before.

“What the f*ck?” I muttered.

I looked up and saw the blue handhold I’d tried to grab was there again.

Was I going crazy? Maybe my fingers had missed it somehow, and in the chaos, I thought it had vanished.

I steadied myself and tentatively moved my right arm over to the blue grip again.

For a second, I felt it underneath my hand, and then it disappeared.

“sh*t,” I hissed. “They’re not all real. Some of them are f*cking illusions.”

That’s very sneaky, Tala said. Are you okay? It looked like you hit the wall hard.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said. “But I don’t like the thought of handholds disappearing when I’m a hundred feet up in the air.”

I know, my lover replied. But it’s the only way out of here. Take it really slowly and work out which ones are real before you put your weight on them.

“Yeah,” I muttered. “At least I didn’t find out when I was any further up…”

I grabbed hold of the blue grip again and waited. Once more, I felt it under my hand, but in less than a couple of seconds, it had vanished.

“Okay,” I said. “So they seem real for a moment, which tricks you into trusting them and putting your weight on them. But then they vanish into thin air.”

So you’ll have to try touching them first as a test, Tala said. And if they’re real, then you can put your weight on them.

I nodded and stared up at the huge expanse of wall I still had to climb.

This challenge just got a hell of a lot harder.

I cautiously reached my left arm out to another grip and waited. It didn’t disappear, and although I was wary, I knew I had to keep going. So I shifted my right foot up to a green grip, but it gave way after a second, and I had to move it to a pink grip at a really weird angle instead.

That one held, and I managed to cautiously move up another few inches of wall.

I carried on like this for what felt like hours, although it was, in reality, under ten minutes. My progress was slow, for obvious reasons, and there were several occasions where my strength and flexibility were tested to the max. But I was an experienced climber, and now that I knew the sneaky trick the temple had played on me, I was far better equipped to deal with the challenge.

I considered bringing Neoma out of the ring so she could check which grips were illusions, but I realized she was probably too big to get close enough to land on the holds.

I stopped to assess my progress. I guessed I was about halfway up the wall, and I looked down to check.

That’s when I saw the grips below me were starting to disappear entirely.

I groaned. So that was the timer in this room. If I fell and slithered down the wall, I wouldn’t be able to haul myself back up again. And if I didn’t hurry, the grips I was holding onto were all going to vanish from beneath me.

Which meant I didn’t have enough time to keep carefully checking whether they were real or not before I put my weight onto them.

I began to climb faster and forced myself to trust that even if a grip gave way on me, the three other holds I had on the wall would be enough to save me from plummeting to the ground.

I hoped.

Luckily, my tactic worked. I had a couple of near misses, but I clung to the holds with all my might and managed to stop myself from falling.

Eventually, I reached the top of the wall and hauled myself up onto the platform. When I glanced down, I saw the holds only a few feet below me had disappeared, and I’d been just in time.

“f*ck,” I panted. “And I thought that was going to be easy.”

Warmth and encouragement flooded through my body from Tala and Neoma. I took a quick drink and then stood up to carry on.

The next wall was going to be even harder, and it would require some serious strength. The forty-five-degree angle also meant if a hold disappeared beneath me, it was a lot more likely that I’d fall straight to the ground. And if my feet slipped, I was going to have a tough time getting them back onto the wall.

The first hold I grabbed vanished beneath my hand.

“Good start,” I muttered and felt a spark of laughter from Tala.

Just concentrate, Colton, she said softly. I’ve seen you climb those walls at the gym, and you’ll be great. But you can’t lose focus.

I nodded and grabbed another handhold. This one didn’t budge, so I quickly moved the rest of my limbs into position and started to climb.

My mouth was dry, and my palms were sweating. There was no rope to catch me here, and even my eidolons couldn’t help me if I got stuck.

It was just me. I had to rely on my strength, stamina, and intelligence to see me through.

It was f*cking terrifying, and several grips did vanish beneath my hands and feet, but I managed to keep relatively calm and carry on. By the time I was three-quarters of the way up, every single muscle burned and the sweat was pouring off me.

But the holds below me were disappearing quickly, and I knew I had to get to the top.

I managed to place each of my hands firmly on a hold, and then I moved my left leg. The first grip I tried disappeared, and so did the second.

I searched desperately, but the single remaining option was a purple hold I could barely reach with my left toe. Thankfully, it held, and I used all my strength to heave myself up as my right foot searched for a decent foothold.

I thought I’d found one, but it suddenly gave way, and the unexpected movement jolted my left foot out of place, too.

Colton! Tala screamed as my body dangled vertically from the wall.

I was holding on with nothing but my hands, and my arms shook from the effort as I tried in vain to pull my legs back up from the empty air.

The grips below me were disappearing with a terrifying speed, and I knew I didn’t have long before I wouldn’t be able to hold onto anything at all.

I’d fall forty feet to the cold, hard ground below and splatter like the eels.

“Come on!” I snarled as I tried to swing the lower half of my body and find some sort of grip with my feet.

My arms and abs were on fire, and the sweat poured into my eyes. My palms were so damp that, for a hideous second, I was sure they were about to slip off the grips.

But just in time, my right foot found something solid.

From there, I managed to make it up the rest of the wall right before all the holds vanished.

I panted as I hauled myself up onto the platform and collapsed. My entire body was shaking with the adrenaline and the physical exertion, and my clothes were soaked through from the pool of water and the sweat dripping off me.

But I’d made it through the hardest part.

Just one more, Tala said soothingly. You’re over halfway there, now.

I nodded and allowed myself a minute to catch my breath and drink some water. Then I stood up and faced the final, triangular wall.

Every single muscle ached as I started climbing, but I was so close, and I just needed one last spurt of energy to get to the door.

I pushed away the images of my body falling to the ground and exploding like those eels had done, and I forced myself to focus solely on getting to the top.

This wall was nowhere near as tall as the other two had been, but its shape meant that once I started to near the end, it became a lot harder, since there were fewer grips, and loads of them were probably fake.

I was getting used to the sudden lurch in my stomach now every time a hold disappeared beneath me, although it didn’t make it any more pleasant.

Thankfully, I didn’t fall at any point on this one, and eventually, I managed to heave myself onto the ledge.

I was out of breath, and every single part of my body hurt. But I was alive, and I’d f*cking made it up the wall.

Tala’s pride in me coursed through my veins, and Neoma’s admiration washed over me.

That was incredible, Colton, the wolf eidolon said.

“Thanks.” I grinned and forced myself to stand.

I’d worked so hard that my legs almost buckled beneath me, but I managed to make it to the exit and into the corridor beyond it.

I collapsed in the passageway and gave myself a moment to rest after the exertion. I was riding high on my success, but I was f*cking exhausted.

I felt like we must be approaching the end of the temple soon, given how many tasks we’d completed so far, and I psyched myself up for whatever the final challenge held. I thought about how tough the temple had already been, but I was certain it was only going to get harder.

After a few minutes, I got to my feet and started walking. The corridor had no optical illusions in it, and it wasn’t long before I reached another door.

“Are you two ready?” I asked my eidolons.

Neoma and Tala both sent waves of agreement through me, so I turned the handle and stepped inside.

The room was large and empty, and the walls, floor, and ceiling were all painted a brilliant shade of white which made the whole place feel surreal.

The door shut behind me of its own accord, and the room started to spin. Then there was a strange, squeaky sound and several hatches on the ceiling slid open.

Within seconds, small, ugly creatures started to drop from the hatches. They were about three feet tall, had huge, bat-like ears, and gray, scaly skin with green bumps all over them. Their claws were long and sharp-looking, and they emitted a weird, cackling noise that displayed their pointy teeth.

And they were headed right toward me.

I drew my saber and tried to plant my feet firmly, but the way the room was spinning made me dizzy, and it was hard to keep my balance.

The ceiling hatches had released about ten of the small creatures throughout the room, and I didn’t even have time to think about whether to summon Tala or Neoma before one of them threw itself at me with impressive agility and speed.

It jumped toward my chest with its teeth bared and its claws poised, but I stepped to the left and swung my saber hard enough to slice a deep gash in the bastard’s stomach. Bright-green liquid oozed out, and the creature howled as it clutched its wound and tumbled to the ground. I thrust my saber into it and twisted the weapon as I yanked it back out.

Now I’d seen one up close, the creatures reminded me of the destructive little monsters from the Gremlins movie, and I wondered if the scaly f*ckers were actually all cute and fluffy most of the time. Perhaps some dumb adventurer had come along before me and fed them after midnight.

Although these bastards seemed ten times more vicious than their Hollywood counterparts.

I pushed the absurd thoughts out of my head and concentrated.

Another gremlin launched itself at me from the right, but I leaned back, thrust my saber up toward it, and impaled the little f*cker on my weapon.

The blade went straight through its body and out the other side, and the gremlin made a weird, guttural gurgling sound before it finally went limp.

I slid the scaly body off my weapon and decided I’d summon Tala since she hadn’t really been out in this temple yet, and I knew how much she thrived in battle.

But then I saw something move on the edge of my vision, and I kicked out just in time to stop a third gremlin from leaping onto me.

My boot connected sharply with its face, and I heard bones crunching as the small body fell back against the floor with a high-pitched yelp.

“Asshole,” I grunted and gave it another kick to make sure it was dead.

I looked up and groaned when I saw more gremlins dropping from the ceiling at an alarming rate. I estimated the room was about thirty square feet, but these bastards were fast, and as soon as they landed, they started to scurry straight toward me.

“sh*t!” I hissed. “Tala, I’m going to get you out.”

My wolf-lover’s enthusiasm surged through my body as I flicked my wrist, and she appeared before me in an instant, golden flash. She snapped a gremlin in mid-air and shook her head viciously from side to side as the creature squealed in pain.

The appearance of my ghostly wolf eidolon seemed to startle the other gremlins, and they all stopped running for a second to watch with horrified fascination as Tala mauled the little bastard she had in her jaws.

Then, she threw the mangled body to one side and snarled. Her ferocity and power flowed through our connection, and I could sense how ready she was for this battle.

She let out one long, blood-curdling howl, and then the rest of the gremlins shook themselves from their stupor and suddenly surged toward us like a f*cking tidal wave.

My saber flashed left and right as I tried to fend off the rabid little bastards, and I moved so fast that sometimes it felt like my brain couldn’t catch up with my body.

Tala’s ancient wolf instincts had merged with my own combat skills, and I was so fast that I felt superhuman.

But still, these assholes were determined, and more and more of them were dropping from the ceiling all the time. Even at the rate we were cutting them down, we’d still be swamped within a few minutes if things carried on like this.

Tala grabbed another gremlin between her teeth and crunched down as vile green liquid spurted everywhere. The scaly f*ckers already smelled pungently of wet dogs, but this green stuff’s scent was like an unemptied dumpster that had been left out too long in the heat, and I tried my best to breathe through my mouth.

Still, it wasn’t the worst of our problems.

I guessed there were around fifty of the creatures in the spinning, white room now, and that wasn’t counting the dead ones. They weren’t that hard to kill, but their teeth and claws were vicious, and they seemed to have no fear whatsoever.

But it was the f*cking amount of them that was most overwhelming. Tala and I had already killed about ten each, yet their numbers continued to grow, and I wasn’t sure how long we could keep this up. At some point, the balance was going to tip, and they’d overpower us with their superior numbers.

I sensed Tala was thinking the same thing. She was about five feet away from me and moving so swiftly that, half the time, she was a blur of golden light and auburn fur.

She snarled and snapped, but then I saw a couple of gremlins clamber up her fur and onto her back. She attempted to turn her head but couldn’t reach them, and they cackled as they tried to dig their vile claws into her.

I needed to get to her and help, but there was a particularly evil-looking gremlin blocking my path. It looked like it was about to spring, so I made it seem as though I was readying my saber, but then I lashed out hard with my foot and kicked it to the ground in front of me.

It writhed in pain on its back, and, as I rushed toward Tala, I stomped on its face and my boot sank into a sticky mess of brains and crunched-up bone.

It was hard to keep my balance between the slippery gunk on the bottom of my shoe and the crazy spinning room. But I stayed on my feet for long enough to stab one of the scaly f*ckers through the chest with my saber, then I rammed my shoulder into the other one.

But my feet slipped, and I splayed out onto the white floor. The gremlin I’d knocked off with my shoulder cried out in indignation as it tumbled to the ground on top of me.

Before I’d even had a chance to react, Tala had her jaws firmly clenched around its neck. She shook it with such violence that she ripped its throat open, and a disgusting combination of foul, green slime and tendons flew everywhere.

We can’t hold them, Tala said in a worried tone as she turned and grabbed another creature between her teeth.

“We have to!” I yelled and hurriedly got to my feet.

The spinning room was swarming with the evil bastards.

I swung my saber at a gremlin that was trying to climb up my leg and thought desperately about how the f*ck we were going to get out of here.

But my mind was blank.

The only thing I could think of was to release Neoma as well, but I had no idea if I was strong enough for that yet. It took enough out of most people to wield one eidolon, and I didn’t know what would happen if I summoned two at once.

After all, it had never been done before in the entire history of Fablewild.

Tala snarled as she gutted another gremlin, then she spun around to look at me. For a brief moment, our eyes locked, and I knew she could sense what I was thinking.

You have to, she said quietly. There are too many of them, and we can’t do it alone.

Determination radiated from my beautiful eidolon as she clamped her teeth around another gremlin and then threw its limp carcass to the floor.

She wouldn’t have suggested this unless it was our only option, and I knew I had to at least try.

An insistent urgency pulsated through me at Tala’s words, and I could sense Neoma was pressing me to do the unthinkable, too.

The hatches in the ceiling were closed now, and although there were no more gremlins dropping down, I estimated there were well over a hundred inside already.

I knew there was no way Tala and I could defeat these f*ckers alone. There were just too many of them.

I kept fighting off the small f*ckers as I thought, and the combination of tasks was mentally exhausting. One nasty creature managed to crawl up my leg as I debated, and it opened its mouth wide to bite a chunk out of my thigh.

“f*ck!” I slammed the pommel of my saber right between its eyes.

The thing squeaked as it dropped to the ground, but ten more were right behind it.

It was possible summoning Neoma too would just sap my strength and leave me unable to fight the little f*ckers, which would mean I’d become gremlin food. But on the other hand, I knew I’d definitely become gremlin food if I didn’t summon her.

There was no other way we could win.

And besides, I was ninety percent sure the connection I had with both my eidolons was strong enough to withstand the strain.

I kicked out at a gremlin to my right and sent it flying, then I took a deep breath and shifted my saber to my left hand for just enough time to flick my right wrist and release Neoma.

A shower of purple light appeared, and my owl eidolon burst into the room in a haze of clouds. She let out a shrill, earsplitting call, and the gremlins all looked up in surprised unison.

Then she swooped down and grabbed one of the scaly f*ckers in her vicious talons. It squirmed as she flew back up into the air, but there was no way it could escape her grip. Once she’d gained enough height, Neoma released the creature and it hurtled down toward the floor, then landed straight on top of another gremlin. The impact made a hideous crunching sound, and green slime flew everywhere. The two little bastards were left twitching on the floor, and the other gremlins looked on with a combination of anger and surprise.

I hadn’t known what to expect when I’d released Neoma, although I’d thought the toll of having two eidolons out at once might have weakened me a bit.

But I’d never felt more f*cking powerful.

It was as if having both my eidolons out together gave me a much-needed spurt of energy to carry on, and I swung my saber with renewed vigor. Now, with the three of us fighting together, I had a feeling we might just be able to defeat the rabid gremlin horde.

