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Lessa

[PP - F3] Sanctuary

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Delilah was delightful, and Lessa didn't spend enough time there. She really should make the effort, given the settlement's appealing atmosphere. Sun-bleached stone came together to form houses, walkways, and bridges that spanned over babbling brooks. Nature played a prominent role here, too, with tufts of grass and cheery wild flowers bursting through cracks between the rock. Towering deciduous trees shared space with the man-made constructs, and cast long strips of shade beneath the summer sun. Even the people here, players and elven NPCs alike, were extremely pleasant. What a shame it was that Lessa was there for business, not pleasure.

The woman perched atop a small boulder, only feet from the edge of the water. Her attention was reserved entirely for the message she composed; she didn't notice Riker plop over and begin to roll on the muddy bank. 

Quote

To: @Bahr

Hey, hope this message finds you well.

A player has asked me to help her with a pretty unique case. I thought maybe you might have some insight, or want to lend a hand?

If you're free, I'll meet you near the big bridge in Delilah, on the third floor.

- Lessa

"We'll wait a bit, see if he shows," Lessa explained, sending the message off and dismissing the menu. She glanced over her shoulder at the dark-haired woman who stood a few paces off. "I'm pretty sure he will. But if he doesn't, I'll go in alone."

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Hey, hope this message finds you well.

A player has asked me to help her with a pretty unique case. I thought maybe you might have some insight, or want to lend a hand?

If you're free, I'll meet you near the big bridge in Delilah, on the third floor.

- Lessa

Bahr's tired eyes must have traced each and every letter of the message a thousand times already. Every now and then, they would flicker to the message right above the one he had just received, which comically read,

No need to be a dick about it.

See you there.

- Lessa

What a day that had been. Strange how only a few hours in the presence of another (and a horrific near-death experience) could bridge a gap like that and transition from cold and indifferent messages to ones that held a bit more warmth. He didn't really want to smile, but one crept across his face anyways. Fine, he relented, guess I'll go see what she's up to.

And so he finally flung the sheets aside and hoisted himself out of the bed he had clung to for the past couple days, a consequence of strange pang of depression that had recently gripped him. One would think that letting go of your violent side would be a liberating experience - and it was. It was the relapses back into the abyss and the realization that you'd become a borderline monster that tended to kick your emotions in the ass. The momentary freedom of virtual bloodshed was like the one unlucky drink that shoves a wavering alcoholic off the wagon. When you stretch your luck so far that fear becomes exhilaration and vibrates along your arms. He so yearned for this, while simultaneously abhorring it. This inner conflict had crippled him to an extent, but even Bahr knew he couldn't stay cooped up forever.
 

Quote

To: @Lessa

No need to be a dick about it.

See you there.

- Bahr


He snickered to himself a bit as he sent the electronic letter, dismissing the messaging panel before navigating to his inventory and dawning his usual questing garb. He was about to walk out his front door when he realized he had been forgetting something. "Bajesus, come on! Don't you want to see Riker?" The tiny pig flew down the stairs with such flippant enthusiasm that it skidded across the hardwood floor and straight into the wall with a loud thud! After shaking away its dizziness, it crawled up Bahr's leg and into his inner coat pocket, letting out a tiny squeal to let its master know that it was ready to head out. "Alright, then. Let's get a move on."

FLOOR 3

It had been awhile since he had been to the third floor. It was pleasant enough, if not a little plain, but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. It was the denizens of the floor that kept him away, honestly. Their constant, petulant war buzzed in his ears any time he visited. That, and creatures that looked really similar to humans without actually being humans sorta creeped him out. But if this was where they had to meet, so be it.

"What're you doing up there, you weirdo?" he questioned upon approaching the blonde, who was currently perched atop a rock like a suspicious owl, overlooking the water with an absent look in her eyes. "Knowing you, you're totally going to slip while trying to get down from there. I won't catch you, if you do."

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"Nice view from up here," Lessa answered, leaning over to look down at Bahr. He'd arrived much more quickly than she'd expected. "And if I do fall, I'll be sure to land right on top of you."

Fortunately for both of them, the woman slipped over the edge and landed on her feet without incident. Instinct had her brushing the dirt from the seat of her skirt, and re-situating her cloak about her long body. Then she tossed her blonde braids back over her shoulder, and looked to her friend. 

Friend. It was strange that she so easily called him that, given they had only spent time together on two occasions. One of those interactions had been brief, and the other had nearly resulted in her death. Yet here he was, coming to her aid without question (and with a bit of humor). What an odd place Aincrad was.

