Soft hues of orange began to break over the sky as the sun began to come down over the horizon. A clock tower sat somewhere in the Citrico Capital blocking the twilight from all who basked in its shade. No tick nor chime played from the broken old thing but the colors of the sky still played along the face and the hands that were permanently at midday served as a lovely perch for one of the residents of the clocktower itself. She was a small bat of sorts with rustled orange fur and reddish wings that were folded in to grasp a simple sketchbook between blue digits. Her other hand held a pencil that she used to scribble atop the page. Each movement of her hand was done with care and love as the lines moved to form the buildings below her that stretched out to touch the twilight sky but her ears were drawn back and her mouth had a curve aimed toward the ground rather than toward the sky.
Aria had come up to this place to sketch the same scenery for nearly every day after she had moved here. The sight was still something that could take away precious breath but the twinkle from her purple gaze had gone dim. It just didn’t inspire her as much as it used to and while she still enjoyed the mechanical aspect of sketching this scenery, she wished she could see something more. The soft sound of the pencil being set against the paper cut through the quiet early evening as her eyes settled on the expanse. There wasn’t necessarily anything stopping her from exploring. She didn’t have anything to take care of here and most people respected her space not to go fishing around the clock tower. Yes! Nothing stated that she couldn’t simply go to other places, see other sights and breathe in other atmospheres! Nothing at all!
With a grin, the tiny reptilian bat hybrid hopped up and reached down to fetch her bag hanging off of the clock hand before drawing it up. She hummed while putting away her sketchbook and pencil before taking her compact out. The screen lit up and she tapped the display a few times until she got the result she wanted. A map of the continent appeared and she zoomed in on where she lived near the southwest portion of Owel. With a hum, she traced a digit from the Citrico Capital all the way to a little spot called Dewclaw. She remembered seeing interesting videos detailing a game that the turf tiger’s there played by the name of WAR. It was such a violent thing and yet, no one truly got hurt and perhaps it would provide her with ample inspiration. Buying a flight seemed a bit too expensive but she could supply herself easily and use her own wings to carry her on! Placing her compact back in her bag, she brought it over her shoulder and headed back inside of the clocktower to pack for her trip.
Food, an extra map, her compact and her sketchbook had been packed within the satchel she wore at her shoulder. It was the next day and she had set everything up perfectly! Aria would stop by in Rind to make sure she had enough supplies before heading to Haunch and then around to Dewclaw. There were more direct routes but she didn’t mind lengthening the trip if it meant being able to see more of what the world had to offer. Excitement bubbled within her as she stood at the edge of the minute hand on the clock, a big grin flashing mischevious fangs on her face while she looked out into the horizon. With her pack secured, she opened her wings out and hopped off of the clock tower to make her way towards Rind!
Aria had already seen the city from high up and above but it still felt strange to be flying away from the Citrico Capital rather than through it. There were familiar figures that she could make up even as high as she was and buildings that she had gone to and from constantly as her life had been centered around this place. So many familiar sights. Aria could even hear the streets below in her mind if she focused hard enough but right now it was time to say goodbye rather than reminisce and so, she looked onward with her gaze focused on where she needed to go.
Birds in strange shapes fluttered by, squawking and braying as the tiny bat made her way past them and through the skies. Part of her wanted to soar toward the clouds but her wings simply weren’t built for that altitude, still, being just beneath the cloud of seas was good enough for her. Even now, the bubbling excitement did not leave while the city limits were being breached. Further and further she went until she saw the unkempt wilderness between the Citrico Capital and the rest of the mainland. She could make out various roosting avians in the trees along with a few wild bats and insects. The life in the canopy seemed rich and strangely enough, she had never seen any of this.
Aria had never been outside of the Citrico Capital, had never traveled outside of these limits and so even these small creatures in the canopy of the trees just outside of her home were new and refreshing. If these simple sights amazed her, then she was certain the journey and the destination would absolutely floor her. She brought herself lower towards the canopy and took it easy, gliding rather than flying while she watched the world unfold before her. Details sparked here and there with various flora and fauna coming up. She had just started her trip but she already wanted to land again. Why not? With a smile, she lowered herself further until she dipped through the canopy to land on one of the many branches within the veil of a tree’s leaves.
