Child of the Australs: A Tanuki named Juni (5)

“Prithee…” Bella murmured, studying the ramshackle buildings as you drove along the potholed road which lead towards the Faith Militant encampment “…This is… Quaint.”
 
“It’s a shithole. I wouldn’t stable twenty in some of these hovels.” You remark in displeasure.
 
“Thou said it, not I…” the Griffon quips, suppressing a smile.
 
“Was that a joke from you, feathers?” Blue snickers, tickling at the Griffon, then squealing delightedly and squirming away as the taller Mamono attempts to pin her to the canvas by sheer body mass. “Hah! Gonna have to get up earlier than that to put that over on me!”
 
“Certes, Yet am I not closer each time?” The Griffon muses levelly.
 
“Bugger. Point… Hey Boss! Take your shirt off?”
 
“No Blue.” You chuckle.
 
“If you loved me you’d take your shirt off.”
 
You stare levelly at the Kobold, before whipping an open palm at her nearest buttock, making the air ring with the smack and her resultant squeal. “Behave.” You order.
 
“Yes Master.” Blue acceeds meekly, rubbing her backside before sitting quietly beside you and resting her head on your arm.
 
“I do not think she meant any harm by…” Bella remonstrates, before pausing, sniffing the air. “…Verily Blue, thou wert not kidding when thou said…”
 
“HEY wow lookit that change-a subject right there!” Blue exults desperately, pointing at nothing in particular.
 
You stifle a laugh, patting the Kobold on the head and allowing her distraction to stand. Probably wasn’t the best idea to be talking about how your indentured was soaking wet right now anyway.
 
“Why art all the houses of such poor quality anyway?” Bella asks, clucking her tongue at a patchily tiled roof that seemed only minutes away from collapsing into rubble.
 
“Nobody owns ‘em.” You reply simply.
 
“Certes, I have seen people therein…”
 
“Squatters, probably. Trying to invoke freehold law. Fix the place up, make it barely habitable, then hope you can last the required year-and-a-day without some centaur band kicking you out when it rains and they wanna stay dry while they get drunk. S’why they’re not exactly being industrious with it.”
 
“Why dost thy Paladins not safeguard their efforts?”
 
“Because their situation’s a fucking mongrel, I’d bet. Get TOO muscular and the Centaur who the Council of Matriarchs have recognised as having claim thanks to the previous Baron doing… whatever it was he bloody well did… will get muscular right back. Let THAT particular scrubfire burn too long and we’re lookin’ down the throat of a crusade.”
 
“What doth that entail?”
 
“I have no bloody idea, and I pray to Eternal Tyris that I die old and senile and still ignorant of the details.” You declare fervently as you approach the encampment, a stout wooden palisade enclosing the tent city within.
 
“V-verily… That doth not look half like an Order outpost…” Bella whimpers, her eyes wide with fear.
 
“S’orright Bella… S’just the Faith Militant. Reckon stick me in one of those people-freezers we sprung Emmy from fer a few centuries and they’d still make their garrisons exactly the same.” You remark soothingly. A bored looking gate guard holds up his hand as you approach.
 
“Business?”
 
“Checkin’ in. One of the Annointed on patrol east of here told me it was an idea.”
 
“That’d be Sir Douglas. Go on through, but the animals stay here.”
 
“Wanna stay out here with the Bungas Bella?”
 
“Aye, gladly.” Bella agrees with a gushing tone of relief.
 
“C’mon then Blue…” You beckon, only for a polearm to be lowered in the Kobold’s path.
 
“I said animals outside.” The soldier drawls in a snide, poisonous tone.
 
Blue looks at you with a hangdog expression of utter injury at the Soldier’s blunt insult. You grit your teeth, resisting the immediate urge to give the soldier a crash course in flight via the medium of resonant glyph.
 
“Hey, pup…” You murmur, digging in your pack and taking a knee in front of the Kobold. “…hang on to this for me, and wait with Bella like a good girl?”
 
“B-Boss… he called me…” Blue sobs, two big tears welling in her eyes.
 
“I know. Take the parchment and gimme a sec. Trust me.”
 
Blue nods, sniffing as she takes the parchment in her paws and returns to the wagon, her tail between her legs.
 
“Citizens of the Australs!” You declare expansively as if your audience were much greater than the two now-puzzled gate-guards. “Witness Me!”
 
“Trader, what in the name of Tyris…” The other guard begins
 
“I have placed items of great import with my trusted indentured, and do confer upon her the writ of Praesidium Summa. Be so advised.”
 
“Boss… what…” Blue blurts, a look of total confusion on her face.
 
“Remember when Skye and Rey would go with Dad and Simmo to Fremantle with the strongbox?” You explain, stroking the kobold’s head, loud enough for the guards to hear. “Means you get to rip the throat out of anyone who tries to touch the wagon ‘til I get back. Anyone. S’part of what y’sign when you hire a merc too. Chun Hua was under it on the way to Boulder.”
 
“Ohh…” Blue giggles, wiping her tears away and fixing the insulting guard with a wicked grin. “…I getcha.”
 
“Atta girl.” You grin conspiratorially.
 
“Cheap.” The guard sneers, staring at you witheringly.
 
“Yap yap, shovelhead.” You retort evenly, brushing past the man ungently. “Do be a good lad and stay away from me wagon now.”
 
As you walk into the encampment proper, you hear Bella’s rich voice lifted in an archaic melody from the wagon outside.
 
“People gather unto me
Come hear a tale of joy
Of love and life and liberty
Of the alp-bait soldier boy…”
 
“I am gonna have to buy that girl something nice…” You muse to yourself, an almost beatific smile upon your face
 
 
“Hey… mate…” You called to a wandering soldier, waving slightly to catch his attention.
 
“Freeman? Hey! It’s the trader from up on the scarp!” The soldier exclaims, recognising you.
 
“Yeah… Connor, wasn’t it?”
 
“S’right. Look, sorry fer digging through yer Kobie’s smalls. Just doin’ me job hey.”
 
“No drama mate. Adam.” You reply, holding out your hand.
 
“Pleasure. Listen, I was actually hoping I’d run into you at some point. How attached are you to that sugar?”
 
“Sweet tooth?” You snicker.
 
“Fucking hardly, but the Centaurs certainly do, not to mention they snap up all the malt and barley which comes within a day’s ride of their range. We haven’t had a decent beer in a six-month.” Connor laments. “If there’s one thing Centaur love more than sweets, it’s a good rich ale.”
 
“That a fact? Lookin’ to improve yer relationship with the bands?”
 
Connor gives a snort of ridicule. “Fuck that. We’ve been on potato hooch and bad wine since well before my tour started, and if I don’t see somethin’ other than hardtack to mop up me gravy soon I’m gonna cloister meself voluntarily.”
 
“S’abit dramatic mate.”
 
“Mate, I saw the cook cryin’ last time the reccy came back short exactly the shit the Centaur want, and this is a bloke who didn’t so much as blink when he took his finger off at the knuckle with a cleaver. Took five blokes to hold ‘im back from puttin’ the screws to the poor logoff.”
 
“Sorry… Reccy? Logoff?”
 
“Civvie, right. Requisition order and Logistics officer.” the soldier explains.
 
“If the Centaur are pilferin’ yer cargo, why not put the boots to ‘em? That Sir Douglas looked like he ate rocks and spit sand.” You ask incredulously.
 
“That’s the bastard thing!” Connor exclaims. “The bloke comin’ up from Port Fremantle had no idea we were shorted! Even had a copy of the order. No molasses, no barley, no sugar, no a buncha other shit that I flamin’ saw the quartermaster write meself! Someone’s fuckin’ with our supply lines and the boys’re lookin’ to start pointin’ fingers.”
 
“Private Connor! Why is there a Civilian in my encampment and why are you nattering to him like a busted-arse fishmonger?” A booming voice demanded, as a barrel-shaped man came stomping up the line of tents towards you.
 
“He’s a trader, Sergeant.” Connor explains “And he was… Oh sod. I got so carried away I forgot to ask what y’were here for.”
 
“Maggot, you’d forget your bollocks when called to continuance! Where in the Holy name of Tyris is that stocktake on the spare tack?!”
 
“Aw hells…” Connor groaned. “At once, Sergeant!” He replied, giving you an apologetic grimace and bolting for the undeniable shape of stables which peeped above the tents.
 
“Boy’d talk the legs off an Oomakude a pair at a time.” The sergeant grumbled. “Now what’re you doin’ in here, Trader?”
 
“Tryin’ to check in, though I seemed to be gettin’ the flamin’ runaround. S’why I flagged down ol’ mate there.” You explain.
 
“Big tent, bout two-hunnerd meters over there.” The Sergeant answered bluntly. “If yer eyes are even half-workin’ you won’t miss it. Now kindly fuck off, Freeman, you’re makin’ the place look untidy.”
 
“Orright mate. Cheers.” You chuckle, for some reason tickled at the man’s blustering efficiency as you head in the indicated direction. True to the sergeant’s word, you came across the unmistakable shape of the tent in short order.
 
 
“Quartermaster, I don’t want to hear more excuses. I want to know why we have not received…” A Paladin in ornate officer’s livery was remonstrating to a bespectacled man, who coughed politely as he noticed you entering.
 
“Sorry, I’ll come back if ya want.” You apologised, backing out of the tent.
 
The officer looked at you with irritation, then his eyes widened. “Gibson!” He declared. “…Adam, isn’t it?”
 
“S’right… I’m sorry officer, I don’t… Wait…” You blurted, before ducking your head and pulling a forelock deferently. “It’s been a long time, Prince Justin.”
 
“Five years if it’s a day.” The officer laughed “And it’s just ‘Your Worship’ or ‘Captain’ now. How’s your father?”
 
“Twenty feet tall and made of adamantite iron, if Tyris be generous.” You reply wryly.
 
“Ah Robert… He’d have made a fine Noble.”
 
“We’re talking about the same bloke Your Worship?” You exclaim incredulously “Y’know dad can’t delegate to save his life.”
 
“Too true… too true…”
 
“Gentlemen, please.” The Quartermaster interjected in a polite if bored tone. “If we could move this reunion somewhere that ISN’T my place of work?”
 
“Sorry, I’ll wait outside.” You apologise. Prince… no, CAPTAIN Justin raises his hand.
 
“No Adam, I’m sure your business will be much quicker than mine. Checking in?”
 
“Yeh, your Worship.”
 
The Quartermaster shuffles parchment, pushing his spectacles up his nose with a finger as Captain Justin leaves the tent, acknowledging your deferential nod with a gracious smile. “It was Adam, of Gibson Holding, correct?” The Quartermaster prompts.
 
“Yessir.”
 
“Quartermaster, please. I work for a living.” The man corrected with the faintest hint of a smile. “Trader?”
 
“Good guess, Quartermaster.”
 
“Not if the three-train outside the palisades with two mamono singing highly insulting ballads at the guards belongs to you… Did you REALLY invoke Praesidium Summa on the Kobold?”
 
“How did you…” You gasp open-mouthed.
 
“A good Quartermaster knows what is headed for his desk at least an hour before it arrives.” The man sniffs with no small hint of pride.
 
“Well then… yeh.” You admit, undeniably impressed.
 
“Your indentured?”
 
“The Kobie is, The Griffon’s… let’s say a passenger until we sort something official out.”
 
“She’d make a fortune as a mercenary.”
 
You blink at that. “Reckon she would too! Still, that’s up to her…”
 
“Of course. Trade district is in Fort Kalbarri… Well… what’s left of it.”
 
“Cheers Quartermaster, anything else?”
 
“Keep your nose clean, as you probably noticed some of the soldiers are… opinionated when it comes to their interpretations of The Pax.”
 
“Mmm…” You agree with a slight glower. “…Well, thanks again.”
 
“No trouble at all.” The Quartermaster replies absently, bending once again to his parchment. Clearly you were dismissed.
 
 
“C’mon Boss!” Blue wheedles as your wagon trundles for the granite ruin of Fort Kalbarri.
 
“I admit nothing.” You reply innocently.
 
“His knee was backwards! There wasn’t anything NEAR big enough for him to trip over like that!”
 
You shrug. “Must’ve just been clumsy.”
 
“Boss… how’m I supposed to lavish you with gratitude if you won’t admit to blowin’ up that cunt guard’s knee with your brains?” The Kobold sulks unconvincingly.
 
“Resonance is not of the Resonant. The Logos is without and apart from us.” You intone sententiously.
 
“I knew it!” Blue yips gleefully, her paws around you as she squeezes your torso tightly. “You are the best master ever in the history of everything.”
 
“T’was most yeoman of thee…” Bella admits with a smug grin.
 
“I still admit nothing, but it DID top off your wonderful performance nicely, didn’t it?” You drawl, meeting the Griffon’s grin with your own.
 
“Parfay, certes.” Bella agrees.
 
An interesting sight greeted you as you approached the crumbling walls of the fort. Wagons, surreys and carts stood along the line of the wall, beasts lazily meandering free in a series of penned out paddocks. A Centaur cantered lazily towards you, flagging you down.
 
“Hey Trader. Pull up on thirteen, take the beasts to number… fuck… let’s say ten for now, and we’ll be sure to let you know if anything changes.” The Centaur remarks in an almost conversational tone.
 
“Uh… what?” You blurt in confusion.
 
“Oh! A newbie!” The Centaur gushes gleefuly “Well hiya, I’m Seline, and I’m the Stablemaster round here.”
 
“Gudday. Adam, of Gibson Holding.” You respond automatically. “I gotta admit, I wasn’t expecting…”
 
“What… You think you’re gonna tie up outside the Tavern?” Seline laughs whinnyingly. “Oh Maou bless, they always do at first. It’s alright two-legs, the rates are very reasonable, can’t be scaring off the money, can we?”
 
“Well… orright then I guess…” You concede, “Not really like I’ve got a choice in the matter.”
 
“Well sure you do… your wagon might even last the night!” Seline giggles again, fixing you with wide chestnut eyes. “Now… Adam was it? Here’s your marker, make sure to chock your wheels, and I’m sure I’ll see you again real soon!” the bubbly Centaur gushes, handing you a carved piece of painted wood before trotting away.
 
“I was not expecting that.” You state firmly.
 
“Meseems that it is as the young Centaur hath said.” Bella muses “Yea, e’en the most zealous did have to bow to the necessity of Commerce.”
 
“I could be fooled into thinking that one wasn’t a theivin’ bitch though…” Blue added thoughtfully.
 
“Ah, sure y’can’t judge ‘em all by whatsherface out on the trail this morning.” You admit, pulling up slightly ahead of the painted sigil on the wall which matches the carving on your wooden marker.
 
“Blue, can you get the bungas off and out while I secure us here?” You ask the Kobold.
 
“Kayboss!” Blue agrees cheerfuly, expertly untracing the bungarra and herding them along the line of paddocks, counting out loud to herself “Two… three… four… five… Wow! Hey Boss! Six!”
 
“I’m not praising you for counting to six.” You call absently over your shoulder, putting your shoulder to the wagon and grunting with the effort of pushing it into place against the wall, Bella doing her best to help but her inexpertise becoming more of a hinderance than help. Eventually you cheated outrageously, moving the wagon with a resonant glyph while simply miming the act of shouldering it into place.
 
“Sneaky.” Bella chortles at you, and you wink at the Griffon. Blue comes scrambling back, eagerness alight in her eyes.
 
“Six, boss! Six!”
 
“Orright pup, what about it?” You sigh indulgently.
 
“S’mister Chad’s horses!”
 
“No shit!” You laugh, “Sure about that pup?”
 
“Boss… How long did we live on Gibson?” Blue demands, folding her paws across her chest in mild indignation.
 
“Fair point, I’m sorry pup.” You admit, patting the Kobold’s head.
 
“Wheretofore art we bound now?” Bella asks, padding beside you on leonine legs as you head towards the main ‘Gate’ (In truth, little more than a sizeable gap in the ruins that had been somewhat stabilized.)
 
“I’m gonna head to my underwriter’s factor first. Gotta… make sure business is concluded…” You reply nebulously, suddenly very aware of the platinum marks in your pack.
 
“I shall seek out this ‘Matriarch’ then. T’would not behoove me to neglect mine own duties.”
 
“Y’orright on yer own?”
 
Bella gives you a warm chuckle, squeezing your shoulder with a talon and leaning in close to your ear.
 
“Thou mayest have made me purr oft and plentifully this week hence, Adam, but I am no helpless Neko to require thy escort.” The griffon whispers naughtily before taking wing, wind whipping around you as she spirals up and up.
 
“You are a terrible influence pup.” You snicker to your Kobold who is fixing you with a profoundly smug expression.
 
“I admit nothing.” Blue retorts, a sly grin on her face.
 
 
“Well howdy there!” A voluptuous Taurean drawls as you enter the small office, her accent classic Westerland plains.
 
“Sorry, I was looking for the T&G factor?” You blurt in confusion.
 
“That’s me honey! C’mon in, you’ll set my paperwork to blowin’!” The Taurean assures you, leaning over the desk with a smile, her simple flannel shirt performing yeoman duty at keeping her impressive assets restrained.
 
“This day’s just fulla surprises.” You chuckle, entering and closing the door behind you, Blue hot on your heels.
 
“How do you mean, sugar?” The Taurean asks, bovine ears flicking slightly against the backdrop of waterfall curls of rich, cinnamon-coloured hair, ivory horns curved and darkening to black points atop her head.
 
“Of all the folks I was expectin’ to find running the branch here, a Westerlander Taurean wasn’t even on the list!” you admit.
 
“Well hey sugar, gotta find someone who knows Centaurs round these here parts, and we’ve got ‘em, boy howdy, all the way from Dixon to Caladon.”
 
“S’pose you’re right at that.” You concede, digging at your pouch. “Got a deposit I need to make.”
 
“Can I have a name, sugar? Can’t be just lookin’ up ‘wild-eyed boy with a farmer’s tan’ now…”
 
“Fuck’s sake…” Blue grumbles. The Taurean leans further out as if seeing the Kobold for the first time.
 
“Well ain’t you just the cutest little thang now!” The Taurean gushes adoringly. Blue blinks, before flushing and giggling, yet she still reaches up to grip your arm with both paws possessively.
 
“Well ain’t that just a picture. Tell you what I never get tired of seein’ me somethin’ like that.” The Taurean declares with a soppy smile.
 
“Heh. Right…” You murmur, somewhat confused by the over-the-top mannerisms of the factor, was she trying to butter you up or was she just that friendly? “…Anyway, my name’s Adam, of Gibson Holding. You probably don’t have me…”
 
“Gibson… Gibson…” The Taurean repeats, ignoring your further comment, turning to a sizeable shelf filled with records behind her. Reaching up as far as she can on her digitigrade legs, she pulls a record seemingly at random from the shelf. Her bovine tail lashes absently behind her, and you notice that her ample posterior is covered by snug trousers cut low to accommodate her tail, yet also cut off high on the legs… You swear you can almost see the curve of her cheeks as she brings the record down.
 
You swallow in a mouth suddenly dry, glancing at Blue slightly guiltily, to see the Kobold positively transfixed, her mouth hanging slightly open and her eyes wide in seeming disbelief.
 
“Oh yeah, here you are… Adam of Gibson holding… Opened the account up with Juni down in Fremantle… Ain’t she just a sweetheart?”
 
“She’s… something.” You offer diplomatically.
 
“…Took a coin run on down t’Boulder… Thankee kindly for that, poor Jimmy was all tore up…”
 
“D’youse lot get together fer midsummer or something?” You chuckle helplessly.
 
The Taurean looks at you with slight confusion, before shaking her head helplessly. “Sugar, now I might be excused for thinkin’ y’all don’t have farcasters in these here Australs, but it don’t say nothin’ good for you to be forgettin’ it, does it now?”
 
“Ah. Fair call that.” You admit. Stupid! Of COURSE the factors had access to ‘casters. How else would they keep the books current?
 
“Ooh…” The Taurean exclaimed, breaking your reverie. “…I hope you came into a little coin because you ain’t lookin’ too healthy on this here ledger.”
 
“Yeh.” You state smugly, pulling out the Solar Marks and setting them with a clack on the factor’s desk. The Taurean audibly gasps at the sight of the gem-embossed platinum rectangles.
 
“My STARS!” She gasps, putting a hand to her heaving chest. “Solar Marks? I ain’t NEVER seen me one of these and here you are bringin’ in two!”
 
“Picked up a decent gig in the interior…” You reply, brushing some invisible lint from your sleeve. Fuck it, let the ego have a little play.
 
“Well ain’t you just shittin’ in high cotton there sugar?” The Taurean muses admiringly, scribbling in the ledger. “Now I’d better call this one through to Fremantle, if you can stand to give me a second.”
 
You murmur acceptance, and the Taurean swiftly retrieves a velvet cloth from somewhere in her busy desk, wrapping the marks with an almost reverent touch. “I’ll be right back, don’t y’all be goin’ nowhere.”
 
Clopping of her digitigrade hooves on the floorboards as she heads into a small room in the rear of the office “…Come on now… Urgh! Do I gotta talk dirty to ya? Stupid thang…” You hear her mutter, before her cry of triumph is overlain with the metallic clanking of some complex mechanism. “There. Nice and safe. Now… how do I tune this thingy in again?”
 
A humming sound seemed to permeate the air, and you weren’t sure if you heard it or felt it.
 
“Ivy? That you?” Juni’s voice suddenly sounded from that rear room.
 
“Well Howdy there Juni!” The Taurean, now identified as ‘Ivy’ greets the Tanuki.
 
“What’s up? I’m up to my lady-bits in potential foreclosures. Fuck me but Lancelin hit Nautilus hard!”
 
“Got us a deposit over the report amount, just castin’ it in honey.”
 
“Who’s the concern? I wasn’t aware of any of ours operating in Kalbarri.”
 
“Sole trader. Adam, of Gibson Holding.”
 
“He’s over? Damn, I knew I should have gotten my legs around him when I had the chance…”
 
“Fluffycalves you sneaky bitch!” Blue exclaims softly in a mixture of admiration, irritation and amusement.
 
“Be nice pup…” You snicker, patting the Kobold on the head.
 
“…How much?” the Tanuki’s voice continues.
 
“He done gone just deposited two Solar Marks.”
 
“…That’s not funny.”
 
“Maou be my witness honey.”
 
“FUCK I bet he looks so fucking yummy right now… Reckon you could tie him up for a couple of weeks for me to get up there?”
 
“Hush your mouth now, he seems like a nice boy.” Ivy chides.
 
Blue snickers, poking you suggestively with a furred digit.
 
The temptation was just too great. “Hows’goin Yumi?” You call, leaning slightly over the desk towards the annexe.
 
“Oh shit… He heard that didn’t he? Maou dammit Ivy, these casts are supposed to be secure!” Yumi rants.
 
“Well he just put them on the dang desk, Yumi, ain’t like it’s some news to him, and I done TOLD you and Mister Goldstein that we need a bigger office up here…” Ivy retorts with undeniable smugness.
 
“…I’ll cast you back… Don’t… just… don’t.” The Tanuki states lamely.
 
Clopping of hooves sound as the Taurean re-enters the main office, flicking her waterfall curls over her shoulders in obvious satisfaction. “Thank you sugar, I know it’s awful mean, but I just LOVE gettin’ her all in a tizzy!”
 
“She. Is. Awesome.” Blue declares, pointing a furred digit at the Taurean.
 
“Why thankee cutie!” Ivy beams.
 
“Ivy, was it?” You grin. “We’ve still got to get squared away, so if that’s all done?”
 
“All done sugar!” The Taurean assures you, giving you a slight wave with the ends of her fingers. “…Y’all come back soon now, y’hear?”
 
 
“Spirits and Maou in a writhing sack though boss!” Blue declares incredulously “The CHEST on her! You’d need a lodestone and a map so as not to get lost in there!”
 
“Mmm.” You respond absently
 
“And that arse! I don’t even blame you for looking, it made ME hungry lookin’ at that thing bouncing around! I mean I know Taureans are blessed in those regards but the way she just… Unh! I’m not sure wether to be jealous or to fuck the bitch!”
 
“Hmm? Sorry pup, what do you want to do?” You answer, shaking your head slightly and looking down at the Kobold.
 
Blue peers at you quizzically “Are you feeling alright boss?”
 
“Just thinkin’ pup. Something about that cargo just isn’t adding up.”
 
“Sweet Maou, we’ve finally broken him…” Blue laments with a groan “…Talkin’ about having our filthy way with that lush outlander and you’re thinkin’ about cargo.”
 
“Oh, Ivy?” You chuckle, a slightly lecherous grin spreading across your face. “Yeh, wouldn’t kick her outta bed fer fartin’.”
 
“Boss!” Blue chides. “Just ‘cos she’s a Taurean…”
 
“Not like that!” You protest
 
“Well you’ve killed it now…” the Kobold sighs. “…Anyway, what cargo?”
 
“You know, the stuff about the Faith Militant’s requisitions being fucked with and… wait…” You chuckle helplessly “…you weren’t there. I keep forgetting you’re not always with me, sometimes I forget there was any time where we weren’t together.”
 
“Adz… “ Blue whimpers meltingly, her big azure eyes looking up at you with adoration “…That is so sweet… Kinda worrying, but still sweet.”
 
“Shaddup you…” You chuckle, rubbing one of her ears.
 
“So what’s going on?” Blue prompts, her natural inquisitiveness winning out.
 
You give the Kobold a brief rundown on Connor’s lament, avoiding the vague hints towards insurrectionary thoughts the private had betrayed when telling you. Clearly the man had an eager mouth, clearly his superiors were aware of it, and clearly they weren’t too concerned about him running it to a trader, but still no sense in bearing tales unnecessarily.
 
“Seems pretty simple to me boss.” Blue muses, chin in paw as she walks beside you. “The Centaurs took it.”
 
“Yeh nah, I don’t think so Blue.” You disagree.
 
“It’s a lemon tree, isn’t it?”
 
“What?”
 
“A Lemon Tree? You know, when Tristan was a Waylander’s ‘prentice and he was telling you, me and Rey the old folk-story that Paladin from the Angel Isles told him? ‘When you remove that which is impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the answer. A Lemon Tree, my dear Watson.”
 
“Elementary, pup.” You correct, stifling a chuckle.
 
“Really?” Blue whines in disappointment “That’s far less fun, I thought it was about a lemon-dryad who sicced that hellhound on the Waylander and his ‘prentice… Damn, now I want lemon-curd tarts. Reckon we can find any boss?”
 
“With a big wad-a clotted cream.” you agree with a sigh. “Sadly I doubt it pup, still, won’t hurt us to head towards the inn and see what’s on offer. Gotta sleep sometime tonight, after all.”
 
“Heh. Yehboss.” Blue agrees. “Reckon Bella’ll be able to find us?”
 
“Or she’ll cause a ruckus and we’ll find her.”
 
“S’abit mean…”
 
“She’s quicker on the uptake than Id’ve expected all things considered pup, still doesn’t hurt to keep the possibility of colossal fuckup in mind.”
 
“I really hope she doesn’t get the wind put up her. I think even Kitty’d think twice about getting into an argy with feathers.” Blue admits. “Anyway, lack of lemon tarts aside, why don’t you think the horsebutts did it?”
 
“Doesn’t fit. Think about the ones we ran into this morning. If they were doin’ it, the wagoneers’d be coming in with bruises, an obviously ransacked rig, and a story of randy centaur raiders to tell to the Paladins. As it goes, whoever’s doing it is managing to doctor the requisitions between the time they leave the courier’s hand, to the time the wagoneer accepts the load. Whoever it is, I don’t think they’re in Kalbarri.”
 
“Why just stuff Centaur like though?”
 
“Who knows? Bump commodity prices? Let scarcity pick up on the alternatives? Y’know we have some pretty povvo wineries up Joondalup Holding’s way, yeh? Makes no sense because the grapes are top notch.”
 
“I know, didn’t we get sick that year when they hosted us for autumn equinox?”
 
“Yeh, and we didn’t get any sympathy either. I thought the fur on your paws was gonna be burgundy forever.” You laugh, approaching the obvious shape of an inn, a rude sign swinging in the light breeze above its door. Holding the door open, you gesture for the Kobold to precede you into the establishment.
 
“Maou… What a cheery place.” Blue quips sarcastically, casting her azure eyes around the tables, sparsely littered with individuals and small groups all nursing cups of wine or small snifters of spirits. The mood was dour and you’re pretty sure you’d heard more conversation in the Chancel during a feast-day ceremony to Tyris.
 
“Hey.” The glum-looking innkeeper remarked, more acknowledging your existence than any kind of desire to catch your attention.
 
“G’day mate, got room for three?”
 
The inkeep glanced between you and the kobold. “Patrols are already in so I’ll give you the Waylander’s quarters. Not like they’re gonna be used anytime soon anyway. Cots all around I’m afraid, but you’ll have your own washroom.”
 
“We’ll make do. What’s the damage?”
 
“Fifteen a night.”
 
“Whew… Bit steep for cots mate.”
 
The inkeep lets loose with a gallows sigh. “I don’t have the energy or the fucking patience, trader. Fifteen silver’s the cost, take it or leave it.”
 
“Orright, fifteen silver a night.” You quickly agree. You’d not exactly gain favour with either of your companions forcing them to sleep with the wagon outside. “Do you need to see the writ?”
 
“Why bother?” The innkeeper shrugs. “Drink?”
 
“Sun’s past the yardarm, why not?” You grin as amicably as you can, trying desperately to rouse some kind of response from the dead-eyed inkeeper. “Whatcha got?”
 
“Wine, bad wine, or hooch.”
 
“Giz a bottle of soft red then, I guess.” You shrug, the man’s melancholy almost seeming to infect you the longer you spoke. “Toss it on the room, I’d prefer to settle all at once.”
 
“Fine. Name?”
 
“Adam of Gibson Holding.”
 
The innkeeper begins scribbling up a ledger entry, “You stabled on the wall?”
 
You nod. “S’right.”
 
“Marker?” The inkeep prompted, holding his hand out expectantly. “Got an arrangement with Seline’s band. I’ll add the stable fees on and… pass it along.”
 
“Oi! Two legs!” A female voice yelled, the upper half of a centaur appearing from what seemed to be another bar on the other side of the rear wall. “We’re dyin’ a thirst out here!”
 
“Course you are.” The innkeeper sighs “Must’ve been at least five minutes.”
 
“What’s through there?” You ask, pointing with your chin at the hole in the wall the centaur had appeared from as you handed your marker to the innkeeper.
 
“Beer garden.” The Innkeeper replies in a voice dripping with irony as he hoists a beer keg onto a trolley, the rusted device squeaking and clattering as he wheels it outside.
 
“Tyris help me, I’m gonna split him… right in front of us too!” A nearby man hisses, staring at the innkeeper with jaw clenched tight in suppressed anger.
 
“Pack it in Nige. Y’know it’s bought and paid for.” The man he sits with insists with a long-suffering sigh.
 
“By who? I’ve been here all day, not seen no delivery or coin.” the man identified as ‘Nige’ retorts.
 
“You’re here every day. Drink yer wine you shitheel, and don’t change the subject…”
 
The two men lower their heads and resume their private conversation in low voices. You take Blue to an empty table, two clean cups already waiting for you. Strange, when did that happen?
 
“How is it Boss?” Blue asks as you pour a small amount, sniffing experimentally before swigging it down.
 
“Tryin’ its best to be vinegar, but it’s not as awful as chuckles back there would suggest.” You grin wryly. “Here pup, lemme fill…”
 
“Excuse me, that’s our table.” A voice insists in a superior tone.
 
“I don’t see your name on it…” You begin, turning and pausing as you break into a wide grin as you recognise the man behind you. “…G’day Chad.”
 
“Blueblueblueblueblue!” A brunette blur whips past you, collecting your Kobold as it impacts with her, revealed to be the brown-haired form of River, your fellow trader’s own indentured.
 
“So you’re where the cups came from?” You ask, gesturing for the young man to join you.
 
“Yeah, just thought I’d poke you a bit. Where did you two disappear to anyway? Osun muttered some ridiculousness about you working for Hell.” Chad remarks conversationally, accepting the chair and draining the last of his own cup for you to refill.
 
“Take it you don’t believe him?” You remark, chuckling helplessly at the two kobolds as they babbled rapidly in the guttural Kobold language at each other, River’s jaw hanging open in clear amazement every other sentence.
 
“Please. Thealiss had so much magic pouring off it even I could smell it. Poor River could barely wait to get out of there. No way a human was coming out of that place clean after this long…” Chad snorts dismissively.
 
“Fair point there. Do orright with the caravan then?” You enquire as the Kobolds settled, pouring for Blue and River as well.
 
“Better than expected, managed to pick up a cargo back to Meredin too, nice return on raw silver. You?”
 
“Yeh, after the buyer eventually showed up I… managed to keep myself busy. Ended up coming back across the interior.”
 
“Interior? Tyris be glorified, you smuggling or something Adam?” Chad chuckles conspiratorially, leaning in towards you. “You know, I know a guy who’s looking for someone whose discretion…”
 
“Hold and give your attendance, Sister Superior Kathleen seeks a sowing of the chancel.” A Paladin boomed as a small detail of Faith Militant entered, escorting the robed, wimpled form of a High Priestess who peered about the taproom studyingly, peering at each of you like a livestock buyer at an auction.
 
