Child of the Australs: A Manticore named Morrigan (2)

“…About that, Waylander…” You begin hesitantly. “We’d probably better talk in private.”
 
“Boss!” Blue whines in objection, her eyes wild.
 
“It’s not fair to just leave it Blue.” You reply, squeezing the Kobold’s paw gently.
 
The Waylander raises a brow in mild concern, standing from the trestle in the smoky taproom and gesturing for you to precede him up a small way up the hall.
 
“What’s the matter, Trader?” He asks, trepidation in his eyes.
 
You give a gallows sigh, “Your Apprentice… When we spotted the Rooster, it was eating someone.”
 
“Someone?” The Waylander echoed, a slight catch in his voice.
 
“It had gotten pretty damn enthusiastic with it, not to dwell on details but the only part I recognised as Human were the hands.”
 
“Scotty…” The Waylander chokes, gripping the wall for support.
 
“Now there’s no guarantee… I mean, it doesn’t have to be…” You venture.
 
The Waylander shakes his head. “He’s the only one missing, and we’ve had nobody else in the area. It’s him. Tyris damn it!”
 
“I’m so sorry… But… there’s more.”
 
The waylander looks at you incredulously “What more could there possibly be?”
 
“It was sheer bastard luck that we managed to get that feathered little abomination secure… But while our attention was focused on it, I’m afraid our bungas took their liberty with the remains. There was nothing we could do.”
 
“How far out were you?”
 
“Couple miles to the northwest?” You reply, frowning in puzzlement at the question.
 
The Waylander’s jaw clenches with a roiling mixture of sorrow and rage. With a tearing snarl, he pounds the wall with a meaty fist. “Then it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. Even if you held your lizards off, the scavengers would have made short work of him before we could send someone to retrieve him.”
 
“If there was anything we could do… Tyris as me witness, I swear we would have done it.”
 
The Waylander glares at you sternly, his eyes moist. “There is something you can do, or rather, WILL do.”
 
Yep, here it came, give it all back. You reached toward your coinpurse with a sigh.
 
“You and your companions will stay, and you will raise a mug to his memory tonight.”
 
You blink in surprise.
 
“Most would have kept quiet for fear of the result, but you did the right thing.” The Waylander admits grudgingly. “For twenty years I have been a servant of the Law. I appreciate your honesty.”
 
“Thank you, Waylander, and we’ll gladly toast him tonight.” You reply sincerely.
 
“Good. Now sod off for a bit. I need to go break something.”
 
 
“So how much of a head start did he give us?” Blue asks, worry still written on her features.
 
“We’re right Blue, though we’ll need to stay and witness the memory of the Apprentice, Tyris rest his soul.” You reply, patting the Kobold’s head fondly.
 
“Oh good!” Kessiah exclaims, “Because we’re behind on training.”
 
You glower at the Reptilian. “Bloody hell, is this REALLY the time?”
 
“You think a Terror-Bird will pause to give you time to reflect? Drop-bears allow you a reprieve for grief? The world does not stop to acknowledge you, Trader.” Kessiah replied with an odd note of sternness, far removed from her usual blunt nonchalance.
 
“You’re right, I suppose…” You admit, handing off your gear to Blue and Cally.
 
“Leave the knife here too.” Kessiah orders.
 
“What’m I fighting with, harsh fuckin’ language?” You retort.
 
Kessiah gives that hissing ululation of laughter, before reaching into a bundle and retrieving a wooden shortsword, weighted with metal banding. You grunt in surprise as she tosses it to you, the length surprisingly heavy in your hand.
 
“This weighs five times my knife!”
 
Kessiah nods, “Then you’ll have no trouble using the real thing when the time comes, will you?”
 
Grudgingly conceding to her logic, you strip the sheath from your leg, handing it to the Mamono and following the Reptilian outside.
 
“You can give up whenever you want, though I’ll tell you now, you’ll only get out what you put in.” Kessiah quips, twirling her own shortsword in expert hands.
 
“I’m not some soft-handed Acolyte, Kessiah. I’m no stranger to work.” You reply, giving the wooden sword a few practice swings.
 
“Good… Then let’s get started!” She roars, launching herself at you with blinding speed.
 
 
“Maou’s tits… Just stay down!” Kessiah orders.
 
You cough, spitting dust from your mouth and propping yourself up on the shortsword’s wooden point. “Make me.” You grunt, glowering through an eye beginning to swell shut.
 
The lizard whips a vicious swipe at your left side, which you parry, grasping desperately at her wrist.
 
“Five across the fuckin’ eyes boss!” You hear Blue snarl from the side of the courtyard. Not a few times had you been forced to pause in your training to restrain an infuriated Blue who had launched herself, teeth bared and murder writ clear in her eyes, from attacking the reptilian with whom you sparred.
 
You smile slightly, bringing your arm about in a similar strike to the one which felled the rooster, only to have your wrist caught in a scaled hand.
 
“Good effort.” Kessiah grunts approvingly, before driving her forehead at you.
 
Stars exploded in your vision, and you were on the ground again. A taloned foot plants itself upon your chest, wooden swordpoint pointed at your face.
 
“You’re dead, Trader.”
 
You struggle for a moment, before relaxing in groaning, pained laughter. “What’s that, thirteen?”
 
“Seventeen.” Kessiah corrects, removing her foot and pulling you to your feet. “Though better than I was expecting. I have to admit, you’re not entirely useless.”
 
“Ta. Muchly.” You grunt, your whole body screaming in pain.
 
The Reptilian gives that hissing laugh, clapping you on the back and almost driving you to the ground again. “C’mon, go clean up and let’s get drunk.”
 
 
“Tyris fuuuuck…” you groan as Cally and Blue strip your filthy clothes from you gingerly.
 
“Have you taken leave of your senses Adam?” Cally admonishes sternly, “What madness possessed you to keep pushing her like that?”
 
“Oh Cal, you do care.” You chuckle, wincing as you see the mass of welts and bruising your torso has been reduced to.
 
“Of course I care, you idiot human!” The Koala retorts harshly. “Do you realize how easily she could have killed you?”
 
“But she didn’t, and she wouldn’t have taken me seriously unless i pushed her, would she?”
 
“Boss has a point…” Blue drawls, her furred paws caressing across your chest. “…And you gotta admit Adorabear, that was hot as fuck.”
 
“Oh, watching me get my arse kicked tickles you a bit pup?” You chortle, breaking off into a groan as you lower yourself into the wooden tub filled with steaming water in the corner of your room.
 
“No…” Blue shakes her head vehemently, tawny-furred ears twitching, “…Watching you refuse to quit.”
 
“That did have a certain…” Cally begins to muse, before stopping herself with a shake “…Still, not the point! You don’t go lecturing me on being irresponsible and then get yourself beaten to within an inch of your life and not expect me to be upset about it!” The Koala near-yells, her cheeks flushing.
 
“Adorabear, you are so fucking wet right now, don’t even try and deny it.” Blue snickers, sniffing the air pointedly. Cally shrieks, mortified, hands to her flaming cheeks.
 
“Now girls, there’s no need to…” You begin, attempting to push yourself from the tub, frowning as your body refuses to respond. “…Uh… girls, I’m… stuck.”
 
“Stuck?” Blue echoes “How do you mean Adz?”
 
“My body, it’s… not doing what I tell it to.”
 
“I thought as much.” Cally notes with a small hint of smugness. “You’ve pushed yourself beyond your abilities and it’s only Blue’s energy from your little romp the other night which is stopping you from being a screaming mass of bruises right now… That won’t last long though.”
 
“Well bugger me, how do I fix it?”
 
“You don’t. You get into bed, and I tell the Waylander and that Maou-damned scaly that you won’t be joinin…”
 
“Not an option Cal.” You interject sternly “Just give me a hand up…”
 
“I’m afraid that’s not possible, you won’t be able to walk anyway.” The Koala replies, tapping a clawed digit against her generous mouth in thought. “I suppose we COULD take you through the other way.”
 
“He’s hardly in any shape for a threesome.” Blue objects bluntly, making you and Cally choke and blush at the concept.
 
“N-not where I was going, Blue!” Cally stammers. “We do have Alarune extract in the first aid kit, we could use that as a sovereign specific.”
 
“Come again?” You ask, brow furrowed.
 
“A Panacea”
 
“The God bless you.”
 
“It’ll make you better, stupid human!” Cally screams, hitting you across the back of the head in frustration.
 
“Ow! Sodding hell, what’s got you so worked up?” You grumble, it taking all your effort to turn slightly and look at the Koala. Cally stalks from the room, muttering and swearing.
 
“She’s really, REALLY toey boss.” Blue snickers, nuzzling into the side of your neck where she works her clawed paws along your scalp, producing an absolutely delicious sensation. “If you weren’t all banged up… again…” Her claws seem to dig in a little at that “…I’d tell you to plow her curvy little arse into submission.”
 
“Oh would you now?” You chuckle “And you’d be OK with that?”
 
“Boss, when was the last time ‘exclusivity’ ever applied to sex? Ever? With Human or Mamono?”
 
“Fair point, not what I asked though pup.”
 
Blue sighs, her paws draping onto your torso. “I like Adorabear. I’m not saying I’d be happy with you running continuance on an entire chancel, but with her?” Lips parting, sharp little teeth nipping at your earlobe. “So long as I’m still your girl, hell… could be fun.”
 
Your breathing quickens at that, your heart beginning to race at the prospect.
 
“Really you two?” Cally’s voice sounds from the doorway, creaking as she kicks it closed behind her. “I’m not gone five minutes and you’re already molesting each other?”
 
“It’s therapy.” Blue states with a cheeky grin.
 
“Uh huh…” Cally drawls disbelievingly. “…Help me get him out of the tub.”
 
You groan as the Mamono help you from the tub with surprising strength, Cally towelling you off as Blue supports you, furred paws underneath your arms. Cally mixes a thick, greenish liquid into a jar of pale cream, stirring the substance with a clawed finger.
 
“We won’t be making a habit of this, Adam, I’ll tell you that right now.”
 
“One of the ‘rarities’ you insisted on buying back at Port Albany?” You chuckle.
 
“Not exactly, but too much of this and you won’t want to go anywhere NEAR a Paladin… Unless you feel like being asked some pointed questions.” The Koala answered bluntly.
 
“That potent?” You gasp in astonishment.
 
“This makes Royal Jelly look like Taurean milk.” Cally replies, scooping a dollop from the jar and beginning to massage it directly into your flesh.
 
“Ohhhh Tyris…” You moan, feeling a slight tingling as… something… seeps into your muscles, repairing and revitalizing with alarming speed. Your heart pounds, and you can almost taste a cloying sweetness at the back of your throat, your mind fuzzy with endorphins and the absence of pain… the sensation spreads along your limbs along with a curious heat. A heat centred around your groin. The throbbing begins to become insistent, almost uncomfortable, the flesh of your manhood hypersensitive, even the minute movements of the air bringing you to arousal.
 
“Maou… You weren’t kidding Blue.” Cally remarks in approving surprise where she openly ogles you.
 
“Right?” The Kobold grins. “Well shame to let this go to waste!” She declares, beginning to remove her clothing.
 
“Er… I wouldn’t.” Cally warns.
 
“It’s OK Adorabear, I’ll share.” Blue drawls lewdly.
 
“N-not what I was suggesting.” The Koala stammers, blushing again, her generous thighs rubbing against each other in clear frustration. “J-just, you don’t want to get pregnant do you?”
 
“Really?” Blue asks, pausing in the act of removing her leggings, her torso unashamedly bare.
 
“Afraid so. Side effect of the essence. Alarune can’t exactly get proactive, can they?”
 
“Guess not.” Blue concedes, before throwing a slightly guilty glance at you “Not that I’d mind, boss. Just… Not right now yeh?”
 
“Tyris yes!” You agree vehemently “We’ve got enough complications trying to blindside us.” You grimace as the pressure begins to become an issue.
 
“Well not to be crude, but if you could give me a couple minutes…” You venture.
 
“Why’s that?” Cally asks with seeming innocence.
 
“To put it delicately…” You quip, gesturing at your crotch “…If I don’t open a valve I’ll blow the fucking pipe.”
 
The Koala gives a slightly shy grin. “Well the LEAST we can do is help with that, Right Blue?”
 
The Kobold doesn’t answer, merely going to her knees in front of you and running her tongue up your jerking length. A groan escapes your lips as that sensation nearly overwhelms you. Cally giggles, pushing at Blue, her bowlike mouth kissing up the side of your member, twin-thumbed hand cupping beneath your shaft to cradle you there.
 
“T-Tyris… F-Fuck…” You moan helplessly.
 
“Don’t be greedy this time Adorabear.” Blue murmurs, rubbing you languorously with her furred paw.
 
“Me?” Cally exclaims, shedding her tunic and rubbing her ample bosom against you. “Do I need to remind you of the tally again?”
 
“Of course… mmmffff… Uough keeghing ount.” Blue retorts, unashamedly taking you into her mouth mid-sentence.
 
“Don’t talk with your mouth full…” Cally admonished, her lips and tongue continuing the work her hand had begun, grabbing your buttock in her clawed hand and squeezing softly.
 
Beefswelling built within your loins at a frightening pace as the two mamono lavished you. “Oh… God… I’m…” You gasp, your legs trembling. Cally and Blue positioned themselves quickly in front of you, mouths open, Blue and Hazel eyes looking up at you with lewd expectation.
 
You weren’t exactly sure at what point your lower body had transmuted into a shard-cannon, but in that instance you erupted with a force which seemed positively titanic. Thick streams of seed burst from you, coating Blue and Cally’s mouths and faces in dripping cream. Relief washed over you, and you almost collapsed as your trembling legs seemed to turn to water beneath you.
 
“Ummm…” Blue murmured, licking at her lips and swallowing. “You’ve been holding out on me Boss.”
 
“Have… Not…” You pant.
 
“Feeling better?” Cally asked with a slight giggle, wiping at her chin with a clawed digit before stuffing it greedily into her mouth.
 
Gingerly, you test your body, amazed at the movement seemingly miraculously restored to you. You still ached somewhat, and your thoughts were shattered with the aftermath of orgasm, but you had to admit, you felt a thousand times better than before.
 
“They’re probably waiting for us. Get dressed, we’ll clean up here and join you soon.” Cally ordered presumptively, before licking at Blue’s cheek.
 
“Oi!” Blue cried in surprise, before seizing the Koala and returning the favour.
 
“Behave you two…” You chuckled helplessly, searching for your pants.
 
“Where’s the fun in that Boss?” Blue drawled, grinning predatorily at the Koala.
 
 
“You took your time.” Kessiah remarked as you entered the taproom.
 
“Well you did knock me arse over breakfast a dozen or so times.” You reply, gratefully taking an offered tankard.
 
“Seventeen!” The reptilian insisted with a slightly injured tone.
 
“Are the specifics that important?” You sigh, drinking deeply.
 
“The specifics are always important.” Kessiah grumbled with a slight sulk. “Still, you’re looking better than expected.”
 
“Cally’s a miracle worker.”
 
Kessiah nodded. “Thought I smelled Alarune. Careful with that. You’ll spawn entire hatcheries in your damn sleep on that stuff.”
 
“So I’ve been told.” You agree, “Think maybe I’ll admit defeat when I’m still able to move next time.”
 
“Kshhhaa…” Kessiah hissed dismissively “…I’ll admit I went harder on you than I was planning to. You never know someone’s true mettle until you’ve gotten into a flat-out fight with them.”
 
“And?”
 
“And what?”
 
“And what’s my ‘true mettle?” You grin, jostling the reptilian with an elbow.
 
Kessiah leans over to you. “If you fuck like you fight, I’m surprised that Kobie’s still walking.”
 
You nearly choke on your beer at that, coughing uncontrollably as Kessiah laughs, smacking you firmly on the back.
 
“Keep a lid on that yeh?” you gasp, “We’re supposed to be minding the Pax, after all.”
 
“Who cares? Not like anyone here can denounce you.”
 
“How do you mean?”
 
“You can’t SMELL it?!” Kessiah exclaims incredulously, a thick, forked tongue testing the air. “Honestly, I don’t know how you humans have survived so long.”
 
“Be nice.” You chide. “Smell what?”
 
“Half the humans in this taproom are harpy-fuckers.”
 
“Huh… Guess they’re not much for conversation afterwards.” You reply evenly, eliciting a hissing ululation from Kessiah where she bangs her tankard against the table in helpless mirth.
 
“What’d we miss, Boss?” Blue’s voice enquires as she and Cally take seats to either side of you, their faces slightly flushed.
 
“A spot on your left cheek, Kobie.” Kessiah drawls. Blue’s paw flashes up to her face, growling as she realizes she’s been rused, resulting in another burst of hissing laughter from the Reptilian.
 
The murmuring of the Taproom dies to utter silence as the Waylander comes to his feet and clears his throat. All eyes were on the brown-clad man where his pained gaze played across the attentive crowd.
 
“Witness me, Citizens of the Australs. Tonight we remember one of our own, gone too soon to the bosom of Tyris.” He intoned, his voice cracking slightly with grief. “Scotty was unacknowledged amongst Hold or House, an orphan, his progenitor unknown to all but our Holy Mother Church.”
 
“Tyris bless the Wisdom of the Eternal Faith…” The humans murmured the ritual response.
 
“Oh the poor thing!” Cally gasped, her eyes wide and a hand to her mouth.
 
You shush her gently, but not a few faces nearby looked at her with indulgent smiles.
 
“Rather than see his gentle spirit resigned to service in the Faith Militant, Mount Barker took him in, the first ward of our township. Surely such was the Will of The God, for all can testify that his presence enriched us.” The Waylander continues.
 
“In the floods five years past, Scotty worked tirelessly through the night, striving to stem the waters which threatened our aviaries.” A tanned rancher declared.
 
“When our newest Acolyte became lost in the bush, it was Scotty who found her and brought her home.” A priestess added.
 
“When my Rooster escaped and none would offer us aid, it was Scotty who scouted every day to try and find it…” The grey-haired form of Ryan added, his voice choked with grief. “…It’s my fault… It’s all my fault.”
 
“Peace, Ryan.” The Waylander admonished gently. “Trader Adam, as the man who saw our charge lain low, I command a testimony of you.”
 
You stand, clearing your throat with slight nervousness. “He faced his fate with Honour, and can stand tall before Holy Tyris, knowing that he fulfilled the duties of his Calling until the end…” You begin.
 
“He did not run!” Blue declared, leaping to her feet behind you. “He faced death, and did not run! I don’t know much about Tyris, beyond what the Pax commands. But were he Kobold, the spirits of our ancestors would sing him home with howls to shake the stars!”
 
Murmurs of fierce approval at Blue’s passionate interjection. You pet the Kobold’s head, smiling wordless thanks.
 
“…And even in death…” You continue, “…He proved his worth. I’m humbled to raise a mug in his name.”
 
“Scotty” came the rumbling acknowledgement, as the humans and scattered mamono all stood with charged glasses, raising them before drinking deeply.
 
“One last thing…” The Waylander added, the assembled crowd pausing where they stood. “…Though it be a break from tradition, as Waylander of the Australs and Baronial Judicator of House Reinhardt, as well as appointed administrator of the Township of Mount Barker. I, Adrian, do declare his Apprenticeship fulfilled. Let him be known and remembered evermore as Waylander Scott of the Australs.
 
“Waylander Scott!” Came the roaring agreement.
 
 
“You two PLANNED that?” Cally slurred in drunken astonishment.
 
“Shhhh…” You hissed insistently, clumsy finger raised to your lips as you staggered into the room you shared with Cally and Blue.
 
“Adz reckons *hic* that hearin’ it from a Mamono made it somehow mean more.” Blue hiccups, leaning heavily against you.
 
“Lookaddit this way…” you explain drunkenly “…If as Kessiah says, ‘alf the town’s harpyfuckers, they obviously put a lotta stock by what Mamono think.”
 
“Or they’re just horny and Harpies are an easy lay.” The Koala retorted.
 
“Blue’s prejudices are rubbin’ off on ya Cal.” You snicker, “But seriously, think about it. Th’whole point of The Pax was so Humans and Mamono could work together, backasswards though it might seem at times, Tyris f’giveme. We ‘membered Scotty together.”
 
“I guess…” Cally conceded, collapsing into bed along with Blue and yourself.
 
“Hey Adz… You know how they say you get horny after funerals? One in the eye of death and all that?”
 
“Seriously Blue?” You exclaim, blinking owlishly at the Kobold.
 
“They lied.” Blue yawns, snuggling into you.
 
You look over to where Cally is already snoring against your chest, a chuckling groan escaping your lips. This was gonna hurt tomorrow.
 
 
“Much better!” Kessiah exclaimed, swinging an overhanded blow at your head.
 
“Yeah well…” You pant, dodging the strike “…neither of us have to pause every five minutes to puke!”
 
“Mount Barker got a bit messy…” Kessiah admitted, parrying a rushed thrust from you with a grunt of disapproval, swinging her tail around to impact forcefully with your torso. “…Overextend again and I’ll break your fucking arm, Trader.”
 
“Sorry…” You grunt, twisting away and grasping your bruised torso.
 
“If they’re not dead within the first six inches, another foot’s not gonna make much difference!” The reptilian chides.
 
“Did you really… Argh… Fuck the Waylander?” You ask, catching Kessiah’s wooden sword against your own and sliding it off to the side, striking her in the jaw with the pommel.
 
“Ow! Nice… Course I did.” The Reptilian answered, thumping you soundly in the sternum with a scaled fist.
 
“Whoof!” You exclaimed as the breath was driven from your lungs. “Hold… Hold… I’m done.” You gasp, hands on your knees.
 
“Stand up straight, you won’t get your breath back hunched over like that… Good fight Trader, I almost broke a sweat that time.” Kessiah hisses in mocking approval, clapping you on the shoulder.
 
“I feel like I’m going nowhere…” You murmur, staring after the Reptilian, her toned legs rippling under her swaying tail.
 
“You kidding Boss?” Blue chuckles, “You’re actually hitting her now.”
 
“You have gotten better, Adam.” Cally admits, “Though she could still kill you in about thirty seconds.”
 
“Cheers Cal.” You drawl.
 
“No charge.” The Koala answers sweetly.
 
“On the subject of ‘Going’ though Boss…”
 
“She’s leaving in Freo Pup, we’re only a day away.” You sigh indulgently, mussing the Kobold’s hair.
 
“Not that!” Blue objects, giggling as she halfheartedly dodges you. “Going as in where are WE going? We’ve still got a wagon full of fish-head, after all.”
 
Blue raised a good point. Although you were eager to offload the hard-won seal to Breyten, the river eddy where you had met Wagyl was a mere few hours deviation, which would mean a wagon ready for cargo as soon as you hit Fremantle. Still, on the off-chance of delay, was the risk worth it?
 
 
“Hold! Fucks sake…” You gasp, grasping at your leg and grimacing in pain.
 
“I told you, watch your footwork. Next time I break your knee.” Kessiah remarked without sympathy, twirling her training sword nonchalantly. She was breathing heavily, a light sheen of sweat on her brow, yet seemed far from fatigued where she stretched out her muscular limbs. “Good fight, Trader. You know you’re actually approaching something resembling competence.”
 
“Thanks.” You grimace, hobbling back towards the wagon.
 
“Only a few more hours…” Blue murmured “…Thank Maou.”
 
“Anyone’d think it was you getting beat up on the daily.” You snicker at the Kobold, hauling yourself back onto the wagon with a pained groan.
 
“Between you being a mass of bruises and that Alarune still coursing through you I’m feeling thoroughly neglected, boss.” Blue complains.
 
“Aww Blue…” you drawl, rubbing one of her furred ears affectionately. “…How’d you survive the better part of a decade at Gibson then?”
 
“D-don’t make fun of me!” Blue complains, pouting adorably. “You can’t just give me something wonderful and then take it away. It’s not fair.”
 
“You know there ARE other options in the meantime…” You suggest.
 
“Not the same.” Blue sulks.
 
“Yeh… Guess not.” You admit, truly you too had missed the newly discovered intimacy between you, yet the closeness of the tent and the nebulous status of where exactly Cally fit into that relationship had put a significant dampener on things during your travel.
 
You rode along in silence, Cally digging through the supplies retrieved from her little hidey hole, unfortunately some the worse for wear thanks to nearly a fortnight abandoned in a tree trunk. With every item she was forced to resign as beyond repair, her foul mood built, and by the time Port Fremantle peeked over the horizon, her replies to your queries on her muttered swearing were little more than monosyllabic grunts.
 
“Welp.” Kessiah remarks nonchalantly “This is my stop. Try not to get yourselves killed the instant I’m out of earshot, yeah?”
 
“We’ll manage.” Cally’s surly voice sounds from the wagon’s tray.
 
“Says the Mamono who tried to reason with that drop bear.” Kessiah drawls.
 
“Yes. Thank you SO much for splitting it in half right above me. There’s NOTHING I like more than cleaning intestines out of my hair first thing in the morning.”
 
The Reptilian smirks. “Gave you something to do that wasn’t complaining about your books, didn’t it Shortstack?”
 
Cally’s growling response is unintelligible and not in any language you’ve ever heard spoken in the Australs.
 
Kessiah’s grin broadens at the Koala’s inarticulate fury, and she sidles her bungarra towards the wagon. “You’re alright, Trader.” She remarks, standing up in the stirrups and giving you a brief smek on the cheek. “Look me up if you’re ever in the market for someone to do your fighting for you… Or… Y’know… Whatever.” The last with a lingering look and a suggestive wink. Digging her heels in, she sets her Bungarra to scrambling towards Fremantle, your own two lizards peering uninterestedly after them.
 
Blue’s expression is one of shock and rage. “No!” She declares, pointing after the Reptilian with a furred paw. “Bad Adz! No Lizard!”
 
“Such an articulate argument you make Blue.” You drawl, giving the Kobold a light smack on the thigh, little more than a tap. “Remember who’s in charge here though…” You remind her in a more serious tone. Blue’s ears lower, and she ducks her head in reluctant submission.
 
“I don’t like her Boss. I don’t like the way she looked at you. I don’t like the way she hit you.”
 
“That was training.”
 
“I don’t care!” The Kobold cried. “I… I don’t like it. I don’t like her, I don’t like the way I felt all crawly knowing she was listening outside the tent when I wanted to…” She breaks off, blushing.
 
“Tyris Blue…” You breathe, cuddling the Kobold to you as the wagon trundled its way along the highway. “…I wish you’d told me.”
 
“You couldn’t exactly tell her to leave, Adam.” Cally’s venomous snort interjects.
 
“Will you stop taking your salt out on me Cal? I told you we’ll do what we can to replace what you’ve lost.” You retort, half turning to face the Koala. “And Blue’s feelings are important to me. She was my friend before she was my indentured.”
 
Cally takes a deep breath, closing her eyes before letting it out. “I’m sorry Adam… Just that is a very, VERY irritating woman.”
 
“Oh yeh? How’d she piss in your porridge?”
 
Cally mumbles something.
 
“Missed that, Cal.”
 
“She called me Shortstack!” Cally repeated, flushing with self-consciousness.
 
“That it? Why didn’t you just tell her to shut up with that shit?”
 
Cally looks at you incredulously “And give her the satisfaction of knowing she’d gotten to me? I’d sooner eat vegemite.”
 
You pull the reins to the side, barking at Four where it has tried to take advantage of your inattention to eat something to the side of the road, before chuckling softly to yourself. “Well…” You muse “…I guess that answers that question.”
 
Cally blinks uncomprehendingly. “Eh?”
 
“I was gonna see what you both thought of putting her on a retainer, at least until we’ve delivered the skull to Wagyl… Reptilian to reptilian, might have made things a little less terrifying.”
 
“From a totally objective standpoint, You couldn’t afford her, not long term. I don’t claim to be an expert on mercenaries, but she’d be multiple gold a week at the least, and that’d just be her wages. You’re talking about some of the Mamono who are responsible for the Australs being a Protectorate instead of an IMFC or Aestenland tributary. When I kept telling you she could kill you, I wasn’t exaggerating.”
 
“Fuck… Fair call… Still… Mercenaries are a thing, that’s something to consider. I mean, she DID make the trip north easier, er… guts in the hair nonwithstanding.” You add quickly.
 
“Yes, well, on a personal note, if you WERE to take leave of your senses and retain her services, I would not be responsible for what happened next.” Cally replies imperiously.
 
You chuckle, cupping the Koala’s cheek fondly. “I’m sure the world trembles at the clash of such titanic bloody wills.”
 
“Don’t test me, Human.” Cally drawls, giving your wrist a playful nip.
 
“Well since you say you value my opinion so much, Boss…” Blue begins, seizing your face between her paws and turning your head to face her, your foreheads touching and her big, blue eyes staring directly into yours. “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.” She drones, her expression deadly serious.
 
“Loud and clear Blue…” You chuckle, kissing her briefly.
 
 
“I’m sorry Breyten, but unless you can secure that ratification I’m afraid my hands are tied…” An elegant woman in an elaborate, robelike garment states with easy authority, her almond eyes sympathetic and her glossy black hair shimmering where it falls to her waist.
 
“What’s that about securing a what now?” You drawl, holding the wooden cylinder above your head triumphantly as you enter Breyten’s office, the curios which once dotted its myriad shelves now much sparser in number.
 
“Adam! Please tell me that’s what I think it is!” Breyten gushes, his hands trembling as he reaches for the prize.
 
“Nah, we couldn’t be fucked so we just grabbed a recipe for brown sauce.” You drawl, handing it over, “Course it is! Didn’t I say I’d get it inside the month? Oh ye of little fuckin’ faith.”
 
A gasp from the woman at your invective, her dark eyes wide with shock at your sudden, epithet-strewn intrusion.
 
“Adam, this is Ambassador Ling-Tan of the Aestenlands, and my proposer for the Barony…” Breyten mutters pointedly, unscrewing the cylinder.
 
“Oh. Oh! Sincerest apologies for the Low Pandemonian, Excellency.” You quickly reply, sketching a deep bow at the Robe-clad woman.
 
A hint of a smile turns the corners of her mouth. “I speak Low Pandemonian, Freeman, and even they don’t come up with the kind of invective I hear on this continent.” The ambassador replies evenly.
 
“Least we’re fun though, ay.” You jest, flashing her your most winning smile.
 
A restrained chuckle escapes the Ambassador’s lips. “Your apprentice is quite droll, Breyten.”
 
“He’s been… Reliable.” Breyten replied diplomatically, not bothering to correct the Ambassador as he unfurls the parchment, giving a noise of satisfaction as he inspects the Dominus’s seal. “There you are, Excellency. I believe you’ll find that all in order.”
 
Ling-Tan accepts the offered parchment, frowning as she inspects the seal. “Dominus Ian himself… I’ll admit, I’m surprised. I had heard he was quite unavailable. How did you manage it, Freeman?”
 
“Trade secret, Your Excellency.” You grin.
 
“Ah.” Ling-Tan muses, that small smile still on her lips. “Droll indeed. Well, I had best see this on its way to Magisterium. Good day, Freeman…” the barest hint of a nod as she acknowledges you, then a pause as she inclines her head to Breyten. “…My Lord Baron.”
 
“Excellency” You both respond, bowing as she departs.
 
“Thought you were going to fuck that up for me for a minute Adz, I won’t lie.” Breyten giggles, almost wriggling in his excitement. “Thank you!”
 
“Thank me to the accompaniment of coin, my Lord Baron.” you drawl, holding your hand out.
 
“You’re still dealing in Coin?” Breyten exclaims, scribbling on an underwriter’s note and handing it to you. “Really Adam, you should see about setting up an account.”
 
“It’s been easier to keep accounts current. This last fortnight’s been interesting to say the least.”
 
“That’s one part that interested me… How DID you get to New Botany so quickly?”
 
You fold up the underwriter’s note, putting it securely in your pocket. Smiling at Breyten, you began to leave the trade office.
 
“C’mon Adam…”
 
“Everybody seems to be so sure the Dominus was still in New Botany… Didn’t anybody bother to check?” You drawl over your shoulder as you exit.
 
“You little fucking criminal!” You hear Breyten howl at your back, voice somewhere between outrage and helpless laughter “You wonderful, miserable little prick!”
 
“Wow Boss… Not the reception I was expecting.” Blue remarked in surprise as she listens to the once-trader split between hooting laughter and venomous epithets.
 
“Let’s be honest Blue…” You grin, swinging yourself onto the wagon “…We did just fleece him but good.”
 
“So why’s he so happy?” Cally asks in trepidation.
 
“He’s the kind of man who can appreciate it. Also just ascended to nobility, guess it helps a cunt to be philosophical.”
 
“So what now?”
 
“Thought we’d get some lunch that DOESN’T involve cured meat and beans, and a nice cold beer. Whaddaya reckon girls?”
 
“I knew I liked you for a reason.” Cally laughs.
 
“Right?” Blue exclaims, throwing her arms around your neck with abandon as you whip the Bungarra into motion.
 
 
“I can’t believe that Cicerello’s was full.” You grumble as you opened the door to the smoky taproom of the tavern.
 
“Yeh, but he was kinda pricey anyway last time Boss.” Blue replies, scooting under your arm.
 
“Not the point. It’s the symmetry of the thing.” You justify lamely.
 
“Tristan!” Blue crows, running at the low trestle behind which the waylander sat peering at documents, the usual loose crowd of people waiting around him.
 
“G’day Blue.” Tristan chuckles indulgently, patting her head. He raises his eyes, nodding as he notices you.
 
“Trader.”
 
“Waylander.” You reply with a grin.
 
“Any news or is this a social call? If the latter, piss off, I’m busy.” Tristan grunts dismissively.
 
“Nice to see you too!” You exclaim in mock umbrage. “I regret to inform you of the Passing of Waylander Scott, Baronial Judicator of House Reinhardt.”
 