The little f*ckers were everywhere, but they were clearly confused by Neoma’s aerial attacks, and she destroyed them easily, which meant Tala and I were less likely to be mobbed by them.

My wolf eidolon had one gremlin in her jaws, and her sharp claws were digging into another one’s stomach. Neoma flew circles above her and made frequent darts down to grab one of the scaly bastards. Then she’d use it as a projectile and launch it toward small groups of the gray creatures to make them scatter.

I suddenly found myself face to face with three gremlins, and each of them was readying itself to spring. They all cackled, and their jagged rows of teeth were clearly visible. Green strings of saliva dripped from their mouths into foul-smelling pools on the floor, and then the first one jumped.

It hurtled toward me like a bullet, but the wolf instincts flowing through my veins gave me speed and reaction time it could only dream of.

I twisted my torso around but kept my feet firmly planted on the floor as I swung my saber up and sliced deeply into the bastard’s stomach.

Green slime spurted out all over me as the gremlin’s guts simply fell out of its body and splattered onto the ground. It howled in agony as it tumbled to the floor, and I swiftly stabbed it again in the throat before turning my attention back to the other two.

I half-expected them to be more cautious after witnessing their buddy getting sliced open, but if anything, it made them angrier and more aggressive, and they both sprang up at me simultaneously.

I sidestepped and managed to cut one of them with my saber as the bastard sailed through the air, but the other somehow got a grip on my t-shirt. Its claws pierced through the fabric and barely missed my flesh, and its snapping jaw was close enough for me to smell its warm, rank breath.

The bastard emitted a truly evil-sounding cackle and lunged toward my throat, but I grabbed my new dagger with my free hand and stabbed the scaly f*cker in the abdomen before it could bite me.

It screeched in surprised pain, but it still didn’t let go. It took me several more stabs before it finally fell to the floor with a ragged groan.

I could sense my two eidolons thriving, and I glanced up to see how they were doing.

They were working amazingly well together. Tala’s jaws closed like lightning around any gremlins in her vicinity, and Neoma released the scaly bastards from the air and let them spatter on the floor like overripe fruit.

We’d managed to get their numbers down, and it seemed to be making the gremlins even more unpredictable and ruthless.

Something moved on the right edge of my vision, and I snapped my head around to see another gremlin preparing to leap. Then I heard a noise from the other side and realized one was going to spring from the left as well.

I held my ground and waited as they both jumped, then I took a step back at just the right moment.

Their heads collided in mid-air, and I grimaced as the force of the impact shattered their skulls. Green gunk flew out of the fractured mess of bone, and they fell to the floor with startled howls of agony.

I moved forward and finished each of them off with my saber, then looked around to assess the situation.

We’d definitely gained the upper hand. Small, scaly bodies were strewn all over the place in tangled heaps, and the previously pristine, white walls and floor were now covered in green slime and shards of bone.

Although I was sure the tide was turning, there were still plenty of gremlins to deal with, and I didn’t want to get complacent.

Suddenly, something hit me hard on the back, and claws scratched at the skin between my shoulder blades. Then there was a cackling noise, and I almost gagged as the putrid breath of a gremlin rose to meet me.

I grunted as I tried to shake it off, but it wouldn’t budge, and its position on my back made it hard for me to get enough force behind my saber or my dagger to do any real damage.

Tala must have immediately sensed something was wrong because she let out an urgent howl as she galloped toward me on her ghostly paws. She snapped away any gremlins in her path, and Neoma continued her aerial attacks to keep the rest of them at bay.

I turned my back to Tala so she could leap at the bastard clinging to me. It gave a panicked scream as her jaws closed, and she dragged it off my back. When I turned around, I saw my wolf-lover eviscerating the f*cker with glee.

Then four gremlins suddenly sprang at her from different directions. She spun around and grabbed one of them between her sharp teeth. Neoma was there in a flash, and she darted down to seize another, took off into the air with it, and threw it down toward the floor with a satisfied hoot.

Meanwhile, I launched myself at the remaining two with my dagger in one hand and my saber in the other, and they let out pained squeals as I impaled them both at once.

I glanced up to see Neoma had grabbed another gremlin and was circling above Tala. My owl eidolon released the creature from her grip, and Tala rose up onto her hind legs with her jaws open, then caught it and snapped it in half.

“Yes!” I yelled with pride.

My two eidolons’ move had been so f*cking badass, and I was delighted they were working together this well.

I looked around and realized there were only a few gremlins left, although that didn’t make them any less enthusiastic or aggressive.

One was running toward me at full tilt, so I unsheathed a throwing knife, took careful aim, and sent it flying. The knife embedded in the gremlin’s eye with a squelch, and the bastard squealed as it went down.

Neoma flew off to deal with the last few stragglers as Tala prowled between the bodies on the floor and finished off any that were only injured.

Meanwhile, I retrieved my knife, wiped it clean, and put it back in its sheath as I surveyed the scene.

The floor and the walls were covered in green slime and ripped-up body parts, and the stench was unbelievable.

But we’d made it through.

Once I’d double-checked to make sure all the gremlins had been dealt with, the adrenaline abandoned my body, and I was left feeling sick and dizzy from the exertion, the spinning of the room, and the smell.

At least the room’s spinning seemed to be slowing down a bit, and I tried to breathe through my mouth as I looked around to find the exit. A door on the far wall had magically appeared, and now it was standing wide open for us.

An ominous squeaking sound made me look up, and I groaned internally at the prospect of fighting another round of gremlins.

But only the hatch in the center of the ceiling opened this time, and it didn’t release any more of the scaly assholes. Instead, it started to lower a shining shield on a sparkling, silver chain.

My legs were weak with exhaustion as I picked my way through the mangled gremlin bodies to the shield. When I got there, Neoma was already hovering in front of it, and Tala immediately came and pressed herself against my legs.

I unhooked the shield from the chain and marveled at how incredibly light it was. The face of it was made from steel, and it had a large, bronze boss in the center. Elaborate engravings ran along its circumference. I thought at first they depicted a hunting scene, but when I looked closer, they seemed more like temple raids.

Those are scenes from temples you’ve completed, Tala said excitedly.

I inspected the engravings again, and sure enough, my wolf eidolon was right. The shield depicted several of the hardest challenges I’d faced so far in temples, including the gremlins we’d just fought off.

“That’s amazing,” I breathed as I turned the piece over.

The back was covered in thick, soft leather, and I guessed there were several layers of wood and leather underneath the metal facing to give the shield extra strength. There were two wide and supple leather straps for my forearm to slide into, and I quickly tested it out.

The shield had a diameter of about two feet, so it wasn’t small, but it was so light, I barely felt it. When I took it off my arm, I noticed for the first time that it glowed with a very faint blue light, and I knew immediately it had some sort of magical properties.

I could feel my two eidolons’ excitement mingling with my own as we looked at the shield. Neoma let out a couple of happy clicks, and Tala pressed herself more firmly against my legs.

But the creaking sound of the silver chain being pulled back into the hatches made me remember I didn’t want to linger in this room.

Temples were so f*cking sneaky that I wouldn’t put it past them to release a whole lot more gremlins, just for the hell of it, if we hung around for too long.

And I really didn’t have the energy to deal with more of the little f*ckers.

“Let’s go,” I said with a grin.

I clutched the shield and jogged toward the door with Neoma and Tala at my side, and we soon found ourselves in a long corridor that sloped downward.

I felt giddy with excitement and happiness as we started to descend. My dizziness was wearing off now, and I was left with pure elation that we’d completed our first southern temple route.

Plus, it was a temple that even hardened adventurers had said was really challenging.

And to top it all off, I’d gotten to work with both my eidolons at the same time.

None of us said anything as we headed down the passage, but the atmosphere was electric.

Soon, the air started to smell fresher, and within a couple of minutes, the exit to the jungle appeared in front of us.

We emerged into the light, and I took a deep, happy breath.

“We f*cking did it!” I said and turned to my eidolons with a wide grin.

Neoma let out an ecstatic series of hoots and flew joyfully into the air, and Tala reared up onto her hind legs so she could place her front paws on my shoulders.

I laughed as my eidolons’ rapture coursed through me, and then Tala gave a couple of happy barks and jumped back down to allow Neoma to settle on my shoulders. The owl eidolon shimmied her weight from side to side like she was dancing, and Tala ran wild circles around us.

We were giddy with the thrill of our victory, and I completely forgot about all the possible dangers in the jungle as I threw up my hands and danced around like a maniac for a moment.

Neoma took off from my shoulders and swooped up and down through the air as she followed Tala’s circles, and I smiled as I sensed how relaxed they both were with each other.

Not only had we survived a really f*cking hard temple and emerged with an amazing prize, but I’d summoned both my eidolons at once.

Triumph ran through my veins as I thought about how f*cking cool that was. Many adventurers couldn’t even manage one eidolon, but being able to wield two at once was completely unheard of.

I was more powerful than I’d ever dreamed.

My mind was full of plans for the future, and I thought about all the amazing temple raids we could pull off together now that we knew how f*cking well we worked as a team.

My bond with Tala had reached a whole new level, and I couldn’t believe that I could hear her when she was in wolf form. And my connection to Neoma was now even stronger after all of the challenges we’d faced together in that temple. I could tune into her emotions so easily, and she knew what I needed without me even asking.

I felt f*cking unstoppable.

Once we’d eventually calmed down enough to take in our surroundings, I noticed how beautiful this part of the jungle really was. On our approach to the temple, I’d been hit by so many weird visuals and optical illusions that I couldn’t focus on anything other than finding the damn place and getting through the right door.

But this jungle was one of the most beautiful I’d seen so far.

The purple and blue leaves on the trees shimmered in the sunlight as if they’d been coated with glitter, and the grass was a vibrant shade of emerald green. Sunlight poured down through the trees and bathed everything in a soft, dappled light, and swathes of multicolored birds flew overhead or sat perched on branches.

A small, glistening snake slithered along the jungle floor a few feet away, but it paid no attention to me, and neither of my eidolons told me it was dangerous. I watched with fascination as its skin changed from red to pink when the sun hit it, and then it slithered off into the bushes.

The air was perfumed by the vast number of flowers that bloomed from the vines twisting around the tree trunks, and there was a myriad of vibrant, beautifully-scented plants growing between them.

It was hard to believe that anything dangerous could possibly be in this jungle.

It would have been easy to lounge around for a bit and bask in our victory, but I forced myself to get back into practical mode. Fablewild jungles were no place for relaxing, and we had to plan our next move.

“I’m not going to trade this shield at the market,” I said as I looked at our prize. “I mean, it’s so f*cking cool that it has our past temple raids on it, and I know it’ll be useful for combat. Plus, I want to find out more about its magic.”

That’s a good decision, Tala said warmly. It’s obviously enchanted, but I couldn’t say what its powers are…

“It feels really light, which is handy,” I said. “But I’d kinda hoped there was more to it than that.”

There probably will be, Tala replied. Enchanted weapons and armor often are light because it makes them even more valuable, especially if they’re crafted out of something heavy like metal. As I’ve said before, many magic bearers have been hired by old-money families, but if you can find one, they should be able to tell you what your shield can do. Or, you might be able to work it out for yourself through using it, but it’ll probably take a lot longer.

I nodded. “Speaking of old-money families, I think we should go pay a visit to the Amberstones before we head back. I don’t know what the contract is, or if I’ll accept it, but it wouldn’t hurt to find out more. Plus, they might have a magic bearer working for them who I can ask about the shield. If they do, I might even be able to bring the pearlescent box on one of our next trips and find out more about it.”

The enchanted pearlescent box I’d won as a prize a couple of temples ago had been playing on my mind. If it was useful for raids, then I obviously wanted to keep it, but if it wasn’t, I had a feeling I’d be able to sell it for a great price in Fablewild.

That’s a good plan, Tala said. It’s so exciting they asked you. They wouldn’t have offered you the contract if they didn’t believe in you, and it’s a sign that you’re becoming an established adventurer. Soon, you won’t be able to move for offers of work.

I chuckled. “Well, let’s see. But it’s definitely flattering to have been asked. I wonder what the contract is…”

Only one way to find out, Tala said with a smile in her voice.

I nodded and motioned to Neoma. The owl eidolon stopped her aerial acrobatics and swooped down to hover in front of me.

“We’re heading to the Amberstones,” I told her.

She hooted happily and flapped her wings. Her hazel-and-gold eyes were huge with excitement, and my heart flipped as I realized how fond of her I’d become. Her enthusiasm was infectious, and her bubbly personality and happy disposition just made everything better.

I couldn’t imagine my life without her in it, and I wondered if she felt the same way.

“Okay, then.” I grinned. “I’m going to try and use the amulet and the portal together to get us to the Amberstones. I don’t know if it’ll work, but Smukwick said it would lead me to their estate from wherever I was, so I don’t see why it wouldn’t.”

Imagine if it does! Tala said excitedly, and her icy eyes gleamed. We’ll be able to come back to a specific place in Fablewild every time.

“I know,” I answered with a smile. “And, that place is near the graveyard, so when we have something to trade for that eidolon, we won’t have to dick around trying to find the place.”

Won’t have to what? my wolf-lover asked in a confused voice.

“Oh,” I chuckled. “I just mean we won’t need to spend ages looking for it again.”

Neoma landed on my shoulders again and started to shift from side to side. I could sense her enthusiasm and her eagerness to get going.

“Alright,” I laughed. “Well, I’ve loved having you both out of your rings with me, but I guess you’d better get back inside now. We still don’t know if you can travel through the portal when you’re out of them, and I’m not sure if I want to reveal you both to the Amberstones, anyway. But I can’t wait to have you both next to me again soon.”

Warmth and enthusiasm from my two eidolons cascaded over my body, and I knew they were as thrilled as I was that the three of us had fought together, side by side.

We’d just made Fablewild history.

I flicked both my wrists at the same time and watched as Neoma and Tala were pulled back into their rings. The jungle felt weirdly empty, but their presence was still palpable.

With the two eidolons safely in their rings, I took a quick look around and pulled out the amulet Smukwick had given me. The amber glinted in the sunlight, and I couldn’t wait to meet the family who wanted to hire me.

I put the amulet around my neck and did another brief check to make sure no one was watching. Then, I pulled the portal box out of my bag, opened the lid, and hoped my plan would work.

The tornado wrenched me from the ground and spun me violently through the air. I kept a firm hold on the box and gritted my teeth, and as quickly as it had started, it was over.

The air left my lungs as I was thrown out and landed violently on my back. I felt soft grass beneath my hands and sunshine on my face. When I opened my eyes, the sky above me was bright blue and cloudless. For a second, I was sure the portal had gone haywire and transported me to my parents’ backyard in South Carolina.

But when I sat up and looked around, I knew instantly I was still in Fablewild and the portal had worked.

Next to me was a large, sapphire-blue lake that was filled with white birds a little bit bigger than swans. But their beaks were fuchsia instead of orange, and the tips of their feathers were flecked with gold and silver.

On the other side of the lake were some type of horses, but their coats glittered and shimmered like a rainbow when the light hit them. They all had wings, and a few had a horn sticking out of their forehead. Orange flames danced up from their hooves, but none of the creatures took any notice, and it didn’t seem to be hurting them.

I got up and stretched. On the other side of the lake, about half a mile away, was an enormous, ornate house made from dazzling, white stone. Small figures walked along the lawn in front of the house, but none of them seemed to have noticed my sudden appearance out of nowhere.

I grinned and started to walk.

The portal and the amulet had worked, and now, I could come back here whenever I wanted to.

A whole lot of my problems had just been solved.

Colton, Tala suddenly said. You’re still covered in temple gunk. It’s fine to look a bit rugged when you meet these people, but don’t you think you should try to tidy yourself up a bit?