“You… You… You…” She begins, pointing at a series of seated men, before turning towards you and Chad “…You two as well. You will attend the Chancel to perform the Rite of Continuance.”
 
“There goes the afternoon.” One man grumbles.
 
“Do you shirk your holy duties, Freeman?” The High Priestess demands, her steely eyes narrowing.
 
“No, your reverence.” The man insists deferentially, ducking his head.
 
“Then if there are none seasoning?” The Paladin asks perfunctorily, his mailed hand playing with the hilt of a solid mace somewhat absently.
 
Total silence was his only answer.
 
“You girls will be alright on your own?” You murmur to the Kobolds.
 
“We’ll try and avoid burning the place down outta sheer boredom boss. Go, do your continuance thing.” Blue assures you.
 
“That’s my girl.” You smile thankfully, putting as much affection into the farewell as you could, Blue flashing you a surreptitious wink as Chad patted River’s head wordlessly.
 
“Any time this year, Freemen…” The Paladin growls impatiently.
 
“At once, your worship.” Chad replies, pulling at your arm and jerking his head towards the door.
 
 
“Still, it’s a fair bit of luck!” Chad insists as he scrubs himself down with a rough sponge
 
“If you say so mate.” An older man remarks noncommittally, the hair on his chest and back streaked with grey.
 
“What? Don’t tell me you’re so USED to the sisters here you’re bored with it!” Chad snickers.
 
“Fuckin’ Holdsward…” The man grumbles with a shake of his head.
 
“Oi. FREEMAN.” Chad corrects incensedly, pointing to his tattooed arm, soapy water dripping from his elbow.
 
“Don’t flex at me.” The man retorts witheringly. “I remember you, young Gilgai, and a couple years on the road hasn’t grown you up a damn bit. You do know the point of this, right?”
 
Chad fronts up with the man, his nakedness forgotten as his umbrage rises. “How stupid do you think I am?”
 
“If you’re doin’ so well in Kalbarri that you reckon you can afford to raise a boy here, I’ll ‘prentice under you tomorrow.” The man interjects without a hint of sarcasm. “You Holdings-heirs took your damn blood money and left the rest of us to swing. Wanna know how much a master stonemason pulls in a week under Centaur? ‘Bout enough for a skinfull-a hooch to let you forget you won’t be eating at least one night that week.”
 
“Ere, that’s not his fault mate.” You object, “I feel for yer situation and all but there’s nothing stopping you leavin’. Freo’s not exactly swarmed with masons…”
 
“Yeah nah get fucked.” the mason snorts. “This is my home, my bloodline’s home for hundreds-a years. Now leave me the fuck alone so I can get ready to see a priestess trying not to look disappointed when she finds out she’s gotta cradle my old balls as opposed to one of you rutting bucks… And how the fuck I’m gonna live with meself when I have to refuse acknowledgement in ten year or so if me seed quickens in her, Tyris forbid.”
 
“Trust in the blessings of The God.” The High Priestess remarks sententiously as she enters, clearly having overheard the latter. “Garb yourselves in the robes of the penitent and follow me.”
 
You join the other men in donning the crude woolen smocks, filing out of the ablution chamber to where the Paladin awaited you.
 
“You will Submit to the scrutiny of the Benedictus, then enter a chamber as The God directs you.” The Paladin intoned absently, pointing to the first amongst you, golden light enveloping his arm as he called upon his anointed blessing.
 
One by one, the other men filed past the Paladin, entering chambers seemingly at random. Then, it was your turn. You step forward, the Paladin passing the light over your body, grunting acceptance and jerking his head at the hallway. You begin walking up its length, wondering abstractly if Tyris ever did take a hand in who you were paired with in a sowing…
 
…Suddenly, a door flies open, and a hand grips your arm, pulling you into the chamber. You gasp in surprise as you recognise the High Priestess, Sister Superior Kathleen, her face a thundercloud where she glares at you.
 
“What were you THINKING?!” Kathleen hisses in your face.
 
“Reverence? I don’t know…”
 
The High Priestess sighs, and you sense a Resonant glyph being cast. Glowing sigils appear on the woman’s forehead, partially obscured by her wimple. “You know what I am. Don’t insult my intelligence by assuming I don’t know what you are.”
 
You give a slight ‘huh’ of surprise. “Didn’t know Raoul’s declaration would get around the world so bloody quick.”
 
“An agent of the Lodge? Hasn’t been one in over three hundred years, Adam.” Kathleen scoffs mockingly “And when is the unusual EVER cause for news?”
 
“Orright, orright, you’ve made your point Reverence.” You murmur uncomfortably.
 
“You still haven’t answered my question. What. Were. You. Thinking?”
 
“I still don’t know what you’re…” Your retort is cut short by the sensation of a slap which seems to strike your entire body. Tyris! You didn’t even see that glyph coming!
 
“What did I just say about insulting my intelligence? You popped that guard’s knee like a ripe boil, and don’t you DARE irritate me further by acting like you didn’t.”
 
“He insulted my Kobie.” You grate sullenly.
 
“Traders…” Kathleen sighs despairingly “…put them on the road for a few months and they forget their humanity in their other pants. Did you ever stop for one Tyris-blessed second about the CONSEQUENCES of your actions?”
 
“It’s just a knee, any Medicus Cleric or Paladin could fix it right up.”
 
“Tyris preserve you, Wilder. I don’t know if that level of presumption counts as Heresy but for your sake I would seek absolution just in case.” The High Priestess retorts witheringly. “We do not keep so many anointed in Kalbarri that we can spare them repairing the results of some little shit with the strands of reality in his undeserving fist. And what would happen if they failed, hmm? The healing of the Benedictus is not a guarantee of a full recovery. You would have subjected the man to months, maybe years of painful therapy. His dreams, dashed along with any prospect for advancement. The people he may have helped in future, denied his assistance. All because he said something uncouth to your indentured?”
 
“I… didn’t think about it like that.” You admit.
 
“Praise be to Tyris, there’s a possibility you might be sapient after all.” Kathleen gushes mockingly. “Lucky for you, he was healed. Successfully. Feels quite embarrassed about his clumsiness. All’s well that ends well, it seems… But Holy Tyris may not visit you with the blessed luck of the idiot next time, so do try to use that head for more than straightening your wagon’s axle in future, hmm?”
 
“Reverence.” You concede, stung to the quick by her brutal dressing-down.
 
Kathleen nods, seemingly mollified by your chagrin. “Now. To business. The Lodge has designs within this area of the Australs. Designs I am unable to action, either in my capacity as High Priestess or Resonant, due to the absence of Baronial Authority. Your orders are simple, rumor has it that the push to re-establish human control of this region has gained traction within the courts of both the neighboring Baronies as well as that of the Dominus. If an opportunity arises to see that chair filled, you are to assist in its quickening. By. Any. Means. Necessary. Am I clear?”
 
“Crystalline, Reverence.” You assure her. “But how…”
 
“How did you assist Baron Breyten of Esperance? You saw the opportunity and you took it.”
 
“Pay didn’t hurt.” You quip, and the High Priestess suppresses a smile. You allow yourself a small mental exultation at that reaction.
 
“As I’m sure it has the potential to feel just as clement in this instance. But you are to put speed and stability as your priorities, rather than your pocketbook. I want to stress that.”
 
“Your will, reverence.” You agree. Truly, what else could you do?
 
“Good, I’m glad you’re being so agreeable on this.” Kathleen muses “Your reports present you as a much more petulant sort.”
 
“Fucks sake, cheers Raoul…” You mutter darkly. “…If there’s nothing else, Reverence?”
 
“Nothing else? Well of course there is, silly boy.” Kathleen chuckles, untying and removing her wimple to unleash a wealth of ebony hair. “You were summoned for continuance, after all.”
 
“Forgive me Reverence… with you?”
 
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Kathleen asks in a dangerously smooth tone.
 
“Nothing… I just… S’always been the novices and acolytes in sowings. Thought High Ranks like yerself did things a little more… Deliberately.”
 
“This is deliberate. Successful Resonant candidates are much rarer than you would think. The Mistresses of the Bloodlines are quite insistent with their encouragement on us to… increase the pool, as it were.”
 
“Ah.” You remark, not quite sure how to feel about that. Kathleen gives a throaty chuckle, unashamedly running a hand along your body through the thin woolen smock you wear.
 
“Doesn’t hurt you’re in good shape and not hard on the eye…”
 
“This is gonna be a regular thing that happens then?”
 
“Play your cards right…” Kathleen drawls naughtily, unlacing her robes.
 
“I mean in other places as well. I’m a Trader after all.”
 
Kathleen shrugs, the movement dropping the robes to the floor, the High Priestess now standing nude before you. She was well-fleshed, even if quite pale by your standards, assumedly from years within clerical garb. Her breasts were full, yet slightly drooping, likewise her stomach showed the marks of past pregnancy. ‘The Stripes of Tyris’s favour’, the mothers at the Abbey had called them, always with pride.
 
“It might.” She purrs, putting her hands on her hips and staring at you challengingly “So what if it does? Consider it a… hidden perk of resonance.”
 
“And Thou shalt find thy joy in the Fulfilment of My Commands.” You intone absently.
 
“All Glory to the Most High. Now absent yourself the garb of the penitent, and get over here.” Kathleen orders. Shedding your smock, you obey. This was the will of God, after all, who were you to question it?
 
 
“Mmm…” Kathleen murmured in the afterglow of passion. “…Part of me wants to know where you learned that, and the other part thinks I won’t like the answer.”
 
“Got a lot of older brothers who like to talk.” You remark nebulously, pulling the smock back over your head.. Fucking Tyris be Glorified, she DEFINITELY wouldn’t like to know the answer.
 
“Yummy…” The High Priestess purrs, giving a slight shiver “…I’m telling you, I thoroughly needed that.”
 
“Glad I could help, Reverence.” You remark absently. All you could think about was getting back to Blue.
 
“Better hope you’ve got a good forward plan, Trader. Get a reputation for that kind of performance and you’ll find your name on plenty of lists.”
 
“And if I don’t?” The words left your mouth before you had a chance to think them over.
 
“Tyris be Glorified, it was supposed to be a compliment.” Kathleen tsks, slipping into her robe. “Here, do me up.”
 
Grunting acceptance, you assist the High Priestess in tightening and tying the lacing of her robes.
 
“What did you mean by that?” Kathleen asks suddenly.
 
“Reverence?”
 
“When you said before ‘If you don’t…”
 
“It’s nothing, Reverence. Just something another bloke said earlier. He can’t afford to acknowledge his sons, assuming he sires any… Just made me think, what happens if my seed quickens in you, and it’s a boy?”
 
“That’s my concern, and the concern of our Holy Mother Church.” Kathleen answers shortly. “In ten years or so, you’ll be asked to do your part. If you can, spectacular. If you can’t, there are always places where the unacknowledged can be of use, find a home.”
 
“Can I be candid, Reverence?”
 
“Please do, I grant you the Peace of Tyris.”
 
“Seems… Wrong somehow.”
 
“Try letting go of your baby then get back to me on wrong, Trader.” Kathleen quips back mockingly, yet there is a tiny, almost infinitesimal undercurrent of pain to it. She bumps her hips back into you, pushing you away from her. “Now out you get, or I’ll want a repeat performance.”
 
“Yes, Reverence.”
 
“Oh, and Adam? I don’t have to stress the need for you to be forward-thinking and discrete on anything we’ve discussed this evening, do I?”
 
“No, Reverence.”
 
“Good, The God go with you.”
 
“And with you…”
 
 
You half-listened to Chad’s excited babbling as he recounted his experience with the priestess he had engaged in continuance with in almost graphic detail. As with your first time, something felt… unfinished about the whole situation. Blue clearly accepted the necessity of the rite, and wasn’t in any way shy about letting you have sex with other Mamono, assuming she had deemed them ‘worthy’ in her own inscrutable manner. So why was this bothering you? And why couldn’t you get that old Mason’s words out of your head?
 
“…and she had this cute little moan when you nibbled on her…” Chad continued, oblivious to your woolgathering.
 
“Sure it was a good shag mate.” You interject. “But what happens in ten years?”
 
“How do you mean?”
 
“That old boy. What he said about sons. Got me thinking, the thought of having to turn yer own blood away? It’s not right.”
 
“Tyris-damn right it’s not!” Chad agrees. “And believe me, my boys’ll want for nothing.”
 
“How can you be sure of that?”
 
“When have you ever seen a Baron’s sons go hungry?”
 
You blink at that, staring at him incredulously. “The fuck?”
 
“I was trying to bring it up before our stroke of luck. Can you keep a secret?”
 
“Well, yeh, but…” You pause, sniffing the air. “…Smoke’s a bit thick tonight.”
 
“FIRE!” Comes a nearby call of alarm “Trade Factor offices!”
 
“Get the Kobold back to the inn and find out who she belongs to!” Another voice rang out.
 
“Kobold…” Chad echoed in a sick voice, and you felt your own stomach sink.
 
“C’mon, let’s help…” You begin, beckoning as you start moving towards the ruddy glow now showing over the top of the buildings.
 
“Fuck that!” Chad retorts harshly. “I’m not going anywhere without my Sis… I mean, Indentured!”
 
You pause, frozen in place. Without a factor to honour your notes you were as good as penniless here… But the chance that it could be Blue… The possibility that she could be hurt…
 
“Go.” You agree shortly, Chad nodding and running towards the inn, soon lost in the smoky gloom. You turn, heading towards the yellow, ruddy glow and shouted, conflicting commands of the humans as they fought to extinguish the blaze. The almost comical sight of bucket lines leading from nearby pumps forces your pause.
 
“How far away’s the firewagon?” You yell at a nearby human, jumping into a line and allowing the forward throwers to inch closer to the blaze.
 
“Hah!” The man barks in mirthless response, grabbing a sloshing bucket and shoving it roughly at you. “Firewagon, he says… Who’s gonna maintain the mechanisms here in Kalbarri, trader, You?”
 
Fair point that, you thought, passing the bucket to the next person. Without machinists and plumbers, a good rain would render the finicky contraptions rusty and useless, and it was clearly obvious that apart from a few stubborn holdouts, most master workmen had long since departed for greener pastures. You turn slightly, awaiting the next bucket, a panting runner valiantly bearing armfuls of empty containers back to the pump. Your attention is caught by another nearby line, who seem to be soaking a blissfully unscorched building to the side of the T&G office.
 
“What in the holy name of Tyris are they doing?” You demand incredulously.
 
Your neighbour wipes a soot-smeared brow. “Stopping spread.”
 
“Fire won’t jump that alley, it’s nowhere near big enough!” You retort.
 
“They’ll claim they didn’t know that.”
 
“But they could be doing much more good here!”
 
“Good for me and you, maybe, for them…” The other man trails off with a cynical grimace.
 
Of course. You were looking at account-holders and employees for rival underwriters. Any misfortune that befell Tenno & Goldstein could only strengthen their position, and so long as they were acting in a way so as not to be a direct hindrance to those of you directly fighting the fire, there was nothing any of you could say in their denunciation.
 
A whooshing of massive wings sounds from above, and a torrent of water drops from the smoky sky onto the burning building, followed by a plume of steam and sparks.
 
“What in the name of Tyris was that?!” Someone yells
 
“An Angel of the Heavens! Rejoice in the Mercy of The God!” Another cried in an attitude of fanatical reverence.
 
A string of archaic curses sounded from somewhere above your head as a large wooden vessel looking like nothing so much as a modest horse trough plummets down, hitting the sparsely-paved ‘street’ and bursting its seams with a clattering of sodden splinters.
 
“With that mouth?” You snicker knowingly “Ya dropped yer bucket Bella!”
 
The air whips around you as the Griffon comes in to land, skidding clumsily as she coughs and gasps, her body shaking with fatigue. You step out of line, helping the Griffon to her feet. “Good effort… You alright?”
 
“T’was heavy…” Bella coughs. “And… the smoke… greasy… could not… breathe…”
 
“Greasy eh?” You echo suspiciously. This was an underwriter’s office, not a woolshed… This was looking less like an accident every minute.
 
“Aye…” Bella gasps, rubbing at her streaming eyes.
 
“BACK!” someone yelled from near the front, and you turned to watch with horror as the roof collapsed into the building with a shower of sparks and a spray of burning debris.
 
“Tyris damn it, if she’d made that drop two minutes later…” One of the firefighters cursed in frustration.
 
“Leave off mate, she did what she could!” You retort.
 
“Yeh… I know… Just… FUCK!” The man curses, aggressively throwing the water in his bucket at the building. “Leave yer gold with the underwriters they said… It’ll be safe there they said…”
 
You sigh dejectedly, absently rubbing the Griffon’s back where she coughed and spat the soot and smoke from her lungs. Your eyes settled upon what looked like a dinghy or canoe, resting on slats outside one of the few occupied houses, fresh caulking glistening in the light of the burning building.
 
“Bella… Reckon you could make one more drop?”
 
“Aye, but verily, the centaurs at the stables will look unkindly ‘pon my appropriation of yet another…”
 
“Nah Bel” You interject, pointing at the rude boat “There’s yer bucket.”
 
“I cannot lift that!” Bella declares incredulously.
 
“Don’t sell yourself short… I bet it weighs nothing at all…” You cozen, tapping the side of your head with a finger meaningfully.
 
“Oh. OH! Well when thou putteth it in those terms…” Bella conceded, padding over to the boat before looking at you askance.
 
You nod encouragingly, and Bella puts her talons around the sides of the dinghy, screeching with surprise when it lifts from its stand with nearly no effort at all.
 
“Go, quick!” You insist, and Bella takes wing with a whooshing of air, dragging the now-weightless craft in her wake with a casual talon.
 
“Bugger me!” another human exclaims, staring slack-jawed at the gloom the griffon once occupied.
 
“Griffons mate, strong as shit but they need a little encouragement.” You grin, grabbing a bucket from the line and pressing it meaningfully into the man’s torso. Getting the hint, the man accepts the bucket, running to the front to throw it at the building, the wooden walls now beginning to creak and bow. You sneak into the shadow of a nearby building, putting fingers to temple and feeling the glyph as it seemed to flex and warp in your mind, reality clearly not at all amused by your manipulation. Biting your lip, you solidified it, only to have it shudder horrifically, assumedly as Bella filled it.
 
Steeling your mind, you forced the glyph back to stability, hearing the rhythmic beating of wings growing louder… louder… louder…
 
“Prithee, have thou a care below!” The Griffon shrieked, as water plummeted in a solid sheet into the now roofless building, a massive cloud of choking smoke and steam boiling from within, filthy water flooding the street with a distinct scent of ocean. A few men were knocked from their feet by the sudden torrent, but those remained began to cheer as they noticed the fire largely doused. The forward humans doubled their efforts, smouldering wood soaked in short measure by their concentrated assault.
 
With a pounding of wings, Bella once again alighted on the ground, boat held nonchalantly in one talon, and the other, to your surprise, wrapped around a very annoyed looking mermaid. With a cough, the Griffon placed both upon the ground. You rapidly stripped the boat of the assistant glyph, and it seemed to your mind to suddenly sink an inch or so into the sodden ground.
 
Must have been much heavier than you thought.
 
“Right! Now, I want an answer!” The Mermaid demanded, tail flailing as she propped herself up with what little dignity she could muster in the mud and ashy brine.
 
“Prithee, abate… I need… a moment…” Bella pants, resting her shaking talons upon leonine knees, barely able to keep her wingtips clear of the sodden ground.
 
“Sheila that was fuckin’ tops!” A nearby human declared.
 
“Proper fuckin’ miracle!” Another agreed.
 
“Is it heresy to ask for a Mamono to be sainted?”
 
“I’ll seek absolution later if it is! To the…”
 
“Griffon.” You prompt with a grin.
 
“Lady Griffon! Hip hip, hurray! Hip hip, Hurray!”
 
“Am I to remain in this filth while you cheer my abuser?!” The Mermaid shrieked incensedly. “By the Tide-Watchers, I am a director of Nautilus Futures and I WILL have…”
 
“Director Adella?” One of the humans ostensibly soaking a nearby building gasped in surprise, running over to the Mermaid. “What are you doin’ in the street?”
 
“That, Gavin, is what I would like to know.” The Mermaid drawls poisonously. “One moment I’m gathering sea-fire, the next, I’m airborne, with THAT one looking at me like I’ve grown three heads!” She continues, pointing a long, sparsely scaled finger at the Griffon.
 
“Your pardon, I am sure.” Bella pants slightly, slowly regaining her equilibrium. “‘Tis indeed difficult to see beneath the surface of the ocean, and yea, urgency did speed me to ungainly haste. I do beg thy forgiveness for any inconvenience and will gladly bear thee…”
 
“No!” Adella declares vehemently, pushing herself away from the Griffon and holding out her hands in protest. “I’d rather brush my teeth with a stonefish than be subjected to THAT again.”
 
Bella seems slightly hurt by that.
 
“You. Gavin.” Adella continues, pointing imperiously at the man. “Get someone who ISN’T covered in soot to carry me back to the coastline. And if I hear one snicker. One tiny little laugh, every single one of you will be entertaining Leviathans at the edge of the shelf.”
 
“Y-yes Director.” Gavin gulps, whistling to the other men, a couple of whom run over. In an almost reverential fashion, they pick the Mermaid up, her scintilating eyes half lidded and her nose turned up imperiously as they bear her back towards the ocean.
 
“Nautilus Futures eh?” You murmur to yourself as the Mermaid is borne away.
 
“Scavengers and fuckin’ saboteurs, the lot of ‘em.” Your neighbour in the bucket line grumbles, spitting on the ground.
 
“Oh mah stars!” A lamenting wail keens as the Taurean Ivy squelches on digitigrade hooves through the sodden ground to look in horror at the ruined T&G office. “What in tarnation happened here?”
 
“Fire, Ivy.” your neighbour quips.
 
Ivy fixes the man with a level stare, hands on her broad hips, and bovine tail lashing behind her. “Well thankee captain obvious.”
 
“Deliberate.” You add. Ivy blinks as she recognises you.
 
“Well Howdy thar sugar! Awful nice-a you to come on out and help when y’aint even from ‘round these parts.”
 
“Still the Australs, still my charge to help my fellow Freemen.” You reply.
 
“Well said mate.” Your neighbour grunts approvingly.
 
“We’re gettin’ sidetracked here boys.” Ivy interjects. “Adam, sugar, why’re you sayin’ it’s deliberate?”
 
“Because Bella said the smoke smelled greasy. Unless you were keepin’ a lannolin stockpile or a bunch of oil casks under the floorboards, that smacks of arsonist tools to my mind.” You reply.
 
“Sure ‘nuff…” Ivy accedes in a thoughtful tone, absently flicking a waterfall curl behind an ivory horn. “…We done gone have to have a factors meetin’ tonight though, before any dang peckerwoods decide to get their ducks all lined up, if y’all are following me.”
 
“But Ivy, what about our deposits? Our Ledgers!” A nearby human laments.
 
“Now don’t you worry your pretty little head now Billy…” Ivy near-croons “…Juni’s got copies.”
 
“But she’s a Tanuki!”
 
“Billy of Ajana Holdin’! You hush yo’ mouth now, I KNOW yo’ daddy didn’t raise him no bigot!” Ivy orders chidingly. Billy shuffles his feet in chagrin, looking nothing so much like a naughty teenager dressed down by a priestess. A few snickers ripple throughout the gathered remains of the firefighters.
 
“I really must thank y’all for goin’ to so much effort.” Ivy gushes, turning to smile glowingly at the surrounding men. “Y’all should know T&G ain’t gonna forget what you gone done for us tonight.”
 
“Thank the Griffon, Ivy!” A voice declared. “She dumped half the bleedin’ ocean on it!”
 
“Well that ain’t half somethin!” Ivy declares in awe, looking at Bella admiringly. “If that ain’t just the plum nicest thing… What’s your name honey?”
 
“B-Bella, an it please thee…” Bella murmurs bashfully, clearly not sure how to react to the dozens of eyes upon her.
 
“Boys, show Bella how we fete heroes in these here parts.” Ivy orders, before turning and walking towards the inn. Bella growls warningly as the men approach, yet seemingly without care for their own safety or the confused Mamono’s objections, a number of them hoist her up on their shoulders, cheering as they follow the Taurean back towards the Inn.
 
“Take it while it’s goin’, Bella.” You encourage, moving to the Griffon’s side and squeezing a talon covertly.
 
“But… but I did not…” Bella stammers, looking at you with a confused expression.
 
“Yeah, you did.” You interject, winking conspiratorially at the Mamono as you follow along.
 
 
“Come on girl, we just need to…” A voice wheedles as you push gently through the throng packed into the common room of the inn.
 
“No.” A female voice declares. Blue. You’d recognise that ‘no’ anywhere.
 
“I don’t want to get rough with you, Kobie…” The man warns.
 
“My Master said stay. I’m not moving. You can try and make me… if you hate having working legs…” The last in a throaty snarl. Time to head THAT off right away.
 
“Blue, C’mere.” You call.
 
“Boss! Bossbossbossboss.” Blue yips, and a tawny blur barrels through bodies to cling to your side, tail wagging frantically. “You were gone for forever I counted and they said there was a fire and someone conked river on the head and I was worried but I stayed like a good girl am I your good girl boss I did what I was told and…”
 
“Shh. Good girl. Good girl…” You murmur soothingly, stroking one of Blue’s furry ears.
 
“Tyris be Glorified mate… Next time maybe don’t tell the Kobie to ‘stay’ on a table in the middle of the bleedin’ room when we’re trying to set up for a trade factor meeting.” A nearby human grumbled.
 
“Wasn’t exactly planned mate, I’m sure you can understand.” You reply evenly.
 
“Yeh… well…” The man trailed off, not really having much objection to that.
 
“Adam! Thank Tyris you’re here, maybe you and Blue can help talk some sense into our blessed protectors.” Chad sighed with relief, suddenly appearing at your side and beckoning urgently. Blinking with surprise, you follow the man to a corner of the room where a squad of Faith Militant soldiers stood in a rough semicircle in front of a mussed and wan-looking River.
 
“Let’s go through this again…” A soldier sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose in frustration, a corporal’s chevrons on his sleeve. “…You were near the Trade Factor offices when the fire started?”
 
A nod from River.
 
“…But you didn’t start it.”
 
River shakes her head.
 
“But you know who did?”
 
A hesitant nod.
 
“Then for the love of Tyris, give us a name!”
 
A glance at Chad, and a vehement shake of her head. The Soldier’s eyes narrowed in suspicion as he turned to River’s owner.
 
“No wonder you were so eager to get her away, Trader.” The Soldier accused, prodding a rough finger into the man’s breast. “Where were YOU when…”
 
“Performing Continuance, like I said before corporal. Adam here can vouch for me, as well as Sister Ella.”
 
“S’true…” You agree with a shrug “…went in when I did and left when I did.”
 
“Can you account for him between those times though?”
 
You fix the soldier with a level stare. “Y’reckon their worships let him out to pinch one off mid-rite? C’mon corporal…”
 
“Not everyone’s time in the Chancel comprises of five minutes of Continuance and half an hour of crying, soldier.” A new voice intrudes.
 
“Who fuckin’ dares? Face up! I’ll have you collecting your teeth…” The Corporal yells, bug eyed with incensed fury.
 
“Me.” the voice states simply, and you turn to see Captain Justin, clad now in a Paladin’s white surcoat. “I instructed you to ask a few questions, corporal. Gently. Discretely. Not to interrogate frightened Kobolds found unconscious in the street.”
 
“C-Captain! I…” The corporal stammers in horror.
 
“Dismissed.” Justin commands.
 
“Sir.” The Corporal sighs, gesturing for his squad to follow him away. Justin’s gaze follows them out of the inn, clearly marking the man in his mind. For a moment, you feel an undeniable surge of sympathy for the man.
 
“Now…” Justin continued, turning to River and peering at her thoughtfully. “…what to do about you…”
 
“Mister Prince Justin sir?” Blue offers timidly, peeking around your torso. “I think I can help…”
 
“Hmm? Oh! Little Blue! Haven’t we grown up into a lovely young lady?” The Captain remarks with a small, indulgent smile. Blue looks up at you questioningly.
 
“Say thank you, pup.” You prompt.
 
“Thank you Mister Prince Justin.” Blue replies obediently.
 
“It’s ‘Captain’ now girl, the other titles wouldn’t mean much to you.” Justin explains as if to a small child. “Now, how do you think you can help?”
 
Blue swallows, stepping around you to whuffle a few phrases in the guttural Kobold tongue. River whines in response, screwing her eyes closed in frustration. Blue hugs her fellow Kobold briefly. “Spirits are with her, Mister Captain Justin.”
 
“Spirits? What kind of pagan rubbish is this?” Justin scoffs dismissively. Blue clenches her paws, clearly fighting the urge to take umbrage at his dismissal.
 
“It’s true, y’worship.” You insist. “Kobolds go into a sort of trance when they’re hunting or fighting, for some reason makes it hard for ‘em to speak Magisterian or to really communicate well at all. I don’t understand it but me Blue here’s done it a few times. As I understand it River’s pretty new to Kobold traditions, seein’ as she was a Foundling in Gilgai Holding when she was growing up.”
 
“Adam’s got the right of it, Your Worship. It’s all in the Holding reports, assuming any still exist.” Chad clarifies, the last with a touch of cynicism.
 
“Well then, make her un-trance.” Justin orders dismissively.
 
Blue shakes her head vehemently. “She’s scared Mister Captain Justin… Spirits’ll stay with her until they don’t think she’s in danger any more. To be honest those soldiers are lucky she wasn’t going for the throat.”
 
“How convenient…” Justin remarks. “…I’m beginning to understand the corporal’s susp…”
 
“Maou’s ample bosom Cap’n. You gonna keep at this poor li’l thang? Y’all know she didn’t have anything to do with it.” Ivy interjects, her digitigrade hooves loud on the floor as she clops over to take River in an almost motherly embrace, pressing the Kobold to her voluptuous chest.
 
“Miss Ivy.” Justin remarks with cold politeness. “How, praytell, do I know that?”
 
“Because as I just done gone finished tellin’ you, the fire was started by oil. Lots of it, if’n my new favourite person in the world’s nose is anythin’ to go by, and I ain’t seein’ no reason to doubt her. Do y’see any oil on her paws? Smell anythang?” Ivy takes one of River’s brown-furred paws in hand, holding it out as if to punctuate her argument.
 
“A fair point, miss Ivy, and I suppose our arsonists would be more likely to sap an unexpected witness behind the ear than a co-conspiritor.” Justin concedes.
 
“My stars, you ARE capable of reason! Maou be praised.”
 
“Don’t push me, Madam.” Justin seethes quietly.
 
“Frightful sorry Cap’n. Must be fatigue on account-a my office near plum-burnin’ to the ground and y’all still at me ‘bout your dang supplies afore the meetin’s even open.” Ivy retorts smoothly.
 
Justin gives a ‘hmph’, before turning on his heel and heading back into the crowd, no doubt to conduct his investigation elsewhere.
 
“I… Thank you, madam.” Chad offers sincerely, taking River in his arms and stroking her hair soothingly.
 
“Don’t pay it no nevermind, you get her tucked in nice and warm now. Poor thang’s had a helluva night.” Ivy smiles graciously.
 
Chad nods in thankful agreement, leading River away, the Kobold’s paw gripping his hand tightly as they weave through the crowd.
 
“Ivy, that was fuckin’ tops. Cheers ay.” You thank the Taurean profusely.
 
“Sugar, you wanna be careful with that one.” Ivy warns you, her voice serious as her gaze follows Chad and River out of the inn.
 
“Whu? Chad? Bloody hell, whyssat?” You groan in exasperation.
 
“He might not be in the hole to Nautilus, but he’s hangin’ hoof on the edge… They done promised him a pretty gosh-darn big favour, and they ain’t shy about leanin’ on it.”
 
“Why’d you help him if that’s the case?”
 
“Leverage, sugar. End of the day, who came to help, that Scylla in the bathtub over yonder?” Ivy gestures across the room to where a tentacled woman rests waist-deep in a halved barrel, two red-brown tentacles gesticulating as she remonstrates a number of nearby traders about something unknowable “…Or li’l old me?” The last with a wide-eyed, ingenuous expression, twirling a lock of hair around her finger. “Also it let me give a twist to the pole ol’Worshipful Cap’n Justin has up his ass, and I ain’t gonna miss an opportunity for that.”
 
“Boss, I can go get the rope right now, can we tie her up and keep her forever?” Blue begs, pulling on your shirt.
 
“Aw honey…” Ivy laughs, pulling the Kobold into a smothering embrace. “…You gotta get up pretty dang early to get that kinda drop on me, I tell you what.”
 
 
“This meeting of the Kalbarri Trade Factor’s Council will come to order” an opulently dressed human intoned officially, rapping a gavel on the tabletop.
 
“Is this really necessary?” the Scylla sighs, sloshing about in her tub.
 
“It is a matter of IMFC record, madam.” The man explains indulgently. “And since Kalbarri seems poised to become the first Free City on the Australs, it would behoove…”
 
“Poised SHIT!” A centaur whinnies in objection. “Kalbarri is the property of the Gorge-runner clan, by concession of the Dominus and the Council of Matriarchs!”
 