"Anyway," she began, "thanks for coming." Lessa turned, and motioned to the player who stood a short distance off. "This is Lilik. We bumped into each other, and got to talking." Lessa lifted a hand toward Lilik's shoulder, as if to give it a reassuring pat, but then thought better of it. "Figure I'd let her explain what's going on."

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"Uh, yeah, guess that's my cue." Lilik planted both hands on her hips, and paused long enough to look the newcomer up and down. His interactions with Lessa told her the pair had some sort of relationship. Of course they did, or else the blonde wouldn't have requested his presence. But their familiar back-and-forth, and the ease with which the players communicated, indicated something more intimate. They were comfortable with each other. Lilik felt a tinge of jealousy at that, but shoved it down just as quickly as it flared.

The willowy woman brushed back her long hair, a plum-colored waterfall that shimmered down to nearly her waist. Then she inhaled deeply, and plunged into her tale. "I have a friend, Rainey. She and I spent the past couple years hiding out in the safe zones." Lilik made no effort to hide the bitterness in her tone, and even if she had, the phrasing revealed how much she regretted the wasted time. "Rainey always been afraid of everything, and was content just... existing." She loosed a shrug. "I didn't get it, but whatever. A couple days ago, she up and left. Apparently she's found this guild, and she told me the people 'understand' her. I was honestly happy for her."

The woman paused, her gaze drifting to a spot just past Lessa and Bahr. "And part of me was glad that I could move on, you know? Do something different? Well, I decided to check in on her, just to see how she's doing. But there were loads of red flags. Rainey spoke to me through the door, and never even came out to see me. And after a minute, another player told me it was time for me to leave." Something dark, akin to a stormcloud, drifted across Lilik's face. "I didn't appreciate being bossed around, but Rainey didn't say anything else, and I couldn't get inside. So I went looking for help." Lilik's jaw worked until she finally looked back to Bahr. "I don't ask strangers for anything, but yeah, I'm worried about Rainey."

After Lilik fell silent, Lessa gave a small nod. "I'm going in to see what's going on. Are you interested?"

Edited by Lilik

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"Oh, uh, hey," Bahr managed to articulate, caught a bit off guard by the newcomer. One way or another, he had neglected to notice her until Lessa pointed her out. Bizarrely, she looked similar to Lessa on a superficial level. It must have been the armor. "Nice to meet you."

He listened thoughtfully to the violet-haired woman as she described her quandary, nodding occasionally as gesture that he was paying attention. Her account of things was a little alarming, but Bahr had heard tall tales in Aincrad before. He wasn't entirely convinced that she wasn't being hyperbolic. That being said, he trusted Lessa's intuition, and she wouldn't have dragged him out here if she didn't believe that this was legitimate.

"I'm going in to see what's going on. Are you interested?" she said with a nod, casting a glance Bahr's direction. It seemed it couldn't be helped.

"Yeah, I guess," he sighed, pointing his elbows into the air as his fingers laced against the back of his neck. "Not like I was doing anything productive with my day, anyway." He nonchalantly tilted his head in Lilik's direction, his crimson and verdant hues locking with hers before continuing. "We'll need some info on this 'Rainey.' General characteristics such as height, build, hair color, voice, and so on. Furthermore, information on the location of this guild hall, how defended it is, stuff like that. A lot of this can be masked with cosmetic items, but as much useful intel as you can give us would be appreciated."

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Anger, hot and red, began to simmer in Lilik's gut. It was unnecessary, and border-line irrational, considering the man was willing to help her. But the nonchalant way in which he agreed rubbed her the wrong way. Further fanning the flame was the fact that she didn't have the answers to his question. Why hadn't she paid more attention, or completed a bit of recon work while she was there? Was she really so far behind these higher-level players only because of the time passed? Or were they really just smarter than her? The concept brought a warmth to her tattooed face, and that made her even madder.

"She's short," Lilik finally answered in a brisk, clipped tone. At least this she was confident in, and she could address it matter-of-factly. "Maybe five-foot even. Stocky, but not fat. Blonde hair, naturally curly. Blue eyes. Voice is higher pitched than mine, and she speaks both English and Japanese. Doubt she has any armor or weapons, and likes to wear dresses." The woman hesitated, gaze darting from Bahr to Lessa before she spoke again. "The guild is holed up in an old church. It's covered with vines."