I looked down at my body and realized she was right. I was completely filthy, and when I peered over the edge of the lake to see my reflection, I saw green slime from the gremlins spattered all over my face, too.

“sh*t,” I muttered.

I didn’t feel like I needed to impress these people with my appearance. After all, I was an adventurer, and adventurers were never exactly dressed for a dinner party. But it would still probably be better if I didn’t show up looking like I’d just participated in a swamp wrestling match and then coated myself in mucus.

The water in the lake was clean, so I did my best to wash the worst of the crap out of my hair, then splashed some water on my face and arms. I probably smelled atrocious after the gremlin fight, but I couldn’t change that.

“Meh, that’ll have to do,” I said and stood up. “I mean, I have just come from a temple. If they can’t understand that, then f*ck them. I won’t take their contract.”

Tala’s smile rippled over me as I continued on my way up to the house.

I skirted the lake and marveled at the beauty of the Amberstones’ estate. Everything was manicured to perfection without being fussy, and the vast grounds seemed to stretch out forever in all directions.

The swan creatures floated lazily in the lake and ignored me, but the winged horses were more interested. There were a dozen of them in the herd, and most of them raised their heads from grazing to stare at me with large purple eyes as I walked past.

One approached me on its fiery hooves and whinnied, so I reached out to pet its head. Its coat was so incredibly soft that I felt as if my hand was gliding over velvet.

“Do you know what these are?” I asked Tala as I stroked the animal’s silky muzzle.

I’m not sure, she answered. I’ve never seen anything like them before, but old-money families can sometimes be rather eccentric, so perhaps it’s a hobby of theirs.

I nodded and gave the horse a final pat before I carried on. The luscious grass cushioned my feet as I walked, and the sunlight danced off the white stone of the house.

As I approached the enormous building, it became clear how intricate its workmanship really was. A series of steps led up to a wide veranda that ran the length of the house and overlooked the lake. Elaborate pillars supported the veranda’s roof, and there were several balconies jutting out of the upper story. Small gargoyles and figurines protruded from the stonework in several places, and the railing around the veranda was decorated with model horse heads.

The people I’d seen in the distance when I’d first approached now appeared to be gardeners and staff of some sort. Their clothes were of a similar style to Smukwick’s, but much simpler. Some were occupied trimming trees and bushes near the house, and others were carrying crateloads of fruits and vegetables through a small side door into what I guessed were the kitchens.

A woman suddenly emerged from a small outbuilding to my left with a wheelbarrow full of hay, and she proceeded to cart it toward the horses. The hay had sparks coming off it, but it didn’t catch fire, and the animals all trotted over with whinnies of excitement when they saw her.

I stood at the bottom of the veranda steps and looked up at a large door with stained-glass panels. I was debating whether it would be better to go around and knock at the front door instead when it flew open.

An elegantly-dressed woman stood in the doorway. Her dark hair was drawn into a neat bun, and tailored clothes hung gracefully off her small frame.

“I hope you’re the young adventurer we’ve been told to expect,” she said with a smile.

“Hi,” I said. “Yes, I’m Colton.”

She stepped aside and motioned me into the house. “Please, come in. Lord and Lady Amberstone have been waiting with great excitement for your arrival.”

I grinned and walked up the steps of the veranda, through the door, and into a large hallway.

“Follow me,” the woman said.

The wide corridor she led me through was paved with amber-colored tiles. Huge pictures in gilt frames hung on the walls. Most of them depicted the horses I’d seen outside, and I guessed Tala was right when she said it might be a hobby of theirs.

Closed wooden doors led off to the left and right of the passage that seemed to go on forever.

For a split second, I had a horrible thought that this was just another one of the Temple of Illusion’s tricks and that in a moment, I was going to find myself facing another challenge or a sh*t-load of rabid gremlins.

But then the woman opened a door on the right-hand side and led me into a vast, ornate room flooded with natural light.

“Please, wait here,” she said, and within an instant, she’d vanished.

I exhaled in awe as I looked around the huge room.

“Wow,” I breathed. “These people must have some serious money stashed away.”

Three large windows looked out over a stretch of lawn that had been turned into something like a tennis court, but with slightly different markings from the ones on Earth, and I wondered what sports they had in Fablewild.

The room itself was painted a rich, dark-blue, and the furniture was mostly gold colored. There were a couple of elegant sofas and armchairs clustered around a fireplace so big I was sure I could stand up in it, and vast shelves full of books, manuscripts, and ornaments lined the walls.

A piano was tucked in one corner, and I gasped when I realized its casing was made of polished amber, and its keys were silver and gold instead of white and black.

On the wall above the fireplace was a large canvas painting in an ornate frame. It showed a very tall man with jet-black hair and a well-trimmed beard. He had his arms around a beautiful, lithe woman who was, I presumed, his wife. Her cheekbones were like razor edges, and a wave of lilac hair tumbled down her back. Between them was a small girl with rosy cheeks and vibrant, pink hair, and I guessed she was their daughter.

“Ah, yes, the old family portrait,” a deep voice behind me said.

I jumped and turned around.

The man from the portrait was now standing only a few feet away from me, and he must somehow have managed to come in silently as I was staring at the painting.

He wore loose-fitting green trousers and a bright orange waistcoat. His hair was grayer and thinner than in the portrait, and he had no beard, but otherwise, he looked exactly the same.

Except for the parrot on his shoulder and the pink and gold cheetah at his heel.

He seemed completely unaware of my surprise and took a step forward to properly examine the portrait. The cheetah mirrored his moves.

“It’s not a bad likeness,” the man said. “And so I should hope. Got one of the best portrait painters in Fablewild to do it. Cost a bloody fortune! Took him weeks! But my wife likes it, and whatever she likes, I make sure she has. Always have done, always will.”

“Errr, that’s very nice of you,” I said for lack of anything else to say.

“Yes, I think so.” He smiled at me to reveal dazzling, white teeth. “Have you seen my sun-racers yet?”

“Your what?” I asked in confusion.

“Sun-racers, you must have heard of them,” he said brightly.

I presumed this guy was Lord Amberstone, but it was beginning to occur to me that he might be slightly mad, and the presence of the cheetah and the parrot, along with the lack of introduction, did nothing to dispel that.

My hesitation didn’t even seem to faze him.

“Wonderful animals!” he said. “They’re out there on the lawn, I’ll show you later.”

“Oh, the horses with the flames on their hooves?” I asked with relief that at least he wasn’t seeing things.

“That’s them!” He grinned. “I breed the best in Fablewild.”

“Right.” I gulped. “I saw them on my way up to the house. They’re very beautiful animals.”

“Yes, aren’t they just.” He paused for a moment. “Walking to the house, you say? You came the back way?”

I nodded and hoped he wouldn’t ask too many questions about my exact route to the estate.

He shrugged. “Oh, well. Can’t imagine why, but I’m sure you had your reasons. I don’t like being questioned too much about my own reasons for doing things, so I won’t question you. A man shouldn’t have to explain his logic for things at every twist and turn, but I seem to have mine queried every five minutes. Ridiculous!”

I was at a loss for words. He didn’t seem perturbed by my presence in his house, but neither did he make it clear he knew who I was, or why I was there.

The cheetah at his feet watched me unblinkingly with huge, orange eyes, and I shifted uncomfortably on my feet.

Then suddenly, the man clapped his hand on my shoulder and stared at me thoughtfully. I assumed he was finally going to say something related to the task I presumed he wanted to hire me for, but his face broke into a wide grin instead.

“Right, lunch!” he boomed then turned and walked toward the door.

I hesitated. What the f*ck did “lunch” mean? Was he off to lunch? Did he want me to follow him and join him for lunch? Was it just a random word he shouted out in between tending his pet parrot and cheetah?

And anyway, wasn’t it a bit late for lunch? By my estimate, it was about three or four in the afternoon.

Tala and Neoma’s amusem*nt at the man’s eccentricity and my own confusion washed through me. Although I quite liked him, I decided right then and there that he was clearly insane.

But the man didn’t get far before the door opened again and the lithe woman from the painting stepped into the room. She was smaller than the portrait had suggested, and she wore an elegant silver dress but no jewelry. Her long, lilac hair showed no signs of gray, and in fact, the only indication she’d aged at all since posing for the portrait was the very slight lines around her eyes.

“Ruhirg,” she said in a lilting voice. “I hope you’ve made our guest feel welcome.”

“Certainly,” the man answered. “We’ve been getting to know each other haven’t we… errr…”

He waved his hand in the air and was clearly searching for my name.

“Colton,” I said with a smile.

I wasn’t pissed off that he couldn’t remember. He clearly didn’t mean it as a slight, and I got the impression he didn’t really bother with names or even introductions that much in general.

The woman rolled her eyes good-naturedly at her husband and turned to me.

“I do hope he hasn’t been boring you,” she said sweetly.

“Not at all.” I grinned.

One thing this guy could never be was boring.

“I suppose he’s introduced the sun-racers, but not himself,” she continued. “I’m Laylah Amberstone, and this is my husband, Ruhirg Amberstone. Thank you so much for taking the time to come see us.”

“I’m flattered to have been asked, Lady Amberstone,” I said.

“Oh, please.” She waved her hand. “Call me Laylah.”

“Yes, yes, yes,” her husband said impatiently. “All very nice, very good, excellent introductions. Just call me whatever you like, Coldron, but can we please go and have some lunch now?”

“It’s Colton, dear,” his wife reminded him firmly.

Lord Amberstone grumbled good-humoredly at her correction and leaned down to scratch the cheetah’s head.

“Please, come and eat with us,” his wife said. “I know it’s rather late, but we don’t tend to keep very regular mealtimes, and it would be good if we could sit down and explain our proposition to you properly.”

I nodded and followed them both out of the room.

I was relieved someone had finally mentioned the purpose of my visit. Lord Amberstone’s bizarre greeting had me half-thinking I’d imagined the conversation with Smukwick.

Ruhirg Amberstone bounded down the hall, and his wife glided smoothly after him. I’d expected them to lead me through some more passages and into a dining room of some sort, but instead, we headed back out to the garden.

Somehow, in the space of time we’d been inside, a small but elegant canvas gazebo had been set up on the lawn, and underneath it was a table crammed full of food. Three cushioned chairs had been set out around it, and a couple of well-dressed servants waited patiently for Lord and Lady Amberstone to arrive.

“We thought we should eat outside since it’s such a beautiful day,” Laylah said to me as we walked. “The sun-racers won’t disturb us unless Ruhirg calls them, and usually, I can prevent him from doing that until the meal is over, at least.”

Her husband was already ten paces ahead of us. He pointed to the gazebo, and the cheetah immediately sat down next to it to wait. Meanwhile, the parrot took off from its master’s shoulder and settled on the arm of a chair. Then, Lord Amberstone went straight to the sun-racers, who all whinnied and trotted over happily the moment they saw him.

The winged horses clustered around Ruhirg in a happy group, and he spoke softly to them as he reached into his pocket and brought out various treats like apple slices and sugar cubes.

“They are his pride and joy,” Laylah said as she led me over to the table. “The Amberstone family have bred them for generations. They’re very rare and very valuable. In fact, the current herd is probably worth more than the entire house.”

f*ck me, these people were rich.

The two servants pulled our chairs out for us, and we sat down. The chair with the parrot was evidently reserved for Lord Amberstone.

“Ruhirg,” Laylah called. “Do come and get some food, now.”

She turned back to me and shook her head in exasperation, but a smile danced at the corner of her mouth.

She swept her hair back from her face. “After he proposed, his mother told me if I married an Amberstone, I would also be marrying the sun-racers. And how right she was.”

Her husband ambled back to the table, waved away a servant’s attempts to move his chair for him, and sat down heavily. The parrot fluttered back up to his shoulder, and the cheetah prowled softly over to settle contentedly at his feet like a giant housecat.

Lord Amberstone immediately grabbed a jug full of pale, fizzy-looking liquid and poured it into three glasses. He handed one to me and the other to his wife, and for a moment, I wondered if I’d have to subject myself to a Fablewild-style toast.

But instead, he threw back his head and drained the glass in a couple of gulps.

“Ahhhh,” he gasped. “That’s better.”

He reached out and instantly refilled his glass as I took a small sip from mine. I’d only drunk champagne once before at a cousin’s wedding, and this stuff was even nicer.

“Do help yourself, Colton,” Laylah said as she gestured to the array of food on the table. “We decided a formal meal wouldn’t be quite right for the occasion. And since you’ve just raided a temple, you must be hungry.”

I looked up to see her eyes twinkling.

“You can’t be surprised I noticed,” she said with a light laugh. “Ruhirg wouldn’t, of course, but I’m very observant. I see things other people miss. Though, I’m not sure anyone could miss the current state of slime on your clothes.”

“I’m sorry–” I started to say.

“Nonsense.” Laylah dismissed my apology with a wave of her hand. “It only serves as recommendation to your skills.”

I wondered for a moment whether she’d worked out I was from a different world, but there was no trace of suspicion in her large, blue eyes.

I chuckled. “I don’t usually look this gross after a raid, but it was the hardest one I’ve done so far, and things got slightly messy.”

“Must have been a tricky one, then,” Lord Amberstone said, and he bit into some sort of meat. “We hear you have an amazing amount of experience under your belt already.”

“It certainly wasn’t easy.” I smiled.

“Eat, then,” Ruhirg said through a mouthful of food. “Can’t have you wasting away, now, can we?”

I hadn’t realized how hungry I was until I’d looked at the table loaded with food, but I’d expended a lot of energy in the temple, and the stew in the Drunken Flute seemed like a very long time ago. In fact, I couldn’t believe I’d been in the graveyard only that morning.

It was turning into one hell of a weird-ass day.

Ruhirg Amberstone’s plate was piled high with food, and he was digging in with obvious glee. Laylah was much more restrained, but she nibbled appreciatively on an array of dishes.

I had no idea what half of the food was, but obviously, I didn’t want to give that away by asking. I helped myself to some bread and some cheese, and then I recognized cooked clancat from the market in Redrest, and I had some of that, too.

Try a slice of the thing on the blue plate to your right, Tala said helpfully. I think it’s goldgrace tart. Oooh, and the green plate next to it is cured flepruck, which is supposed to be very good. And then right in front of you, that’s steamed moonflower. People go wild for it in Fablewild.

I gratefully took helpings of the things Tala pointed out. I still had no real idea what I was eating, but it was f*cking delicious.

“This is lovely,” I said to the Amberstones in between bites.

“Not bad, is it?” Ruhirg replied. “Our chef was trained by the best. He has all sorts of connections in various towns and villages, so he can get the freshest produce, too. One thing I cannot abide is a bad meal.”

“I wish that was the only thing,” Laylah teased.

“Bah,” he grumbled. “I’m not that hard to please.”

He grabbed a small piece of meat in his fingers and handed it up to the parrot, and the bird swallowed it with delight. Then, he picked a bigger piece and passed it down to the pink cheetah at his feet.

“Colton, you must try some of this,” Laylah said and handed me a bowl of salad.

As I reached out to take it, her eyes landed on Neoma’s ring, but she didn’t mention it.

“So,” she said after a moment. “Remind me, how many temples have you raided so far?”

“Five,” I said. “I just came from the Temple of Illusions.”

“That’s impressive, Colon,” Ruhirg said and took a swig of his drink. “From what I’ve heard, that’s a pretty nasty one. We’re very awed by your work so far.”

“Thank you.” I smiled and bit into a chunk of bread.

“So what’s your secret, Dolton?” he asked.

“Colton, dear,” Laylah corrected him again. “I’m so sorry, Colton.”

“It’s fine,” I laughed.