“And what a bang up job you cunts’ve done, can’t even get a regular supply run goin’ cos you lot can’t resist the urge to fuckin’ raid.” Another voice snarls.
 
“You DARE…” The Centaur snorts, and the crowd begins roiling as insults and catcalls begin flying.
 
A white-surcoated Paladin steps forth, whom you recognise from the road as Sir Douglas. Planting himself in front of the long table where the factors are ‘seated’ in their own way, he stares at the bickering crowd for a moment through eyes slitted with irritation before opening his mouth and reducing the room to shocked silence with a single roar of ‘SHADDAP!’
 
You shake your head briefly to clear the ringing in your ears, noticing that your arms were gripped by paws on the left, and talons on the right. You stifle a laugh, noticing the wary concern on the face of your Kobold and the near-abject terror on that of the Griffon.
 
“S’orright girls.” You murmur soothingly, extricating your arms from their grip and comfortingly squeezing paw and talon within your hands.
 
“I’m giving you brass-pinchers a chance to sort this out yer own way. Our Holy Mother Church has commanded us act as peacekeepers to enforce the Pax amongst Human and Mamono in this region, in the absence of proper Baronial Authority.”
 
“Proper…” The mouthy centaur echoes mockingly.
 
“If I hear you pipe up again Kiswyn, I’ll fuckin’ SHAVE you. Clear?”
 
The centaur’s hands fly to her lush golden locks in horror at the suggestion, an equine forehoof pawing at the wooden floor nervously.
 
“Carryin’ on, The one Holy Church of Eternal Tyris has heard the laments of its servants… frankly the piss-fuckin’ poor supply we’ve been forced to put up with these five year running.” Douglas continues. “And instead’ve working to resolve it, we’ve got the fuckin’ underwriters playin’ trade-war. Arson, when the children of Tyris are near-starvin’ in their own fuckin’ homes, what few can remain standing!”
 
“That hasn’t been proven…” The Scylla interjects.
 
“The men of the fifty-second haven’t had a good seafood dinner in fuckin’ yonks… I wonder how Scylla tastes deep-fried…” Douglas hisses through gritted teeth.
 
Wordless cries of objection and revulsion fill the air, one sole cry of ‘Monstrosity!’ ringing above them.
 
“Oh NOW you’re interested in playing by the Laws of Holy Tyris!” Douglas laughs mockingly. “Sergeant, bring him forward.”
 
The burly sergeant you had run into within the Faith Militant encampment walks slowly forward, almost tenderly supporting the shaking, bruised form of the inkeeper.
 
“What did you do?!” Demands the Centaur Kiswyn, looking at the man in horrified dismay.
 
“Held off on healin’ him, because we knew there’d be those amongst you who didn’t believe.” Douglas answers. “And I can’t revile you for compassion, Kiswyn, so I won’t pull out me razor just yet. But fuckin’ MIND me when I tell you to shut the fuck up from this point in.”
 
Kiswyn once again backs off, and the Paladin’s arm ignites with the glowing light of the Benedictus. Seeing it, the inkeep’s eyes widen in fear.
 
“Wasn’ me…” He slurs through a swollen jaw “…didn’t want it…”
 
“At ease Ernie… I know mate…” Douglas assures the man in a much softer tone. Ernie, the inkeep audibly moans as the divine power of the Benedictus suffuses his body.
 
“Bruised skull, fractured orbital socket, broken nose, three… wait… four dislodged teeth…” The Paladin lists almost clinically, and you watch amazed as the bruising and contusions fade as the holy power heals the man. “…broken jaw, one dislocated shoulder, one wrist hyperextension, three fractured ribs, bruising to a number of internal organs including the spleen and liver… though I suspect that’s from grog… multiple pelvis fractures, one torn hamstring and trench-foot… can’t blame anyone but you for that last you dirty bastard.”
 
“M’sorry…” Ernie mumbles, delirious from sudden absence of pain. 
 
“A grievous assault… But compounding it the fact that whilst Ernie’s injuries alone would have rendered him thoroughly incapable of continuance for a good long while, the… leavings of his assault preclude him for just as long. Some cursed luck on behalf of the perpetrators, I cannot even sense the SPECIES of his rapist, the noxious fume of Lustmord is so fucking thick.”
 
“Heresy!” A voice decries emphatically.
 
“Heresy indeed!” Douglas agrees. “And since I cannot determine the guilty, all stand suspect!”
 
“Nay!” Bella shrieks in terror, clinging to you like a drowning man to a plank.
 
“Something you want to add, Griffon?” Douglas growls softly, fixing the Mamono with his piercing gaze.
 
“Nay! Nay!” Bella repeats, shaking so violently you feared she would collapse.
 
You had to head this off, there was no other way around it. “Pardon, your worship… Bella’s had something of a run-in with… an obsolete branch of the Faith Militant.”
 
“What KIND of run-in, Trader?”
 
“The Familicidal kind.”
 
“I’m gonna want more out of you on that.” Douglas promises. “But in the meantime leave her be. If she can’t keep a level head, go calm her down.”
 
“I’ll take her upstairs Boss…” Blue murmurs “…wasn’t looking forward to listening to the man in the dress anyway.”
 
The IMFC representative looked somewhat offended at that.
 
“Thanks pup.” you smile gratefully.
 
“C’mon feathers…” Blue entreats the Griffon, leading her towards the stairs which lead up to the rooms of the inn. A wide, respectful path was opened to allow them passage. Seems Bella was pretty well regarded amongst the locals thanks to her efforts with the fire… for now at least.
 
“Considering she’s about the only one who I don’t think did it, on account of her breathing in half a kilo of soot fightin’ that fucking fire, if that gives any here pause to contemplate the nature of your souls, I’d say such is long overdue.” Douglas elaborates. “The facts stand thus. The body of evidence in the person of Eddie, Freeman of Kalbarri, gives me all the authority I need to call the Crusade in this region. The Dominus will not gainsay me, the Council will not deny me. The Church will rule here, your claims disavowed, and those who will not serve will be turned out with no more than they can carry upon their backs.”
 
The cry of anguished disbelief from the gathered Traders, Mamono, and Factors was understandable, if surprising in its vehemence. Douglas gave it a moment, before calling once again on his divine blessing.
 
“SHUT YER SHITFARMS!” He roars, glowing power enveloping him, giving the rude impression of ethereal armor about his person. The protests fell suddenly, shatteringly quiet.
 
“But… Let it not be said that the good Arse-Kicking Boot of the Most High is without temperance. As I said before, I’m giving you this chance to resolve this matter in your own way, restore Kalbarri to something resembling normalcy. If you don’t… well… Fort Kalbarri would serve as an excellent Paladin seminary.” Gesturing, he led the Faith Militant detachment away, but you noticed that Captain Justin looked as if he had eaten something very sour, and wasn’t sure what to do with it.
 
“Well… It’s one way to encourage productivity, I suppose…” The IMFC representative muses diplomatically, straightening his florid, opulent clothes self-consciously.
 
“Sweetpea… Quit yo’ carryin’ on and let’s get this done, ‘fore that terrifyin’ man done changes his mind.” Ivy chides.
 
 
“So what happened?” Blue demands sleepily as you strip off your shirt, grunting slightly as you lay on the floor in the impromptu ‘nest’ of blankets the Griffon and Kobold had constructed, seemingly due to the inability of either to get comfortable on the narrow cots that served as beds in the Waylander’s quarters.
 
“A whole bunch of talk for a pretty simple outcome, to be honest.” You remark witheringly. “T&G will enter a trading halt in the region for a month or so while they sort new offices, and the other underwriters will honour their notes without penalty, then they’ll re-assess.”
 
“What about our money?”
 
“Our money?” You echo in amusement, tickling the Kobold’s stomach.
 
“H-hey! I’ve got an account there too remember?” Blue giggles in objection, squirming against your assault.
 
“Oh yeah, thought you spent all that.” You admit.
 
Blue ponders that. “No… at least I’m pretty sure I didn’t.”
 
“Either way, Ivy didn’t seem at all concerned about it, which was surprising. I mean there were two platinum reasons for her to be REAL damn worried about it just from me… And it’s not like Juni had them on her list for coin-runs the other month.”
 
“She’s probably got it stashed down her top.” Blue yawns, nuzzling into you. “You could hide half of Gibson in that cleavage.”
 
“Hah. That’s almost believable pup.” you chuckle, absently stroking one of Bella’s wings where the dozing Griffon stirs restlessly. “You okay Bel? You kinda lost yer shit a bit there.”
 
“C-certes, I thank thee.” The Griffon replies with a small smile, her eyes opening slightly. “T’was what he said… In the place where I was… trained, if one fell short of expectations, yea, was punishment meted to all, and verily, they were not sparing with the rod.”
 
“You alright with me telling Sir Douglas that? He’s probably gonna track me down and ask why you reacted so strongly tonight.”
 
“Aye… I suppose… But wilt he not be skeptical in relation to mine apparent age?”
 
“He might be, Tyris knows he didn’t believe a word about Thealiss… I might have to ask Sister Superior Kathleen if she can step on his neck a little.”
 
“Ask?” Blue echoes confusedly “Boss, you’re resonant, no Pally’s got the up on you.”
 
“No, but the High Priestesses do, in a BIG way, and I didn’t exactly cover meself in glory by busting that shitmouse’s knee this morning.”
 
Blue’s big eyes are almost luminous as she stares at you in concern. “Did I get you in trouble Boss?”
 
“My actions are me own pup… And can I tell you a secret?”
 
Blue nods.
 
You grin conspiratorially, leaning in close to the Kobold’s ear. “Even knowing how it turned out… I’d probably do it anyway.”
 
“You are the best boss ever.” Blue grins, kissing you soundly.
 
“Prithee… I am wearied from the day’s exertions. Might I prevail upon thee to continue this on the morrow?” Bella asks with a plaintive yawn.
 
You pat the griffon on a horny talon. “Yeh, sorry Bel.”
 
“M-might I trouble thee for a kiss goodnight?”
 
“Maou that’s adorable!” Blue squeals, and you stifle a chuckle as you move to kiss the Griffon gently goodnight.
 
 
“Of all the things that Centaurs don’t like…” You murmured in awe, looking at your plate almost reverently.
 
“Yehboss.” Blue agrees, likewise transfixed.
 
“I do not understand.” Bella mused.
 
You look at the Griffon with confusion. “Bacon, Bella… Bacon!”
 
“This is… a rarity for thee?”
 
“Well yeh. Can’t farm pigs in the Australs on account of ‘em eating their young in captivity, and wild razorbacks are really damn good at being somewhere else when you come across their wallows.”
 
“Seems the Centaur have no trouble, verily, when I presented myself to their Matriarch I saw some goodly amount being dressed and skinned.”
 
“That a fact?” You exclaim in surprise.
 
“Boss, it’s getting cold…” Blue laments.
 
“Course, sorry Blue.” You apologise, before raising your hands into the sign of the Sunburst. “For what we are about to receive, may the Most High make us truly thankful.”
 
“Amen.” Bella remarks politely before the three of you hoe into the generous helpings of bacon and beans which comprised the inn’s breakfast.
 
“Whazzis boss?” Blue asks you, picking up a rough square sitting on the side of her plate.
 
“Hardtack” You mumble from around a mouthful of bacon. “Soak it in the bean juice or you’ll break yer teeth.”
 
“Where’s the bread?”
 
“Part of what the Faith Militant are getting so stroppy about when it comes to supplies…” You clarify.
 
Blue stares at you incredulously. “No Muntaberry jam on toast?!”
 
“Sorry pup”
 
“Is that a Heresy?”
 
“If it isn’t it should be, Kobie.” A Faith Militant soldier mutters, wiping down a nearby table.
 
“Hey! You’re the guy who went through my smalls!” Blue accuses the man.
 
“Yeh, sorry about that.” The soldier grins apologetically.
 
“Gudday Connor, why’re you playin’ inkeep?”
 
“Ernie’s cheese is still thoroughly off his cracker, he’s convalescing in the Chancel, reckon he’ll be there for a good while, but we can’t have the only reputable Inn in Kalbarri lying fallow for the bloody Centaur to trash. Meanwhile some cunt told the Annointed me dad was a publican before I joined the Faith Militant.” Connor grumbles resentfully, returning to his tables. “Tyris be fuckin’ merciful, I joined to get AWAY from bars and fuckin’ kitchens!”
 
“So you’re the one who gave me all this bacon?” Blue asks, pointing at her near-empty plate.
 
“Yeh… Something wrong with iACK!” Connor’s query is cut off with a surprised grunt as Blue’s flying tackle-hug impacts with his midsection.
 
“Everythingisforgivendoyouwantapairofmysmallsasasouveneirifigetmorethanthattomorrowcaniseethekitchenpleasepleaseplease…”
 
“Trader! Yer Kobie’s gone mental!” Connor cries in alarm, trying to extricate himself from Blue’s grip.
 
“Blue… G-geddere…” You gasp through laughter, Blue reluctantly releasing the soldier-come-inkeep and obediently returning to her chair. “Think you may have made a friend for life though mate.”
 
“She always this enthusiastic?”
 
“Only on days the sun sets in the west.” You drawl teasingly, patting Blue’s head.
 
“Mean.” Blue sulks.
 
“Well…” Connor muses “…I could be persuaded…”
 
You raise an eyebrow “Hmm?”
 
Connor comes a little closer, glancing around furtively. “You any good with supply inventory?”
 
You shrug “I haven’t ended up with a sackful of sprouts yet.”
 
“It’ll do. I don’t know if the Quartermaster is part Cogitator or if Ernie was more bugfuck nuts than anyone knew, but his records are a complete maze. Logoff wants a full stocktake on the inn’s supplies before he’ll let me lodge reccies. Problem is, I’m on me own apart from the cook and her Null, and the Sergeant won’t spare me anyone to help, the evil cunt.”
 
“Cleric of the ‘throw them in the ocean until they learn to swim’ chapter, eh?” You remark knowingly.
 
“Lord fuckin’ Commander of it, more like!” Connor groans in agreement. “Anyway, if you could see fit to giving me a hand getting a baseline on that, Kobie there can have free reign to explore the kitchens and such, and I’m pretty sure I could make sure your expenses here somehow ended up getting paid for by the Faith Militant.”
 
“That’s a hell of an offer mate… Not likely to get us flogged I hope?”
 
Connor snorts, “Nah. Arrangements like this are made all the time, strictly under the table of course, not to mention the Logoff owes me a week’s pay in lost card games as is.”
 
“S’tempting, but I’m here to trade and with the whole business last night, opportunities are gonna get sparser the longer I wait to make a move on something.” You muse.
 
Connor shrugs, “If you can’t, you can’t… Offer’s there though.”
 
“Giz a minute to think on it.”
 
“Sure, looks like I’ve got me hands full right now anyway.” Connor murmurs, jerking his head at the door.
 
“…I’m telling you, it’s an instant solution to the problem.” Captain Justin remarks to Sir Douglas as the two Paladins take a seat on the other side of the dining area.
 
“Justin, the Faith Militant is not your personal army, especially for no greater purpose than to put you back in Fort Kalbarri.”
 
“You know what happened, Douglas. Politicking by the Dominus aside, this Barony is mine by right. Magisterium is more than willing to accept my claim.”
 
“Got it all lined up then? So? What’s the problem.”
 
“You know she’ll never accept it, I NEED the Faith Militant to back me on this.”
 
Sir Douglas leaned forward on the table. “Are you forgetting your vows, Captain?”
 
“Save it for someone you actually outrank.” Justin drawls mockingly.
 
Douglas smiles evenly. “Depends on your perspective.”
 
“Oh?”
 
“Yeh. I still hold court rank worth more than a bucket of horsepiss.” Douglas retorts, standing and leaving the inn. “Enjoy breakfast, I’m not hungry any more.”
 
Justin stares after his fellow paladin in silent, seething fury. “WINE!” he demands, slamming his fist on the table.
 
“At once, Captain!” Connor replies, scrambling to meet the incensed man’s demand.
 
“Hey Boss! It’s River and Mister Chad!” Blue exclaims, abandoning her chair once more to run over to the pair, embracing her fellow Kobold enthusiastically as they walk towards you and your companions.
 
“Gudday Chad. Morning River, how ya feeling this morning?” You ask politely, wiping your mouth and setting your cutlery aside.
 
“Embarrassed…” The Kobold admits, shuffling her lower paws slightly.
 
“Why? Even humans get toungue-tied.” You offered with a gentle grin.
 
“It was more what happened later that…”
 
“River!” Chad interjects urgently “What in the holy name of Tyris happened to ‘Never Mentioned to Anyone’?”
 
“Sorry Boss… It’s Blue and Mister Adam though… They don’t really count as ‘Anyone’, do they?” River asks in a tone of profound innocence.
 
“Kobolds…” Chad groans, putting his face in his hands.
 
“You two in trouble?” You ask evenly, pouring yourself a cup of water.
 
Chad shakes his head as River and Blue natter in Kobold. “No no, just some awkwardness with that whole ‘Spirit Trance’ thing… Honestly it’s not even…”
 
“So you two…” Blue snickers wickedly, switching to Magisterian for reasons known only to herself.
 
“No!” River exclaims in horror.
 
“Why not? S’not like you’re related.”
 
Utter silence from both Chad and River hangs over the table.
 
“Get away…” Blue gasps quietly, her mouth agape.
 
“Blue!” You bark. “Mouth is open, should be shut.”
 
“But Boss I…”
 
“Pup. Shush.” You order simply, staring pointedly at your indentured.
 
“Yes Boss.” Blue accedes somewhat sulkily.
 
“Not in present company, alright?” You elaborate softly, nodding slightly in the direction of Justin, who is doing an admirable job of sulking his way through a bottle of wine.
 
“Certes…” Bella agrees, before cursing softly as her talons tear a hole in her napkin.
 
“Kinda why I came looking for you… I think we need to talk, but not here. If you can spare the time, meet me at the fishing station out by the head, I’ll be there for a few hours.” Chad murmurs pointedly, before beckoning to River and leaving the inn through a side door.
 
“Well…” Blue mumbles.
 
“Mmmhmm… Later Pup.” You stress. Tyris be Glorified, you had picked up on the slip the night before, but you assumed it was just a metaphor! “Anyway, if we’ve all finished I think the day’s in danger of…”
 
“I told you sweetpea, don’t you worry ‘bout it.” Ivy’s voice sounds over the rhythmic clopping of her hooves, lending you to pause as she enters from the stairwell. Walking beside her is a leather-aproned human who bears an expression of almost servile gratitude. “If I had my druthers we’d change the whole thang, but if the creek don’t rise we should be just dandy.”
 
“Yer blood’s worth bottlin’ Ivy. Thanks again, and if there’s anything, anything at all…”
 
“Get on now, my butt’s pretty enough without you kissin’ it all day” Ivy interjects with a gracious laugh. The man nods, almost genuflecting as he leaves. Ivy’s gaze follows after him with a regretful sigh.
 
“That boy’s gonna end up in the hole if he don’t learn to pull his boots up.” She mutters to herself, seemingly unaware that she was standing next to your table. You clear your throat pointedly.
 
“Oh! Adam sugar!” Ivy exclaims in apparent surprise, looking between you and your companions. “And if it ain’t the two prettiest girls in Kalbarri, my stars, I plum didn’t see y’all there!”
 
You raise an eyebrow, glancing after the aproned man with an askance expression on your face. Ivy waves dismissively. “Now don’t y’all worry yo’self none ‘bout that. Just folks all in a tizzy ‘bout the trade freeze… Oh, come to think of it, while you’re here, I wouldn’t mind help with somethin’, if’n y’all can lend a girl a hand over by… well, what USED to be my office?”
 
“Day’s lookin’ a bit full on, so no promises, but see what we can do for ya, Ivy.” You reply in a politely neutral tone.
 
“Thankee sugar, hopin’ I’ll see y’all there!” Ivy exclaims sunnily before she too, makes her exit.
 
“Subtle.” Blue snorts.
 
“Certes, as a warhammer to the face.” Bella agrees.
 
“Thought you liked her.” You remark with a wry grin.
 
“I do!” Blue insists. “But she’s up to something… Maou and Spirits. EVERYONE’s bloody up to something today, air’s so thick with plotting I could carve off a slice for lunch.”
 
Bella wordlessly puts her talons about Blue’s torso, hugging the shorter mamono against her.
 
“Feathers!” Blue exclaims in pleased surprise, muffled against the Griffon’s bust. “Whazzis for?”
 
“Verily, I was concerned for a moment, in wake of yon night prior’s stress, that I had become needlessly paranoid.”
 
You had to agree, problem was, considering your obligation to the Lodge, the possibility of at least one of these plots meaning a new arse in the Baronial chair meant that the agonizingly preferable option of simply loading up your wagon and getting the fuck out while the going was good was sort of off the table. Besides, your curiosity was tickled. The only question was, which curiosity to pursue first?
 
“Well, considering free’s me favourite foodgroup, reckon I’ll give Connor a hand here for a bit.” You muse thoughtfully, “Plus, I wouldn’t mind getting a look at Ernie’s ledgers me own self, to be honest.”
 
“Certes.” Bella agrees. “I wilt be glad to lend thee mine aid in pursuit of this endeav…”
 
“There you are!” A female voice declares in relief, and you turn in your chair to see the wimpled form of High Priestess Kathleen bearing towards you purposefully.
 
“Again Boss?!” Blue declares incredulously, staring between you and the Priestess with jaw hanging open.
 
Kathleen blinks in surprise, before laughing dismissively. “Oh, he should be so blessed. I’m actually here for your… friend. Bella, isn’t it?”
 
“A-aye…” Bella accedes, peering at Kathleen suspiciously.
 
“You will address her as Your Reverence.” Captain Justin’s voice sounded authoritatively (if somewhat slurred) from where he stared imperiously at his own table. Kathleen’s eyes narrowed, and you sensed a Resonant Glyph being cast a moment before the half-full bottle atop Justin’s table exploded with a sharp report, staining the Paladin’s white surcoat with red.
 
“Drinking on duty, Captain?” Kathleen tsked. “Go clean yourself up.”
 
Justin stared at the High Priestess with seething fury. “You have the temerity to…”
 
“NOW, Justin.” Kathleen interjected in a tone which brooked no disobedience.
 
“Your will, Reverence.” Justin hissed between his teeth before storming from the taproom.
 
“I just cleaned there!” Connor laments from behind the bar, slouching over it in defeat.
 
“Counted all blessings when thou fallest under manifold trials, Corporal.” Kathleen muses sententiously.
 
“It’s Private, your Reverence…” Connor corrected with a sigh.
 
“Oh? Did I forget to mention? Sergeant Bennett did beseech on me to bring you your new epaulettes this morning, must have slipped my mind…”
 
“A… Promotion?” Connor whispers, his eyes wide and eager.
 
“Congratulations, my child.” Kathleen chuckles, handing the embossed rank-slides to the soldier and patting him gently on the cheek, before turning to see you glowering from the table.
 
“Problem, Adam?” Kathleen asks primly.
 
“Just thinkin’ about a conversation where flippant use of Resonance was brought up as a bad thing.” You reply flatly.
 
“Few differences there Adam. Firstly, I’m a High Priestess. Secondly, I’ve been properly trained in the Grand Lodge. Thirdly. I have some idea what I’m doing…”
 
You sense the Resonant glyph being cast by the priestess, and on instinct, hunt within the mental whirlwind of the Logos for its inverse. Fixing it within your mind, you feel the glyph ‘shatter’ as the two commands cancel each other out. Kathleen raises an eyebrow in surprise.
 
“So do you, it seems… Surprising.”
 
“Fast learner.” You grunt.
 
“Don’t get snide…” The High Priestess chides warningly.
 
“Apologies, Your Reverence.” You concede with a sigh. “We’ve just about finished, but did you want to join us for breakfast?”
 
“Thank you, but no, my stomach’s a little unsettled this morning, can’t think why…” Kathleen muses with feigned innocence, suppressing a smirk at the look of sheer terror on your face. “…Oh dry off, Adam, you should know signs of quickening don’t show that soon.”
 
“You mean you two…” Blue exclaims in surprise, before clamping her mouth shut and staring off into the middle distance.
 
Kathleen either doesn’t notice the Kobold’s exclamation or simply disregards it as irrelevant. “So. Bella, shall we take a walk?”
 
The Griffon looks askance at you, and you shrug noncommittally. “She’s across way more than anybody else about everything that happened in Thealiss by virtue of Rhaz… I mean, Raoul’s reports. Least you can be sure she’s not gonna call you a liar just because some shit sounds on the fantastic side of uncommon.”
 
“Adam, logic and reason before midday? I’m pleasantly surprised!” Kathleen laughs mockingly.
 
“Your Reverence… “ You groan pleadingly.
 
Kathleen snickers, mussing your hair as if you were little more than a bashful child. You tamp down the umbrage rising from her bullying, matching your Kobold’s blank expression as best you can.
 
“Parfay, certes… I suppose such would be the best option I have to explain my outburst yon night prior…” Bella concedes, shifting her massive wings slightly as she stands. Kathleen smiles, nodding and beckoning the Griffon to follow, leading your friend from the taproom.
 
“That…” Blue murmurs, confusion and slight injury in her eyes as she watches the High Priestess walk away with the Griffon in tow.
 
“Yep.” you sigh, taking the Kobold’s paw in your hand and squeezing gently. “See what I mean about High Priestesses?”
 
“I kinda wanna beat her up… But if she’s…” The Kobold whines softly.
 
“Unlikely pup. I mean think about it, if you’re not…” You trail off, looking at Blue pointedly.
 
“W-would you though?” Blue whimpers, giving you her big azure eyes pleadingly.
 
“I’ll do anything for my children. Regardless of how they come about…” You assure her. Dammit, you wanted to tell her how full it made your heart feel to think about holding a daughter you both had made together. Wanted to tell her how willing you’d be to give away everything to be with her… But the Law of Tyris… The Pax Deus… The overarching doctrine which governed your life stilled your tongue.
 
Blue whuffles in thought, looking at the floor contemplatively.
 
“Hey pup, wanna see the kitchen?” You offer with a warm smile.
 
Blue’s answering smile is like the sun coming up. “Kayboss!”
 
“Hey, Connor, still after a hand?”
 
“Tyris be Merciful, yes!” Connor groans gratefully from where he is cleaning glass and spilled wine from Justin’s now-empty table. “Logs are in the alcove next to the pantry.”
 
“C’mon pup.” You beckon, heading behind the bar and into the staff area of the inn. Blue takes a long sniff before rapidly turning into a side room.
 
“What are you…” You hear Blue’s voice exclaim in surprise.
 
“The fuck do you think…” Another female voice demands, before both are drowned out by the sounds of scuffling and spilled crockery, Blue’s snarls mingling with the yowling of some as-yet unknown mamono.
 
“Sweet Tyris…” You moan, following the Kobold. You enter the largely barren larder, to see Blue pinned against a shelf, a shorter Mamono with sharp teeth bared cruelly wrenching one of her paws behind her back.
 
“Do it, Kobold…” the unknown Mamono hisses, biting blue’s tawny ear savagely.
 
“N-no!” Blue squeals. Her assailant grimaces, increasing the pressure on Blue’s paw.
 
“A-arf arf!” Blue barks, flushing crimson with humiliation.
 
“Leggo me Kobie.” You order flatly, rolling your eyes.
 
The assailant’s eyes flick to you. “Staff only. Fuck off.” She orders shortly.
 
“Corporal Connor asked me to help with the stocktake. Said Blue could have free run of the kitchen.” You begin explaining.
 
“Likely story.”
 
“An assault on an indentured is an assault on the Freeman who owns them… Believe me when I say you don’t want me responding to this…” You assure the Mamono in a low, deadly tone.
 
The unknown Mamono cocks her head slightly, her short, pointed ears flicking and her possum-like tail curling about her bare, clawed feet. “Hmmm… well… She did bark like I told her… I guess I can accept that.”
 
Released from the punishing grip of her assailant, Blue rushes over to you, whimpering and clinging to the front of your shirt.
 
“F-fucking Quolls…” Blue sobs.
 
“Quoll? Tyris be merciful!” You exclaim in surprise. Quolls, like Dingoes and Wolf-Spiders, were considered Feral by and large. To the best of your knowledge they completely disavowed human civilization, those unfortunate to encounter them in the wild for more than a fleeting glance were usually subject to a session of bestial rape before their assailant melted back into the undergrowth.
 
“Yeah yeah, get it all out now…” The Quoll sighed, rolling her eyes and folding her clawed, white-spotted paws across her breast dismissively.
 
“Just… never heard of one of youse in civilization, let alone working.” You explain, stroking Blue’s hair soothingly.
 
“Got bored. Decided to see what it was like out here.” The Quoll stated simply.
 
“So… How did this end up with Blue against the shelves…”
 
“She rushed me!” The quoll declares, pointing a claw at Blue. “What in the name of Maou was I supposed to do?”
 
“T-thought she was theiving….” Blue whines into your chest. “…I was just trying to be a good girl.”
 
The Quoll makes a gagging sound at the Kobold’s explanation.
 
“Right. Well. So from the outfit, you’d be the cook?” You offer.
 
“Good to see you’re not as dumb as you look, Human.” The Quoll drawls mockingly.
 
“LEAVEOFFMEBOSSYOUSLUTFUCKINGQUOLLFUCKINGBITEYOU…” Blue slavers, pulling against your embrace..
 
“Blue!” You snap. “Down.”
 
“Yes boss…” Blue accedes, nuzzling into you,
 
“Urgh… Packers…” The Quoll groans.
 
You raise an eyebrow queryingly. “Come again?”
 
“Kobolds.” The Quoll exclaims as if it should be self-evident. “All this submissive shit.”
 
“Each their own…” You offer diplomatically. “…Look. Can I rely on you not to beat up me Kobie any more?
 
“If Connor said she could wander around, no business of mine…” The Quoll shrugs dismissively. “…Long as I get paid I could give a fuck less.”
 
“Good. Let’s start this again then. I’m Adam, this is Blue.”
 
“Riley.” The Quoll replies shortly.
 
“Can I impose upon you to show me Kobie around, Riley?”
 
Riley shrugs indifferently, “Sure.”
 
Blue sniffs, extricating herself from your embrace. “Wasn’t fair. I didn’t see your tail.” She sulks.
 
“I can do it again while you’re watching if you like.” Riley threatens.
 
“M’fine…” Blue replies quickly.
 
“Good, now come with me, I need a hand carving off a side of bacon, and that useless fucking Null’s just gone home with the flu.” The Quoll declares, beckoning at your Kobold.
 
“Be good Blue.” You chuckle, rubbing one of her tawny-furred ears.
 
“Yehboss.” Blue sighs, following the quoll deeper into the larder.
 
Shaking your head, you head out towards the alcove Connor spoke of. Tyris be glorified, he wasn’t kidding! Ernie’s notes were an esoteric blend of common figures and unintelligible symbols, margins filled with spidery script which barely resembled Magisterian.
 
“So we just…” Blue’s voice intrudes on your study.
 
“Leave the fat, Kobold!” Riley demands. “We can do so much with that, you won’t even believe.”
 
“Bacon grease… Oh…” Blue moans almost reverentially.
 
“Well now… so you’re a woman of taste…” Riley chuckles in pleased surprise.
 
 
You tap the quill against your teeth as your brow furrows, this one term, ‘Giltfleisch’, attached to figures which didn’t seem to fit any kind of pattern. You had been disappointed, but hardly surprised, to see little if anything recorded about the kegs of beer which seemed to be solely for the consumption of the occupying Centaurs. Your eyes scanned the shelves of the larder indifferently, half-intelligible sounds of Blue and Riley’s excited babbling from the kitchen beyond. Least they were getting along.
 
Your attention focused on a medium-sized jar sitting innocuously on a nearby shelf. “Fuck yeah, blackroot!” you muttered to yourself, setting the ledger aside to reach for it. Very few people developed a taste for the bitter tuber, and the difficulty in obtaining it made the murderously expensive price dissuade those that did in most instances. Surely they wouldn’t miss just a bit, and if they did? Hell, you weren’t exactly hurting for coin.
 
You open the jar, pulling out a wad of the roughly shredded blackroot, setting it in your cheek and chewing with relish. “Hello…” You mumble, noticing a small loop of wire where the jar used to be. “…What’re you?”
 
You give the wire an experimental pull, hearing the ‘clack’ of some kind of mechanism behind the wall, and nearly spitting out the bitter blackroot as the whole shelf swings out slightly on silent hinges, revealing a staircase heading downwards.
 
“Ernie, the fuck are you up to…” You muse, summoning a softly glowing orb of light with a resonant glyph, and descending the staircase. A solid, wooden door stood at the bottom of the stair, secured only with a simple latch. Curious, you opened the door, looking inside and making a noise of puzzlement as you looked around. A meat locker? Why in Tyris’s name would anyone hide a meatlocker behind a shelf, you wondered… Before noticing the glassy-eyed and very human head sitting atop a platter of cold-cuts, arranged meticulously in some twisted parody of haute cuisine. Breakfast, blackroot, as well as one or two toenails came boiling up from your stomach as you noisily vomited on the floor.
 