That was the extent of her knowledge. Fortunately, Lessa stepped in before the silence could become stifling. 

"It's the Defiled Church, Bahr," the other woman explained, hints of excitement flavoring her words. "The guild must have figured out how to get inside. I have no idea how many people they have, but the leader must be a pretty intelligent guy to accomplish something like that."

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The woman practically spat her works at Bahr, clearly not amused by his nonchalant attitude. He shrugged the ire away, nodding his head as she offered a brief description of her friend. Average height, stocky build, curly blonde hair, and multilingual with a high pitched voice. Just like several other women roaming around Aincrad. If Lilik wasn't already pissed at him, he'd be groaning and rolling his eyes by now. For the sake of staying civil, he reeled it in.

"Defiled Church, huh? I think I've heard of it. Isn't that the place that has some sort of riddle you need to solve in order to gain entry? I've heard it likes to shake things up and change the riddle frequently, too. You'd have to be a riddle glossary to dig into a place like that. Or, well, a hermit." Which seemed to fit, in all honesty. According to Lilik's story, Rainey hadn't so much as cracked the door open to see her. Was it possible that the only way to reliable set up a base like that was to isolate themselves? Sparks of intrigue began to flash into Bahr's eyes as he caught Lessa's gaze with a nod. "Yeah, I'm in. We'll go investigate."

He turned his attention back to Lilik. "If you happen to remember anything else, shoot a message to either of us. The more we know, the better." His eyes then shifted back to Lessa. "Ready whenever you are. Did we need to grab anything before going to the Church?"

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"I'm going with you." The words snapped like a whip, and carried just as much sting, daring either of them to object. Lessa did.

"I really don't think that's a good idea," Lessa began slowly, her maternal nature peaking through. "I think-"

Lilik rounded on the blonde. "I don't give a damn what you think," she shot back. "I don't work in thoughts, I need hard facts. And the fact is, you need me. Rainey would never go with you."

Now it was Lessa's turn to harden, every line and curve of her face turning to rigid stone. The maternal tenderness was gone. "As I recall, Rainey didn't go with you, either. And it appears she's going to stay there, because I'm not going to help someone who doesn't want it." There was anger simmering in her blue eyes, something that Lilik had not expected from the seemingly soft woman. That went from zero to sixty real quick.

Panic fluttered in the pit of Lilik's stomach, but years of practice kept the tell-tale signs from creeping across her face. She drew in a long breath, then said, "Wait. Look, my bad, okay? I just want my friend back."

Lessa gave a small nod, but her stony expression remained in place. "And we're willing to help you with that, but not if you're going to bite our heads off. We're helping you, even when the situation could be potentially dangerous to us. We have no idea what we're walking into."

"Then let me go with you," Lilik countered, clearly unwilling to give up the fight. "Please. I know Rainey. She'd feel better if I were there. And maybe I can help. Somehow. Y'lknow?"

The armored woman turned to Bahr, and lifted one shoulder in a "well?" gesture.

 

Edited by Lilik

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Bahr's eyes flickered between the two women as they exchanged borderline hissing contentions, sighing at the time being wasted. When Lessa looked to him for help, he felt compelled to back her up. He gave her a nod, then turned his attention back to Lilik.

First, he pointed at her breastplate. "As a tailor, I recognize this craftmanship. Standard issue mitigation. Two slots is a stretch, so I'm going to lean toward it only having one. Now I'm not as good with weapons, so I can't tell you what it's got - but it's the sort of thing that I could snap in two with mine, and I'm not the most fearsome thing out there," he explained in a neutral tone, watching as the reality of the situation dawned on Lilik. "I don't mean to sound rude," he continued, "but it's clear you would struggle on Floor One, let alone here. Lessa and I synergize well together, and carrying your weight would get in the way of that. It's best if you stay behind."

With that, he gave Lessa a nod and began taking steps forward, away from Lilik. Given her hotheaded demeanor, Bahr fully expected to get an earful as he left, but he was committed to ignoring it. If they were ever going to get this show on the road, they'd have to leave the loud one behind sooner rather than later.

- - - - - - - - - - -

"So, Ace," he began amidst their walk through the serenity of the third floor, "How've you been holding up? You seem a bit more proactive than I remember you admitting - what with the volunteering to help out the bossy noob." Small talk. He'd never been good at it. It would have been much more interesting to talk about the Great Filter, or the magnitude of the cosmos' enormity, or what happens to your energy when you die. All things he wanted nothing more than to discuss with Lessa - and while he was certain she had the capacity, he wondered whether or not she had the interest. All things in due time, he supposed.