“Course it is!” Ruhirg grinned. “The boy’s taking the place by storm! Soon, everyone’ll know his name, and it won’t matter whether I get it right or not.”

I decided it was probably better not to question Lord Amberstone’s bizarre logic, so I smiled and sipped my drink.

I wanted to ask them about this proposition, but I thought it might be rude for me to bring it up first. And anyway, Lord Amberstone looked like the kind of guy who didn’t enjoy discussing business when he was eating.

“Was that your daughter in the painting?” I asked.

Laylah’s face lit up instantly, and even Ruhirg stopped chewing for a moment.

“Yes, that’s our lovely Rosadina,” he said. “She’s a few years younger than you are now, I should say. She’s turned into a true beauty like her mother.”

Laylah batted away his compliment with a smile and turned to me.

“Rosa is currently away studying,” she said. “But it’s actually because of her that we asked you here.”

Aha, finally, we were getting somewhere. I nodded at her to carry on and took a bite of clancat.

“It’s Rosa’s twenty-first birthday this year,” she said as she stared intently at me. “To mark the occasion, we would like to give her something extra unique. As you can see, she grew up surrounded by great luxury, and she’s always had the best of everything.”

“She’s not spoiled, mind you,” Ruhirg interrupted. “I won’t have you thinking that about my Rosadina. Heart of an angel, that girl. She knows she’s been lucky, and she doesn’t abuse it.”

“That’s very true, dear,” Laylah said and turned back to me. “But because she’s known wealth all her life, it makes it a little bit… hard for us to find something special enough for such an important birthday.”

I nodded. “So what did you have in mind?”

“We want to pay you to bring us an extremely rare artifact from a temple,” Ruhirg said between mouthfuls. “And when I say pay, what I mean is we will give you so much money, you’ll be catapulted onto the ladder of extreme Fablewild wealth. You’ll be able to buy houses, carriages, women, horses, whatever you like.”

My heart quickened.

“Really, Ruhirg,” Laylah said with a tut. “Colton, I hope you don’t think we’re insulting you. We know adventurers often make a huge amount of money by trading the artifacts they win, but the amounts we’re talking about will make those trades look puny in comparison. You will easily be able to afford a house in every city in the area. You could even afford a couple of the sun-racers over there.”

“Not that they’re for sale, of course,” Ruhirg interrupted quickly. “Those are breeding stock. I won’t have any for sale until next year. And that’s presuming all goes well. I mean, I’m not entirely sure–”

“Ruhirg, for goodness sake.” Laylah rolled her eyes with exasperated affection. “I’m sure Colton isn’t interested in your bloody sun-racers. I was simply using them as an example of what we will pay him.”

“Nonsense,” Ruhirg boomed. “Everybody wants to know about sun-racers, they’re fascinating animals.”

Laylah sighed, but luckily, her husband didn’t expand on his love of the winged horses, and I was spared a lecture.

Tala and Neoma’s excitement at this proposition mingled with my own. The amount of money this family was talking about made the money I’d gotten from the jeweler’s little more than loose change, and my mind raced with possibilities.

But I didn’t want to seem too eager, and I still needed a lot more information before I could agree.

“We can even provide you with custom clothes and protection for the raid,” Laylah continued as she eyed my reaction. “Armor, weapons, whatever you need, it’s yours.”

“Certainly is,” Ruhirg confirmed.

“Okay,” I nodded. “That’s all very tempting, and I am interested. But what’s the catch?”

Laylah glanced at her husband as if she expected him to answer, but he seemed completely engrossed in his food again. When he realized we were both looking at him, he raised his head.

“D’you like parrots?” he asked me. “This here is Delpim. I’ve had him for thirty years, longer than I’ve been married!”

Ruhirg reached up and gave the bird another morsel of food.

“And down there is Pouncer. She’s a great guard cat. I’d have twenty of her if I could.”

“And you can’t,” Laylah said firmly. “If it were up to you, this house would be overrun with animals.”

But she reached down and stroked Pouncer affectionately, all the same.

I was starting to get suspicious of their reluctance to tell me what was going on. There had to be a catch to their offer. The temples I’d raided so far had already been really f*cking hard, and surely, this family had something even more difficult in mind, or else they wouldn’t be offering me such vast sums of money.

Perhaps they want you to raid a temple from the west, or after dark, Tala suggested. Or maybe both.

That was possible. It would be one hell of a challenge to approach a temple from the west after dark. I’d only just completed my first southern route, and that had been in the middle of the day, but the tasks had been f*cking brutal.

Still, if that’s what they wanted, I was confident I could do it.

After all, I was getting more experienced with every single temple raid, and I’d found I could use both my eidolons at once. Whatever it was, we could face it together.

But I needed to know what the f*ck they wanted me to do.

Laylah seemed to sense my impatience, and she motioned the servants to clear away our empty plates.

“And bring out dessert,” she ordered.

The two staff members quickly whisked the plates away and bustled off into the house.

I cleared my throat. “If you want me to do this, you have to tell me what you’ve got in mind.”

“Colton,” Laylah began. “You already know how impressed we are with your past exploits. You’ve risen from nowhere, and in a few weeks, you’ve started to gain a real reputation. We respect that. The Amberstones are a very old family, but we’re not particularly traditional.”

“We could have asked a more seasoned adventurer, of course,” Ruhirg said as he stroked the parrot. “Most people would have. Someone with hundreds of raids behind them, and an impressive reputation to back them up. But we preferred a more… unusual approach. We like supporting new blood, people who have something that makes them extra special.”

“We believe you have that extra special something,” Laylah added and stared hard into my eyes.

I bowed my head. “That’s very kind of you.”

“For such a new and young adventurer, your achievements are remarkable,” Ruhirg said in a solemn tone. “And we would like to give you the chance to gain even more glory. If you pull this off, you will be the talk of Fablewild.”

“I’m flattered you asked me,” I said as I looked at each of them. “And I’ll certainly consider the offer. But to do that, I really need you to tell me exactly what you’d be hiring me to do.”

Laylah looked at her husband and shrugged her shoulders.

He cleared his throat. “It’s no ordinary task, but we think you’re up to it. We want you to raid the Grand Temple of the Deep.”

My heart stopped.

“And,” Laylah added. “We want you to approach it from the west, after dusk.”

f*ck me.

Tala and Neoma’s warning signals were tearing through my veins like f*cking wildfire, but I didn’t need them to tell me how dangerous this would be.

The Amberstones wanted me to approach one of the most deadly temples in Fablewild from the most deadly direction during the deadliest time possible.

Their belief in me was certainly complimentary, and it would definitely be a great test of my abilities.

But f*ck, it would be difficult.

I took a deep breath. “Nobody even knows where the Grand Temples are hidden.”

“That’s right,” Laylah said quietly. “You would need to find it, too.”

It would be easier with Neoma and her black mana, that was for sure. But it was still an insanely hard task. I hadn’t even approached a normal temple from the west or after dusk yet, let alone a Grand Temple.

But if I had enough time to practice and level up, I was sure I could do it.

“When is your daughter’s birthday?” I asked.

“Two months to the day from now,” Laylah said. “We wanted to give you enough time to prepare.”

sh*t, that wasn’t long.

Colton, Tala said in a warning voice. This is crazy. Many hardened adventurers never go near a Grand Temple in their entire lives.

That was true, but no other adventurers had two eidolons, either.

Listen, Tala continued. I know I said you’d probably need to raid a Grand Temple to save that eidolon in the graveyard, but I’d presumed you’d choose an easier route. What they’re asking for is madness, any hardened adventurer would tell you that.

I frowned and turned the proposition over in my mind.

Although the money the Amberstones were offering was incredible, my priority had to be the eidolon trapped in the graveyard. If I was going to raid a Grand Temple, I couldn’t give the artifact to the Amberstones rather than trading it to save her.

I just couldn’t.

Perhaps I could raid the Grand Temple twice?

But I only had two months to get the artifact for the Amberstones’ daughter, and I had to save the eidolon from the graveyard as soon as possible. And forcing myself through the Grand Temple of the Deep twice that quickly sounded crazy. Plus, I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to find it again after the first raid, given what Tala and Neoma had told me about Grand Temple magic.

Then it struck me.

What if I could get the Amberstones to up their price and include something that might be worth an eidolon?

They were an incredibly wealthy family, they must have something the graveyard would accept.

My pulse quickened as I thought about the possibility. If I raided the Grand Temple of the Deep from the west and after dusk, I could give the artifact to the Amberstones in exchange for another valuable item and a sh*t-ton of gold. Then, I could take the item I got from them to the graveyard and save the eidolon the nymphs were guarding.

It was f*cking genius.

I sensed anxiety and tension radiating from Tala and Neoma, but I had to at least find out whether the family would accept my offer, and I could make a decision from there.

“I assume you know how dangerous what you’re asking is,” I said.

Both of the Amberstones nodded, and they clearly thought I was about to turn it down.

“I’m prepared to consider this,” I said. “But on one condition.”

“Name it,” Ruhirg said instantly. “You want more money?”

“Actually, I have a particular request. You see, I had plans to raid a Grand Temple myself so I could gain a valuable artifact to trade.”

“But we’re offering you more than you’ll get in any other trade,” Ruhirg said impatiently.

“No, you don’t understand,” I said. “I wasn’t going to trade it for money. I needed to exchange it with the graveyard.”

“What the hell are you trying to get from a graveyard?” Ruhirg asked with surprise. “It’s all weapons and armor there, isn’t it? We can provide you with those for the raid. Even if you were after some enchanted steel or something, surely, an artifact from a Grand Temple is too much!”

“Not for what I want,” I said quietly.

The Amberstones looked at me questioningly and said nothing.

I considered staying quiet about the graveyard eidolon, just in case they passed the information on to someone else who then went and claimed her before I could. But I decided the chances of that were unlikely since it had been so difficult to find the f*cking place, anyway.

Plus, I needed them to understand what I was asking for and why.

I sighed. “There’s an eidolon being guarded in the graveyard. The nymphs have agreed that I can claim her, but, obviously, I have to make a worthy trade. I planned to raid a Grand Temple and use the artifact in exchange for the eidolon. She’s trapped, so saving her still has to be my priority. But if you can up your price to include something worth an eidolon…”

Laylah looked at me hard. “But you already have an eidolon, Colton. I saw the ring on your hand earlier.”

“Well,” snorted Ruhirg. “Nobody can wield two eidolons, Colson. It’s a ridiculous thought. One’s hard enough, from what I hear. Very tricky things, eidolons, best stick with animals like Pouncer, here. Much more reliable.”

Laylah ignored her husband and continued to stare at me. There was a very faint trace of suspicion in her eyes.

“Why do you want two eidolons, Colton?” she asked quietly.

You have to tell them, Tala said. They’re reasonable people, and they’re not about to steal Neoma or me from you. It’s wise to keep us hidden in danger, but you also have to know when to reveal how powerful you truly are.

I trusted Tala’s advice, and I also wanted to show the Amberstones there was no reason to be suspicious of my motives. If I showed them I could wield two eidolons, they might be more likely to agree to my requests.

I took a deep breath and held up both my hands.

“Actually, I already have two eidolons,” I said casually. “I want to rescue a third.”

Laylah and Ruhirg stared at me with their mouths wide open. It was the first time I’d seen him lost for words, and I couldn’t help but feel a little bit smug by their reactions.

It was so f*cking cool to be the first person in history to wield two eidolons at once.

And sometime soon, I hoped I’d have three.

The silence was broken when one of the servants came back with a wide tray full of various desserts and small mugs of steaming liquid that turned out to be some sort of sweet tea.

I put my hands back under the table as he set the tray down. It was all well and good showing my eidolons to people when I had to, but I didn’t want to make a habit of it.

The servant shambled off, and I was left with the two stunned Amberstones.

“You are an extraordinary young man,” Laylah eventually said as she eyed me over her tea.

“Indeed, you are,” Ruhirg chuckled and slurped his drink. “I’m starting to understand how you’ve been so successful. Two eidolons, eh? Very sly indeed, well done. I don’t know how the devil you manage them both at once, and I don’t need to. I’m sure you know that is a very… unique skill to have.”

I nodded as Ruhirg dug hungrily into a large piece of chocolate tart.

“I wouldn’t shout about it, if I were you, though,” he said with his mouth full. “I’ve heard all sorts of stories about what adventurers will do to each other to get their hands on an eidolon.”

His wife watched him thoughtfully.

“Ruhirg?” she asked.

“Hmm?” He kept chewing but raised his eyes.

“Colton could take something from the vaults,” she said. “Some of the heirlooms are probably worth an eidolon.”

My ears pricked up.

Ruhirg swallowed and stayed silent for a moment. Then he nodded.

“Yes, alright,” he said and turned to me. “A great, great uncle of mine was a sorcerer. Long time ago, of course, but he was rather well-known and very powerful. He left quite a few items behind when he died. They’ve become heirlooms, and we keep them locked away in a secure vault in the cellars. Can’t be too careful, what with thieves and graverobbers and whatnot, even with Pouncer on the prowl.”

“The heirlooms are obviously very rare,” Laylah added. “But it’s not like we use them or have any particular need for them.”

I nibbled on some fruit as I thought over their offer. It certainly seemed reasonable, and Tala and Neoma’s agreement washed over me in waves.

That sounds fair, my wolf-lover said. An heirloom from a sorcerer must surely be worth an eidolon. It’s an incredibly dangerous task they want you to undertake, but at least the rewards are reasonable.

I nodded and took a sip of tea.

“How much money are you offering, exactly?” I asked.

They’d told me it would be a huge sum, but I needed actual figures if I was really going to risk my life for these people.

“Four thousand gold bars,” Ruhirg answered promptly.

f*cking hell.

The average large house in a town around here costs one thousand gold bars, Tala informed me with excitement.

I gulped. The Amberstones hadn’t been kidding when they’d said they’d make me a rich man.

But since I’d be facing death if I agreed, I felt they could increase their sum a little more. It wasn’t like they were short on cash.

“Make it five thousand gold bars and an heirloom of my choice from the vaults,” I said firmly. “And, of course, you’ll have to provide any custom weapons or armor I might need for the raid.”

I sensed how impressed Tala and Neoma were with my confidence in negotiation.

Laylah looked at her husband for confirmation, and he gave a small nod.

“We can do that,” she said to me with a smile.

Warmth cascaded over my body from my two eidolons, and I knew they both thought it was a fair deal and they’d support me in whatever decision I made.

But before I signed up for anything, I wanted to discuss it properly with them first and draw on all their knowledge of Fablewild to make an informed decision.

“I’m extremely interested,” I said to the Amberstones. “But I’d like a little time to consider the offer. Can I get back to you in three days with my answer?”

“Suits us.” Ruhirg grinned. “We’re pleased you’re thinking about it, Woldron. Come back in three days and let us know. I’ll even show you the sun-racers in action, then. Couldn’t today, I’m resting them after–”

“Thank you for coming to see us, Colton,” Laylah interrupted her husband with a smile. “Rosadina would be delighted if we could say her present was acquired by the famous young adventurer. She’s become a little obsessed with following your exploits. In fact, it’s from her that we heard about you.”

sh*t, this was like being a celebrity.

“Well, that’s very kind,” I laughed.

The sun was low in the sky, and I knew I should get going. We still had to head back to the rough area where we’d landed, and I didn’t want to travel in the dark.

I grabbed my bag from the floor and stood up.

“Oh, incidentally,” I said before I forgot. “Do you, by any chance, have a magic bearer working for you?”

“We used to,” Laylah sighed.

“He couldn’t be trusted near the sun-racers,” her husband said gruffly. “I caught him trying to experiment on them with some new spell!”