“Who… Who…” A grunting, harsh voice demanded as a shape moved from the shadowy back of the room, shuffling towards you, simian arms outstretched, filthy talons spread, lips peeled back from a frighteningly inhuman maw, spadelike teeth stained and stinking… A Ghoul, but Tyris Preserve, you’d never seen one this big!
 
“Fuuuuck that.” You declare, focusing on the hulking shape moving towards you. The ghoul makes a tearing sound, assumedly of surprise as it is hoisted off the ground by Resonant energy. You stare impassively at the undead thing as it thrashes around for a moment, clawing impotently at empty air. Eventually even the dead get bored of impotent action, it seemed, as the ghoul’s facial features began to slide forward over that horrible mouth, rendering it looking almost human… if not for the sickly mottling of its corpselike pallor.
 
“Why Grek no ground?” It demanded.
 
“Cos bein’ lunch doesn’t sound like the best use of me day.” You reply shortly. The ghoul gives a horribly rattling, tearing laugh.
 
“Silly pretty-mens… Food here-now… lots for long-and-long… pretty mens fresh, need lie still for time-and-time before yes for food.”
 
“You’re not a fan of it red then?”
 
“Blech!” The Ghoul spits in agreement, “Cold here, not brown or grey-green, but… lot-and-lot… Grek no turn up nose at lot-and-lot. Grek eat, grow big-strong. Take lot-and-lot outside. Give Grek brown, grey… greeeeeen…. Maggots and corpse-worms make good-nice yum-yums…
 
“Tyris…” You gag, retching slightly at the Ghoul’s explanation. Necrophages… not even once. Steeling yourself, you force your disgust and nausea down. “So what the fuck is this?”
 
“Grek no know?” The ghoul offers, shrugging, her massive talons, designed for opening graves and bodies in short order spread in an almost laughable parody of innocence. “Mens find Grek. Tell Grek follow, lot-and-lot for long-and-long. Grek hungry, follow mens. Think take mens and have more-and-more but mens sharp-hurty and bright-burny make no for good-nice touchy.” The ghoul huffs, crossing her arms across the tattered rags covering her torso. She seemed rather put out by that.
 
“Good-nice touchy… Y’tried to fuck ‘em?” You declare incredulously.
 
“Grek get hungry in other-mouth too…” The ghoul explained as if it should be obvious. “…But find here. Food. lot-and-lot for long-and-long… Manflesh. Horse-ladyflesh, Cow-ladyflesh, Deeeeeeeeemon-flesh…” A shudder of pure pleasure ran through ‘Grek’s’ form. “Grek eat. Grek big-strong now.”
 
Tyris be glorified, this ghoul had been snacking on succubi corpses. “So… all this… it wasn’t for you?” You ask, gesturing to the horror which surrounded you.
 
“Grek’s now!” She slavered, her lips beginning to pull back from those horrible teeth.
 
“But not at first, I mean.”
 
Grek sighs, rolling her cloudy, corpselike eyes. “Pretty-mens talky-talky… No. Mens show man-cave, open door-thing. Close behind Grek. Grek eat. Pretty-mens open after time-and-time. More food put in room. Surprised see Grek.”
 
“I didn’t put shit in here!” You declare in horrified objection. Grek stares at you as one would look at a particularly dense child.
 
…You were getting rather sick of that look…
 
“Not YOU Pretty-mens, other pretty-mens. Mens foot smell yum-yum. Sigh-sad-mens.”
 
Foot? Yum-yum? Of course, trenchfoot. “Ernie…”
 
“Him MAD. Tell Grek out-get. Yelly-loud. But… pretty-mens pretty mens… and Grek want good-nice touchy.”
 
“…It… was you! You stupid fuckin’ undead cunt, you nearly raped that poor fucker to death!”
 
“Him stop-say ‘no’ after knock out teeth.” Grek explained with another nonchalant shrug “Thought convinced of argument.”
 
“Heresy!” you hiss in outrage.
 
“What that?” Grek growls in puzzlement. “No more talky-talky. Grek other-mouth hungry. Put Grek ground. Grek make good-nice touchy with pretty-mens. Grek promise no break… much.” the ghoul cozened in a horrible attempt at seductiveness, pulling at her rags to reveal the mottled corpse-flesh of her body beneath… Funny, as abhorrent as this was, the clinical part of your mind had to admit it wasn’t the WORST body you’d ever seen…
 
“Yeah nah.” You declare vehemently, opening the door again and leaving the room, making sure the latch was securely fastened behind you.
 
A soft thump came from the room as you felt your glyph fail, your concentration shot by the whirling revelation of what you had just heard and seen. A scuffling, and then a banging on the door.
 
“Open door-thing pretty-mens!” The Ghoul demanded. “Grek make good-nice touchy, then we eat… maybe Grek no eat pretty-mens when lie still… maybe Grek and pretty-mens make good-nice touchy for long-and-long?”
 
You head back up the stairs, shuddering at the suggestion. You pondered the possibilities. You COULD pull the roof down on that room of horror, but there’s no telling how long it would take for the Ghoul to run out of food. Putrescence clearly wasn’t a hindrance to her, in fact she’d probably appreciate it, and those claws… eventually, though it take a year, a decade, or even a century, the single-minded undead would one day dig her way out. No. Clearly you had to tell someone about this. But who? This changed everything, the monstrosity Ernie was clearly involved in threw the Paladin’s whole case for Crusade straight up into the air, but that didn’t mitigate the heresy of a mutated ghoul being deliberately led to assault a lawful freeman. Shit just got a lot more complicated… You glanced at the ledger still lying where you had left it. The majority of the work was done, it wouldn’t take Connor long to tally the remaining sacks of rice and meal… And it seemed you had an answer to what ‘Giltfleisch’ was now…
 
“Blue?” You called, opening the door to the kitchen. “We’ve got…”
 
You paused, seeing the Kobold and the Quoll locked in what seemed to be a grapple against one of the stone benches of the kitchen. You were about to remonstrate them for fighting again, when you noticed both of them with a paw buried in the other’s crotch, frozen where they stared at you in surprise and chagrin.
 
“Yeah… This is exactly what it looks like…” Riley admits with a rueful grin, Blue blushing flaming crimson.
 
“Well now…” You drawl, grinning at the two mamono caught in flagrante delicto.
 
“W-well boss… I mean… we’re just” Blue stammers, extricating herself from the Quoll’s grip.
 
“Burning off some frustration? Engagin’ in some ‘cultural exchange’? Kissing and making up?”
 
“Bugger! Didn’t even think of that…” Riley muses. “…Hey Kobold, bet I’m a better kisser than you.”
 
“He’s right THERE!” Blue blurts in exasperation, pointing a paw at you.
 
“Reckon he should be the judge? Alright, I mean you’re takin’ a risk with all the Pallies about but I’m game…” Riley shrugs, walking towards you pointedly.
 
A tawny blur shoots past the Quoll, and suddenly Blue is cuddled possessively into your chest. “Myboss.” she harrumphs. Riley laughs mockingly, straightening her clothes.
 
“Silly puppy…” You snicker, rubbing one of Blue’s ears. “…But it’s by the by, we’ve got a bit of an issue.”
 
“What’d you find boss? Where the beer’s coming from?” Blue asks excitedly, staring at you with curiosity (As well as gratitude for an opportunity to change the subject).
 
“Beer? What Beer?” Riley demands.
 
“Y’know, the centaur only beer that Ernie wheeled out to that glorified stable in the back there.” You reply, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the ‘Beer Garden’.
 
“No idea what you’re talking about. If there’s beer I never saw it, and Ernie never told me about it…” Riley declares, scratching her chin with a clawed paw in thought. “…That does explain why he never let Shambles out the back though…”
 
“Shambles?”
 
“That Ovine Null he keeps around for Maou only knows what reason.” Riley groans, rolling her eyes. “Honestly in the year I’ve been working here it’s had to be reminded of the difference between shredded and diced garlic three whole times! Three! Can you believe it?”
 
“Sure it’s frustrating, but nah. I… Found something in the larder.” You explain nebulously.
 
Riley’s eyes go wide. “I swear to Maou it’s just to work off a little frustration at the end of the day! Don’t get the wrong idea! I promise I wash my paws before I prep food!”
 
“What?” You blurt in confusion.
 
“What?” Riley echoes, her sharp-featured face now a mask of innocence.
 
“Whaddaya know about the room behind the shelf?” You demand levelly.
 
“What room? What shelf?” Riley retorts in confusion.
 
“Y’know, yank the wire under the blackroot?”
 
“Blackroot? Blech. I make shambles get stuff from that shelf. Would you believe Ernie keeps…” a pause as the Quoll shudders in revulsion “…VEGEMITE on that shelf?”
 
“Odd… There wasn’t any there when I was double-checking the inventory.”
 
“Horseshit.” Riley scoffs. “There was a whole JAR of the horrid stuff there just last week. Some careless cunt had left the jar cracked, I nearly puked over a basket of good spikerush!”
 
“Well it ain’t there now.” You reply.
 
Riley gives you an incredulous look, pushing past you and storming into the larder. “It… It’s gone! What kind of sick fuck… Wait… What in the Name of Maou…”
 
“Riley! Don’t go down there.” You call warningly, hurrying after the Quoll, Blue close behind you.
 
“Why not?” Riley scoffs. “What could possibly…”
 
You swear softly as the Quoll’s voice goes silent between one word and the next. Entering the larder, you sigh with relief to see her frozen to immobility on the first step, her whole body trembling as she sniffed the air.
 
“Lustmord… So… Heavy!” The Quoll breathes, backing away like a prey-animal who’s caught sight of its hunter, closing the shelf-door. “What the fuck is down there?!”
 
“Bodies, the kind you don’t want to see in a meatlocker. And… A Ghoul. A BIG fuckin’ Ghoul.” You reply. “Y’orright?”
 
“Ghoul? Inside? We’ve got to tell Queen Horsepussy. No Undead in Kalbarri, that’s her rule.” Riley remarks seriously.
 
You bite back a chuckle at the Quoll’s irreverent appellation for the Centaur Matriarch. “Sir Douglas should be told too. I’m pretty sure that Ghoul’s what fucked up Ernie.”
 
“Really? Crap… I had ten silver on a Feral Yowie.” Riley muses in disappointment.
 
“Quolls ain’t exactly in a position to be denouncing Ferals.”
 
“Oi! We don’t cause trouble for no cunt!” Riley retorts angrily.
 
“Yeh, raped travellers notwithstanding.” You drawl.
 
“Rape? Funny, I’ve never heard ‘em say ‘no’…” The Quoll muses.
 
“What?”
 
“What?”
 
“Never mind. Not my stockyard, not my Bungarra.” You groan, pinching the bridge of your nose. “So, the Matriarch…”
 
“I’ll do it boss!” Blue interjects, eager to be helpful, her tail wagging.
 
“I’LL do it.” Riley corrects. “I know Queen Horsepussy. You don’t.”
 
“I can run faster!” Blue retorts in umbrage.
 
“Fat lot of fuck-all good it’s gonna do if that running just gets you chased by Centaur Harridans before y’even get to the main herd.” Riley sniffs. “And they’re shit listeners.”
 
Better head this off before it devolved into another scuffle… at least not without some kind of oil involved… No. Bad Adam.
 
“Pup, you’re gonna leave me here without my good girl’s help?” You ask with mock injury.
 
“Boss! I…” Blue looks up at you with a mixture of surprise and reverence “…You need my help? Really?”
 
“I can almost guarantee it.” You assure the Kobold, patting her head. Blue’s eyes half-shut in sheer bliss at your praise.
 
“Oh Maou… I think I’m gonna be sick.” Riley groans.
 
 
“Oi Connor! Kitchen’s closed.” Riley declares dismissively, heading towards the door of the tavern.
 
“Like hell, it’s almost noon!” The corporal retorts incredulously from the bar “…and where in the Blessed name of Tyris did this beer come from?”
 
“No idea, just found out about it myself…” Riley shrugs, not pausing.
 
“And you expect me to believe that?”
 
“One pair of paws, near on hunnerd plates three times a day during last drove and nothing but a witless Null to help. You do the math, Human!” Riley yells from the door, waving as she closes it behind her.
 
“She can’t just…” Connor seethes.
 
“She’s got bigger problems, Corporal. You were right, something did turn up…”
 
“I’ll say!” Connor chortles, patting the beer kegs. “And if those IMFC prats think that I’m going to save this for the Centaurs they’re in for a rude bloody shock.”
 
“Forget the beer mate!” You interject. “Wait… The PIRATES are bringing up the Centaur-only beer?”
 
“Yeh, some mealy-mouthed porter drags up a hand-cart with the kegs in it, dumps it outside the rear door and goes to walk off… I yell after him and get nothing but ‘Cap’n sez you know’ for me trouble!”
 
“Fuck eh? Well there you go…” You exclaim.
 
“Boss…” Blue prompts, tugging at your wrist.
 
“Too right Blue… Tyris, go telling you to forget the beer then let it distract me…” You groan, smacking yourself in the forehead with an open palm. “…You’ve got an issue in the larder mate. You’ll want someone anointed here pretty quick.”
 
“Fuck you say…” Connor breathes, eyes wide with concern. “…how quick?”
 
“Yesterday, if you follow me.”
 
“Hellspawn?”
 
You shake your head “It’s… a bit of an odd one.”
 
Connor folds his arms across his chest. “Be specific.”
 
“Yeah nah… Shit’s fucked. I’d really prefer to tell Sir Doug…”
 
“Not going to happen, Freeman.” Connor declares. “This Inn is MY charge, and so help me Holy Tyris, I am NOT going to have shit go over my head whilst it remains so.”
 
“You’re sure? You’re not gonna thank me.”
 
“Damn sure. Spill.”
 
You take a deep breath, closing your eyes and holding it for a second, before letting your revelation flow forth in one long exhale. “There’s a hidden room behind a shelf in the larder with a whole bunch of human and mamono corpses in there butchered like yearling Bungas and a bigarse Ghoul who’s been snacking on them for at least a week rough guess… Oh… And I’m pretty sure she’s the one raped Ernie near to death.”
 
Connor’s eyes bulge as he reaches behind the bar, drawing a cruel-looking sabre with a slithering hiss of silvered steel. “Show me.” He orders.
 
“Don’t be a moron!” You hiss, grabbing the man by the sword arm. Without resonance Connor would be nothing but a momentary distraction for the hulking Grek. “She’s a rotting retard like the lot of ‘em, but I wasn’t kidding when I said ‘Big.”
 
“How big?”
 
“Head and shoulders on me? And that’s with her doing that shuffle-slouch thing they do.”
 
“Tyris…” Connor gasps, lowering his sword.
 
“Damn skippy.” You agree.
 
Connor seems to ponder this for a moment. “I’ll go find Sir Douglas…” He accedes, before clearing his throat. “Freemen and assorted Nobs?” He calls in an unpracticed parade-ground bellow “Kindly out. Inn’s closed until otherwise stated.”
 
“Corporal!” a florid, portly trader objects. “This is most irregular!”
 
“Reality’s a Heretic like that. Now if you please…”
 
“I shall do NO such thing.” The Trader harrumphs. “The very idea that I should be subject…”
 
“Any man not out by the time I reach the door will receive a commensurate taste of the fuckin’ knout!” Connor snarls authoritatively, spurring a flurry of activity as tables are abandoned in a mad scramble for the door.
 
“Do you actually have the chops to do that?” You ask quietly as the last of the tavern’s patrons vacates the taproom.
 
“No idea to be honest.” Connor admits. “C’mon Adam, you too.”
 
“Your will, Corporal.” You concede half mockingly, earning you a good natured shove from the soldier as you both exit the tavern. “Want me to come with?”
 
Connor seems to ponder that. “No. Knowing Sir Douglas he’d want answers out of you rightaway, and sod’s law dictates something’d go arse up in the meantime. Rather have him here before he starts playin’ inquisitor.”
 
“Gotcha. So…”
 
“Don’t go too far.” Connor replies nebulously before spotting a mounted patrol of the Faith Militant clopping disinterestedly down the street. “Soldiers! Attend me.” He calls.
 
“Connor?” One of them replies askance, wheeling his horse and riding over with the rest of his squad in tow “What’re you doin’ pretending like…” Suddenly, his eyes fall upon the new Corporal’s rank slides. “Your Orders, Corporal?” he states, straightening in the saddle.
 
“You lads keep watch on those doors. Nothing that doesn’t bear the Livery of Holy Tyris’s anointed goes in or out until me or Sergeant Bennet says otherwise.” Connor orders simply.
 
“You heard the Corporal lads. Dis-MOUNT.” The squad’s leader commands, the soldiers swinging out of their saddles with precision.
 
“Pretty” Blue remarks with a giggle.
 
“Be nice pup.” You murmur, squeezing her paw.
 
“A loan of your mount, squad-leader?” Connor asks, grasping at the bridle of a snorting rowan mare.
 
“Sure thing Corporal. She’s a bit of a witchy old bitch though.” The squad-leader answers with a tight grin. “And congratulations on the promotion.”
 
“Bah, we all know you’re next Shane-o.” Connor chuckles, swinging himself into the saddle, kicking the mare into surprised motion as he gallops up the roughly cobbled street.
 
 
“You sure we should be…” Blue ponders as she follows you up the road.
 
“Well I’m not gonna stand around the damn courtyard like one-o’clock half struck, Blue.” You reply. “Besides, it’s only a couple blocks down the road, and I’ll put fifty silver on us being able to hear His Worship comin’ half a damn mile off.”
 
“No bet.” Blue giggles.
 
You round the corner, to see a handful of freemen in charcoal-stained clothing gingerly clearing the blackened debris from the gutted shell of what was only yesterday the Trade Factor office of your underwriter, Tenno and Goldstein. Directing their labour was the unmistakable form of the Taurean, Ivy, her overripe curves straining and bouncing as she gestured and pointed, her bovine tail lashing behind her.
 
“Now don’t y’all be worryin’ about clearin’ the whole thang, I only need a good path through to the back now, y’hear?”
 
“Where’s that though, Ivy, it’s all over fuckin’ rubble in here.” A freeman demands, wiping charcoal on his already-stained clothing.
 
“I declare, Garret! You kiss your mother with that mouth?” Ivy chides in her westerlandian drawl, placing her hands on her broad hips.
 
“I’m human, Ivy, which one?” ‘Garret’ snickered mockingly. Ivy harrumphing at the man’s retort, before noticing your approach.
 
“Adam! Sugar, ain’t you just a sight for sore eyes… But… Y’aint got my favourite girl with you?”
 
“Oh sure, just ‘cos she’s got wings…” Blue whuffles in an injured tone, folding her paws across her chest sulkingly.
 
“Oh shush now precious girl. You know I ain’t never gonna find someone as cute as you.” Ivy cozens the Kobold, clopping over without missing a beat on digitigrade hooves to smother the Kobold in an expansive hug. Blue’s muffled if self-satisfied chuckle is clearly audible from within the Taurean’s lush cleavage.
 
“You’re a pillar of moral integrity, pup.” You snicker mockingly.
 
“Can’t hear you boss, tits for days.” Blue’s muffled voice replies cheekily. Ivy gives a surprised exclamation and a rather cute blush at that.
 
“So whaddaya need?” You ask the Taurean.
 
“That strong back-o yours, sugar. I’m fixin’ to get our property out the rubble.” Ivy explains simply, extricating the Kobold from her cleavage and gesturing for you to assist the other freemen. You shrug, walking over to where one of the freemen is inspecting a sizeable beam.
 
“You grab that end, I’ll grab this?” You offer.
 
The man glances at you, grunting acceptance. “Name’s Garret.”
 
“Adam.”
 
“Pleasure. Got your end? And two, six… Lift!”
 
With you and the other freemen working in concert, it didn’t take long before a path was cleared into what used to be the rear room of the office.
 
“Balls…” You grumble, looking at the twisted wreckage of what assumedly used to be the farcaster.
 
“Think that’s bad mate? Look at this…” Garret replied in a sinking tone. You looked to where the man was pointing, and felt your stomach twist at the sight of a strongbox busted open, coins glinting dully where they were scattered on the ash-covered ground.
 
“Tyris be Merciful… Ivy?”
 
“Yeah sugar?” Ivy called from the exterior of the structure.
 
“You’ll wanna see this…”
 
“Now what’s got y’all lookin’ like… Oh.” Ivy pauses as she clops up to stand beside you and Garret, your fellow freemen standing frozen with looks of utter horror as they too see the strongbox. As you all stand there in silence, you notice the Taurean shaking with suppressed laughter.
 
“Oh fuck, she’s gone berko…” You sigh.
 
“HAHAHAHAHA! Oh mah stars, y’all should see your faces right now.” Ivy gasps, gripping her stomach as she doubles over with laughter.
 
“Don’t see what’s so fuckin’ funny Ivy. I had a whole share in Utchta Well Holding in there…” Garret snarls.
 
“A-Adam… sugar… Could you pick up one of them li’l ol’coins for me?” Ivy pants, wiping tears from her eyes.
 
You frown in puzzlement, reaching down to grab one of the roughly circular metal discs between your fingers. Strange. It was heavy, but the colour wasn’t gold, but a muted grey. Lead? But lead coins were worthless! Maybe disguised? You scraped a fingernail atop its blackened face, revealing beneath the soot a stamped insignia of a mailed fist, the middle finger extended…
 
…You too began to giggle.
 
“Fuck me, will someone PLEASE tell me what’s going on?!” Another freeman begged.
 
“The coins. They’re fakes.” you explain, relief flooding through you.
 
“Did y’all honestly think we’re stupid enough to keep a good chunk of the wealth of the West Australs somewhere as obvious as a strongbox? Oh treasures, I’m surprised at y’all.” Ivy chides gently. “Now go on now, I’m gonna get the real one, and I ain’t one for givin’ away trade secrets… Go on, git!”
 
Muttering, the freemen began to trudge out of the ruined building, milling about outside, still either suspicious or curious enough not to want to go too far.
 
“What was Ivy giggling at, Boss?” Blue asks, carrying a bucket of water and a towel in her paws and placing it down in front of you.
 
“Makin’ us look dumb, for want of better word. Thanks pup.” You smile gratefuly, reaching out to pat Blue on the head automatically.
 
“Errr…” Blue exclaims, ducking away from your hand “…could you maybe wash all the black off you first boss?”
 
“You are getting soft.” You snicker.
 
“Don’t you want me looking pretty for you, boss?” Blue teases.
 
“You always look pretty to me, Blue.” You reply sincerely.
 
Blue whimpers in happy longing, shifting her weight from paw to paw, “Well c’mon boss, hurry up and wash! I wanna hug now!”
 
 
“Well…” you sigh, towelling your arms roughly, satisfied that the majority of the charcoal had been washed away. “…Good enough?”
 
Blue doesn’t answer, merely launches herself into your arms, clinging tightly to you.
 
“I love you, pup.” You whisper into her hair.
 
“I want you so fucking hard boss…” The Kobold whimpers.
 
“When we get clear of the city…” You purr softly into a tawny ear “…I’m gonna make your ancestors fuckin’ blush.”
 
Blue gives a shuddering moan, her legs trembling beneath her. “M-mean!” She complains.
 
You chuckle, mussing her hair. “C’mon pup, let’s go see if themselves’ve gotten back to the inn.”
 
Blue nods, taking your hand in her paw as you lead her away from the gutted building, the muttering of your fellow freemen, the Taurean’s swearing, and the clanking of some kind of mechanism fading as you turned the block, heading back up the street. As you approached the inn, one of the guards at the front door nods absently in your direction, whether in recognition or simple acknowledgement you couldn’t be sure, his features set in the dull disinterest of the low-ranking soldier content to follow simple instruction.
 
“G’day, Connor and themselves back yet?” You venture amicably.
 
“Nah mate, not yet.” The guard replies.
 
“Ah. No idea as to…” You begin suggestively
 
“You were there when the Corporal rode off, Freeman, you heard what we heard. Sorry to say the Faith Militant doesn’t include mind readin’ as a perk for joinin’.” The guard snickers.
 
“Wouldn’t that be useful.” You chuckle.
 
“You need something, Freeman?” The guard asks in a tone which practically screams his rapidly dwindling patience with your small-talk.
 
You shake your head, catching the hint. “Nah mate. Just wondering if they were back.”
 
“And they’re still not.” The Guard sighs patronizingly.
 
“Yeh, I’m aware… just…” You bluster, before rolling your eyes and simply walking away.
 
“Spirits… He was a friendly sort.” Blue mumbles.
 
You sigh, putting your arm briefly about the Kobold’s shoulders and giving her a squeeze. “Can’t blame him. A person’s the weakest point of resistance into any fortification. Short and blunt makes for a good guard.”
 
“How do you know that Boss? You’re not a soldier.”
 
You ponder that for a moment. “Everybody knows that. It’s in the doctrines of Tyris.”
 
“Really…” Blue remarks “…Where?”
 
“Oh, y’know, towards the back somewhere.”
 
“Are you takin’ the piss Boss?”
 
“Maybe…”
 
Blue gives you a gentle punch, giggling softly. “You’re gonna get in trouble.”
 
“Ah well…” You concede. “…since the inn’s gonna just be awkward, let’s see if we can’t go find Chad and Riv…”
 
“Adam! Blue!” A voice calls, your fellow trader and local Kalbarrian Chad jogging from around the neglected shamble of a ruined house, his indentured Kobold River following easily behind him.
 
“Chad, we were just on our way to find you…” You laugh, waving at the man.
 
“Tyris fuck!” Chad hisses in apparent frustration, gripping your arm and pulling you around the side of yet another derelict building. “Find time to slot me into your busy schedule then? Not like I’ve been TRYING to talk to you for the last two days or anything.”
 
Your eyes go flat as you look down to where Chad’s hand is gripping your forearm with white-knuckled intensity. “Chad… You’re a good bloke, but you seem to be labouring under the assumption I owe you a fuckin’ thing…”
 
“Do you have any idea…” The taller human snarls, putting a finger in your face as he stands over you.
 
“You wanna calm the fuck down, Chad…” You murmur warningly, Blue’s hackles already raising as a bone-shaking growl begins to build in her chest. River steps around you and Chad to face off against her fellow Kobold, her green eyes locked to Blue’s azure.
 
“Don’t you…” Blue snarls
 
“…Touch my Boss!” River slavers
 
“River!” Chad cries in concern, all thought of you seemingly vanished from his mind. “…You’re right… Fuck it… You’re right… It’s just…” He finishes his meandering disengagement with a venomous epithet, kicking an unoffending scrap of tile viciously.
 
“Down Blue.” You order absently.
 
“You too River.” Chad echoes.
 
The Kobolds look at each other for a moment before relaxing. “I’m glad I didn’t have to beat you up.” Blue offers almost hesitantly.
 
“Me too.” River agrees with a shy smile.
 
“Look mate, what’s goin’ on?” you entreat. “What’s the damn drama?”
 
“You are!” Chad blurts exasperatedly. “Tyris be Glorified, I should have had Kaia employ some of those tentacles to pull you out of bed the first night you got here.”
 
“I’d have torn ‘em off her, assuming Feathers didn’t beat me to it…” Blue interjects, placing herself between you and your fellow Trader.
 
“Down Blue.” You remind her, pushing her gently aside, alarm yelling in your mind. What did he know? Who had he spoken to? “I’m just a bloke with a wagon and a Kobie, nothing special about me.”
 
“Really?” Chad snorts. “You know I asked around about you after you didn’t come out of Thealiss… Funny… You’re not famous by any stretch of the imagination, but your name came up in some interesting places. Some merchant prince with no ties to nobility suddenly gets named Lord Baron of Esperance, and guess who’s apparently working for him? You’re seen at one of the most exclusive eating-houses in the West Australs, with not only the head chef, but the former Resonant Counsel to the fucking Dominus drinking with you. Then you’re seen in a mercenary tavern with a Pilbaran Blademistress practically in your ear, then you show up in Boulder, and are seemingly on a first name basis with a Tyris-damn Aesterlandish killing machine!”
 
“Chun-Hua’s not that bad…” You remark absently.
 
“Shut up!” Chad demands. “Because from here I start to REALLY wonder, because Nautilus spent a WHOLE lot of money to make sure Billy didn’t make his payment… Then you show up out of fucking NOWHERE and just buy him out.”
 
You stare incredulously at Chad. “Three hundred percent profit and I’m expected to turn it down?!”
 
“That Caravan was by recommendation only! You shouldn’t have even KNOWN about it! And not only that, you haul hundredweight of raw magical foci dripping with enough mana to turn a man three times over, straight through Warburton Kobold territory, not only without a scratch on you, but with nothing more to show for it than a headache at Leonora. Do you have any idea how many men are buried in those foothills who showed up… less than human?”
 
“But Cally said…” You muse, before trailing off in thought. Cally, your Koala travelling companion for the majority of that trip was a Handmaiden of Hell’s Throne, and by her own admission, had not been completely honest with you. Did she know the risk? Did she rely on the Logos to keep the majority of the corruption from you? Is that why she suddenly started brewing Eucalypt tea every morning?
 
“And then, you VANISH into Thealiss, the very back door of Hell, and come back months later not only completely untouched and untainted, but trailing a kind of Mamono the Wave-Watchers of Nautilus haven’t so much as HEARD of this far south in millennia!” Chad concludes, waving his arms around.
 
“I’ve been one lucky cunt, it would seem.” You admit. “What are you getting at?”
 
“One lucky cunt…” Chad echoes. “…That is the going opinion on you. But me? I’ve got my suspicions. I thought it was smugglers, but I dropped the code-phrase right there on that first day and you didn’t so much as blink.”
 
“Wasn’t really paying attention, only been a couple of folks asked me about discretion since Albany.” You explain.
 
“I find that hard to believe… So here’s what I think. I think you’re working for someone. Someone who’s been feeding you some very tasty morsels. Someone who can be a big help in getting me what I want.”
 
“And that would be…” you prompt, folding your arms across your chest and staring levelly at Chad.
 
“Boss, are we gonna fight? Because me and River are getting real confused here…” Blue interjects.
 
“Yeah.” River agrees, her wavy brunette hair bobbing as she nods.
 
“Not now girls!” You and Chad both order in concert.
 
You and Chad both look at each other, slow smiles creeping onto your faces, and before long you’re both laughing.
 
“I s-supposed I do owe you something of an explanation.” Chad admits.
 
“Better make it quick, I’m not sure how much time we’ve got.” You chuckle.
 
Chad jostles you good-naturedly. “Oh? Gold going to rain from the sky on you or something?”
 
“Hah!” You bark mockingly, “If only Tyris loved me so. No, Sir Douglas and the Matriarch are on their way back to the Inn. I wouldn’t bet against them demanding to know how many beans I had on me fuckin’ plate this morning.”
 
“Why? What happened?”
 
“It’s less ‘Happened’ and more ‘Stumbled into’. There’s some grade-a fuckery in that place and I happened to be the cunt to put his foot in it.”
 
“W-what was it?” Chad asks, suddenly looking very nervous.
“Hang the fuck on…” You declare, backing away from the man and placing a hand on the hilt of your cutlass. “…What do you know about that larder?”
 
“It’s not what you think. Please. Let me explain.” Chad pleads, holding his hands out beseechingly.
 
“Explain shit! There are PEOPLE in there! And that fucking Ghoul almost raped the fuckin’ Inkeep to death!”
 
Chad’s face twists in confusion. “Ghoul? What Ghoul?”
 
You nod slowly. “Right… Think you better start talking.”
 
“Do you know what a ‘Fleshmarket’ is?”
 
“No.”
 
“Well that explains a lot… Tyris Fuck! Why couldn’t you have come seen me first…” Chad laments.
 
“Less bitching, more explaining.” You demand.
 
“Look, do you know why Maritime Law overrides the Pax?”
 
“Because the IMFC are shifty cunts who dangle their nuts on the knife-edge of Heresy for fun?”
 
Chad shakes his head. “No… Well… Alright maybe, but the real reason is because in the sea, everything and everyone is food for something… or someone else… They don’t have the niceties we enjoy here on land. Some Mamono, they… they aren’t just obligate Carnivores… they have… a need.”
 
Your head turns helplessly to your Kobold. “Blue?”
 
Blue looks at you with sorrowful eyes as she slowly nods. “I wish it wasn’t true boss… But… Yeah. There are some… We hate it, but they are what they are.”
 
“Oh Tyris… I think I’m gonna be sick.” You gulp. “H-how do you know this?”
 
“Because of who I am.” Chad sighs. “When I told you I was in the line of succession, I never told you how close. My father was Landholder of Gilgai, it’s true, but he was also the Baron’s little brother. We… Nautilus was all we had. The IMFC wanted concessions the Baron wouldn’t give, Tenno and Goldstein had no interest in us… So we made… Agreements.”
 
“You let them kill, and store the corpses in the fucking basement of your inn.”
 
“It was a Mamono Hostel before House Kalbarri fell, you’ve got to understand!” Chad pleads. “Humans were never involved! And the… stock… They were criminals! Raiders! Tyris, Ferals! How many bodies do the waylanders just leave to ghouls and scavengers in a month? We never murdered… We never murdered.”
 