He listened to her response as they came upon the Defiled Church, stopping a comfortable distance away from the structure. Would be rude to ask her a question and then completely ignore it for whatever the Church had in store of them. He looked at Lessa, awaiting her response.

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"Alright, it's settled. We'll let you know as soon as we have word of your friend. Just... sit tight, okay?" With that, Lessa turned her back and strode off toward the city's outer limits. Though she could feel Lilik's gaze searing into her back, the purple-haired player said nothing more. And that was perfectly fine with Lessa. She completely understood Lilik's fear for her friend, but she also would not allow herself to be treated like a punching bag. She had far too much experience with that sort of thing.

It was Bahr's voice that brought her back to the present. "Ace?" she countered quizically, head tilting to the side as she looked at him. "Now what in the world did I do to earn that nickname?"

She had to think for a moment about his question, allowing a companionable silence to fall between them as they exited the safe zone. Trees towered overhead, the gentle breeze whispering through their leaves in a way that Lessa found incredibly soothing. She definitely needed to spend more time on floor three. "I actually used to have a reputation for helping the noobs," she answered finally. "After..." Alkor died "... I left the fronlines, I camped out on the first floor, and pretty much spent all of my time helping lower levels. I can't even count how many times I carried them through the beginner quests. It felt like a service I could do, my own way of helping to beat the game since I wasn't fighting anymore."

The woman sighed at the memory, then her features hardened a bit as she continued. "But a lot of the people I worked with were complete nightmares. And the job was completely thankless." She lifted her hand in the air and gestured, a flick of the wrist when she added, "I don't need a lot of praise. I mean, I was going into teaching, and that's as thankless as it comes. But it just got to be too much."

She'd rambled, and still hadn't come close to answering his initial question. "Anyway, I guess there's still a part of that wants to help out the weaker guys. Even if I don't do it that often, because it can be exhausting. Besides, this one is different. Friend disappears inside the Defiled Church? Goes off to join some mystery guild? You have to admit, it's sort of intriguing."

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"Ace?" she questioned as her head tilted. "Now what in the world did I do to earn that nickname?"

"Doubt you became a teacher with poor grades," was the simple response he delivered with a shrug, trying his best to stay nonchalant about it. 

They continued to saunter along for a bit in silence while Lessa rolled Bahr's inquiry around. It was an absolutely gorgeous day. Warm enough that a jacket wasn't necessary, but cool enough when the breeze rolled through that one need not worry about overheating. His eye caught her violet cloak dance along to the tempo of the gentle wind, and he couldn't help but grin. He couldn't believe that she was still wearing it, even after its failure to protect her from the Lich King. 

He listened intently as she explained herself and her situation. Aiding the newbies was a noble pursuit, and one that Bahr had taken up himself - though, evidently not to the extent that Lessa had. Her complaints resonated deeply with his fears in taking it any further than he already had, and cemented his opinion that newcomers should merely be provided with the tools to succeed, rather than shown how. Based on her testimony, walking noobs through the game sounded like a nightmarish endeavor.

"Besides, this one is different. Friend disappears inside the Defiled Church? Goes off to join some mystery guild? You have to admit, it's sort of intriguing."

Intriguing indeed. Bahr had always assumed that the Defiled Church had remained untouched, and that nobody had managed to venture within. Or, at least, that was what he had been led to believe. Word should have gotten out by now that there were people holed up in there, right? Evidently not.

"Well, for starters, I think you do deserve praise. You've probably done more than anyone else I know - myself included - to help out the newbies. And that's always been one of my main complaints about the Frontliners. They have the resources to aid the those who are behind, but squander them on meaningless luxuries and over-the-top antics. It's always rubbed me the wrong way," he confided on an exhale, disappointment evident. 

"As for this little pseudo-quest you've picked up, I have to agree. I've never even made my way to the Defiled Church because of what I've heard about it," he admitted, rubbing the back of his head before continuing. "I'd always heard that nobody had managed to solve the statue's riddle. Since I'm not exactly the brightest tool in the shed, I always figured it would be a waste of time. But to hear that there's a whole guild hanging around in there? It sounds fishy, to be honest."

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It had been a while since Lessa had been so highly praised. While she had never been one to react poorly, the whole exchange caught her off-guard. "I-" she began, then huffed out a breath on a short laugh. "Uh, thanks. I guess Ace isn't so bad." She flicked him a glance, then shook her head. "But I've got nothing to call you. Yet." She added the last bit as an afterthought. "I'll think on it, though."