“Scott… Scott… I don’t know a Scott.”
 
“The appointment was… posthumous.” You reply delicately.
 
Tristan’s eyes widen in recognition “Not little Scotty, Adrian’s apprentice?!”
 
You nod gravely.
 
“Tyris Fuck!” Tristan exclaims irreverently, a few people around gasping at the expletive. “Adrian must be a wreck, Scotty was like a son to him.”
 
“He’s holding together. It hit the whole town pretty hard.”
 
“No doubt…” Tristan agrees, sitting back in his chair at the weighty news. “…Scotty was one of those kids the bards tell stories about. The kind that turns out to be the hero. Damn… You’re not going back south are you? I wouldn’t mind bullying the Lord Baron into sending something official his way.”
 
“Didn’t plan to, though Breyten’s just been Ratified as the new Baron of House Esperance, so there should be plenty of traffic heading in that direction within the month.”
 
“Really? When’d that happen?”
 
“He put the writ in Ambassador Ling-Tan’s hand about what, half an hour ago would you say Blue?”
 
“Yehboss” Blue answered simply, luxuriating in the sensation as Tristan scratched her ears absently.
 
“That a fact. Oh… Heard something interesting about a Kobie who went awfully well on some dice tables. Wouldn’t know anything about that would you?” Tristan drawls evenly, looking down at the Kobold.
 
“Dealt with.” You answer shortly, gesturing at Blue who obediently returns to your side.
 
“See you’ve gotten her in line… Fair enough.” Tristan replies, seemingly satisfied.
 
“Why you buried under parchment anyway Tristan, don’t you have an apprentice for that?”
 
“Not right now I don’t, hopefully he comes to his senses soon though.”
 
You blink in confusion. “Wha?”
 
Tristan gestures with his quill, and you turn to see the huddled shape of Matt sitting alone at a table in the corner, a half-finished bottle of spirits in front of him and a thoroughly miserable expression on his face.
 
“What happened?”
 
“The Law’s an unforgiving bitch at times. As an instrument of the Law, he had to do something that hit him pretty hard. He’ll get over it, or he’ll quit…”
 
“Never knew you to be this cold, Waylander.” You accuse softly.
 
“It’s not for me to absolve him. I’ve got faces which stare at me in the night out of the blackness. It’s the burden of the title.” Tristan answers simply with a note of deep regret, before returning to the piled documents in front of him.
 
Dismissed, you narrow your eyes in annoyance at your older brother before heading over to where Matt was clearly trying to drink himself into unconsciousness.
 
“G’day Matty…” You venture.
 
“Fuck off Adz” Matt slurs, his reddened eyes barely looking at you.
 
“Yeah nah cunt.” You reply simply, scooping a handful of brass from a coinpurse and handing it to Blue. “Go get some beers for us, yeh girls?” You ask the Mamono, who nod and head towards the bar wordlessly.
 
“What are y’doin?” Matt demands, his voice hitching with grief.
 
“We’re gonna drink, and we’re gonna talk mate.”
 
“Don’t wanna talk.”
 
“Well we can fight first, but fair warning, I’ve been training all week with a Pilbaran Blademistress, and I’m still fuckin’ bigger than you. One way or another, you’re gonna tell me why you’re looking to hide at the bottom of that bottle of grog.”
 
A tearing cry escapes Matt’s throat, and he begins to sob. “S-she was so little! So little!”
 
“Who was, mate?”
 
“T-the wolf spider…” He slurs, taking another slug, half of it dribbling from his slack mouth “…She was a feral… And I killed her Adz. I looked her in the eye, and I cut her throat. Oh Tyris… Tyris forgive me!”
 
“Ferals aren’t anybody’s friend Matty. They’re more beast than person, whether Human or Mamono, there ain’t a feral I’ve ever heard of who wasn’t caught in monstrosity. You’re a Waylander mate, or you will be soon… You’ve got a duty to everybody who liv…”
 
“Duty… Fuck me, you are Tristan’s brother… “ Matt interrupts “…Yer whole fucken’ family shoulda been Pallies. Y’don’t even fuckin’ give a fuck so long as the ink’s black, do ya?”
 
“You WANNA start a fuckin’ fight cunt?” You snarl, leaping to your feet as your umbrage rises, the insult stinging at you.
 
“Fuckin’ let’s go you fuckin’ deviant!” Matt growls, gripping the bottle like a club.
 
“Adam!” Cally’s voice rings out as she shoves a tankard into your hand, looking up at you pleadingly as she pushes at your chest with a clawed hand. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend?”
 
Your mouth works helplessly as your mind struggles to take account of this new tack it has been set on. Without waiting for an answer, Cally turns to Matt, hoisting her diminutive if curvaceous frame onto the seat you had so recently and violently vacated.
 
“Hi there. I’m Cally, Adam’s friend.”
 
“What’re you then?” Matt slurs, puzzlement overcoming his venom.
 
“I’m a Koala, don’t the ears give it away?” She giggles, positively oozing charm.
 
“G’day… Could y’leave me alone now?” Matt asks, still glaring daggers at you.
 
“Actually I couldn’t help but overhear you and Adam talking… I thought maybe I could explain things a little better… Y’know… kinda closer to the source and all” She smiles, wriggling her clawed, twin thumbed hand at Matt.
 
“How could you possibly know…” Matt’s voice cracks.
 
“Because I knew a Waylander’s apprentice… not much older than you…” Cally begins, her hand gentle on his wrist.
 
“C’mon Boss, let’s let Adorabear work her magic.” Blue offers.
 
“Friend or no, if he hits her I’ll fuckin’ split him up the middle…” you grumble.
 
“Yeah yeah, get in line.” Blue smiles up at you, seizing your arm in a furred paw and dragging you to a table away from the Koala and your drunken friend. “Besides. You promised lunch.”
 
“I did, but don’t you think we should wait for Cal…”
 
“What, there’s some Human custom about ordering twice?”
 
You chuckle helplessly. “Orright pup, what you after?”
 
“Freeman Adam?” A new voice intones sternly behind you.
 
“What in Tyris… Oh…” You pause, looking up at the armored Paladin standing with a retinue of initiates. “G’day yer Worship, what can I do for ya?”
 
“You have been called to perform the Rite of Continuance.” The Paladin answered in a tone which brooked no nonsense.
 
“What’s with the escort, y’thought I was gonna do a runner on ya or something? C’mon Your Worship, it’s me…” You chuckle, looking pointedly at the gathered initiates. “Howz’goin Will, love the outfit mate.” you drawl with a wave, recognising your other childhood friend.
 
“Shaddup Adz…” Will retorts, stifling a grin.
 
“Look Adam, it’s expected.” The Paladin murmurs in a lower voice “The requester’s an Aestenland Ambassador, so it’s kinda formal, yeh?”
 
“What, again?” Blue asks you incredulously, “Maou, even Eddie never got called up twice in a month.”
 
“Easy Blue…” You chuckle. “Look, as much as I’d love to fulfil my duty to The Pax and to our Holy Mother Church, your Worship, I’m Seasoning.”
 
“Why?”
 
You blink in surprise. “Why the interest, Sir Neil? The Abstinence of Seasons is it’s own justification.”
 
“If it were a sowing of the Chancel, sure, or a Noble’s regular duty. But this is a foreign Ambassador, Adam. Standards are a touch higher, especially since she asked for you.”
 
“What did you do?” Blue asks you suspiciously.
 
“Nothing! Swear by Tyris!” You insist. The Paladin’s eyes flick between the two of you and he loosens his sword arm deliberately.
 
“Freeman Adam. I’m going to ask you again. Against your Immortal Soul, why are you undertaking the Abstinence?” He hisses, his eyes narrow. “And be very, VERY careful with your answer.”
 
“Alarune Essence.” You reply bluntly, rising out of your chair. “Got meself knocked ass over breakfast by a Mercenary by the name of Kessiah under the pretense of training. If not for me Mamono’s quick thinking, I would still be bedridden. She’s probably still in town, go ask her!”
 
“You will submit to the Benidictus.” Neil intoned, a golden light bursting from his arm as he waved it along your body. Again the sensation of alien eyes inspecting you to the very core of your being. Neil lowered his arm. “Alarune.” he sighed in near-relief.
 
“Fuckin’ told ya… Tyris fuck!”
 
“Blasphemy!” An initiate gasped.
 
“Challenge” you snap at the initiate. “Dan, If Sir Neil puts me to the confession I’ll tell him a whole MESS of shit what comes out your mouth when you’re on the sauce.”
 
“Withdrawn.” The initiate quickly replies, glancing about guiltily.
 
“Your Grace is received. Stop tryin’ to act like a damn Westerlander, this is the Flamin’ Australs and we survive by workin’ together, not doggin’ each other like a buncha cunts.”
 
“Adam’s got a point. Pull yer head in Dan.” Neil adds. “Right, well. Time to go disappoint an Ambassador.”
 
“You know…” You drawl, “…Will’s got a weakness for Aestenlander girls.”
 
“Shaddup fuckya!” Will hisses self-consciously.
 
“Does he now… Well then…” Neil chuckles, studying the sandy-haired young man. “Escort detail, move out.”
 
“Don’t say I don’t do nothin’ for ya mate!” You yell after your friend mockingly, shaking your head with a laugh as you resume your seat, taking a draught of beer.
 
“So…” Blue murmurs with a slight sulky tone.
 
“Lesson learned, don’t charm the bloody Ambassadors.” You grin, squeezing the Kobold’s paw fondly.
 
“You’re lucky you’re cute Boss…” Blue whuffles, trying to suppress a smile of her own.
 
“Hey Adz…” Matt’s voice sounds hesitantly from behind you. “…I’m sorry about the dig at your family, it was off value.”
 
“S’orright mate.” You reply, standing and catching your friend in a rough embrace. “I’m sorry for biting. You were hurting and I shoulda known better. You and Cally sorted it out then?”
 
“Yeh… She’s good people Adz, y’lucked out signing her on.”
 
“Flatterer.” Cally laughs, slapping Matt’s hand lightly.
 
“So what are you gonna do now?” You ask.
 
“Well first, I think I’m gonna be sick, that was some foul shit I was pouring into meself…” Matt begins, a hand on his stomach as he grimaces “…Then I’m gonna sober up and apologise to your brother. You’re right, I’ll be a Waylander, and I owe it to th’Barony, and to those gone before me… Waylanders like Scotty.”
 
“Scotty?” You ask neutrally as Matt stumbles out of the tavern.
 
“Mmmhmm…” Cally replies, smiling sweetly at you.
 
“You lied to him.”
 
“Through my teeth, Adam.” Cally grins.
 
“Fuckin’ hell.” You laugh helplessly, catching the Koala in a one-armed embrace. “Not dead a week and we’re already building a legend on his grave, poor fucker.”
 
“I don’t think his ghost will mind…” Cally replies, giving a slightly embarrassed giggle as her stomach growls “…now I do believe there was a promise of lunch?”
 
 
“M’stuffed…” Blue groans, leaning back in her chair and rubbing her slightly distended belly.
 
“Really Blue? Two whole mackerel and a side of roasted bunya nuts? Sure you can’t find room for sweets?” You tease fondly.
 
The Kobold seems to ponder that. “You think they’ve got cake boss?”
 
“Oh Maou…” Cally groans, putting her head in her clawed hands disbelievingly.
 
“Mean.” Blue pouts momentarily at the Koala. “So what’re we doing today Boss?”
 
“Thought I might take the time to set ourselves up a little.” You reply, taking a drink. “Let’s face it, we’ve done pretty well this fortnight but that’s on the strength of one fleecing, a lucky hangover and Tyris’s Holy beneficence shining upon us. We can’t expect everything to go so well.”
 
“Sensible.” Cally agrees, “So what first?”
 
“Stop carrying a small fortune in my pack for one.” You drawl, pulling out Breyten’s note. “Tenno & Goldstein eh? Breyten did mention they had an office here…”
 
“You workin’ for the bloody Tanukis now Adz?” Tristan’s voice sounds as he claps you on the shoulder familiarly, flopping into a chair between you and Blue, the Kobold smiling happily as he absently scratches her ear in greeting.
 
“Takin’ a break, Waylander?” You grin.
 
“Yeh. Matango outbreak near Lancelin Holding… I’m takin’ the rest of the day off, Tyris knows it’s the most rest I’ll get for the next week.”
 
“Shit eh?” You reply concernedly. The Fungal Mamono were one of the most terrifying things in the Australs. Possessing a mindless drive to reproduce, the spores turned humans into mindless breeders or shambling plague walkers. Though blessedly immune, other Mamono, even the Council of Matriarchs treated them with outright hostility. Any appearance was immediately and unreservedly burned… Sadly, so too were any infected.
 
“Yeh, Faith Militant’s moving north to secure the road, close off any approaches. Survivors are being moved to Jurien holding, we’ll knob up something official once the Lord Baron’s whacked his chop on it.”
 
“Thanks for the advice.” You reply sincerely.
 
“No charge. So what’s with the note? Fleece some poor bastard for the leafheads?”
 
“Nah… Was actually looking at getting an account with the underwriters. Can’t go jingling through the scrub, I’ll get meself in trouble.”
 
“Unfortunately true.” Tristan admitted, “So who’re you gonna trust with your filthy lucre?”
 
You blink slowly in surprise. “I have options?”
 
“Sweet Tyris Preserve me… How in His fuckin name are you not indentured already?” Tristan laughs helplessly. “Yes, dumbarse. You have options. There’s T&G…” he begins, tapping your note, “Nautilus Futures, and of course the fuckin’ Pirates.”
 
“Pirates?”
 
“IMFC Adam, even I picked up on that one.” Cally chided mockingly.
 
“Hoy… Who’s the Koala?” Tristan asked in surprise, noticing Cally for the first time.
 
“Tristan, Cally. Cally, Tristan. My brother, and what Port Fremantle passes off as a Waylander.”
 
“Cheeky.” Tristan drawls, smacking you across the back of the head before taking Cally’s clawed hand and raising it briefly to his lips. “Charmed, Madam.”
 
“O-oh my…” Cally stammers, blushing.
 
“Back to Underwriters…” You insist, Tristan’s easy, rugged charisma rankling at you for reasons you couldn’t quite put your finger on. “…If the IMFC’s so distrusted, how in Tyris’s name are they running financials openly?”
 
“Benefit of five cities throughout the known world free from Magisterium authority and an unassailable chokehold on international trade, not to mention an IMFC note’s accepted nearly everywhere in the known world, and those who don’t have accidents.” Tristan grumbles sourly. “Call me biased, but as a Freeman I wouldn’t trust ‘em, they run shit to benefit the IMFC and the Free Cities exclusively. Dodgy bastards too.”
 
“So I’ve heard…” You agree, deliberately not mentioning your encounter with the smuggler agent, or the fact that the Once-Prince of the Barony was now First Officer aboard one of their ships. Dodgy or otherwise, there was such a thing as a mutually beneficial arrangement from time to time. “…And the others?”
 
“Nautilus made their name in ‘Salvage’, though I use the term loosely. I can’t prove it but I swear they’re responsible for half the ‘Leviathan Attacks’ which hit ships every other month. You’re dealing with Mermaid Gold there…”
 
“You always did take Bard stories too seriously…” You chuckle. One of Tristan’s favorite stories as a lad was about a sea captain who fought against a band of Kraken raiders out to steal his treasure.
 
“Shaddup. You won’t find trouble honouring their notes on the coast, but inland?” Tristan wags his hand back and forth. “There’s no end of traders who complain because some mining concern in the middle o’the desert won’t take their notes.”
 
You raise your eyebrow. “And that’s not a concern?”
 
“Private companies Adz, I can’t FORCE them to take notes if they don’t wanna.”
 
You nod. “Fair enough. I notice you didn’t mention the Leaf-heads.”
 
Tristan frowns, “Yeh… T&G worries me.”
 
“Really? Why’s that?” You lean in, suddenly interested.
 
“Because they appear to be completely legit. Built up their capitol base investing in if not outright funding mining concerns, never been any reports of standover tactics or short-shrifting. They’re hard on defaulters but fuck me, who isn’t?”
 
“So Tanuki who don’t act like Tanuki…” You clarify.
 
“Right?!” Tristan agrees incredulously “Would you believe a Tanuki can walk through the streets of House Boulder and people DON’T do a double-check on their coinpurses these days?”
 
“Scandalous.” You grin.
 
“Yeh well… Dunno. Finance is such a dirty game it’d almost make a perverse kind of sense for them to fleece everyone by going legit.”
 
“Waylander, you’re drunk.” You laugh
 
Tristan grins mirthlessly “I wish. Right. I’m going to bed.”
 
Blue looks askance at the Waylander. “It’s barely afternoon.”
 
“Did you miss the bit where I’ll be lucky to sleep this week, pup?” Tristan snorted, patting the Kobold on the head by way of farewell.
 
“He’s… really…” Cally muses, watching the waylander leave.
 
“Uh Huh…” Blue agrees, smiling dreamily.
 
“Commission a painting, it’ll last longer.” You interject venomously.
 
The Mamono blink, turning to look at you in surprise.
 
“You Jealous, Boss?” Blue asks with a slight smile.
 
“Awww… I think he is, that’s so CUTE!” Cally squeals in exaggerated delight.
 
“Bloody women…” You grumble, finishing off your beer.
 
 
“I thought we were going to the Underwriters.” Blue exclaims, frowning in puzzlement.
 
“All of the offices are past the Trade post, I wanted to take a look. Give me something to think about while you two are drooling over my brother.”
 
“Boss…” Blue declares seriously, grabbing your wrist in her furred paws “Whose girl am I?”
 
“Alright! I get the point.” You interject quickly, your face flaming.
 
“He’s so much fun when he’s embarrassed.” Cally snickers.
 
The concept of the Koala being ‘Plowed into submission’ was seeming very attractive right now… You stared at the notice board, trying to ignore the Mamono giggling behind you. Contracts and stock prices were outlined down its length, scribbled notes from passing traders dotting it here and there.
 
*2HW Weresheep Wool requiring Urgent Transport to Port Albany
>KEEP SHIT KURRENT FOR THE LUV OF TYRIS! SUM UPSTART PRIK HAS ALREDDY CRASHED THE DAMN MARKIT WITH THIS! HOW IS AN ONEST TRAYDER SUPPOS TO MAK A LIVIN WHEN FAKTORS MAK THEEZ OFFERS!? ITS UNNASTRAYAN!!!!!!!!
-Cry more. You’ve been making gold hand over fist with this run for fifteen years you old shit.
>FITE ME CUNT
-No, you’ll break a hip.
 
You chuckle at that exchange, pointing it out to the Mamono who join you in laughter.
 
*New Mining Concern requires 5HW of standard mining equipment to be sourced and transported from House Boulder to Coober-Pedy Holding to supply artificer preparing Shadrium operation. Traders not signed with Tenno & Goldstein for underwriting will have to submit an expense claim for purchases and sundries.
-From House Boulder? That’s almost a year on the road! Are you fucking nuts?
>Spoke to the factor, the money’s not awful
-Unless it’s measured in Solar Marks they’re dreaming
>Guess there’s a reason they’re not bringing it up from the Southeastern Holdings but no idea why.
-Tanuki. Go figure.
 
*FOODSTUFFS REQUIRED: Top market rate paid for all foodstuffs transported to Jurien Holding due to influx of displaced persons. To aid another in their time of need truly is pleasing unto Holy Tyris. No minimum amount. All offers accepted.
-Does this smell like Matango to anyone else?
>Not half, it’d explain the mobilization this morning
-Fuck that then, not all of us have the benefit of The God’s blessing against spores.
 
*Salvage opportunities available along the Ningaloo, poor weather has resulted in unexpected landfall, underwriters urgently seeking to recover stock. Traders signed with Nautilus Futures Inc will have advance expenses honoured.
>’Salvage’ …Riiiight.
-Go back to the Abbey of Blessed Innocence and learn to read. They said it’s their cargo, dumbshit.
>And you believe it? I’ve got scales from the Rainbow Serpent to sell you in that case.
 
*NOTICE TO AUCTIONEERS: Due to the unusually cold winter, Bungarra stocks are down against expectations. Please note that Reserve Pricing has raised accordingly.
 
“Dad’ll like that.” You murmur. “Probably should stop by and mention about Gustave to him at some point soon too.”
 
*NOTICE TO TRADERS: Forrest Holding will have a number of freshly constructed wagons ranging in capacity for auction from the first of the month. Be early and secure that upgrade!
 
“Three days time… Good to know…” You remark.
 
“Boss!” Blue laments “I’m bored! You about done?”
 
“Yeah pup…” You reply indulgently, patting the Kobold’s head. “C’mon, let’s go see the Underwriters.”
 
 
“W-welcome to Tenno and Goldstein, h-how can I help you?” The shy-looking Oomakude behind the front desk asks with a slight smile.
 
Tanuki.” Cally declared, pointing at the woman with a clawed digit, a smug grin on her face.
 
The centipede-girl sighed, her form seemed to shimmer, and in her place suddenly stood a curvaceous Tanuki, her broad, fluffy tail clearly visible behind her as her short, pointed ears flicked in slight irritation.
 
“I thought you Koalas were supposed to be short sighted.” The Tanuki sulked, a delicious pout on her plump lips.
 
“Doesn’t take perfect vision to see a centipede behind that desk would be halfway up the wall.” Cally answers. “Wind it back a bit, dear.”
 
The Tanuki rolls her golden eyes. “Would you believe I disguised myself as a human woman for a whole month before someone thought to ask what I was doing in an Underwriter’s office?” She snickers mockingly. “Humans eh? Well alright, jig’s up. What can I do for you?”
 
“Firstly.” You begin, your jaw hanging at the transformation “…How?”
 
“Maaaaagic!” The Tanuki intoned theatrically, waggling nimble fingers at you. “Now did you want something or are you just going to clean my floor with your chin-fuzz?”
 
“Well er…” You bluster “…Name’s Adam, I’ve just started out Trading, really. Got advised that signing on with an underwriter was preferable to having a half-ton worth of coin hanging off me shoulder.”
 
“Certainly… You don’t HAVE a half-ton of coin hanging off your shoulder, do you?” The Tanuki asked with a slight note of hopefulness.
 
“Uh… No.” You reply, blinking.
 
“Drat. I mean you’re cute but that’s a recipe for complete panty-melter right there!” She sighs, before giggling at her own joke. “So. Let’s get started. How much are you worth?”
 
“How much am I… What?”
 
“Oh Maou, we really are popping a cherry here, aren’t we?” The Tanuki sighed, smiling at you indulgently. “Don’t worry cutie, I’ll be gentle.”
 
“My arse you will…” Blue growled softly from behind you.
 
“Wow! Feisty kobie you’ve got there. Your indentured?”
 
You nod, reaching behind you to squeeze Blue’s paw assuringly.
 
“Right, well. Let’s get the Leviathan out of the fish-pond straight away. Technically, she’s your property, so if you default on us, in THEORY we can seize her like any other asset.”
 
“Like Hell!” Blue snarls.
 
“Blue! Down!” You bark sternly, Blue sullenly submitting to your command.
 
“I said in theory… Maou’s ample bosom you’re touchy! Realistically speaking though, that requires ratification from the Barony who notarized it… It gets messy as hell. So we would allow you to annul the indenturehood which would make her another creditor, who we would then pay out against your existing debt.”
 
“That’s less messy?” You exclaim, barely following.
 
“Means we’ve only got one ass to take any debts out of. Definitely lightens the paperwork. Does mean you cop the lot though. Still! Ownership and Responsibility, am I right?”
 
You had to admit, there was a perverse kind of fairness to that arrangement, and at least you didn’t have to worry about Blue’s freedom should your finances completely hit bedrock… Your own though…
 
“Oh don’t look so glum! You haven’t even borrowed anything off us yet! Now, continuing on… so we’ve got one Kobold… General Assistant? Can I see the Writ?”
 
“Good guess.” You admit, handing over the parchment outlining Blue’s indenturehood.
 
“Well she’s adorable but I don’t know of too many indentures formed on those grounds. You probably couldn’t afford her if that was the case…” the Tanuki quipped as she hands the parchment back, flashing a wink at Blue who shuffles slightly at the flattery, somewhat mollified. “What about the Koala?”
 
You frown slightly in thought, looking at Cally. “That’s… complicated… She’s a free Mamono but she’s helping us out.”
 
“Either of you owe the other money on paper?”
 
You shake your head no.
 
“Not relevant then… If you’re going to be working together I’d iron something out though. Informal arrangements can get awfully squicky if there’s a fight, legally speaking.”
 
“We’ll worry about that later.” Cally replies dismissively.
 
The Tanuki shrugs, “Your funeral. Alright. Non-sentient assets. What are you driving?”
 
“Two-train wagon, Bungarra drawn.”
 
The Tanuki nods, scribbling on a piece of parchment. “Cargo size?”
 
“Two hundredweight safely, I’ve been told, three at a push.”
 
“And you said you’re just starting out?”
 
You nod, “That’s right.”
 
“Niiice… Those are Gibson beasts too, unless I miss my guess.” She remarks, peering out the window at the lizards.
 
“Them and me, Gibson Holding born and raised.” You grin proudly.
 
“Tell your father he’s a fucking pirate for me.” The Tanuki laughs delightedly.
 
“That does seem to be the going opinion.” You drawl playfully, enjoying the exchange.
 
“Alright, any other assets? Property? Shipping concerns?”
 
“Yeah Nah.” you snicker.
 
“Didn’t think so but thought I’d ask. Coin?”
 
“Hundred-fifty-three? Ish?”
 
“Silver?”
 
You blink. “No… Gold.” You correct the Tanuki, who pauses, staring at you wide-eyed.
 
“Well SOMEONE just got a whole lot more attractive!” She murmurs. “How much will you be leaving with us?”
 
You purse your lips in thought. Obviously notes would be fine in larger towns but more remote areas might not be so accommodating. Also should you need to grease a palm or two a promissory note probably wouldn’t be as effective as raw currency.
 
“Maybe Hundred-Fifty? Keep the odds for sundries?”
 
“You know I like you already.” The tanuki replies warmly as you fish through your pack for the assorted coin pouches which jingle musically as you separate the gold from the other coins.
 
“Boss… What about…” Blue asks hesitantly.
 
“Well that’s yours Blue, I didn’t want to speak for it.” You reply, patting a fat coinpurse as you put it back in your bag.
 
“Well it’s not like I’ll NEED it right away, you’re still paying for me after all.” The kobold muses in thought.
 
“We can set up a separate ledger, it’s not a problem… Keep unwelcome mitts off it, hey pretty?” The Tanuki suggested, winking at Blue again.
 
“Okay!” Blue gushed with a smile, thoroughly won over. You sigh internally. Above board or not, the rumors about Tanuki were definitely not being disproven. You bring the pouch back out, placing it on the bench to the side.
 
“Er… Hun… You’re about seventy-five short on that one fifty.” The Tanuki prompts delicately.
 
“Sorry!” You groan, smacking yourself on the forehead as you remove the note from your pocket.
 
“Hey! Breyten!” The Tanuki exclaims as she inspects it “How’s he doing?”
 
“Baron.” You reply simply.
 
“Get out!”
 
“Tyris strike me down if’n I’m a liar.”
 
The Tanuki bites her lip, staring off into the middle distance. “I always thought he was cute…” She murmurs, before blinking “Sorry, off with the Fae there for a second! Well, that about wraps everything up! Here’s a notebook…” She pulls out a thick sheaf of notes similar to the one Breyten gave you. “…And we’ll agree on a credit allowance of say… oooh… One Solar Mark?”
 
“Tyris Fuck!” You exclaim, grasping at the wall for support. “What am I gonna do with that kinda scratch?!”
 
“Nobody says you have to spend it ALL, silly…” The Tanuki chides, her expression sobering slightly “…In fact I’d be compelled to suggest against it.”
 
“Too right!” You agree vehemently.
 
“Okay. So. Withdrawals against credit are set at a ten percent fee…”
 
“Hold on…” You interrupt. “…Usury is Illegal under the Pax.”
 
“And if I were charging you interest you’d have a point. The ten percent’s a flat fee, to cover against tying up too much of our liquid capitol. Stops Baronies from using us as a convenient way to offset shortfalls in their levies.” The Tanuki explains smoothly “Anyway, that goes up by an additional five percent for every ten solar marks, but unless you’re The Dominus in disguise I don’t think you have to worry about that anytime soon.”
 
“Not bloody likely.” You agree.
 
“Well then! It’s been a pleasure, Adam, and good fortune in your dealings!”
 
“Thank you, Madam, you’ve been most helpful.”
 
“Please, call me Juni.” She replies with a smile and a saucy wink.
 
“Adam…” Cally ventures as you head outside “…Weren’t you going in just to make enquiries?”
 
You pause, halfway onto the wagon as realization hits you. “Did I just get fucked?”
 
“She was very gentle, just like she promised.” Cally chuckles helplessly.
 
“We’re gonna have to work on our bloody communication…” You groan, flicking the reins at the Bungarra.
 
 
“So what’re we doing tomorrow?” Blue yawns, snuggling against you in the simple bed you were sharing with the two Mamono, having managed to secure a room in one of the more humble inns Port Fremantle offered. Still, it was dry, and warm, and the bed fit all three of you, if only just. More comfortable than the tent, was your justification.
 
“Gonna give that Skull to Wagyl, then stop past home. We did promise Gustave we’d have a word in Dad’s ear after all.”
 
“After that?” Cally murmurs, near sleep.
 
“I’m not sure, nothing on the notice board really jumped out at me, I mean we can run lumber down to Port Albany and Pearls back up, but eh…”
 
“That Mining operation?”
 
“That’s a new wagon, probably two counting supplies, AND it’s a year on the road.” You groan. “The guy who wrote the note was right. Fuck that.”
 
“Adam…” Cally yawns “…Who says you have to go overland?”
 
You pause at that. You COULD head directly south from Boulder to Esperance, then take a ship across to Port Augusta, and from there to Coober Pedy… It wouldn’t be cheap, and it’d require some significant logistical planning, not to mention assistance from other traders, but it seemed much more doable, and probably within a couple of months.
 
“You’re brilliant, Cal.” You murmur into her hair.
 
“S’why you keep me around.”
 
“Oh, one of the reasons.” You drawl playfully, squeezing an ample buttock.
 
The Koala makes a cute little whimper. “Don’t tease when you can’t deliver.” She demands sulkily.
 
“Specially if I can’t play too.” Blue adds, smushing your face with her paw.
 
“Night girls…” You chuckle.
 
“Night Adz” They yawn in concert, as sleep’s embrace moves to take the three of you.
 
 
“Blue?”
 
“Mmmfff?”
 
“I’m gonna need that leg.”
 
“Yeah nah boss…” The Kobold mumbles sleepily, wrapping her legs around the seized appendage.
 
“Cairn, gerrup… Oi!” You exclaim in objection, looking down to find Cally’s full weight upon your torso, a small patch of drool on your chest. “Cally! Ya fuckin’ dribbled on me!”
 
“I do NOT drool.” The Koala objected primly, blinking as pride overtook the desire to continue feigning sleep.
 
“Whazzat then?” You insist, pointing at the moistness.
 
“Localized sweat.” Cally replies with a completely straight face, wiping her chin self-consciously.
 
You pause for a moment, before laughing helplessly, wiping your chest off on a corner of sheet before assaulting the Kobold with furious tickles. Blue squeals, attempting to burrow further under the covers, yet to no avail as you wrap your arms around her, pulling her up and bussing her soundly on the cheek.
 
“Erk. Yer breath is terrible Boss.” Blue remarks, crinkling her nose.
 
“Hhhhhhhoooooowwww’sabout you get up then?” You jibe, exaggerating the exhale.
 
“I’m pretty sure chemical warfare’s a breach of The Pax.”
 
“Denounce me or get the hell up then.” You chuckle, pulling her tail slightly, eliciting a surprised yelp and a mortified glare from the Kobold, Cally rolling her eyes as she works her curvaceous frame into travelling clothes. As you kick your own legs over the side, hunting for pants, she sniffs briefly in your general direction.
 
“Don’t start woman, this place doesn’t have a bathhouse and you two are running on shadrium from how bloody warm I was last night.” You chide presumptively.
 
Cally blinks, before rolling her hazel eyes. “Oh, no… I was going to give you the benefit of the doubt on that front, but unless I’m mistaken, I’d say the Alarune’s mostly out of your system.”
 
“Oh thank Maou!” Blue exclaims, leaping out of bed and throwing her paws around your neck. “Aaadz…” she whines coquettishly “…do we REALLY need to get such an early start?”
 
You blush slightly, giving her a brief kiss on the nose. “Behave Pup.”
 
“Some bullshit, fuckin’ humans…” Blue mumbles as she releases you reluctantly.
 
“Don’t bitch, Blue. Any luck we’ll catch Breyten and be done with Wagyl before lunch. Tyris willing the weather’ll hold out and we can find somewhere nice and sunny and private to… continue earlier conversations.”
 
The two mamono looked at each other, giggling eagerly. Truth be told you had absolutely no idea how you were going to manage that scenario. Their brief ‘assistance’ back in mount barker had rendered you nearly incapable of thought for a good few minutes… You figured it prudent to make sure if you did decide on an intimate ‘picnic’, nobody would be required to walk for at least half an hour afterwards.
 
“Right then.” You declare, shouldering your pack and looking between Kobold and Koala, “Shall we?”
 
Your approach to Breyten’s was greeted by a string of invective from a female voice you didn’t quite recognise. As you dismounted, you saw a veiled Tyrisian Priestess standing in front of the door, grating epithets about the trader’s parents, ancestors, and probable descendents fit to make a sailor blush.
 
“Your Reverence?” You ventured, approaching the human woman. “Is everything alright?”
 