“We…” You echo.
 
“You really don’t know what happened to Kalbarri…” Chad notes in a cynical tone. “…We were… not loyal to the Pax. The Baron’s family, I mean. You already know River and I share a father… What you don’t know is that she’s of the Murchison tribes. Dad… had an understanding with them, which is why she stayed with us. Dad couldn’t see his daughter live the life of a fugitive, declared Feral by the Council for no other reason than Politics.”
 
“The Faith Militant… Did they…” You ask in a sick tone.
 
“No, thank Tyris.” Chad declares, “He fled to the tribes… If Tyris be good he’s still there now, somewhere in the desert, with his Kobold… I probably have a dozen sisters by now.”
 
“There are worse exiles…” You admit, feeling your eyes drawn to Blue, who looks back at you, her expression unreadable. “…Still, that doesn’t explain the Baron… How did Kalbarri fall?”
 
“The Baron was close with the Gorge-Runners… I guess that’s the irony of this whole thing. The Matriarch? She’s the Baron’s daughter. Demanded to be acknowledged when she ascended to leadership of the Centaur, for the Baron to name Her his heir. Justin wouldn’t hear of it, he denounced his own father in public. You know the prohibition, it was Heresy… As the Baron burned, The Gorge-Runners sacked the city in retaliation.”
 
“So here we are…” You sigh, your mind awash. “…Still doesn’t explain why you need me, or what the hell for, or why the fact the faith militant know about this ‘Fleshmarket’ monstrosity makes a pile of fuck difference… And I’ll never apologize for that, by the way…”
 
“I understand. You did what any sane person would do in your position.” Chad assures you “The problem there is, if the Faith Militant find out it was a Nautilus operation… Well…”
 
“Well what?”
 
“Best case scenario I find a coin pouch on my bedside table tomorrow morning, and my financial backers nowhere to be found west of House Darwin… if they remain in the Australs at all.”
 
“And worst?”
 
“I wake up at the bottom of an ocean trench with a rock tied to my legs, or in the belly of a Leviathan.”
 
“Fuck… Why take the risk? I mean I won’t pretend T&G aren’t sketchy at times, and fucked if they’ll ever give me the whole truth without bendin’ em over a fuckin barrel, but… death?”
 
“How do I take back the Barony without them?” Chad demands desperately. “I need coin. Kalbarri’s failing. Hard, and that’s without everyone dumping trash on us from every angle. Did you know someone’s fucking with the Faith Militant’s supply lines?”
 
“I did catch something about that.” You admit.
 
“Yeah well, The Matriarch will capitulate given enough pressure… But someone ELSE has been keeping the Centaurs mollified with a bottomless supply of free beer.”
 
“IMFC”
 
Chad blinks in surprise, “You’re kidding.”
 
“Nope, pretty much had it confirmed this morning. Funny thing is if I hadn’t been helping Connor with the inventory, he probably never would have seen the drop… Ernie was in on that, mind you.”
 
“Course he was, there wasn’t a man or Mamono in Kalbarri didn’t have something on that deviant.” Chad snorts.
 
“Eh?” You exclaim.
 
“Oh yeah, big fan of buggery that lad. Surprised he didn’t whistle while he walked.”
 
Your face twists with distaste, but then you shrug. “Eh… His business really, long as he did Continuance.”
 
“Still… That’s the last of that. One word to the Directors and the seas around here are gonna start getting a bit more dicey for the fucking pirates.”
 
“That’s only going to accelerate the trouble.”
 
“What, do you WANT a ‘free’ city smack-dab in the middle of the nor-west trade corridor? With Lancelin lost to the Matango we may as well just tell the Dominus to surrender half the fucking Australs!”
 
“Don’t think he’d listen.” You chuckle.
 
“Be serious.” Chad scoffs, before sighing and shaking his head. “But now? With Sir Douglas practically threatening a Crusade in public if things don’t get back to normal, Justin’s only direct command of a legion away from just walking straight into the title he burned his own father to get.”
 
“Take it that would be a bad thing…” You venture.
 
“Apart from all the restless ghosts that would start turning in their graves in outrage, yeah. He’s a barely competent administrator. Don’t mean to blow my own trumpet here but I could have this Barony churning out twice as much in half the time as he could.”
 
“Seems to do alright in the Faith Militant.”
 
“Pfft. Officers. You ever seen ‘em work a day? Because I haven’t.” Chad snorts mockingly.
 
“Still don’t understand what any of this has to do with me.” You prompt.
 
“Originally? I was going to ask you to hook me up with whoever it is you’re working for. I know the Tenno and Goldstein thing’s a front, they’ve got nothing on you, Tyris, you’re even a creditor.”
 
“That’s supposed to be private.” You grumble.
 
“Ivy’s a talker when she’s been drinking, and after you went to bed I plied her a little with a good westerlandian red to remind her of home.”
 
“…Or she was just telling you what she wanted you to hear…”
 
“C’mon Adz, a Westerlander Cow? That’s a bit paranoid…” Chad scoffs.
 
“Yeh well… Anyway. You’re well off the mark with me, but let’s pretend you’re not because Tyris in His Heavens, the truth is way too complicated to get into.”
 
“Of course…” Chad smiles knowingly.
 
“I can pretty much guarantee I won’t be able to stop what’s in motion, but I’m pretty confident that anything that does go down once they get here’s gonna hinge pretty heavy on what I tell them. With that in mind, just in theory, what shouldn’t I tell them?”
 
“Well what do they think now?” Chad replies questioningly.
 
“At a guess? Ernie’s a murderer and the Ghoul’s a fluke, a Mutant that got lucky.”
 
“Tyris… They’ll probably burn.”
 
“Maybe… The Matriarch…”
 
“No, she won’t stick her neck out when she’s already this extended, especially not for a scavenger. She HATES undead.”
 
“Spotted that too.” You agree with a sigh. “But, if it’s as you say, Ernie didn’t really have a choice, and there’s no evidence he killed anyone. Not to mention the Ghoul told me she was led here.”
 
“You spoke to it?!” Chad gasps disbelievingly.
 
“Yeh… So me keeping my mouth shut means the real culprits get away…”
 
“I told you, there was no murder…”
 
“But for them to believe it, I’d have to implicate Nautilus… And what proof do I have except what you’ve told me?”
 
“Tyris, why don’t you just cut open my throat right here and save the time?!” Chad hisses incredulously.
 
You shake your head. “Not gonna happen… But you see where you’ve put me here… Might have been better if you never spoke to me at all.”
 
“Maybe… Still… It was that or watch Justin take the barony, or the IMFC just steal the whole thing out from under the Dominus.”
 
“I get it.” You concede, shaking your head helplessly. “Cunt’s fucked.”
 
“Cunt’s fucked.” Chad agrees.
 
A screech sounds above you, and Bella’s massive wings kick up swirls of dust as she daintily lands on the cobbles near you.
 
“Fair greetings to thee… Adam, the Faith Militant hath arrived, yea, and the Matriarch with her entourage… Verily, they would have words with thee anon.”
 
“Thanks Bella.” You sigh, stroking the Griffon’s wing absently in greeting. River peeked out from where she had hid herself behind Chad at Bella’s entrance, both of them looking up at her in awe.
 
“Wow.” River exclaims.
 
“Feathers! Meet my friends!” Blue begs excitedly, pulling Bella’s talon.
 
“Go.” she mouths at you, her expression serious for a split second before resuming its mask of mindless exuberance.
 
What could you do? You went…
 
 
“Citizens of the Australs!” Sir Douglas’s voice booms “Witness me!”
 
A crowd was gathering, slowly but surely, and between one instant and the next it seemed the entire region had squeezed itself into the courtyard before the inn. You pressed yourself through the crowd, heading towards the rude plinth the soldiery were constructing. With a sick feeling in your stomach, you noticed two poles being erected, brush and wood being piled around their bases.
 
“Bear ye witness to the dread price of breaching the Holy Pax. But let it not be said that the Faithful of the Most High Tyris are absent their loyalty to His Divine Law. We thank Matriarch Neisha for her attendance, representing the Honoured Council of Matriarchs.” The Paladin continued, bending forward at the waist towards where a striking Centaur stood proudly, flanked by spear-wielding guards, her long hair and flanks a gorgeous shade of autumn brown.
 
The Matriarch returned the half-bow, before looking over the gathered crowd of Humans and Mamono. “As Maou gives us strength, Clan Gorge-Runner will always honour its duties to The Pax and to The Council, as is our RIGHTFUL burden.”
 
You couldn’t help but notice the emphasis, and from the muttering around you, it seemed you weren’t the only one.
 
“Does the recorder stand ready?” High Priestess Kathleen asked in a calm, clear voice.
 
“Yes… Um… I think… Yes Your Reverence! Wait… No… No…” A flustered priestess stammered, fiddling with an intricate device.
 
“Oh Maou’s ample bosom…” an arachne lamented from the crowd, before skittering up to where the priestess sat before the device. The priestess shrieked, starting to her feet and backing away from the spider woman. “…If I may, Kathleen?” the Arachne asked conversationally, gesturing to the device.
 
“Thank you Anthea.” the High Priestess smiled graciously.
 
“Sending a human to do a Spider’s job… go on girl, out of my way!” The Arachne demanded, sending the priestess bolting to huddle behind a gathering of other veiled neonates. Placing a number of pointed, carapaced legs atop varied buttons, she began depressing them seemingly at random, a spool of paper beginning to spill from the top.
 
“When you’re ready.”
 
“Such disrespect!” Sir Justin spat in outrage.
 
“Disregard that last.” Kathleen declared. “Down, Justin.” She ordered simply.
 
“Reverence.” Anthea replied, her multiple ebon eyes glittering as she smirked at the chided Paladin.
 
“This will be an Inquisiton on record. Sir Douglas, you may begin.” The High Priestess commanded.
 
“Your Reverence.” Sir Douglas acknowledged, before turning to the inn door. “Bring forth the Ghoul.”
 
Two guards opened the doors of the inn, and you spied a struggling within as a group of soldiers bodily hauled at the hulking frame of Grek, who slathered and struggled against her bonds.
 
“Tyris, she’s strong!” One of them grunted
 
“Look out! She’s gonna…” Another warned as a filthy talon broke free, lashing about her as her mantrap maw snapped and snarled. Sir Douglas narrowed his eyes, storming towards the soldiers, the glowing aura of the Benedictus blazing to light around him as he grabbed the chain.
 
“No!” Grek shrieked, shrinking away from the Paladin in sheer terror. “No bright-burny! No bright-burny! Grek good say no more again!”
 
“Then quit babbling and get out here like a thinking being, you stench.” Douglas snarled in a fearsome tone.
 
Something about Grek’s words… Bright-burny… it tickled your memory… if you could just put a finger on it…
 
Grek retracted both talon and jaws, looking once again almost human, her corpselike hue notwithstanding, as she obediently followed the Paladin who held her chain.
 
“You stand accused of Heresy most dire. Of wilful and egregious assault and corruption of a freeman of the Australs.” Douglas boomed. “Have you a challenge to this denouncement?”
 
“Grek no know big-talky words.” The Ghoul replied simply.
 
“Did you rape the innkeeper, you stinking corpse-eater?” a helpful voice from the crowd yelled.
 
“Pretty-man come into man-cave thingy. Other-mouth hungry from lot-and-lot demon-flesh. Yum yum.” The Ghoul explained ingenuously.
 
A cry of revulsion spread across the crowd, along with cries of “Heresy!” and “Burn it!”
 
“Will you accept that as an admission?” Douglas asked.
 
“I’d like something a little more… solid.” Matriarch Neisha interjected “For the sake of clarity, you understand.”
 
“Understood. Corporal Connor?”
 
“Your Worship?” The Corporal called from where he stood with the other soldiers, coming to attention and saluting sharply.
 
“Did she do it?”
 
“She confessed, aye.”
 
“You heard it with your own ears?”
 
“Well, no…” Connor admitted, “Adam was the one who actually spoke to her…”
 
“Freeman Adam?” Sir Douglas bellowed “By Tyris you’d better be here somewhere…”
 
You exhaled resignedly. “Here we go… Yes, Your Worship!” You called over the crowd.
 
“Geddere.” Douglas demanded.
 
You pushed your way forward obediently, spying Blue, River, Bella and Chad as you moved through the crowd, the human glancing suspiciously at your Kobold. Blue gave you a small, almost imperceptible shrug as if to say ‘I did what I could.’
 
“Good girl, pup.” you murmured, squeezing her paw briefly as you passed. Nice of her to try and give you the opportunity to testify without Chad potentially interfering… shame it didn’t work.
 
“Did this Ghoul confess to Raping Ernie?” Douglas grates shortly, looking only slightly world-endingly intimidating as his steel-grey eyes bore into you.
 
“She did, Your Worship… But…”
 
“But?”
 
“She said she was led there. I think someone lured her here deliberately, knowing she’d be overwhelmed.”
 
The Paladin peers at you thoughtfully. “That a fact? Had a good little chat did we?”
 
“Hullo Pretty-mans.” Grek grates almost conversationally and for a moment your heart sinks for the Ghoul. She really had no idea the depth of shit she was in right now. “Pretty-mans no-ground Grek. Him talky-talky long-and-long.” She tells Douglas as if discussing nothing more important than the weather. “Why no stay pretty-mans?”
 
“Shaddup Ghoul.” Douglas growls. “Well? Is he right? Were you led here?”
 
“Follow mens. Uh-huh. Mens show for lot-and-lot. Grek no ever see lot-and-lot like that. Grek go now? Back to lot-and-lot?”
 
A yank at the chain, a widening of fearful corpse-eyes. “Who showed you?”
 
“Mens! Am tell! Mens show Grek!”
 
“Which Men?”
 
“Mens one mens mens long-and-long here-place when big-wally up.” Grek lamented.
 
“It’s talking nonsense…” The Matriarch scoffed “…I’m satisfied. It did it. That’s enough, let’s not give substance to formless shadows unnecessarily.”
 
“Something bothers me…” Douglas admitted “…Freeman, do you have anything else?”
 
“Maybe…” You admit honestly. “…But I can’t quite put my finger on it.”
 
“Well while you pick your fucking navel thinking about it, we’ll get on with it. Bring forth the contaminated.”
 
Contaminated? He couldn’t be talking about Ernie, could he? The Paladin had treated the man almost like a little brother when he had treated him the previous night, this was a completely different attitude… And why were they bringing out a succubus dressed in mismatched priestess robes? Strange, she looked a little odd for a succubus, her hair was much shorter than those you had seen in Thealiss, and she looked… skinny… tomboyish… what in the name of Tyris…
 
And then, as you heard the cries of horror from the crowd… You understood.
 
“Oh Tyris…” You groan in a sick voice “…He… Alped.”
 
“Fucking shit rotting bitch!” The Alp who used to be Ernie shrieked in a horrifyingly feminine voice. “You fucking killed me! You killed me! Oh… Ohhhh… The heat… I-I can’t…” she wailed, before taking a long inhale and turning to the soldier next to her with smouldering eyes.
 
“You smell so fucking good…” She purred, licking her lips in arousal.
 
“Tyris!” The soldier cried in revulsion, drawing back a mailed fist to strike the Alp.
 
“Stay your hand soldier…” Sir Douglas ordered. “…Priestesses, I pray you get that thing back under control.”
 
“Thing?!” The alp objected “It’s me, Sir Douglas! It’s… me…”
 
The Alp’s objection faded away as golden light effused from the outstretched hands of the priestesses who still stood well back from the Alp and her escort… Understandably, with this example of the fruits of corruption made flesh before them. The Alp seemed almost entranced by the light playing around it.
 
“Yes. Thing.” Douglas spat. “You, Once-Freeman Ernie of House Kalbarri, stand accused of Foul Monstrosity, Vile Murder and Defilement. You have surrendered your Humanity and stand damned. Do you challenge?
 
“What’s it matter?” The Alp sighed, “I’m dead either way.”
 
“If you have testimony which could explain the… Horror… found beneath this inn, perhaps it could be seen fit to exile you to Thealiss…” Matriarch Neisha offered.
 
“You don’t understand, Neisha… You never understood… And now Kalbarri’s a rotting ruin because you STILL don’t understand!” The alp laughed, sounding almost drunk from her entrancement.
 
“How DARE… On second thoughts, Burn that one too…” Matriarch Neisha demands, her hooves loud on the ground where she near-danced in outrage.
 
“Matriarch!” Bella’s voice rings out, “Hast thou no heart for thy people?”
 
“Do I look like a Ghoul, Griffon? Do I look like an Alp?” Neisha seethes. “I rule here! And I will not be insulted by wastes such as these!”
 
“Certes…” Bella replies, her voice thick with sorrow and disappointment.
 
“Strike that last?” The Arachne asked from where she paused behind the contraption.
 
High Priestess Kathleen looked at the Centaur Matriarch for a moment. “No.”
 
“Well Freeman? Enlightenment kicked you in the bunyas yet?” Douglas demands impatiently.
 
Bright-burny… bright-burny… when she said it to Douglas… Oh… Oh Tyris… It couldn’t have been a Paladin… Could it?
 

“Yes. Your Worship.” You venture, clearing your throat as your voice cracks from nerves. “When Grek was telling me about the man who led her here, she used the phrase ‘Bright-Burny’. She used the same phrase to describe you calling on the Holy Blessing of the Benedictus.”

“You impugning me here, Freeman?” Douglas demands.

You shake your head vehemently. “No, Your Worship… At least, not you specifically, but I think she was talking about a Paladin.”

“A weighty denunciation…Who?”

“I have no proof of anyone specific, Your Worship.”

“Vagary…” Matriarch Neisha snorts mockingly.

“Hast thou known a Ghoul to lie, Matriarch?” Bella accuses.

“Who appointed you a special prosecutor, Outlander?” Neisha scoffs in reply.

“Oi! That’s off value! Lady Bella here fought the fire, askin’ nothin’ in return, didn’t see you and yours rushin’ to help… Matriarch.” A human interjects loudly. A rumble of affirmation ripples throughout the crowd.

“SHADDAP!” Sir Douglas snarls menacingly, silencing the crowd. “That will fuckin’ DO with the unprompted additions from the peanut gallery… regardless of the gallantry of the speaker.” he continued, looking at Bella pointedly. The Griffon looks down at her leonine paws, intimidated by the Paladin’s glare. “…Still, she raises a good point. Ghouls are too stupid to lie.”

A yowl of umbrage from Grek at that, silenced by a casual cuff from Douglas’s mailed fist. “Doesn’t mean they’re always right either. Still… Can’t hurt to ask. Oi. Ghoul. What’s Bright-Burny?”

“Hurt! Hurt-scared! Bright-burny from angry-sun-god-thing-mens. No-again bright-burny! Grek make good-nice! No-again!”

“Angry-Sun-God-Thing-Mens… I wonder if we can work that into a canticle somewhere…” Kathleen murmurs in mild amusement.

“Blasphemy!” Justin decries, and a worrying number of affirmative murmurs ripples from the crowd.

“Challenge.” Douglas growls. “Does she SOUND like she’s capable of complex fuckin’ speech?”

“All know the name of Holy Tyris!” Justin declares imperiously.

“Now, true… but don’t forget that His Doctrines command; ‘Be thou not incensed if the righteous claim to know Me by another name afore My Word be given unto them, but let thy tutelage be of gentle encouragement, that My True Name be known to them in due course.’ This is the Word of The God.” Kathleen corrects the Paladin.

Automatically, you raise your hands in the sign of the sunburst. “All Glory to the Most High” ripples across the gathered Humans.

“I’d say that counts as ‘Without Merit’.” Douglas remarks. “Do you spend so much time bullying the lowborn you forget what comes out yer mouth, Justin?”

Justin glowers, but says nothing.

“Well, I was suspicious before. Now I’m halfway to convinced. How many of the Anointed are in attendance?” Douglas asks.

“Brothers Mark and David are absent with fever, Sir Douglas.” A Paladin you didn’t recognise replied. “Both have cloistered themselves without healing, suffering the illness as penance. All others are accounted for.”

“You know… there is such a thing as excessive fuckin’ piety…” Douglas grumbles.

“Also such a thing as an immune system.” Kathleen interjects “And it is known to be found wanting if not adequately stimulated.”

“Not the time, Your Reverence.” Douglas grunts. “Orright. How long they been out?”

The unknown Paladin ponders that. “Day before yesterday?”

“Both of ‘em?”

“David first, but they were both on that coast run where the tide caught them napping. It was a long, cold night.”

“…You know maybe penance is deserved for being dumbarses.” Douglas muses. “How long were you down there, Ghoul?”

“Long-and-long.” Grek replies.

Douglas puts his face into his mailed hand in desperation. “The God be gracious… Freeman, how long’s stinky here been in that basement?”

You ponder that for a moment, before turning to the crowd. “Hey Riley, you here?”

“If you try and pin this on me I’ll claw your face onto the back of your head, Trader.” The Quoll’s voice rings out from somewhere in the crowd. “And you’ll never see me coming.”

“Tyris be Merciful, was just gonna ask if you were sure it was a week ago you saw the vegemite!” You groan.

“Oh. Well. Yeh, to the day.” Riley admits.

“You sure?”

“Who do you take me for, Shambles?”

“Leave off the Null, Riley!” Connor calls from where he stands with the soldiers.

“If I have to tell folks to shut it again, I’m gonna start collecting tongues.” Douglas snarls. “Freeman, you don’t call others unless Her Reverence tells you s’orright first. Understand?”

“Thank you, Sir Douglas.” Kathleen replies with a gracious inclination of her wimpled head.

“Sorry Your Worship, Your Reverence…” You apologize sincerely “…But to answer your question, a week at most.”

“How do you know?”

“Because neither the Cook or her Assistant would have touched the vegemite, and it wasn’t there when I went into the larder.”

“And what, pray tell, were you doing in the Larder, Adam?” Justin asked suspiciously.

“Counting parsnips and spikerush, Captain Justin.” You reply evenly, was this fucker trying to pin this on you? “Corporal Connor… conscripted my assistance. Apparently there was a bit to-do with his ability to get fresh supplies if your Quartermaster wasn’t satisfied with the existing stocktake.”

“Corporal? Quartermaster? This true?”

“Yessir!” Connor answers quickly, straightening to attention.

“That is the… spirit of my instruction, if not the EXACT wording…” The Quartermaster clarifies, looking between Sergeant Bennet and Connor with a look of slight irritation. The Sergeant had the good grace to look somewhat abashed. Clearly some florid exaggeration of the situation had occurred somewhere along the chain of command.

“Right…” Douglas mused. “…So. A week. I’m safe to say all Anointed are suspect?”

“Sir Douglas! Surely you’re not taking this… Dead… THING at her word?!” The Paladin exclaimed in objection.

“Why not? Simple matter really. “Oi Ghoul. Do you see who led you here?”

Grek shakes her head. “No see. Bright-burny bad-make ouch in eyeses. Just know mans.”

“Well piss.” Douglas curses. “Orright, so we confess all the Anointed here, and if we’re all clear, we stick the ghoul in a hole somewhere until we can confess the others. Drop a dead horse in there with her, keep her outta mischief.”

Grek made a slathering noise of anticipation at the prospect, ignoring the widespread sounds of revulsion from the gathered crowd.

“To be put to Confession on the word of THAT though?”

“Humility’s good for the soul, Brother Stefan. Now, since I’m already talking to you…”

“Y-you want to confess… me first?”

“Why? Nervous?”

“…yes.” The paladin admitted with a look of ashamed chagrin.

“Well there you are then!” Justin declared. “He admits it!”

“No! What? Justin, why in the name of Tyris…” Stefan exclaimed in horrified shock.

“I asked him if he was nervous, Justin, not if he did it…” Douglas replies evenly. “…and no Stefan, I’m not confessing you first. You will be confessing me.”

“You?”

“What man claims righteousness if he is not willing to drink of the cup he offers to others?”

“As you will, Sir Douglas…” Stefan concedes, walking over to his fellow paladin. Swallowing, he raises his hand, palm outwards “…Kneel and be Confessed.”

Without hesitation, Douglas kneels, Stefan placing his hand atop the Paladin’s head. The Glow of the Benedictus suffuses both men, and Douglas gives a grimace of discomfort.

“Hast thou guilty knowledge of this Ghoul before thee?” Stefan intones formally.

“I do not.” Douglas declares clearly.

“The Blessing of The God speaks to the truth of thy statement. Thy thoughts are made clear unto me and thy soul is free of guilt.” Stefan concludes.

“I KNEW I saw an extra card in your hand last week…” Stefan hisses in a barely audible whisper.

“Later, dumbshit.” Douglas retorts in a likewise hushed tone.

Oh Tyris… Tonight was going to be interesting…

“This is pointless!” Justin declares as yet another Paladin rises with a sheepish expression. The dour look on his confessor’s face spoke to yet another conversation to be had after this business had concluded, however. “…Nothing but minor infractions, nothing even with a hint of malice.”

“I notice you have not been Confessed, Justin.” Douglas remarks.

“I’m sure I have.” The Paladin blusters.

“And I’m sure you haven’t.”

“Do you denounce me?” Justin demanded, fronting up to his fellow Paladin.

“Confess then, and if I’m wrong I shall do penance.” Douglas replied evenly.

Justin’s face twisted, as if he had just eaten something foul… then, between one moment and the next, he bolted, shoving his way through the crowd.

“Seize him!” Douglas ordered.

Justin chanted a short phrase, and the light of the Benedictus erupted around him, causing those around to shield their eyes and stymying their efforts to grab the fleeing captain.

“Your Reverence?” Douglas growled, looking expectantly at the High Priestess.

“The light… I can’t see him, there’s too much of a risk that I’ll hurt someone else!” Kathleen replied, grimacing in outrage and frustration. Truth be told you sympathised, Justin was little more than an intensely bright shape making his way steadily towards the outlying derelict buildings. You couldn’t even begin to try and focus a glyph on him. You realized with a sinking heart that once he was in that maze of ruins, finding him would be even more difficult.

A shriek resounded throughout the courtyard, and a winged shape launched itself at the light, tumbling over and over as the two collided. As the struggling subsided, you saw Bella, talons firmly around Justin’s arms and shoulders, pinning him to the earth as the light around him faded, her eyes squeezed shut.

“Thank you Bella, Stand him up please.” Kathleen asked in an almost conversational tone.

Still with her eyes closed, Bella forced the man upright, and you sensed a stream of resonant glyphs being cast, expertly woven by the High Priestess. Justin shrieked, pulled in two directions as the glyphs warred with Bella’s iron grip.

“Let him go, Griffon, that’s Her Reverence.” Douglas yelled across the courtyard, before turning his head towards the gathered soldiers. “Secure Captain Justin, if you please Sergeant.”

“Aye sir! Second squad, penal detail!” Sergeant Bennet commanded. The Griffon released the man with a sigh, then opened her eyes… and screamed.

“Adam! Blue! Prithee! Help me! I cannot see!” She cried in utter terror.

“Oh Tyris…” you moaned, rushing towards her, pushing your way through the crowd, and coming to a pause in amazement. A group of humans had quickly made their way to her and with soft words and gentle encouragement, were guiding her back towards the inn.

“C’mon Lady Bella, your mates’ve got you…” One murmured.

“Argh!” Another man cried as Bella stumbled, mashing his ankle beneath her leonine paw. “Don’t stress Lady Bella, s’just a leg, I’ve got another’n.” He assured her with a friendly pat to the shoulder before limping away with a grimace.

“Bella!” You gasp, taking the Griffon’s talon in your own and putting it to your face without thought for the razor-sharp claws it was tipped with. “I’m here. You’re alright.”

“M-maou… I am blind!” The Griffon sobbed.

“Shhh…” High Priestess Kathleen interjected soothingly, having somehow appeared next to you. “…Let me see.”

“She’s Mamono, your reverence.” You mentioned as Kathleen pulls down one of Bella’s lower lids, peering at the gold-irised eye beneath

“Aren’t you a clever lad, Adam? I spotted that too.” Kathleen murmurs mockingly.

“What I mean is…”

“…Am I going to know what I’m looking for? An eye’s an eye, Adam, there’s not much difference to the way they work, regardless of species.” And then, in a near whisper. “If you spent any time in Magisterium, you’d understand this.”

That hit you. How MUCH beyond your understanding was mere child’s play to trained Resonants? Suddenly you did feel very inexperienced.

“Someone fetch a warm washcloth and some essences of Aloe, Witch Hazel, and Peppermint.” Kathleen commands the gathered priestesses. One bows and departs, and Kathleen turns to another. “Sister Sarah, you will tend to Bella here. The washcloth is to be changed hourly.”

“W-wilt I see again, Your Reverence?” Bella asks in a small, timid voice.

“You’ll be seeing just fine by tomorrow, but it’s going to start itching like the dickens in about fifteen minutes. That’s what the washcloth’s for.” Kathleen assures her.

“A Miracle! Praise Tyris!” A nearby human declares.

“Praise to the Most High indeed, but I do believe we were in the middle of something.” Kathleen reminds the gathered crowd, leaving Bella in the veiled Priestess’s care.

“Indeed.” Douglas agrees, turning to the struggling Justin, clasped in irons and the ungentle hands of a group of Faith Militant soldiers. “Will you Confess willingly or am I going to have to force you?”

“I did it.” Justin snarls “I led that rotting thing here. But only to expose the corruption that has been allowed to stand within Kalbarri! We have been found wanting, my brother Paladins. We have allowed unseemly tolerance to stay our hands from righteous act…”

Justin’s preaching is cut short by Sir Douglas’s mailed fist coshing him firmly in the mouth. “You’ll have the chance to challenge soon enough. Now. To the other.”

“What’s left to tell?” Matriarch Neisha scoffs. “The Alp has nothing more to say.”

“Pardon, Your Worship, Matriarch… Ernie was no murderer.” You interject, stepping forward once again.

“Maou’s ample Bosom, what NOW, human?” The Matriarch whinnied in exasperation.

“I’m given to understand the bodies were those of Criminals and Ferals, duly convicted.”

“That can be investigated, but they were butchered for FOOD, Freeman.” Douglas growls, “How do you explain that?”

“And what was being fed, your Worship? I don’t know, but how often do Waylanders leave those selfsame corpses for Ghouls, Bungarra and scavengers?” You reply “Abhorrent as the… preparation is, is there really any difference?”

“It’s still unlawful defilement, which is still Heresy.” Kathleen explained. “Although, the complexity of ‘why’ does lead me to further curiosity. How does this exonerate the Alp?”

“Because I believe that apart from running an inn atop it and putting the prepared ‘meat’ in storage, Ernie didn’t have anything to do with its administration.” You explain.

“You’re mad, Trader! They’ll kill you!” The Alp shrieked.

“Prove me wrong then. Please. I can only look like an idiot, and I’m kinda used to that.” You retort with a wry grin.

“How do you know this, Freeman?” Douglas demanded

“Because all the funds were funneled through Nautilus Futures, and purchases of ‘Giltfleisch’ were only ever paid with Nautilus notes. It’s right there in the stock ledgers, he was audited, frequently, from the looks of things, and did his best to obfuscate the figures, but as me dad taught me, numbers don’t lie. Ernie was nothing more than a middleman, and I think the Alp’s reaction speaks louder than any other testimony to the fact he didn’t have a choice as a human.” You explain, ticking the points off on your fingers.

“Well fuck me backwards, what do you expect me to do with that, Freeman?” Douglas demands, “Line up every Mer, Kraken, and Trader associated with Nautilus until I find someone willing to take ownership of this horror?”

You shrug, “It’s your Inquisition, Y’Worship, but youse already stayed the Ghoul’s execution due to coercion. Figured the same should apply for the Alp, especially since as she says, her life as ‘Ernie’ is pretty much shot as is.”

“Fair.” Douglas concedes, before turning to the Alp. “Give me a name and I’ll exonerate you, absolve you of all sins, fete you as a fucking hero.”

The Alp shakes her head sadly.

“Anybody else?” Douglas booms, panning his steely gaze about the gathered crowd. Silence was his only answer.

“Pity. Reverence?”

“As it stands the sins not mitigated by coercion are largely secular… On the middling to serious side, but absolvable by corporal punishment.” Kathleen explains with a frightening casualness.

“Bah… New Alp? She’d be dead within a week if we flogged her, or back up here for rape. Exile.” Douglas declares.

“Agreed.” Kathleen nods, “Matriarch Neisha?”

“What do I care? She’s not my problem.” the Centaur snorts dismissively, flicking her tail absently.

“Matriarch, as a Mamono, regardless of how she got to that point, she sort of is.” Kathleen corrected in that deceptively sweet tone that sent crawlers up and down your spine, despite the fact it wasn’t aimed at you.

“Urgh. Fine. Exile.” Neisha groans, rolling her eyes and pointing off towards the west. “Thealiss is thataway. Get moving, Alp.”

“I’m just to cross the desert with just the clothes on my back? I’d rather you just killed me now if it’s all the same to you, I’ve seen men die from exposure and burning’s quicker.” The Alp scoffs cynically.

“Indeed, it would behoove you to supply enough for her to at least GET to her destination, Matriarch?” Kathleen adds, a touch of steel beneath the sweetness

“Why am I shelling out? She’s not Gorge-Runner.” The Matriarch objects.