She smiled as Bahr mixed his idioms, but remained silent as he shared his thoughts. Once he was finished, she nodded. "Seems fishy to me too," she agreed. "I haven't heard of anyone solving the riddle. Now there's a whole group of people who have done it?" Lessa paused for a moment, the gears turning as she worked through the issue. "Or maybe only one person has to solve it? I wonder if, once you're inside, you can just open the door? And if there's always someone in there, they never have to solve the riddle again? But if-" The woman cut herself off with a sudden shake of her head. "Nah, too many what-ifs. I think our best bet is to just get there and see how it goes."

Fortunately, the pair had made excellent time during their discussion. As the pair neared the Defiled Church, Lessa marveled at the way nature had worked to reclaim the building. Trees sprouted up all around it, roots and vines intertwined to form a protective barrier. The brick that did peak through was rough and battered by the elements. Some windows were visible beneath the tangle, but there was only darkness on the other side. Then, there was the massive wooden door.

"I guess we knock?" Lessa mused allowed. She shrugged, strode forward, and pounded the side of her fist against the hard surface.

The answer came almost instantaneously. "What do you want?"

Lessa, who hadn't really expected an answer, took a startled step backward. She worked quickly to regain her composure, then replied, "We're looking for Rainey."

A beat of silence, and then, "There is a Rainey here."

"Can we talk with her? We-"

"No," he interrupted matter-of-factly. "You may not."

Lessa bristled at his tone. "Look, just let us talk to her. We're just helping someone out."

"Do you spend much of your time helping others? You appear to be of a very high level."

His words sent chills down her spine, and goosebumps racing up her bare arms. Absently, Lessa rubbed at them as she considered his question. "How does he know?" she whispered to Bahr. "Is he watching us?"

"Smart girl," came the voice again, low and oddly melodic; every word he spoke was delivered like a sacred prayer. "If you are so smart, why not solve the Church's riddle? Prove your worth. Then, perhaps, you will be allowed to speak with sister Rainey."

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The Defiled Church was predictably dilapidated, nature worming its roots into its hard stone and slowly reclaiming what rightfully belonged to it. Or, at least, the programmers had done an excellent job of giving that impression. Lessa seemed eager to take the initiative, saying, "I guess we knock?" as she sauntered up to the blockaded ingress and rapped the side of her fist against it without a moment of hesitation. Their response came quicker than either of them had been expecting.

"What do you want?"

The edges of Bahr's lips curled into a coy smile as he witnessed Lessa's bewildered footfall backward, but he managed to hold in a laugh at her expense. She was quick to recover, though. "We're looking for Rainey."

"There is a Rainey here."

Too easy, Bahr thought to himself as he heard the muffled response. Something's not right.

There was a tinge of annoyance as the voice then smugly interjected when Lessa spoke again, and Bahr scoffed. Even within such a short exchange, the holier-than-thou attitude was evident. "If you are so smart, why not solve the Church's riddle? Prove your worth. Then, perhaps, you will be allowed to speak with sister Rainey."

Sister Rainey?

"The asshole thinks he's smarter than us," Bahr remarked in a huff, eyes glued to the door as he ran through the different ways this could play out. His knee-jerk response would have been to bust out his sword and tear through the door the old fashioned way, but he knew that wouldn't work. If brute force was an option, the veil of mystique that surrounded this place would have been dispelled ages ago. Perhaps he was smarter than Bahr, after all. But...

His eyes flickered to Lessa, and he gave her a very knowing nod. Bahr had no doubt that she could outwit this poser. "Let's give it a shot. Between the two of us, I don't think there's a door in Aincrad that could hold us back." As though on cue, the eyes of the guardian statue standing tall beside the door ignited, instantly capturing Bahr's attention as he pitched his jaw upward and squinted. The posture of the sculpture was tall and proud, one hand gripping a sword with the tip buried in the earth. The other was loosely held outward in an underhanded position, three fingers extended. All at once, the words invasively entered their minds. 

A father's age and a son's age total sixty-six.
The father's age is the son's age reversed.


And then silence.

"Fifty-one and fifteen," Bahr blurted out, only barely putting any thought into what he had just done. Fifty-one was the anagram of fifteen in the numerical sense, and when added together totaled sixty-six. So it had to be correct, right? As Bahr eagerly anticipated the opening of the door, a mixture of confusion and disappointment gripped him as one of the stony appendages of the statue's hand slowly curled inward toward its palm. 