“No it jolly well is not!” The Priestess snapped, sparing you only the slightest glance before pointing furiously at the sign above the door. You stepped forward, squinting at the sign before murmuring your own disappointed pejoratives. In no uncertain terms, the sign indicated that Breyten Trading was closed, and that all complaints, inquiries, or statements towards that fact could be directed to Lord Baron Breyten the Ascendant, Master of House Esperance and Suzerain of Nulla’s Line. Immediately below that, an unknown Waylander had scrawled that neither they nor any other representative of Baron Thomas of House Reinhardt would gainsay His brother Noble, and exactly where and how far to shove it if people weren’t happy with that declaration.
 
“Well that’s fuckin’ inconvenient, I had no idea Ambassadors could act so bloody quick…” You mutter.
 
“Right?!” The priestess agreed incredulously.
 
“Is there anything I can help with, Reverence?” You offer, still slightly puzzled as to the unrestrained behaviour of the priestess. Usually they were so refined, you couldn’t drag an epithet out of them with the aid of a team of horses. The priestess turns, studying you through the sheer veil she wore… Those eyes… something familiar about them…
 
“G’day Juni…” You drawl with a smile, suddenly recognising the Tanuki. The Priestess’s eyes widen, flashing briefly to gold behind the veil before she overcomes the surprise, solidifying the illusion.
“I-I don’t know what you’re talking about” Juni lies lamely.
 
“No use, he got you.” Cally’s chuckle sounds from the wagon.
 
“Urgh. Fine…” Juni sighs in surrender, the disconnect between the mannerisms and her appearance becoming more and more apparent. “…Don’t you DARE tell. Getting my illusion scrapped by a human? And not even a resonant? They’d tease me for weeks. WEEKS!”
 
“Also a Mamono impersonating Tyrisian clergy is a pretty major breach of the Pax…” You muse with a slight smile.
 
“Oh pfft. Nobody would wait for a representative from Thealiss so they could hold an inquisition for a Tanuki not wanting to look like a Tanuki in public.” Juni scoffed dismissively.
 
“Unless it was Sir Neil with a hangover and he just stabbed you out of hand.” You reply, still smiling.
 
Juni paused, seeming to ponder that. “Alright fine, you have a point. What are you after?”
 
“I was going to ask you the same thing. Why’re you so salty that Breyten’s upped stumps? I did tell you yesterday that he was ratified.”
 
“You did.” Juni agreed, “I wasn’t expecting him to just fold EVERYTHING overnight though. Tenno and Goldstein have had some long-standing arrangements with the new Baron, and to be honest I’m a little hurt that he just up and ditched them without so much as a by-your-leave.”
 
“Well…” You suggest, putting an entire proposal into that one word.
 
“Maybe.” She concludes uncertainly. “Not really a decision I want to make on my own and not a recommendation I can make just because you’re cute and you caught me with my proverbial hand in my panties.” A saucy wink at the innuendo. “Come past the office tomorrow and I’ll let you know what we can let you in on.”
 
“It’s a date.” You agree, smiling smugly.
 
“Hah, you’re cute, but you’re not THAT cute.” Juni retorts with that same saucy wink, flipping one last highly insulting gesture at the uncaring wood of Breyten’s door and melting into the growing early morning crowd.
 
“Tanuki Boss?” Blue asks you with slight incredulity.
 
“It’s business.” You insist.
 
“Yuh huh…” The kobold whuffles with slight irritation “…Just don’t forget who was your girl first.”
 
“Never, Blue.” You promise insistently, patting the Kobold’s head and smiling affectionately. “Plus you heard her, I’m not that cute.”
 
“That’s a matter of perspective…” Cally muses quietly, giggling madly as you flush self-consciously. “…For instance you are utterly ADORABLE when you’re embarrassed.”
 
“Says the Shortstack.” You retort, yelping in surprise and pain as a clawed hand digs into the flesh of your buttock.
 
“Don’t be mean.” Cally warns sweetly.
 
“Yeh yeh… Hope nobody wore their good underwear today…” You muse, the trepidation at facing Wagyl robbing you of the will to play further as you turned the wagon towards the coast road.
 
“Pretty sure this is the place…” You muse, your hands trembling as you fastened the Bungarra’s reins to a nearby tree.
 
“Yeh… I think there’s still some hermit in the branches there somewhere.” Blue answers, trying to hide her fear behind snark.
 
“Honestly you two, it can’t be that bad!” Cally exclaims, looking at you both in puzzlement.
 
“J-just wait Adorabear, and keep well back from the tray, you wouldn’t wanna get scooped up by acciHURK!” Blue’s warning is cut short as nerves set her to retching noisily behind the wagon’s wheel.
 
“Blue!” You exclaim, hurrying over to the Kobold.
 
“I’m OK… I’m OK boss…” Blue insists with a grateful if wan smile at your concern. “Let’s just get this over with quickly, yeh?”
 
You nod in agreement “Holy Tyris, if you ever fuckin’ loved me, be with me now…” You murmur, heading towards the bank of the river and drawing your knife. Gritting your teeth, you pull the blade across the fleshy part of your hand, opening a decent cut which drips blood freely into the water. For a moment, nothing happens, before a surging wavelet can be seen, its width hinting at the massive form beneath the water. Your mind shudders at the impossibility, as Wagyl’s hooded head rises from the surface, water streaming from it as the surge of river-water soaks you, knocking you off your feet. You fight to keep yourself from whimpering in terror as you scramble backwards, Wagyl’s form cresting up and up and up, well over twice your height as she rests the base of her humanoid torso on the bank.
 
“Yes, morsel? Was there something else?” Wagyl asks almost conversationally, her taloned hands drumming on the riverbank impatiently.
 
“Er… We… Have the skull, Lady Wagyl.” You venture hesitantly, puzzlement overcoming your fear at the massive Lamia’s odd mannerisms.
 
Wagyl blinks in surprise. “So soon? But you were just here a moment ago…”
 
“I-it’s been the better part of a month…” You explain, standing and re-sheathing your knife, biting your lip to keep back the hysterical laughter which threatened to spill from you at the sheer absurdity of it all.
“Well then!” Wagyl declares, reaching for the wagon and picking the massive skull up almost daintily in one hand. “Oh! Hello other morsel!” She greets Blue, who simply emits a keening whine as she grips the wagon wheel as if for dear life. “And another! Koala! Maou and I had such arguments when she made you…”
 
Cally stares slack jawed at the gargantuan serpent woman, utterly and totally overwhelmed. “Guh… guh guh…” She gargles stupidly.
 
“Yes morsel, I’m sure…” Wagyl coos indulgently, clearly still amused by the mind-shattering effects of her presence, before studying the skull in her hand. “Yesss… Oh yessssssssss… Such thingssss!” She hisses sibilantly, her silver eyes slit-pupilled and massive forked tongue playing over sensuous lips. “Oh morsel! You have given me so much!” She near-gushes, a hand reaching towards you. You shut your eyes as Blue and Cally shriek, feeling of massive fingers wrapping around your body. You open them to see a huge mouth before you, lips pursed as you are pushed against their yielding softness.
 
It was one thing to be kissed, yet another to have your entire head kissed at once. For one terrified moment the primitive part of your mind threw disjointed images of being thrown into that colossal maw and you nearly fainted. Then, as gently as you had been lifted, Wagyl set you down. You stagger, legs like jelly beneath you with relief.
 
“To your reward… But what can I give you against this? So many things… So many wonderful, terrible things I can make with the essence here.”
 
“W-what kind of things?” Cally asked timidly, finding her voice again.
 
“Beasts forgotten by history, morsel… All manner of beautiful creatures of tooth and claw. Monsters, yes… But not Mamono… MY things… The world may forget, but I remember. Oh yes… I remember my things…”
 
“You er… Might wanna tone down on the appetites if yer usin’ the bungas as a baseline, Lady Wagyl.” You suggest hesitantly. “I don’t think the Australs has quite enough life on it for more than one species of garbage disposal.”
 
Cally and Blue stare at you in utter horror, and Wagyl looks at you for a moment as if surprised by your impudence, before erupting in a peal of laughter.
 
“Well I did not expect you humans to DOMESTICATE them!” Wagyl declared, still absently poring over the Leviathan skull. “You do surprise me. Maou rendered things… Difficult when what was forced itself to be one with what is… I remember being… Other than I am now. I find myself… hesitant to stoke the viciousness of my things against Man and Mamono… Find myself obeying this ‘Pax’ of Sun-God making.” A deep sigh. “Yet now I wake, when before I could only dream. I suppose I should be thankful for that.”
 
“When… er… When can we expect to see these ‘things’, Lady Wagyl?” Cally asks respectfully, still trembling slightly even after Wagyl’s more ‘casual’ reminiscing.
“Thanks to the other morsel and his timely gift, a mere few millennia before my whispers begin to take root within the land.” Wagyl answers, still playing the skull in her hands.
 
“Right. Well. Won’t be checking under me pillow for new species of crawly tonight then.” You mutter to yourself.
 
“So limited in time… I am surprised you are able to get anything done…” Wagyl chuckles, almost affectionately, brushing at you with her massive hand which promptly sends you sprawling in the mud.
 
“We manage, Lady Wagyl” You reply, sighing as you wipe yourself off.
 
“I’m sure… What to give you though…” She muses, tapping a taloned finger against her lips. “I have it… A choice, morsel. My essence living within you, giving you power over beast, knowledge of tooth and claw. Or, I can take of your companions, giving you their essence… Knowledge of the Daughters of Maou… Power against their magic.”
 
“Well that’s off the table.” You state abruptly “I’m not hurting Blue or Cally, no matter the reward.”
 
“Such loyalty…” Wagyl murmurs approvingly, before something catches her eye. “What is that?”
 
Before you can react, the gargantuan, rainbow-scaled lamia has picked up the ivory length of the rooster’s spur from the bed of the wagon where it had lain forgotten beneath the skull. Holding it as you would hold a splinter pulled from your palm, Wagyl nods approvingly. “Yes. This will do. Strong essence, yet… unfinished… rushed in its weaving.” She pauses, smiling “This is from Maou’s Shame, is it not?”
 
“It was a rooster, a bull harpy, so… yeh?” You reply, uncertain.
 
“Adam!” Cally insists from behind you, clawed hand urgent upon your shoulder where she leans from the wagon. “Both of those would leave traces… it would look… suspicious to Paladins.”
 
“True” Wagyl agrees. “The Servants of the Sun God would not look fondly upon my gifts… Yet what reward is there without risk?”
 
“When the potential downside is screaming on a pyre, Lady Wagyl, you’ll forgive me bein’ a touch on the hesitant side.”
 
“A third essence then… Yet one I can only give you, not bestow within you. It has proven… Intractable.” Wagyl offers, digging her hand into the mud and pulling forth a medium-sized stone chest, gobbets of clay and river-smelling detrius oozing from its sides. “An essence of power… or perhaps profit. I know not and neither do I care. It was… precious to the madman who previously haunted these banks, however.”
 
You approach the chest, wiping the clay away, strange markings etched into the stone beneath it.
 
“That looks like Raoul-writing boss.” Blue declares, curiosity having overcome her fear.
 
“A Matrix of Resonance!” Cally declares “Don’t open it Adam! They’re very dangerous!”
 
“Wasn’t planning on it Cal…” You reply.
 
Any kid in the Abbey knew that the Grand Lodge of Resonance was fiercely jealous of its matrixes, the irregular crystalline structures they used in ‘Awakening’ new resonants, yet the things DID seem to just pop up seemingly at random around the world, almost like the Lodge’s efforts at control were being subverted by some will as yet unknown. The finders fee should one be found ‘In the wild’, so to speak, was nothing to be sneezed at, and the goodwill you would garner with the Grand Lodge for handing one in…
 
Seemingly out of nowhere, the memory of Isaac’s voice echoes in your mind. “Power… Unlimited Power…”
 
…But being a Resonant, that was a reward all its own.
 
“I am unlimited in time, morsel…” Wagyl interrupts your musing “…yet not in patience. I would begin work on my new things. Choose.”
 
“This ‘Third Essence’ Lady Wagyl… Anything you can tell me about it?”
 
The gargantuan lamia lowered her hooded head to look you directly in the eyes, her surprisingly delicate chin resting on folded hands. Her opalescent scales shimmered and her silver, slit-pupiled eyes seemed to stare directly into your soul.
 
“I understand you being a trifle overwhelmed, morsel…” She drawled, the hint of a smile on those lush, soft lips “…But was there something about ‘Don’t know, Don’t care’ which escaped you the first time?”
 
“Hurts nothing to ask, madam.” You gulped, your knees doing their utmost to keep from turning to water beneath you.
 
“Except my patience. Which again, is not unlimited. Choose.”
 
“I’ll accept the chest, with my sincerest gratitude.”
 
“Of course you would…” Wagyl sighs, a hint of disappointment in her voice. “…Do you have any idea how long it’s been since I’ve gotten to play around in a human’s mitochondria?”
 
“Mitowhodidwhattoria?” You blurt uncomprehendingly.
 
“Never mind. You’re about five centuries from being able to even comprehend the concept, morsel.” Wagyl grumbles in surprising petulance, slithering herself back into the river. As her head sinks below the murky surface, Cally sprints from the wagon, throwing herself across the chest.
 
“Don’t open it!” She cries, eyes wide with trepidation.
 
“Sodding hell Cally, I was just going to put it in the wagon!” You exclaim, taken aback.
 
“Please Adam… I’ll… suck your dick!” The Koala begs desperately.
 
“You already did.” You snicker, gently pushing the Koala aside and hefting the chest, grunting at the unexpected weight. “Heavy little cunt…”
 
“I’ll eat your arse then!”
 
“Eurgh…” You grunt, flinging a disbelieving glance over your shoulder “…why would I want you to do that?”
 
“I… heard blokes like that sort of thing.” Cally stammers, crimson-faced.
 
“Well not this bloke.” You declare, dumping the chest unceremoniously in the wagon bed. “Now come on, I’m all over mud, it’s fucking cold, and I want clean water and a nice sunny hillside to dry off on. If yer gonna be in my ear about this thing, at least let’s do it moving.”
 
 
“…Insanity, blindness, deafness, drooling idiocy, it can stop your heart or simply set you on fire from the inside out.” Cally continues, ticking the points off on her clawed fingers.
 
“And yet there’s been a Grand Lodge of Resonance for how many thousands of years?” You retort with a grin.
 
“And only a fraction of the applicants make it through!”
 
“And how many of those applicants meet with unfortunate accidents before they even set foot in Magisterium?”
 
Cally’s mouth works wordlessly, brow furrowed in puzzlement. “I… What?”
 
You reign in the Bungarra, hopping off the wagon and kicking at a deadfall until something skitters from beneath the broken wood. Drawing your knife, you pierce its exoskeleton with a crunch, carrying the knife back to Cally, the crawling thing lashing with a barbed tail impotently against the steel upon which it is impaled.
 
“Whazzat Cal?” You ask mildly.
 
“A scorpion.”
 
You nod, grunting affirmation. “And are ya surprised to see it?”
 
“Of course not, they’re everywhere, especially when you go kicking logs to bits, what’s your point Adam?
 
“If I were to let it sting me, I’d die, yet I just kicked a log apart looking for one… Wouldn’t you say that’s a risk?”
 
“Boss you’ve even lost me on this one.” Blue interjects, brow furrowed in puzzlement.
 
“My point is, Who hasn’t walked to the fuckin’ jakes barefoot in the middle of the night, when these things are out and about looking for dinner? We live in the bloody Australs. The whole Tyris-blessed fuckin’ WORLD is afraid enough of what lives here that they’re content to leave us to our own devices. We know the risks. We accept them. And we remain.”
 
You flick the scorpion onto the ground, crushing it nonchalantly beneath the heavy heel of your boot.
 
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with that matrix. But if I do decide to open it, it’s because I understand and accept the risk. Likewise, if I don’t, it’s because I don’t think it’s worth the risk. But what I’m not going to do is piss myself in my bed because I’m too scared of stepping on a scorpion on the way to the privy.”
 
“I-I just don’t want to see you hurt!” Cally exclaims, tears suddenly in her eyes. “You matter to me… Stupid Human. I…”
 
“I know Cal.” You breathe, hopping back up onto the wagon and holding the Koala close for a moment. “But I might step on a scorpion tonight, and there’s nothing you or anyone ‘sides Holy Tyris could do about it once it happens. Sometimes bad things happen, we can’t spend our lives hiding in broom closets from reality.”
 
“You know…” Blue drawls, wrapping her paws around your shoulders “…You’re a real cunt when you’re right, you know that boss?”
 
You flick the reins as you erupt in a peal of helpless laughter, soft smiles and giggles from your dearest friends letting you know everything was alright again.
 
 
“Cairn Blue, giz the damn blanket!” You demand, chasing after the kobold who dashes away, giggling, droplets flying from her tail as she keeps just out of your reach. Holding the blanket behind her, she taps her pursed lips with a furred digit. Grinning you lean forward, catching the Kobold around the waist and kissing her thoroughly. With your other hand, you snatch the blanket from her loosening grip as she melts into you.
 
“Oi!” Blue yells in consternation, realizing your ploy. Grinning, you use the blanket to towel the water from your hair and body. Blue’s eyes narrow, and she leaps at you with a growl.
 
Blue’s paws connect with your torso, knocking you off your feet and onto the lush grass beneath you. Grinning in victory, she lowers her sleek, muscular form onto you, straddling your torso, her furred ears twitching slightly as she kisses you, her wet hair dripping onto your face and chest.
 
“Oh bonza, now we’re both wet again.” You chuckle.
 
Blue sniffs the air briefly, lip caught cutely between pointed teeth as she grins down at you. “All three of us, you mean.” She whispers, before turning her head to regard the equally naked Koala who holds her own blanket bunched in front of her curvaceous if diminutive form as she hovers nearby. “Well come on then Adorabear, I’ve got him on the ground, are you after a written invitation?”
 
“Well I don’t… I mean… If you’re sure…” Cally stammers, blood rising to her cheeks.
 
“Get over here!” The Kobold demands, beckoning with a furred paw.
 
Smiling shyly, the Koala throws down her blanket, lying in the grass next to you. You reach out an arm, burying your fingers in her mousey-blonde hair before bringing her in for a lingering kiss. You feel the warmth of her ample breasts against your side as she responds to your kisses, clawed hand rubbing along your torso as Blue nibbles at your earlobe. The wealth of sensation awakens your arousal, and you feel yourself beginning to respond.
 
“Looks like someone wants to play boss.” Blue chuckles in your ear. You feel Cally’s hand drop lower, grasping you in a twin-thumbed grip as she works at your shaft, bringing you quickly to throbbing readiness.
 
“Go on Adorabear, what are ya waiting for?” Blue demands with a wicked smile “Hop on.”
 
Cally’s lips leave yours almost reluctantly as she slides down your body. You feel a weight upon your hips as Cally straddles you, looking down to find her tentatively angling your shaft towards her entrance. Blue turns your head between her furred paws, kissing you lingeringly.
 
“Who was your girl first?” She asks seriously.
 
“You were.” You admit with a smile, kissing her again.
 
“Good. So long as that’s settled…” a light smek on your nose “Adorabear what ARE you doin’ down there?”
 
“D-don’t rush me Blue!” Cally answers, tongue between her lips as she rubs the head of your manhood against her folds, slicking the tip with her juices. “He’s… Not small…”
 
You let out a moan at the sensation, gasping as Cally slowly, agonizingly lowers herself onto you, her depths incredibly tight around your member.
 
“Ffffffuuuuuuuuuuuuck! Oh Maou!” She cries out, her eyes wide.
 
“You alright?” You gasp, propping yourself up on an elbow in concern.
 
“Unh… Adam… Just… Fuck me!” Cally demands, grabbing your free hand and pressing it to a jiggling breast.
 
You squeeze the soft, yielding flesh gently as you do your best to move your hips in time with Cally’s irregular bouncing. Reaching down with your other hand, you grip Blue’s muscular buttock before gently extricating it from around the Kobold, putting it on Cally’s hip and rocking her back and forth on your throbbing shaft.
 
“Aaaaannnhhhhh… Gentle! Gentle p-please, I’m only little!” Cally begs, her jaw slack as she gasps, her eyes screwed shut with the overload of sensation.
 
“Well since you’re down there…” Blue declares, swinging her own leg over you and straddling your shoulders, her fragrant womanhood inches from your mouth “…Aaaaaaadz?” She whines plaintively, looking down at you with a lewd smile.
 
You grin, before pressing your lips to her dripping womanhood, tongue playing amongst her sweet velvet folds, flicking back and forth across the stiffening nub there on sheer instinct. Both Mamono cry out almost in unison, Blue leaning back and sloppily kissing the Koala unthinkingly in the throes of arousal. You continue your oral assault on the kobold, your chin hot and wet with her juices, the squelching sound of Cally riding feverishly at your cock spurring you to greater and greater efforts. Before long, Blue’s muscular thighs clamp on your head, her paw gripping your hair as she shudders with climax.
 
“Ohhhh fuck boss…” she whimpers, sliding off you. You lick your lips, flashing the kobold an affectionate grin as you now use both hands to grip Cally’s hips, almost jackhammering the Koala as she moans and gasps, her eyes rolled back in her head as she ragdolls atop you.
 
“W-wait…” Cally manages to say, pulling herself off you with a moan.
 
“Cal?” you query, brows furrowed in puzzlement. The Koala takes position on her knees and elbows, her deliciously rounded backside presented to you, dripping womanhood peeking between thick thighs.
 
“L-like this… Please.” She whimpers, and you waste no time in complying, positioning yourself behind her and sinking yourself to the hilt in her warm, tight embrace.
 
“Ohhh Cal!” You moan, leaning forward and groping her breasts where they bobbed above the grass “You feel so fucking good.”
 
“Unhhhh!” Is all the Koala manages to respond as you thrust within her, her panting and whimpering driving all thought but this simple act from your mind.
 
“Fuck yeah… Show that Koala who’s alpha…” Blue hisses, furred paw between her thighs as she masturbates furiously, biting at the nape of your neck.
 
“Unf… Adam… H-hit me!” Cally cries out in passion.
 
“What?” You respond, pausing slightly.
 
“D-don’t stop! Just smack me!” The Koala demands between squealing grunts.
 
You raise a hand experimentally, bringing it down firmly on Cally’s ample buttock with a resounding smack. The Koala cries out, long and loud. “More! Please! Oh! More!”
 
Shrugging slightly in compliance, you return the favour on the other cheek, continuing your rhythmic thrusting. A mere few strokes is all it took before Cally’s arms gave way, her depths clenching on you with almost painful firmness as her legs trembled with orgasm. Beefswelling built in your own loins and you began to pant raggedly.
 
“N-not inside!” Cally begged, and Blue pushed you off her, your manhood sliding from the Koala with a lewd, wet sound.
 
“Me boss… Give it to me…” Blue insisted, spreading her legs for you. You buried yourself in the Kobold without thought, her paws gripping you about the back and neck, legs locked about your waist. It seemed almost too soon when the pressure within you gave way to the sweet agony of release. Crying out with it, your arms shook as you erupted within Blue, her own whimpering climax aroused again from the feeling of your seed within her.
 
The three of you lay there, panting, touching each other oh-so-gently, your bodies near hypersensitive from your coupling.
 
“W-we’re not moving for a while, yehboss?” Blue gasped. All you could do was moan and shake your head.
 
“Thank Maou…” Cally groaned, pulling herself up to kiss you again. “Adam, You are an evil sod for holding out on me.”
 
“Fucken… Can’t brain… someone find the top of me head, I think it came off there.” You pant, setting the mamono to giggling before they cuddled into you.
 
 
“South? Why would I bother going South, boy?” Your father demands from around a mouthful of steaming bungarra flesh.
 
“Because, there’s a continental Chef at Port Albany who’s getting DESPICABLY overcharged. Figured you could piss off a few middlemen” You respond, cutting at your own meat.
 
Your father smirks, giving a brief ‘heh’ of amusement. “As appealing as the idea sounds, I don’t have the manpower for a drove like that right now.”
 
You blink at that “Thought you had too many hands as it was.”
 
“Couple thought they could take liberties with my new Stablemaster.”
 
Your gaze pans to the unassuming Taurean at the table, red hair framing her features, matronly bosom shaking beneath a leather jerkin as she carves off a hunk of the reptile flesh.
 
“Thought.” The Taurean adds simply.
 
“Tanya here threatened to feed their parts to nineteen.” Simon snickered, pointing at the taurean with his fork.
 
“You humans bang on about the Pax, but it’s like a girl can’t even bend over to pick up tack without someone having a grab.” Tanya states simply, the hint of a smile on her face.
 
“Well begging your pardon madam, but it’s a rather attractive target.” You quip, taking a bite of the succulent meat.
 
“Adam!” Cally chided.
 
“Would Master Adam care to have a try?” Tanya almost purred, spinning her knife between her fingers.
 
“Tyris fuck, was just a bit of banter, no need to go threatening violence, madam.” You exclaim, a touch taken aback by the Taurean’s response. “And I ain’t yer master, save that fer me dad.”
 
“She’s a free Mamono, Adam. Mind your manners.” Your father adds sternly.
 
“Told.” Simon chuckles.
 
“Blue would have laughed.” You grumble.
 
“What would I have laughed at? Hey Simmo, hey Boss, hey Other Boss” The Kobold remarks, entering and sliding in next to you.
 
“About grabbing my backside while I’m trying to work.” The Taurean explained.
 
“I would have laughed about her trying to pin you to a wall with those horns, Boss.” Blue clarifies, grinning at you cheekily.
 
“Traitor.” You chuckle, squeezing the Kobold’s paw.
 
Blue points at the Bungarra “Jen really outdid herself. Anyone we know?”
 
“Twenty-Three” Simmo answers “Too niggly for trade and too much of a shit to breed.”
 
Blue Holds her hands out above the roast and gives a brief barking sound, one you and your family do their best to replicate.
 
“Okay what did I miss?” Tanya asked, her brow furrowed.
 
“Sorry Tanya, I forget you don’t have dinner with us very often.” Your father apologizes.
 
“It’s a Kobold ritual, thanking the spirit of the Bungarra for the gift of its flesh.” The Koala adds, taking another mouthful “This is REALLY excellent by the way. My thanks, Sir Robert.”
 
“You gotta go reminding me of that title all night, girl?” Your father chuckles. “How did a nice Mamono like you end up signing on with that no-hoper anyway?”
 
“He has his charms.” Cally replies delicately, smiling at you teasingly.
 
“Orright, get it all out youse lot.” You groan, throwing your hands in the air.
 
“It’s just a bit of banter…” Tanya drawls, smiling smugly at you.
 
“Fuck’s sake, you try and be nice to folks…” You grumble, taking another mouthful of your dinner.
 
“Hey… Tanya.” You call softly, catching the Taurean by the arm. “I just wanted to apologise if I gave the wrong impression at dinner.”
 
“It’s fine.” The Taurean smiled, patting you on the hand. “Just instinct on my part. I’ve had three calves already, Adam. I’m just here to work.”
 
“Three?” You echo incredulously “But you look so young!”
 
“Aren’t you just a darling for saying so?” Tanya grins. “Mind you though, I heard you were close to the cook?”
 
“Jen? Yeh… Guess you could say that.” You admit, recalling the weresheep’s failed attempt to seduce you the last time you visited Gibson.
 
“Might want to tell her to rein it in a little, she’s getting almost predatory. Found her pinning Simmo’s boy up against the wall of the stable last week. I’m no stickler for the Pax, none of my girls were bull-born, after all, but heads are starting to turn.”
 
“I’ll see if I can’t have a word with… Wait… Simmo’s WHAT?!” you exclaim.
 
“Oh, couple weeks ago, the faith Militant brought a young lad to be acknowledged by him.” Tanya explains, generous lips curving into a smile. “Don’t think it’s his though, far too good looking.”
 
“I’m going to bed.” You declare, shaking your head incredulously.
 
“Good luck, the Kobold and the Koala are already sprawled out on it.” The Taurean calls after you.
 
“Tyris be fuckin’ glorified, I am beginning to think this stop was a mistake…” You grumble under your breath.
 
 
“So are you going to?” The voice asks you as you stare at the chest.
 
“I don’t know, what will happen if I do?” You ask, looking at the chest where it rests on the flat, featureless landscape around you.
 
“What will happen… what won’t happen… The end, or the Beginning… Does it really matter?”
 
“Will I die?”
 
The sensation of a formless ‘shrug’ from the unseen figure. “Time admits that’s a possibility, but I’ve seen you in other spaces too… there’s… potential there.”
 
“Who are you?”
 
“No One… Everyone… A confluence of possibility riding on the currents of Time…”
 
“Do you have a preference?”
 
“Either way… I Am that I Am…”
A raven cawed harshly…
 
…You started to wakefulness as the bird continued its harsh droning caws from a tree somewhere outside.
 
“Fuckin’ Bird…” Blue mumbled sleepily, cuddling into you before dozing off again.
 
“Mmblmngl” Cally uttered unintelligibly on your other side, turning her face into the pillow.
 
A dream… just a dream. You sighed heavily, trying to relax, but further sleep evaded you. You felt rested, the lingering aches from Kessiah’s training but a memory.
 
It was time to make a decision, you knew that now.
 
“In for a brass…” You thought to yourself, gently extricating yourself from between the Mamono, praying that they don’t wake up. Thankfully, after some slight mumbling and movement, the girls settle back to sleep. You pad barefoot from your room, edging into the parchment laden study used by your father and eldest brother in the myriad administrative tasks required here in Gibson to keep the Holding running smoothly. Finding a blank piece, you dip a quill in a well-used inkwell.
 
“Be it hereinne recorded that I, Adam of Gibson Holdinge, being of sounde facultie and soul untarnishede, before Tyris The Godde, Eternal, Immutable Sovereign…” You bit your lip in concentration, focusing on the unfamiliar, near-ecclesiastical syntax required of the formal document. Once you had sufficiently blathered on for the required paragraph or two, the meat of the document was pretty straightforward. In the event of your untimely demise, Blue was to be paid out in full, and Cally was to receive a third of your remaining largesse, the remainder to be allocated by the two Mamono as they saw fit. That should see Cally safely to Magisterium, should that be her decision.
 
You didn’t plan to die here, but it didn’t hurt to admit the possibility.
 
You blew on the parchment to dry it, before leaving the document atop the pile of gear which sat expectantly near the door. Sounds in the kitchen, Jen preparing the morning meal, the birdsong swelling as more and more creatures awoke to the dim, pre-dawn light. You scurried out of the homestead furtively, a confrontation at this point would be difficult to explain.
 
The Grass was dew-wet and cold under your feet as you headed towards the stables, the ample, red-headed figure of Tanya leading two bungarra away. Her bovine tail lashed absently above her well fleshed, heavy-hooved, digitigrade legs, and you couldn’t help but smile as you recalled your banter with her the evening before.
 
A tempting target indeed.
 
You stifled a grunt as you lifted the stone chest from your wagon, Four and Twenty clearly having been put to paddock with the others. Good. You didn’t need the Bungarra to start complaining at you for breakfast. You headed into the one of the stable stalls, stale, dusty straw telling you that it had not been used in some time. Horses nickered sleepily from the far end, hoping for an early feed. You ignored them, latching the stall and setting the chest on the ground.
 
“Alright, seems we’re gonna have a chat, you and I.” You murmur to the chest, running your hands over its surface, searching for a latch.
 
You recognise mathematical symbols as you brush the dried mud and clay from the chest’s surface, symbols which gave slightly at the pressure of your fingers. Pressing them in sequence yielded a deeper ‘Click’ from the main latch of the chest.
 
“Good start…” You remark, opening the chest. The irregular crystal of the Matrix itself is revealed to you, glowing with an eldritch energy all its own, and you fought down the urge to laugh. It looked like nothing so much as the disfigured, disembodied eye of some unknown, myopic giant, gazing about stupidly. What was there to worry about?
 
Then it looked at you.
 
Fear roiled in your guts, and a tingling sensation washed over you as your hair stood on end. Without warning, arcing energy spilled from the crystal, striking you directly in the head and torso. Your hands reflexively gripped the sides of the chest, your spine bending painfully as the energy brutally, mercilessly worked its way up your tortured nerve channels to your brain.
 
“SECTOR(6-80)-COPY(6)-SUM(PLATFORM)-8-QUADRANT-OVER(9+80)-CIRCLE(4)-WEAVE(80)-CALL(4)COPY-ENTER(9)-7*7B-SUM(QUADRANT)-COPY” A dispassionate voice seemed to scream in the recesses of your mind. This was not the dry, slightly amused voice from your dream. This was Alien… Powerful…
 
Images and forms seemed to play before your eyes, geometric shapes, an endlessly scrolling series of numbers and glyphs, charts, diagrams… but disjointed and nonsensical, it was like trying to read by being thrown bodily through a bookshelf. You braced against the arcing energy which still flowed through you, doggedly trying to make sense of the madness being thrust into your mind.
 
Wait! That symbol… you had seen it before! And that one! Slowly but surely you began recognising a pattern of the swirling vortex of data pouring into you.
 
ASSUME
AWAKEN
CLAIM
CONFIRM
You grimace, gritting your teeth. Desperately searching… absently feeling wetness upon your lip as blood dripped freely from your nose…
 
There it was.
 
4RB1TR1U5
 
“Arbitrius?” You gasp uncomprehendingly, why was this thing trying to speak High Pandemonian to you? And why were the letters all fucked up?
 