“I’m not sure that’s entirely true, dear,” Laylah said.

“It is!” Ruhirg answered briskly. “I caught him red-handed, and I will not allow anyone to interfere with my sun-racers. Not on my watch!”

Laylah hid a smile. “Why do you ask, Colton?”

“Oh, I just have an artifact that needs examining by a magic bearer,” I answered. “It’s enchanted, but I’m not sure what its properties are.”

“I’m sorry we can’t help,” she said. “But plenty of old families can, I’m sure. I’ll think about where you might get some answers, then I can let you know when you next visit.”

“That would be great.” I grinned. “Thank you both for such a lovely lunch and for offering me this contract. I’ll think it over and let you know in three days.”

“Right-ho,” Ruhirg said through a mouthful of tart. “Bye, Colgy!”

“Goodbye, Colton,” Laylah said with twinkling eyes. “Stay safe in the jungle.”

“I will.” I smiled and turned on my heel.

I walked around the edge of the house to the front and down a winding, gravel pathway lined by mature trees.

“Do you know the way back to the portal spot?” I murmured to Tala.

I can work it out, she said confidently. Head back into the jungle, and I’ll direct you from there.

The driveway seemed to go on forever, but I barely noticed. I’d just been scouted for my first bounty job, and the money I was being offered was unbelievable.

Plus, I’d negotiated something extra to save the eidolon from the graveyard.

I was feeling f*cking great.

And I was still riding a thrill from such a successful raid on the Temple of Illusions.

Eventually, I reached a high, white, stone wall and an enormous metal gate adorned with two huge pieces of polished amber. The gate was inscribed with large, looping writing.

“I can’t read that,” I sighed to myself.

It must be the Amberstones’ motto, Tala said. It says, ‘We were. We are. We will be.’ All ancient families have them. This is quite a good one, actually. Some are much more bloodthirsty or pompous.

A couple of guys dressed in livery were manning the gate, and they opened it for me with a subservient nod.

I could see why the Amberstones had such a high wall around their property. The moment I stepped through the gate, I was in the jungle.

My body was beginning to ache again after all I’d put it through today, and my cruddy apartment and old mattress had never seemed so inviting. I felt as if I could sleep for a decade, and I promised myself that we would do nothing at all the next day but recover and indulge ourselves.

After all, we f*cking deserved it.

I took the anchor off from around my neck and put it in my bag. Tala guided me gently through the trees. I would never stop being amazed by how she could just tell me which way to go without saying anything.

As we went further into it, the jungle became more and more like the dead one we’d landed in. The ground became softer and more boggy, and the putrid odor of rotting flesh returned.

Many of the trees were desiccated with black leaves and spikes on their trunks. Others had roots that looked suspiciously like the ones that had tried to snare me as I’d crossed the swamp.

“I really f*cking hope there’s no more sightless-zombie-swamp-f*ckers out here,” I muttered under my breath.

Tala laughed. We’re not that far away, just a few more minutes, and I think we’ll be close enough to the original spot.

I was considering what we should order for dinner that night because no f*cking way was I cooking when the sound of a snapping twig up ahead made me stop.

Tala’s alertness raced through me and heightened my already keen senses. Her warning tingled down my spine, and I scanned the trees in front of me carefully for any sign of danger.

That’s when two large men stepped out about ten feet ahead of me.

I recognized them immediately.

They were the graverobbers.

They looked even f*cking bigger now than when they’d been sitting in the Drunken Flute.

One was the guy missing three fingers from his left hand, but I had a feeling that wasn’t going to stop him from being one mean son of a bitch. His greasy black hair was scraped back into a ponytail, and he carried a large club with a heavy metal chain attached to it. From the chain hung a huge, spiked sphere that looked as if it could do some serious damage with a single swing.

The other guy had a closely shaved head and a split lower lip. The lip was bleeding, as if he’d been in a fight recently. He had a huge club in one hand and a couple of daggers on his belt.

They were both several inches taller than me and looked as if they could easily snap me in half.

I held my ground, placed my hand on the hilt of my saber, and raised my shield to cover my body.

“You,” the guy with the split lip grunted.

I’d expected him to carry on, but he seemed to run out of words after his initial greeting.

“You talking to me?” I asked, and I had an insane vision of myself as Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver.

“f*cking right we are,” Two-Fingers growled and swung his evil-looking chain.

Get ready, Tala said.

“What can I do for you?” I asked.

I was flying high on the success of the day, and I wasn’t about to take any sh*t from a couple of f*cking graverobbers.

“You don’t belong here,” Split-Lip said. “You think you’re hiding it well? We saw you a mile off.”

sh*t, did they know I came from a different world? And if so, how?

I tried to stay calm, even though my heart felt as if it was leaping out of my chest.

“What d’you mean?” I asked.

“You know damn well what we mean,” Two-Fingers snarled. “Where’s Adam?”

I frowned. “Who the f*ck is Adam?”

“Your little friend,” Two-Fingers said bitterly. “Said he came from a land called Earth, and we know you do, too.”

f*ck.

Adam had to be the forum guy.

The only way I knew of to travel to and from Fablewild was the portal, and as far as I was aware, only one other person had used it.

The tent-dwelling stalker-f*ck who’d buried it.

Obviously, he couldn’t just have discovered an amazing portal to a magical world and then behaved like a nice guy.

He had to be an asshole and piss off some of the most unpleasant people in Fablewild.

Why didn’t that surprise me?

I hated him even more now.

Split-Lip suddenly stepped forward. I drew my saber out in one swift movement and made sure I was ready to lunge.

But he didn’t come any closer.

“Adam took something from us,” he said. “Tell us where he is, and we’ll let you go.”

“How considerate of you,” I sneered. “But I still don’t know who the f*ck you’re talking about.”

I didn’t want to fight these bastards if I didn’t have to, but their attitude was really starting to piss me off, and I imagined the satisfying feeling of sticking my saber right into their guts.

The two graverobbers looked at each other for a moment, as if they were unsure whether to believe me or not.

“Adam owes us big time,” Two-Fingers growled.

I gave an exaggerated sigh. “So you keep saying. But it’s none of my business. I don’t know this Adam guy, and I don’t want to, either.”

“Well, you better make it your business!” Split-Lip shouted. “It’s obvious you come from the same place as him, so you can f*cking well track him down.”

I shrugged. “I’m a bit busy right now. Get back to me in a few years, and I’ll see what I can do.”

“Trying to get smart’s a bad idea,” Two-Fingers snarled.

“Clearly.” I smirked. “You two certainly don’t seem to have mastered it at all.”

Two-Fingers looked like he was about to launch himself at me, but his companion held him back.

“Listen, asshole,” Split-Lip said to me. “You’ve got two choices. Either you go back to wherever the f*ck you came from, track down Adam, and bring the thieving bastard to us. Or you pay up yourself.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Pay up? Are you serious? I’ve got no part in your petty little dispute, and I don’t know who this guy you’re looking for is. Sort it out for yourselves and leave me out of it.”

Two-Fingers gave a sad*stic grin and swung his chain.

“Sounds like he wants to pay up,” he said.

I clutched my saber firmly and prepared to fight, then Split-Lip’s eyes suddenly landed on Neoma’s ring.

“Tell you what,” he said with a sinister smile. “You give us that lovely ring of yours, and we’ll say no more about it.”

“Go to hell!” I snarled.

The two big bastards lunged for me together, and I scooted quickly to the left before they could change their course.

I was way faster on my feet than them, and I sliced a deep cut in Split-Lip’s right thigh as he hurtled past me.

In the time it took them both to turn around, I flicked my wrist and Neoma emerged from a swirl of purple mist in the air.

Tala’s desire to be out was radiating urgently from her, but I decided to keep her as a nasty surprise for the two sh*theads. They hadn’t seen her ring yet, and I wanted to release her at just the right moment.

Neoma let out a piercing screech that made the two men cover their ears, then she dove down and dragged her pointed talons across Split-Lip’s head.

He gave a grunt of surprise and lashed out, but she was already too high in the air. Blood dripped down his ugly face from the deep scratches, but he didn’t even seem to notice.

“You’re eidolon’s going to pay for that!” he shouted and hurled himself toward me with his club raised high above his head.

My body reacted before my brain even had time to process what I was doing, and I sprinted around his huge body to ram my shield hard into the back of his knees. He grunted in surprise as his tree-trunk legs buckled suddenly beneath him, and at the same time, I quickly thrust my saber deep into the back of his right thigh, pulled down viciously, and tore a gaping wound into his flesh.

The bastard screamed and tried to staunch the wound with his hands, but the blood still gushed down his leg like a disgusting, red waterfall.

I spun around sharply and found myself face to face with Two-Fingers and his ugly chain.

“Surprise,” he snickered and swung the heavy weapon toward my head.

I raised my shield a split second before the spiked sphere smashed into the side of my face, and the impact of the vicious weapon slamming into the metal vibrated up my arm. At the same time, I lunged forward with my saber and stabbed the big f*cker right below the ribcage.

“Indeed it is,” I shouted as I pulled my weapon out.

He groaned and clutched his free hand to his wound. It was bleeding, but it didn’t look very deep.

Since he was distracted, I took the opportunity to raise my shield and smash it sharply into the side of his face which made him roar loudly, then I took several quick steps back out of the reach of his chain and turned to see where Neoma was.

Split-Lip had gotten back to his feet now, although blood was pouring out of the back of his leg, and he was limping a bit.

A chunk of flesh was missing from his forearm, too, and I guessed Neoma had been hard at work as I was fighting off Two-Fingers.

My owl eidolon hooted and hovered several feet above my head to wait for instructions.

“Come on,” Split-Lip snarled. “Just let us have the bird, and we’ll leave you.”

I laughed loudly. “You must be f*cking joking! Get him, Neoma!”

She darted down in a flash, dragged her talons across his face before he had time to react, and was instantly back in the air again.

Blood dripped down his cheeks, and he roared like an injured bear. He started lumbering toward me right as Two-Fingers swung his chain violently at my legs.

I jumped nimbly to avoid the chain but landed in a small depression in the ground, and my right ankle suddenly twisted to one side.

I fell to the ground as Split-Lip reached me. He placed a huge foot on my chest to stop me from moving, and he put so much pressure on it that I struggled to breathe. I was sure he was about to break my ribs.

“Think you’re so f*cking clever?” he snarled. “You should have given us that eidolon bitch when you had the chance!”

Neoma screeched shrilly and lunged toward his head, but this time he was ready, and he quickly raised his arm to strike.

His huge hand collided with her feathered body with so much force that she sailed limply through the air, and for a horrible moment, I thought he’d injured her.

But then she shook her head and started flapping her wings again, and I knew he’d only stunned her for a second.

Release me! Tala growled.

The big bastard was pinning me to the ground so hard, I could barely move my arm, but I managed to flick my left wrist just as he raised his huge club above his ugly head.

Tala landed on the jungle floor and emitted a deafening snarl.

The assholes gasped when they saw her. The shock of seeing two eidolons clearly made them even dumber, and Split-Lip actually seemed to forget that I was lying beneath him.

“What…?” Two-Fingers gasped, and he looked at Neoma like he couldn’t believe it.

Their second of hesitation was all my eidolons needed.

Tala dashed like a speeding train toward the guy pinning me down, and she leaped straight up at his throat with a bloodthirsty glint in her eyes. Her paws hit his chest, and he fell backward with a surprised shriek as she sank her teeth into his neck.

Neoma flew like lightning across to Two-Fingers and tore a huge chunk of flesh out of his shoulder. He screamed and tried to thrash at her, but as usual, she was already out of reach.

Meanwhile, I leaped back up to standing, although my ankle ached badly.

Split-Lip tried to raise his club and hit Tala, but Neoma darted over before he could swing it and dug her razor-sharp talons all along his arm.

Blood poured out of the deep cuts, and when he tried to raise his hand, he couldn’t. It looked like the limb had been left pretty useless. Tala’s earlier bites had done some real damage to his throat, too. In fact, it didn’t look like he’d be alive for much longer.

“Keep him there!” I yelled to Tala. “But don’t kill him. I need to question him.”

Yes, master, Tala said with determination and snarled at the bastard again.

I needed to get as much information as possible from these two f*ckers about this Adam guy and what he knew, so I didn’t want to kill either of them.

Not just yet, anyway.

Two-Fingers tried to run and swing his chain at me, but I dodged easily, and his swing was weak because of the damage Neoma had done to his shoulder.

“Come on then, asshole!” I yelled at him. “You want my eidolons? You come and get them!”

He lunged again, and I hopped backward with a laugh.

Then Neoma swooped down again and attacked the back of his neck.

He was distracted enough for me to launch myself and stab him in the stomach.

The blade sank in with a squelch, and I could tell instantly it was much deeper than the last wound I’d inflicted on him.

I twisted the weapon and brought it down with all my force to create a cut that was several inches long. When I drew my saber out, crimson blood spurted wildly from the gash, and soft tissue organs that were meant to stay within the body started to slide out.

The big bastard spluttered and then dropped his chain as he instinctively clutched at his abdomen.

He was bent over, and I took the chance to kick out viciously at his shin.

He fell easily to his knees as the blood gushed from his wound and his organs spattered to the ground.

I brought my saber to his neck.

“What do you know?” I asked and pressed the blade hard against his skin.

His cold eyes turned to me.

“f*ck you,” he snarled.

I added just enough force for my saber to draw a drop of blood.

“Last chance,” I said warningly. “Tell me what you know about this guy.”

“f*ck you,” he said again but in a more spluttering voice.

I sighed. It was time to finish this.

I dragged my weapon swiftly across his throat and stepped back to avoid the violent spray of blood that flew across the jungle.

He gurgled and clutched his neck. Small, red bubbles formed through his fingers and dribbled down the backs of his hands.

Then his eyes rolled back in his head, and he fell heavily to one side.

“Good riddance,” I spat.

The top half of his body had fallen onto the roots of the trees nearby. Now, the roots started moving like they had when I’d stood on them in the swamp. They reached out and quickly encircled his torso, then pulled him further toward the trunk of the tree.

They prefer to grab the living, Tala said behind me. But they won’t turn down dead meat, either.

The roots were drawing the guy’s body into the ground, and they actually made a strange slurping noise as if they were sucking liquid from the bottom of a glass through a straw.

Soon, he disappeared entirely into the earth.

The roots immediately stopped moving and settled back to their previous position as if nothing had happened.

I shuddered when I thought of how easily I could have been sucked down back in the swamp if Tala hadn’t told me to stop struggling.

And I’d have been pulled down alive.

A chill ran down my spine as I imagined the awful claustrophobia of being trapped below ground and forced to die a slow, lingering death in the earth.

I went over to my wolf eidolon who was still standing on Split Lip’s chest. The bastard was alive, but definitely struggling to breathe with the deep wounds in his neck.

I crouched down next to him.

“Speak!” I ordered. “Otherwise, I’ll take you over to the trees and let them suck you down while you’re still alive.”

He turned his bloodied face painfully and looked at me with cloudy eyes.

“Adam,” he said raggedly. “Earth… He took it.”

“Took what?” I demanded.

The guy heaved a labored sigh, and his eyelids flickered.

“Took what?” I asked again.

But he only made a violent choking sound, and then his eyes glazed over as he exhaled his last shaky breath.

“f*ck,” I muttered as I stood up and sheathed my saber.

What do you think he was talking about? Tala asked me and climbed down from his chest.

“I don’t know,” I sighed. “But this Adam guy has to be the forum asshole. Somehow, it doesn’t surprise me that he behaved like a dick in Fablewild, too. I wonder what he stole from them…”

Whatever it was must have been important, Tala said. They were certainly angry about it.

