A sneeze rang out through the forest, punctuated by a surge of wind that blustered through the numerous trees, the high branches shaking from the force of the gale, sending loose leaves careening down towards the ground below. The moss-plastered trunks, piles of rubble, and ruined stone pillars belied the late-winter chill that hung over the Yggdrasil Labyrinth, the lush evergreens seemingly unaffected by the nippy weather. A young, dark-haired man, with a sword belted at his side and a bag of beets and salts slung over his shoulder, furrowed his brow when a short series of sniffs drifted past his ears, and he leaned sideways to stare at the heavily-armored woman marching a few paces ahead.
"You alright, Naomi?" The fortress slowed her pace as the swordsman spoke, and he straightened up as his teammate turned around to face him, her gauntlet-clad hands clenched tightly around her shield and mace. She barely noticed when another man glanced over at her as he rifled through his medicinal bag, his coat ruffling in the wind. "That was a pretty big sneeze."
"No, Skylar, I'm not okay!" Naomi crabbily replied, rolling her shoulders and lightly stomping in place to try and stave off the cold, and both of them looked down at her boots, coated with frozen flakes left by lingering dewdrops. The group of explorers slowed fully to a stop, and out of the corner of his eye, Skylar noticed the nearby medic shoot a cheerful grin at the two teammates bringing up the rear. "What the hell are we still doing here, anyway? We already got the sugar beets, and I'm freezing my ass off right now! Damien and Hanae are the only ones with coats and Hane doesn't even need it!"
"B-But... Naomi..." Skylar's breath hitched, and he twisted around to look at the cream-furred beastwoman walking up behind him, tugging a heavy coat looser around her padded dress, her tail wagging against the thick fabric. Her soft, meek voice cut through the labyrinth's tranquil silence, and she let her hands fall to her lap, her long blonde hair billowing outward as it slipped free of the winter clothing. Behind her, a goggles-clad girl gazed intently into the trees, keeping an arrow firmly notched to her bow's string. "You said that this one doesn't fit right around your armor anyway. Couldn't we just take a break to warm up before going back to town...?"
Skylar paused at that, then nodded when the wind blew against his bare arms, the sensation of goosebumps slowly popping up across his skin. The swordsman glanced around the forest, reaching out and giving Hanae a gentle pat on her shoulder – the bushi blinked, then smiled demurely – before trudging over to a tree growing forlornly in the middle of a small clearing. His teammates followed after him, letting their bags slip off of their backs and dropping them, carefully or otherwise, onto the damp, frosty ground.
"Alright, we might as well stop here." The dark-haired man stooped low, running his hands over the grass to try and wipe away at the tiny bits of sleet. He looked over at the sniper and waved. "Sahra, see if you can chop some of these branches for a fire. Damien-"
"Don't worry, I'm already ready! Heh heh, one rune, coming right up!" The chuckling medic was already drawing a symbol in the air with his fingers, and soon enough, an ethereal marking began to form in front of him, casting a faint, red glow onto his doctor's coat. Sahra wordlessly strode towards one of the thicker trees, scrambling her way up, drawing her pocket knife, and quickly hacking away at a handful of sticks.
Soon enough, she tossed the bundle of kindling down, but before Skylar could catch it, Naomi barged her way forward and snatched the sticks and twigs out of the air, haphazardly arranging them in a criss-cross pattern before reaching out and giving Damien's shoulder a swat. The medic winced slightly, hunching forward a little as he concentrated on his spell, and Naomi groaned, muttering a series of 'come on's under her breath.
"Chanting was never a part of casting rune magic, you know," Sahra dryly remarked, taking a leap from the tree and dusting herself off. She carefully peeled her goggles off of her face, ignoring the roll of her teammate's eyes as she walked over to the makeshift campfire and sat down, taking a deep breath and stretching out to relax. Immediately afterward, she pulled her belted pouches around and began rifling through them, taking stock of the materials they'd gathered this trip.
Skylar hid a laugh behind his hands at Naomi's annoyance, kneeling down and fixing up the firewood in the meantime, gazing from side to side around the clearing. His gaze lingered on Hanae for a moment, following the beastwoman's ears as she basked in the sunbeams that were slipping through the forest's canopy. She was still carrying the unnecessary winter coat, the thick fur whipping against her lightly-furred legs thanks to the wind, and she wandered around the thick shrubbery that bordered the clearing, her nose twitching as she hunched over.