"[censored]," he uttered, a nervous glance shot Lessa's way. "Looks like I messed up, sorry. But that's so weird. My answer wasn't technically wrong, so what gives?"

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Lessa pressed two fingers to her temple and rubbed, still uneasy with the voice violating her thoughts. Only after a few seconds was she able to focus on the riddle itself. By that point, Bahr had already blurted out his answer. Thinks on his feet, the girl mused appreciatively. Eagerly, she turned her attention to the stone guardian. Then, like a balloon, she deflated as one finger curled down.

”Oh no,” she said on a whisper. Disappointment gripped her as her gaze shifted from the stone to Bahr. “Does that mean we have two guesses left?”

Of course it’s a number riddle, Lessa thought wryly. She chewed on her lip as the numbers marched aimlessly in her head. Math had never been among her strengths, and trying to order the digits was like herding cats. She was more likely to find a headache than an answer, and she often found it easier just to give up. But she couldn’t let Lilik down. Or Bahr.

So she grit her teeth and strapped down, turning the riddle over and over in her mind. And when the breakthrough happened, her face lit like the sun bursting through the clouds. “Twenty four and forty two!”

But the statue’s only response was to lower one more finger. “What?!” Lessa snapped, joy heating to anger in an instant. “But it’s right!”

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"This isn't working," Bahr mumbled as the second stony finger curled inward. Only one guess left. 

Without another word, Bahr opened up his menu and navigated to a messaging prompt. He selected the conversation between himself and Lessa and began typing, making sure to angle the window so that Lessa could see it as well. It took a couple of minutes, but the result made visualizing the riddle a lot easier.
 

Quote

To: Lessa

1 | 65
2 | 64
3 | 63
4 | 62
5 | 61
6 | 60
7 | 59
8 | 58
9 | 57
10 | 56
11 | 55
12 | 54
13 | 53
14 | 52
15 | 51
16 | 50
17 | 49
18 | 48
19 | 47
20 | 46
21 | 45
22 | 44
23 | 43
24 | 42
25 | 41
26 | 40
27 | 39
28 | 38
29 | 37
30 | 36
31 | 35
32 | 34
33 | 33


His eye twitched as he wrote the final value. It was so obvious. Too obvious. If their previous answers had not satisfied the riddle, how could thirty-three and thirty-three do it? It didn't make any sense for a father and son to be the same age, anyways. 
 

Quote

33 | 33


"I don't think it's this one," he remarked as he highlighted the final row and crossed a line through it, just as he had the options they had already exhausted. "It doesn't make sense in the context of the riddle. And, well, it's too obvious. Or is it not obvious because it conflicts with the context? I'm not sure anymore - this whole situation has my head spinning." A beat of silence. "I don't see any other options that fit the riddle. It can't possibly be expecting us to break this down into decimals, right? There would be no end to the number of 'correct' answers."

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"Thirty three and thirty three?" Lessa's brow knit with concentration . "I mean, maybe if it was a step-son? The dad was really young, and he married a much older woman?" She stared at the statue for a moment, then heaved a sigh. Shaking her head, she admitted, "No, that's probably a stretch." Besides, if the silent stone guardian did not accept the previous two answers, it was unlikely to be impressed by this one. The woman's hands clenched and unclenched into fists at her side, the anxiety of an approaching failure beginning to get to her. What if they couldn't solve the riddle, and reach Rainey? What might happen to her? How am I supposed to explain it to Lilik? Sorry, I suck at math and it cost you your friend?

Lessa sucked her teeth in frustration as she finally glanced at Bahr's message. More numbers, swimming in her vision like fish in a tiny, chaotic aquarium. "This sucks," she muttered under her breath. Then, louder, "Why don't these line up?" Math was hard enough, and when the table wasn't aligned properly, it was a lost cause completely. The woman was not usually afflicted by Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but there were times when disorder drove her mad. Disregarding the severity of the situation, Lessa reached over and began to edit Bahr's display. With painstaking slowness, she punched in a zero before all single-digit entries. The action drove the dividing line to the right, where it finally lined up with the rest of the table. "There," she stated. "That's better. Now I can actually-"

Her voice trailed as she leaned forward, peering closer at the changes she had made. "Bahr," she breathed, "could that be it? Six and sixty?"