“They were,” I murmured thoughtfully.

What the hell had Adam taken from the graverobbers? They knew his name and where he came from, so he clearly wasn’t a stranger to them. In fact, I got the impression he’d pretended to be on their side, but then he’d betrayed them in some way.

I only wished I knew more.

I quickly searched Split Lip in case there was anything useful or valuable on him, but I couldn’t find anything. Once, I might have considered taking some of his weapons, but they looked pretty rugged when compared to my own, so I didn’t bother.

The thought of leaving traces of our struggle made me uneasy, though. People got killed all the time in Fablewild, especially in jungles, so a dead body and signs of a fight were hardly unusual things to come across. But there were still two more graverobbers out there somewhere, and they might soon come looking for their companions.

How the two guys I’d just killed had found me in the first place was a mystery, since I’d used the portal to travel to the Amberstones’ estate, and they could hardly have followed me through that.

But I supposed in their line of work, they would’ve become really good at tracking people through the jungle. Or maybe they’d somehow seen Smukwick speaking to me in Shimmermire, guessed I was going to visit his employers, and waited for me in the trees outside the estate.

Either way, I decided it wasn’t worth leaving any evidence that I’d been there. I grasped the dead guy’s two huge legs and pulled, but he only moved an inch or two.

“f*ck me, you’re a big bastard,” I panted.

Tala trotted over and grabbed one of his arms in her teeth, and then together, we somehow managed to drag him toward a tree.

We made sure not to tread on the roots, and when he was close enough, we rolled the corpse the rest of the way until it was lying on top of them. Seconds later, the roots had reached up and started to drag the body down with the same horrible squelching noise as before.

Neoma squawked, and I turned sharply with my hand on my saber hilt. But she was standing on the ground next to the graverobbers’ dropped weapons, and I relaxed when I realized she wasn’t warning me of danger.

“Good point.” I grinned. “We can’t leave these, either, can we?”

Neoma hooted happily then flew up into the air again to circle the tops of the trees and look out for any approaching threats.

“Can you dig a hole, please?” I asked Tala.

My wolf eidolon barked and started clawing at the earth with glee. Soil flew out behind her as she dug, and I couldn’t help but smile at her obvious enjoyment.

She might be a badass ancient spirit warrior, but sometimes, she behaved like a cute little puppy, and I loved seeing her playful streak come out.

She soon finished digging, so I brought the dropped weapons over and put them in the hole. We quickly filled it in and scattered some leaves over the newly-disturbed earth so it would blend in with the rest of the jungle.

The only traces that remained of the fight were some splatters of blood, but those would soon disappear, and they could have come from anything, anyway.

“Let’s leave,” I said. “I want to get out of here as quickly as possible in case the other two graverobbers are anywhere nearby. I’m sure we’re close enough to the original spot for the portal to take us back to Ashville.”

Ripples of agreement flowed through me from both my eidolons, so I flicked my wrists and they disappeared back into their rings.

Then, I took the portal box out of my bag, unhooked my weapons from my belt, and carefully placed them inside the bag. The crossbow looked too big to fit, but when I tried it, the bag seemed to expand and the weapon seemed to shrink enough to slip inside the canvas. I was amazed, but the same thing happened when I tried to pack my new shield, so I figured that was just how these incredible bags worked.

It was certainly going to make my life a lot easier.

I realized I still had no idea what my new shield’s magical properties were, but I was sure I’d find out soon, after a few more battles.

I double-checked I didn’t still have the anchor around my neck, scanned the jungle, and opened the portal box’s lid.

The magic whirlwind snatched me up with its usual violence and spun me madly through the air. My teeth rattled in my skull and my dark hair blew into my face. Then, finally, after what felt like a very long time, I found myself back on firm ground.

I landed on my feet and managed to keep my balance as I adjusted to my surroundings back on Earth.

I was in a clearing I recognized. It was very close to a main trail, which was why I hadn’t suggested it as a launch spot yet, but luckily, it was empty.

Even though there was no orange tent or campfire, I wanted to get back to the apartment as soon as possible, before this Adam guy got the chance to spot me as he patrolled the mountain.

I made my way to the main trail and hurried down. The low evening sun had set fire to the sky, and I overtook several hikers who stopped to take selfies and photos of the view. Usually, I’d have lingered for a while to appreciate the beauty of the orange and pink streaks throughout the sky, too, but my priorities had changed somewhat since this Adam asshole had become fixated on me.

My magical bag was a real game changer, and I thought again how lucky it was that Neoma had seen it with her sharp eyes and been able to get it.

Dusk was approaching by the time I walked up the stairs in my building. When I got inside my apartment, I locked the door, and then flicked my wrists to release Tala and Neoma. The two gorgeous women burst into the room in an explosion of purple and gold light.

It felt so good to see them in their human forms again after such a long day in Fablewild. We were all utterly exhausted, but joy at our success pulsed through my connection to each eidolon.

“We f*cking did it,” I exhaled happily.

Both women came over to me. We had a long group hug, and I sensed their elation as keenly as my own.

The events of the day were beginning to take on a surreal quality in my head. I couldn’t believe we’d only left the apartment that morning, yet we’d found a graveyard with an eidolon in need of saving, discovered a new city, made some friends, raided a temple, got a magic bag, been offered a bounty contract by a wealthy family, and fought off a couple of graverobbers.

If someone had told me a month ago this was how my life would soon look, I’d have laughed in their face.

I eventually unwrapped my arms from the two women and planted a kiss on Tala’s nose.

“Let’s clean up and get some food,” I said to them both. “Pizza okay with everyone?”

Tala and Neoma nodded. I wasn’t that hungry after my late lunch with the Amberstones, but my eidolons hadn’t eaten since that morning.

My wolf-lover jumped in the shower as I ordered food on my phone, and Neoma curled up on the sofa with a contented sigh.

Then I went into the bedroom to hide my bag. There seemed to be no point in unpacking since I’d need everything in it when we next went to Fablewild, and there was nothing inside it to take to the jeweler’s.

I slid the bag under my bed next to the gold bars and the pearlescent box. It wasn’t a great hiding place, but it was the best I could do for now.

What I really needed was a safe to keep the artifacts from raids in, and probably weapons and the portal box, too. From a safety point of view, I’d feel better if my valuables and my means of getting to Fablewild were locked up safely. But, if Owen ever came to stay, I would have a hard time explaining why I had a crossbow, a mallet, and a saber hidden under my bed next to a sh*t-ton of gold ingots and a portal to a magical world.

And if I took this contract from the Amberstones, I’d definitely need a f*cking safe. I could hardly keep five thousand gold bars in a shoebox in the cupboard.

But it was less than a week until we could pick up the keys to the new apartment, and I didn’t see any point in getting a safe before then because I’d only have to transport it when we moved.

I decided the gold and the weapons would be fine for a few days. It wasn’t like anyone came into the apartment other than the three of us, anyway. And this building wasn’t great, but it was quiet.

The thought of the new place made me smile. I couldn’t f*cking wait to move.

I was about to head back into the living room when Tala came in, wrapped in a towel from the shower.

“Hey.” I grinned. “Feeling better?”

“Yes, thanks,” she said as she sauntered toward me.

I thought she was about to come in for a hug, so I opened my arms wide, but then she grinned and looked me up and down.

“You’re completely filthy,” she chuckled. “I’ll hug you once you’re clean again.”

I laughed as I looked down at the mixture of gremlin slime, graverobbers’ blood, and general Fablewild gunk splattered all over my clothes.

But I didn’t need to hold my wolf-warrior to savor the love flowing through our bond. I still thought I was dreaming sometimes. Not only did I get to travel to a magical world, raid temples, and gain riches and glory, but I also got Tala, who was beautiful, sexy, and all-around incredible.

“I’m so glad you’re safe after today,” I said with a tender smile.

“I’m glad you’re safe, too,” she said as her icy eyes looked into mine. “I’m going to get changed.”

“Alright.” I grinned, “I’ll see if the bathroom’s free.”

I grabbed some comfy clothes to change into after a shower and headed back out to the living room, where Neoma was watching TV.

“Do you want to use the shower next?” I asked my owl eidolon.

She swiveled her head really far over her left shoulder to look at me, but her body didn’t move.

“No, you can,” she said sweetly. “I’ll go once this is over.”

She was watching some program about a group of treasure hunters who were looking for the lost city of Atlantis, and I smiled as I remembered how I once thought that must be the coolest job on the planet.

Until I discovered a whole parallel world filled with magic and temples and eidolons.

I walked toward the bathroom and turned my head just before I went in. Tala had emerged from the bedroom, and she was curled up next to Neoma on the sofa.

Once I’d scrubbed myself clean and changed into some comfortable clothes, I rejoined the two women and found the program had finished and there were three pizza boxes stacked on the kitchen countertop.

“We heard the buzzing sound that means someone’s outside,” Tala said with a smile. “And then I remembered how you have to press that button to let them up.”

“I thought the people who deliver the food made it in their homes,” Neoma said and wrinkled her nose

“Uhhhh, no,” I chuckled. “It’s made by a chef in a restaurant and then delivered by other people, usually.”

“Yeah,” Neoma continued. “The man did seem confused when I asked him how he managed cooking the food and delivering it, too…”

“Not as confused as when you asked him how many gold bars it would be,” Tala giggled.

I half-groaned and half-laughed as I thought about how confused the poor delivery guy probably was, and I made a mental note to make sure I was present for all deliveries in the future. At least until my eidolons got more comfortable with Earth transactions.

“But don’t worry,” Tala said. “I found some of that strange paper money you use on Earth and gave him that instead.”

“Okay, good,” I said with a small chuckle at how adorable my eidolons were.

I grabbed some plates, and we all took several slices of the pizzas. Neoma hopped up to her usual countertop perch, and I joined Tala on the sofa.

Although I hadn’t thought I was very hungry, the smell of melted cheese and fresh dough had sharpened my appetite. Plus, now I was doing so much physical activity instead of sitting behind a cash register all day, I’d noticed I needed to eat more.

But I was also gaining more defined muscles already from the hard work and exertion in Fablewild. Still, I knew I had to step up my training and physical fitness if we were going to raid a Grand Temple soon.

“Pizzas are tasty,” Neoma said after a few bites. “We should get these more often.”

“I’m glad you like them.” I grinned. “It’s what I ordered for Tala and me on her first night on Earth.”

“That seems like such a long time ago,” Tala said thoughtfully and licked her lips. “My life’s changed so much.”

“So has mine,” I said and put my hand on her knee.

My wolf-lover sighed. “I don’t know how I endured so many terrible masters before you, Colton. I endured centuries of mistreatment, but I didn’t even know it. I had no idea a master-eidolon relationship could be like this.”

“I feel the same,” Neoma said softly. “It’s like I was experiencing life in a daze before now… but not living. I’ve had so many masters, but so few of them understood the true purpose of an eidolon. Until you.”

My heart brimmed with anger as I thought about the misery my two eidolons had endured in the past, but I was calmed when I felt their affection and gratitude radiating through our connection.

“Thank you for saving me, Colton,” Tala said with a loving smile.

“Yes, thank you,” Neoma added.

“I think I should be thanking you,” I chuckled. “You’ve both saved my ass plenty of times. I love Fablewild, but I know so little about it, and if it wasn’t for both of you, I’d probably be dead several times over.”

“But you’re learning fast,” Tala pointed out. “You have the makings of a truly heroic adventurer, and this is just the start.”

Neoma nodded enthusiastically, and a wide grin spread across my face as I bit into a slice of pizza. It felt incredible to have these two gorgeous women believe in me so fully, and I couldn’t wait to see what I’d achieve with them by my side.

“So, what do you think about the Amberstones’ offer?” I asked after a moment. “I wanted to discuss it with you both properly before I accepted it, but I think I should agree.”

Both women were silent for a moment and looked at each other. I sensed their anxiety for me mixing with their excitement at a new challenge as well as their desire to save the imprisoned eidolon.

“Well,” Tala said slowly. “You have to raid a Grand Temple either way to release the eidolon in the graveyard, since an artifact from a normal temple probably won’t be enough.”

Neoma nodded. “So, the question, really, is how hard a raid do you feel up to doing? I think if you traded an artifact from a Grand Temple you approached from the east during daylight, it would probably be enough for the graveyard to release the eidolon.”

“Exactly,” Tala continued. “But if you feel up to a harder task, then the Amberstones are offering you extreme riches, glory, and friendship, as well as an heirloom to trade for the eidolon. So you’ll be getting far more than if you raided the Grand Temple of the Deep from an easier path.”

“And, they’re going to provide you with custom armor and weapons,” Neoma added. “You’re going to need it in a Grand Temple, so that’s a really important factor to consider.”

Tala nodded enthusiastically. “Remember, you’ll also be able to use that armor for all future raids, and you can have it designed to meet your exact requirements.”

“But what the Amberstones are asking for, of course, is far more dangerous,” Neoma added and took a bite of her pizza.

Everything they’d said was true, and part of me balked at the insanity of trying to raid a Grand Temple from the west and after dark when I’d only been an adventurer for a few weeks.

But I’d already achieved more than some adventurers did in a lifetime, and I was getting more skilled with every raid.

Plus, I could now wield two eidolons at once, and no one in history had ever been able to do that before.

“The thing is, raiding a Grand Temple is already going to be really hard,” I said. “It’s almost certainly going to take a while to even find the Grand Temple of the Deep, and we’ll also have to step up our training regimen and practice raiding some more normal temples from harder routes in the meantime.”

My two eidolons’ agreement radiated from them as they waited for me to continue.

“So, my reasoning is we do the job for the Amberstones and kill two birds with one stone,” I said.

They both looked at me with confusion etched across their gorgeous faces.

“But I don’t want to kill any birds!” Neoma said as her eyes widened with indignation.

“Neither do I.” Tala frowned. “And I don’t see how it would help things, anyway.”

“No, sorry,” I laughed. “It’s just an expression that means we can achieve two different things in one go. So if we raid the Grand Temple of the Deep the way the Amberstones want us to, then we’ll get rich from them and be able to save the graveyard eidolon at the same time. There’s no actual killing of birds involved, don’t worry.”

“Oh, okay,” Neoma said with a chuckle.

Tala gave a wry smile. “It sounds as if you’re accepting the contract, then.”

“It does, doesn’t it?” I grinned. “It makes sense. The graveyard eidolon is the priority, and if we can help her by fulfilling the Amberstones’ contract, that makes it even better.”

“We’ll have to prepare really well,” Tala said. “There isn’t much time before the Amberstones want that artifact, and the graveyard eidolon needs to be saved as soon as possible in case someone else claims her. We’ll have to train rigorously and fast, but… we can do it.”

Neoma tapped a finger to her lips. “You’ve already achieved a lot, Colton, but a Grand Temple is a big leap from what you’ve been doing. Many adventurers spend years preparing, and you’ve got to do it in less than two months… But you’ve already proved you’re not like other adventurers, so I think you’ll find the jump easier than most of them would.”

My eidolons’ faith in me was all I needed to be sure of my choice. Normal temples were already hard, and I knew the danger involved in fulfilling the Amberstones’ request was on a completely different level.

But we would train and prepare, and we could do it together.

My mind raced as I thought about everything we had to do to increase our chances of success.

“The first thing we need to do is locate the Grand Temple of the Deep,” I said.

“Yes,” Tala agreed. “And that’s already going to be very challenging.”

My owl eidolon stayed silent, but her anxiety surged through me as we discussed the plan.

“Neoma?” I asked gently, and she turned her enormous eyes to me.

“I failed my last master when I couldn’t find it,” she said softly. “What if I fail you, too?”