"Aha, hahaah, there we go!" Damien cried out, and Skylar whipped his head around just in time to see the older man finish casting his spell. The swordsman's nerves jolted at the sudden, brief flash of red light, and he yanked his arms out of the way, rolling onto his backside as the pile of kindling suddenly sparked into a small, cozy fire. "Ahhh... feels good to relax after being chased by those giant lizard things, huh?"
"Yeah, it does," Skylar replied with a brief sigh, and Damien sat down at the opposite end of the campfire, rolling his sleeves up and reaching forward; heat and light radiated throughout the clearing, pleasantly washing over the explorers. The biting, wintry breeze died down, picked back up, then died down again, all within the span of a few seconds, and both men glanced at Naomi as she, too, thudded down onto the grass, getting as close to the flames as she could to stave off the cold. "Lucky for us that those weird trapped floors are everywhere."
"Hah!" Naomi barked out a laugh at that, looking up even as she stretched her arms out, taking off her gauntlets and holding her palms towards the fire. The heavily-armored woman gestured, with a shake of her head, back the way they all had come, the leaves rustling and branches creaking in the faint breeze. "We could take one of those things on without even breaking a sweat!"
"I think you're the only one who wants to." Skylar glanced at Sahra as she replied, chuckling to himself at she walked over and sat down next to the knight, who grinned and pulled the other girl in for a noogie. The sniper's eyes narrowed, but the barest ghost of a smile crossed her face even as her hair was unceremoniously ruffled.
In the meantime, Skylar scooted back and rested his arms on his knees, scanning across the clearing, eventually twisting around to check on Hanae again. An eyebrow quirked upward when he noticed the beastwoman kneeling down near the bushes, and he sat up a little bit straighter, leaning from side to side to try and get a better view. The bushi's tail was wagging back and forth, her winter coat hiding most of her body from view, and the occasional soft giggle escaped her lips as her head bumped against a couple fallen bricks.
"Hanae?" He called out, his curiosity getting the better of him. "What're you doing?"
"H-Huh? Oh-!" The cream-furred canine jumped – her ears flicking when she heard her name – and she slowly rose onto her footpaws again, bringing her arms close to her chest along the way. Skylar cocked his head, slowly starting to smile as Hanae looked at him, and she smiled softly herself, taking one last look at the shrubbery before turning fully and walking over, her coat and katana bumping against her sides. The swordsman blinked in surprise, however, when he spotted the tiny, fuzzy animal in her hands. "This cute little guy was hiding in the brush... I think he's cold."
As the bushi ambled over, Skylar scooted to the side to give her some room, and the other three explorers peered over as she eased herself down, huddling close to the fire; carefully, Hanae moved her hands down to her padded dress, letting a fat little squirrel roll onto her lap. Sahra's eyes lit up at the sight, and Damien and Naomi's faces both burst into grins as the explorers all gazed at the old, scruffy-furred rodent quietly chirping to itself. It fidgeted somewhat, snuggling into its tail as it flicked its head this way and that, looking at them with tired eyes. A wave of heat from the campfire washed over the group of explorers, sending a pleasant shiver down their spines.
"It's cute," Sahra remarked quietly, a sparkle of kindness shining in her eyes as she gazed at the animal, and she moved over, reaching out to gingerly pet the squirrel with a couple fingers.
"It's old!" Damien added cheerfully, running his fingers through his messy hair, pushing his mop back before leaning forward and pointing at the wild animal's back. Skylar, Hanae, Naomi and Sahra all peered at the spot he aimed at; streaks of silver were visible amidst the brown. "See there?"
"What the hell?" Naomi muttered, cuirass clinking as she peeked over the medic's shoulder, staring at the squirrel with a confused expression. The wild animal stared back at her when it heard her swear, wiggling its hind legs a little bit as if it wanted to pounce... but it stopped moving just a few seconds later, apparently deciding that the fortress wasn't worth the effort. Skylar glanced at Naomi, watching as she narrowed her eyes at the rodent, then shrugged and scratched at her head, speaking up in the meantime. "I've never seen a squirrel that looks like that before!"
"That's because most squirrels rarely ever get that old!" Damien's grin widened as he got up and walked over to Hanae. His doctor's coat spread out across the ground as he squatted low and excitedly looked over the group's unexpected guest, and the other four explorers shared a mutual chuckle as the doctor started to ramble. "Usually squirrels get snatched up by wild birds or other bigger animals so they're lucky to live for a good few years, and that's just out in the normal wilderness! This little fella has to be at least eight years old or so to start getting gray hairs like that, and I betcha he probably lives right here in the Labyrinth too!"