OBSERVATION: PLATFORM HAS TRANSMITTED UID – RECEIPT CONFIRMED. PLATFORM(4RB1TR1U5) HAS BEEN PAIRED SUCCESSFULLY.
DIRECTIVE: DISENGAGE MODIFICATION PROTOCOLS AND SET SATELLITE UNIT TO STANDBY…
ERROR: MODIFICATION PROTOCOLS HAVE STOPPED RESPONDING AND WILL BE SHUT DOWN
CRITICAL FAILURE: DAMAGE TO SATELLITE SUBSYSTEMS – OVERLOAD IMMINENT
DIRECTIVE: UPLOAD PROTECTIVE COUNTERMEASURES TO PLATFORM
 
SHIELD
 
With a harsh detonation, the matrix shattered, spraying deadly shards about the stable stall. Dimly, you saw a lethal fragment stop as if embedded in stone scant inches from your face, others embedding themselves in the wood before decaying further into glittering dust. Your vision began to collapse into a tunnel, and you vaguely felt yourself release the chest as you fell to the floor, unconscious…
 
 
“…Should I know? I’m a Stablemaster, not a damn apothecary.” A voice intruded, rousing you to wakefulness. You groaned, your head throbbing and your abused nerves tingling as pins-and-needles seemed to play over your entire body.
 
“Praise Maou! He’s alive!” A second voice gushed gratefully. You blinked, sitting up, to see Tanya and Blue’s elder sibling Rey standing above you.
 
“Gudday” you grin weakly at the two mamono.
 
“You’re in trouble.” Rey declared, folding furred paws across her muscular torso.
 
“Ah balls… Who said what?” You groan, leaning on the wall as you staggered to your feet, aching all over.
 
“Well you’re the one who left a fucking suicide note on top of your gear. You made my little sister cry Adz…” The Kobold growled, glaring at you.
 
“Suicide? Since when is a last will and fucking testament a fucking suicide note?”
 
“See? I told you it was nothing.” Tanya remarked nonchalantly.
 
“Nothing?!” Rey echoed incredulously “What in the name of Maou were we supposed to think? And we find him in an old stall with an empty box and blood all over his face, and you’re saying it’s nothing?” Taking a few quick steps, she grips the front of your shirt, pulling you down to face her. “I should beat some sorry into you, Human.”
 
“DOWN Rey!” You bark, grabbing her paws and removing them firmly from your garments. “And remember yer bloody place before you go threatening a Freeman of the Australs… Or do I have to remind you, indentured?”
 
Rey’s eyes flash with indecision as your dominant behaviour fights with her quick temper. Eventually, nature wins out and she lowers her head submissively.
 
“Sorry Adz… But you made Blue cry and…”
 
“And I am going to right away beg her forgiveness for that.” You interrupt, before turning to the Taurean. “Who else knows?”
 
“Simmo found them crying over the note. He told them they were overreacting but asked us to come find you just in case you were stupider than he thought.” Tanya answers with the same casual nonchalance.
 
“Bit harsh.” You blink.
 
“His words, not mine.” Tanya drawls with a smug grin.
 
“I’ll tell them you’re alright.” Rey offers, rushing from the stable before you can answer. Tanya points at the stone chest imperiously.
 
“I don’t know what that was, but I want it out of my stable. And wash your face. You look a bloody fright.”
 
You nod acceptance at that, grinning helplessly at the brusque yet mothering nature of the Taurean, picking up the now-lighter chest and heading out of the stable, your legs still protesting slightly after your ordeal.
 
 
“YOU CUNT!” Blue snarls, launching herself at you.
 
“You inconsiderate, wax-brained, slime-hearted…” Cally cries witheringly.
 
“Adorabear…” Blue interjects almost politely as she tackles you to the floor “…Me first.”
 
“Of course Blue, go right ahead.” The Koala replies sweetly, still fixing you with a look of sheer fury.
 
“HOW COULD YOU?!” Blue howls, straddling you and beating on your chest with her furred paws. “You promised! You promised me you’d look after me! How can you look after me if you’re dead?”
 
You wrap your arms around the Kobold straddling you, holding her against you as she struggles, snarling and spitting epithets.
 
“I’m sorry pup. I didn’t mean to scare you.” You offer sincerely “I had no intention of dying, in fact the matrix was just a good excuse to do something I should have done the first day we set out.”
 
“W-what?” Blue asks incredulously, turning her tear-streaked face up to look at you with blank incomprehension.
 
“Matrix or otherwise, hasn’t the last month taught you anything? This is a fuckin’ dangerous profession we’re engaged in. If anything happens to me, I want to keep that promise. I want to make sure you’re looked after, even if I’m not around to do it.” You cup the Kobold’s face tenderly “I care about you so much, Blue. You’re my dearest friend, and… more.” You admit, as much to yourself as to her.
 
Blue sniffs “A-at least they found you before you went through with it.”
 
You rub an ear with a soft smile. “Did you really think the worst was going to happen?”
 
Blue’s eyes nearly bulge from their sockets. She grabs you with her paws, burying her face between your neck and shoulder and inhaling deeply. “Doesn’t smell any different…” She pulls her head back, kissing you passionately, her tongue busy inside your mouth. “Doesn’t taste any different…”
 
“Wow… Wasn’t expecting that…” You exclaim in surprise.
 
“Don’t think you’re going to distract me like that.” Cally sneers. “Of all the mindless actions you POSSIBLY could have taken, after I warned you in such lurid detail about how much of a deadshit STUPID idea it was…”
 
“Yeah you did, wonder why I snuck out before dawn to save you the agony of trying to talk me out of it?” You rejoin, still holding Blue against you. The Kobold pinches you viciously.
 
“Git.”
 
“Ow…” You wince “…I had your feelings in mind! I figured either I’d be done before you woke up, or the worst would be over. Do you know what happened? The fucking thing exploded! If you’d been there I couldn’t guarantee your safety! As it was I barely know how I survived!”
 
“That’s exactly my fucking POINT you arse!” Cally shrieks, her twin-thumbed hands balled up in frustration, the uncommon expletives sounding alien from her mouth “It might have taken me a while to come around to the idea, but did you ever stop to think that I was INDENTURED to a resonant experienced enough to have sat as an Officer of the Grand Lodge of Resonance for SEVEN CUNTING YEARS?! You don’t think I could have helped?”
 
Cally’s words strike at you with pinpoint precision and your heart sinks within you. “Cally… I’m… Fuck me I’m so sorry. You’re absolutely right.” You stand, releasing Blue and extricating yourself gently from her grip. “I made a mistake. But let me make you an offer Raoul never could. Let me work WITH you as a resonant. As equals.”
 
You extend your hand to the Koala, who purses her lips for a moment, before taking it, pumping it and pulling you down with surprising strength, pressing her lips to yours almost savagely.
 
“If you ever. EVER scare me like that again, I will claw your fucking face off. Do you hear me?” Cally hisses at you, tears in her eyes.
 
“Loud and clear Cal.” You reply, hugging the Koala before extending an arm to Blue, bringing her into the embrace. The three of you hold each other in silence, before you reluctantly let them go. “We’d better see about Simmo…” You remark, heading towards the door, “…He’s probably mad as a cut snake right n…”
 
You turn to see your eldest brother in the doorway, stony faced as he swings a hard right at your face.
 
SHIELD
 
“Tyris FUCK!” Simon yells as his fist impacts on something unseen. “Fucking shit bastard cunt whore arse maggot cock-dripping FUCK!” he continues, waving his hand and inspecting it gingerly. “What the fuck was that?”
 
“I’m a Resonant, Simmo.” You grin.
 
“That fuckin’ chest. I knew I should have had Skye throw it in the fuckin’ cesspit the instant I saw it. You’re a cunt, Runt. You’re a cunt for scarin’ little-dog. You’re a cunt for bringing that onto our land. And you’re a cunt for putting yourself at that kind of risk. Dad’s not so well that having to bury his youngest might not have fuckin’ broken his heart…” Simon remonstrates, assuring himself that his hand isn’t broken. He catches you in an embrace, holding you crushingly and thumping you on the back. “…Thank Tyris you’re alright.”
 
“Didn’t mean to worry anyone Simmo. I fucked up… But what’s done is done.” You mumble, squashed into your older brother’s bulk.
 
“Yeh… Yeh it is…” Simmo agrees, releasing you “What’s it feel like?”
 
You pause, turning your attention inward for a moment “Like I’ve got a giant book inside my head I’m never gonna get the chance to finish.”
 
Sounds fuckin’ dull. Well go on then.”
 
“Wha?”
 
“Do somethin’ fuckin’ cool with it.”
 
You pause, your mind completely blank. “Like what?”
 
“Anything.”
 
“I just nearly broke your hand with ‘Anything”
 
“Well something that doesn’t involve breaking my hand.”
 
You look at an empty mop-bucket, forgotten in the corner of the room. You stare at it intently, but have no idea what to do from there.
 
“Cally? The fuck am I doing?” You ask desperately.
 
“Quod Erat Demonstrandum” The Koala intones smugly.
 
“I don’t speak Pandemonian, help me out here!”
 
“Humans…” Cally groans, passing a twin-thumbed hand across her cherubic face. “You mentioned a book… From what I understand, you have to look at it backwards. Don’t look for the word to find the meaning, look for the meaning to find the word.”
 
You nod, calling upon the Logos and feeling it respond. Frowning, you look at the Koala. “There are so many words that mean the same thing!”
 
“Do they? Or do they just SEEM like they do because you don’t completely understand them. If you’re going to show off, PLEASE, for the Love of Maou, be tame with it, I’d rather you didn’t break the Planet.”
 
You swallow, looking at the bucket again.
 
UP
 
The bucket hurtles through the ceiling, a gaping hole in the roof the only evidence as to its prior existence.
 
“Tyris be fuckin Glorified…” Simon muses before looking at you “…Also you’re payin’ for that.”
 
“Course I am…” you groan, Blue giggling uncontrollably behind you.
 
 
“So if I figure out the right way to use ‘up’, I could carry ten Hundredweight on the back of a Bungarra by telling it to ignore the fact it weighs so much?” You ask eagerly, tightening the trace on Twenty.
 
“Or it could go meet its friend the bucket in the sky.” Cally drawls, looking thoroughly pleased with herself.
 
“I’m damn sure that much smug’s a Sin, someone find me a copy of the Doctrines o’ bloody Tyris…” You mutter darkly to yourself, Blue laughing helplessly on the bench.
 
“Excuse me, Freeman?” A young voice pipes behind you. You turn to see a boy of about twelve or thirteen, wearing a simple worker’s smock, his brown hair unkempt and clear blue eyes looking at you seriously.
 
“Hey, you’re Simmo’s boy… Harry?” You ask.
 
“S’right, Holdsward of Gibson Holding. The boy intones, his brow furrowed with a phrase not yet committed to memory.
 
“Well hell, glad to meecha mate. I’m Adam… Your uncle, I guess!” You laugh, holding your hand out to the boy who takes it politely if unenthusiastically.
 
“Glad to meet you, Uncle. Have you seen my father around? I’ve finished cleaning down the saddles for that Co… er, for Tanya, and I wanted to know if he needed me for anything else.”
 
“Izzat Simmo’s pup?!” Blue exclaims eagerly, jumping down, her tail wagging frantically.
 
“Yeh Blue” You chuckle indulgently.
 
“Oh Maou he’s ADORABLE!” Blue gushes, rushing towards the lad, who recoils, dropping into a fighting stance.
 
“Keep away from me, Monster!” He snarls, Blue stopping in her tracks with a hurt whine.
 
“Oi!” You order, stepping forward and petting Blue on the head comfortingly “You be nice to me Kobie now.”
 
“Canticle 39 verse 12 of the Doctrines of Holy Tyris: ‘Cleave ye then thyself unto thine own people, that thou mayest grow and be prosperous in Mine eyes’.” Harry intoned, his eyes narrowing “I asked you a question, Uncle.”
 
“No.” You answer levelly, your brow furrowed in thought “I haven’t. Last I saw he was in the office.”
 
“Thank you.” Harry answered pertly, turning on his heel and heading inside.
 
“Can HE go meet his friend the bucket in the sky?” Blue asks sulkily.
 
“No pup…” You sigh.
 
“I’m NOT a monster.” Blue whimpers
 
You hold her close, stroking a furred ear. “You bloody well are not.” You agree. “There’s something fucky going on here.”
 
“He’s a product of his upbringing.” Cally muses philosophically.
 
“Yeh he is, did you see that stance? That’s Faith Militant, and no mistake, and the accent? Pure Westerlander or I’m a darkie.” You tap your lip in thought, “I’m wondering if Tanya knew the whole story when she told me about Jen.”
 
“What about Jen?” Blue asked, curiosity overcoming her injured pride.
 
You relay the conversation you had with the Taurean to the two Mamono, who both frown in thought.
 
“Well we should at least try to help!” Blue insists.
 
“Blue, Adam’s not even really a part of Gibson except by birth any more. Maou, his father could have made us pay for food and board if he wasn’t such a dear old man.” Cally responds.
 
“First Tristan, now me dad?” You ask incredulously.
 
“Not my fault your family is interesting…” The Koala sniffs, suppressing a smile “…That being said, it’s not really your place to get involved. Also you DID kind of promise Juni you’d meet with her today.”
 
You frown slightly. “We’ve got a couple hours… I’m sure she won’t be too salty if we’re a touch late.”
 
Cally shrugs “You’re the one with the business, trader.”
 
 
“Jen?” You call, peering through the doorway into the kitchen. A couple of Jen’s Null attendants stare at you with muted curiosity, their androgynous features blank and emotionless. A wooly blur rushes towards you with a rapid clopping of cloven hooves, and you find yourself caught up in the ample cleavage of Gibson’s head cook.
 
“Adam!” Jen cries enthusiastically, squeezing you tightly. “I was beginning to think you were avoiding me!”
 
“Yeh well… been a bit busy… sorry…” You gasp, your voice muffled between wool and titflesh. You push yourself gently if firmly, the weresheep reluctantly releasing you from her enthusiastic embrace.
 
“Wondering if I could have a word in private?” You venture, glancing at the Nulls who have returned to their duties.
 
“Oh you can trust Kem and Ris, Adam, you know that!” Jen laughs dismissively, her hand lingering on your arm.
 
“It’s a bit of a delicate one, thought it might be better discussed one-on-one.”
 
“Oh… Well then by all means…” Jen drawls suggestively, leading you eagerly into a dry-store adjoining the kitchen. “Now… What did you want to ‘talk’ about?
 
“Harry.” You state simply.
 
“…Oh.” Jen replies, the disappointment clear in her voice.
 
“Tanya mentioned that she found you and Harry in a bit of a compromising position the other day. Says you’re getting a bit too ‘proactive’ with the lad.”
 
“Says the pot to the kettle!” Jen cries with uncharacteristic force. “That grumpy old cow mothers him like a weaning calf. I swear, even the little kobies can’t get near him without her watching like a hawk.”
 
“So you weren’t… Wait. Little Kobies?”
 
Jen nods. “Simmo offered to train them for the Nulla’s Line Pack. Probably so the Holding doesn’t suffer any downtime if Skye and Rey want to go home in a couple of years…”
 
“That’s a distant ‘if” You remark wryly.
 
“And No, I ‘Wasn’t”. She adds almost sulkily. “I went looking for him because lunch was ready, and I found him behind the stables staring at his hands and babbling. I thought he might be sick, so I tried to take his temperature, and he starts yelling and shoving fit to wake the dead.”
 
“OL SONF VORSG GOHO IAD BALT LONSH CALZ…” You chant, placing your hands in front of your face. “…Something like that?”
 
“…Exactly like that… Do you have a fever, Adam?” Jen asks, raising a hand to your forehead.
 
“No Jen.” You smile, patting the Weresheeps’s soft hand “It’s Angelic. The Glorification of The Sun. Tyris, we only do it but once at midsummer… What kinda Abbey was this kid raised in?”
 
“I try so hard, Adam! I want him to like me but he’s so… Afraid of us.” Jen almost sobs.
 
“I get you Jen. Still, s’abit of a stretch to go from a misunderstanding like that to her asking me to talk to you about being… proactive.”
 
“Well…” Jen shuffles her cloven hoof guiltily.
 
“Mmm?” You query, raising your eyebrow.
 
“P-please don’t denounce me… I don’t mean any harm by it… it’s just…”
 
“Just what?”
 
“I’ve been making myself… Available.” Jen explains, a crimson flush of embarrassment on her cheeks. “I don’t want to break the Pax! Truly I don’t… It’s just, I’m twenty-five summers old, Adam, and haven’t yet lambed, and this summer I return to my herd.”
 
“That’s a problem?”
 
“They’ll put me to the Ram! I don’t want to go to the Ram! I don’t want to be taken like some kind of livestock! I want to… be held… I want… I want it to be gentle… caring. Maou damn it, I don’t want to go back at all! I want to stay here and cook dinner, and have Simmo tease me when my wool gets too long, and sleep in my room, in my bed, with a roof that doesn’t leak… This is my home, Adam!” The Weresheep declares, bursting into tears where she clings against you.
 
“If she bears lamb to Human, herd will not put her to Ram. Duty to herd done.” The dull, disinterested voice of Ris, the Null weresheep drones from the doorway.
 
“Ris!” Jen gasps in shock “What are you…”
 
“Ris needed spices.” It replies, holding aloft a jar of some kind of herb before exiting the dry-store.
 
“So much for privacy.” You sigh, patting the soft wool on Jen’s head and shoulders gently. “Have you spoken to Dad or Simmo about this?”
 
“W-what?” Jen exclaims uncomprehendingly.
 
“You… didn’t even ask about extending your indenturehood?”
 
“I can do that?” Jen asks incredulously.
 
“Oh Sweet Tyris Almighty…” You gasp, laughing helplessly.
 
“D-Don’t laugh at me Adam!” Jen bleats, shoving at you.
 
“I’m not… I’m not… Alright maybe I am a little.” You admit, extending your hand to the weresheep. “Come on, let’s go get this sorted out.”
 
 
“Maou’s tits!” A young Kobold swore, picking herself up off the ground and starting towards the youth who had just shoved her. “What’s wrong with you?”
 
“I said, don’t fucking touch me.” The youth retorted, glaring at the Kobold.
 
“Star was only trying to help, Harry!” Another declared, joining her sibling. “Honestly pull the stick outta your arse.”
 
“I’m fine, you worry about your own work.” Harry growled, working viciously at a hand-crank which was slowly boring a hole through a substantial log.
 
“Your son is a regular charmer, Simmo.” You remark as you approach the hillock upon which your older brother stood, a worried look on his perpetually surly features. Jen followed behind you, bearing a wide basket covered with a light cloth.
 
“Yeh well… The girls’ll knock some sense into him eventually.” Simon replies briefly.
 
You shake your head. “Wouldn’t count on it, he’s been trained. Well.”
 
“Mmm… Spotted that did you?”
 
“Yeh, as well as the accent. Tyris fuck Simmo, how the shit did you sire a Westerlander?”
 
“Would’ve been the Sowing ‘bout twelve years back, when I was your age… Lots of Westerland Pallies there for some reason. Some kind of argy-bargy with a faction in Thealiss… Course the Priestesses wasted no time wrapping up some eager Austral lads with half a skin in ‘em for continuance… Y’don’t think it’ll ever amount to anything, ya know? It’s just a thing you do… sometimes it’s even fun. But it doesn’t prepare you for the knock on the door and some frightened kid looking at you to solve all his problems while the fuckin’ Faith Militant dusts off mailed gauntlets and basically says ‘Your problem now.”
 
Simon sighs, looking at you. “I can run the Holding in my sleep. Have been for the last couple years while Dad pretends he ain’t doin’ half the Baron’s Court business for him… Him though?” he looks down the hill at the sullen youth. “I dunno what the fuck I’m doing with him.”
 
“Ask Dad?” You venture “He’s done it three times, after all.”
 
“We were born in the Australs, raised here… When a Priestess quotes Canticle 39 at us we take it as an admonition to work together, setting aside our petty differences… Harry there seems to take it as an endorsement of Human Supremacy.” Simon sighs, “He’s a different boy than we were. I don’t wanna bug Dad with that can of worms.”
 
“Still can’t hurt.”
 
“You know Dad can’t delegate to fuckin’ save himself…” Simon snickers, before his face sobers again. “And he’s getting on, runt. S’takin’ him longer to get up in the mornings, he can’t ride as long… I’m having to remind him of things more often.”
 
“If he’s busy with the Barony, as you said…”
 
“It’s age, runt. No denying it. Tyris’ll call him home within the decade, or I’m an Acolyte.”
 
That thought hit home slightly, and you paused in silent thought, standing beside your eldest brother.
 
“E-excuse me Holdings-Heir” Jen timidly ventured.
 
“Oh Hell!” You exclaim “Sorry Jen, we came here for you after all.”
 
“Why so formal Jen?” Simmo asked in puzzlement “You know you can call me Simmo.”
 
“Well I was wondering… What I mean is… I’d like to… What I really want to do… Umm… I Want to…”
 
You and Simon stood there, looking at the Weresheep as she dropped opening after opening, trying and failing to make her request.
 
“Get it out Jen, I don’t bite.” Simon entreated, which merely set the Weresheep to further nonsensical babbling, tears of embarrasment welling in her eyes.
 
“She’d like to extend her indenturehood.” You sigh finally, rolling your eyes. You didn’t have ALL day to play house, damn it!
 
“Oh? Yeh, sure, why not?” Simon remarked simply.
 
“Th-that’s it?” Jen asked incredulously
 
“Well yeah… Yer a damn good cook Jen, and I don’t trust those two dead-eyed fuzzies you call kitchenhands to keep breathing without regular instruction.”
 
“Be nice to the Nulls, Simmo.” You snicker.
 
“Yeh nah, they’re odd buggers.” Simmo declares. “But back to the important part. I’ll have to get Dad to put the chop on it officially, get word to your Herd, see whether they want their chunk of your payment in coin or goods, if the latter, what… that kind of dull shit. Still, no dramas. Glad to keep you.”
 
“W-why?” Jen blinks in surprise.
 
“Cos you’re Family, Jen.” Simon answers simply, patting the weresheep on the head, who smiles blissfully.
 
“Blasphemy!” Harry’s voice sounds from nearby, where he has paused in ascending the hillock towards you, his face set in an expression of righteous umbrage which is almost comical in his youth.
 
“Did you just…” You gasp in disbelief
 
“He said the ‘B’ word!” One of the young Kobolds hisses to the other, both staring with mouths agape.
 
“Son…” Simon began in a low, even tone “…I am going to pretend that was just a cosmic nexus of dumbshit that just came out your gob there. Apolog…”
 
“Challenge me or submit to Judgement!” Harry declares.
 
“A moment of silence for the idiot…” You chuckle helplessly, raising your hands in the Sign of the Sunburst.
 
“C-canticle 3, Verse 4: The Church is thy Mother, yea, that thou hast no name, nor house, nor famil…” Harry intones, slightly less sure of himself.
 
“CANTICLE 8, VERSE 9 THROUGH 14!” Simon roars, stamping towards the boy and seizing him by the ear, dragging him back towards the homestead “Obey thou then the Word and Will of thine Earthly Father whom I have named to instruct thee in all things. For Yea, e’en as the church hath birthed and nurtured thee… so on and so bloody forth!”
 
“Withdrawn! Withdrawn! Owwwww!” Harry howled as he was pulled bodily along by his ear
 
“Your Grace is received, your arse is still forefeit. Now we are gonna get this Westerlander BUNGA-SHIT out of you if I’ve got to beat it out of your thick ‘ead.”
 
“I’m sorry! Father Please!” Harry sobbed.
 
“By Tyris, The Eternal, the Glorious, the Immutable… WHAT’S THE RESPONSE BOY?!”
 
“A-All Glory to the M-Most High!” Harry cried
 
“…No Son of mine is gonna go through life with the kind of attitude…” Simon’s ranting dulls to inarticulate dimness as he drags Harry into a side door of the homestead.
 
“He’s gotten soft in his old age.” You remark with a slight grin.
 
“Soft?” Jen echoes disbelievingly
 
You nod, rubbing at your shoulder in remembered pain. “Yeh, six years ago there would have been a whip involved…”
 
“What was that Boss?” Blue asks, rushing towards you, Cally puffing and blowing as she does her best to keep up on her shorter legs.
 
“Simmo sorting out Harry’s attitude problem.” You state simply. “And you’ll be happy to know that Jen has NOT, in fact, turned into a veal-fanatic.”
 
“Veal?” Blue asks, her tawny brow furrowing “I thought she was being a boyfuc…”
 
“Blue! Pups!” You bark warningly.
 
“What?”
 
With a playful growl, the two young Kobolds leap at Blue, who manages to spin enough to catch them in furred paws, the three of them rolling around, snarling laughter and yipping giggles punctuating their impromptu play.
 
“Orright Blue, C’mere.” You laugh, gesturing to your side.
 
“Yehboss.” She answers obediently, disengaging from the girls and standing by your side.
 
“So who do we have here?”
 
“This is Star, and this is Redde” Blue points at the black and auburn-haired Kobolds in turn.
 
“Your Mum’s not one for subtle names, is she?”
 
Blue looks at you uncomprehendingly, giving a small whine of confusion.
 
“Never mind. It’s nice to meet you girls. I’m Adam.” You smile, giving the two young Kobolds friendly pats on the head and ears. The girls blush, giggling shyly as they look up at you with big eyes.
 
“What’s in the Basket Jen?” Redde asks, just shy of demanding.
 
“Manners.” You growl automatically.
 
“M’sorry.”
 
“Just some morning tea…” Jen admits, pulling back the cloth to reveal a wealth of baked delights which you all gleefuly set upon.
 
“You SURE you want to be a Trader, Adam?” Cally giggles.
 
“Trust me Cally…” You mumble around some kind of cinnamon scroll “…There are days I wonder.”
 
 
You stare intently at the apple in your hand… Surely this time you had it. Focusing, you called upon the Logos and felt it respond.
 
FLOAT
 
The Apple seemed to suddenly become weightless as it drifted from your hand and into the air.
 
“I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” You crow, before your face falls as an errant gust of wind blows it like a soap bubble over the trees.
 
“I don’t got it.” You grumble.
 
“Aaaadz” Blue laments dramatically “Stop doing magic on all the apples I pinched.”
 
“Shaddap or I’ll do you for theft” You mumble absently.
 
“Yeah nah.” Blue remarks, straddling your lap and gripping your face between her paws “That only works when Tristan does it. Take a break, you look like you’ve gone a week without sleep.”
 
“I feel fine pup, don’t baby me.” You chide, moving to lift her off you.
 
“Nuh uh…” Blue insists, tapping at pursed lips with a furred digit. Chuckling helplessly, you kiss the offered lips.
 
“A break then.” You agree, leaning back against the wagon’s tray. Looking upward, your vision is partly occluded by the ample posterior of the Koala who is inexpertly steering the Bungarra along the highway. “Nice look Cally.”
 
“Pervert.” Cally giggles, looking over her shoulder and down at you.
 
“Had about enough?”
 
“Please.” The Koala agrees, offering the reins to you as you clamber to the front of the wagon.
 
“What am I doing wrong?”
 
“Circle clockwise, not counterclockwise, and use your fingers more.”
 
“What?”
 
“What? Oh! Nothing…” Cally gulps, blushing furiously.
 
“I meant with resonance…” You chuckle, hugging the Koala one-armed “…But thanks for the pointer.”
 
“S-sure.” Cally giggles, before drumming her clawed fingers against the wagon’s bench in thought. “Well, first thing’s first, you’re being too careful.”
 
“Sorry miss don’t-break-the-planet, you’ll have to run that by me again.” You chuckle
 
“I’ve seen how you work, you’re trying to account for everything. Raoul always said that you never make a better cart by re-inventing the wheel every time. The Logos is in here with you…” She clarified, tapping you on the head with a clawed finger “…It can see what you’re driving at, but then you go and tell it something different. Wouldn’t that confuse you?”
 
“You’re acting like it’s a living thing.” You chuckle.
 
“Guh, don’t get fixated on the analogies! Maou’s ample Bosom, Adam, I only know what Raoul told me, what Common sense dictates, and what little isn’t written in glyphs…” Cally begins.
 
“What, written? Nobody said anything about written!” You exclaim. The Koala rolls her eyes, reaching behind her into the lumpy pack which contains her books, pulling out a flat, leather-bound cover.
 
“Here’s one I used to have…” She remarks. Used to was right, what few pages remained were thoroughly chewed by some species of voracious insect, yet the leather cover remained untouched.
 
“Onne Realitie and the Manipulatione Thereoffe…” You recite, the gold filigree lettering seeming to leap out at you.
 
“So that’s what it says, I could never make it out.” Cally remarks with a slight grin.
 
“It’s right there. Juni’s right, your eyesight’s shocking.” You reply teasingly.
 
“Wanker!” Cally cries in mock umbrage. “Alright then smartarse, what language is it in?”
 
“Well it’s in…” You frown, peering at the cover. You knew what it said, you could read it plain as day, yet… “Fuck me I’ve no idea.” You admit.
 
“It’s Resonant Glyphs, that’s the Logos doing the work for you, according to Raoul. It’s something that the Grand Lodge is a bit loath to talk about. One of the MANY things that ‘August Body’ is loath to bloody-well talk about.”
 
“Oh yeah? Such as?” You ask, warming to the conversation.
 
“Well you, for one.”
 
You blink. “Me?”
 
“Well not you specifically. ‘Wilder’ Resonants, ones awakened outside of Lodge. The Grand Lodge doesn’t like to admit they exist, sane ones anyway. Means their control over resonance and by extension Resonant Loyalty to Magisterium and the Tyrisian Church comes into question.”
 
“Ah fuck, I didn’t do a heresy I’m not aware of, did I?” You groan.
 
“Do a Heresy… hehehe…” Cally giggles, shaking her head. “No, it’s more that you’re not under any kind of protection, legally speaking. You can expect Waylanders to get a little stern with you if you break the law as a resonant. Also I have no idea how the High Priestesses will react.”
 
“Eh? What do they have to do with it?”
 
“…You do know they’re all resonant, don’t you?”
 
“All of them?!” You exclaim incredulously “Tyris be fuckin’ Glorified.”
 
“Well I believe that was their intention, yes.” Cally quipped
 
“Not what…” You groan, passing a hand in front of your face. “…Never mind. So what can I expect?”
 
“They may do nothing. They may report it back to the Grand Lodge. Or, they may frog-march you through the nearest Waygate to Magisterium.”
 
“There aren’t any Waygates in the West Australs.”
 
“There’s one in every Chancel… Honestly Adam how do -I- know this and you don’t?”
 
“Cos Adz has been herding bungas and fixing fences whilst you’ve been Hob-nobbin’ with the upper crust?” Blue interjects, leaning forward to nibble on Cally’s fluffy, rounded ear.
 
“Eeeek! Blue!” Cally squeals, twisting away from the Kobold with suppressed laughter.
 
You pull the Bungarra away from a stinking, fly-bloated carcass on the side of the highway. There was no way you were going to clean them after THAT! “You seem to know a lot about Magisterium though, Cal.”
 
“Went there for a week with Raoul after the whole ‘Isaac’ thing kicked off. By the end I was so bored I was climbing the walls. Literally. It was all there was left to do.” Cally replies, pushing Blue away playfully with a twin-thumbed hand.
 
“Maou save us from THAT then!” Blue states soberly.
 
“Amen.” You agree.
 
 
“You’re late!” Juni declared in a petulant tone.
 
“You said ‘Tomorrow’. Last I checked it’s still ‘Tomorrow’ today.” You reply with a grin.
 
“I meant this morning tomorrow not now tomorrow which might be too late tomorrow and… Aaaagh!” The Tanuki shrieked in frustration.
 
“Something the matter?”
 
“Yes! Everything’s the matter! Including you! Baka!”
 
“The fuck’s a Baka?” You grunt uncomprehendingly “Look, take a breather, brush the frizz out yer tail and tell me what I can do for you. And more importantly, how much you’re going to pay me for being such a big help.”
 
The Tanuki took a deep, sobering breath, before fixing you with a no less frustrated stare.
 
“We are, to put it bluntly, over a barrel with our womanhoods bare to the sky…”
 
“There’s an image…” You quip.
 
“…Don’t tease.” Juni near-begged “The Moon’s playing it’s fun and games with me and I REALLY can’t deal with it in addition to the rest.”
 
You raise your hands in mock-surrender. “Fine, fine, sorry. How can I help?”
 
“We have three separate capitol shipments that need to get moving within the week. Remuneration is at an agreed percentage of the cargo value with allowance for distance travelled and supply.”
 
“Love your specifics, Juni.” You snicker. “What you looking to move?”
 
Juni fixed you with a nonplussed expression. “Did you leave your brains in your other pants? Capitol. Coin, Human. Money.”
 
“Oh. Right… No… I’m Sorry, Why?”
 
Juni buries her face in her hands, almost sobbing. “Because, you baka… Eventually, we have to HONOUR those notes you Traders throw around like confetti.”
 
If the penny dropped any harder, it would have given you a black eye. This wasn’t a simple supply run, Juni was trusting you with funding an office somewhere! You fought to keep your hands from shaking. Millions, at the very least, would be under your care.
 
“W-where do they need to go?”
 
“The totals are divided already. You’re looking at about two hundredweight to Jurien Holding against the refugee influx, we’re in a supply war with Nautilus and we NEED the liquidity there, our credit’s starting to be questioned. Three Hundredweight to Boulder, we need to grease some machine-wrights cogs, if you’ll pardon the pun, or Four Hundredweight to House Esperance, the New Baron’s spending like a manty-spined sailor on the morning after. Your call what you want to Prioritize, I know you’re a sole trader, but if I only have to flash my calf-fur at two Freelancers instead of three, I’ll be happy.”
 
Your eyes narrowed as you pondered the Tanuki’s offer.
 
“Why?”
 
“Did you hit your head or something? I already told y…” Juni begins
 
“I want the REAL reason, Juni. And don’t give me ‘Breyten left me high and dry’. A trading concern like his doesn’t just disappear overnight.”
 