She brought one of her wings up to plant a hand against her forehead while looking around to survey the inside of the canopy. Immediately she noticed that there was a rather large web next to her dotted in hues of bright orange and purple. The spider that created it crawled from the center and stared at her with two blinking eyes but made no move to get closer to her. With a tilted head, she pulled her sketchbook out and began to scribble on the first page she could find a quick drawing of the creature and its web. She wondered what colors might suit the varying web that it seemed to gather on its spool-like abdomen before she licked her finger and touched the page. Light began to flow through the air and gather around her. Various elements coalesced into a living paint that traveled from her claw into the lines of the sketch until she had the colors of the web and the spider nearly perfect. When she was satisfied, she beamed and looked up only to see that the spider was raised on all legs and staring at her with shivering eyes. A few flickers of magic that had not quite reached her when she called it to make her paint were floating in the air. The spider's limbs reached up to grasp the magic and draw it closer and closer until it began to spin them into a multicolored thread that it placed on its back with the rest of it to be used later.
Aria’s gaze sparkled and she turned her attention back to the sketchbook to scribble a few notes about the spool spider before she shut the book. The spider seemed content to remain on the web as it basked in the glory of newly acquired magic. Satisfied with the interaction, Aria put her sketchbook away and fluttered beneath the canopy to float through the forest while searching for anything else that was interesting. Truth be told, she found the majority of the sights around her to be interesting. There were trees that were coated in various avians with brightly colored plumes. She had nearly mistaken a group of roosting birds for a bunch of flowers blooming on tree branches but a few squawks and snapped beaks reminded her not to get too close. Whenever she could, she would stop to get a quick sketch of the creatures around her along with the various flora. All of these things had been around her the entire time and all she had needed to do was step out of the city and actually take in the sights of the wild.
While the forest just outside of her home was interesting, she simply couldn’t afford to hang around the forest for too long. She stopped on a tree to get one last good look at the forest before she brought her sketchbook out to jot down one last image of the forest itself. The tall trees with their leaves forming a canopy that nearly blotted out the sun entirely, the strange birds that roosted together on single trees making them look like blooming flowers and anything else she could capture at the moment. When that was done, she shut the sketchbook with a clap of pages and set it inside of her satchel before making her way to the top of the canopy to get back into the sky and on her way to Rind.
Back in the open air, she felt her excitement spur her on while the sun slipped high in the sky letting her know that the morning was over and the day was progressing steadily. With her own strength carrying her, it took a bit to get to Rind and for the most part, she realized that she wasn’t going to make it in a day or maybe even a few except, she had found herself some help. On the way to Rind, her flying had crossed paths with a larger avian sort who said they were heading the same way. Aria was more than happy to accept the offer of riding on their back and even repaid it on the way with a sketch or two.
It was night by the time they arrived and her patron was exhausted but he seemed excited to be able to get there. Aria waved her new friend off before she took in the sights of the city before her. It didn’t seem like anything special with a variety of street lights keeping the cobbled roads lit and a few buildings here and there marking themselves as points of interest for entertainment but there certainly were a lot of people for the evening. Perhaps this city had a nightlife! She couldn’t really deny the desire to rest her wings at some place and she had enough money to stop and munch after all but perhaps more pressing than that was the fact that she needed to figure out a way to get to Dewclaw that was better than traveling on foot and air that would still allow her to experience the various sights on the way. With a hum, she dipped into her own thoughts while heading into a cafe.
She hopped up on one of the stools near the front and kept on thinking, even ignoring the menu that was placed right in front of her while she wondered what she was going to do. A large part of her wanted to keep exploring the wilderness and take her time getting to Dewclaw but she hadn’t expected this to take as long. She could easily buy fare to head back home but that felt like a bit of a disappointment. Even if Aria fished through her accounts and bought a ticket to Dewclaw it wouldn’t let her explore the wilderness and many of the other places she wanted to head to.
That extreme focus was only broken by the sound of a plate touching the wooden counter before her and a waft of something buttery touching her nostrils. Aria looked down and saw that the menu had been replaced with some sort of sandwich with slices of bread that had been toasted to golden perfection. She drooled for a moment before her eyes caught sight of someone behind the sandwich.
Realizing where she was, she hopped in her seat and fished through the bag, “Oh right, sorry I should pay for this before I uh, I mean I didn’t order it but it looks exactly like something I’d want! So just a second and…”
Her words were interrupted by the sound of a deep chuckle, “On the house. Don’t get many traveler’s stoppin’ by Rind and even less comin’ down in my shop. Figured showing a bit of hospitality might be nice. Besides, seems to me like you could use an ear and somethin’ to eat. You didn’t exactly look like someone who was all there, y’know?”