"Wow..." Hanae breathed out, looking down her muzzle at the tiny animal napping in her lap, letting her arms slip back to her sides and gently crossing her legs.
Skylar smiled as he watched the squirrel breathe, snuggled up in its bushy tail, and he reached up to affectionately pet behind Hanae's ears, resting his head on the beastwoman's shoulder before turning his eyes back to the campfire. The bushi tensed up for a moment, then leaned into his touch, giggling under her breath as she nuzzled at his head. Damien dug into his doctor's bag in the meantime, hastily pulling out a journal, flipping it open, and starting on a sketch of the old, gray squirrel.
"I wonder if he's this friendly with every explorer that comes through," Sahra thought aloud, getting up and walking back over to the tree in the middle of the clearing. The young girl grabbed her belt pouches and pulled a small walnut out from one of them. "That would explain why it's lived so long out here. And why it's so fat, too."
A loud laugh – courtesy of Naomi – drowned out the crunch of fallen leaves as Sahra ambled up behind her teammates and dropped the nut into Hanae's lap; it rolled down the bushi's dress and bumped to a stop against the squirrel's tail. Said squirrel perked up almost immediately, hopping onto its paws and snatching the treat up, eliciting a gasp out of the beastwoman it was using as a seat. The pale-haired sniper folded her arms and let out a whistling sigh, and Skylar's smile widened.
The wild animal continued to captivate its audience as it nibbled at its snack, gnawing at the hard shell and occasionally turning this way and that, making quiet chirrups all the while. Hanae sat as still as she could, trying not to annoy the little rodent, but after a while she couldn't help herself, and she slowly fluffed the squirrel's tail, her own tail brightly swishing back and forth.
"Hehehe..." Damien chuckled, shaking his head a bit to get his bangs out of his eyes, pencil scribbling away at his notebook. The medic traced the lines of the squirrel's paws as it finally broke through the walnut's shell, greedily munching at the flesh tucked away inside. It nibbled for a few seconds longer, poking around to sniff out every last crumb, before dropping the snack and chittering, its noises mixing with the crackling of the nearby campfire.
However, before any of them could react, it looked around, set its sights on Naomi, and leapt into the air! The fortress cried out in surprise – her teammates all flinching from the squirrel's sudden movement – when the wild animal pounced right on top of her head. "Yeargh-!"
It let out a chirp in response, then hopped down to the forest floor immediately afterward, scampering towards the bags at the base of the clearing's central tree. As Naomi wobbled back and forth, trying to regain her balance, Skylar sat up straight and twisted around, sucking in a breath when he saw the rodent climb up onto his bag of ingredients. "Shoot...! Quick, we have to-"
Sahra was already on the move even as he spoke, and Hanae followed not long after, deftly getting to her footpaws and jogging over to their supplies. The squirrel noticed, tugging on the drawstrung end of the bag and attempting to wriggle its way inside; despite its best efforts, its belly kept it from getting too far, and both the sniper and the bushi quickly set upon it, lifting the thing out by its tail and hefting it into the air, watching it writhe about unhappily. Skylar and Damien followed after the two girls, and Naomi eventually rolled back to a sitting position, sticking close to the campfire.
"Ha, would'ja look at that!?" The medic exclaimed, jotting down a few notes before slapping his journal shut, his messy mop of hair drooping over his forehead as he bent over and watched the fat, old squirrel thrash against Hanae's grip. It squealed at the cream-furred canine when she raised him up higher, her muzzle twisting into a disappointed frown. "What a sneaky fella! I bet he's probably been at this his whole life, getting comfy with explorers and then stealing their stuff... I know we've seen some animals back in Tharsis and Etria, but I don't think any of them were as clever as this little guy!"
"Yeah. Clever." Sahra replied dryly, giving the older man a sideways look.
Skylar knelt down and loosened the drawn end of his bag, peering inside at the beets and salts within; he let out a sigh of relief when he saw that nothing looked out of place, and he closed it up tight again, rising and staring at the crafty rodent. Hanae hummed sadly, and the swordsman reached out to squeeze her shoulder.
The pudgy squirrel just kept squeaking.