“Breyten left Tenno and Goldstein high and dry, Adam, not ME. I’d never really had anything to DO with Breyten outside of a couple of casual meetings. Haven’t you been curious as to why I’m the only person you ever meet with? We’re not exactly a small concern, after all.” The Tanuki spat impatiently. “I’m the Agent who handles your accounts, and another one handled Breyten’s. Believe me, they’re being asked some VERY pointed questions right now about how a major Trading concern could up traces and just go almost overnight.”
 
You ponder that for a minute, thinking back over your conversation with Breyten during your first meeting.
 
“Who said it did?”
 
“What?”
 
“From what I could tell, Breyten was working his damndest to liquidate everything he could this time last month.” You add with slight smugness. “Didn’t your ledgers show that?”
 
“Well he did have a pretty consistent inflow, but he did also write off a hundred and fifty gold without annotat…” Juni pauses “…Oh Maou’s pert buttocks… You!”
 
“Really Juni?” You drawl. “You reckon my ego’s that easily baited that I’m gonna believe I’m the crucial unplanned factor that let a Merchant Prince duck out without youse lot noticing?” You stretch languidly, flexing your wrists. Juni whimpers slightly, rubbing her thighs together unconsciously.
 
“W-what do you want?” She whines desperately.
 
“The truth. Just the truth.”
 
Juni sighs, pinching the bridge of her nose and baring surprisingly sharp teeth. “Alright. Fine. We were aware of you ever since you cashed that first note at Cicerellos. We knew Breyten would be naming his landholders from amongst his own staff, reward for loyal service as it were. When you managed to come in as a fresh faced trader and not IMMEDIATELY go into hock, we felt that it might be worth slinging you a line, see how you went with something a little dicey.”
 
“The fact that I came in with money made me noticeable?” You fold your arms disbelievingly over your chest, giving another little flex. Damned if it wasn’t fun watching the Tanuki squirm…
 
“M-most don’t.” Juni stammered, flushing slightly. “Most spend their life savings on a plucky pony and a two wheel surrey and spend the next three months paying off their initial loan running sundries before they go into anything seriously approaching black ink, or they sign on with an existing concern like Breyten.”
 
“So Breyten didn’t skip out on you.”
 
Juni shakes her head. “No, that was a convenient excuse to get your interest. I had you picked as something of an altruist.”
 
Your eyes narrow as you fix Juni with a level stare “You reckon.”
 
Juni’s smile is mildly lascivious. “The Koala’s getting a free ride for nothing but the occasional tumble, isn’t she?”
 
“It’s not bloody like that!” you insist, flushing slightly.
 
“Of course.” Juni waves dismissively. “Look. If you made the drop, or drops, great. I wasn’t lying when I said we needed to move the capitol. You will be well paid. But, if something were to happen… It’s not like we don’t have the use for a tactical loss in this market. Bringing the righteous anger of the Faith Militant, the Waylanders, or both down on a competitor would give us some much needed breathing room.”
 
“You weighted the damn dice.” You grumble.
 
“I’m a Tanuki, human. I don’t take risks, I pay other people to take risks for me.”
 
“So essentially nothing’s changed, you still want the funds moved, I’m just not as essential as you made me out to be.”
 
“You humans just love to be needed, it was the juiciest thing I could offer you… Well… second juiciest…” She seems to drift off in thought for a moment. “Where are the girls?”
 
“In the trade yards, looking for a few odds and sods, probably spending far too much of my money. Why?”
 
“Reckon…” She murmured, licking her lips hesitantly. “Reckon I could borrow you for a bit?”
 
“You’re fucking serious?”
 
“Look, there are times when things are needed. It’s nothing personal, you’ve got the equipment and you’re kinda cute. You could even enjoy it, if you let yourself.”
 
“Nothing personal, eh?” You drawl, sidling closer to the Tanuki.
 
“Nothing at all” Juni breathes, licking her lips eagerly.
 
“Just… Something that needs doing on occasion.”
 
“Yuh huh…” The raccoon-girl almost whimpers, hands on your chest.
 
“So totally…” You brush your hand against her cheek “…Absolutely…” Your finger softly touches her lips “…Nothing to be concerned with.”
 
“N-nuh uh” Juni near outright moans, her furred legs trembling visibly.
 
“That a fact…” You raise your hand to her head, ruffling her hair slightly before patting her on the shoulder, removing her hands from your chest “…Sorry, got business to take care of.”
 
“Why you…” Juni hisses, her eyes bulging in frustrated anger.
 
“And stop trying to palm whatever that is… Manty spine? Really? You’re that hard up?” You snicker, taking a rapid step away from the Tanuki.
 
“I J-just…” Juni stammers, a look of desperate, animalistic hunger written clear on her face, the long, thin barb held absently in her slender hand.
 
“I’m gonna see about a wagon. Go take a cold bath or something, I’ll come back tomorrow and hopefully you won’t be so damn toey.” You remark, turning to leave.
 
“You get back here now, Trader, or so help me Maou I’ll…” Juni shrieks at your back.
 
“You just admitted to trying to bait-run me, Underwriter…” You throw back at her “…and you tried to spine me to boot. You should be grateful I’m even looking at it at all. I’m in the black, not one of your dewhorn debtors, don’t forget, and when I come back tomorrow, hopefully you will have started acting like it.”
 
Feeling thoroughly pleased with yourself, you stroll towards the trading stalls, absently looking at the various curios being hawked by bawling vendors.
 
“Hear you’re at leisure.” A voice remarks to your side, and you turn, your hand moving instinctively towards the knife on your leg. The speaker, a middle-aged man of nondescript appearance, makes a show of studying an iron lockbox, his gaze intent on the object. You sigh, relaxing slightly, looking at a pair of riding boots.
 
“What of it?” You reply.
 
“Seeing yourself moving in the direction of Boulder anytime soon?”
 
You flick a glance at the man. “Depends.”
 
“A mutual friend’s assured me of your discretion. I’d like some assistance in getting someone there.”
 
“If it’s a forced indenture, I’ll denounce you right here…” You growl warningly, your grip tightening on the boots.
 
“Nothing of the sort. I’m no monster, mate.” The man assures. “She’s a special sort. It’s nothing illegal, but I’d prefer her movements not become public knowledge, if you follow me.”
 
You relax, your interest piqued by the proposition… A secret passenger eh?
 
“What are you offering?”
 
The man sets the lockbox down, shaking his head at the vendor. “Five Gold, on condition that her presence stays unknown. If it gets back to Port Fremantle that she’s moved, the deal’s off.”
 
“So payment on return to Fremantle?”
 
“An associate will receive her in Boulder, he’ll know.”
 
Your eyes narrow as you set down the boots. “How?”
 
“How did you know the Dominus was in Port Albany?”
 
“Trade Secre… Ah.”
 
“You’re quick. Look, think it over.” The man offers, “Give your answer to the bartender missing his little finger at Joe’s.”
 
“Hey Boss!” Blue’s familiar voice rings out eagerly, as the Kobold scampers up to you. “Who ya talkin’ to?”
 
“Just a…” you turn, to see the man has melted into the crowd, vanishing from view. “…Nevermind. Where’s Cal?”
 
“Trying to find shoes. Koala’s feet are funny.” Blue answers, her eyes closed and her smile dreamy as you rub her ears in greeting. “How’d you…” She begins, before sniffing the air. “Wow… Was that Juni?”
 
“Was what?”
 
“That fuckin’ smell hanging on you… Maou’s tits, she’s fuckin’ hard up eh?”
 
“Yeh, you could say that.”
 
“Hah.” The Kobold snickers smugly. “That ‘no’ must have left her chewing the furniture. I can almost TASTE the frustration.”
 
“Yeh well… What about you Blue? What’ve you been up to all morning?”
 
“N-nothing…” Blue shuffles her canid feet, suddenly bashful.
 
“Blue…” You insist.
 
“I… I made you a present.” The Kobold blurts, handing you a small, cloth wrapped bundle, her face aflame.
 
Unfolding the cloth, you see the spur torn from the leg of the Rooster you had subdued back in Mount Barker, now intricately carved and polished, mounted upon a braided leather thong.
 
“Wow, thanks pup!” You exclaim sincerely, hanging the carved spur around your neck.
 
“You like it?” Blue asks, almost plaintively.
 
“Shit yeah, looks fuckin’ mean!” You reply assuringly.
 
“Then you’ll wear it?”
 
You peer quizzically at the Kobold. “Yer not seein’ it hanging around my neck right now?”
 
“Yehboss…” Blue declares, a curiously triumphant note to her voice. Puzzled, you pay it no mind.
 
“C’mon pup, let’s go find Cally.”
 
“Kay!” Blue agrees girlishly, scampering along beside you
 
 
“Nice…” You drawl playfuly at the Koala who stands in front of a polished sheet of bronze, inspecting the knee-high riding boots.
 
“Oh! Adam!” Cally exclaims in surprise “You don’t think they’re too much?”
 
“They’re riding boots Cal. They’re supposed to be a LITTLE ostentatious. Kinda the point. Do you really need spurs on BOTH sides though?”
 
“It’s to help me climb, I hardly want to be stuck trying to pull them off when I need to be three metres up a tree.” The curvy Koala-girl retorts with a warm grin, hands on her ample hips.
 
“Up a tree… Sure…” You agree, loading your voice with as much innuendo as you can manage.
 
“Lecher!” Cally declares in mock umbrage, her face a mixture of shock and amusement.
 
“Well in any case, Four’s gonna get a rude shock the next time you kick it.” You chuckle. “What’s the damage?”
 
“Blue’s already taken care of it…” Cally assures you. “…From that Side-ledger you set up with T&G”
 
“I wrote my name!” The Kobold declares proudly.
 
“Did ya then? Good on ya Blue.” You praise your indentured, patting her on the head. “What’s with the sudden generosity though?”
 
“It’s…” An odd growling bark “…And we’re supposed to do something nice for the people who are important to us.”
 
“Festival of the Seedling Moon.” Cally Translates for you “Though I won’t pretend to know the details of it.”
 
“Course not.” Blue sniffs “You’re not Kobold. I won’t hold that against you though, Adorabear.”
 
“Ta Blue.” Cally chuckles.
 
“So girls, did you do the thing I asked?”
 
“Uh huh!” Blue nods enthusiastically. “Four and Twenty are stabled at the Auction yards, and The Wagon’s been cleared out and yarded.”
 
“Cicerello’s was still fully booked though. Honestly Adam I don’t see what your obsession with that place is. The Tradewind is a perfectly serviceable inn.” Cally adds.
 
“Plus they don’t bug you for indenture writs.” Blue grumbles.
 
“Firstly, every time I came to Fremantle as a young fella, Dad would book us in at Cicerello’s. Sometimes a bloke’s got a desire for consistency. Second, Bacon. Breakfast.”
 
“Shit… Good point.” Blue murmurs, her stomach growling at the thought of food.
 
“Well I suppose that answers the ‘who feels like lunch’ question…” You chuckle.
 
“Like you even needed to ask.” Cally smirks, placing her arm in yours presumptively.
 
 
“Any noises as to what Forrest is looking for as far as costing?” You ask, taking a bite of the spicy mince patty that you had sandwiched between two halves of a crusty roll.
 
“Reserves for most are deceptively low, but the Auctioneers reckon that buyers should look at about five gold per hundredweight.” Cally replies, twirling absently at a creamy pasta dish with her fork.
 
You nod approvingly, “Well that’s not so bad.”
 
“That’s maximum load though.” Cally adds, taking a mouthful and valiantly trying to keep sauce from her chin.
 
“Ah. That’s a thing.” You remark, slightly less enthusiastic about the prospect. You could be looking at double what you paid for your existing, serviceable wagon. Still, brand new, and Forrest’s workmanship was second to none this side of Nulla’s line…
 
Your train of thought was interrupted by Blue’s giggling. “What’s up, Blue?”
 
“Look at us. All businessy and stuff…” Blue remarks, affecting a haughty expression “…Sell at five points above market and don’t you dare touch the blue chips!” She quips nasally.
 
“What are you on about pup?” You laugh incredulously.
 
“Dunno, I heard some trader whinin’ about it to some freelancers.” Blue replies, a thoughtful expression on her girlish face “What are blue chips, boss? And can I have some for dinner?”
 
“Not those kind of chips Blue.” You explain, patting the Kobold’s paw affectionately.
 
“…And here I was thinking you’d trained these girls into something approaching competence, Trader.” A husky voice drawls as a scaled hand drops onto your shoulder familiarly. Cally and Blue’s expressions darken as they glare at the intruder.
 
“G’day Kessiah, been well?” You remark conversationally.
 
“Can’t complain, got a good bit of time free thanks to babysitting you three.” The Reptilian answers, belching softly and gesticulating with her tankard. “Not much call for my brand this far south with the Dominus gone. It’s surprisingly welcome, ya know?”
 
“Fraid I don’t, not really my industry.” You reply politely, pursing your lips in thought. “…Actually, that might be something you could help me with, if I could persuade you to spare me a couple hours.”
 
“Wanna have another fight, Trader? Didn’t know pain was your thing…” Kessiah laughed hissingly.
 
You shake your head vehemently. “Yeah nah, not quite. I might be moving some cargo I might need a little insurance on. Wondering if you could point me in the right direction.”
 
“Whazzinit fer me?” Kessiah drawls, beery breath in your face as she leans over your shoulder.
 
“Keep your tankard full while you tell me how much better you are than everybody else you point out?” You grin.
 
“Knew I liked you for a reason!” Kessiah declared. “Bring Shortstack and the Puppy, they can tell me how great I am too!”
 
“Actually Adam… We’ve had a pretty busy morning, we might just meet you back at the inn, if it’s alright with you.” Cally interjects quickly, gripping Blue’s arm with a twin-thumbed hand.
 
“Uh… Yeah. Sure girls, as you like.” You agree with a helpless shrug. You watch Cally near-drag Blue from the taproom, the Kobold staring over her shoulder at you with a serious expression, before mouthing ‘NO’ at you as the Koala pulls her out the door.
 
“They REALLY don’t like me.” Kessiah remarks, suddenly sounding much more sober than a moment ago.
 
You look up at the brown-scaled reptilian, her features surprisingly feminine considering her deadly ability. “Does that bother you?”
 
“Nah. A mushroom can go through life without pissing people off…” Kessiah grunts dismissively “…Well, SOME mushrooms.”
 
“I guess…” You admit.
 
“Still. If I wanted you THAT badly, there’s nothing you or either of them could do to stop me.” Kessiah murmured sibilantly.
 
“Well… Dunno about that.” You reply with a slight smile. Kessiah didn’t know you were a resonant yet, after all.
 
The Reptilian peers at you thoughtfully. “Something’s changed with you, Trader.”
 
“Everything changes.” You remark dismissively “Shall we?”
 
“Yeh, orright.” Kessiah agrees, giving another hissing laugh.
 
The Tavern she led you to was a dingy affair, and you felt a slight crawling along your shoulderblades as you noticed every patron under arms. Serious arms. A couple even had battered shard-rifles slung nonchalantly over broad shoulders clad in worn, scarred armor of varying types.
 
“Beer me, and keep ‘em comin.” Kessiah demanded of the bartender, a narrow-eyed human man with evil looking scars across both cheeks. “He’s payin.” She declares, clapping you on the shoulder. The Bartender looks at you askance, and you nod agreement at the Reptilian’s statement, signalling for one for yourself. Foaming tankards of bitter beer were placed in front of you in short order.
 
“So who’ve we got here?” You ask, looking around the bustling tavern.
 
“Buncha alp-bait and no mistake, but they’ll do for your grocery runs Trader!” Kessiah declares nonchalantly and far too loudly for your liking.
 
“Fuckin’ what cunt?” A burly, bearded human demands, fronting up to the Lizard-woman.
 
“You heard.” Kessiah answers, bringing her forehead violently down on the man’s face. The mercenary goes down, bleeding profusely from a pulped nose. Raucous, jeering laughter sounds from surrounding tables, and the man skulks away, a filthy cloth pressed hurriedly to his face.
 
“That a common thing?”
 
Kessiah shrugs, “Sometimes. Ain’t a one of them I can’t take though, and they know it. Well… When they’re sober.” She jerks her chin at a laughing man sitting closeby. “That’s Max. Pretty average in a brawl, but he’s inventive, and almost as tenacious as you.” The man seems to sense the Reptilian’s attention, and fixes her with a grin and a saucy wink.
 
“Sure you’re thinking of the right kinda brawl?” You snicker
 
“Shaddup Trader.” Kessiah demands with a slight blush, before pointing to a trio of men squatting curiously to the side of the tavern. “That’s Piotir, Alexi, and Ivan, from the Rusland.”
 
“I thought the Rusland was just barren Tundra, Way Baron Thomas describes it, neither the Nordenland or the Aestenland Barons even bother to levy it…” You reply with a frown.
 
“And the Australs is just a sun-blasted hellscape.” Kessiah grins.
 
“Huh… Fair point.” You remark.
 
“…You see Ivan…” The hulking form of the man Kessiah had identified as Piotir rumbled in heavily accented Magisterian, “…When you are of holding the shard rifle like pistol, you are of reloading twice as fast.”
 
“You are not into touchings of Shard-rifle, cyka.” Ivan retorted, cradling his tarnished shard-rifle protectively “You are of breaking it with meat-paw hands.”
 
Alexi snickered wickedly, pouring some kind of spirit into dented tankards and passing them to his comrades. “Budem Zdorovy!” He grunts. “That last job was paying of well.”
 
“They work together then?” You murmur.
 
“Not usually… in fact one of them will likely try and kill the other two before the evening is ov… Oh.” Kessiah remarks, where Piotir has just brained Ivan with the underside of his tankard, the other Ruslander rolling away and swiping at the big man with the butt of his shard-rifle, Alexi swearing in some unknown language as he tries to save his bottle from the impromptu melee. “Anyway, out of those three, You’ll probably want to deal with Piotir for an escort job. Ivan’s too protective of that rifle in close quarters, and Alexi… Alexi’s the kind of man you hire to widen someone’s smile in the middle of the night, if you follow me.” Kessiah continues unconcernedly as the three men seem to be doing their very best to kill or incapacitate each other.
 
“Right.” You state diplomatically, taking another draught of beer. “Who else?”
 
“There’s Jedda, affects the name ‘Deathadder’ but does very little to justify it if you ask me.” Kessiah snorts, pointing at a mottled lamia who is carefully re-affixing the grip on a series of short, narrow spears. “She can get a surprising amount of power behind that stick chucker of hers though.”
 
“Think I’ve seen something like that before. Lamia use their whole body in the throw, it’s definitely something.” You agree.
 
Kessiah nods. “Rachel ‘The Widow’…” She continues, pointing at a black-chitined arachne before smirking and raising her voice “…Although Rachel ‘The Virgin’ would be more appropriate.” The Spider glares at the Reptilian with multiple, carmine eyes, flipping an insulting gesture at her. Kessiah grins broadly, pursing her lips and making smooching noises, causing the spider to flush slightly.
 
“Who’s that?” You ask, gesturing with your chin at a surly-looking woman sitting alone at a table, felinid paws about a tankard, and pointed ears covered in silver fur to match her hair twitching in the noisy air.
 
“Chun-Hua.” Kessiah states simply.
 
“No quips about her?”
 
“Not when I’m in earshot.” Kessiah replies drily. “She’d probably give me a run for my money if I had to admit it.”
 
“A Neko?” You ask incredulously
 
“Shhh!” Kessiah hisses insistently, elbowing you roughly and glancing over at the surly felinid whose expression hasn’t changed. “She’s a Neko like your Kobie’s a rabbit. The Aestenlanders call her kind ‘Jinko’ and very, VERY politely at all times.”
 
“How come she’s here then, and not with… well… you and yours?”
 
“Because…” Kessiah begins, pausing as the Jinko drains her tankard and stalks, pantherlike from the tavern, the other mercenaries giving her a wide, careful berth “…She’s absolutely impossible to work with. A band TRIED to sign her on, she ended up killing them over some slight.”
 
“Who keeps hiring her then?”
 
“Waylanders, believe it or not. Get a band of ferals that’s too big for the Lawmen and their indentured to take on alone? Give Chun-Hua a purse, point her at them, and tell her to kill. She’s not a mercenary, she’s a fuckin’ natural disaster.”
 
You pause for a moment. Knowing your brother like you did, you were surprised that he would let someone that unpredictable and dangerous stay in Port Fremantle without a good reason. Maybe there was more to this ‘Jinko’ than Kessiah was letting on. Clearly she was discomforted by someone who had the potential to put one over on her. You stored that little tidbit away for future reference…
 
 
“You smell like Lizard.” Blue pouts, her chin on your shoulder where she has cuddled into your side.
 
“Yeh well, place was crowded.”
 
“So what are we looking at?” Cally yawned, her clawed hands absently playing with the sparse hair on your chest.
 
“They’re all rough as guts, but I think they’re pretty reliable. Kessiah looked at me like I had three heads when I asked her if any were liable to turn coat at the first sign of trouble. Apparently loyalty to the contract’s almost a religious thing to mercs. Guess it’s just a case of who fits the bill.”
 
“Details, Adam.” The Koala demanded impatiently.
 
“You know sometimes I think you forget who’s in charge here.” You chuckle, reaching down and pinching Cally’s ample backside. The Koala squeaks, before hitting you lightly, a flush colouring her cheeks.
 
“You’re not keeping me around to flirt, Adam. I know you value my input, so let me give it already.”
 
“Alright, Alright.” You grin, before giving the Koala a summary of the Mercenaries you had been briefed on.
 
 
“Fifteen, fifteen, any advance on fifteen…” The Auctioneer droned.
 
“Eighteen you burglar!” An irritated voice called from your left.
 
“Nineteen.” You interject.
 
“Fuckin’ bash you cunt…” The trader spits venomously in your general direction. Blue gives a snarl, baring her teeth with hackles raised.
 
“Down Blue.” You say absently, patting the Kobold on the head.
 
“But people keep saying mean things to you!” The Kobold objects, clinging to your arm possessively.
 
“Mmm.” you agree “Means I’m winning.”
 
“Twenty Eight.” A voice sounds from behind you
 
“Cock-Goblin…” You grumble sulphurously.
 
“So… Now he’s winning?” Blue asks, staring up at you with innocent eyes.
 
“Shush Blue.”
 
“Why not just outbid him again?” Cally asks, her brow furrowed in puzzlement.
 
“The momentum’s too high, this one’s not worth jumping thirty, which is what that fuckin’ plant is trying to ensure happens.” You answer, jerking your thumb at the man behind you.
 
A few more bids ring out, and sure enough, the auctioneer’s gavel strikes the lectern on thirty two, the man behind you surreptitiously sliding from his seat to talk with another man near the rear of the auction yard, hushed words and a guarded something passed between them.
 
“Nobody’s going to do anything about that?” Cally asks, peering at the men.
 
“You didn’t spot the Waylander two rows back? At this point it’s a question of whether he gets him before the IMFC factor in the corner there.” You chuckle viciously.
 
“Oh… Oh dear.” The Koala muses, suppressing a smile.
 
“Lot 12” The Auctioneer calls “Three-train, two axle wagon. Constructed by Forrest Holding. Safe tare load, four hundredweight.”
 
“Hel-lo…” You murmur. “That’s interesting.”
 
“What’s that boss?” Blue asks.
 
“I’ll explain when I win it.” You whisper, rubbing the Kobold’s ear absently.
 
“Bidding starts at Ten Gold…” The Auctioneer declares.
 
“Ten!” Comes a cry in front of you.
 
“Twelve!” A call from your right
 
“Fifteen!”
 
“Seventeen!”
 
“Um… Adam…” Cally murmurs, “Don’t you have to, y’know, bid on it to win it?”
 
“Just wait…” You answer softly.
“Advance on nineteen… Anyone advance on nine…”
 
“Twenty-Five” You call in a loud, clear voice. Grumbles and suspicious looks assail you from all directions.
 
Blue pulls on your shirt with a furred paw. “Boss, that Waylander’s looking awful closely at you.”
 
“Even better.”
 
“I hear twenty-five Going once… Going twice… Sold.” The Auctioneer declares, banging his gavel.
 
“Okay what was that?” Cally demands.
 
“Everyone just saw the previous bid get planted… Two big jumps in a row?” You grin, leaving the question hanging as you scribbled on the Underwriter’s note, handing it off to one of the attendants. “Now let’s just hope the trade-in’s enough to mitigate another Bunga.”
 
 
“Don’t feel too bad boss…” Blue murmurs consolingly as you lash at the three bungarra which trundle your new transport up the street away from the auction yards.
 
“Five Gold though?” You ask incredulously “Some bullshit. I thought our old wagon would pull in at least ten.”
 
“But we got Two!” She grins, pointing at the bulky, scarred Bungarra at the lead, four and twenty obediently following behind it.
 
“Thank Tyris nobody there knows the value of a Patriarch when they see it.” you concede with a sigh. “Wish he was younger though, Tyris, I’ve no idea how long he’s got.”
 
“We’re not going to be running trains forever, Adam.” Cally declares.
 
“We will if I keep pissing thirty gold into an auctioneer’s mouth every month.” You grumble.
 
“So what’s so special about this wagon?” Blue asks.
 
“Notice anything about the wood?”
 
Blue frowns “No… Well, it’s darker than the other one.”
 
“S’right. That’s Jarrah. I keep this thing in good condition and it’ll take one HELL of a bounce to damage it.”
 
“How do you know that Adam?” Cally asks “I didn’t think you were much of a carpenter.”
 
“Comes from having a brother with a sick sense of humor. I spent three days trying to chop a straining post out of a treated Jarrah log when I was younger. Simmo must have laughed fit to bust a gut after I broke three axe-handles on it.” You grin slightly with the memory.
 
“Why DID Simmo give you so much shit, Boss?” Blue asks, stretching out on the much larger bench.
 
“Big brother stuff, I guess.” You shrug “He never really got to mess about as much as Tristan and me, being the heir and all. Guess it was his way of Raising a little hell… Wait…”
 
“Hmm?” The kobold murmurs, looking up at you with her deep blue eyes.
 
You look at a wagon pole intently.
 
RAISE
 
The pole obediently floats into the air, yet maintains its position in the tray, your triumph invisible to passers by. Relaxing your concentration, it clatters back into the tray.
 
“Fucken’ Got it.” You murmur smugly, your mood vastly improved.
 
“Very nice.” Cally muses indulgently, patting you on the shoulder.
 
“So what’re we going to do now Boss?” Blue asks enthusiastically, picking up on your improved mood.
 
“You two are going to be top sorts and go sort out supplies for a trip to Boulder. Ten days, pack for twelve, and if that Spider tries to charge you any more than five silver a day, tell her to eat shit… Oh. And ask her if she’ll sew some eyelets on our net.”
 
“We’re not gonna use the razorwire?” Cally asks, a confused frown on her cherubic features.
 
“Nah. Had to include it in the sale just for that extra half, remember? Not to mention we’re just as likely to get overstuffed Wedgies falling on us as well as Drop Bears, and I don’t particularly want to deal with bandaging a flock of damn harpies all the way there.”
 
“Maou yes.” Blue agrees. “So what are you gonna do while we do all the work?”
 
“See about some muscle, it’s a team effort Blue!” You grin, passing the reins off to the Kobold and leaping from the wagon into the street.
 
 
The Jinko sat at the same table as yesterday, the same tankard in front of her, the same scowl on her face, and the same bubble of intimidation keeping a near perfect circle of calm about her person. You would almost find it amusing, if you weren’t looking to pierce that bubble…
 
“G’day… Chun-Hua, right?”
 
The Jinko looks at you with those feline eyes and you suddenly feel very small, and very vulnerable. Swallowing, you give silent thanks to The God that fate or chance has given you the trump card of Resonant ability should things turn ugly. The Jinko gives a throaty grunt, the slightest nod affirming your question.
 
“Name’s Adam, I’m a trader. Thought I might talk to you about something I’ve got lined up. Now I understand it’s a bit different than the kinda gigs you’re used to…” You babble nervously “…But talking’s thirsty work, top yours up?”
 
The Jinko places a feline paw across the top of her tankard, deadly claws extending ever-so-slightly. No then.
 
“Well-uh… orright… Like I said, it’s…”
 
“Pay or go.” Chun-Hua growls, interrupting you.
 
“I… Uh… Come again?”
 
“I Mercenary. You pay. I do. No need talk.”
 
You blink slightly, taken aback. “Right. Uh… I’ll… Get back to you then.”
 
Chun-Hua gives that same grunt, turning her gaze from you in dismissal.
 
“Fuckin’ hell…” You murmur, heading back towards the door.
 
“She’s a handful.” Comes a voice to your right. You turn instinctively to see the stubbled, grinning face of one of the Mercenaries Kessiah had pointed out the day before.
 
“Max, right?”
 
The mercenary nods, draining his tankard. “Shame too. She’s a beaut. She gave you some good advice though, in her own way.”
 
“Oh yeh?” You ask, unconvinced.
 
“Yeh. We’re mercs mate. Give us a purse and tell us to count fence posts and we’ll do it. I wouldn’t ask the big Ruslander though, I’m pretty sure he’s boned once he runs out of fingers and toes.” Max declares, laughing at his own joke.
 
“Good to know… Thanks.”
 
“No charge mate… Though sometimes y’might find yerself in a position where it’s better to have someone who doesn’t need to be told everything… if you follow me.”
 
“Someone like you?”
 
“I’d be a shit merc if I didn’t flog me own brand, wouldn’t I?” The man answers, gesturing expansively.
 
You nod in acceptance “Think I need to sort a few details first. Thanks again though.”
 
“No worries… Oi! Scarface! I’m dyin’ a thirst here!” Max yells, waving his tankard at the bartender.
 
“You’ve got legs cunt.” The Bartender answers levelly, eliciting a laugh from the mercenary.
 
 
“Nope” Matt declares shortly.
 
“Apprentice, think of what you’re saying!” The fat trader pleads, his jowls jiggling, the smoky taproom which served as Tristan’s ‘Office’ surprisingly empty. “Considering the circumstances, surely an exception could be made!”
 
“Traders loyal to a foreign body must be ratified by the Barony or by special commission from the Independent Merchant and Freelancer’s combine. That is the law. I will not have you taking advantage of this situation by establishing a precedent around it.” Matt answers, his eyes narrowing.
 
“I’ll appeal this to the Baron, boy! You’ll be begging in front of the chancel inside a month!” The Trader declares hotly. Matt stands, turning to the Kangaroo who is leaning back nonchalantly on her stiff, muscular tail, cleaning her surprisingly sizeable claws with the end of a knife.
 
“Dani, this fucker’s time is up. Please show him the door.”
 
“Your will, Apprentice.” The Kangaroo concedes, rocking forward onto her feet and moving purposefully towards the trader, who scrambles backwards with wide eyes.
 
“I’ll have it done! One way or another!” He declares, hurrying outside.
 
“I bet you fuckin’ will too, you dodgy cunt…” Matt murmurs “…How’d I do, Dani?”
 
“Eh… You got the spirit right, though technically under subsection ‘E’, he could defer the ratification under Libera Fidelis, but I hardly think a man who stinks that much like weresheep is going to be chummy with too many Pallies.”
 
“Fuck. Knew I forgot something.” Matt curses. Dani laughs, running a clawed hand through his hair affectionately.
 
“You’re doing fine… Hey, isn’t that a mate of yours?”
 
Matt looks up, meeting your gaze. “How long have you been watching, Adz?” He demands with a grin.
 
“Long enough to be very fucking careful with makin’ demands of you mate!” You laugh, walking forward and catching your friend’s hand in a warm handshake.
 
“It’s all an act, believe me. Dani’s running the show in truth, but bein’ Tristan’s indentured… Y’know.”
 
You nod. “Yeh, part of me thinks they love being able to laugh at us whilst we stumble through life.”
 
“Ooh! Someone’s been having adventures!” The Kangaroo mused, pointing at your chest.
 
“Wha…” you grunt, looking down at the carved spur hanging about your neck. “This? Blue made it for me.”
 
“I bet she did…” Dani chortles, a knowing smile on her face.
 
“Dani, what in the Holy Name of Tyris are you on about?” Matt demands.
 
“That necklace. It marks him as ‘Pack-Friend’. Implies a certain level of loyalty to a specific band of Kobolds, tells others to keep their paws off or risk a mangling.”
 
“Fuck’s sake Blue…” You exclaim softly, quickly tucking the necklace under your shirt.
 
“Awww. Don’t worry. Your FATHER could warrant one, if what Master told me about how he spoils the Nullas Line tribe is true.” Dani giggles indulgently.
 
“Well thank Tyris for that. Last thing I need is a reason for the Pallies to be up my arse.”
 
“You’re not that pretty…” Matt muses, grinning at you. “…Anyway, what’s the matter?”
 
“I was actually looking for Tristan. He still about?”
 
Matt shakes his head. “He’s been running the patrols looking for looters. He stopped in briefly yesterday to leave notices with the Baron. From what I hear, there are going to be a few populated crosses along the road to Jurien.”
 
“Fuck… Poor bugger.”
 
“Glad it’s him and not me, that’s for sure. Anything I can do? I’m buried under enough of his paperwork, after all.”
 
“Needed his opinion on a mercenary. Jinko, name of Chun-Hua. She does work occasionally for the Waylanders if stories are right.”
 
“Silver-furred cyclone, more like.” Matt declares “Yeah. She’ll flatten a pack of ferals without too much difficulty. Problem is getting her to stop.”
 
“Eh?”
 
“She’ll go all out. The concepts of ‘Disarm’, ‘Capture’ or ‘Subdue’ seem to be dirty words to her. If they’re not bled out, she’s not finished.”
 
“No… issues with violence towards you or your indentured?”
 
