Taloni cocked her head at the finely dressed man standing across the counter, who was looking down on her – both literally, she was shorter than him, and figuratively, as was what happened to adventurers, never mind adventurers who happened to be beastfolk – and simply shrugged.
“Well, no problem then. I’ll be on my way.” Her long gold hair swished as she sharply turned, her tails sharply swishing. The expression on the man turned to shock and a bit of fury –

She ignored it and left, ignoring the slightly worried cries behind her. Taloni knew just how much work cleaning out a nest of ogredrakes *was*, and while she was perfectly willing to work at-cost for some things, she wasn’t willing to work under-cost, and with no allowances for preparations. As an mage-archer, she would have to expend components and arrows, and the amount they were offering for an A-rank mission was simply not worth it.

This was a growing trend in the region, and many adventurers were leaving, making the region less safe. There were efforts to train more fyrds up, and some adventurers had banded into garrisoned mercenaries, but even then, she had only inquired because she was worried about the signs of fire from the forest.

She had planned to spend a day here, but after that, also just left, paying the fee to exit the city, as she had paid one to enter. She was lucky, as a Pallaidan, she was considered one of the most intelligent and civilized beastkin by most homidfolk. Although, personally, if she thought about it, the most intelligent and civilized beastfkin never left the Forest of Eternia, which was only accessible to a limited number of homidfolk.

Regardless, she still had some restrictions, and had to pay some slightly more fees to enter and leave cities. She sensed some disdain as she left, but wasn’t going to slow down or give them the time of day. She kept moving on.

It was the end of the day, and sunset had fallen. The forest was around her, and it had been too quiet the entire time. She had actually taken a sidestrip – there were some herbs to gather here for some spells and potions she wanted to make, and if nothing else, she wanted to see why a nest of ogre-drakes were this far down from the mountains. It was commonly accepted that they stayed were it was cold, rather than go into territories that were too warm for them.

It was dangerous, yes, but she wanted to know, and, if she was honest with herself, it was a real problem she had. But she did want to know. There were some indications that this region’s turn to kicking out adventurers, and the exodus of beastkin and some homidfolk tribes were being driven deliberately. Worries like that drove some of the surrounding polities and kingdoms to begin training elite forces, pushing new industry – this had happened before, and in the peace since the fall of the Ninth Demon Emperor – so named,as they were like a demon upon the land – many kingdoms were resolute in their watch to have it never happen again. It was the entire purpose of the Wardens of the Twilight.

It worried her, but after the Ninth Demon Emperor, beastkin increasingly left the realm of Celinathes, for either returning to the Forest, or for the realm of Selinathes, which increasingly was separating from Celinathes. Aside from a few paths, the most difficult ones, most of the existing paths would become impassable, if not gone forever, in tens of lunar cycles. There was a definite bias against beastkin, and some homidfolk, who were leaving with them, and honestly, Taloni was tempted herself.

Taloni stilled as she sensed, more than heard or saw movement, and watched as several green-shrouded figures began to assemble. Taloni channeled her magic into a ring she wore, shrouding her presence, just in time to feel a pulse of magic pass over her – with one of them turning to her. With a rather fondly annoyed voice, she – was that her old Master? – was addressed.

“Taloni, I would know you anywhere. You might as well come out.” Taloni groaned in her head. That was her old Master, a Kyniklian known for their short ears and and short tail. They differed from their cousins on the otherside of the Tallpiercer mountain range, the Tolians, only by the Toilans long ears. Both had similar fur patterns, mostly sandy gray and ochre, compared to Taloni’s deep red and white. She couldn’t recognize the others, but there were exactly 8 counting her master, a well known mystical number.

Taloni did come out, but was not very happy about it, and had activated a bit of a special device she carried. Precautions, after all. Based on some of the positions of the figures, she suspected it was fairly mutual.

“I have to admit, I expected you here. You could never resist a mystery, and the ogre-drakes would have been one for you.” She spotted out of the corner of her eyes what looked like some silent recriminations, but focused on the conversation.

“Well, I suppose it would follow you have the localities watched.” Taloni said, thinking. “But.. I don’t get why you’d be here, Master. We are a very far distance from Dalinas.”

Her master nodded. “Further than you think, as the city has moved to Selinathas.” Taloni’s eyebrows shot up at that. The power required would be immense. “And the answer is clear. We are creating the conditions to break the seal on this realm. With it broken, the nearby kingdoms will once again face their divine consequences, for weal, or for woe.”

Taloni couldn’t help but think that was a confirmation of what was going on. She knew about the seal, and had investigated it herself – she was curious! And she knew exactly what he wasn’t saying. She also knew something they didn’t – it wasn’t to stop the realms from facing divine consequence – it *was* a divine consequence. It’s why the realm had Nine Demon Emperors. It was what had fragmented the world, and why Selinathas, Celinathes, Harathes, and the now inaccessible Karianathas were completely separate worlds.

“I see. Is this also why all the dominant tribes and ethnic groups are fleeing?”

“But of course.” One of the figures said, dismissively. “They shouldn’t have to leave for other realms, or the Forest, to live. They won’t ever adapt to those realms like the one they were born in.” Taloni personally thought that was very short sighted, but she knew that voice, too, it was the High Voice of History, currently a Hodophilaxian Female, a tribe that originated in the forests of the Tallpiercer mountains. Her canines were visibile in her anger, and Taloni reflected that she hadn’t gotten any more wise since Taloni left from Dalinas.

“And so you have a choice. Join us, or die.” Taloni had been waiting for that, and just smiled as she faded out of sight.

“Afraid not, but I’m glad to find out what was behind this.” Her voice ghosted from the treeline. “And for the record, you were wrong. This *is* the divine punishment.”

The figures had a moment to look alarmed before a pillar of light struck them from the heavens.

There was certainly an argument to reunite the worlds, thought Taloni, but even this cage prison was never meant to contain the innocent and repentant. Until the people left came to an understanding about the truth of the Mandate of Heaven, they would keep having Demon Emperors, and they would never advance. And those outside, even on the realm of Karianthas would find themselves here if they fell too far from the Mandate.

And Taloni would remain there, to ensure no one picked the lock of the cage.