The answer came not from her companion, but from the statue itself. It's third and final finger fell, leaving only a raised fist. Lessa would have sworn the flicker of a smile passed the rigid lips as the hand returned to his side, and the wooden door swung silently inward. "Whoa," was all Lessa could manage.

Clapping came from within the church, and suddenly, a tall man filled the doorway. He was ruggedly handsome, Lessa had to admit, with his sharp features beneath a bit of salt-and-pepper stubble. The gray was unusual, given he appeared to be in his late twenties, but it really worked for him. And that smirk he wore as he applauded their efforts... Lessa gulped in spite of herself.

"Well done," the man told them. "Truly, an exceptional job. You're the first to solve a riddle." His piercing green eyes were the color of old medicine bottles, and they twinkled as he added, "Well, besides myself, of course. And where are my manners?" He held hands out, a welcoming gesture, and said, "Allow me to welcome you to Sanctuary."

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"This sucks."

Yeah, it really does.

"Why don't these line up?"

It took Bahr a moment to wrap his head around what she was asking. Oh, the rows. Was she the OCD type? Bahr couldn't help but feel at least some measure of this come out as she leaned in close to him and started fidgeting with the keys. He would have had an easier time paying attention to what she was doing, had her proximity to him not grown so short that he could literally smell her. He wasn't standing there sniffing her, obviously. The aroma lifted itself from her light frame and infiltrated his nostrils of its own accord. It wasn't unpleasant, by any means - quite the opposite, actually. What was that? Lavender? 

"There," she declared, jarring Bahr from whatever that had been. "That's better. Now I can actually-"

Bahr saw it at the exact same moment she did. 
 

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It was so obvious that it almost hurt. It had been hidden in plain sight the entire time. And as the statue reacted positively to her postulation, a grin spread across Bahr's face. His trust in her wit had not been misplaced. But the grin was soon replaced with a sour scowl as a man was produced from the darkness of the now ajar door.

"Well done. Truly, an exceptional job. You're the first to solve a riddle. Well, besides myself, of course."

This guy is pissing me off.

And why was he so goddamn attractive, anyway? Bahr knew that he'd never been the best looking guy around, but he probably looked like a pig in comparison. He set his jaw as the smug bastard carried on.

"And where are my manners?" He held hands out, a welcoming gesture, and said, "Allow me to welcome you to Sanctuary."

"Yeah, thanks," Bahr muttered as he looked past the man and into the darkness that lay beyond. "I'm Bahr, this is Lessa. We'd like to see Rainey now."

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"Bahr and Lessa," the man repeated, looking to each in turn. He offered a hand to Lessa. "It is such a pleasure." When Lessa's hand found his for the shake, he instead brought it to his lips. He graced her knuckles with a soft kiss, then released her before she could yank the hand away. His smile seemed to grow, amusement swirling in his evergreen eyes, as she wiped her hand on her skirt. "My name is Brother Dominic," he continued. He had no handshake for Bahr, which she supposed suited her companion just fine.

Lessa cleared her throat. "Rainey?" she inquired again. The man was the definition of smooth, and everything he did seemed to have an additional polish to it. It wasn't dramatic, nor was it over the top. It was subtle, which was infinitely more dangerous. A snake coiled in the grass was a far greater threat than one in the open, as it could strike without warning. Lessa could only wonder if this Brother Dominic was among the venomous variety. 

"Sister Rainey is likely in the garden. She finds it quite enjoyable, and spends much of her time there. I will show you, if you follow me." He motioned with one hand deeper into the compound. Lessa stepped inside, and realized that the church was actually much larger than should be possible. Hallways jutted off in various directions, voices and laughter echoing from unseen places. He led the pair down one, then up a flight of winding stairs. "We grow our own food here," he explained as they walked, a tour guide sharing his knowledge with a couple of fresh-faced tourists. "So the garden serves an incredibly important purpose. Through the efforts of people like Sister Rainey, it has fed our entire flock." The stairwell was not well-lit, but Lessa could still make out the twinkle in the man's eye as he added, "I think you will be quite impressed."

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I really hate this guy.

Bahr really hated this guy.

Like, I really hate this guy.

Really, really hated him.

Just who did he think he was, pressing those slimy lips of his against Lessa's hand? And the look that he gave Bahr as he was doing it. He knew he was pressing his buttons. When the time was right, Bahr would show Brother Dickhead the prize he had won for such crass and thoughtless behavior. 