“She doesn’t take banter too well.” Dani answers presumptively. “She was a fairy’s clit away from making a paper bird out of some workman’s lungs when we stopped at Southern Cross about a year back. Apparently he got handsy. Bloke claims he was just being friendly but what can ya do? A touch doesn’t breach the Pax. Part from that, leave her alone and she’s… pretty unassuming, actually. Likes to look at the stars.” The Kangaroo shrugs slightly “Why? Who do you want dead that badly?”
 
“Got a job coming up, might need some more muscle than me and the girls possess to warn off the opportunists.”
 
“And you’re thinking of hiring Chun-Hua?” Matt starts laughing.
 
“What?” You demand.
 
“N-nothing.” Matt gasps, wiping a tear from his eye. “I would just LOVE to see Blue’s reaction when a pissed off Tiger-Woman tells her to get back in her box.”
 
“Rather not put my Kobie in that kind of danger.” You reply, frowning.
 
“Blue’s indentured, the contract’d be enough to stop her from actually DOING anything…” Matt assures you, before pondering slightly “…I’m pretty sure anyway.”
 
“Right.” You drawl, not entirely convinced.
 
“On the other hand, I can tell you from experience. NOTHING is getting anywhere near anything you tell Chun-Hua to watch.” Dani interjects. “She’s a force of Nature.”
 
“Mmm…” You murmur, turning it over in your head.
 
“Listen, Adz, I’d love to chat more with you but with all that’s going on up north I’ve got lives in me hands right now mate.” Matt states apologetically.
 
“Right! Sorry. Didn’t mean to take up your time Matt.” You gush guiltily “Anything… er… Anything I can do?”
 
The Waylander’s Apprentice, one of your closest friends since childhood looks at you seriously. “Ask The God to drop Heaven’s Fire on Lancelin next time you pray to Him.”
 
“That bad?” You swallow.
 
“It’s gone Adam. All of it. The road to Jurien’s pretty safe, but…” he shakes his head sadly “…It’s a hellscape now. To make matters worse it was one of the biggest sea-farming holdings in the West Australs. With this winter, it’s gonna be a hungry summer unless we can burn out those fucking mushrooms within the next month.”
 
“Shit eh…” You breathe. “I’ll… Leave you to it. Tyris… Tyris be with you, mate.”
 
“You too Adz, Travel safe.” Matt replies sincerely before bending to the mountains of parchment in front of him.
 
 
“G’day Juni, feeling better?” You ask brusquely, breezing into your Agent’s office at Tenno and Goldstein. The Tanuki looks up at you, pouting with embarrassed annoyance.
 
“I am. And… I’m… Sorry.”
 
“What was that? I’m a little hard of hearing today. Someone yelled at me a bit yesterday.” You jest.
 
Juni’s eyes narrow. “Don’t push it, Human. Now. Have you made a decision?”
 
You nod. “Yeah, we’ll head to Boulder.”
 
“Interesting… Not where I thought you’d go.”
 
“Yeah well, with all the Waylanders and Faith Militant going north you could probably WALK that one there. And Esperance? Not really worth the time it’d take to get there unless I was planning on working for the Baron on the way back… Which considering how hard I stiffed him wouldn’t be a guarantee…” You chuckle, remembering the ruse which set you in such an enviable position to begin with. “Mind you though, there are a few things I wouldn’t mind discussing.”
 
The Tanuki raises a delicate eyebrow. “Such as?”
 
“Well, if you actually want it to get there I’m probably going to have to hire some muscle…”
 
Juni waves her hand dismissively “Expense it, it’s not an uncommon claim. What else?”
 
“The Percentage is a little on the questionable side. Mixed coinage? Can’t see much more than fifteen gold coming my way. For a ten day trip with that kind of risk…” You let the statement trail off.
 
“Well nobody’s saying you HAVE to take it.” Juni fires back.
 
“C’mon Juni… With all the roundabout ways you’ve been pushing to get me to sign on for this? I’m thinking you’ve got a little more leeway than you’re making out.”
 
“Does Piracy run in your family? You’re almost as mean as your bloody father.” Juni grumbles, pinching the bridge of her nose and baring her sharp little teeth. “Fine. Call it twenty, AND I’ll let you expense supplies. But that’s on delivery, and DON’T go abusing my generosity by splurging on luxuries.”
 
“Agreed.” You nod “Now, have you got something official looking? Gonna grab the muscle on the way through.”
 
Juni slides a parchment bearing the letterhead of Tenno and Goldstein across her desk to you. As you reach out for it, she clasps your wrist in her delicate hand.
 
“You know, you REALLY missed out yesterday…” She murmurs throatily.
 
“Ah well, my loss.” You answer philosophically, patting her hand and reaching for a quill.
 
 
As you walk into the Mercenary Tavern, something tells you the direct approach would be best when dealing with the Taciturn Chun-Hua.
 
“Ten days. Simple Escort. Keep unwelcome hands and eyes from my wagon. Any questions?” You state simply, placing the parchment on the table in front of the Jinko. The Felinid grasps the parchment in her silver and charcoal striped paws, brow furrowed as she reads the contract.
 
“Return?” She grunts.
 
“We’ll negotiate that when we get there. No guarantee either of us won’t find something more juicy in Boulder.”
 
Chun-Hua grunts affirmation.
 
“Oh, one thing. My Kobie’s over-exuberant, I won’t lie, but I’m fond of her. I’d ask your patience when dealing with her. No offence, but your reputation precedes you.”
 
The Jinko gives a chuff, sounding almost smug at that. “She will learn.”
 
“An assault on an indentured is an assault on the master. A flagrant breach of the Pax.” You remind the Jinko insistently.
 
Chun-Hua’s eyes narrow dangerously “You threaten?” She growls.
 
You shake your head. “Just making sure we know where we stand. As you said. I pay, You do. Just setting some limits on ‘do’ before we agree on anything.”
 
The Jinko seems to ponder that. “Fair.” She admits finally, making a surprisingly elaborate chop on the agreement before handing it to you. “Agreed. Will meet at trade post in one and half hour.”
 
“An hour and a half then.” You nod in agreement. The Jinko turns her gaze from you again dismissively. Clearly with business concluded, your relevance had ended.
 
 
“Missing a finger… Missing a finger…” You mumble to yourself, looking at the busy staff of the Tavern, already becoming busier as factors and agents discussed business over foaming tankards. Though Joe’s was the largest tavern in the West Australs, you were surprised it was taking you so long to find the smuggler’s agent.
 
“Y’orright mate?” A voice drawled behind you.
 
“Yeh, fine…” You reply, half turning, looking down out of what had become habit to see the hand with which the bartender was ostensibly polishing the bar with was missing its little finger, sheared off cleanly at the first knuckle.
 
“Should’ve known…” You chuckle.
 
“Mmm… Get you anything?” The Bartender replied as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
 
“Yeah nah, I’m right. But I’ll do it.” You answer, the last in a lower voice. The Bartender nods, leaning forward as if to scoop up something at arm’s reach.
 
“She’ll be there.” He murmurs. “Sorry mate, Haven’t seen him, have you tried Cicerello’s?” He adds in a louder voice.
 
“Not yet, thanks.” You answer, turning and heading outside. One thought bothered you as you walked towards the trading post, however…
 
…’She’ would be WHERE, exactly?
 
 
“Honestly Blue, a two hour argument over rice?”
 
“It was purple!” The Kobold insisted, as if that should explain everything.
 
You shake your head disbelievingly, heaving a sack into the tray, the heavy lockboxes bearing your precious cargo already loaded and roped securely therein. “Oh, by the way. I’ve got a mercenary contracted. She’s a bit touchy, so PLEASE pup, for the love of Tyris, keep your enthusiasm in chec…”
 
“KITTY!” the kobold shrieks as Chun-Hua approaches the wagon. Tail wagging furiously, the Kobold runs at the Jinko, a stream of effusient ‘KittyKittyKittyKitty’ spilling from her lips.
 
“BLUE! GEDDERE!” you bark insistently, fear clamouring for an instant in your chest.
 
“Kitty kitty kitty kittOHSWEETMAOU!” the Kobold yelps, almost falling over herself in her haste as she rapidly reverses course, scrambling behind you as the Jinko bares frighteningly large teeth, a rumbling growl seeming to shake the very air as she glares at the Kobold with terrifying malevolence. Blue whimpers, shaking behind you as she clings to your clothing.
 
“See? Learning.” Chun-Hua states simply, slinging her sizeable pack effortlessly into the wagon and taking a seat on its leading edge.
 
“No mount?” you enquire, somewhat shaken yourself at the Jinko’s casual threat display.
 
Chun-Hua peers at you with a quizzical expression “I guard wagon. How fit horse in wagon?”
 
“She does have a point there…” Cally murmurs, peering uncertainly at the muscular felinid, who has shed her jacket and now stretches brazenly atop the canvas cover of the wagon, a soft leather vest covering her torso and leather leggings showing every ripple of her powerfully muscled legs.
 
A small barrel under each arm, you finish loading the remainder of the supplies into the wagon, expertly tying down the remainder of the canvas cover. Chun Hua shuffles herself slightly, before reclining atop it with her jacket under her head and closing her eyes, dozing in the noonday sun.
 
“Er… You’re across what ‘guarding’ entails, right?” You remark uncertainly.
 
“You want sleep tonight?” Chun-Hua asks simply, cracking a feline eye in your general direction.
 
“Well yeah, but…”
 
“Then I sleep now. You wake if trouble. No wake for talk.” The Jinko declares presumptively, closing her eyes. Reaching forth a striped paw, she points at Blue with a deadly talon. “You no wake at all.”
 
Blue whuffles sulkily at that, but sits herself almost in your lap as you climb onto the bench with your two mamono companions, casting the occasional worried glance at the mercenary dozing in your tray.
 
“Good start eh?” You mumble to nobody in particular, lashing the reins at two, your wagon trundling into movement with a creak of new timber. “Oh. I forgot to mention, we’ll have a passenger joining us at… some point.”
 
Cally raises a brow at you, her cherubic face concerned. “Who?”
 
“Dunno.”
 
“Well that explains everything.” The Koala remarks sarcastically.
 
“Yeah yeah, I know. Let’s just get moving, this’ll all seem less odd once we’re back on the road again.” You sigh, traffic beginning to thin as you approach the edge of the business district, quiet if elaborate homes of the various city-dwellers beginning to sprawl out to either side of the well-travelled road.
 
It didn’t take long for the familiar sensation of travel to ease Blue’s trepidation, and she and Cally were soon chatting away at each other, obviously continuing their earlier conversation about rice.
 
“But it’s PURPLE!” Blue insisted.
 
“Blue, I’m… not sure I understand your issue there.” The Koala remarks mildly “It’s just as good as the brown kind.”
 
“It’s not natural. It’s just not natural.” The Kobold insisted.
 
You cast a worried glance over your shoulder at the Jinko, but Chun-Hua seemed to be blissfuly dozing through the Mamono’s inane conversation. Seeing the edges of the residential district approaching, you moved to whip the Bungarra into a faster gait.
 
“Adam of Gibson Holding?” A female voice rang out from the yard of one of the houses.
 
“That’s me, what can I do for y…” You begin, before your words catch in your throat. A questioning grunt sounds from behind you, and you see Chun-Hua crouched on the canvas. You marvelled at that, you didn’t even hear her move. Still, your attention was caught on the veiled figure mounted on a white palfrey and cowled in a long, flowing cloak, a pack leaning against the side of the fence.
 
“I am your Passenger.”
 
“O-of course, your Reverence.” You stammer, pulling the Bungarra to a halt and near leaping from the wagon. “All Glory to the Most High, Praise Eternal to The God.” You intone, sinking to a knee in front of the veiled, cowled woman.
 
“Of course.” The woman replies almost nonchalantly, and your brow furrows. You were sure there was some kind of response she was supposed to give to that…
 
“My things, if you please.” She insisted presumptively, and you scrambled to your feet, grabbing her (surprisingly weighty!) packs and carrying them over to the wagon as the woman touched heels to the flanks of her horse, walking the animal to the side of the wagon to await departure. Chun-Hua gave her a cursory glance, but seemingly satisfied by your deference, the Jinko resumed her dozing atop the canvas cover.
 
“Adz…” Blue whispers, clinging to your arm as you resume your seat “…What…”
 
“Later Blue.” You insist, patting the Kobold’s paw and lashing the bungarra into movement again.
 
“Well that’s put a damper on conversation topics.” Cally murmurs to you. You nodded in agreement, also prevented any chance of getting a little playtime with the girls once you were properly out of civilization. You curse inwardly, it hadn’t occurred to you before, but now that it was off the table, it was all you could think about.
 
 
“He didn’t happen to mention anything else, did he?” You ask the Koala in a roundabout fashion.
 
Cally purses her lips, trying to find a way to answer your question without giving away the fact you were resonant to the priestess. “Not really. He told me that bigger things were oddly easier than small things. The specifics are what catch your average resonant.”
 
“This sounds interesting…” The Priestess mused, nudging her horse alongside the bench.
 
“J-just discussing my old Master… Your…” Cally looks at you askance.
 
“Common honourific is ‘Your Reverence’, but I’d be willing to be more specific if you would tell me a little more about yourself, Holiness?” You suggest to the Priestess.
 
“Oh my child…” The priestess laughs “…The less you know the better.”
 
“Where have I heard that before…” You murmur, glancing at the Koala who has the good grace to look slightly abashed.
 
“Stand and Deliver!” Came a sudden voice from ahead of you, a Kangaroo bursting from the scrub ahead and standing in the middle of the road, a long spear held inexpertly in her paws.
 
“Stand back, your reverence.” You murmur, pulling the bungarra to a halt. Standing in the wagon, you fix the Kangaroo with a level stare. “Turn around.” You demand “You REALLY do not want to play this game.”
 
“Y-your money or your life!” The Kangaroo continued, brandishing the spear. “I’ll stab you!”
 
“Someone’s been listening to too many bad Bardic tales.” You chuckle, resuming your seat. “Last chance girl, or I’ll thump you one.”
 
“I’m the daughter of the great Bandit Lord Theo!” The Kangaroo insisted, stamping her foot petulantly “Do as I say!”
 
“Boss?” Blue asked quizzically, peering between you and the kangaroo in puzzlement.
 
“Dad’s probably a chicken-thief. She’s harmless.” You chuckle. “Alright then, if you won’t listen to reason… Two, Four, Twenty… FUCKIMUP!”
 
The Bungarra flared frilled necks, opening their mouths and giving voice to hissing roars. The Kangaroo gave a wordless exclamation, leaping backwards with surprise.
 
“Now Gerroff the fuckin’ road before I…” You begin, before a silver and charcoal streak launches past you.
 
Your mouth hung open as you watched the Jinko lash out with deadly claws. The Kangaroo seemed to pause for a moment, spear clattering from nerveless fingers before her intestines boiled from the massive rent in her torso. She howled in terror and agony, desperately trying to stuff her guts back inside.
 
“P-please!” She begged, blood gushing from her mouth, hand held out in supplication. “P-please!”
 
Chun-Hua grabbed her by her hair, bending her neck forward and bearing those terrifying fangs. With a squelching crunch, she buried her teeth in the kangaroo’s throat, jerking her head to the side violently. A tearing snap was heard, and the Kangaroo fell to the ground… Dead.
 
“Tyris FuURBLUUURHG…” You retched, vomiting what remained of your breakfast over the side of the wagon.
 
“I protect.” Chun-Hua stated simply, cleaning herself almost daintily as she leapt back onto the canvas cover.
 
“D-didn’t have to fucking KILL her!” You spit, wiping your mouth and staring at the Jinko with horrified revulsion.
 
Chun-Hua looks at you with blank incomprehension. “She threaten. I protect!” The Jinko insisted, her brow furrowing with puzzlement.
 
“New rule. No fuckin’ killing unless I fuckin’ tell you. Savvy?” You demand, your stomach still roiling.
 
“You pay. I do.” Chun-Hua agrees with a slight shrug.
 
You feel the wagon begin to trundle forward. “NO!” you snarl, yanking viciously on the reins, the bungarra halted in their approach to consume the Kangaroo’s body.
 
“You know…” The priestess added delicately “…That… Might not be an entirely terrible idea.”
 
“Respectfully, your reverence, you fucking what?” You exclaim.
 
“If she is, as she claims, the daughter of a bandit lord, then if they come looking for her, her body will look somewhat telling.” The priestess explains “Not to mention she is the product of Heresy” That last with a slightly mocking note.
 
“That’s… That’s…” You declare helplessly, shaking your head in disbelief. You sigh, hopping down from the wagon and retrieving a long-handled shovel from where it is strapped to the side of the wagon.
 
“Whatcha doin’ Boss?” Blue asks with a small, tremulous voice.
 
“Sorting it out properly.” You reply, walking over to the broken, mutilated body of the Kangaroo, her dead eyes staring blankly at the sky, her neck at an impossible angle, red blood pooling on the ground beneath her.
 
“My child, we really don’t have time…” The Priestess chides gently.
 
“Reverence, we are going to MAKE time…” You retort, fixing the priestess with a level stare. “…After all, Canticle 22, verse 4. “Yea, for e’en as I have given grace unto thee, shalt thou glorify My name by extending thy grace unto those laid low. Deal ye fairly with those whom I have delivered into thy hand, and judgest thou with Mercy and Temperance, and visit thou not defilement unto those who I make to fall before thee. I am The God.” You intone. “This is the Word of Tyris.”
 
“O-of course, how could I forget?” The Priestess replies, a slight tremor in her voice.
 
Your eyes narrow. “Please, Reverence, sanctify those words with the response.”
 
“Oh! Um… ‘All Glory to the Most High?”
 
You turned from the priestess, breaking the clay-laden soil open with the shovel, spade upon spade piling up as you hollowed out a rude grave at the side of the road. As you worked, your mind was awash with thoughts, not assisted by the alien presence of the Logos of Resonance within your mind, the very stuff of reality roiling within its complex glyphs. One thing you were certain of, however…
 
…Whoever your guest was, she was not a Priestess of Tyris.
 
You wiped your brow, the sun beating at your neck. A tug at your shirt made you turn to see Blue offering you a canteen.
 
“Here you go Boss.” the Kobold insisted. Gratefully, you took a long refreshing drink, handing the leather-wrapped metal container back to the Kobold.
 
“Thanks Blue.” You sigh, giving her a small smile.
 
“You’re wearing the necklace.” Blue remarks with a smug grin, noticing where the exertion has caused the carved rooster spur to fall from the front of your shirt.
 
“Yeah. Gonna talk about that later.” You remark casually. “Pack-Friend?”
 
Blue stammers, turning crimson to the roots of her tawny hair.
 
“Later.” You repeat, patting the Kobold on the head absently before returning to your labour.
 
The grave was not as deep as you would like, but as good as you could do with one person’s effort and a single shovel. Grunting, you grabbed the Kangaroo under the arms, dragging her over to the rude hole, trying not to notice the pendant viscera dragging unceremoniously behind her, or the clouds of swarming insects already descending upon the sticky, coagulated blood which had pooled on the road. There was no way to lower her gently, but you tried, still, the thud when she impacted the bottom of the hole made you wince uncomfortably. You spaded the earth into the hole, it filling almost insultingly quickly considering the time it had taken you to dig. When it was done, you tamped the earth with the flat of the shovel, standing there for a moment.
 
“I should say something…” You remark to nobody in particular “…but I’ve got no right to. I hope, wherever you are, you’re OK.”
 
A clawed, two thumbed hand gently takes your wrist, and you look down at the cherubic face of Cally smiling gently at you. “May I?” The Koala asks. You nod, stepping back as Cally holds her clawed hands out, palms facing towards the fresh earth of the grave.
 
“O Circle of Stars…” Cally intones, closing her hazel eyes “…marvel beyond imagination, soul of infinite space, before whom Time is ashamed…” The litany spoke of love, freedom and forgiveness, and for a moment you felt a twinge of jealousy. Even here in the Australs, the Worship of The God Tyris was a highly ritualized affair, and for all its talk of mercy, it was about as flexible as an iron rod. Why should the Mamono’s Goddess lay such a light yoke upon them, when Humans weren’t even allowed to know their own mothers?
 
Still… It was Humanity which had rebuilt the World. It was Humanity which remembered the sciences, while Mamono by and large wallowed in mysticism and sorcery, seemingly content to exist as near-primitives. Perhaps that was the trade-off.
 
“…In thy name, O Maou, All-Mother of Creation.” Cally’s litany came to a close.
 
“Amen.” You remark respectfully, if absently. Though the Pax recognised the worship of Maou by the Mamono, Humans were forbidden from partaking in the rites of Her worship, and considering how many of those seemed to focus around sex, it didn’t take a genius to figure out why.
 
“If we are quite finished?” The ‘priestess’ sighed impatiently. You grunt, lashing the reins at the bungarra, who trundle forward, Four giving you an almost reproachful look from over its shoulder at being denied a nice meaty lunch.
 
“We are gonna have words, when I get a sec… Reverence.” You promise the priestess.
 
“Of course, my child. I may even respond to some of them.” The Priestess replied uncaringly.
 
The five of you rode along in silence for some time after that, the wagon jolting and the Bungarra panting as the road became steeper, climbing the escarpment from which legend said Wagyl, the colossal Rainbow Serpent had descended, carving out the great river which fed the fertile valley below. You urge the Bungarra onward, once or twice being compelled to descend from the wagon and urge them forward by main force.
 
“Why?” Came Chun-Hua’s voice from behind you as you clamber back up from one such act. You look askance at the Jinko, who has seated herself cross-legged on the canvas cover, no longer dozing as the shadows of afternoon begin to lengthen around you.
 
“Why what?”
 
The Jinko jerked a paw at the road behind you. “Why take time bury, say prayer? She threaten. Was enemy. Enemy face you, deserve no mercy.”
 
“She was greedy, and stupid, but she didn’t deserve to die for it.” You answer simply, shaking your head.
 
“No understand” Chun-Hua mused “Australs strange”
 
“Yeh well…” You remark noncommittally, mentally biting off any number of choice invectives about how maybe that would explain why every other sapient being in Port Fremantle avoided her like a virulent plague. “…How long you been here?”
 
“Not long” she answered, closing her eyes again, ending the conversation.
 
“S’getting late boss.” Blue remarked, looking at the sun as it sinks towards the western horizon, its light already beginning to dapple amongst the trees.
 
“Mmm…” you agree reluctantly, steering the Bungarra towards a clearing in the middle distance “…Nothing much for it I suppose.”
 
“Really? We can’t stop now, we’ve barely made any distance!” The Priestess declares, throwing a look over her shoulder at the road behind you.
 
“Look. Reverence.” You sigh “Climbing that scarp has knackered the bungas, and I’m not about to have them give out on me for pushing them too hard. Also unless The God’s given you some ability to set up a camp in the fuckin’ dark, we stop when I say we stop.”
 
The priestess huffed to herself, her expression hidden behind the cowl and the opaque veil. You ignore her, turning the wagon within the clearing and reining in the lizards with the ease of long practice.
 
“Chun-Hua, feel free to stretch your legs a bit if you want, nothing’s sneaking up on us here.” You muse, surveying the surroundings. The Jinko grunts, hopping down off the wagon and stretching her limbs out languorously. Forcing yourself to look away from the strangely alluring sight, you turn to the other mamono. “Blue, sort out their dinner please pup… Cally, would you mind giving me a hand with the tents?” You ask, jumping down off the wagon and untying the canvas at its rear. The Mamono nod, Blue wandering into the scrub to find something for the Bungarra to eat, Cally grabbing a tent bag where you pass it to her.
 
“Our guest isn’t helping?” Cally asked under her breath where you stretched out one of the tents on the grass of the clearing.
 
“Look at what she’s wearing. Even if I thought she would, do you really think she wouldn’t be tangled in fly-ropes in ten seconds flat?” You grin, Cally giggling as she nods in agreement.
 
“Adam…” She begins hesitantly. “…Please don’t take this the wrong way but…”
 
“…there’s something fucky about her. I know.” You finish the Koala’s thought for her. “She’s not a real priestess for one.”
 
Cally frowns slightly “Then why are you…”
 
“Continuing the charade? That’s the regalia of a Mother Superior. You don’t just FIND that lying around. Whoever she is, she’s connected.” You sigh, banging in tent pegs with a wooden mallet. “Don’t get me wrong Cal, I would love, absolutely LOVE a way to find out exactly who… or WHAT… she is and…”
 
You stagger as the Logos answers your desire with a whirl of glyphs, one solidifying in your mind’s eye, burning itself there as if branded with hot metal.
 
“Adam! Are you alright?” Cally asks concernedly, taking your wrist in a twin-thumbed hand.
 
“Fine… Fine…” You reply with a slightly wan smile “…my little friend’s given me a way to find out though.”
 
“Your little… Ohh.” Cally remarks, understanding “Well what’s stopping you?”
 
“She’ll know, the instant I use it. Don’t ask me how I know she’ll know… I just… Feel it.”
 
“Well it’s something at least…” Cally smiles brightly “…And hey, at least that means fun’s not off the table.”
 
“Dunno Cal… Depends who she’s connected to, and how deep this charade’s running.” You sigh disappointedly. “Shitty actor though she may be, for tonight at least, let’s pretend we are camping with a Tyrisian Priestess.”
 
“Some Bullshit…” Cally grumbles.
 
“Blue’s a terrible influence on you.” You laugh.
 
“Am not!” Blue’s voice rings out as she lopes over to the two of you.
 
“How’d you go pup?” You ask, rubbing the Kobold’s tawny-furred ear.
 
Blue sighs “Unless we give ‘em some of ours, they’re gonna be hungry tomorrow.”
 
“Bugger.” You curse. “Might have to ask Chun-Hua if she’ll join us for a hunt. I’m not battling their bellies AND the landscape for the next three days before these hills peter out.”
 
“Where is Kitty, anyway?” Blue asks, looking around.
 
“Good question. You two finish up here for me?” You ask presumptively, the Mamono murmuring acceptance as you head back towards the wagon, the priestess brushing her horse down, her hands curiously covered in linen wraps.
 
“Did you see where Chun-Hua ducked off to, reverence?” You ask casually. The priestess turns her cowled head to you momentarily before nodding.
 
“She said there was a waterhole over there… She’s going to bathe. Not a bad idea if I do say so myse…”
 
“Tyris FUCK!” You exclaim, running in the direction the priestess pointed.
 
“My child! Whatever’s wrong?” The priestess calls after you in concern.
 
“This is Bunyip country!” You yell back over your shoulder, unstrapping your knife from your leg as you run. “And it’s dinner time!”
 
 
You hear a smooth voice singing in some unknown language as you crash through the scrub. Suddenly the scrub opens up to a rocky bowl in the landscape, an inviting waterhole glittering with late afternoon sunlight, and waist deep in it, the naked form of the Jinko. Seeing you, she gives an almost girlish shriek, covering her nakedness with her striped paws, before that shriek turns into a snarl.
 
“Pervert!” She growls, those fearsome canines bared at you.
 
“Get outta the wate…” You begin, before seeing a ripple in the surface behind the mercenary. “Behind you!” You yell, pointing with your knife.
 
Lightning quick, the Jinko spins, as a horror bursts from the surface and lunges at her. All bemused, you could only watch helplessly, time seeming to travel in slow motion, every detail etched as if in crystal contrast into your memory. The Bunyip’s head was some horrible amalgam of canine and crocodile, toothy and hairless, whilst a weedy line of bristles stretched along its spine to its stumpy tail. Clawed forelimbs, muscular and webbed, reached for the Jinko as its toothed maw gaped in savage anticipation of the kill.
 
Not to be outdone, Chun-Hua’s own talon like claws seem to burst from padded paws, her roar bouncing off the stone as she leans forward, grappling with the beast and slicing at it. The Bunyip yowls in pain, its own claws drawing crimson trails across the Jinko’s shoulders and back, its maw snapping as the mercenary fights for her very life.
 
Swearing sulphurously, you wade into the water, thanking Kessiah silently for her training as you plunge your knife into the beast’s thick hide. Yowling, its limbs splay out as it seeks to confront its new attacker, Chun-Hua capitalizing on its distraction to carve a savage rent across the beast’s throat. The once clear water has now become crimson as blood spurts in great gouts from the Bunyip’s tattered neck, the Jinko somehow in a miracle of dexterity having managed to straddle it in the water, continuing her growling, slashing assault on the beast.
 
Before long it is over, the bunyip floating in the red-stained water, Chun-Hua breathing heavily and panting, the wounds on her back bleeding freely across her wet skin. She looks at you studyingly for a moment, before grabbing the Bunyip’s corpse by a foreleg and sloshing from the waterhole.
 
“Chun-Hua, wait, let me take a look at those cut…” You insist, putting a hand on the Jinko’s free arm without thinking.
 
“NO TOUCH!” Chun-Hua roars threateningly, fixing you with a look which speaks of murder.
 
“Tyris FUCK woman!” You yell, recoiling, adrenaline yelling in your veins “Would it fuckin’ kill you to accept a little help?!”
 
“Would be very painful…”
 
“Don’t be a wuss, you’re a big girl.” You scoff dismissively
 
“…For you.”
 
You frown slightly at her response, before shaking your head helplessly, gathering up the Jinko’s clothing where she has left it lying forgotten at the side of the blood-stained billabong.
 
 
“Maou’s ample bosom!” Cally exclaims as you come into the light of the campfire, soaked and shivering slightly. Chun-Hua, her tunic loosely covering her modesty, grimaces as she dumps the corpse unceremoniously in front of the fire.
 
“We eat.” she declares, wincing as the leather of her tunic brushes against the raw wounds on her back.
 
“Fuckin’ hell!” Blue gasps “Izzat a Bunyip?”
 
“Yeah Blue.” You sigh wearily. “I’m gonna grab a change of clothes. Please tell me dinner’s ready.”
 
“Bugger dinner boss!” The Kobold almost cries, rushing over to you. “You’re all over claret!”
 
“Yeah, none of it mine pup, it’s ok.” You murmur assuringly, patting the Kobold’s head.
 
“We eat!” Chun-Hua insists, pointing again at the Bunyip.
 
“No we bloody don’t. They taste awful.” You retort. “And for the love of Tyris, will you let me take a look at your fuckin’ bac…”
 
“YOU NO TOUCH!” Chun-Hua almost yowls, slicing at the air between you with claws extended. “Not… Not…” She rolls her eyes, speaking in some tonal language you cannot even begin to comprehend.
 
“She’s saying it wouldn’t be appropriate for a human to tend to her… Is that right?” Cally asks, looking at the Jinko questioningly.
 
Chun-Hua gives that grunt of affirmation again, yet there is a note of… Relief?
 
“C-could I help?” The Koala offers timidly. Chun-Hua looks at her almost longingly, grunting and nodding again.
 
“Well one positive came out of this…” You chuckle as Blue presumptively pulls your soaking shirt off over your head.
 
“Whazzat Boss?”
 
You point at the Bunyip’s corpse. “Least the Bungas’ve got dinner now.”
 
“You think Kitty will be happy with that?” Blue asks timidly, glancing over at where Cally is leading the Jinko behind the wagon for a little privacy.
 
“We can fry her up a cut to prove the point if you want pup, but trust me, the bungas are getting it.” You assure the Kobold.
 
 
“Two bites, wasn’t it?” Blue giggles, cuddling into you in the darkness of the tent.
 
“If that, I did warn her.” You grin, holding the kobold to you and relishing in the warmth. “How’s she doing, madam apothecary?”
 
“Cheeky.” Cally drawls, kissing you lightly before snuggling into your other side. “She’ll be fine, the wounds are clean and shallow, and we’ve got plenty of salve… She’s kinda shy, in her own way, isn’t she?”
 
“I noticed.” You remark as neutrally as possible.
 
“I noticed you noticing.” Cally snickers.
 
“Not until she starts being nicer to me, Boss.” Blue insists, planting a presumptive kiss on your mouth.
 
“C’mon Blue, I wasn’t even THINKING that.” You insist. “Also, don’t think you snuck out of talking about the necklace either.”
 
“Can’t hear you, sleeping…” Blue retorts quickly, rolling away from you.
 
“Blue…” You chide “…You don’t need to sneak these things around on me. It’s no more a breach of the Pax than your Mum making something nice for my Dad. As I understand it, it’s a symbol of friendship.”
 
“In the big sense, yeah.” Blue admits “B-but it’s personal… To me, I mean. I… I didn’t know how to ask you properly.”
 
“Silly Puppy…” You chuckle, rubbing Blue’s ears affectionately.
 
“Don’t tease me.” Blue whines.
 
“Can’t believe our guest just grabbed dinner and secluded herself in the tent. I was really hoping to see what was under that veil.” Cally remarks, kneading at your shoulders with clawed hands.
 
“S’part of the whole thing…” You answer, moaning slightly at the Koala’s ministrations “…Something about how when she’s in the regalia she’s speaking on The God’s behalf.”
 
“Mmm… Well… we know for a fact she doesn’t.” Cally murmurs wickedly in your ear.
 
You give a lewd chuckle, before pausing. “You won’t believe this.”
 
“What? What happened?” Blue demanded, sitting up, her girlish silhouette faintly visible against the swarming black “Did we forget something? Are you hurt?”
 
“No pup… I just really need to piss.” You chuckle helplessly, ignoring the Mamono’s wordless protests as you remove your warmth from their embrace. “I’ll be right back.”
 
The glow of the fire was muted against the blue-black of night as you gingerly made your barefoot way towards the treeline. Freeing yourself from your trousers, you gave a happy sigh as you relieved yourself. You look up, the sky blanketed with a positive sea of stars on this moonless night. It really was beautiful, you could understand why Chun-Hua purportedly seemed to enjoy it so much. On impulse, you re-fasten your trousers, padding barefoot towards the Wagon where the impassive mercenary is keeping a watchful eye on your valuable cargo. She’s singing to herself again, her voice soft and almost girlish, a far cry from the deadly fury you had been exposed to thus far.
 