“I refer you to my previous statement.” Kathleen smiles, her eyes growing flintier by the moment.

“Sky-horde… it never ends with you two-legs… Fine. Seline, see it done.” The Matriarch waves presumptively.

“At once, Matriarch.” The Stablemistress replies obediently, extending a foreleg and bowing deeply.

“Now… Justin.” Douglas began, turning once again to the restrained Paladin as the Alp was led away by her escort. “…I get it. I do. Your house fallen, your title disavowed for the Heresy of your Father… watching Kalbarri fall to ruin… Anybody would want to act.”

“Then you will absolve me?” Justin asked hopefuly.

“Of the Sin of false witness against Brother Stefan, I’ll absolve you. It’s a tenuous charge. But the Heresies of Forcing by malice a Human to surrender His humanity, of Enabling assault on a Freeman of the Australs, of the use of the Benedictus for Mercenary ends, of the forced Mutation of a Mamono, of by word or deed bringing the Faith Militant of the Holy Church of Eternal Tyris into disrepute… and most egregious of all, the concession of Monstrosity by omission… Oh… for these you’ll answer to The Most High.”

“Clemency!” Justin begged, his face white as a sheet. “Clemency!”

“You KNEW, Justin! Knew that horror was there and not only said nothing, but conspired to COMPOUND it. You would have manipulated the Faith for your own ends… Here’s my Clemency, Justin. You burn now, instead of doing penance nailed to a cross for a week beforehand!” Douglas roared in pain and fury

“For the sins listed, Justin is stripped of rank, title, and property and sentenced to Immolation.” High Priestess Kathleen intoned formally before turning to the arachne furiously working at the machine. “Anthea, did you get all those?”

“There were a lot…” The Arachne replies, her mouth twisted in disgust, her multiple obsidian eyes glittering.

“There were. Sir Douglas, you may carry out the sentence.”

Justin begged and pleaded as he was dragged towards the Pyre. You made your way towards where Blue was still standing with Chad and River, taking her paw in your hand. The Kobold made a small sound, turning into your chest.

“Sure you know what you’re doing?” Chad murmurs “Nautilus will not like their name being attached to this.”

You shrug slightly “We’ll soon find out… not like I proved it was them, and Douglas is right, they’ll probably end up getting a stern finger wagging, maybe have some assets seized… They’ll survive.”

“Having Blue distract me to keep me away? Bit of a dog move mate.” Chad chides softly.

“Didn’t know how you’d react. Rather a minor deception than not be able to save an innocent life.”

“Ernie wasn’t innocent.”

“He might have been a deviant and a dodgy cunt, but he was no heretic. He’s lost his life as it was, but he… she… didn’t deserve to burn.”

Chad grumbles acceptance “You’re probably right.”

“Boss…” Blue whines as torch is touched to oiled wood, Justin’s screams becoming more frantic. “..Can we go?”

You shake your head, stroking Blue’s hair, now reaching to her shoulderblades. “Go play with River if you want, Pup. But I’ve gotta stay.”

“Why?”

“Because I killed that man up there.”

The fire reaches the once-paladin’s legs, and his screams, once desperate and terrified, take on a new note. You would muse later in life, when the memory of that sound brought you awake in the swarming dark, that the sound of a man burning alive has its own particular horror, unmatched in your experience by any other. Though it be presumptuous in the extreme to think it, in a way you felt you all shared in the punishment through those screams, the sounds of that indescribable agony etched into your very soul

“How’s Bella?” Chad ventures from across the rude table where you sit with your Kobolds. The mood of the inn, now re-opened, was understandably somber, the community, already under strain from the mismanagement of the (to your discovery) negligent disinterest of the Centaur Matriarch, forced to come to terms with the revelations

“She does not do restricted movement very well.” You drawl, a faint smile at your lips at the memory of her wall-climbing frustration at her confinement in Thealiss. “But Sister Sarah’s a merciless fuckin’ bully, Tyris Bless her. She’ll be fine.”

“No concern about contamination?”

You snort, “From Bella? Ever shared a canteen with River? You’re at more risk.”

“Fair.” Chad concedes. “I never did thank you for not selling me down the creek today.”

“Don’t worry about it. It was my fault anyway.” You grumble.

“Boss what’s up with this?” Blue demands “You blame yourself for Justin… spirits harry him to hell…”

“Don’t shittalk the dead pup”. You order.

Blue whuffles dismissively. “And now you’re blaming yourself for what?”

“The lot of it pup… It’s my fault.” You repeat, taking another drink of the average wine atop your table. The beer had run out in short order once Connor had made it clear it was now for general consumption, and the Faith Militant had been forced to prevent a near-riot from the Centaur once they discovered the same.

“Really…” Chad scoffs. “…How do you figure you’re that important?”

“If I never came here, Connor never would have told me about people messing with the stock, which meant I never would have gone looking in the Larder, which meant I never would have found Grek, which means the whole inquisition never would have happened. She would have eaten until it was all gone, and when she got bored or hungry she would have just dug her way out. Nobody had to die. I’m responsible for this.”

“Well, you’re cut off, you’ve clearly had too much of this shit and it’s affecting your brains.” Chad declares.

“Be serious.” You retort.

“I am. Do you hear yourself? You are no more special than anyone else who just happened to be where they were. Sure, you were the Inquisition’s star witness, but if it wasn’t you, it would have been someone else, and it might have gone a lot worse. Tyris… We just dodged a crusade! And if you had the slightest idea of the kind of bugfuck crazy I’ve had to deal with in the past month and you not even NEAR here…” Chad breaks off, shaking his head.

“Mister Chad’s right boss.” Blue agrees, “If you were going to take responsibility for anything, what’s happened here would be the last thing I’d suggest.”

“Oh? And what would you suggest?” You demand, turning to fix the Kobold with an imperious stare.

“Lemon. Tarts.” Blue retorts seriously. “You promised, and you haven’t even so much as LOOKED!”

You sat there for a moment, mouth hanging open, brow twisted incredulously. “How… what? I never…”

“Nah yeh you did. If you can’t remember the important stuff, why even bother beating yourself up over the stuff you’re only involved a bit in?” Blue demands, her huffy expression marred by the smile she is unable to suppress.

“Was I being that ridiculous?” You ask sheepishly.

“You were.” Blue agrees, hugging you tightly to her.

“Orright, mea fuckin’ culpa… Leggo pup.” You chuckle, patting the Kobold on the head fondly.

“Where you goin?”

“To see a man about a wallaby.”

“Don’t take too long, I can’t drink all this by myself.” Chad insists, holding the ceramic carafe aloft.

“Thought I was cut off.”

“Yeh, well, you might make more of a dick of yerself. Challenge Riley to a fight or something.”

You chuckle helplessly, extending a middle finger over your shoulder as you head through the back of the taproom to the rude privy outside… Now what were those two blokes doing just standing about? And… Hmmm… Over there too… Nope, you’d been caught once with your dick in your hand and you weren’t about to let it happen agai…

“Hello trader.” A low voice drawls as you fasten your trousers and turn to head back inside.

“G’day.” You reply, hand at the hilt of your cutlass… Only to have it removed from your grip by a sudden slap and twist.

“We’ll take that.” Another man remarks conversationally.

“Don’t suppose it’d make much difference me telling youse blokes you’re makin’ a terrible mistake?” You ask cynically.

“Listen to him will you?” a third voice laughs, its owner pulling a stout billy club from a ring at his belt.

“What’re you after?” you demand, taking deep breaths, trying to keep your mind as calm as you could, the Logos so near you swore the glyphs were scrolling across the backs of your eyes. All it would take is one… just one…

“We’re in a bit of a spot. See, Nautilus is getting shot of Kalbarri before the Faith Militant decide to look any further into what you told them this afternoon. Gonna make honouring our notes a little more tricky, see.”

“Me heart bleeds, but there’s a trade freeze, the other offices’ll take…” You begin.

“Oh, minor inconvenience that, name of the game really… The problem you have, Trader… is before they left, Nautilus paid us very well to make you good and sorry for the inconvenience.”

“Ah.”

“Don’t worry…” The man with the billy chuckled “…We won’t kill ya… well… not deliberately.”

“Imagine me fuckin’ relief.” You murmur. “Now look lads, I’m sure we can work out som…”

Pain exploded in your shoulder and you spun instinctively, sweeping your leg out like Kessiah taught you, feeling the jolt in your ankle where it hooked on another’s, hearing them grunt in surprise and then hit the cobbles. What could you do? Lashing out with Resonance would at the very least give you away, at worst, result in these men’s deaths… You doubted Kathleen would show you the same leniency as Raoul if you were to be known publicly here as a wilder.

A bellow rang off the stone, and a sturdy and an… oddly curvaceous frame came into view, impacting with another of your assailants and driving them bodily into the wall, breath whooshing from lungs as yet more figures, unknowable in the darkness of the alley appeared, restraining the other two and moving in to grab the figure pinned to the wall by your odd rescuer’s… head?

Your deliverer stepped back, your three assailants held before her. Scooping up your cutlass from where it had been dropped in the melee, she tapped each of them on the chest in turn with the blade.

“Y’all know who I am?”

Nods and gulps all around.

“Then y’all know what’ll happen if’n I catch you troublin’ one o’my creditors again, mmm?”

Vehement nods.

“Give Nautilus back their coin, and tell ‘em they’re lucky that’s all they’re losin’. Go on now, git!”

Your would be assailants are released, and with hissed oaths scramble over each other to be quit of the alley.

“Well…” Ivy smiled, turning to you “…if it ain’t my new favourite person in the world! Bring him upstairs boys.”

“Gotta say sugar…” Ivy remarks as she twists thick cork baffles from the pointed tips of her horns. “…That was somethin’ else. Pinnin’ Nautilus for their fleshmarket? Ain’t nobody else could’a done that and got away with it.”

“You corked your horns…” You remark in bemusement.

“Course sugar.” Ivy answers without a hint of shame “Can’t be up and killin’ folks on account-a bit of business. Jus’ plum-ain’t right. Plus them Faith Militant all got their dander up on account-a one o’their own gettin caught in a dang monstrosity and all… Better not to, y’hear?”

“Yeh… Guess so. Look, can I get me cutlass back?”

Ivy looks at you in puzzlement “Course sugar, it’s right there…” She gestures to where the blade is leaned nonchalantly against a wall.

“So… I don’t have to sit here.” You clarify, gesturing to the chair in which your impassive escort had placed you.

Ivy pauses for a moment, then lets loose with a peal of laughter. “Have they got their scary-faces on? Go on boys, we’ll be fine, I’m sure Adam thanks you for yer trouble.”

You had to agree with that, they DID just save you from a sound drubbing… “Sorry, thanks lads.” you venture.

“Really Adz…” One of them chuckles, pulling a leather cowl back and grinning at you “…Thought you would’ve clued on by now.”

“Garret. G’day.” You greet the man, returning his grin.

“Not bad today, if I didn’t know better I’d say you planned the whole thing.” He praises as he leaves, his fellows in tow.

“That’s one I hope doesn’t follow me.” You murmur, not quite sure how to take that.

“Sugar?” Ivy queries.

“Planning the whole thing… Tyris… I didn’t want… fuck… ANY of that… just… couldn’t let them die.”

“I hear ya sugar.” Ivy agrees, sitting herself in a chair next to a stocked vanity and brushing out her waterfall curls with a boarbristle brush. “If Nautilus had any brains they woulda got shut-o that fleshmarket a week before the Paladins rolled in… But… You know mermaids, let ‘emselves get dragged clear out the water if there’s gold on the other end.”

“Boy did I pick an enemy, eh?” You chuckle.

“Naw… Sure they’re pissy now, but it’ll all come out in the wash, you’ll see.”

You nod thoughtfully, your gaze returning to the door that your rescuers had left through. “The muscle though… What…”

“Debtors, direct employs, people who owe li’l ol’ me a favour or two…” Ivy muses, twirling a waterfall curl around a finger, a smug smile on her face as she stands, clopping over to you on digitigrade hooves and tapping a knuckle against your chest. “…which as I thigure, now numbers you among ‘em.”

“Oh really?” You grin “Miss the part where I’m a creditor?”

“Miss the part where I just saved that cute butt from a beatin’?” Ivy retorts without hesitation.

“Bloody hell, you’re good…” You remark helplessly.

“Thankee sugar.” Ivy beams, winking at you and flouncing back to the chair. As she moves to sit, she pauses momentarily, wincing and rubbing at her neck.

“Y’orright?” You ask in mild concern.

“Yeah, just hit him at a weird angle, done gone pulled a muscle. I’ll be fine.” Ivy assures you.

“Cairn…” You sigh, walking over to the Taurean and gesturing for her to move. “…Turn around.”

“Oh? Oh… My… Aren’t we a multi-talented individual?” Ivy drawls in pleased surprise as you begin to knead at her neck and shoulders.

“Comes with the territory, ever seen a Kobold’s legs after running back and forth across a paddock all day?” You chuckle.

“No, but I’m bettin’ you have…” Ivy muses teasingly “…and a bit more besides.”

“I plead the Peace of Tyris.” You answer nonchalantly.

“S’allright sugar… we all got our little secrets that don’t hurt nobody…”

“Oh do we?”

“Show me yours and I’ll show you mine…”

You press a little firmer, drawing a squeak from the Taurean which quickly turns into a lowing moan. “Buy a man a drink first.” You drawl urbanely.

“Oh sugar you gonna start somethin’ here you better be finishin’ it…” Ivy groans, her eyes almost rolled back as you work on her. You glance forward, noticing the top of her shirt has come partially undone… That sinfuly ample cleavage… all you had to do was slide your hands forward…

“Starting something?” you muse, continuing to knead at Ivy’s neck and shoulders with your fingertips, leaning forward so you are almost breathing into her floppy, bovine ear. “Dunno what you’re on about…”

“Do I gots to paint you a picture, sugar?” Ivy drawls, her impressive bust swelling with her deliberate breathing.

“Those are very nice…” You admit, “…But I had something I wanted to ask you about.”

“Oh?”

“Yeh… Chad.”

“What, both of you? That’s a first…” Ivy lows coquettishly “…But I ain’t above tryin’ new thangs…”

“I’m sure you’re not…” You murmur, letting your warm breath tickle her neckline for a moment, listening to the slight catch in the Taurean’s breathing, watching her try and hide her frustrated squirming. “But…” You add, straightening and giving Ivy’s shoulders one last firm squeeze before stepping away. “…That’s not what I was getting at.”

“Freeman Adam…” Ivy begins in a frustrated tone, standing from the chair and turning to face you, hands on her wide hips as she stares at you challengingly. “…Are you teasin’ li’l ol’ me?”

“Wouldn’t dream of it…” You grin as cheekily as you can. “…But reckon business before pleasure, yeh?”

“As they say in the Brasil Protectorate…” Ivy moans, sauntering over to you seductively and trailing her fingers lingeringly up your torso “…Porque no los dos?”

“Porky no-lose does?” You echo, your brow furrowing with incomprehension “What the fuckssat?”

“Why don’t we have both?” Ivy whispers, putting a hand behind your head and pulling you towards her moist, pouty lips, her eyes half-shuttered in anticipation.

You chuckle, putting a finger on that bowlike mouth to halt her advance. Whilst the Taurean does pause in pulling your head down, she seizes your hand and envelops the finger in the warmth of her mouth, sucking it suggestively before releasing it with a moist ‘pop’. “What’s the matter sugar, you chicken?”

“Yeah Nah…” You grin, turning your wrist to gently break the Taurean’s grip, before taking her hand and turning her in an almost dancing fashion, coming to rest with her back now facing you, her ample backside grinding into you without reservation… You suppressed a moan… Tyris she was good!

“Just wouldn’t work…” You whisper salaciously in her ear, hoping your will could hold “…I can’t have you screaming the ceiling down with that lot downstairs.”

“Dangit…” Ivy moans in defeat, slumping against you. “…Ain’t got nothin’ to argue with that.”

You give her a brief, one armed embrace, before stepping away from the Taurean who tromps frustratedly back to the vanity, brushing aggressively at her slightly mussed hair.

“Don’t get stroppy Ivy.” You chuckle.

“In your ear, Freeman, I just WASHED this dang shirt.” Ivy retorts bluntly, pointing at two damp patches on the front of her flannel top. “Set me to damn leakin’ then don’t even get me off right… Criminently…”

You’re pretty sure you put a fair few Cheshires to shame with the smugness of your grin. “Sorry…”

“Naw y’ain’t, don’t lie.” Ivy harrumphs, wiping at the front of her shirt with a clean cloth. “Thought I tol’ you get shot-o that boy or you’ll have trouble outta him.”

“Yeh well…” you accede with a shrug. “…Seems he’s in something of an interesting position, and you stand pretty well poised to capitalize on it.”

“How d’you mean?” Ivy demands, looking at you thoughtfuly, her interest pricked slightly.

“I take it that the IMFC making Kalbarri a free city is not exactly in the best interests of the other financiers here in the Australs?”

Ivy fixes you with a deadpan stare. “Sure… if you consider the Dominus taking a Lilim to bed to be ‘slightly unadviseable’.”

“See what you did there…” You chuckle “…And thanks to Justin, the justification for a Crusade has been firmly yanked out from under them.”

“Sugar are you approaching some kinda point or are you just delightin’ in tellin me stuff I already know?”

“Chad’s the closest thing this region has to an Heir Apparent. It’s a three-way race between him, the IMFC, and our incumbent Matriarch.”

“Hmm… If’n they had the slightest clue how to do it, I thigure half the Mamono in Kalbarri who ain’t centaur’d stick your pretty winged friend in that seat.”

You blinked in surprise at that. “Bella? A Matriarch? It’s not the WORST idea I’ve ever heard, at least you couldn’t accuse her of nepotism. She wouldn’t go for it though.”

Ivy nods with a slight smile. “She knows y’all humans are fixin’ to get another one o’your own in that chair.”

The hair on the back of your neck stands up. Shit, did she know something about your task?! “W-what makes you say that?”

Ivy laughs. “Sugar do you think I’m stupid? This whole MONTH has been nothin’ but positionin’ and politickin’ on who’s gonna eventually kick Neisha outta office. Maou knows she didn’t have but a paper-thin claim and dang fine timin’ to begin with.”

“S’pose you’ve got me there…”

“Still don’t see why Chad’s any interest of mine…”

“What did you just say about not bein’ that bloody stupid, Ivy?” You drawl.

“Why don’t we pretend for a minute, and you can tell me?” Ivy replies breathily, twirling a lock of hair around her finger and looking at you with a vapid, wide-eyed expression.

“A friendly Baron in Kalbarri. A Baron who owes T&G for his ascension… Not to mention as far as I’m aware, the opportunity for T&G to control its first port.”

“Gee willikers mister Adam!” Ivy exclaims, clapping her hands girlishly “I done never woulda thought of that!”

You sigh, rolling your eyes. “Orright so who DID you have in mind?”

“I had a few ideas…”

“Such as?”

“Well one of ‘em’s in this room.”

“Me?!” You exclaim incredulously “Have you been fuckin’ drinkin’?”

“Why not? You’ve got enough money of your own that you wouldn’t look like a puppet Baron… Y’all at Gibson are pretty close to House Reinhardt…”

“OK, just shy of two solar marks is no amount to be sneezed at, yer right, but from what Breyten was tellin’ me, it takes a shitload more’n that for the Court of the Highlords to uplift a lowborn like me to nobility.”

Ivy clops over, putting a hand on the small of your back and leaning in conspiratorially, “Palms we could grease, sugar, much more efficiently than dear ol’ Breyten. You know we DID make him the same offer, stubborn idjit wanted to do it on his own though…”

“Tyris be fuckin’ Glorified Ivy, I don’t know the first THING about running a Barony!” you exclaim.

“I did say you were just one of my ideas… not like I’m gonna be pickin what horse we back by my own self now.” Ivy chuckles, patting your shoulder comfortingly. “But out of curiosity, apart from his lineage, what makes ol’ Chad worth me countin? Surely not just because he needs our money…”

“He knows how to run the shop.” You begin. “He’s been trained, knows the people, knows the land… Knows Horses.”

Ivy reaches up, ruffling your hair before stepping away thoughtfully. “Why should horses matter?”

“Because assuming he takes the throne tomorrow, it’ll be at least ten years before Kalbarri’s fit to produce anything else. The fishing yards are full of shipworm, the fort’s a ruin, the houses are deathtraps… Tyris, if it doesn’t eat grass or rocks you’ll be paying for every bite of food or scrap of material it needs.”

“Well… Seems you DO know the first thing about running a Barony… and, so it would seem, does your little buddy.” Ivy muses, smiling mysteriously. “Gonna have to give it some thought…”

“All I can ask for, I guess. Cheers Ivy.” You sigh, turning to leave.

“Oh, Sugar?” Ivy remarks as an afterthought.

“Yeh?”

“I’m gonna be gettin’ some-o the boys to buy some horses, run a drove down to Fremantle… Could always use an investor to increase the margins… Tell Chad too… if’n it’s as you say and he’s an eye for horseflesh, could come in useful.” Ivy advises nonchalantly.

“What about the money, Ivy? You’ve still got it squirrelled away somewh… Oh.” You pause as the penny firmly drops. “Good plan.”

“And I’m glad to see you’re not as dopey as you look, sugar.” Ivy replies sunnily.

“Tyris be Glorified I will put you over my knee…” You grumble through your teeth. Why did everyone seem to want to call you stupid or remark on your dick?

“Criminently… What did I say about threatenin’ me with a good time?!” Ivy demands through the door as you stomp back downstairs.

“Boss!” Blue exclaims, rushing over to you “Where did you go?! I looked and looked and I couldn’t find you and…”

“S’orright Blue… I was just having a word with Ivy…” You assure the Kobold, stroking one of her tawny-furred ears.

“Wow… You smell like it… She leaked on you.” Blue points out, gesturing to a damp patch where the Taurean had pressed against your torso.

“Hence why you couldn’t find me, I guess…” You concede thoughtfully. How much of that interaction did that canny bitch plan?

“We were getting a little worried, all things considered.” Chad continued, pouring you another cup of wine. “Thought you might have fallen in… a nautical mile offshore…”

“Better order another one…” You sigh, flopping back into your chair and taking a good long drink. “…This might take some explaining.”

“Your buy?” Chad asks hopefully.

“Yeh. My buy.” You agree with a slight grin.

“Move it, two-legs!” a centaur demanded presumptively, leading a spirited stallion by a rope bridle towards an empty auction stall. You and Chad wisely moved out of the way, Chad with a note of approval as the snorting animal was corralled.

“Good one?”

Chad nods emphatically. “Oh yeh. Recognise that bloodline anywhere. Get you two-to-one if anyone from Albany even SNIFFS that stroppy lad being put up for auction.”

“Barely broken, pulls at the bridle, looks like he’s a biter… Yeah nah you’ve lost me on him, Chad.”

“Merchant Princes, Noble sons and the like, they like to show off. Horse like him, they’ll risk a whole bunch of broken bones to be seen riding it.” Chad explains.

“Wish Bungas came with that kinda status.” You chuckle.

Chad laughs “Those reptilian garbage disposals…”

“Twice as strong as a horse.”

Chad glances at you with a cheeky grin. “Mmm, and how much coin have you spent feeding them when there’s nothing but mallee scrub for five nautical miles in any direction?”

“…Shaddup.”

“Attention please, attention!” A tired-looking auctioneer called from behind his lectern. “Lots twelve through eighteen will commence bidding shortly.”

You turn your head at the sound “We wanted some of those, didn’t we?”

“The bay in particular.” Chad agrees. “Thanks for offering to front me on this.”

“The look on your face when you woke up this morning and saw that on the bedside table mate… Thought it was all I could do to stop you from bursting into tears.” You tease, elbowing your fellow trader gently.

“Leave off!” Chad objected. He had indeed been possessed of a singularly choleric mood as he joined you, Blue and Bella in the common room for breakfast earlier that morning, holding a somewhat modest coinpurse in one hand and a sheet of parchment in the other. It was official. Nautilus had disenfranchised its Kalbarri branch, and all local accounts and debts were to be paid out or called in respectively. Chad had, to his credit, been in the black, but not to such a great extent that anything involving leaving the ruined barony wouldn’t severely overextend him. Against that, you felt offering him twenty-five percent for advice and assistance was only fair. To be sure, seeing as ideally you would be bidding against him, you justified that you would still be coming out ahead for it.

“Are you sure?” Chad murmured uncertainly

“How many times do I gotta say ‘I got it’ before it sinks in?” You demand wearily as you and Chad head back towards the inn. The auction had eaten a good portion of the day, and you were bone-tired from the intensity of it, and starving like you hadn’t eaten since yesterday.

“Sorry, sorry… just… that wasn’t a small chunk of change you dropped there. What if it all goes balls up?”

You wisely determine that telling Chad that this drove was a front for moving the T&G wealth back to Fremantle wasn’t the best idea. Setting your face in a long-suffering expression, you turn to your fellow human. “Then I’ll drink it off when we get to Fremantle and hope Dad doesn’t mind me sulking in his guest room for a week or so. I’ve got the coin mate.”

“Fair enough… Heh… Sometimes I forget how good it is still having family in contact” Chad mused with a slightly cynical tone.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean.”

“Oh no…” Chad waves dismissively “…Me and Dad were never that close. Just… River was.”

“You love her, doncha?”

“That’s disgusting.” Chad objects with a look of revulsion.

“Not like that.” You groan.

“Oh, well then of course I do… She’s my baby sister.” Chad shrugs as if it was the most natural thing in the world. For some reason that stings you… you can’t put your finger on why.

Entering the common room, you pause to see a group of Humans and Mamono gathered around a table in animated conversation, the wings of your Griffon companion, Bella, poking from atop assorted heads.

“I’d better take care of this…” You groan. Chad nods, heading over to a table where your respective indentures were seated, Blue obviously trying to teach River the finer intricacies of a card game.

“Orright, orright, what’s the flamin’ drama?” You demand, pushing through the group.

“Hey! Wait your turn!” A kangaroo objects, shoving at you with a furred, muscular forepaw, frowning in irritation.

“Adam!” Bella exclaims in recognition. “Prithee, a moment, gentles all.”

“Lady Bella I’ve been waiting forever, I counted!” A kobold you didn’t recognise whines.

“Possess thy heart in patience, for verily, as Maou giveth me strength I shalt hear thee anon.” Bella assures the kobold with a smile, gesturing for you to join her at a slight distance from the group.

“S’goin on there?” You murmur.

“Oh Adam, it doth rend mine heart to see them at such odds. Certes, their lamentations hath gone unheard yon many months prior. Tis no great feat to list unto them, yea, that blessed harmony be restored in the absence of petty dispute.” Bella explains, hugging you briefly in greeting.

“You’re playing Waylander.” You chuckle.

“Waylander?” Bella echoes in confusion.

“Yeh, secular law such as it stands. They investigate and prosecute secular Sins and make arbitrations on official documents and stuff in the names of their respective Barons. Keeps the official court shit at a minimum.”

“Certes, I thought the Faith Militant fulfilled that role.” Bella mused thoughtfuly.

You shake your head, a wry grin on your face. “Nah, well… only when there’s no other choice. I mean, I don’t know what it’s like in the rest of the world but it rankles us enough to have to get Magisterium’s chop just to acknowledge a new Baron, if our governance was coming from the Cathedral Solar, I don’t know how folks’d react.”

“I am not overstepping myself I hope?” The Griffon asks with a slight note of trepidation.

“Not unless you’re making promises someone else has to deliver.”

Bella gives an uncharacteristic snort of laughter. “Why, prithee, would I do something that obviously foolish?”

“Y’never know what kinda dumb shit folks’ll do without thinking about it.” You chuckle. “Horses’re bought… You still wanna come with?”

“Verily, if thou wilt have me. I yearn yet to see more of this world.” Bella agrees emphatically.

“Glad to have ya along.” you smile genuinely, stroking the griffon’s headfeathers fondly.

“What kinda bullshit… OI! Keep that fuckin’ rowan under control!” You demand, standing atop the wagon’s bench and pointing to where a rowan and chestnut stallion were eyeing each other off in the dusty herd.

“Bit of a scrap won’t hurt anything, Trader…” Garret muses from where he has pulled in next to you, a scrubby thoroughbred gelding under him.

“They won’t be worth shit all bloodied up, but I guess you’re right if you want to give away the game, mate. Unless youse were stupid enough to clue in all the extra hands…”

“Shit, good point…” Garret concedes. “…Horse thieves I can deal with, but actually managing this?”

“River! Git away round!” Chad’s voice rings out, punctuated by the crack of a stockwhip as he expertly seperates the stallions from atop a muscular-looking grey.

“Showoff…” Another one of the drovers mutters jealously.

“Just because he knows what he’s doing? And him not even drawing a wage cunt. Now stop picking at your fuckin’ navel and keep this lot moving in the right fuckin’ direction!” Garret retorts, glaring at the man, who harrumphs, wheeling his own mount and riding to head off a few horses who had decided to meander off at the side of the herd.

Supressing a grin, you whistle shrilly, Blue’s answering howl ringing from the front of the herd.

“You right pup?”

“I could do this in my sleep boss!” Blue answers, running back towards the wagon, her hair streaming out behind her. “Horses don’t bite nearly as much as bungas.”

As if to prove that point, four takes a questing snap at a nearby mare, which snorts, lashing out with a rear leg and striking the huge lizard in the side of its broad, scaled head. Though uninjured, four still hisses, turning its head to look at you reproachfuly.

“Serves you right.” You drawl, flicking the reins at the Bungarra. Blue gathers her athletic frame and leaps onto the wagon in a single bound, grabbing a canteen and drinking deeply before giving you an enthusiastic, if sweaty hug.

“How’s our eye in the sky?” You murmur, rubbing her tawny ears affectionately.

Blue’s questioning ‘Awoooo’ is high and shrill, and you’re not entirely sure the way she scrunches up her face adorably isn’t somewhat for your benefit. Bella’s clarion screech answers from high above you, and you spot the dark shape against the dimming sky where the Griffon lazily circles above you.

“Shadows’re getting a bit long boss…” Blue ventures.

“Good call pup… Oi Chad! What do you reckon?”

“Fair call, I don’t fancy dealing with the Keniny in the dark.”

“Ken-wha?”

“Wind-spirits… The Geraldton ruins are lousy with ‘em.” Chad explains, whistling and pointing, the brunette blur of his sister-indentured kobold sprinting in the indicated direction.

“Heresy.” a drover decries.

“Shaddup fuckya, unless you’ve got a better term for it.” Chad retorts.

“Also…” Garret adds, “…We’re in the bush mate. We play by Mamono rules out here.”

“Don’t say that unless you mean it, Human…” Blue snickers with a predatory grin.

“Blue. Behave.” You growl warningly.

“Yehboss.” Blue murmurs meekly, nuzzling into you.

“You really must teach me how you do that…” Chad mumbles absently. You bite your lip to keep from bursting out in laughter as Blue stares at the man incredulously.

“Orright, hands off cocks. Wagoneers, I want a picket in thirty. Drovers, if I don’t see hobbles on half the horses by the time the fire’s up then I’m gonna get stroppy.” A heavyset man atop a bulky shire demands, leaning forward in his saddle.

“You sure you weren’t Faith Militant Jerry?” One of the drovers asks suspiciously.

“Baronial Director of Ceremonies. I’m what the Faith Militant has nightmares about.” The large man replies without pause, his eyes narrowing in a sun-leathered face.

“How’d you end up working for T&G then mate?” You ask, reining in the Bungarra and hunting through the wagon for the large canvas sheets of the communal tents that comprised part of your cargo.

“Never play dice with Juni.” Jerry responds with a shake of his head.

“No Blue.” You insist without turning.

“Maou’s tits boss! I didn’t even say anything!” Your Kobold sulks as she clambers over the cover to assist you.

“Sing it again Lady Bella!” One of the drovers insists, his eyelids heavy as he passes a flagon of spirits around the campfire, its cheery warmth reaching with fiery fingers towards the sea of stars above you.

“Thou flatterest me, sir.” Bella murmurs bashfully, an attractive blush colouring her sun-kissed cheeks. “And I do not know that I hath earned the title of ‘Lady’, Certes, for e’en…”

“Bollocks.” The drover objects. “You’ve been a better Matriarch in a few days than that fuckin’ centaur’s been in a half-decade.”

“Gotta say Bella, If I didn’t know better I’d say you were spying on me brother.” You add.

“I do not understand.” Bella replies, looking at you with her golden eyes.

“He’s a Waylander, and you managed to settle disputes he would have had to sic his ‘roos on cunts to solve.”

Bella blinks in confusion. “His what?”

“Dani and Kira, his Kangaroo indentured. Top sheilas, both of ‘em. Keep the bugger honest more often than not.” You explain.

“Have a drink, Lady Bella, and sing us another one of those songs!” Jerry rumbles, thrusting the flagon at the Griffon insistently.

“If thou art insistent…” Bella accedes, taking the flagon and drinking, coughing slightly as the spirit burns her throat.

“Where’s me Kobie?” You ponder, looking about for your absent companion.