As they made their way into the church, Bahr was taken aback by just how... big it was. It hadn't looked like this on the outside. Was the interior of the Defiled Church some sort of pocket dimension? At this point, Bahr wouldn't even be surprised if that were true. Had stranger things not occurred in Aincrad? 

He led them through an ornate hallway, then up a winding staircase. Bahr kept his eyes steady on the man as he explained everything, waiting for the first hints of something more sinister. Not that the place wasn't already soaked in that sort of energy. Something definitely wasn't right here, but Bahr couldn't put his finger on just what it was yet. If they stuck around long enough, maybe they'd stand a chance to sleuth it out.

The garden, admittedly, was an absolutely gorgeous display. It rested within an inordinately large chamber, the glass ceiling creating a greenhouse of sorts. Virtually any kind of fruit or vegetable you could imagine lined the walkways in rows, cultivated to ripeness with the gentle touch of the caretakers' love. "Sister Rainey should be at the far end of the garden," Brother Douchebag declared as he began down one of the rows, Bahr and Lessa following in turn. He led them to a woman who was tending to a patch of carrots, pulling weeds from the soil and depositing them in a nearby pail. She stood taller than Lessa, though a little shorter than Bahr. Slender. She wore gardening gloves, plain T-shirt, jeans. Silky brunette hair cascaded from her scalp and down her shoulders, straight as an arrow save for where it curved to follow the natural flow of her body. Striking green eyes played well with the earthy tones of her hair and the freckles that dotted her face.

As Brother Dinkleberg gestured toward the woman with a smile on his face, Bahr merely glared at him out of the corner of his eyes. "That's not her," he stated flatly, crossing his arms.

"Whatever do you mean?" Brother Dominic inquired, perplexity masking his visage as he cocked his head at the pair.

"Short and stocky. Blonde, curly hair. Blue eyes. Likes to wear dresses. Are you seeing the issue here?"

And uncomfortable silence fell between the group as Bahr's dual-toned eyes remained steadfastly on the man's emerald. After a few moments, a chuckle escaped his lips, and he gave a sardonic clap. "Well done, it seems as though you've passed yet another test. Yes, this is Sister Olivia. I figured it would be unwise to simply lead a pair of strangers straight to Sister Rainey, at least before testing-"

"Look," Bahr interjected, taking a few steps forward and placing himself uncomfortably close to Brother Dominic. "I've had about enough of your 'tests.' I understand that you're super smart and all, but enough of the games. Are you going to give us what we came for, or not?"

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Dominic's perfectly plucked eyebrows lifted at Bahr's exclamation. The cool tone and stifling closeness seemed to to surprise the man, or at the very least, intrigue him. He turned his face away from Bahr's, and settled those striking green eyes on Lessa. "Is Bahr always quite so," a hand lifted, then swirled about in the air as he searched for the word, "passionate?"

Lessa held up both hands in the universal sign for leave-me-out-of-this. The absolute last thing she cared to do was get between these two men. First, and most importantly, it would very likely jeopardize their plan. Second, butting into Bahr's business seemed a quick and efficient way to get on his bad side. She'd come to really like the guy, and upsetting him was not something she cared to do. Finally, a teeny tiny part of her found the whole display fascinating, like two lions circling each other. Two really, really good looking lions. Their faces are REALLY close together...

"Look," Lessa finally said flatly, "we're just here to talk with Rainey."

"Yes, as you've said." Brother Dominic took one smooth step backward, putting more distance between himself and Bahr. His eyes, however, never left Lessa's. "Would you care to tell me what this is about?"

Lessa's eyes grew sharper, water turning to ice under a sudden chill. "Actually I do care. I don't think that it's any of your business."

The man's head tilted, that polite smile never wavering as he answered, "Considering you are standing in my home, amongst my flock, as my guest, I believe it is absolutely my business."

Charming as always, Lessa thought to herself. It was easy to see how he had amassed such a following. "You keep calling this your flock. Why?"

He held his hands out again, a sort of come-into-my-arms gesture. Why does he keep doing that, Lessa wondered. And why does it look so familiar?

"They are my people, and I protect them. I am their shepherd."

"Uh huh." The woman slowly shook her head, sending her braids cascading over her shoulder. "And calling each other brother and sister. It's kind of weird."

Dominic loosed a shrug, those wide shoulders shifting beneath his tunic. "I am terribly sorry that you feel that way. In fact, I might challenge you to reconsider. Why not spend an evening with us? Look around, speak with my family, live as we do. You may find your initial impressions were incorrect."

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