Suddenly, her singing stops, a new sound intruding.
 
She’s crying.
 
“You said you always there for me…” She sobs in her now-familiar broken Magisterian, her voice heavy with sorrow. “…But you not… Because of me…”
 
You shook your head, turning and heading back to the tent. Sure, you felt for the Jinko, but you weren’t here to fix the broken of every Tyris-damn person in the Australs. She was awake, she was where she was meant to be, doing what she was meant to be doing, that was enough. Strange that you managed to get so relatively close without her seeming to notice you were there though. Still, it’s not like you managed to tap her on the shoulder. It was something you could worry about tomorrow.
 
You crawled into the warm nest of the tent you shared with Cally and Blue, two presumptive appendages dragging you back down to your earlier position as the mamono mumbled sleepily, wrapping you in limbs and tail as they snuggled into you.
 
This was nice… This was real fuckin’ nice… Sleep enfolded you remarkably quickly, but that shouldn’t be surprising, the first day out always felt more tiring than the others in your experience, limited though it was.
 
Sometime in the night though, a sensation roused you to wakefulness, dim sensation of a warm velvet sleeve working your member, bringing you to quick orgasm. You grunted in release, your mind still awhirl with confusion and fatigue, before sleepily acknowledging Blue’s weight across your body and chuckling, petting the kobold and kissing her softly.
 
“Y’rfuckin’ insatiable…” You mumble before sleep drags you back down into comfortable unawareness, ignorant of the shape moving stealthily from your tent.
 
 
“Morning everyone.” The ‘Priestess’ remarks sunnily as you finish tieing your tent into a bundle.
 
“Reverence.” You grunt absently at the veiled and cloaked figure “Breakfast is on the fire, you done with your tent?”
 
“Oh! Yes. I’m not hungry this morning, thank you though, my child.” she replies in that same happy, almost sing-song tone.
 
You nod, slightly puzzled at the bubbly exuberance expressed by your guest. Still, as with the previous night, it did you no favours to go poking, especially since she wasn’t a real priestess, and it was only your ability to plead ignorance of that fact which afforded you protection against being charged as an accomplice to her Heresy, should she be caught.
 
“Bout ready to head off, Chun-Hua?” You ask the Jinko who is pacing slightly along the perimeter of your camp. The felinid mercenary gives a familiar affirmative grunt, followed by an impressive yawn.
 
“Long night eh?” You chuckle.
 
Chun-Hua nods, but does not elaborate.
 
“One thing though, while you’re here. Did you notice me get up last night at all?”
 
The Jinko flashes you a look of mixed surprise and suspicion.
 
“Didn’t think so… I was surprised at that. Didn’t expect to be able to get so close to the wagon without you noticing. Whatever you’re working through isn’t my business, but if it affects your ability to guard my property…”
 
Chun Hua gives a slight growl, bristling slightly at the insinuation, but sighs, lowering her eyes.
 
“Part of why am in Australs.” She admits. “Made… Mistake. Had accident. No hear as well any more.”
 
“Oh bugger me, I hired a deaf guard.” You mutter to yourself.
 
“Hear better than YOU, Human…” She retorts insistently. “Still… Not as good as other Jinko.”
 
“…Which is why the Bunyip managed to get the drop on you yesterday.”
 
That grunt of affirmation again. “Also did not know about it. Vile beast. I…” Her face twisted with embarrassment as she bows deeply to you “I… Thank you for help.”
 
“You’d do the same for me, I’m sure.” You reply magnanimously. “Look, don’t get the wrong idea or anything, but if there’s anything we can do to help… you know, make sure you’re a hundred percent…”
 
Chun Hua gives an abrupt snerk, muttering in that tonal language as she stalks over to the wagon, jumping presumptively onto its canvas cover and settling herself in for sleep.
 
“Do I really want to know what she said there?” You murmur to yourself.
 
“She was saying that was a tall order from a being that can’t even speak a civilized tongue.” Cally remarks from behind you. Grinning, you turn to face the Koala, gesturing for her to get on the other side of the priestess’s collapsed tent.
 
“Magisterian’s the language of the Church, how much more bleedin’ civilized can you get?”
 
Cally shrugs, causing her ample bust to jiggle deliciously “Dunno, Aestenlanders are funny about that kind of thing.”
 
“That a fact…” You mumble, rolling and binding the tent quickly with the Koala’s assistance.
 
“I’m just gonna chuck it in with ours, reverence” You call over to the priestess who is tightening the girth on her placid palfrey.
 
“As you will, my child.” The priestess replied absently.
 
“Still playing that game?” Cally giggles.
 
“In this case, at this point, ignorance is bliss.” You reply with a smirk, throwing the last of your gear into the wagon. “Fire out Blue?”
 
“Yehboss!” The Kobold replies, brushing dirt from her paws.
 
You chuckle, patting her head. “You know we have a shovel.”
 
Blue looks at you questioningly as she scrambles onto the wagon’s bench “So?”
 
“Right…” You drawl “…And you could have woken me up first if you were that toey last night.”
 
“Boss, what are you on about?”
 
You blink, peering at the Kobold as you lift Cally into the wagon before climbing up yourself. “Y’know… last night, when you were…”
 
Blue looks between you and the Koala, puzzlement written clear on her girlish features. “Adorabear is he speaking Magisterian?”
 
“In theory, but I don’t have the slightest idea what he’s on about.” The Koala replies with a look of slight concern. “Are you feeling alright Adam?”
 
“Fine…” You respond with a little surprise, flicking the reins at the Bungarra.
 
A dream then? Odd, you hadn’t had a wet dream since you were a teenager.
 
 
The next few days were blissfully monotonous as your wagon trundled across the rolling hills heading east, wild eucalypt woodlands giving way to paddock and grassland, the sky big above you, clouds scudding across its azure dome. Game was scarce, however, and the tough grasses and juvenile crops gleaning little in terms of fodder for the Bungarra. Reluctantly, you delved into your own stores to make sure the beasts remained fed.
 
You asked Cally about obtaining other copies of Resonant texts, and the Koala was forced to admit that apart from the personal libraries of other Resonants, such books would be difficult to find ‘in the wild’, as it were, for what would be the point of a book no other being could read?
 
The ‘dreams’ persisted though, and you would find yourself gasping to wakefulness in the dark of night, the mamono sleeping heavily against you, barely responding to your nudges before sleep overwhelmed you again with an unfamiliar vehemence.
 
“Again?” Cally asked incredulously as you loaded the wagon one morning. You nod, tying down the rear section of the cover, Chun-Hua already dozing atop it.
 
“I’m actually starting to get a bit concerned about it. I know I’m a heavy sleeper but this is a little ridiculous.”
 
Blue unceremoniously buries her face in your chest, inhaling deeply. The Kobold whuffles slightly, shaking her head, a look of puzzlement on her face.
 
“Whaddaya reckon pup?”
 
“S’weird…” the Kobold remarks “…It’s like something is telling my nose to ignore the obvious. I can smell SOMETHING on you, but it’s like I’m being distracted…”
 
“No touch!” Chun-Hua’s growl sounds from behind you. You turn to see the Jinko glaring at the priestess, who has withdrawn her linen-wrapped hand from the wagon, her face hidden from view by the veil, her cloaked head pointed towards the felinid mercenary.
 
“Honestly I was just getting some water!” The Priestess objects.
 
“Supplies running low! Must Ration!” Chun-Hua insists.
 
“Ease up, Chun-Hua, we’re on the eastern highway, not the bloody desert.” You chuckle. “That being said, we are gonna have to stop in for supplies somewhere. Question is where, considering the complications.”
 
“What do you mean by that, my child?” The priestess asks with a slight note of suspicion.
 
“Well Chun-Hua’s not exactly the Town Hero in Southern Cross…”
 
“How know about that?” The Jinko demands in surprise, starting awake.
 
“You’re supposed to be sleeping, and trade secret.” You reply smugly without turning.
 
“Did say No Touch. Not my fault.” The Jinko mumbles self-consciously.
 
“I’d have done it too kitty, though my claws aren’t as good as yours.” Blue murmurs aside to Chun-Hua with a note of hesitance, still a little tentative of engaging the savage Mamono directly. Surprisingly, the felinid gives a small smile and chuff of amusement at the Kobold’s comment. You give an inward sigh of relief that some small rapport was sprouting there.
 
“So anyway, guess we’ll have to go to Meredin.” You remark casually, keeping an eye on the Priestess. You’re almost disappointed at her reaction, which is to recoil as if you’d suggested a nice vegemite roll for lunch.
 
“Everything alright, Reverence?” You ask innocently.
 
“Y-yes, of course, I mean why wouldn’t it be?” The Priestess replies unconvincingly.
 
Alright. This was getting a little beyond a joke. You reined the bungarra in, swivelling on the bench to face the veiled woman on her palfrey.
 
“Orright. Remember those words I said we were going to have? We’re fuckin’ havin’ ‘em now.” You state sternly.
 
“I love it when you get all bossy, boss…” Blue whuffles smugly from beside you.
 
“Not now pup.” You reply absently. “I signed up to escort you from Fremantle to Boulder. I did not sign up for whatever the fuck it is you’ve been doing to me…”
 
“I have no idea what you’re babbling about.” The Priestess insists with a dismissive laugh.
 
“Well I don’t think Chun-Hua’s taking liberties with my person in the dead of night…”
 
A grunt of incredulous affirmation from the canvas behind you supports your statement, and you resist the urge to smile.
 
“…And it’s not Blue or Cally… So…” You leave the statement hanging.
 
“Oh please. You hold yourself too highly, Trader.” The priestess snerks dismissively with a wave of a linen-wrapped hand.
 
“Orright, we’ll write it up to night-spirits then, shall we?”
 
“What happens in your tent is no business of mine.”
 
“And more importantly, I did not sign up to be an accessory to Heresy!”
 
“My child, be very careful about how you throw around denunciations…” The priestess warns in a low voice “…I am a Mother Superior in the Church of Holy Tyri…”
 
“Then I’m a fuckin’ High Lord in disguise.” You interrupt with a mocking chuckle.
 
“You dare to accuse…” The priestess hisses.
 
“Denounce me then, and do get the words right, won’t you. I await the Judgement of The God.” You smirk mockingly, opening your arms and standing in the wagon.
 
“I… I…”
 
“Didn’t fuckin’ think so. I want the fuckin’ truth, and I want it fuckin’ now, or I’m gonna tie you to your fuckin’ palfrey and march you into the fuckin’ chancel and Tyris damn the fuckin’ IMFC for getting asshurt about it.”
 
“Eloquent…” Cally mumbles, taken aback by your vehemence.
 
“Not now Cal!” You bark, not breaking ‘eye’ contact.
 
“Right or wrong, Trader, who will they believe? A Mother Superior of the One Eternal Church of Holy Tyris? Or a two-brass Trader who’s been sleeping with his indentured?” The priestess asks smoothly.
 
Your eyes narrow. She’d called your bluff and you knew it. There was only one choice you could see. Accede that she had you over a barrel, or destroy whatever illusion stopped the Mamono from telling what she really was.
 
“Bugger this…” You snarl, focusing your will on the Priestess. Calling upon the Logos, you feel it respond within the depths of your mind.
 
REVELATION
 
The Priestess seems to spasm in her saddle, the Palfrey snorting and starting at the unexpected movement. The silk and samite of her garb shimmers slightly, before collapsing in on itself, disintegrating into floating lint and dust. In its place, sits a strange figure, panting heavily, her eyes screwed shut.
 
Her basic form was feline, two furry ears peeking out through wavy auburn hair, a ruff of white fur collaring a delicate neck. Her face was elfin, delicate, yet possessing a hardness uncommon to the beast-kin Mamono you were familiar with. Twin feline paws gripped the horse’s rein spasmodically, and her legs were bestial like Blue’s and Chun-Hua’s. But that was where the comparison ended. Two chiropteran wings sprouted from her mid back, shaking with her breathing, and a thick, segmented tail, similar to a scorpion’s lashed the air behind her, the fleshy, bulbed end bristling with ivory barbs.
 
“Maou’s TITS!” Blue gasps irreverently, azure eyes fixed on the newly revealed ‘priestess’
 
“Manticore!” Cally exclaimed in amazement.
 
“She promised…” The manticore almost sobbed, her naked shoulders trembling with pained defeat. “…she fucking PROMISED. I’ll kill her with my own paws… Leaving me with a Maou-Damned Resonant…”
 
“Kitty!” Blue cried, scrambling about next to you.
 
“Tyris fuck, Blue…” You sighed, rolling your eyes at the Kobold’s apparent flippancy.
 
“No boss! Kitty!” Blue replied urgently, pointing towards the back of the wagon.
 
You turned, to see that Chun-Hua had scrambled from the wagon and was backing slowly away, her eyes brimming with sheer terror. Meeting yours, she gave a squeaking mewl of fear, prostrating herself and grovelling in the dirt, babbling in that tonal language of hers.
 
“Chun-Hua… What…” You began, your face twisted in confusion.
 
“Oh Tyris… How could I have forgotten?” You groan, smacking your forehead with your palm.
 
“What’s going on?” Cally asks insistently, staring between the dejected Manticore and the grovelling Jinko
 
“It’s borderline fuckin’ Heresy, but in the Aestenlands, Resonants trump any other worldly authority ‘cept maybe the High Lord, they’re… WE’RE essentially demigods…”
 
 
“Now… Let’s see if we can’t make some Tyris-Damn sense of all this.” You mutter, walking purposefully towards the Jinko who shuffled nervously behind the wagon. Spotting you, she dropped again into that prostrated bow.
 
“C’mon Chun-Hua, get up…” You almost beg, thoroughly embarrassed by her behaviour. You had literally had to order the Jinko to get back in the wagon after you had broken the Manticore’s illusion with Resonant power, and even then she had curled at the back of the tray, shaking with terror. Finally having had enough of the oppressive air hanging over your party, you had called a halt, the Manticore having barely said a word, seemingly content to sit listless in the saddle as her Palfrey blissfully trailed the wagon.
 
“Sifu!” She responds, jumping to her feet and standing stiffly upright, one paw clasped in the other in an odd salute, desperately avoiding your eyes.
 
You sigh. “I’m the same bloke I was yesterday, and the day before that, and the day I walked into the tavern and you told me to stop blather…”
 
“Forgive Sifu! Forgive!” She begged, bending almost double in a desperate bow.
 
“Please, Chun-Hua…” You offer gently “…I dunno what kinda Resonants you’re used to dealing with, but I’m not those men. Get yourself some dinner. Your duty hasn’t changed. You haven’t done anything wrong… Just…” You trail off, feeling like you’re talking to a brick wall.
 
“S-sifu” The Jinko acknowledges, not giving you her back as she bows repeatedly, shuffling towards the fire. Shaking your head, you make your way towards the Manticore, who is holding a plate listlessly in her paws, staring off into the middle distance, her meal barely touched.
 
“Orright. Talk.” You state shortly, sitting on the grass in front of her.
 
“Is that an order?”
 
“Not really, but I figure you owe me, that was a helluva lot of wool you tried to pull over my eyes.”
 
“What’s the point? You’re either going to kill me or turn me over to the Church.”
 
You blink, slightly taken aback at that. “Now why would I do that, when I’ve promised to get you to Boulder?”
 
“Because it’s what you Humans do.” The Manticore replied, the resignation in her voice almost heartbreaking.
 
“For fuck’s sake… Maybe I shoulda just played dumb…” You grumble. “Orright. I’m not turning you in, and I’m certainly not gonna kill you, Tyris be fuckin’ Merciful… Although I did have to convince Blue not to have a go once she put two and two together.”
 
“Didn’t know Kobolds had the capacity…” The Manticore drawls absently.
 
“Be nice.” You retort, an involuntary smile tugging at your mouth. “So now the wool’s gone, let’s try this shit again, shall we? I’m Adam.”
 
“Is this an interrogation?”
 
“Try an introduction.”
 
“…Morrigan.”
 
“G’day Morrigan, now. What the fuck.”
 
“A… Friend convinced me it would be easier to travel if people thought I was a priestess.”
 
You snort slightly in amusement. “Uh huh… Didn’t think to maybe clue you into the finer points of Tyrisian ritual?”
 
“We… We only know what we’ve seen. Priestesses get forelocks tugged at them and you humans do what they say and don’t ask questions… It seemed to make sense… At least until…” Morrigan trails off.
 
“Until what?”
 
“Until the illusion started pulling at me to keep itself manifest.”
 
“Yawhu?” You grunt uncomprehendingly.
 
“For a resonant you’re a bit dumb.” Morrigan declared, studying you with a slight look of puzzlement. “Magic needs energy to maintain itself. I had hoped that you wouldn’t be paying that much attention, but between the four of you… Especially that Jinko…”
 
“…It had to work too hard and started feeding on ya.”
 
Morrigan nods. “Which… And don’t take this the wrong way, it was pure necessity…”
 
“…which is why you gave me the old one-two of an evening.”
 
“Er… Yes?” The manticore offered, not quite understanding the euphemism.
 
“You know…” You continued, gesturing in the general area of your crotch.
 
“It’s an… Easy source of energy. There are other ways but they’re… less certain.” Morrigan admitted.
 
“Well I hope you’re happy with ‘Less Certain’ because you’re not doin’ that any more. Savvy?”
 
Morrigan nods “Not like I need it now…”
 
“One thing I still don’t bloody get…” You continued, scratching at your stubbled cheek absently “…If you can pass off as a Mother Superior so well as to fool even me Kobie’s nose, why the sodding hell’d you need an escort?”
 
“It wasn’t MY magic.” Morrigan explained with a slight note of exasperation. “I… Didn’t trust you humans to get me there, well… as I am. We Manticores aren’t exactly the most trusted.”
 
“I’ll admit I don’t know much about you at all.”
 
“Probably because the Faith Militant drums us out of anywhere they find us.”
 
Your brow furrows in puzzlement. “Why the bloody hell for? The Pax is binding…”
 
“Because we still have to hunt you. Humans, I mean.”
 
“C’mon. I know the bulls aren’t yer best option but…”
 
“We don’t have bulls.”
 
“How? Every mamono species has Bulls, how do you stop from going extinct?”
 
“We don’t. We kill our Bulls when they’re born, for the good of everyone. They’re completely uncontrollable, the deadliest thing this world has ever seen. Maou’s shame covers us the heaviest of all.”
 
“I… I’m sorry…” You offer lamely, unsure of what to say to that.
 
“Mmm. I’m tired. We can talk more tomorrow, if you want.”
 
“Yeh, orright.” You concede. The Manticore stands, placing her barely-touched meal on the ground before padding on quiet paws towards her tent.
 
“Morrigan? What’s in Boulder?” You ask on impulse.
 
“The bitterest torture of this world…” The Manticore answers simply without turning “…Hope.”
 
 
“Blue! Tyris be glorified, slow down!” You demand as the Kobold grinds atop you, whimpering with need.
 
“I was your girl first. Me. Fucking tailpussy taking liberties and all…” Blue growls almost savagely.
 
“She needs this, Adam.” Cally explains gently, soothingly running her claws through your hair as the Kobold works you to arousal. A long, keening whine escapes Blue’s throat as she near-impales herself upon you, pounding rhythmically on your length before collapsing in sobbing shudders.
 
“Shhh… It’s ok pup…” you murmur, stroking the Kobold’s ear gently.
 
“I-I’m still your girl, aren’t I boss?” The Kobold near-begs.
 
“Am I or am I not still wearing the spur?” You chuckle, holding the carved totem between two fingers. “Now. If we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do it properly.”
 
Blue nods, moaning as you cupped her pert breast in hand, before you silenced her mouth with yours.
 
Some small time later, when the three of you had lusted the confusion and chaos of the days proceeding to dim memory, you softly stroked the mamono who cuddled into you on either side, luxuriating in the sensation of their closeness.
 
“Mmm… You’re gonna start something you’d better finish if you keep that up.” Cally chuckles.
 
“Adorabear… wasn’t four enough?” Blue asks incredulously, mumbling with fatigue.
 
“You got four, I only got two.” The Koala retorts, running her claws lightly along the Kobold’s back.
 
“Settle down you two…” You drawl languorously, lapsing into silence.
 
“You’ve got your thinking face on, Adam.” Cally mocks gently, kissing your nose.
 
“Mmm? Do I? Huh… Guess I’m worried about Chun-Hua.”
 
“I told you Boss” Blue insists, snuggling closer to you and rolling onto her back “Not until she starts being nicer to me.”
 
“Not that, Blue.” You snicker, stroking the Kobold’s toned stomach, eliciting a whuffle of happiness. “I need her at her best, and I can’t trust that while she’s acting like she’s worried I’ll obliterate her for farting at the wrong time.”
 
“Charming.” Cally drawls.
 
“Sodding hell, you know what I mean… I just wish there was a way I could get through to her.”
 
“I’ll fix it Boss.” Blue states simply
 
“Pup, y’ain’t said two sentences in a row to her since we left Fremantle. Where’s this coming from?” You ask, raising your head and looking at the Kobold in surprise.
 
“Adam’s right, I speak Aestenlander, I’ll have a word with her…” Cally begins. Blue props herself up on an elbow, and you can feel her eyes on you in the dark.
 
“Koala.” She states, the shadow of her paw silhouetted as she puts it on Cally’s naked breast. “Human. Resonant.” She states again, removing the paw and placing it on your chest. Finally, she places her paw against her own modest bust. “Hunter.” She states, before pointing at the tent-flap. “Hunter. Any questions?”
 
“Surprisingly no.” You admit.
 
“You’re the boss, Adz… but I’m just saying.” Blue remarks, snuggling back into you again.
 
You lay there in the dark as the Mamono’s breathing deepened into sleep beside you. What to do… You were between the two settlements, Southern Cross and Meredin, so the choice was still open. Nothing said all five of you had to go for the resupply though. Tyris, you could go alone and leave the Mamono at camp, at a pinch. Still… Chun-Hua’s reaction still picked at you. Who would be the best to resolve that?
 
The question went unanswered as sleep’s soft embrace surrounded you.
 
 
“Boss… Hey Boss…” Blue’s voice pierced through the veil of sleep.
 
“Whazzamadda?” You mumble, stirring without opening your eyes.
 
“Gonna go fix kitten. Kay? Kay.”
 
“Hangon, Blue, wait a se… “ You groan, sitting up and rubbing your eyes. The Kobold however has already left the tent. Swearing, you pull your pants up, following her out.
 
“Blue!” You call, but the Kobold has already approached the Jinko, who looks down at her impassively. “Boss… Find… Okay…” is all you can make out from this distance. Chun-Hua peers at Blue uncertainly, which prompts Blue to reach around, faster than you thought possible, giving a yank at the Jinko’s tail before scampering away, giggling madly. With an indignant yowl, the Jinko gives chase, giving tongue to what you assume are sulphurous insults in the tonal language of the Aestenlands.
 
“Should we ask the Koala to say a prayer for her soul?” sounds a voice from behind you. You turn to see Morrigan approaching from behind you, her segmented tail lashing absently in the air behind her.
 
“No… I’ll assume she knows what she’s doing. Either way Blue can probably run for a day and a half without getting tired so Chun-Hua’s likely to either calm down or collapse from exhaustion before she catches her.” You sigh reluctantly, concern still crawling in your breast.
 
“What’s going on?” Cally yawns as she emerges unenthusiastically from the tent. “The sun’s not even up.”
 
“Blue just did something very silly… But I think this time I need to have a little faith that she knows what she’s doing… Just wish she told me first.”
 
“Mmm… Well… I’m going back to bed then.” Cally declares, peering at the early morning light with distaste.
 
“Joining her?” Morrigan asks simply, stretching out, her batlike wings spreading to an impressive span behind her.
 
“Nah… Probably better keep an eye on the cargo. You heading back to sleep?”
 
“No. I like the morning.” She answers enigmatically.
 
You shrug noncommittally, heading over to the smouldering remains of the previous night’s fire, throwing a few lighter sticks on and blowing on the coals to set them alight. A slight noise from behind you, and you turn to see Morrigan shifting her weight uncertainly from foot to bestial foot.
 
“We don’t need to worry about time?” She asks concernedly.
 
“Nah, she’s right. We need Chun-Hua at her best, and we need supplies. Frankly, neither is happening without the other. A day lost isn’t going to make a hill-of-beans difference against the risk posed by going hungry or a scattered Jinko.”
 
“Mmmm…” Morrigan concedes, seemingly unconvinced.
 
“Why you so worried anyway? Least this way you don’t have to worry about a Pally paying attention and doing us all for Heresy.”
 
Morrigan shrugs unconvincingly. “Just want to get to Boulder, that’s all.”
 
“What’s there anyway? It’s a gigantic hole in the ground that we rip metal out of. Hardly seems like the land of proverbial milk and honey.”
 
“I told you…” Morrigan mumbles, wrapping her furred forearms across her body.
 
“You told me a whole buncha nothing, to be honest. C’airn, the more I know the more help I can be.”
 
“M-my mate.” Morrigan replies reluctantly
 
“And of course he’s Human.”
 
“Hence the Secrecy.”
 
“Ahhhh…” You nod in understanding. “Not noble?”
 
Morrigan snorts derisively , “Maou no, I’m not that stupid.”
 
“So we’re keeping the last few nights on the hush then?”
 
“How do you mean?”
 
“You know, when you… er…” You gesture suggestively.
 
Morrigan fixes you with a level look. “Firstly, I told you, that was necessity. He’ll understand. Second, tail doesn’t count.”
 
“Tail?” You echo, your face scrunched in confusion.
 
Morrigan rolls her feline eyes, the fat bulb of her tail swinging around so it is pointed at your face. The ‘petals’ on the bulb peel back, revealing a moist, pink, meaty interior.
 
“Never heard the name ‘Tailpussy’ before?”
 
You blink in surprise, “Well… I mean sure, I have. Just didn’t think it was quite that literal!”
 
Morrigan gives a slight ‘heh’ of amusement, the petals closing, becoming once again a spine-studded bulb.
 
“Out of curiosity…” You venture, “…what actually HAPPENS when someone gets stuck with one of those.”
 
“Depends.”
 
“On?” you prompt
 
“How many you get stuck with. One? Clear your schedule, the rest of the day’s going to involve your dick in one way or another. Two? Try the week, and you’re going to be all over bruises by the end of it and weak as a kitten. Four? Hope your will’s in check, even Incubi have been rendered comatose by that amount of venom, it would probably stop a human’s heart.”
 
“Fuck eh?” You remark in surprise, feeding the fire.
 
“Yep… So when’s breakfast?”
 
 
“There they are” Morrigan declares, gesturing with her chin at the edge of camp. The Kobold and the Jinko are meandering towards the camp, Chun-Hua bearing something across her shoulders.
 
“What in the name of Tyris…” You begin, your eyes widening as you see the sticky crimson coating Blue’s face and torso. “…BLUE!”
 
“S’ok boss, it’s not mine. Me and Kitty found something big to beat up.”
 
“When I say you call me that? I no say you call me that.” Chun-Hua interjects with mild displeasure.
 
“Big?” you echo, looking at the corpse draped over Chun-hua’s shoulders.
 
“Sweet Maou Blue!” Cally cries in surprise, “That’s a Terror-Bird!”
 
“Yuh huh!” Blue agrees smugly.
 
“Geddere.” You demand, pointing at the ground in front of you. Blue meekly accedes, yet there is still an air of self-satisfaction around her. “Don’t you ever worry me like that again.”
 
“What, like you with the box, boss?” Blue asks, utter innocence in her azure eyes.
 
“Fuck… Guess you got me there.” You admit, patting the Kobold’s head fondly.
 
“See?” Blue says aside to Chun-Hua. “He’s just a bloke… Though he does give some bitchin’ headpats.”
 
Chun-Hua grunts, before dropping the bloody carcass near the fire, before hesitantly approaching. Lowering her head, she gives that odd fist-in-palm salute at you.
 
“Sifu. I sorry for acting strange. Was unexpected. Please forgive.”
 
“S’orright Chun-Hua. Just glad you’re not freakin’ out on me. There’s still a bit of breakfast left if you two are hungry.”
 
“Yeah nah boss…” Blue replies, belching softly. “Hunters, remember? We took meat.”
 
“Raw Mihirung.” You chuckle incredulously.
 
“Was… not terrible. Surprising.” The Jinko added thoughtfully, absently cleaning the pads of her felinid paws.
 
“So what’re we doing now boss? You haven’t even packed up!” Blue exclaims eagerly as she fills a bucket with water.
 
“Well after you’ve got the red off ya, you and Cally are going to saddle up Four and Twenty and go get another few days worth of supplies from Southern Cross.”
 
“By ourselves?” Cally exclaims, the Koala looking at you with surprise.
 
“I keep banging on about how I need to rely on you, right? Well now I am. I can’t take Morrigan into town for obvious reasons and the pup’s run my mercenary to bloody exhaustion…”
 
Chun-Hua gives a yowl of objection which quickly turns into a massive yawn.
 
“…case in point.” you chuckle, jerking your head at the felinid mercenary. “So you’re gonna do that, I’m gonna butcher that monstrosity…” You point at the Mihirung corpse “…and when you get back we’re gonna stuff ourselves stupid.”
 
“That’s… surprisingly sensible. Who are you and what have you done with Adam?” Cally demands, smiling at you cheekily.
 
“Get on you…” You laugh, smacking the Koala on her ample backside.
 
“Don’t threaten me with a good time.” Cally drawls wickedly.
 
 
You focused on the tree. Surely it couldn’t be as simple as you surmised…
 
PUSH
 
With a ponderous cracking, the tree promptly topples over as if the hand of an unseen giant had pushed inexorably upon it. You laugh with amazement, it was simple! So simple!
 
SHIELD
 
BURST
 
With a surprisingly loud detonation, the trunk of the tree explodes into jagged chunks, bouncing harmlessly off the wall of force you had erected around yourself. Chun-Hua starts awake in the wagon with a look of shock.
 
“Sorry Chun-Hua, I didn’t mean to wake you…” You apologise, cackling with irrepressible glee “…There’s no limit! I can do anything, ANYTHING!”
 
The Jinko shakes her head, her expression almost sad. “And you wonder why I afraid, Sifu…” She sighs.
 
Well that sure took all the fun out of it at once. Lowering the shield, you walk a over to the wagon where Chun-Hua is half-curled, looking into the middle distance.
 
“That was off-value of me, considering the effort you’re going to in dealing with this. I’m sorry.” You offer sincerely. “Did you want to talk about it?”
 
“No.” The Jinko said simply.
 
“Fair enough. Your business after all.”
 
“But should…” Chun-Hua admits, raising herself up onto her elbows and looking at you. “…Back home, had… friend. Guiren. Grew up together. Him son of metal-worker. Strong. Make many things for village. Very well regarded. Understand, no break Pax, but Guiren and I… close. Like you and…” A tonal word you don’t recognise.
 
“Me and who sorry?”
 
“Small annoying Kobold.”
 
“Gonna have to remember that one… How’s it go again? Shouw Goo?”
 
Chun-Hua’s face twists in an expression halfway between amusement and distaste. “Please never try again.” she states, shaking her head helplessly.
 
“Yeh, righto. So what happened?”
 
“In woods together. Find… something. Crystal. Guiren say no go near it. I call Guiren afraid, tell him manhood fall off in forest. He…” the Jinko breaks off, squeezing her eyes shut. “He push me out of way… Lightning come from Crystal, hit Guiren… He cry out… I cannot go near… cannot move. Lightning stop and he fall. I pick him up, carry him back to village. Humans look afraid when I tell them what happen. Call Priestess. Priestess look worried. Next day Sifu come, say taking Guiren away.”
 
Comprehension dawns upon you. “He was awakened to Resonance.”
 
Chun-Hua nods, her eyes wet with remembered pain. “I tell Sifu no touch Guiren, that he need to stay, that he promise me he stay. Sifu… Displeased… hurt me with power. Loud in my ears… bleeding… When I wake up Guiren gone, and I no hear as good any more. Metal-worker die next year, no son to replace, villagers have to go long way for fixing things. Angry with me, say I bring shame on village. Other Jinko avoid me, say I no use for them with hurt to ears. So I leave… Use fighting for killing, for money. Bring more shame. No care anymore. None of it matter without Guiren.”
 
“Oh fuck Chun-Hua, I’m so fuckin’ sorry. That must’ve been…” You begin sympathetically, unconsciously stretching your hand forth and patting the felinid’s head.
 
Chun-Hua’s eyes widen, looking up at your arm with shocked incredulity. A freezing feeling washes over you as you realize how immensely you have just fucked up. Headpatting a killing machine. Tyris, you were a sinner, it’s true, but you really didn’t want to die like this!
 
“Shit. Sorry, wasn’t thinking.” You apologise, retracting your hand slowly and cautiously. A surprisingly soft paw catches your wrist, lightning quick.
 
“I… I no say stop…” The Jinko states almost pleadingly. Swallowing, you put your hand back on her head, patting gently as the Felinid chuffs with surprised pleasure at the sensation.
 
“What a pretty picture…” A voice drawls from the rear of the wagon. You and Chun-Hua jerk apart instinctively, looking over to see Morrigan smiling smugly at you. “…Is there a line or do I need to spill my guts to you first?”
 
“Get on woman.” You groan, rolling your eyes. “Didja finish that rub yet?”
 
“Yeah, though I don’t know why I agreed to it. My paws are going to smell like pepper for MONTHS.” the manticore insists, sneezing as if to prove her point.
 
“Yeh well, call it payback for me setting up your tent for nigh-on a week.” You jest, picking up the shovel. “Go back to sleep, Chun-Hua. I’ll wake you when dinner’s on, and thanks for being so upfront with me.”
 