Aria rubbed at the back of her head before turning her gaze forward and up. Standing there was a rather large and black-wooled fellow with a canine snout. His curly hair hung over his eyes and she couldn’t quite tell what species he was but that didn’t really matter when free food was being offered. The small bit reached over the counter and took hold of the sandwich, taking a bite through the bread, cuts of meat and slices of leafy goodness that filled her mouth with water as she salivated over finally having something to eat after so long without remembering to take care of herself. She muttered and mumbled her thanks to bites before she swallowed and cleared her throat. A cup was set down on the counter as well and she couldn’t help but marvel at this kind stranger. The sandwich was set down so she could take a drink with both claws on the glass before she set it down and breathed out.
“Gosh, that hits the spot.” She then cleared her throat again and stood up straight on the stool before beaming up at the stranger, “Thanks for the free food but I don’t know if I’m too troubled. I’m not, like, sad or anything. I’m just a bit perturbed I guess is the word for it. You see, I’m on a little trip! I’m heading to Dewclaw and unfortunately, I failed to realize just how long that trip would take using my wings and legs. I uh, only made it here thanks to the help of some big avian sort.”
The wooly barista nodded for a moment before he offered, “Don’t think it would cut into my funds too much to give you a ticket on out of here.”
Aria’s ears perked up high and she coughed, “What? No! I could afford a ticket myself but that’s where another part of the problem comes into play!” She settled once more with a breath before continuing, “So, I want to go to Dewclaw but I’m mainly doing this to explore and sketch what I see of this part of our world.”
Her new friend nodded and finished her thought, “So goin’ by ship or some sort of quick craft would make it difficult for you to be able to actually get any sightseeing done, right?”
Aria sighed, “That’s the long and short of it I suppose.”
The cafe owner chuckle, “Well, I think I have a solution for yah that’ll take a bit of a middle ground between your wants and options.”
She blinked and watched as he ducked under the counter and soon returned with compact and map in hand. Carefully, he spread out the map and pointed at where they were, “This here’s Rind and y’wanna head up to Dewclaw, so, you might’ve been wantin’ to stop in Catfish Crossing or Haunch but both of those are pretty damn far away. I got a friend who is taking a shipment from here all the way over to Dewclaw who is plannin’ on making a stop at haunch.”
Aria leaned up with her claws on the counter, “So you’re saying I can come on board!?”
With a chuckle, the wooly barista answered, “Sure can. Y’can even stay the night here. Got an open room y’can lock and everything.”
This was too much! She hadn't expected to rely on the kindness of others to get to where she wanted to be but here she was! Aria would not turn away the gifts that this stranger was offering but at the same time, she had to wonder if there was some sort of catch and so she asked plainly, “Why all of this for free?”
The answer came with a fang-filled grin, “The hospitality is free cuz I’m nice. The hook up is cuz I’m nice but the catch to that trip is that I’m shipping some illegal goods. Some cursed objects that’ll be better suited to dirt roads with fewer inspections and more chance of thieves and weird creatures. It’ll be an adventure.”
Aria looked down before rubbing her chin and then she looked up at him and beamed, “Still too good to be true!”
“Hah! Well if that ain’t enough to deter you then I’ll just set up the date tomorrow with my friend.” Said the wooly barista.
It was great! Sure, she was going to possibly be in danger but it was exactly what she needed! Once she finished her sandwich and the deal had been worked out in genuine, she was led to a room near the front where she could get some sleep and privacy. She was even given a key to lock the door and left to her own devices. Before sleeping, Aria needed to sketch something out, needed to get some sort of release from all the thoughts on her mind so she hopped up on the bed with her sketchbook to start drawing the sights of the plain city by the name of Rind, the lights leading her down the cobbled streets and the kind wooly stranger that she did not have a name for. Once satisfied, she yawned and turned in for the evening. Tomorrow, her adventure would start in genuine.
The next day came and Aria stood outside on the sidewalk with her wooly friend. Both of them had sat together for breakfast when the sun was just coming up before stepping out and Aria made note again that she had no idea what her friend’s name was. While they waited, she decided to ask, “So...My name is Aria, what’s yours?”
