57 Splitting up the band
"Over here, its this way!"
Ashley was guiding the group towards the inside of a secret cave located on one of the nearby mountains. To reach the entrance, they all needed to climb the outside of the mountain since there was no visible passage insight.
Since they were all wearing bodies that carried monster-like features they didn't face much trouble during their climbing.
Daren faced a little bit of trouble since it was still very early and he couldn't access his lion form, so Auren had to carry him on his back. Gustav was also finding some trouble when using his centaur body. It seemed like walking with four legs was harder than it looked.
"Need some help?"
Evlin came to his aid after realizing how much trouble he was facing. Gustav kept trying to climb the rock formation but his hoofs were simply not made for this kind of situation. The mountain was too steep for him.
"I think I would like to change my choice of monster..."
"Don't worry, we will probably encounter many more as we advance. Just hold on to me and I will carry you."
"... It's a little embarrassing..."
"Trust me, I know... When I first arrived in this world I had to spend the whole day being carried on the back of my caretaker once... Just put your arm around my shoulder and I'll do the rest."
Gustav followed her command and Evlin proceeded to place her arm around his waist. She started to climb the wall of the mountain towards the entrance Ashley was pointing to using her free arm and the claws on her legs to pierce the rocks.
"Just bear with it... We will be there in a second..."
"It's not that... I was just wondering if you were ok..."
"What do you mean...?"
"The way you looked when you woke up this morning... I've never seen you like this before... So..."
"I just got a message from all the people in this world that hate me the most saying that they're coming to take my head... I think I would have some kind of mental problem if I wasn't afraid..."
"But I'm the leader... The leader doesn't have time to show weakness or the group will fall apart from it... So I need to keep looking forward..."
"Are you sure about that...?"
"You will need to release your feeling at some point... Or they will just keep piling up until they explode inside you... There is no shame to show weakness to your family... Being weak is not a crime, remember?"
"What should I do then...? Just find a small corner and cry for a bit until I start feeling better...?"
"... You don't need a corner... You have your sister right beside you don't you?"
"Just go towards her and say that you need her by her side for a little bit..."
"Yeah... Ok... Thanks Gustav..."
The two arrived at the entrance and went inside the passage. The rest of the group was waiting for them in the dark cave located in the middle of the wall. Because of the heavy shadows Evlin almost forgot that those were her friends due to their monstrous silhouettes and for one second considered going for her crossbow to attack.
"Man you guys look scary when you are all in the dark like this..."
Ria heard that comment and started to smile like a little kid.
"You heard that darling? Even the great Evlin is afraid of my terrifying appearance!!"
Ria was trying to make a scary face for Auren, but the truth was she was probably the less intimidating member of this group right now. She was basically the same old Ria of always, except she was green and had a tail. Even Daren in his human form was more scary thanks to his dead-eyed expression.
"Yes Ria, you look completely horrifying..."
Auren tried to indulge her delusion but looking at her trying to make a monster face was just absolutely adorable for him. Rather than running away afraid Auren just wanted to hug her right there and now.
"Awwww!! Thanks, Darling!! You look terrible as well!"
Ria used her tail to approach Auren's face towards her and gave him an almost-kiss. She stoped right before her lips reached him since she didn't want to kiss a minotaur head. Evlin was honestly really jealous right now. She too wishes she could just enjoy the monster costume party she had created instead of having to worry about all the people who wanted to kill her banding together.
She decided to try and follow Gustav's advice and try to have Ashley lend her an ear.
As they kept advancing through the cave, Evlin started to approach her sister who was now fused with a dryad and tried to make a request from her.
"Hey Ash...? Can we... Talk for a bit...?"
"Huh...? Now? I'm trying to access all the memories from the dryad. Can we talk later?"
"It's just that..."
"Nothing... I just wanted you to know you look great with leaves."
"... Thanks Evlin, but we are in the middle of a crisis right now... I need to focus."
For some reason, Evlin couldn't bring herself to ask for Ashley's support. Ashley would always be by her side whenever she would face some kind of emotional crisis. She was there when Dalla died, when she was crying after losing the chance to meet Marceus, when Evlin was being haunted by Xadi in her dreams, and when she got depressed after losing a fight to Daren. Any time she would be feeling down she could rely on Ashley to listen to her worries.
Right now, she was facing the biggest worry she had so far. She really needed the comfort of her sister right now.
But this time, she couldn't, because Ashley was making her planning face. The same way Evlin would have a gamer face whenever she wanted to disrespect her opponents during fights, Ashley had a face that she would only show whenever she was deep in thought planning their movements.
Evlin had seen that face many times during their missions to retrieve silver metal from strongholds. Whenever she had that expression it meant that she should not be disturbed under no circumstance for she was preparing a plan for the team. And with access to the dryad's memories, Evlin couldn't even imagine the amount of planning her sister was working on right now.
She then decided to leave her request for a later time once Ashley didn't look so stressed. She didn't feel it was fair to ask for comfort when her sister herself was looking like she was in a bind.
Ashley, who was walking ahead of the group, gave them a signal to halt just as they arrived in a wide space inside the mountain. A huge cave with four holes in the wall. Each hole was big enough to allow the passage of an elephant. Evlin observed her options and looked at her plant sister.