“She said something about a haircut Adz, try the covered wagon.” Chad remarks, jerking his head in its direction, absently stroking River’s back as the Kobold dozed against him.

You nod, standing and brushing the dust from your trousers. “Back in a bit. Don’t wreck Bella’s throat, cunts.”

“Ah, stop babying her Freeman, Lady Bella knows when she’s had enough.” A drover objects.

“Certes…” Bella agrees with the faintest hint of a naughty smile in your direction.

You chuckle, holding a raised middle finger over your shoulder as you head towards the black shape of the large wagon, silhouetted against the star-spangled horizon.

“Oi Blue, you in her…” You begin, pulling the cover aside and pausing as you see your Kobold indentured, her hair once again a short pixie cut, naked atop the unmistakable form of the Taurean Ivy, her mouth insistent against a large breast, an athletic leg writhing between the thick thighs of the Trade Factor’s digitigrade legs.

“Oh! H-howdy sugar…” Ivy lows breathily, her waterfall curls a mess and her face flushed.

“Ivy… I didn’t know you were coming with.” You remark conversationally, too bemused to be surprised by the sight. “Pup. Y’orright there?”

Blue’s lips leave the Taurean’s nipple, the sheen of milk upon her lips. “Yehboss, this is EXACTLY what it looks like.” She drawls cheekily, echoing the Quoll Riley some few days previous.

“So… Thanks for the haircut? Y’both kinda accidentally fell out of yer clothes? S’goin on here pup?” You query, trying to keep your expression neutral.

“Well she done started grillin’ me on if’n I was plannin’ on havin’ my way with you, and… well… Y’see what happens is…” Ivy explained, her hands busy upon Blue’s torso.

“Ivyyyyy…” Blue moans, writhing at the Taurean’s touch. “…You’re not meant to just TELL him how it works!”

“I’m sorry cutie-pie…” Ivy giggles.

“So… She passes your ‘Test’ then?” You muse, trying to keep a straight face.

“And then some. I’m tempted to keep her all for meself!” Blue replies eagerly, nibbling at a bovine ear which draws a moan from the Taurean.

“Pup, you know you can talk to me about these things…”

“Boss…” Blue retorts, looking at you insistently.

“…I mean I like to think I’m a reasonable bloke…” You continue

“Boss!” Blue interjects more forcefully.

“…There’s just no need for…”

“BOSS!” Blue growls demandingly.

“Whazzamadda?” You ask, your face what you like to think is a picture of innocence.

“Do you want a written Maou-Damn invitation right now?!” Blue asks incredulously.

“Sugar… Please… Don’t make me beg now… Blue’s been tellin’ me all kinds’o thangs, and I gots to find out if’n they got any merit…” Ivy pleads, looking at you with smouldering eyes.

“Oh really…” You drawl indulgently, dropping to the wagon bed next to the entwined Mamono. “…Such aUMMMFFF” Your drawl is cut off as Ivy’s hungry mouth is planted against yours, her lush lips eager, her tongue busy within your mouth. You feel your heartbeat quickening, not assisted by Blue’s panting and licking at your earlobe.

“Oh he IS a good kisser.” Ivy sighs.

“Right?” Blue agrees, her nude body writhing against your side. “Boss… do the thing?”

“What thing?” You murmur, your brain rapidly losing blood to its competitor between your legs.

“You know…” Blue hints coquettishly, trailing a furred paw down Ivy’s bare thigh.

“Giving away me tricks beforehand pup?” You ask with a predatory grin.

“Did I do bad mastAAAAAAhhhhnnn!” Blue’s teasing query turns into a lewd whimper as you grip the Kobold’s firm buttock roughly in your hand.

“Sugar, don’t leave me hangin’ in the breeze here…” Ivy insists, opening herself to you, her bovine tail writhing serpentine between ample buttocks. You release your indentured, who rapidly returns her attention to Ivy’s voluminous breasts, as you bend your head to kiss and lick at the Taurean’s soaked, quivering womanhood.

“O-oh mah stars…” Ivy gasps “…I ain’t had me a good hello-kiss in… Ohhh… Maou… T-there! R-right there! Don’t you dare stop sugar!” Ivy pleads, planting a hand atop your head and pressing you to her insistently. “K-keep… going… I’m… Oh… I’m…”

Whatever she was going to say next was smothered by her thighs clamping about your head as the Taurean shook in the throes of orgasm. You held your breath valiantly, until finally you forced yourself free, pushing yourself up to see Ivy panting, her eyes unfocused, a hand absently toying between Blue’s legs as the Kobold whimpered, her small, pink tongue hanging from her mouth as she relished in the sensation.

“You… Shit…” Ivy moaned as she regained her equilibrium. “Holding out on me like that.”

“He’s so mean…” Blue agrees, licking her lips at you lewdly. Ivy removes her hand, much to the Kobold’s objection, looking at you challengingly for a moment before launching herself at you, grappling, kissing her juices from your lips as she forces herself atop you.

“Maou damn pants…” the Taurean curses, grinding on you in frustration, and suddenly Blue’s nimble paws are sliding your trousers off, your erect manhood springing from their confines.

“Big boy…” Ivy remarks with a pleased drawl “…I do believe I’ll have me some-a that…”

She groans as she straddles you, lowering herself onto your shaft inch by agonizingly exquisite inch.

“Me now boss… Hello-kisses for me now…” Blue pants, her dripping sex poised above your head. Hungrily, you pull the Kobold down onto your mouth as Ivy begins moving atop you, grabbing your hands from Blue’s thighs and pressing them to her voluptuous breasts. Absently, you marveled at the weight of them, though it did strike you as a little funny that your thoughts should be so abstract with a Kobold fucking your face and a Taurean impaling herself on your manhood. You chuckle slightly, and Blue gives a surprised squeak at the unexpected vibration, leaning back and looking down at you askance. You take her sensitive little nub between your lips, kneading softly, sending the Kobold’s sky-blue eyes rolling almost violently into the back of her head in sheer pleasure as she collapses into a whimpering, shaking mess atop you.

“I… ah… knew y’all… unh… had done that… before… “ Ivy pants, bouncing enthusiastically atop your shaft, the velvet walls of her innermost secrets dragging along the length of you most deliciously. A grin from you and the wordless thumping of Blue’s tail on your torso is her only answer.

You take the Taurean’s nipples between your fingers, teasing at them, and are rewarded with small trickles of creamy liquid in your hands. Ivy pauses in her motions atop you, smiling wryly.

“Ever had it straight from the source, sugar?”

“Can’t say I have.” You admit, gently moving Blue’s trembling post-orgasmic form from atop you and propping yourself up to take one of Ivy’s massive breasts in your mouth. Almost instantly, your gullet is filled with creamy sweetness, and you feel Blue’s furred paw slide around your shoulder, the Kobold licking your jaw cheekily before latching onto its partner.

“M-my stars… Between the two of you I… I’m not going to be able…” Ivy protests unconvincingly as she clamps and quivers against you, the three of you locked in a triune embrace, your cries of passion muted by each other’s bodies.

“Ivy…” You gasp, raising your head from her coral and cream. “…I’m close…”

“Gotcha sugar.” Ivy giggles, sliding herself off you with a low, lewd moan and taking you in her hand, squeezing gently and watching all enraptured as your head swells in her grip.

“Don’t mind if I do!” Blue declares, planting herself atop you, driving you home within her.

“Pup! Taurean milk!” You gasp in shock.

“Don’t care…” Blue pants, taking your face between her paws. “…I love you Adz… I want you to put a baby in me.”

“I…” You begin, before your own body reaches its limit and you erupt within Blue’s scalding depths. On and on your orgasm seemed to go, pulsing and spurting, Blue making small, happy noises punctuated with kisses on your open, panting mouth.

And then… it was done. You lay spent on the wagon-bed, Ivy running hands through her mussed hair, her breasts jiggling delightfuly, Blue holding you to her as if she would never let you go.

“Did you two plan that?” You demand suspiciously.

“Would it matter if we did, sugar?” Ivy replies, leaning over to kiss first you, then your indentured. “That was real nice y’all. We should do it again sometime.”

“Right… Talk to me when I find the top of my head again.” you groan helplessly, absently patting Blue’s head with one hand and squeezing Ivy’s ample buttock with the other.

“Thou art concerned to such an extent?” Bella asks from where she has perched on the canvas behind you, a slab of cured, spiced meat held in one talon, its mate draped familiarly over your shoulder.

“I dunno…” You admit. “With continuance there’s a process… a tradition… it’s something you’re raised to expect. This? It’s so…”

“Natural?” Bella quips.

“Pretty sure that’s Blasphemy…” You mutter.

“Prithee? Then denounce me properly and we shall fight about it.” Bella retorts.

“You are getting far too good at this.” You chuckle. “Why would you even want to fight me anyway?”

“Forsooth, to move to yon more clement act of kissing and making up, of course…” Bella murmurs, nipping at the nape of your neck teasingly.

“I’ll have the rest of the humans lookin’ to tear me to pieces for defiling the object of their adoration.” You object laughingly, tickling the Griffon at the base of one of her massive wings.

“N-nay! Villain!” Bella objects, squirming away with a giggle, before her face turns more ponderous.

“Brass for yer thoughts?” You prompt.

“Yea, ‘tis no guarantee that thy seed wilt quicken within her, though she may pray in moment of sweet passion for it to be so.” Bella remarks. “Please do not think I mean to speak slightingly of thee or her in regards to this.”

“Taurean milk though Bella.”

“E’en so, regardless of the warnings thou hast been given pertaining to its use… ‘tis not a certainty. ‘Tis no essence of Alarune…”

A nostalgic smile spreads across your face as you rein the trio of bungarra pulling your wagon around a pile of rubble they seem intent on marching directly over. “No… No it isn’t…”

“Thou knowest of what I speak?”

“Fucken oath…” You grin. “…It was about the time when…”

“Call a halt!” Jerry’s voice booms over the whistles and yells of the drovers. Blue and River’s howls of acknowledgement sound from the fore and aft of the sprawling herd.

“What’s the matter?” You call to the shire-mounted man.

“That’s Jurien Holding.” Jerry replied, pointing a sun-browned hand towards the collection of buildings faintly visible against the coast. “We go inland from here.”

“Lancelin… It’s spread this far?” You gulp.

“I don’t know, but I’m not risking everyone’s arse by going any further unscouted.” Jerry declares with a note of finality.

“I shall take to the air.” Bella declares.

“Thank you, Lady Bella.” Jerry remarks deferently, tugging a forelock at the Griffon. “Adz, Chad, think I could impose upon you two to have the Kobies find how much room we’ve got to play with? I’d much rather not have to skirt the entire dune-field before we hit something resembling civilization.”

“Don’t reckon it’ll be a problem.” You concede, whistling for your Kobold.

“Yehboss?” Blue pants, loping through the milling horses unconcernedly and up to the wagon.

“How you doin’ pup?”

“Just as well as the last time you asked me an hour ago…” Blue sighs, rolling her eyes but smiling at you fondly.

“We’re comin’ up on Matango territory. Jerry wants to know if you and River can give it legs around the top end of the spread, see how far we’ve gotta go ‘round.”

“Can you Humans handle the horses on your own in the meantime?” Blue remarks cheekily.

“I’ve got ten silver says no!” River calls from Chad’s side.

“Behave…” Chad laughs.

“Thou… Thou couldst join me… if thou wert of a mind to…” Bella offers hesitantly, looking at you askance.

“Sure Bel, be glad to.” You shrug, smiling at the Griffon. “Chad, reckon you could look after the Bungas for a bit-TYRIS FUCK!” your question is cut off by Bella’s Talons seizing you under both arms and the booming whoosh of her wings as you are unceremoniously yanked skyward.

“Yeh, it’s fine, not like you’re giving me a choice mind!” Chad’s half-teasing, half-peeved yell fades rapidly behind you.

“Cheers mate!” You yell against the buffeting wind. You look upwards at the Griffon who bears you skyward, a good portion of your vision obscured by her generous bust.

“Nice view…” You drawl.

Bella looks down at you in surprise, a rosy blush spreading across her cheeks. “Thou art a lecher, sir.” She chides, a bashful grin turning her mouth.

“Certainly seems that way…” You admit, looking down and sucking in a deep breath in surprise. Academically, you were fine with the idea of flying, but seeing the ground so far below you, and separating your dangling feet from it naught but so much empty air was another matter entirely.

“Art thou afeard of flying also?” Bella queries, pausing in her spiraling ascent, hovering with rhythmic, powerful beats of her mighty wings.

“In theory, not at all.” You begin, praying your voice doesn’t break. “In practice… Fuck me but that’s a long way down.”

“Thou art doing fine.” Bella assured you. “In point of fact, yea, I think thou art ready.”

You look up at the Griffon incredulously. “Ready for what?”

“This.” Bella states simply, throwing you up and spinning you in the air to face her, before catching you about the torso, inverting herself and diving back towards the ground. The wind howls in your ears, the world spins crazilly… and yet… there she is… smiling… looking at you… unafraid.

Fuck it. You press your lips to hers on impulse, a kiss the Griffon meets hungrily with her own.

“Hey Bella…” You grin, ignoring the fact you both are plummeting earthward, trusting the Griffon with your life. Glancing towards the approaching ground, your eyes widen. “Oh Tyris! UP UP UP!” You demand.

“Prithee, what…” Bella muses, not quite understanding your urgency.

You desperately hunt through the mental whirlwhind of the Logos of Resonance for a Glyph that will assist you… No… joining the bucket in the sky would be a bad idea… dammit… all of those rely on you as a point of reference and tearing yourself in half would kind of suck… wait, there!

Bella gives an unwitting squawk as the power of the glyph brings your dive to a halt, inertia dragging at you both painfully as you order gravity to piss off and leave you alone.

“How art thou…” The griffon gasps, still clinging to you. Ignoring her for the moment, you hold the glyph, raising the two of you up and up.

“Sorry Bella” you apologise, pointing at the ground beneath you. “But did you not see?”

“See? Certes, ‘tis strange vegetation to be sure but I wouldst not have let thee strike the earth.”

“Nope. that close is too close. Those aren’t plants…” You correct her. Below you a strange and lurid growth seems to spread in a roughly circular fashion from an unassuming holding on the coastline, covering field and ditch and tree with living burgundy tendrils. “…That is the Mohorovicic, Matango corruption, and the fucking sporeheads could be anywhere in it.”

“Oh Maou! Prithee forgive me!” Bella cries, releasing you in shock, her talons held to her mouth. Her eyes widen as she realizes what she has done, yet you remain in midair, hovering there as you hold the glyph steady.

“Thou art not falling.” She remarks plainly.

“Your eyes are working then…” You drawl. “…C’mon, I wanna get more height on this.”

Focusing your will, you raise yourself higher into the air, your ears popping as the air becomes thinner, low, scudding clouds obscuring your vision as you find yourself in their foggy midst.

“Ack!” You exclaim in surprise, clammy moisture covering you in an instant.

“Well what didst thou expect?” Bella teases, her winged form softened by the cloud which enclosed you both.

“I know clouds aren’t solid, but I wasn’t expecting wet!” You grumble, “Sides, I can’t see a bloody thing.”

“Certes…” The Griffon purrs in agreement.

“What?”

Bella once again enfolds you in her talons, “What thou canst not see, verily, is also obstructed in its view of thee…”

“Oh? OH!” You exclaim, understanding. Chuckling, you slide your own arms about the Griffon’s slender waist. “Cheeky. Didn’t know you were that hard up. Not like you’re starved for options either…”

“Tis not like that!” Bella objects, pouting adorably. “I… Know thee… trust thee… I… am fond of thee…”

“Feeling’s mutual Bel.” You grin, planting a light kiss on her mouth.

“And…” She continues, reddening further. “…the chance to do this… up here… fie ‘pon me if I were to let such pass.”

“If I lose the glyph…” You murmur, nibbling at the side of her neck “…you’ll have to catch me.”

“C-certes…” Bella moans, wrapping her leonine legs about your waist as you both hover in the cold mist of the cloudbank, her with beating wing, you with Resonant glyph. “…Trust in me to safeguard thee an…Oooohhhhh.” Her assurance is cut short by your hands hiking up the rude leather skirt of her armorlike tunic, one hand gripping a taut buttock through her smallclothes, another pulling gently on her feather-tipped, leonine tail. She kept her grip around your waist with her legs, yet clamped your head with her deadly talons, pulling you hungrily in for a lingering kiss, her tongue insistent within your mouth.

“I want thee inside me… Now.” She hissed, a predatory glare in her golden, raptorial gaze. Chuckling, you loosened the front of your own trousers, taking your manhood in hand and encouraging it the remaining way to tumescence. Pushing her smallclothes to the side, you pull her onto you, entering her with only the slightest resistance of flesh.

Bella moans, kissing you again, whimpering against your mouth as she moves atop and against you, her wings beating frantically as her breathing quickens.

“Thou… Feelest… So… Good!” She cries, clinging to you desperately. You grit your teeth, trying to simultaneously hold your concentration whilst the exquisite sensation of the Griffon’s womanhood enveloping you as she desperately writhes around you.

“Forsooth…” Bella sobbed, “…I want thee to release within me…”

“What about…”

“Please…” Bella begs, taking your earlobe between her teeth and pulling gently.

“Sweet Tyris…” You groan, feeling yourself clench and erupt within her, Bella’s own legs tightening vicelike around you as she pushes her hips to yours forcefuly. Panting, you squint as a ray of sunlight breaks through the cloudbank, bathing you both in blinding warmth.

“You look like an Angel like that…” You mumble, raising a hand to the Griffon’s face, her features hidden in the corona of light.

“Adam!” Bella declares in a shocked tone.

“Ah shit, I didn’t mean…”

“I know what thou meant, e’en if t’were not politic as such… I thank thee…”

“What’s with everyone wanting it inside all of a sudden?” You ask, stretching languidly.

“Late spring.” Bella admits.

You feel slightly crestfallen at that. “Ah. Shoulda spotted that.”

“And…” Bella continues, poking you on the nose with a talon “…we are indeed, all rather fond of thee. To bear a child from thee would be… welcome.”

“Even if nobody can admit it?” You ask, straightening your clothes and pulling the Griffon’s tunic back down to cover her modesty.

Bella smirks indulgently. “Parfay, doth we not know?”

“Fair point that… Tyris, Most High God, why’d ya have to make things so fuckin’ complex?”

Bella beats her wings, taking you out of the sunbeam and back below the clouds. “Is that Blasphemy?”

“Don’t tell on me?” you grin

“Mayhap… Perchance I shall want something of thee…” Bella smirks.

“Bitch… Since you’re carrying me I’ll take it I dropped the glyph.” You drawl.

“Aye, ‘tis of no import, thou art not the heaviest burden I hath born.” Bella admits.

“We should probably get to scouting.”

“Ut ut…” Bella tsks, tapping a talon against her pursed lips “…Kisses first.”

You laugh openly, before kissing the Griffon warmly. The rushing of wind and lurching in your stomach indicates she has folded her wings into another dive.

“Not too low!” You remind her, turning in her grip to be face-down, her legs and talons holding her tight against your back.

“Certes.”

You both scan the alien, burgundy growths of the Mohorovicic. The Matango within seemed to be content to limit themselves to the holding itself, and strange, furtive movement within its bounds spoke to their frightening numbers.

“Tyris be merciful… there’s so many…” You moan.

“Aye… Prithee, who art they?” Bella queries, pointing with a forelimb to what was evidently a group of humans beyond the Mohorovicic’s edge, busily moving barrels from a series of wagons and stacking them in a line along the corruption’s leading edge.

“Reinhardt Militia… Tyris! They’re supposed to have the Faith Militant with them!” You exclaim in panic.

“What troubles thee?”

“Without the Blessing of The God they’re sitting ducks for… Oh… Oh no…” You groan.

“Priestesses?” Bella asks in puzzlement, gesturing to the limping group of women dressed in tattered robes stumbling towards the militia. One of the Militia clearly sees them and points, his words lost to the distance. An argument seems to erupt, with Brown-clad waylanders waving their arms at the Militia officers, the Officers in turn gesticulating towards the Mohorovicic.

“I Highly fucking doubt it… I’d bet me whole wad on them being Plaguebearers.”

Bella hugs you against her body. “What wouldst thou do?

“Drop me on the lee of that dune, Bella” You order the Griffon. “Then you get a better eye on those priestesses.”

“Verily, for what doth I look?” Bella asked you, kicking up a massive cloud of sand as she came in to land.

“Anything non-human. Swellings, growths, extra limbs… mushrooms growing out their heads… it’ll be obvious.” You explain, dusting yourself off. “Quickly.”

Bella nods, taking wing again as you begin to slog through the sand towards where you spotted the humans from the air.

“…Don’t care, Waylander, if there’s even the slightest chance…” A Militia captain roared, his eyes bugging out in clear fury, his squad forming up to intercept the priestesses.

“Don’t move! For the love of Tyris, don’t move!” You yell, panting as you ran through the scrub.

The waylander turned, and you cursed all the sodding luck… Tristan.

“Adam!” Tristan exclaimed. “Stay back mate… You don’t want any part of this…”

“Got a Griffon… Scouting…” You pant, ignoring your elder brother’s instruction. “Keep out of the Mohorovicic… There’s thousands of them in there.”

“A what?” The Militia captain demanded. “Look Freeman, I don’t know who you are or how you got here but if those Priestesses are…”

“Like I said, I’ve got someone on it.” You insist. “Tristan, please. You guys have to go. This isn’t patchwork, the Moho’s solid from here to the coast, it’s even taken the Chancel Isle.”

“Dammit Adam, how do you know this?” Tristan demanded, grabbing your shoulder in a heavy-gloved hand as he turns you this way and that, rudely searching for signs of infection.

“I saw it.”

“From where?”

You point to the sky “Up there.”

“Dave-o did say he saw that weird harpy break through the Cloudbank…” A Militiaman added.

“Adam, did you get yourself nicked by a harpy? Where’s Blue?” Tristan grated, shaking you.

“No, and scouting the Northern end, we’ve got a whole drove coming south… And quit fuckin’ shaking me!” You insist, trying to pull away from the Waylander’s iron grip.

“Then how did you…”

“Adam!” You hear Bella shriek, spotting her form taking wing from the midst of the Mohorovivc. “They yet approach with ungainly haste! One of them erupted ‘pon me. Maou… I am covered in its foulness!”

“Oh piss… There’s our answer.” You curse. “Keep back Bella!” You yell. “Get over the water and call for Blue when you hit the northern end. Tell her to grab two bottles of that ping pong tiddly youse were necking last night, and then BOTH of you douse each other thoroughly!”

“I do not understand…” Bella lamented, hovering above the swaying burgundy fronds, wiping something off her with clear revulsion.

“She will!”

“Certes…” The Griffon agrees, winging towards the ocean.

“What was that?” Tristan blurted, his mouth hanging open in amazement.

“Griffon. Now please Tristan, we’ve gotta give it legs. I don’t wanna know how fast ‘ungainly haste’ is.”

Your brother’s eyes narrow as he studies you. Sighing, he turns to the captain. “Kick ‘em. We burn it now.”

The captain swears, yelling orders to the Militia who put boots to the barrels, sending them careening down the slope and into the Mohorovicic.

“Fire!” Tristain orders, and high, sharp sounds of shard rifles spitting glowing Shadrium are heard, glowing blue streaks lancing towards the barrels which erupt in black smoke and billowing orange flame.

“Dammit Waylander they’re just smouldering! I thought you said this stuff would spread!” The captain yelled, “Back! Back to the dunes!”

“It should!” Tristain retorted, swearing as you both scramble up the sand-hill. “That fucking piece of shit merchant… I’m going to feed him his fucking feet!”

You turn to look back… the barrels were burning, yet too far apart… This wasn’t going to stop anything…

To hell with the possibility of discovery. This had to end now. You called upon the Logos, feeling it respond…

“TYRIS FUCK!” A militiaman cried in shock as the leading edge of the Mohorovicic erupted in flame. The wall of fire boiled westward, consuming inexorably, choking smoke roiling in a skyward pillar.

“Please be clear Bella… Tyris… Please let her be clear…” You murmur.

The fire continued to roil, faster than should be physically possible, your mind straining under the effort of maintaining the glyph… suddenly it started to get cold, and you realized you were sucking an immense amount of heat from the surrounding air to spawn the flames. It didn’t matter, you held the glyph… You felt wetness dripping from your nose… It didn’t matter, you held it, forcing the wall of fire westward until the stinking black smoke turned to billowing white steam.

“Well fuck me…” the Militia Captain declared, slack jawed. “…It actually worked.”

“Seems so.” Tristan agreed.

“Why’d you snot the Freeman? He did warn us after all.”

Tristan looks puzzled, his eyes widening as he looks over to see the blood dripping from your nose. His mouth purses, and he pulls a kerchief from his pocket. “For bein’ an irresponsible cunt and worrying his big brother.” He replies without hesitation, tossing the square of fabric at you. “Clean yourself up, Adz, and don’t ever do that to me again.”

“Oh Balls… Captain… Waylander…” One of the militiamen exclaimed in a sinking tone as you held the kercheif to your face.

“What?” The Captain demanded shortly.

“That was our supply wagon…” the militiaman replies, pointing to a furiously burning cart at the leading edge of the inferno.

“You said you had a drove coming south…” Tristan remarks presumptively. “ I’m commandeering it in the name of Lord Baron Thomas of house Reinhardt.”

“Course…” you shrug, “…Ivy’s gonna be stroppy as hell mind…”

“Dangit Waylander I ain’t got no problem with feedin’ you and yours back to Fremantle, but by Maou I will not WAIT on you and y’all will NOT be takin’ your leave with my horses!” Ivy orders, hands on her broad hips.

“Madam. We have militia here who haven’t slept in four days. Look at them! They’re fit to drop!” Tristan retorted hotly, gesturing to the Militia who weakly objected, leaning against polearms and wagon sides, some indeed, having dropped to the ground in sheer exhaustion.

Ivy’s gaze softened somewhat. “Well… At least picket ‘em proper, I ain’t havin ‘em makin’ the place look untidy.”

“Your Generosity is overwhelming, madam.” Tristan replied in a slightly mocking tone, bowing slightly. “Adz, is that your three-train with Two, Four, and Twenty over there?”

You nod. “Yeh Tristan.”

“Good. I’m gonna go die on it, if that’s alright with you.”

You can’t help but grin. “Goferit mate.”

Tristan nodded curtly, turning and calling over his shoulder. “And when I wake up, you’re gonna explain a couple things to me. Clear?”

“Yes Waylander.” You sigh, cursing inwardly.

“Criminently, that is one demanding, infuriating… GORGEOUS Human…” Ivy harrumphs in clear frustration.

“You too, Ivy?” You groan, pinching the bridge of your nose.

“What?” The Taurean asks in puzzlement.

“Everybody bloody well falling in adoring lust with me bloody brother.”

“My Stars, the Waylander’s your brother?” Ivy exclaims in surprise “…How open minded is he, sugar?”

“If you disturb him right now he’s probably as likely to put a foot in your arse as… well… anything else.” You drawl cheekily.

“Well dang.” Ivy sighs in disappointment. “What’s he after you about?”

“This and that…” You reply nebulously.

“That big ol’smokestack over yonder part of ‘this and that?” Ivy asks.

“Any reason you can think of that it would be?” You reply, cursing inwardly and trying to keep your expression as neutral as possible.

Ivy studies you for a moment before smiling slightly. “…You’re good, sugar… I can see why Juni wants to jump you.”

“Juni wants to jump me so she can make me agree to things while all the blood’s busy in me other head.” You retort, snickering.

“That too…” Ivy agrees.

You swallow slightly. “Did… Did Bella…”

“Blue’s taken half a crate o’hooch down the beach with River to sort her out, not to fret, sugar.” Ivy assures you. “Some quick thinkin’ on your part seein’ as she got slimed and all.”

“I told her two bottles… What was she thinking?” You mumble.

“My brother is th’best boss ever.” River declares drunkenly.

“Pfft… No. Adz is.” Blue retorts.

“Lies! I’ll fight you!” River growls, pouncing on Blue as the two Kobolds grapple, giggling uncontrollably.

“I have *hic* been most foully abused…” Bella declares from where she is draped over your back.

“Gotta get everywhere feathersh…” Blue slurs, poking her head out from the kobold-ball before biting River on the ear.

“Ow! Blue! No fair!” River laments, pinching Blue on a modest breast with her brown-furred paw.

“Eep! Titty-twisters are against th’rules!” Blue yelps.

“Come on you two, it’s a bit of a walk back to camp.” You sigh, pausing while the Kobolds reluctantly cease their tussle.

“I’ll help carry feathers!” Blue declares, draping one of the Griffon’s massive wings over her head and shoulders.

“Me too!” River adds, mirroring her fellow Kobold on the other side.

“What is it with those two and Bella’s wings?” Chad asks, drinking absently from one of the remaining bottles you had confiscated from the sozzled Kobolds and the near-comatose Griffon.

“Wing cuddles mate. Can’t top em.” You chuckle, grinning at your fellow human.

“Thou art too gallant for thine own *hic* good…” Bella slurs, tightening the grip of her talons where she clings to your back, her feather-tipped, leonine tail dragging limply along the ground behind you. “…in fact were it not for the deep regard I hath for thine most comely indentured…”

“Bella, booze is talking…” You chuckle, placing a shushing finger on the Griffon’s plump lips.

“You think I’m pretty?” Blue asks in drunken wonderment.

“Certes…” Bella drawls, drunkenly smooching the air at the Kobold.

“Best. Packmate. Ever.” Blue declares.

“Blue…” You chide mildly, shaking your head in amusement.

“You right there?” Chad asks, passing you the bottle.

“Yeh, she’s nothing on me mate Eddie… There was a drunken deadweight…” You laugh, taking a belt and passing it back to Chad.

“Mister Adam! Yer screwing up the rotation!” River laments.

“You, little pup, have had quite enough.” Chad chides sternly.

“Yesboss.” River replies with instantaneous meekness.

“See?” You exclaim, “Nothing to it.”

“…Nothing to it.” You grumble, yanking at the reins of the witchy chestnut mare you found yourself mounted atop, putting heels to flanks to get her ahead of the rowan stallion who had decided to wander away from the main herd for reasons only known to its tiny equine mind. “Get back over there or I’ll fuckin’ eat you, and damn the lost profit!” You snarl at the wild-eyed horse, who wisely concludes that doing what he is told is preferable to dealing with the angry human.

“Don’t saw at her mouth, freeman.” A voice chides from behind you. The rider, clad in the ubiquitous high-collared brown of a waylander, reins in beside you.

“George, isn’t it?” You venture, recognising one of your brother’s colleagues.

“S’right Gibson. Your Mamono are a bit the worse for wear today.”

“Let ‘em out of me sight for one fucking second…” You grumble. Blue, River and Bella were indeed suffering the after-effects of last night’s impressive drunk, all three lain low with what seemed to be horrendous hangovers.

“Ah, don’t be too hard on them. Matango are fuckin’ scary, even when you don’t have to worry about infection.” the Waylander replies evenly.

“True enough…” You admit “…thanks for helping out, by the way.”

“You kidding, a night of uninterrupted sleep AND a hot bacon breakfast? I wouldn’t be surprised if a bunch of the militia were offering to buff that Taurean’s hooves and braid her hair this morning.” George chuckles.

“Tristan still out?”

“That man’s a machine.” George replies with sincere admiration “He must have pulled a straight week, plus patrols, plus keeping on top of Baronial missives. Far as I’m concerned he can sleep all the way back to Fremantle and still have my vote for the Commandery.”

“Commandery? What happened to old Seb?”

“Heart gave out two weeks ago, Tyris rest his soul.” George sighed. “Adrian’s the nextmost senior but he won’t give up Mount Barker, especially not after Scotty.”

“Yeah… What’s the latest version of that story?”

“Led a pack of Ghost-Kobolds against a beast twelve metres tall, slaying it with the Secret Name of God before succumbing to his wounds.” The waylander replies with a suppressed grin.

“We do love our fuckin’ stories…” You snicker, before the sight of a rot-bloated corpse adorning a cross on the side of the road sobers you. “…Tyris be merciful, another one?”

“Greed makes monsters of us all in the end.” George sighs philosophically. “All we can do is uphold the law.”

“Yeah but… I mean, how many?” You bluster, absently making the Sign of the Sunburst as you pass the crucified corpse of the looter.

“Enough that there haven’t been any Ghouls spotted around the Fremantle dump in near on a fortnight.” George replies simply.

“Tyris… Kinda makes you ashamed to share a marking with ‘em.” You remark, shaking your head. Looting during an official emergency was harshly punished, and rightfully so… still it rankled to see so many willing to put their own larcenous desires above the welfare of their fellow humans.

“Mmm… Hey… Joondalup finally fixed that fence after the Mihirung got into the vineyards.” George remarks, nodding at the freshly-peeled log fence which delineated the edge of a holding.

You blink in surprise. “Fuck off, we’re not in Joondalup yet… are we?”

“We’ve made damn good time, Freeman.” George explains with a tight grin. “The Landholder here’s a big fan of horseflesh, if I remember correctly, might even be able to offload a few of yer also-rans ahead of pulling in to Fremantle tomorrow.”