For a moment, he looked down at her before rubbing his chin, “Guess I really didn’t introduce myself, huh? Folk call me Dane.”
Aria beamed and just as she was about to thank Dane again, the noise of creaking wood began to fill the air. The small bat turned her head just in time to see some sort of building being drawn forward by nothing. It had a neat shingled roof with a few crystals sprouting off of it here and there and windows dotting the side that couldn't be seen into. There wasn’t anything that she could see causing the structure’s locomotion but when it stopped, the doors at the back and front flung open and what appeared to be a crew of painted gator’s came out to rush past them and into the store.
Dane chuckled, “I’ll be inside helpin’ these folk carry what I need to get delivered while you two get introduced.”
When the question was about to leave her lips, she heard a strong voice booming over the morning quiet, “DANE! NO KISS NOR TELL FOR ME? ONLY A NEW STOWAWAY AND THE COLD SHOULDER OF BUSINESS?”
Clearly unperturbed by the voice’s words, Dane chuckled and stepped inside the cafe leaving Aria outside with whoever that was. Looking at the creaking building saw a lithe painted gator step out with amber scales and black patterning that looked like ink. Her eyes were a fierce red and when she saw that Dane wasn’t there she huffed. Whatever sign of being upset she had soon faded away as the painted gator caught sight of Aria and beamed with big fangs showing and glimmering in the sun like the scales of her body only covered by a few sashes here and there. When she leaned down, she immediately took up Aria and propped her up into the air and onto her shoulder.
A single sharp claw poked Aria’s belly before the painted gator muttered, “Well who do we have here? My merry stowaway looking for adventure? Ohohoho, I think that you’ll find your fill with me! Name’s Cadenza and this mighty land vessel will be the one carrying you forward toward Haunch and then Dewclaw!”
Aria had been entirely floored, not only by how upbeat and loud this person was but by the sheer lack of respect for personal space. It was extremely endearing in some ways because it felt like they meant well and their passion was infectious, at the same time, Aria wondered how much of this person they could handle. Finally, clearing her throat Aria responded, “My name is Aria. I’ll uh, be happy to board your vessel and help with what I can I suppose.”
Cadenza laughed, “The only help I need from you is to take up arms if we’re ever caught out! You’re a guest! A guest on a pirate’s vessel of sorts but a guest nonetheless!”
The bat tilted her head, genuinely curious as she spoke, “Aren’t pirates seafarers?”
Cadenza snorted, “That is true for the most part and for the most part, I got myself a seafaring vessel as well but occasionally business requires me to be on land. While I’m off with a few of the crew, my wife handles affairs at home on the ship proper and let me tell you something, she is an absolute firecracker! Anyone attacking her is liable to end up sunk or worse! She has a cold steel about her that is only matched by the fire in my heart! But our time away only serves to strengthen how we see each other. We swap stories, we stay up until the night is ready to cave away looking up at the stars but perhaps someday, someday we’ll settle.” Her ruby eyes were fixated on the skies and Aria was beaming at this little story but the painted gator’s eyes blinked and she turned her head to Aria and muttered, “I rambled on there a little didn’t I? Don’t mind me now. Tell me about yourself.”
How could she possibly match that? Aria cleared her throat, “I uh, I like to do art and I guess I’m what you’d call a paint witch.”
The pirate’s eyes gleamed, “A witch? I can use a bit of magic myself but nothing too fancy! I’m stronger with the more martial aspects. And y’say you’re an artist too? I appreciate that! Mind you, don’t let any of my crew bully you and ask you for free art just because you’re a guest! Tell them off and they’ll go with their tails between their legs!”
Aria giggled, “I guess I’ll try but gosh...I don’t think I’m anything special. Compared to you I think I lack a bit in the interest and adventure departments.”
Cadenza huffed, “Bah! You’re going on an adventure right now, right? It just takes some time and will to build that type of thing up. Besides, you paint the world around you and build stories with them lines! What’s not amazing about that?”
As Aria was warming up to the painted gator more and more, Dane stepped out along with the crew carrying boxes that they all carted into the moving building. She watched while they all moved into the house and out of it before she had to ask, “Why does that building move on its own?”
The painted gator beamed, “Cursed. I bought her off some fool in dewclaw that said the vessel was too rowdy. All she needs is a bit of proper cleaning and care and she’s putty.”