“You didn’t fail him,” I said fiercely. “He was a dick, and he treated you really badly. He completely exhausted you, no wonder you couldn’t find it for him! He was the failure.”

“And you said you did find some clues,” Tala gently reminded her. “But he wouldn’t listen. Colton isn’t like that. We’ll all cooperate together as a team to work it out.”

“You won’t want to give me up if I can’t find it, will you?” Neoma asked me with a worried look in her huge eyes.

“Of course not,” I said. “You’re my eidolon now. I’ll protect you and care for you whatever happens. Nobody is taking you away from me, and I’m never going to abandon you. Tala’s right, we’ll work together to find it.”

Warmth from both my eidolons flooded through me at these words, and I could tell I’d managed to alleviate some of Neoma’s anxiety.

“Thank you,” she said quietly. “I’ll tell you all the clues I gathered, and you can see if any of it makes sense to you.”

“That sounds good,” I answered. “But not tonight. We’ve had a really hard day, and everyone’s exhausted. We have a rough plan for what to do next, and we can head back to Fablewild in a day or two to speak to the Amberstones. But right now, we need to rest.”

Neoma nodded, hopped up from her countertop perch, and stretched.

“In that case, I’m going to have a shower,” she said with a smile.

“We’ll see you in a bit,” I said.

When Neoma had shut the door to the bathroom and the sound of running water could be heard, Tala turned to me with a twinkle in her icy eyes.

“You know how much you mean to Neoma, right?” she asked.

“Yeah, of course,” I said. “She’s had some really sh*tty masters in the past, just like you, so I’m not surprised she’s grateful that I treat her right.”

Tala rolled her eyes theatrically and gave me a playful smile.

“Yeeeeesssss,” she said slowly. “But you mean a lot more to her than that…”

My eyebrows knitted together. “What are you talking about?”

Tala put her empty plate on the coffee table and turned toward me.

“Listen,” she said. “Do you remember how we became lovers? I was following my need to be as close to you as possible. It was an instinct driving me to give myself completely to my master.”

The base of my spine started to tingle as I remembered the first time I’d had sex with Tala, and I nodded.

“Well,” she continued. “That’s how Neoma feels.”

I blinked in confusion. “You mean, she…”

“Yes,” Tala said emphatically. “It’s so obvious she wants to take your relationship further. She’s really excited to be part of this team and to have a master as kind and caring as you are. But she needs more from you.”

I didn’t know what to say. Neoma was, of course, gorgeous, and I’d found it hard to keep my eyes off her beautiful body at times, but I’d just assumed our relationship was one of teammates, nothing more.

“You haven’t noticed, have you?” Tala said with a smirk.

I chuckled. “Well, I didn’t expect it. I’ve felt lots of affection from her, but I assumed that was a platonic thing.”

Tala shook her head and smiled. “It’s more than that. She’s clearly completely smitten with you.”

“Maybe I’ve been so focused on raiding and keeping you both safe that I didn’t realize,” I said. “I didn’t expect that kind of relationship with her, so I haven’t really tried to encourage it…”

“I know.” Tala giggled. “But you should. She wants you, Colton.”

“How can you be so sure?” I asked.

“Because it’s obvious!” Tala laughed. “Oh, and because she may have mentioned it when you were in the shower.”

I was stunned. Of course, Neoma was beautiful, and a huge part of me wanted to take our relationship to the next level. Just the thought of touching her beautiful body sent pleasant shivers down my spine, but I didn’t know if it was a good idea.

“I’m not sure it would be wise,” I said. “The three of us work so well as a team, and we have so much to do and to look forward to. Is it a good idea to jeopardize all that?”

“How would you be jeopardizing it?” Tala asked. “You know that my bond with you only grew stronger after we became lovers. It’s one of the main reasons why we work so well together because, since that time, we’ve been so in tune with each other’s emotions that it’s like we share a common soul.”

Her eyes danced in the low light of the lamp, and I reached out to stroke her beautiful face.

“I love you,” I said softly.

“I love you, too,” she replied. “You also made me fall in love with being an eidolon again, and you showed me how wonderful my bond with my master can be. I want Neoma to experience the same joy I have, and it will only strengthen our entire team if you take the next logical step in your relationship with her.”

I kissed Tala and inhaled her scent as I thought about what she’d said. It was true our connection had been strengthened dramatically after we’d had sex. So much so, in fact, that I’d been able to hear her speaking to me when she was inside her ring, and that had undoubtedly made our raids in Fablewild easier.

Perhaps she was right.

“Neoma is such a powerful eidolon,” Tala said as our lips parted. “It’s already a great achievement to be her master, but it’s clear you both want more. Think about all the things that could be gained if you connect more deeply with her. Her black mana is one of my strongest allied colors, and our little group could become even more powerful if you have sex.”

“I can’t believe I didn’t notice she wanted that from me,” I said in disbelief.

“You’ve been busy,” Tala said softly, and her icy eyes twinkled with mischief. “You’re an incredible master. You deserve more satisfaction and pleasure than I alone can give you.”

Then the bathroom door opened, and Neoma emerged wrapped in a tiny towel and a cloud of steam.

She sighed contentedly and padded over to us.

“That was nice,” she said. “I feel a lot better.”

“Good,” Tala smiled.

Then my wolf-lover stood up and stretched exaggeratedly.

“Ooof, I’m exhausted.” She yawned. “I need to head to bed.”

I made a move to get up and go with her, but she lightly pushed me back onto the sofa and bent down to kiss me.

“Why don’t you stay here for a bit?” she whispered playfully in my ear.

She turned with a smirk and headed toward the bedroom.

“Night!” she called over her shoulder and threw a wink at Neoma, then she went through and closed the bedroom door.

I laughed awkwardly. “She sure is tired after today.”

“Yes.” Neoma smiled. “It’s been a long day but a good one.”

“Thanks for all your help in the temple,” I said. “You were amazing.”

Neoma blushed. “Thank you, I loved working through the challenges with you…”

She trailed off and went to look out of the window into the dark sky. I sensed she was thinking about saying something, but she was nervous, too.

“Having you as my master has been magical,” she said without turning around. “It’s as if I’ve learned how to enjoy all the amazing things eidolons can do again. Like Tala said, looking back on my past, I wonder how I put up with so many centuries of mistreatment by so many different adventurers.”

She turned around fully and stared at me with her enormous hazel-and-gold eyes. A single drop of water slipped from the ends of her hair and trailed over her collarbone, and it seeped into the edge of her towel.

Heat flashed over my skin, and I cleared my throat as I forced my eyes away from her chest.

“You’ve shown me how wonderful a master can really be,” she whispered.

I was suddenly engulfed by a wave of Neoma’s adoration and desire. It was so strong that it almost knocked me off my feet, and I realized Tala had been right.

All this time, I’d just thought Neoma had admired and respected me in a platonic way as the leader of our group. I’d assumed she was overjoyed because she wasn’t being forced to work for assholes anymore, and because I valued her opinions and unique eidolon skills.

But it was clear now, her emotions ran far deeper, and I wondered how I could have been so oblivious to her infatuation. I chalked it up to the thrill and excitement of my new life, but I wasn’t going to deny either of us any longer.

“I’ve loved getting to know you better,” I said and stood up slowly. “You’re so special, Neoma.”

She watched me as I walked over to her, and her desire rippled through my veins like little waves. She bit her plump lower lip and gave a hesitant smile when I stopped a few paces from her.

Our eyes met and sparks skittered across our connection.

“Do you feel it, too?” she whispered.

“Yes,” I said softly.

The little flecks of gold in Neoma’s eyes danced like stars.

“I’ve never felt this way before,” she murmured. “None of my past masters have made me want them like this… I don’t know how to describe it.”

She looked down shyly, but I closed the space between us and lifted her chin up.

Her enormous eyes locked onto mine, and her pink lips parted.

“It’s okay,” I said gently. “I know exactly what you mean.”

Then I lowered my head and kissed her. Everything else dissolved as our lips met, and in that moment, it felt like we were the only two people in the world.

My owl eidolon tasted of lavender, and her skin was still slightly damp from the shower as I caressed the nape of her neck.

When we eventually parted, Neoma looked up at me and smiled.

“I need you, Colton,” she whispered. “I want to give myself completely to my master.”

I kissed her again, more urgently, and she wrapped her toned arms around my neck as she pressed her small frame against me. Our tongues met and a surge of heat passed through my body.

My heart was pounding, and I couldn’t wait to touch every single part of my beautiful owl eidolon.

I lifted her off the ground, and she wrapped her sculpted legs around my waist. Then I walked over to the sofa and sat down with her straddling my lap.

I could sense how desperately Neoma wanted to give herself entirely to me. She needed me to completely fulfill the primal connection between master and eidolon, and my body grew warm as I thought about how f*cking good it would feel to satisfy all her desires.

Our connection was about to go even deeper.

“Colton,” Neoma sighed and ran her fingers through my messy, dark-brown hair.

“Mmmmmm,” I growled. “Are you sure this is what you want?”

“I’ve never done it before,” she said softly and looked at me. “But I’ve also never been more certain of anything in my life.”

My body tingled in anticipation of what was to come, and I roamed my hands over her soft, velvety skin that smelled like the earth after a rainstorm. I kissed her neck and licked the remaining water droplets from the shower off her, then I made my way down to the base of her throat as she threw her head back and moaned softly.

Her towel was still wrapped around her petite body, but as soon as I untucked its top corner, it slipped off her like running water and pooled at our feet on the floor.

My co*ck stiffened the moment the towel fell away to reveal Neoma’s perfect body. Her huge tit* had been constrained by the fabric of the towel, but they’d burst free instantly once I’d untucked it. They swayed gently above her tiny waist, and her nipples were hard and pert.

Neoma’s eyes sparkled in the low light as she watched me take in her amazing body.

“You’re so lovely,” I whispered to her.

She smiled coyly but then gasped when I began to massage her breasts with one hand and caress her ass with the other. She started rocking her hips passionately, and even through the fabric of my clothes, the feeling of her naked body passing over my groin made my already stiff co*ck even f*cking harder.

I groaned and buried my face between her tit*, then proceeded to lick and kiss her nipples as she moved back and forth on my lap. Our desire for each other was overwhelming, and it mingled and flowed through our connection like electricity.

Now that I’d allowed myself to recognize it, desire poured through me like a goddamn tsunami. I could hardly believe I’d been so blind to it before.

“Oh, that’s so good,” Neoma moaned as I gently bit her nipple.

She continued to grind her hips over the stiffness in my pants, and her puss* was already so wet it was seeping through my clothes onto my co*ck.

My shaft throbbed with desire for my beautiful eidolon, and part of me was tempted to pull down my pants and slide into her right then and there.

But I knew there was no rush, and we had plenty of time to enjoy each other’s bodies in every way I could think of.

“Stand up,” I growled in her ear. “I’m going to make you feel amazing.”

“Yes, Colton,” she whispered, and her beautiful eyes widened.

Her previous shyness had been overtaken by pure, unabashed excitement, and she stood up hurriedly so I could see her body in all its magnificence.

“Mmmmmmm,” I hummed hungrily as I ran my hands over her slim hips. “Turn around.”

She grinned and moved so her perfect ass was facing me. My hands caressed her, and I roamed my fingers gently between her legs as Neoma’s whole body shuddered with pleasure.

Then, I turned her gently back around to face me and maneuvered her right leg onto the sofa cushion so her glistening puss* was open in front of me.

“What are you going to do now?” Her breath came quick, and her hands ran through my hair.

“I’m going to show you how incredible your master can make you feel,” I growled.

I brought my face to her inner thigh and slowly started kissing her damp skin. She sighed and pulled lightly on my hair, then I brought my tongue up to her soaked slit and began to lick her.

A loud moan escaped Neoma’s mouth as my tongue slid along her cl*t, and I easily sensed how much pleasure my caresses were giving her.

My co*ck was so hard it felt like it was about to burst out of my pants as I kissed this amazingly sexy woman in the most intimate places.

Our connection vibrated with every flick of my tongue. Neoma gyrated her hips instinctively, and I reached my left hand up to cup her peachy ass and give it a squeeze.

“Oooooh,” she panted. “This feels amazing.”

I brought my other hand between her legs, then slipped a finger inside her slick, tight puss* as Neoma moaned again.

Her breathing sped up, and her whole body started to shiver. I slid a second finger into her and started to move them both in and out of her wetness while my tongue danced around her cl*t.

I could tell she was about to climax, and I increased my movements as the walls of her hot puss* tightened around my hand. She let out a loud cry of pleasure and surprise when her org*sm hit her, and her body trembled so much with the intensity of the unfamiliar sensation that she would have fallen over if I hadn’t been holding her up.

I gently withdrew my soaked hand and eased her down onto the sofa next to me.

“What…?” Neoma panted and trailed off as she looked at me with wide eyes.

“It was an org*sm,” I told her gently. “The first of many I’m going to give you.”

Neoma’s excitement was clear as I stood up and pulled my shirt over my head, then I pulled down my pants to reveal my rock-hard co*ck.

My owl eidolon licked her lips lustfully, and her eyes roved over my naked chest and my erection.

“Do you want to be joined with me completely?” I asked as I looked at her glorious body, and my co*ck stiffened even more.

“Yes, Colton,” Neoma whispered. “I need to feel my master. I want to be entirely yours.”

“Get on your back and spread your legs,” I said in a husky tone.

Neoma instantly did what I told her, and my co*ck throbbed as I watched her obey my command.

Pent-up longing radiated urgently from her body, and at that moment, nothing else in the world mattered but me and her.

I knelt above her on the sofa and ran the tip of my shaft along her soaking-wet puss*. She moaned and arched her back toward it, and I enjoyed teasing her for a moment.

“Are you ready?” I asked her.

“Yes,” she whimpered. “Make me yours, master.”

She gasped as I slid the tip of my co*ck inside, and her puss* stretched to accommodate the rest of my pulsating shaft. She was so f*cking tight, and I groaned with pleasure at the warmth and the wetness that enveloped me fully.

Her hazel-and-gold eyes stared deeply into mine as our bodies joined together and the true bond between master and eidolon was forged.

“This is where I’m meant to be, Colton,” she whispered. “I love you.”

“I love you, too,” I said and pressed my lips against hers.

Our tongues danced together as I slowly started moving in and out of her, and she sighed deeply as her puss* contracted around me.

I couldn’t believe I hadn’t known how much Neoma had wanted me. As I watched her gasp with pleasure every time I thrust into her, it was clear how all-consuming her desire for me was.

Her lust traveled wildly through my veins every time I sank my co*ck deep inside her, and the heat that flowed across our connection was building feverishly.

I sped up my pace and felt her puss* grow even f*cking wetter as I delved deep inside her body.

Neoma was panting with desire, and I watched with pleasure as her huge tit* rose and fell with each inhale and exhale.

I reached a hand up to her mouth, and she sucked on my fingers, then I trailed them down her body and pinched one of her erect nipples. She moaned as I rolled it back and forth between my fingers, and I continued to ram my co*ck into her as I dropped my head to lick her other nipple.

“Oh, oh, oh,” Neoma cried out louder and louder as she approached another org*sm. “Colton, I think I’m going to–”

Her climax tore through her body, and her juices gushed down onto my shaft as her puss* clenched tightly around me. Her whole being shivered with the exquisite release, and her chest heaved as she panted from the intensity of the sensation.

White-hot desire flowed through me as I looked down on her beautiful body that was still impaled upon mine, and then I kissed her passionately.

“I want to f*ck you from behind,” I whispered and slid out of her drenched puss*.

Neoma half-sat up, and I was about to turn her around so she was on all fours when she grasped my co*ck in her hands.