"Which way Ash?"
"... All of them."
"We will need to separate into groups and enter each of these passages to reach the other side."
"Why would we do that??"
"For security measures... Demons are not like monsters... They don't usually act in large groups unless they are organizing an attack against adventurers. They tend to hunt by themselves so that they don't have to share their spoils of battle..."
"If all seven of us arrive together like this, it will raise some suspicion to the demons on the other side..."
Daren wasn't very comfortable with the idea.
"Wait... Doesn't that mean one of us will need to go in alone??"
"Yeah, but it's ok, I can do that."
Evlin was opposed to the idea.
"What are you talking about?? We have no idea what we may encounter in these passages! I'll go with you!!"
"Evlin, trust me! I know what I'm doing. I'm taking the safest route to the other side."
"Still, why can't we go together?"
"I just told you! This is the safe route. You are our strongest member so you should help others while they go through the harder routes."
"Don't worry... I'll be fine. You don't need to protect me every hour of the day."
"Ria, Auren, you two need to stay together to use the power of your blessing. You take the middle left path. There is a nest of spider monsters in the middle of the path but your shield will be able to defend you both."
Ria was not a fan of that decision, but she was looking forward to spending some time alone with her fiancé.
"Daren, right now you are completely defenseless. You will be going with Lilith so she can use her power to sense any danger that might come to you by going into the middle right path. This path is a small labyrinth but she should be able to traverse it with her power."
"Wait... You just said that your path is the safest... Why don't I go with you?"
"It is the safest, but just for me. My path will be the further left one, it has a garden filled with dryads at the end of it. The second they see you they will bury you alive and absorb your remains."
"... Ok then... Middle right it is..."
"Evlin, that leaves you and Gustav. You two will take the further right path. There will be a giant hole in the end that will lead to a bottomless pit. This is the path normally used by flying demons. With your modeling magic, you and Gustav should pass it with no trouble."
"... Are you sure about this...? I really don't want you going in alone..."
"Calm down... Nothing is gonna happen. These paths are the safest ones for each of us to take. We will all be fine and meet each other on the other side."
"But, what if the dryads figure it out you are a human and attack you?"
"They won't. Don't worry."
The group wasn't feeling very comfortable with this turn of events, but Ashley was their strategist. If that was her plan, that means she had considered every other variable before pointing out her final choice.
Evlin came towards her with a shy expression holding her left arm with her right hand.
"Be careful... Ok?"
"I will, you too sis!"
The group of monsters proceeded to split themselves up and each walked towards their designated passage. Evlin took one last look at her sister entering her path while still keeping her planning face. After she was gone Evlin finally decided to join Gustav's side and the two entered the further right passage.
"Let's see... There should be a turn to the left... Right... Here!! Nice!"
Ashley was feeling really happy with herself right now. The memories of the dryad were like a cheat that was allowing her to figure out all the answers she needed to pass on an exam. She knew where to go, how to move, and when to act.
Even this strange dark pathway that she had never been to before, she was just walking through it as if she was taking a stroll through the park. She was so confident about her situation that she almost felt like start humming.
Ashly heard the voice of someone talking to her and almost had a heart attack. The voice came out of nowhere and she couldn't find the source of it.
[How long are you planning on keeping me like this?]
"Wha... What?? Who's there??"
[Oh, for crying out loud... There, just go towards that small pond over there...]
Ashly looked at the pond the voice was talking about and started to move towards it. She tried to take a look inside of it and became even more confused.
"What... What is this...?"
Inside the pond she could see her reflection, but behind her she could also see the image of the dryad she was fused with.
She quickly turned around to look behind her but realized she was still alone in that cave.
[The eyes of a dryad have the power to see spirits and souls... We are the demons that share the biggest connection with nature. Our body is one right now but my spirit is still mine...]
Ashley was not sure how to react to that.
[Can I have my body back now? You guy sure were rude coming out of nowhere and just kidnaping me like that...]
"Er... Sorry about that... I'm sure my sister will bring you back to normal once we are done with our little mission..."
[And just how long will that take...?]
"I am not sure... I'm actually trying to come up with a few plans right now to get this done with as fast as possible..."
[Well, work faster... Being stuck with you makes me want to take a bath...]
"Huh... A normal bath or a sunbath...?"
[... You making a joke? You think this is funny? How would you like if I made you my prisoner inside your own body??]
"Sorry, sorry... I'll try to be more respectful..."
[I don't want your respect!! I want you gone!!]
"That I can't do right now... My sister is the only one that can split us apart again..."
[Ugh... Fiiine... Guess I'll wait then... Just get on with your suicidal trip...]
[Your group is going towards the demon kingdom right? I checked your memories. What do you think will happen when they see you all there?]
"But... That's why we are hiding inside these monster bodies..."
[Yeah... But do you think they won't harm you just because you don't look like humans?]
[Oh, for the love of... The same way humans like to kill humans, demons love to kill demons. Your friends, when they reach the other side and meet with all the other demons over there...]
[Yeah... I hope you enjoy your last moments with your sister, cause she and her friends are all gonna be dead soon...]