Aria smiled, “Really?” She couldn’t really just take her sketchbook out to start drawing but maybe Cadenza wouldn’t mind and so, she asked, “Can I make a quick doodle while your um, crew are loading the ship.”
Cadenza blinked, “Sure! Use my shoulder or head if you’d like!”
“If you insist!” Aria said with a happy chirp while hopping up onto the painted gator’s head. Out came her sketchbook and her digits started to work quickly to get it done. A few of the painted gator crew attempted to stop their work to pose and some even flex but a few barked orders from Cadenza had them moving. As a little surprise, Aria began to include each worker frozen in different ways. There were some that worked with just as much passion as Cadenza showed and some that teased and laughed in a way that reminded her of a family. She couldn’t help but wonder what type of life they had lived together, what type of struggles they had gone through.
When she finished the picture, she stared at it before frowning. She fluttered down from Cadenza’s head and looked up to ask, “Can you please go and stand with the ship Cadenza?”
The painted gator hummed but didn’t argue or questions Aria before moving over to the ship with her arms out as if to ask if that was okay. Aria gave a thumbs up and began to sketch the painted gator who placed her hands on her hips to pose. Examining her closely to draw her, the witch bat could see the subtle strength of the painted gator’s body. The way the muscles tensed and relaxed as she breathed beneath the scales, the stance that never seemed to waver in the face of a question asked or the breeze blowing. All of these things were such lovely details that she etched into the paper until she didn’t even notice that everyone was waiting for her, standing by the ship while watching. Line after line was made with the intent to capture the scene before her and add the magic of the passion she had heard from Cadenza. Her art was not true to life entirely because she wanted to add the feelings that were beneath the surface of her subjects. It would be boring to simply draw Cadenza and not express what was beneath those scales, what passion she had seen pouring from every word. Coming to know Cadenza like this, she hoped that they would have a long and fruitful relationship down the road despite the fact that they might never see one another at the end of the journey. Even that tiny spark of bittersweetness touched the picture in ways that perhaps she did not even mean to herself. Still, every line was done with love.
When Aria was finished, she had a picture of the crew moving about their business in various forms while Cadenza stood before the ship with hands at her hips. Even Dane was in the picture helping with the work. To complete it, she licked her claw and placed it on the page to call the affinities from the air to coalesce and become paint. When she was finished, she had a full painting rather than just a simple sketch and her pride swelled!
It was only when she turned her attention to her front that she realized everyone was gone. Looking around, she caught the fact that all of them were behind her and next to her gasping and pointing at the artwork. One of the crew kept on talking about his own scales and features while Cadenza stared with an expression frozen in a warm smile. Aria felt a bit overwhelmed by all the compliments but accepted them in grace. They all pointed at the picture with such excitement. In truth, she wished that she could draw this scene as well. Seeing them all with their beaming faces lit up by the remnants of her magic glimmering in the air. It was a sight that she would not forget! Even Dane was grinning from ear to ear flashing those pearly fangs.
When Cadenza finally spoke, she brushed off her crew and huffed, “Go on! Head off and onto the ship! We’ll be there in a minute to go on!”
The crew waved Aria off as they headed into the vessel leaving Cadenza and Aria standing there. When she closed sketchbook she sighed, “Sorry about that, didn’t mean to do a full thing like that. Just couldn’t help myself.”
Cadenza chuckled and lifted the bat up onto her shoulder, yet again ignoring personal space while speaking, “Y’got nothing to worry about. Everyone loved what you did and was happy to wait. I’d ask one last time, are you willing to come knowing there might be danger?”
Aria looked down for a few seconds before giving her answer with a chirp, “Absolutely!”
Again that booming voice came from the painted gator, “THEN WE SET SAIL FOR HAUNCH!”
Cadenza headed into the ship with Aria on her shoulder. Aria barely got time to register what was happening except that they were headed down various corridors in the ship lined with pristine wood until they got to the top where it seemed there was an observation deck where they could see the way forward. There were crystals stacked inside of the room and one, in particular, glowed as it hung from the ceiling. Cadenza felt over that crystal gently and the ship began to move. Excitement bubbled through her, except, at the back of her mind she worried about what type of dangers she might be facing. It was a small concern that was drowned out by the excitement of so many things happening at once! She barely even knew what to make of the captain she was standing on the shoulders of, but at the very least, this was something new! Something that inspired her to no end!