“But first, I want to please my master like he pleased me,” she whispered with a playful grin.

The sexy owl-woman shifted on the sofa and moved her hands up and down my stiff co*ck, then she started licking her own sweet juices off my shaft. Her ass wiggled in the air above her, and I groaned with pleasure as I looked at the fantastic view.

I ran my hands through her chocolate curls, and she took the entire length of my co*ck in her mouth.

“Fuuuuck, that feels good,” I moaned.

It was so f*cking hot watching this sexy woman with her lips wrapped around my dick. She slid me in and out of her mouth, and it was insane to think she’d never done anything like this before. She was a f*cking natural.

She was so good, in fact, that I soon felt my own climax rising in me, but I wanted to f*ck her again first and then cum inside her.

I gently tugged her hair, and she released me from her mouth with a greedy sigh and then licked her lips.

“Turn around and get on your hands and knees,” I growled. “I want to watch myself sliding in and out of you.”

“Yes, Colton,” she breathed and spun around quickly.

Neoma grabbed the arm of the sofa, spread her legs a little wider, and arched her back. I paused for a moment to admire the sight of her perfect, round ass and the way it tapered to her tiny waist. I massaged her ass cheeks with one hand and reached the other one further forward to grab her huge tit* which were just brushing the sofa cushions.

“Please, master,” she moaned. “I want to feel you inside me again.”

I groaned and guided my co*ck to her soaked entrance. I teased her for a bit, and I enjoyed watching as she wiggled her ass in anticipation and tried to slide me inside her.

Her desire flooded my body and mingled with my own lust, and eventually, I couldn’t bear not being inside her any longer.

I drove my co*ck hard into her drenched tunnel, and she cried out with pleasure at the sudden sensation of being entirely filled. My fingers dug into the white flesh of her hips, and her moans filled the room as I rammed into her.

Her satisfaction at having me so deep inside her body rushed over me. Our bond was ancient and primal, and to be physically joined to each other felt like the perfect way to fulfill its true potential.

This beautiful, otherworldly woman wanted me more than anything else in the world, and I knew I could give her everything she needed.

Neoma’s cries became louder and more frequent as I drove into her, and I knew an org*sm was beginning to build inside her.

My body was on fire with lust, and a passionate heat reverberated wildly through our connection. I f*cked her like a man possessed, and her need to be filled entirely with my co*ck flowed through me.

“Yes, Colton!” she cried out and arched her back more. “Take me!”

I groaned and increased my pace so I was slamming hard in and out of her, and her soaking wet puss* clenched like a vise around my throbbing co*ck. I slapped her ass playfully with my hand, and she squealed with delight.

“Yeeeesssssss!” she screamed. “I am yours, master!”

“Oh, f*ck, Neoma!” I cried as I exploded inside her.

Her org*sm hit at the exact same moment, and pleasure united our bodies and our minds. The room spun as my cum shot deep into her quivering puss*, and our juices mingled inside her.

Pure euphoria coursed through my veins like electricity, and my vision blurred. My whole body tingled with uncontrollable exhilaration, my heart beat wildly, and for a few moments, I couldn’t think about anything but the ecstasy that had taken over my mind.

Finally, I withdrew my pulsating co*ck from Neoma’s shuddering, wet puss* and laid down beside her.

She turned to nestle into my chest, and I wrapped my arms around her small frame. Our bodies were still quivering from the exertion and the intensity of our shared org*sm, and it felt like some kind of magic surrounded us as we laid there.

I sensed Neoma’s emotions even more vividly than usual, and I knew we’d just created an unbreakable link between us.

“That was wonderful,” Neoma sighed happily as her fingers danced along my chest.

“It was,” I said and held her tighter. “You were f*cking incredible.”

She giggled. “I’ve wanted it for so long, but I wasn’t sure you felt the same way.”

“Now you know I do,” I said and kissed the top of her head.

“I can feel how happy you are,” Neoma murmured.

So Tala was right, then. Having sex with my eidolons really did strengthen the bond I’d already established with them. My owl-woman was experiencing exactly the same sensations that Tala had after we’d first had sex.

sh*t, Neoma might even be able to communicate with me when she was inside her ring, and my mind filled with thoughts about how much stronger our raiding team would be if that was the case.

The insane rush of connection I felt to Neoma at that moment was just as strong as when I’d first had sex with Tala, but it also had its own unique magic.

It was as if the world had stopped, and we were just floating in a cocoon together with centuries of Fablewild magic surrounding us.

“Tala told me how amazing I would feel if we connected like this,” my owl eidolon said dreamily. “But I didn’t think anything could ever be this good.”

I cradled her small body against me and inhaled her sweet scent.

“It’s incredible,” I breathed. “Our bond was already strong, but now, it’s taken on a whole new dimension.”

She lifted her beautiful face up, and I kissed her gently.

“I love you so much,” Neoma said as she nestled closer into my body.

“I love you, too.” I smiled and stroked her velvety skin with my fingers.

I felt completely overwhelmed with happiness. I had two beautiful women who loved me, and they’d both made it clear how much they needed this physical connection with me. And the fact they were both not only okay with sharing me, but they seemed to long for it? It was insanely good.

At that moment, my life felt pretty perfect.

After a few minutes, Neoma lifted her head and stared at me with big, excited eyes.

“Can we go take in the night air for a bit?” she asked with a grin. “I miss the moon and the stars, and after this, it would just feel like the perfect end to a perfect day.”

I smiled at how cute she was. “Of course we can. I’d do anything for you, my beautiful eidolon.”

I kissed her once more, and she sighed contentedly.

“Let’s get cleaned up, and then we can go for a stroll,” I said once our lips parted.

We shifted off the sofa and took turns to go into the bathroom, clean up, and get dressed.

I poked my head into the bedroom to check Tala was okay. My gorgeous wolf-lover was happily curled up asleep in bed, her naked chest rising and falling gently with each breath. I tiptoed in and pulled the covers up around her so she wouldn’t be cold, then gave her a light kiss on the forehead and crept back out again.

We closed the apartment door softly so as not to wake her and walked quietly down the stairs of the building.

The streets were pretty empty when we stepped out into the night, and I joyfully breathed in the cool, clean air.

Pure happiness flowed through my connection with Neoma as the owl eidolon walked next to me with her hand in mine.

“I never knew my life could be like this,” she said softly. “I’ve always tried to make the best of whatever situation I’m in, but I now realize I’ve never been truly happy before.”

I squeezed her hand. “This is what it’s going to be like from now on. I want to make you happy every day. You deserve it.”

We walked along the main street and past the shuttered shops. Soft music and laughter emanated from restaurants and bars, but I was so wrapped up in my new lover that I barely noticed.

“The three of us are going to make such a wonderful team!” my owl eidolon chirped after a moment. “I mean, we already were, but now, I feel so connected to you, it’s like your emotions are my own. I never thought it was possible to feel this way about someone.”

“I know exactly what you mean,” I said. “Tala told me there are legends in Fablewild that claim eidolons can become so close to their masters that they share souls.”

Neoma looked up at me thoughtfully. “Yes, I’ve heard about those stories, too. But they’re almost always dismissed as fantasy by adventurers who only want eidolons for their skills in battle. And I certainly never thought I’d experience anything like what I feel for you… It’s magical.”

As we strolled along the sidewalk, it felt like the night belonged to us. The day had been exhausting but filled with achievements, and connecting so deeply on a physical and spiritual level with Neoma had just been the perfect ending to it.

“There’s a quiet park not far from here,” I said as I looked up at the sky. “We can go there if you like. There aren’t any streetlamps in it, so we might be able to see more stars than we can right now.”

“That sounds lovely,” Neoma said with a smile. “I miss flying at night. In Fablewild, it feels as if I can almost touch the constellations when I soar through the air.”

“That sounds incredible,” I murmured.

I wondered for a few moments whether the constellations in Fablewild were the same as on Earth. Did the two worlds share a sky? How were they connected?

My head spun with questions, but I didn’t have the energy to consider them for long. It had been one hell of a day, and for a few more hours, I just wanted to relax.

I looked down at Neoma. “One day soon, I’ll take you and Tala to the mountains at night so we can stargaze. There’s no light pollution up there, and it feels like the whole world is wrapped up in a black, starry blanket.”

“Can’t we go tonight?” Neoma asked excitedly.

“I don’t want to risk it with the forum asshole somewhere up there,” I sighed. “It’s not safe, and I’d never forgive myself if something happened to either of you.”

Neoma stopped walking and turned to me.

“You’re so sweet,” she whispered with sparkling eyes.

She stood up adorably on her tiptoes so she could wrap her arms around my neck and kiss me. I sighed with happiness as our tongues met, and my hands held onto her tiny waist.

The stillness of the night was suddenly disturbed by the aggressive growl of a vehicle.

I broke away from Neoma and turned quickly to see the blur of a car speeding past us down the main street. It was one of those obnoxious sports cars driven by assholes who thought they looked cool and didn’t give a sh*t about their effect on anyone else.

The car was precariously low to the ground and had been painted a garish gold color. Whoever the driver was had modified the already hideous vehicle to turn it into an absolute monstrosity by adding oversized wheels and a ridiculously large spoiler.

The engine revved as the car swerved dangerously, and then it screeched to a halt outside a swanky bar on the next block.

Neoma watched with wide eyes. She’d evidently been startled by the loud noise of the engine since she was pressing her trembling body against mine. I wrapped my arms around her and pulled her closer.

“It’s alright,” I said. “It’s just some asshole in a fast car. I bet you anything he looks like a complete idiot as well.”

It didn’t take long before my guess was proven accurate.

The driver’s side door of the tacky gold monstrosity burst open. Even from the distance of the thirty-odd yards that separated us, he looked like an asshole.

He was quite tall and broad, but he was wearing tight, white denim jeans which were a little bit too short for him and had been artificially distressed. His pink polka dot shirt was complemented by a bow tie, and he had silver dress shoes on his feet.

I didn’t think anyone would be able to pull off an outfit like that, and he definitely couldn’t.

He had dark hair slicked back from his head and the traces of a beard, but it was difficult to see much more from where we were standing.

“dickhe*d,” I muttered as he went around to the passenger side.

I was about to carry on down the street with Neoma when the guy swung the passenger door open and held his hand out like he was trying to help the person inside the car.

He seemed to say something and then gave an artificial, high-pitched kind of laugh. Something about the overdone, affected nature of his actions made me stop and wait to see what happened.

A small, delicate hand reached out and grasped his. One stilettoed foot emerged, and then another, before they were finally followed by a pair of long, toned legs.

The stupidly-dressed guy gave a smarmy grin, and then a thin, elegant woman climbed out of the car.

Her blonde hair was so pale it was almost white, and it fell in luxurious curls down her narrow back. Her skin was also pale, but from what I could see, she had very full, red lips.

Even from this distance, it was clear she was strikingly beautiful, and she wore a tiny, body-hugging dress that emphasized both her flat stomach and her impressive curves.

She looked like a f*cking supermodel, and I saw a couple of guys sitting outside the bar turn to look at her with awe.

She was so ethereally beautiful that she seemed otherworldly.

Although she didn’t even appear to notice the attention she attracted, the guy she was with was acting like a f*cking peaco*ck, and he moved deliberately slowly to display the stunning blonde even more. He made a big show of repositioning one of the dress straps that had slipped from her shoulder, and he took the opportunity to noticeably pass his hands over her full breasts several times.

Then he took her by the arm with a smug grin and started to walk toward the bar with her. He threw some self-satisfied glances at the guys sitting outside and pulled the woman closer to him.

She tottered on her precarious heels so much that it looked as if she’d never worn them before, and I had a feeling that if he let go of her, she’d instantly fall over.

She looked around with something like confusion as if she wasn’t familiar with Asheville. Although she clearly felt awkward in her outfit, she wasn’t struggling against the guy’s actions as he walked her toward the bar. If anything, she actually seemed to appreciate his smarmy presence, and she gave him a grateful smile when he held the door open and helped her over the step into the building.

It was as if she’d made up her mind to accept whatever he did and be thankful for it.

An uneasy sensation had been building in the pit of my stomach from the moment she stepped out of the car, and I couldn’t ignore it any longer.

“Neoma…” I began after the couple had gone inside.

“Yes, Colton,” she said in a shocked tone. “You’re right. She was an eidolon.”

“f*ck,” I exhaled and ran a hand through my hair. “Are you sure?”

“I’m positive,” Neoma said firmly. “So… was that Adam?”

I frowned. “It must have been. And that eidolon has to be what he took from the graverobbers.”

sh*t, things just got a whole lot more complicated.

I hadn’t thought it would be possible to hate this Adam asshole any more than I already did, but his sleazy behavior toward that eidolon had just proven me wrong.

She hadn’t seemed like she was in any danger, but the deluded f*ck’s unhinged messages on the forum had quite clearly shown he had a really unpleasant, violent streak.

And the thought he might use it on her made me shudder.

We’d have to face him sooner or later.

I already had to save the eidolon in the graveyard, and I’d just discovered another practically on my doorstep.

She didn’t look like she was in immediate danger, and I was grateful for that. But his gross attitude and behavior made me want to free her from his clutches.

Neoma leaned her head against me and waves of calm radiated from her.

“I know what you’re thinking,” she said softly. “And I know you can do it.”

I squeezed her to me and smiled at her words.

I had to defeat an incredibly dangerous Grand Temple and save two eidolons before it was too late.

But I’d already made Fablewild history. No other adventurer had ever been able to wield two of the beautiful, badass ancient spirit warriors at the same time.

And mine also turned into unbelievably sexy women on Earth who had both become my lovers.

I’d been head-hunted by a rich and prestigious family, and I’d quickly started to make a real name for myself in the magical world as news of my successful temple raids spread.

If anyone was up to the deadly task ahead, it was me.

End of Book 2

Thank you for reading Eidolon Master: Tamer of Animal Women 2! I appreciate you buying the book directly from me since Amazon f*cked the first one up so bad. If you could leave a review on my site I’d really appreciate it. Thank you again!

Don’t forget about my Patreon! You’ll get advanced audio chapters (for your ears) or written chapters (for your eyes), and nude/sexy versions of my covers (for your… uhhh… well…) I also have an audiobook subscription so you can get 3-4 of my books every month at a discount along with all the other stuff. Check it out here! Or search for my name on Patreon.com.

Amazon doesn’t update readers when an author comes out with a new book unless you follow that author on the store. Make sure you click this link and then click on the follow button. Then Amazon will update you a few weeks after my next book comes out.

If you want to get notified of my books the day that they come out, make sure you follow my Facebook author page and join my Facebook fan group. If you don’t follow me on Amazon or join my Facebook page, you’ll never get alerted that the next book is out.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 2024 by Eric Vall

….

Don’t forget about my Patreon! You’ll get advanced audio chapters (for your ears) or written chapters (for your eyes), and nude/sexy versions of my covers (for your… uhhh… well…) I also have an audiobook subscription so you can get 3-4 of my books every month at a discount along with all the other stuff. Check it out here! Or search for my name on Patreon.com.

Amazon doesn’t update readers when an author comes out with a new book unless you follow that author on the store. Make sure you click this link and then click on the follow button. Then Amazon will update you a few weeks after my next book comes out.

If you want to get notified of my books the day that they come out, make sure you follow my Facebook author page and join my Facebook fan group. If you don’t follow me on Amazon or join my Facebook page, you’ll never get alerted that the next book is out.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 2024 by Eric Vall

If you are looking to find more harem books like mine, check out the Haremlit Facebook group here.

Eidolon Master 2: Tamer of Animal Women (epub) (2024)
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