The Jinko grunts, once again her taciturn self with the moment passed. You began digging out the ashes of the campfire, widening and deepening the hole.
 
“We’re gonna need more wood.” Morrigan declares, looking between you and the pile of rubbed meat she has brought over.
 
“Took care of it.” You remark, gesturing at the shattered tree lying conspicuously on the ground.
 
“Maou’s tits! How’d you do that?”
 
“Maaaaagic!” you drawl, wiggling your fingers at the Manticore.
 
“Oh, so you’ve met Juni too?”
 
“Ahhhh… So THAT’s your ‘friend’ with the dumb priestess idea?” you chuckle, looking at Morrigan askance.
 
“No.” Morrigan replies shortly, suddenly dead serious “And please, Adam. For your own sake, don’t pursue that one.”
 
“If I had a silver for every bugger who’s told me that. Lemme guess, it’s ‘for my own safety not to know’ or some associated shit?”
 
“You could say that. Let’s just say that what you see in the open is only a fraction of the world. Once you know about the rest of it, you’ll start looking for it… and when you see it, it will see you. You don’t want it to see you.”
 
“Fuck me, that’s ominous…” You mumble, somewhat taken aback.
 
“Kinda the point.”
 
“Fair play.”
 
“Why are you putting all that big stuff in first? You’re not going to be able to light it.” the manticore states critically as you pile thick logs into the firepit.
 
“Gonna try something…” You state with a smug grin.
 
FIRE
 
You leap back with a startled oath as a roaring column of flame boils skyward from the firepit, reaching a good ten feet into the air. For a minute you and the manticore lie prone, shielding your eyes from the light and heat, before the flame dies down, leaving nothing but blackened sand and white ash in the smoking pit.
 
“No.” Morrigan states shortly, hitting you ungently on the arm with a furred paw.
 
“I reckon.” You agree, rubbing absently at your arm, too astonished to even object.
 
 
“We’re back! We’re back we’re back we’re back!” Blue crows, sprinting forward and leaping into your arms.
 
“Bout time! I was getting worried!” You chuckle, rubbing the Kobold’s ear affectionately.
 
“Well SOMEONE had a philosophical argument about dried bananas.” Cally sniffs, riding Four in the lead with Two’s reins lengthened and tied behind her saddle to create a rude train.
 
“Oh yeh? Whazzat then?” You ask indulgently, helping the Koala from her saddle and beginning to unstrap the netted supplies slung over the bungarra’s back.
 
“Do dried bananas taste like arse or does arse taste like dried bananas?” Blue pipes up.
 
“Yes, I do believe that was the confounding logical conundrum.” Cally drawls, rolling her eyes.
 
“Mean, Adorabear.” Blue declares, wrapping her arms around the shorter mamono and nibbling on her round, furred ear. Cally squirms and squeals at the assault.
 
“Orright you two, the sooner we get this squared away, the sooner we can eat.”
 
The Mamono separate with a few furtive pinches at sensitive spots. Lines of crimson appear on the Bungarra’s flanks as you remove some of the larger sacks.
 
“Fuck’s sake girls, what happened here?” You demand, gesturing at the shallow wounds.
 
“Trapdoor spider.” Blue answers simply.
 
“What, had a go at Four?”
 
The Kobold shakes her tawny-haired head. “Nah. Decided it wanted to have a sniff at her front door and wouldn’t take reins for an answer so Adorabear put the boots to it, medium style.”
 
“So hard? Why?”
 
“Well Two DID kind of bite her leg off when she came skittering out looking for something to snatch, and you know what Bungarra are like with their blood up, boss.”
 
“Oh Tyris.” You groan, pinching the bridge of your nose.
 
“Oh, it’ll grow back!” Cally replies sunnily, before frowning in thought. “I’m pretty sure it will anyway… Still! Nothing a bit of salve and a night’s rest won’t fix!”
 
Humming absently, Cally heads over to the wagon, pulling a jar from the first aid kit, before returning and dabbing a little on the cuts. Four turns its head to glare at the Koala reproachfully, before realizing you are a closer target and giving a token snap.
 
“Fuckoff cunt.” You growl absently, smacking the bungarra in the face.
 
“What did you do all day today anyway?” Cally asks conversationally.
 
“Had a chat with Morrigan and Chun-Hua, practiced a bit…” You reply.
 
“He blew up tree and nearly set sky on fire.” Chun Hua’s voice rings out from beside the happy glow of the fire, naturally lit after your somewhat spectacular failure in lighting it with Resonance.
 
“I thought we said we weren’t gonna mention that!” You cry in mock injury.
 
“YOU said.” Chun Hua states simply “I no promise anything.”
 
Cally looks at you with concern before erupting in helpless laughter, leaving you with the last of the water barrels as she heads towards the fire, before casting a coquettish look over her shoulder. “We really can’t leave you anywhere, can we?”
 
“Tyris be Glorified, sometimes I almost envy the Pallies.” You grumble, levitating the barrel into the tray with a casual glyph and securing the canvas.
 
 
“Urghhh… I ate too much…” You groan, leaning back against a log.
 
“Me too…” Blue whimpers, cuddling into you.
 
Chun hua rubs her stomach, giving a grunt of affirmation, a slight look of discomfort on her face.
 
“Resonant, you’ve ruined me.” Morrigan declares, before giving a most unladylike belch. “It was the Koala!” She declares hurriedly, pointing with a furred digit at the curvaceous mamono dozing in the warm glow of the fire, her face aflame with embarrassment.
 
“Heh. Meat sleepies.” You snicker. “Orright, well it won’t keep sadly, let’s split the rest up between the three lizards and…”
 
“Adz!” Blue cries, suddenly alert. “There’s something…”
 
Chun-Hua sniffs the air, giving a growl equal parts warning and disgust. “What in name of Maou is smell?!” She demands, her feminine features twisted in distaste.
 
Morrigan joins the other two in sniffing the air. “Phwuargh… Is that the lizards?”
 
“Can’t be… I don’t smell anything.” You reply, heaving yourself to your feet. “Undead maybe?”
 
“Hmm? Undead? Where?” Cally murmurs, rousing from her doze and looking about “Eurgh!” She exclaims, putting a hand over her nose and mouth.
 
“Plaguebearers then?” You suggest, nervous energy causing your heart to beat faster.
 
“No boss… Way worse. Vegemite.” Blue explains, stripping off her woolen smock, leaving nothing but the brief leather of her preferred hunting garb covering her athletic figure.
 
“Vegemite? But why would anyone put vegemite on unless they… Fuck. Raiders.” You swear, freeing the knife from its sheath on your leg.
 
“They found me!” Morrigan moans.
 
“No. If looking for you, send Paladin. This for what in wagon. I protect.” Chun-Hua replies with firm conviction.
 
“Kitten’s got a point. Maou’s pert buttocks though… How much did they USE!?” Blue gags.
 
“We’re rushing to conclusions…” Cally offers, her face a little green “…Couldn’t just be paranoid humans?”
 
You shake your head. “They came loaded for Thylacine… or Jinko in this case. They know what we’re carrying and who’s guarding it. Get ready for a tiff.”
 
“You’re surprisingly calm, Trader.” Morrigan remarks, looking at you with not a little admiration.
 
“There’s one thing they don’t know about.”
 
“And what’s that?”
 
“Me.”
 
“Oh… OHHHH!” The manticore exclaims with a wicked grin. “Cheeky. Still… think I might get a little height on this…”
 
With that, she spreads her wings and launches herself into the air. Blue looking up after her with a hint of jealousy.
 
“Fuckin’ tailpussy…” The Kobold grumbles under her breath.
 
“Hello the camp!” Comes a harsh voice from the darkness beyond the fire’s light.
 
“Identify yourself.” You growl, thankful that your voice doesn’t crack with nerves.
 
“Don’t get excited Trader, nobody has to get hurt here.” the voice replies almost conversationally, as three rough looking men clad in leather gambesons enter the firelight, two armed with intimidating looking crossbows.
 
“Turn around and walk away. You’re not touching my cargo, but you do have the chance to leave without losing limbs.” You demand, holding the knife in a proficient guard.
 
“By yourself?” The leader snickers, gesturing to the wet, dark paste coating his face and torso. As if to further make his point, he dips a finger into a jar held nonchalantly in his hand, putting it in his mouth and swilling around, before spitting in the general direction of the Mamono, who shy away in utter disgust. You hear the soft retching sounds of Cally emptying her stomach somewhere behind you.
 
You narrow your eyes, studying the three bandits for a moment. “…Parlay” You state simply, raising your knife in a rude salute.
 
“Hah! You know your forms, Trader!” The leader near-laughs, signalling his fellows to lower their crossbows. “Parlay it will be.”
 
“Boss… What are you doing?” Blue hisses through her teeth.
 
“Look at the way they’re walking. They’ve been on land for a week? Maybe two?”
 
“Pirates.” Cally groans, wiping her mouth and leaning on the wheel of the wagon.
 
“Freelancers, please.” The leader urges in mock injury. “So. Terms?”
 
“You turn around and leave. Say you never found us. Say you got blindsided by mihirung. There’s a carcass by the fire, I’ll give you the head if your Captain’s the doubting sort.”
 
The Man blinks slightly in surprise. “Mate… You don’t seem to quite understand your position. Parlay’s for asking terms of surrender.”
 
“I am.” You insist, your gaze not leaving the man’s. “Yours. I don’t know who clued you into my movements but you’ve been sold a gelding as breeding stock.”
 
“Don’t bullshit me mate. We know you’re carrying coin.”
 
“And do you think I’d be carrying it without the means of defending it?”
 
“The Jinko? We’re all over what she can do. She’s mean, sure, but two bolts in the gut will convince nearly anything to calm down sharpish.” The man’s casual assessment of Chun-Hua’s abilities brings a glare and a low hiss from the felinid. “And your Kobie? Cute, probably good at chasing sheep, but in a straight up fight?”
 
“I’ve beat up Bungarra who SHIT bigger than you!” Blue snarls, her hackles upright.
 
“Don’t brag Blue.” You chide absently.
 
“Really? Well then we put one in her as well. No matter, it’s not like you’re going to be able to get close anyway.”
 
“Last chance…” You grunt, gritting your teeth as you focused your will “…I can’t offer you quarter.”
 
“All or nothing eh? Shame… I’ll take no pleasure in this, mate.”
 
“Me either. Blue, Chun-Hua, don’t move until I tell you.” You order shortly, calling upon the Logos and feeling it respond
 
SHIELD
 
Immediately, you realize the difference between applying the glyph to yourself, proprioception giving you instinctive awareness of where you ‘started’ and ‘ended’, and spreading the shield across an arbitrary area of space. You spread your arms unconsciously, mentally informing the logos ‘From that point to that point’.
 
“Open Guard?” The Man asks incredulously, mistaking your movements for a blade form. “This is pitiful. Boys, make it quick.”
 
The other guards quickly raised their crossbows, discharging bolts with dull sounds, the faint blur of their shapes in the dim light of the fire suddenly branching off as they collided with the field of Resonant Energy you had erected. “Pitiful.” You echoed in agreement, smirking at the leader, who peered incredulously at two near point-blank shots going impossibly wide.
 
Time to take care of those crossbows though. You felt the ‘shield’ glyph begin to waver as you desperately encompassed the two crossbows in your focus. Two glyphs at once was more taxing on your concentration than you had anticipated, and your second glyph was simple, rushed…
 
UP
 
Both men cried out with surprise as their crossbows seemed to leap from their grasps, yanked heavenward by unseen forces.
 
“What in Tyris is going on?!” The leader demanded, a hint of fear colouring his voice.
 
“Somethin’ grabbed our bolters, Bo’sun!” one of the men replied, rubbing at his wrist and glancing furetively skyward.
 
“Don’t something me, what the bloody hell was it!?” the leader spits, drawing a cutlass from a scabbard at his side.
 
Your shield gives a final flicker and dissipates. “Blue, Chun-Hua…” You grate, the words sticking in your throat. “…No Quarter.” It was one thing to defend yourself, but this was deliberately ordering the deaths of the three men.
 
The Jinko’s answering snarl was almost joyful as she leapt into scything action. The combination of a wicked-looking hand-axe and a torso and face coated in vegemite were the only things keeping the mercenary at bay from the lackey, who yelled and swore, back pedalling frantically and swinging wildly.
 
You began to approach the leader, your knife held low and deadly. A tawny shape pushes past you, a near-demonic snarl shaking its frame.
 
“MINE.” Blue slathers, glancing at you with an expression you had not seen from the Kobold before.
 
“Sing out if you get in trouble Blu…” You began, before spotting movement to your right. Instinctively you rolled away, the glittering silver of a dagger parting the air in the space where you once were. You scramble to get to your feet, once again thankful for Kessiah’s training, yet the raider presses his advantage, grimacing as he slashes at you. You had no other choice…
 
PUSH
 
With a noisy, forced exhale and shocked expression, the raider sails through the air, impacting forcefully with an unoffending tree. He slumps to the ground, not moving. You hurry over, kicking the blade away from his limp hand, before placing a knee in the small of his back and pulling his head up by the hair, a sick feeling in your guts as you prepare your knife to open his throat. You pause, feeling the pulpy softness of his head and feeling the loose bones of his spine beneath your leg, sticky wetness coating your hand and soaking through the leg of your trousers. You release the corpse, not feeling any better for having killed him through resonance rather than an honest fight.
 
“No! Please!” one of the raiders wailed, and you saw Chun-hua standing atop him as he lay on his vegemite coated front, the back of his gambeson ripped open, dripping crimson lines indicating she had not been too delicate with it either. The Jinko snarled, bringing both hands down in a chopping motion. The raider’s screams were high and short as she bodily yanked the lungs from his body, holding her grisly trophies aloft and roaring triumphantly.
 
“Argh! Fucking bitch!” You heard the leader yell, sound of metal on the soft ground where his cutlass bit. Panting snarls from Blue. You made to hurry over to assist your Kobold, yet what you saw gave you pause. This wasn’t the brutal efficiency of Chun-Hua, or the near-dance of Kessiah’s bladeforms. This was something altogether different. Something calculating… cruel… Predatory…
 
Blue would zigzag forward, low to the ground, then when she had drawn the raider’s guard, she would dart impossibly sideways, each time sinking her teeth or claws into the man. This wasn’t herding, not even the violent driving she had engaged in when the Rooster was at bay. This could be called nothing but hunting, and something cold spread in your chest, watching what your precocious childhood friend had become. The corpse of the man you had killed seemed to stare accusingly at you from behind. Indeed, what you had both become…
 
You dared not intervene and risk throwing the Kobold’s concentration. As if to accentuate that, the raider gets in a lucky shot, a thin line of crimson drawing itself across Blue’s left shoulder. Chun-Hua’s bloody paw appears on your torso, as you cry out in concern, instinctively calling upon the Logos to blast the man into a fine pink mist, the Jinko having approached you undetected. She shakes her head, grunting negation at your seemingly obvious plan.
 
“Let learn. Fight well. Bring Honour.” She says shortly.
 
The raider, crazed with pain and fatigue launches a vicious overhand strike, which Blue seems to sail beneath, gripping the man’s leg and with one smooth motion, ripping leather, tendon and muscle away from the man’s leg with her teeth. Screaming, the leader of the raider trio goes down, his ruined leg no longer able to bear his weight. He grips the crimson-flowing rent desperately in one hand, cutlass held out with the other, gasping and moaning in fear and agony.
 
“Blue.” You state, shocked at seeing a man hamstrung like a harried pig. “…Enough. Come.”
 
The Kobold flicks a glance at you, pretending not to hear as she circles the gravely injured raider, a low ‘Roooo’ of triumphant anticipation welling in her throat.
 
“NOW!” You bark, pointing imperiously at your side. Whuffling, Blue reluctantly leaves the raider, approaching you and nuzzling almost kitten-like into your side.
 
“Y’told me Trader… Can’t say y’didn’t…” The raider gasps, his face twisted in pain as the three of you approach.
 
“…Even if I could treat you. You know I can’t let you live.” You state, almost apologetically.
 
“Yeh. Fuck. Hurts like a cunt though… Don’t suppose you’ve got a tot for a dead man?”
 
You shake your head, water was all you were carrying, booze was a luxury not worth the weight. Even the rude spirits in your first aid kit had been replaced with more reliable alternatives.
 
“Too much to hope for… Listen… Trader… One last favour…” He gasps, his face beginning to go pallid from bloodloss. He flips the cutlass over in his hand, offering the hilt to you. “…It’s a silly superstition, but lemme die from steel? Be easier to face Tyris saying I died in a good fight than bled out from a Kobie.”
 
You nod, you couldn’t deny him that. “One question… well… two. Who, and How?”
 
The raider gives a tearing groan of pain. “Fucked if I know mate! Thirty percent and me captain’s orders, that’s all I needed or wanted to know! Now please, In the Name of the Most Fuckin’ High, make an end!”
 
You nod. “Tyris forgive you.” You intone, pushing the cutlass against the raider’s sternum, feeling the small-bird sensation of his pierced heart vibrate through the blade. The raider gives a choking rattle, his eyes rolling back in his head as he gives up the ghost.
 
You sit there, holding the cutlass as the raider ponderously tips sideways, sliding off the blade with a wet scrape.
 
“Well…” Cally offers timidly from behind you “…That was a thing that happened.”
 
“Yeh.” You agree, unable to take your eyes from the bodies. “Where’s that fuckin’ manticore?”
 
“Um… Adam?” Cally replies delicately, and you tear your gaze away to see a groggy-looking Manticore giving you a level look of disapproval, one wing bound and splinted and a crimson-spotted bandage wrapped around her forehead.
 
“What happened?” You ask. Cally holds up a crossbow, remarkably undamaged, apart from a guilty-looking crimson stain on one of its arms.
 
“You sort of brained her when you were introducing some new friends to the Bucket.” She states, seemingly desperate to hold back laughter. You too bite your lip to keep from erupting in mirth at the sheer absurdity of it all.
 
“She’ll be alright?” You ask, the moment passing.
 
“Had Worse.” Morrigan states shortly, clearly unenthused by the Koala’s merciless nursing.
 
“Good Fight.” Chun-Hua stated simply, turning to Blue and placing a paw on her uninjured shoulder. “Relish Victory.”
 
Blue did not answer, merely threw back her head and let loose with a bell-toned howl, triumph spoken more eloquently than in words. Moments later, Chun-Hua’s own thunderous roar joined it in concert.
 
“Good to see they’ve found something in common… Even if it is mindless slaughter.” Morrigan grumbles, wincing in pain.
 
You make a face at that. “C’mon Blue, lemme look at your shoulder while Cally’s taking care of Morrigan.”
 
“Kay boss!” Blue agreed sunnily, all traces of the vicious predator gone once again.
 
“Sifu…” Chun Hua interjected, holding up a paw. “…Thank you.”
 
“What for?” You query, peering at the Jinko
 
“Could have ended them with power. Instant. No risk. Chose to give chance to fight. Bring Honour to pack.”
 
“Is this the point at which I tell you I cheated outrageously?” You admit somewhat sheepishly.
 
Chun-Hua gives a slight shrug. “Do I fight without claws? You Sifu. I Jinko. Cannot be other than who we are. You gave them chance. That enough.”
 
“Huh. Cheers.” You accede, still not entirely comfortable with what has occurred.
 
“Boss!” Blue calls. Cally rolls her eyes, handing you a strip of clean linen and some ointment.
 
“She’s not moving like it’s too deep. Chun-Hua and I will see to the bodies.”
 
You take the supplies gratefully. “Thanks Cal.”
 
Walking towards where the Kobold’s voice sounded, you see her tawny-haired head peeking from the flap of your tent.
 
“How’m I gonna see in there?”
 
“Not my fault you can’t see in the dark.” Blue answered cheekily, ducking inside. Following, you called upon the Logos, seeking something which would solve this additional conundrum. Ah. There.
 
LIGHT
 
A small luminescent orb appeared near your head, and you were greeted with the sight of Blue already topless, surprise on her face at your new ability. “Well that just took all the fun out of it.”
 
Turn around pup.” You chuckle helplessly, and Blue pokes her tongue out at you. She gives a brief yelp as you dab ointment on the cut, the cool cream turning pink as it mixes with dried blood.
 
“H-hey… That actually feels better!” Blue exclaims in joyful surprise.
 
“That’s good.” You reply indulgently, wiping the excess and traces of blood away with the cloth. Already the bleeding had stopped, and the wound was pink, and much less raw-looking. You surmised that by morning it would be closed, a mere memory in a week or so… Your hands absently trace the lines of her body as she makes small, pleased sounds at the attention.
 
“Boss… that’s not my hurt shoulder…” Blue murmurs throatily.
 
“No. It’s not. You did very well tonight Pup…”
 
“There’s a ‘But’ there somewhere…” Blue chuckles, her firm buttocks bumping into you as if to drive home the point.
 
“You’re fighting me, pup. More than usual. I know I indulge you on most things, but don’t forget who I am… Legally and… otherwise.” Your arms slide around her body, hands light against her flat stomach.
 
“S’how it works Boss… You gotta test the Alpha, or she… or he… forgets why they are who they are.” Blue whispers, her head craning back, her lips desperately seeking yours. You allow her a brief kiss, before bringing your hand up to encircle her neck oh-so-gently.
 
“Even so…” You drawl softly, pushing her head away and down “…You defied me tonight. I think we’re overdue a… reminder.”
 
Blue whimpers, half in worry, half in barely suppressed need.
 
“Submit.” You order, Blue obediently bending over, her backside and tail raised towards you.
 
“L-like this, Master?” She whines, seeking your approval over her shoulder.
 
“Good girl.” You murmur, taking her leggings in your hand and sliding them down, her bare buttocks pale in the unnatural light, the petals of her womanhood already visibly moist. With a wave of your hand, you extinguish the light, already flickering as your concentration fights with building lust. With one hand, you stroke at her tenderness, eliciting a gasping moan of desire from the Kobold, whilst with the other, you free your manhood, quickly hardening with anticipation.
 
“P-please…” Blue begs, wiggling her hips at you.
 
Wordlessly, you sink yourself into her, gasping again at the snugness of her depths around you, the furnace heat of her secrets achingly pleasurable.
 
“Ooooohhhhhhhhh… M-master… You’re s-so BIG!” Blue laments through her teeth as she struggles to accommodate you. Gripping her hips, you move within her, slowly, deftly, the lewdness in the Kobold’s voice driving you to further efforts. Your thrusts are long and powerful, and you feel yourself bottoming out within her, each time her moans become a slight yelp.
 
“Who is your master?” You ask, panting slightly with the sensation.
 
“You!”
 
“Whose commands do you obey?”
 
“Yours!”
 
“And who was my girl first?” The last with a light smack to her quivering buttock.
 
“Meeeeee!” Blue yowls “P-please Master! More! M-make me your good girl!”
 
Like a racehorse freed from the gate, you begin pounding at her in earnest, your grunts and panting intersposed with her moans and cries.
 
“M-master! I-I…” Blue yelps, the last lost in a throaty moan as her depths clench tightly around you… pulsing… milking…
 
With a choked groan, you erupt within her, feeling as if all the worry and care in the world left you with your orgasm. You hold her to you briefly as your member pulses and twitches, before collapsing back, breathing heavily. A new sensation, Blue having quickly turned, the Kobold now licking your mixed juices from your shaft.
 
“I-I wish you’d find time to teach me more often, Boss…” Blue quips lightly, cuddling against you where you kneeled on the floor of the tent.
 
“Loses its edge if we do it all the time, don’t you think?” You drawl, stroking the Kobold in your arms. “Sides, we can’t leave Cally out every time, can we?”
 
“Mmm…” Blue murmurs.
 
“Something wrong pup?”
 
“No… Just… Can I be honest with you Boss?”
 
“I wouldn’t have it any other way, Blue. What’s wrong?”
 
“I like Adorabear. I’d say she was like my sister but that’s a bit yuk.”
 
“A bit.” You agree.
 
“She won’t be around forever though.” Blue states with sudden seriousness.
 
“S’abit maudlin pup.”
 
“I’m serious. She’s in love with Rezzy-Raoul, the worst kind of love. The love that doesn’t come back the way you want it to. Ever since you did the thing with the chest she’s been measuring your face to see how well his would look on you.”
 
“Fuck, that’s dark.”
 
“Don’t tease me! You know what I mean. She wants you to be like him, so she can feel like she’s getting what she always wanted.”
 
“Well as a role model in resonance I could probably do worse…” You admit, stroking the Kobold’s ear.
 
“See I don’t want that. I want you to be you, not some poncy blonde who stinks of Angel. I want YOU boss… I… Love You.”
 
Those words… From a small child you were raised to Obey the Pax. Taught that procreation was a duty to further humanity, to Glorify The God and Increase His Worship upon the earth… Still… This feeling…
 
“I love you too… Tyris forgive me, but I love you!” You near-moan, holding the Kobold against you tightly, feeling her melt against you with joy. She raises her head and your lips meet in a tender kiss.
 
“I’m sleepy.” Blue yawns suddenly.
 
“It’s been a big night Blue.” You admit “I’ll give the others a hand and be right back.”
 
“Kay.” Blue accedes, clambering beneath the blankets. You buckle your trousers, straightening your clothes and exiting the tent.
 
“C’mon Four… When have you ever been this stubborn when it came to food?” You hear Cally Grunt.
 
“Cal… What are you doing?” You demand, seeing the Koala and the Jinko leading the three Bungarra towards the bodies where they lay somewhat away from the camp.
 
“It’s either them or the scavengers Adam, and I don’t want Ghouls sniffing around in the middle of the night, do you? None of us have the strength left to dig three graves tonight.” Cally admits.
 
“No.” You order simply
 
“I know, it’s horribly distasteful, but what other option…” Cally begins, looking up at you.
 
“No.” You repeat. “What if it was us, Cal? What if it went the other way tonight? What if it was me, Blue, and Chun-Hua lying in the grass? I won’t make a habit of defiling the dead, for the sake of my soul, if nothing else.”
 
“You’re a good man Adam. Truly… But I still don’t know…”
 
You fix the corpses with a look of intense concentration. “Most Holy Tyris, forgive them their Sins and accept them unto Your Glory.” You intone.
 
FIRE
 
As before, a roaring inferno envelops the bodies, its brightness making you shield your eyes from the light and heat, and causing the Bungarra to hiss and pull at their reins in consternation. Before long, the flames die out, leaving again, nothing but blackened ground and crumbling ash.
 
“…Or that.” Cally admits, with a note of… Relief? And as she leads the Bungarra back to the moorings you had set firmly in the earth, was that a smile? No, you were seeing things, fuelled by Blue’s worry.
 
“I no understand, Sifu.” Chun-Hua states, carrying something. “They tried kill you. Tried kill all of us. Again you say prayer, give honour to bodies. Why?”
 
“If you were alone, dying, wouldn’t you want someone to give you a little dignity in the end?” You reply.
 
“I… I shame myself.” Chun-Hua murmurs, her head downcast in consternation.
 
“We’ve led very different lives, Chun-Hua. If I grew up like you, I’d probably be less forgiving myself.” You admit. “Whazzat you’ve got?”
 
“Is yours. Arms of leader. Bring Honour to Pack.”
 
“You pulled the arms off the poor bugger?!” You exclaim in disgust.
 
“No! Sword! Not Monster…” Chun-Hua retorts, rudely shoving the blanket-wrapped bundle into your hands and stalking back to the wagon, swearing under her breath in that tonal language of hers.
 
“Did you and Blue have fun?” Cally asks, casually sliding her hand into yours as you head back towards the tent.
 
“You could say that.” You agree “How’s Morrigan?”
 
“She’ll have a thumping headache in the morning and she won’t be able to fly for a couple of days, but she’ll be fine.” Cally assures you.
 
“Hey Cal… That business before with the Bungas… That’s not like you.”
 
“Mmm?”
 
“You testing me?” You ask, rubbing the Koala’s furred ear absently with your other hand.
 
“If I don’t… Who will? It’s too easy to become like Isaac, Adam… and I care about you too much to let you start down that road.”
 
You had nothing to say to that, as you let the Koala lead you to the comfortable darkness of the tent.
 
 
“Finally!” Morrigan groaned, the open wound of the Great Mine of Boulder coming into view as you crest the hill.
 
“Your wing’s been better for a whole two days. Dunno what you’re groaning about.” You snicker.
 
“Hush.” Morrigan demanded primly, her tail lashing above the ivory hindquarters of her palfrey.
 
“Rider.” Blue stated simply, pointing at a speck moving along the road towards them “Fuckin’ keen one too.”
 
“Ah balls, what are we in for now?” You moan.
 
“Mmmuh? Whusgoinon?” Cally asked, coming awake from where she was dozing against the Kobold.
 
“Eeewww… Adorabear you drooled on me!” Blue exclaims with distaste.
 
“I do NOT drool!” The Koala insisted sulkily.
 
“Ease off girls…” You order, drawing the cutlass which was your spoil from the fight in the wilderness.
 
“Heehee… you look so mean with that Boss.” Blue giggled, gazing at you admiringly.
 
As the rider approached, Morrigan peered at them intently, before with an eager whoop, she launched herself into the air, hurtling towards the figure. You faintly saw them collide, the rider toppled from the horse, which circled aimlessly before circling back towards the grounded pair in the dumb curiosity known only to horses.
 
“I take it you two have met before?” You ask, sheathing your blade as you came upon the Manticore, mantling the once-rider with her wings, showering his face with kisses.
 
“This is Phillip!” Morrigan explained, as if that should make everything clear.
 
“The er… other end of your journey, I take it.” You suggested delicately.
 
“C’mon Morrigan, Get off…” The man demanded, prying himself out from under the mamono and standing, brushing the dust from his plain clothes. “The God Bless you. Thank you for bringing her here safely.”
 
“Safely?! I got brained and I hurt my wing and…”
 
“But did you die?” Chun-Hua mumbled sleepily from where she dozed on the canvas behind you.
 
“No but…”
 
“Can fix if you like…” The Jinko interjected, the vaguest hint of menace in her voice.
 
“Please.” The man insisted, holding his arms up to try and stem off the incensed Manticore’s building retaliation. “Permit me to offer you lodging, as personal thanks.”
 
“Er… That’s decent of ya. Cheers…” You reply, somewhat puzzled by the man’s rather formal method of speech.
 
“Please, follow me.”
 
 
“Whoof. Tell ya what mate, I’ve never tasted rock-spider cooked like that!” you exclaim, leaning back in your chair and rubbing your stomach.
 
“Boss…” Blue lamented.
 
“I know, I know, you ate too much. Why don’t you girls find bed, I’ll be right along.” You chuckle.
 
“Mmm. Early start. See if we can’t fleece that T&G factor before he’s properly awake.” Cally snickers wickedly as she slides from her chair.
 
“That poor bastard has to count the whole shipment himself Cal, that’s just fuckin’ mean.” You laugh in response.
 
“Your indentured?” Phillip asked simply as the Mamono sleepily staggered up the short hallway.
 
“Blue is, the Kobie, I mean. Cally’s… Complicated.” You admit. There had been an agreement of payment for business she brought your way, and an assurance that you would assist her in rebuilding her collection of books, but until this point she had seemed perfectly content simply to accompany you. “It’s a nice place you’ve got here.” You offer, suddenly eager to change the subject.
 
“I’ve been blessed with a certain comfort, it’s true.” Phillip accedes enigmatically.
 
“Philliiiiip…” Morrigan wheedles in the man’s ear, her paws busy at his shoulders.
 
“In a moment, Morrie…” Phillip chuckles “…we have guests.”
 
“Do I gotta fuckin’ stick you?” the Manticore grumbles.
 
“Not if you want me to be any good to you tomorrow.” Phillip laughs, the first genuine emotion you’ve seen out of him all night. He takes the Manticore’s furred paw, kissing its pinkish pads softly. “I won’t be long. I promise.”
 
“Better not be.” Morrigan huffs, half flirt, half threat, before flitting from the room, her mannerisms suddenly girlish, leaving you alone with this oddly reserved man.
 
“Look, mate. I’ve gotta be straight up with you. On the way here someone convinced Morrigan to take a risk or two… Resulted in her kinda… Well…”
 
“She drained you.” Phillip finished your lingering statement simply.
 
“Uh… Yeah. Sorry.”
 
“Tail?”
 
“Eh?”
 
“Did she use her Tail?”
 
You nod, your brow furrowed in puzzlement.
 
“Then don’t worry. You’ve done no wrong against me or her. No moreso than if I were to drink from your tankard.” As if proving a point, Phillip reached over, taking your mug and sucking back a healthy draught of beer. “Are you angry with me?”
 
“No… Brain’s currently full of fuck but no, not mad at ya mate… Listen, this whole thing’s got me knackered. Why is someone willing to pay gold… Thanks for that by the way…” You patted the pocket in which rested the reward for delivering the Manticore “…Just to see a mamono taken across the west Australs on the hush?”
 
“It’s less about her, and more about me, I’ll be frank.”
 
“Still not getting you.”
 
“Look, you’ve clearly been through a lot with Morrigan, and I think that, combined with the fact you’re lowborn, no offense…”
 
“…None taken” You admit, who the fuck wanted to be Noble anyway?
 
“…Leads me to confide something in you. Not that it will matter much anyway.”
 
“Oh?” You reply, leaning forward in curiosity “Whazzat then?”
 
“The Kobold’s bonded to you… Not enough to cause concern for either of you, mind, but enough to recognise a… Kindred spirit.”
 
“Not that it’s really anybody’s business… How’d you know?” You demand, suddenly on the defensive. You push your chair back with a startled oath as golden light permeates along Phillip’s shoulders and arms, forming a rough impression of armor on his torso.
 
“I am… Was… A Paladin.”
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