“This is thy home?” Bella asks, staring about at the buildings and bustling crowds from where she is perched behind you.

“Almost, HOME home is about half a day east of here.” You explain. “But close enough to feel good, doncha reckon pup?”

“Yehboss” Blue replies, closing her eyes blissfully as you pat her head.

“Tyris…” Came a groan from the back of your wagon, Tristan’s head popping up from under the cover. “…We here already?”

“You slept for two days, Tristan.” You chuckle, reining in the Bungarra before the stockyard stables, already crowded with the horses which had arrived ahead of you.

“Well that’d be why I’m hungrier than a Murchie Feral with twelve pups…” Tristan remarked.

“You wouldn’t even wake up for bacon!” Blue exclaimed, grinning at the Waylander, her tail wagging furiously in greeting.

“Oh… Nah, one of the lads saved me some when I woke up to drain the lizard briefly.” Tristan explained. “Still… Two days! Tyris. Must’ve needed it. Also hello Blue.”

“Hi.” Blue whuffled dreamily as the Waylander patted her head.

“And who’s this magnificent creature?” Tristan prompted, gazing at Bella appraisingly. The Griffon, subjected to both metaphorical barrels of the Waylander’s rugged charm, could only blush and mumble while wringing her talons.

“This’s Bella, the Griffon I was telling you about. To be perfectly honest you and the Militia owe her your continued non-shroomy existence.” You muttered somewhat darkly. Here we fucking go again…

“My sincerest thanks to you, gracious lady…” Tristan mused, taking one of Bella’s talons in a rough, calloused hand and raising it briefly to his lips. The Griffon giggled helplessly, actually trembling as the Waylander released her talon.

“Well, I’m off.” Tristan declared, pulling his high-collared brown coat about him and leaping from the wagon.

“P-prithee… why?” Bella lamented, earning herself a surly sideways glance from you.

“Gotta make sure me ‘prentice hasn’t given half the Barony away in my absence… make sure me Kangas are still alive… eat Joe’s larder bare… Take yer pick. Meet me there when you get a sec.”

“See how we go.” You replied noncommittally.

Tristan fixed you with a level stare. “That wasn’t a request. I still want to talk to you about what happened.”

“Balls.” You grumbled, having hoped against hope that two days of unconsciousness had muddled your brother’s infamously crystalline memory.

“Verily… He is…” Bella sighs lustily.

“Too right.” Blue agrees.

“Could ya fuckin’ not right now?” You spit venomously.

“Adam! What hath come over thee?” Bella asks in surprise.

“Adz gets surly when people notice Tristan is prettier than him.” Blue whuffles in amusement, throwing her furry forepaws around your shoulders. “Doncha boss?”

“Blue…” You growl.

“Boss…” Blue retorts, her azure eyes locked to yours. “…who’s your good girl?”

“You.” You surrender with a helpless sigh.

“Orright then…” You groan, handing the reins presumptuously to your Kobold. “…Blue, if you could be a good girl and sort us out here, I’ll go see Tristan. Bella, could you do me a favour and…”

“If it art all the same to thee, Adam, might I remain at leisure? ‘Tis mine fulsome desire to see more of this place.” the Griffon interjects.

“No drama. Blue, see if Cicerello’s got any room, otherwise the Tradewind’ll have to do again I s’pose.”

“Yehboss.” Blue replies, kissing you briefly on the cheek before barking harshly at the Bungarra, lashing them with the reins held proficiently in her tawny paws.

“You’re getting good at that…” You chuckle teasingly. Blue pokes her pink tongue out at you in wordless response before returning her attention to the lizards. You hop down from the wagon, ambling in the general direction of Joe’s. It felt like forever since you had tread these familiar streets, and every well-worn memory filled your heart with a curious warmth.

It was good to be back.

Judging by the crowd which had gathered at the front of the taproom of Joe’s, Tristan’s return had brought with it some burning issues people either didn’t feel comfortable entrusting to Matt, your boyhood friend and apprentice Waylander, or he had fucked up something major. You prayed it was the former, you honestly did. You also had no interest in waiting for the crowd to disperse, novelty sated or issues dealt with. You skirted the outside of the building, ducking through a staff entrance and hurrying back towards the taproom, hoping nobody saw you.

“He’s gonna flog me bloody…” A voice lamented. A voice you recognised. Matt. You paused, hugging the wall behind the corner of the hallway, listening intently.

“Don’t be so defeatist. He’s not unreasonable.” A second voice murmured comfortingly. That was one of the Kangas, you were pretty sure, but you couldn’t quite tell which one.

“There’s not unreasonable and then there’s this though Dani!” Matt exclaimed, clearly having worked himself up.

“Oi ‘prentice…”

“What, indentured?”

“Shut up.”

“Mmmffff!” You heard Matt’s objection smothered as something was pushed over his mouth. What the hell was that Kanga doing? You turned the corner, ready to give Dani a jolly good telling off for bullying your friend, but the excoriation died on your lips as your eyes took in the sight before you, The Kangaroo-girl with a fistful of Matt’s shirt in her furred, clawed forearm, pulling her roughly against him, his arm on the wall as he kissed her hungrily, a hand groping at the swell of a breast…

…You also couldn’t help but notice the slight swelling of the Kangaroo’s normally flat, toned abdomen.

“No shit…” You blurted in astonishment. Dani and Matt sprang apart like the other had each become white hot.

“Adz!” Matt exclaimed, a look of shock and horror on his face. “Now don’t…”

“Don’t what? Who’s talking? I swear I heard someone just then…” You state myopically, deliberately looking past the couple partially obscuring the hallway. “…I sure do hope I can get through to the taproom and see Tristan about something completely unrelated to this hallway with nobody in it.”

“Thanks Adz.” Dani murmurs gratefuly.

“I really must get my ears checked… Though I have a distinct desire to say congratulations… I have no idea why…” You continue, not looking at them as you give a thumbs up in their general direction, turning slightly sideways to squeeze past them… And almost colliding with Tristan who is coming around the blind corner the other way.

“Adz? I was just about to send…” Tristan exclaims, looking at you in mild surprise, before he notices Matt and Dani behind you. For a moment his eyes harden, his mouth tightens, then he sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose.

“Thanks for being proactive and getting Adz for me, Dani.” He states evenly, not really looking at the Kangaroo.

Dani frowns in puzzlement. “But I didn’t.”

“Thanks. For. Being. Proactive. And. Getting. Adz. For. Me.” Tristan repeats, fixing the Kangaroo with an imperious, almost threatening look.

“N-no worries, Master.” Dani almost gushes.

“Now Matt. I know we’re technically not supposed to start intensive field work until your third year, but for some reason I think about six or eight months from now I should get you working with Kira.”

“Uh… As you see fit, Waylander.” Matt agrees quickly.

“I hope your wrist is limber, I have a LOT of paperwork for you tonight.” Tristan promises menacingly.

Matt sighs. “Yes, Waylander.”

Tristan turns to you, beckoning. “Well, saves me the trouble of looking for you then. C’mon Adz.”

You follow the Waylander into the halls which house the inevitable offices required to run a tavern and eating-house of this size. Tristan knocks on the door of one before entering presumptuously.

“In the name of Baron Thomas, blah blah, so on and so forth… Bugger off.” He demands, flashing his badge of office to the surprised, callow looking youth bent over a pile of parchment.

“Y-yes Waylander!” The youth swallows, rushing from the room.

“Tell Joe I told him to give you the rest of the day off… and a good pint of stout, you look peaky!” Tristan called after the youth.

“Joe Junior?” You chuckle as Tristan closes the door behind him.

“Maybe, maybe not…” Tristan shrugs, flopping into the recently vacated chair. “…Now. Spill.”

“‘Bout what?” You reply carefully.

“Oh I don’t know, the weather? Price of salted fish in Esperance? New shoes? Fuck me backwards Adz, don’t play about with me…” Tristan demands.

“Well I didn’t really see anything, there’s any number of reasons they could have been in the hallway togeth…”

“NOT MY BREWERY, NOT MY SATYROS…” Tristan exclaims loudly, putting his fingers in his ears. You pause, getting the point. Tristan takes his fingers out of his ears, staring at you pointedly. “…Whatever you were talking about is clearly a matter for our Holy Mother Church. And she’s been real fuckin’ busy of late… Be a shame to bother her about something so trivial, doncha reckon?”

“Real busy.” You agree. “Why, it’d be a Virtue to save the Priestesses the trouble.”

“A Holy Virtue indeed. All Glory to Tyris and his Bollocks.” Tristan declares, raising his hands in the sign of the Sunburst. “Now, stop fucking about and tell me what happened.”

“You’re gonna have to be more specific, Tristan.” You reply, shrugging helplessly.

“You’re really gonna play this fucking game with me Adz? Me? You dozy little cunt, you haven’t been able to lie to me since the first day they marched your sniveling arse to Dad’s doorstep.” Tristan snarled, leaning forward in the chair. “Lancelin. That supposed naphtha was fucking trap-grease mixed with vegemite. Wouldn’t have done shit, yet somehow it managed to magically spread to the coast. Tell me how.”

“I suppose you wouldn’t accept Tyris showing His Divine Favour upon your efforts?” You offer lamely.

“Adam…” Tristan growls warningly.

“Alright! Shit!” You exclaim. “You’re a fucking pushy cunt towards someone who hasn’t done anything wrong, you know.”

“Take it up with the Baron if you’re that arsehurt. Now talk.”

You sigh, squeezing your eyes closed. “Say someone had come across a Matrix of Resonance out there in the bush somewhere. No how or why or wherefore… just… found it. Say that person opened it, and instead of going mad or vegetative… that person survived. Say that person knew that the Dominus had forbidden Resonants from operating in the Australs outside of official Church business, over which he has no authority. Say that person refused to go to Magisterium, but is pretending to be just another ordinary Jezza Smith-Son.”

Your breath catches in your throat, your eyes sting, but you press on. “Say that person came across his big brother about to get fuckin’ swarmed by shitfungus… Say that person had no other choice to save you…”

“You’re telling me you’re Resonant.” Tristan states evenly.

“Wilder.” You correct. “It was a choice made on impulse… If I’d known…”

Tristan gets out of his chair, moving around the paper-strewn desk to catch you in a rough hug. “Simmo told me mate… I didn’t want to believe it…”

“Wait. You knew?!” You yell, shoving him away. “You fucking knew, and you forced it out of me anyway? Why? Tyris be fucking Glorified Tristan, this isn’t a fucking game! If you knew the half of what I’ve had to fucking do after that rock fucked me in the brainstem you’d…”

“That will be quite enough of that.” A female voice interjected, the wimpled features of a High Priestess standing in the now open doorway.

“Your Reverence.” You and Tristan automatically responded, ducking your heads and tugging forelocks at her.

“Waylander.” The High Priestess began imperiously. “I will have a Vow of Silence from you for everything you may hear in this room.”

“O-of course, Sister Superior Rachael.” Tristan agreed obsequiously, before fixing the High Priestess with a smouldering stare. “Foreasmuch as you know I am our Holy Mother Church’s most loyal servant…”

“Don’t you give me those eyes Tristan…” Rachael demanded, flushing slightly and adjusting her wimple.

You turn to your elder brother, fixing him with a level stare. “One day you’re not going to be pretty any more, then you’re fucked.”

“But not today.” Tristan grinned cheekily, and for a moment you saw the fifteen-year-old boy who had taught you to catch yabbies in the dam and how to properly steal cooling pastries from the cook’s trays without getting caught.

“You’re fuckin’ good Tristan.” You chuckle appreciatively, shaking your head. “Why’d you go law? You could have owned half the world as a trader.”

“Few are called, fewer are chosen.” Tristan remarked enigmatically. “Course you’d know all about that, wouldn’t you… Resonant.”

“You will not refer to him as such. He is unacknowledged by Magisterium.” Rachael stated, stepping in front of you. “Though it appears I am too late to prevent his mouth from running over.”

“He’s my Brother, Reverence.” You explain simply, before puzzlement furrowed your brow. “Who told you I was here, by the way?”

“Your winged friend. She is possessed of a marked eloquence and a singular presence, by the way. The way she framed herself against the setting sun… a few of our acolytes nearly genuflected in her presence, would you believe?” Rachael exclaimed.

“Bella…” You grin helplessly. “…I love that girl… Uh… In a purely platonic sense, of course!” You quickly correct.

“Of course…” Sister Superior Rachael sighed, rolling her eyes before moving towards you. “…I understand we have you to thank for that spectacular display to the north… You impulsive, careless…”

You brace yourself for the slap, eyes widening in surprise as the High Priestess embraces you warmly.

“…wonderful, wonderful man.” She exclaims. “How did you manage to get it all?”

“Well…” You explain, feeling slightly uncomfortable in Rachel’s arms, your brother making it no better by fixing you with a mocking grin. “…Bella brought me in from above… I had a rough idea of the span, and from there you just… Y’know…” You explain, extricating yourself from Rachel’s matronly embrace.

“There was no chance of any survivors?” Rachael asked desperately.

“Mohorovicic was thick and solid from the road to the Chancel Isle.” You shake your head sadly.

“Tyris… Most High God… take your poor children to you gently…” Rachael sighed, squeezing her eyes shut against the tears threatening to spill over.

“I’m sorry, Reverence…” You offer, putting a comforting hand on the Priestess’s back. “…You lost someone there?”

“Dear friends… and…” The High Priestess broke off, biting off the grief threatening to spill from her mouth with a will of meteor iron.

“Family?” You offer.

“Blasphemy!” The Priestess grates, though her voice is one of pain, not anger.

“I supplicate The Forgiveness of The God.” You offer sincerely, sinking to your knees, raising your hands in the Sign of the Sunburst.

“Granted.” Rachael remarks absently, control returning to her voice. “Though I would know you, Wilder.”

Right in front of me brother and all Your Rev-OH TYRIS FUCK! OUCH!” You declare, as letters of fire seem to inscribe themselves on your forehead.

“I recognise you.” Rachael states simply.

“I stand recognised… also fuckin’ ow!” You lament, dabbing at your forehead as if expecting to see blood on your fingertips. “Why didn’t you use the other one?”

“Didn’t think of it. Don’t forget you have a job to do, Freeman. Waylander, see this doesn’t leave this room.” Rachael orders absently. “Also… I summon you for Continuance.”

“The Will of the Most High be forever Obeyed.” Tristan responds without hesitation. “Give me a small time to allow my Apprentice to take over my duties?

“Granted, but don’t dawdle, Waylander.” Rachael muses with a smoky, challenging stare, before turning and leaving the room, closing the door behind her.

“Tyris…” Tristan sighs, rolling his eyes.

You raise an eyebrow. “Whazzamadder?”

“She’s a crier…” Tristan responds with a helpless shrug.

“You should see what they make you do when you’re Resonant.” You drawl, a grin spreading across your face.

“I take it I don’t want to know.” Tristan laughs.

“You really don’t.”

Tristan shakes his head helplessly. “Adz… Really… Are you alright?”

“Tristan… If I gotta be honest mate, I feel like I’ve aged three decades in the last year.” You admit sincerely. “What I’ve seen… what I’ve done… It’s been hard.”

“Why didn’t you just go to Magisterium?”

You take a deep breath, looking at the floor before letting it out. “You’re still sworn to secrecy, yeah?”

Tristan spreads his arms. “We’re still in this room, aren’t we?”

“Blue.” You reply seriously. “I can’t leave her mate… She’s… she’s a part of me.”

“Please Tyris, let Dani and Matt be less complicated.” Tristan prays effusively, raising his eyes to the heavens.

You can’t help but chuckle at that. “You alright with that?”

Tristan shrugs slightly “Assuming her Mob is fine with looking after their daughter… also assuming Matt doesn’t fall over and die doing fieldwork with Kira. Won’t denounce ‘em for Heresy but I’ll be damned if I’ll let them slack off any more than I have to for getting pregnant.”

“All any of us can ask for I suppose.”

“Heh. Yeh.” Tristan agrees. “Welcome home mate.”

“Adam!” Ivy exclaims as you walk through the door of the Tenno and Goldstein office. “I done gone thunk we wouldn’t be seein’ you until tomorrow, Sugar!”

“Yeh welll…” You reply absently. “…better to keep accounts current.”

“Do you owe us money?” Juni asked eagerly, the Tanuki’s fluffy tail positively bottlebrushing behind her. “Please tell me he owes us money Ivy…”

“Other way around I’m afeared honey.” Ivy sighs. Juni groans in near religious lament at the news.

“Just wanted to check in, make sure everything got sorted like planned.” You continue, leaning absently against the counter.

“You know between you and the Kalbarrian…” Juni begins, sidling up to you and tracing a finger up your torso. “…I might even think it’s worth doing this run regularly.”

“We skimmed the cream Juni.” You chuckle, patting the Tanuki’s hand. “Thoroughly. You’re looking at at least a year before we get anything of similar quality.”

“Ivy showed me the Solar Marks you brought her…” Juni states almost accusingly. “…You know you could have gotten me to do just about anything with those…”

“Heh. You Tanuki.” You smirk, patting Juni on the head absently. The Tanuki makes a small sound, her head pressing against your hand, her mouth open and her eyes rolled back into her head.

“Late Spring?” You ask the Taurean, who is trying very hard to look like she isn’t fidgeting on the other side of the counter.

“Somethin’ like that, Sugar.” Ivy admits.

“Come ON Human….” Juni demands. “…Ivy told me about what happened near Geraldton. You’re really going to leave me out?”

“Geraldton, Juni?” You exclaim in mock surprise. “She told you about that, did she?”

“Well I mean I done kinda mentioned it in passing…” Ivy explains.

“You were bragging your horns off, Ivy, don’t lie.” Juni retorts hotly.

“Oh. I see…” You remark, walking around the counter as if lost in thought, pausing behind the Taurean who looks over her shoulder at you in slight puzzlement. “…So she told you how she nearly tore my head off with her thighs the first time I made her come…” Without warning, you grab Ivy’s buttocks roughly with both hands, the Taurean’s brief shriek of surprise turning into a moaning low as you massage her hindquarters. “…So that’s what you’re after? Or would you prefer me to just take you over the counter like so…”

Ivy gives a small, pleased chuckle and an ‘Oooh…’ as you push her forward at the nape of the neck, bending her over the counter with one hand, the other continuing to tease at her thighs and rear, her voluminous breasts squashed against the wood, threatening to spill from her shirt.

“One, either, both…” Juni agrees without hesitation, almost drooling as she stares at you greedily.

“Or maybe I should show you what you’re in for with Ivy first… No sense going into things unprepared…” You continue, pushing aside the crotch of ivy’s short-cropped pants and teasing the wetness beneath with your fingertips.

“S-sugar you’re bein’ dreadful naughty…” Ivy pants, her hands clawing at the wood of the counter.

“Sorry Ivy, just making a point.” You apologize, straightening her up down there and moving back around the counter, the act of which drawing a frustrated, wordless sound of objection from the aroused mamono. “Maybe put you on your knees…” You purr at Juni, a hand on her cheek, your thumb on her pouty lower lip. “…Have you clean me off first.” You slip your thumb into the Tanuki’s bowlike mouth, a moan vibrating around your digit as the Tanuki visibly quivers, her tail and the fluffy ruffs on her calves brushing out as if she’d been struck by lightning.

“Okay…” Juni whimpers in a small voice, as your thumb pops free, beginning to sink to her knees.

“It’s too bad really…” You sigh, turning away from the pair. “…I’ve just got so much to do this afternoon. Tyris forgive me my proximity to blasphemy but he really doesn’t make enough bloody hours in the day.”

“WHAT?!” Juni demands in an almost animalistic snarl.

“Sugar! That’s just plum mean now.” Ivy scolds in shock.

“I’m sure you understand Juni, Tanuki and all. Business’s gotta come first… Though I mean I might see fit to…”

White stars bloomed in your vision as something hit you behind the ear. Hard. Strange, you didn’t remember falling, yet here was the floor. Good floor… Your mouth throbs and you tongued the area experimentally. You taste copper and a tooth wiggles slightly. Bad floor… Someone was pulling you somewhere, your eyes weren’t exactly working properly and everything seemed to sound like it was underwater. You tried to regain your feet but for some reason your arms and legs wouldn’t do what they told you. That sent a jolt of panic and adrenaline through your system, clearing your sap-addled mind. You groan, blinking, raising your head and squinting through clearing vision to see your hands and feet thoroughly bound.

Thank Tyris, at least you hadn’t broken your back or something similarly permanent.

“…Don’t think that was really necessary though Honey.” Ivy chides from somewhere behind you.

“I am not going to be denied a third time in my own damn office!” Ivy retorts. “You know how it works. I like him, and I want him, and he was given plenty of options to do things the easy way, but he just had to have it the hard way. The choice was his.”

“Juni.” You groan, blinking against the thumping headache which has decided to take up residence in your skull “This is a terrible idea. Stop it now, untie me, and we can forget this whole thing ever happened.”

“Oh, I’ll untie you, after I’ve gotten what I want…” Juni hums sweetly, her sunny smile belying her intent.

“You did tease her somethin’ awful, Sugar.” Ivy reminds you in a disapproving tone.

“A bit of bully’s no justification for rape in the eyes of the law, Ivy.” You reply seriously. “Juni, think about it. This is going to end very badly…”

Juni snorts. “Come on Adam, you’re a big guy…”

“…For you.”

“Just me?” Juni chuckles. “Adam, say you DO decide to denounce me. I’ve got enough swing around here to get you at LEAST put to the confession over it. And what other little details are you going to let slip before your God, hmmm? Something about a certain Kobold wanting a baby in her perchance?”

You look back at Ivy with a mixture of hurt and disapproval. “Thought we had an understanding, Ivy.”

Ivy sighs, lowering her eyes regretfully. “Sugar, I like you, I really do, but like you said, business is business, and we ain’t got nearly enough of a hold on you to make any of us comfortable… Plus, you seem to have a knack of makin’ the dice turn up in your favour too damn often.”

“Put ‘em on a plate in a hot bread oven for an hour.” You retort snidely.

“Ain’t what I’m talkin’ about sugar… Just say yes and let her have you for a little while, it ain’t gonna hurt nobody after all.” Ivy almost pleads.

“Ooh, is this a new game?” An echoing voice crawls from somewhere near your feet, sending goosebumps up your spine. “I like games.”

You raise your head, curious as to the source, to see an… odd… being standing at your feet. Her stance was demure, and she seemed to be clad in the garb of a servant of a noble house. One of House Reinhardt’s? Couldn’t be, where was the crest? And why did she seem so… wet?

With a crashing realization, you understood. Those weren’t clothes, those were an extension of her body manipulated to look like clothes. As if to solidify your theory a tendril of blue-grey snaked from beneath her ‘dress’, poking at your ankle experimentally.

“He doesn’t do much, does he?” The newcomer remarked, looking directly at you with those glowing yellow eyes. At that stage it wouldn’t have mattered if you had retained the presence of forethought to attempt to cast a Resonant glyph, the whispers in the tongues of madness itself which filled your skull would have rendered you incapable.

“Tyris… Most High God… Deliver me…” You almost whimpered, snaking away from the figure as well as your bound form could manage.

“Yisbeth, quit it.” Juni ordered shortly. “I don’t quite need his mind but I really would prefer him not reduced entirely to shrieking madness.”

“My Apologies, miss Juni.” the entity identified as ‘Yisbeth’ replied, inclining her head towards the Tanuki.

“Why are you here, you’re supposed to be looking after Mr. Goldstein?” The Tanuki prompted.

“I am, Miss Juni… He is on his way. He wished me to proceed him so that his time was not taken up by… unforeseen delays.”

“Dangit.” Ivy remarked in displeasure. “I am not in the doggone mood for a lecture today.”

“Maou’s got a weird sense of humor. Come on, help me get Adam in the back, no sense giving the old man more things to talk about…” Juni sighs, picking up your feet and gesturing for Ivy to take your shoulders. Yisbeth giggles in that discordantly echoing voice of hers, which makes you shudder once again. The Mamono pair set you down (surprisingly gently) and Ivy makes some show of bundling a throw-pillow behind your head.

“She don’t mean no harm Sugar, honest… Just… Late spring, y’know?” The Taurean explains with a hint of desperation.

“I really don’t.” You remark in a nonplussed tone.

“Can I get you anything? A drink maybe?”

“I’m fine. Just don’t forget I’m back here. You two might want to think about how Blue and Bella will react if they find me like this.”

“I like to think there’ll be giggling involved.” Ivy suggests, trying to inject a hint of levity.

“Dunno, I’ve never seen Bella kill…” You reply in a neutral tone. “…Maybe think about that.”

“Y’all gots to be complicated, doncha?” Ivy sighs in frustration as she follows the Tanuki back out the front of the office. Truth be told the Mamono had made you as comfortable as they could given the circumstances, and you gave some thought to a brief nap, thought which was interrupted by the outside door opening and the step-clump-thud of someone leaning heavily on a crutch or cane as they entered.

“Ahhh…” A deep, smooth, undeniably male voice sounded from the main office “…Juni, Ivy. It’s been some time.”

“Two years, Mr. Goldstein.” Juni answered with the closest thing to subservience that you had ever heard from her.

“Miss Tenno tells me that our operations throughout the Archipelago are proceeding apace, How are things on this end? Oh… thank you Yisbeth.” A slight grunt of relief and the slight scraping of a person taking a seat.

You had an itchy nose, and were growing thoroughly bored with this. The only question was, what was the best way to proceed? Finance Magnate of unknown influence and that nightmare thing straight out of hell’s blackest hole? Yeah, there was no way you were going to wave your metaphorical dick around, resonance or no resonance.

It took little complexity to sunder the bonds about your wrists, though the effort of restricting the glyph to a single section of rope was surprisingly taxing. What WAS this, that it seemed to want to split the world in half by default, you wondered? Leaning forward, you quickly undid the bindings around your ankles, standing and stretching before scratching your nose thoroughly. Ahhhh, much better. You gingerly poked the area of your skull where Juni had rabbit-punched you, it was tender, but she didn’t seem to have damaged anything. For a moment you pondered the deceptive strength of the Tanuki, as well as the fact that once again you had underestimated her. You would need to take pains to ensure you did not do so again.

“…Up at least fifteen percent.” Juni’s voice intruded from the main office.

“Only fifteen?” Goldstein’s deep, smooth voice enquired.

“Well we did scoop up quite a bit of infrastructure that Nautilus has had to liquidate. They’ve been hit pretty hard here in the west.”

“And valuation wasn’t included in your forward estimates?”

“The situation is a little unstable… We’ll be able to get a more solid view once Kalbarri’s back under Human control.”

“Neisha was a disappointing development, it’s true…” Goldstein sighs “…Too bad that promising young man from Gilgai’s already under Nautilus’s tentacles.”

“Uh, Beggin’ yer pardon Mr. Goldstein, Sir. But not anymore he ain’t…” Ivy interjects in her trademark drawl. “…Nautilus done cashed him out when they liquidated their holdin’s in Kalbarri on account-a that Fleshmarket I told you about.”

“Oh yes… Fleshmarket… Terrible business that. I assume we’ve pulled all investment out of similar establishments?”

“No need for it in the interior, mining accidents happen often enough that those who need it can get it easily enough.” Juni again.

“See now I’m thinkin’ he’d be better as a Majordomo or the like…” Ivy continued. “…He’s knowin’ the land and all, sure, but I got a good feelin’ about Adam from Gibson Holdin’…”

“Can we NOT talk about him right now?” Juni spits hotly.

“Master, she’s all afluster…” Yisbeth echoed discordantly.

“Shut it Shoggy.” Juni growls.

“My my… six years in the Australs has turned you into something of a local, Miss Juni…” Goldstein snickers amusedly. “…The name hasn’t escaped my notice, Miss Ivy, but from what I can tell he’s just an eager young man with the inexplicable luck Tyris grants to fools and madmen.”

“See that’s my point Sir.” Ivy explains. “Whatever higher power done fell in love with his cute butt, I can’t think of a better place to take advantage of it than a barony what sorely needs itself an injection of good fortune.”

“It’s worth considering, but he’s still something of an unknown factor. Do we have any leverage on him?”

“Rumor and hearsay, I’m afraid.”

“Pity. Probably best to meet the chap then. You can get ahold of him?”

“I can practically guarantee it, Mr. Goldstein.” Juni replies smugly.

A wicked grin spreads across your face. With a quick glyph, you reduce a section of the stone wall to so much sand, slipping through the makeshift opening and into the street.

“Cameth not Pride before the Fall of God-Before-Tyris” You intone under your breath, melting away into the milling crowds, luckily still plentiful as the days lengthened into summer. Right, better go find Bella and the Pup and work out a plan. You? A Baron? The concept was ridiculous, clearly they thought you little more than a rube to be manipulated once on the throne… Still… Nobility… Money didn’t buy happiness but a feather bed was still more comfortable than a swag in the dirt.

Spotting Cicerello’s sign waving in the late afternoon breeze, you made towards it, hoping that some of your purported luck had rubbed off on your indentured.

“She did WHAT?!” Blue snarls, her hackles raised as she paces the room she had secured for the three of you in Cicerello’s establishment. “Tanuki bitch… I’m gonna do her hamstrings.”

“Oi, settle down pup, wasn’t too long ago you were giving some consideration to having a go at her yourself.” You interject, surprised at Blue’s vehemence.

“There’s a way to go about things boss!” Blue explains, still fuming. “Rabbit punching my Hus… I mean, my Master and making with the forcey fun time is fuckin’ off value. Did Ivy not do a damn thing to help?”

You shrug. “I think there’s a bit of politics there, she tried to talk her out of it but she also kinda seemed to think I deserved it a bit.”

“Certes…” Bella remarked.

“Bella?” You ask incredulously, raising an eyebrow at the Griffon.

“Hast thou not heard of the expression ‘poke thou not the bear-girl?” Bella asks, folding her talons across her chest and looking at you with mild disapproval. “Thou knowest that all Mamono are somewhat… sensitive due to the demands that the season doth place ‘pon us, yea, as Maou hath dictated foreasmuch as…”

“Orright Bella I don’t need the sermon…” You sigh, truth be told you did lay on the bully a bit thick.

“Pfft. Shit excuse feathers.” Blue retorts. “Juni KNOWS how this works.”

“How exactly DOES this work, Blue?” You interject, “Because from where I’m sitting it looks like you girls kinda make it up as you go.”

“You’re Human, you wouldn’t get it.” Blue sniffs.

“‘Tis indeed a subtle matter which Mamono are best placed to comprehend, Adam.” Bella agrees.

“Try me.” You drawl levelly.

Blue rolls her azure eyes, beckoning with a tawny paw at the Griffon. Putting paws to Bella’s cheeks, she kisses her deeply, Bella’s talons resting atop the Kobold’s slender shoulders. Blue breaks the kiss, looking at you pointedly, before kissing Bella again.

The kiss looks slightly… different somehow, you can’t put your finger as to exactly how it differs, but something nagging in the back of your mind insists it is.

“Now boss, tell me what you just saw.” Blue states, straightening her clothes.

“You kissed Bella, then you kissed her again, but different.”

“Impressive…” Bella remarks, raising her thin, golden brows in surprise.

“Different how?” Blue prompts.

“I… I dunno… just different.”

“Well the fact you noticed it is a big thing anyway boss.” Blue declares, throwing her paws about you and kissing you lingeringly. “But until you can tell me WHAT was different, you won’t understand.”

“Right…” You sigh. “…So what do you reckon? I mean, this could get hairy.”

“I’m sure she trims.” Blue replies without thought.

You stare incredulously at your indentured. “Oh hells, Blue, do you actually mean for me to go through with it?”

“Not if you don’t want to, Boss… But if you do, then you gotta make sure to do it right. She’s gotta be… Reminded. Reminded that I was your girl first, and that YOU’RE Alpha.”

“Put her across my knee?” You suggest helplessly.

Blue taps a furred digit against her bowlike mouth in thought. “Yeh… could work… It’s all about attitude boss, and you know how to pull that out with me.” Blue pauses as a delicious shiver coursed through her at the memory.

“Focus Blue…” You chuckle.

“Hmm? Oh right… But I mean there’s no need to. I can go and tell her off while you go see this Goldstump.”

“Goldstein.” You correct absently. “That’s… Not gonna be a problem?”

“Pfft. No. She knows she broke the rules, and I’m meaner than her.” Blue grins rapaciously, her sharp little teeth bared.

“Actually Blue…” You begin, scratching at the stubble on your cheek. “…Hang here a bit, I’m gonna go find Goldstein meself. That offsider of his gave me the willies and if I’ve got to drop a chunk of sky on him, I’d rather them not have the opportunity to hold you hostage.”

“But Booooossssss…” Blue laments, giving you her azure eyes.

“Don’t worry pup, we’ll go sort Juni out together.” You assure her, patting her head.

“Orright…” Blue sighs in acceptance.

“Good girl. Bella, could I impose upon you…”

“Hey!” Blue objects.

“Just to give me eyes on him, I’ll do the rest meself.” You explain.

“Aye, certes Adam… But art thou sure thou art not… EEEK!” Bella shrieks as an unseen hand yanks at her feathered, leonine tail.

“Got it darl. Cheers for asking though…” You smirk, tapping at your temple.

“There. That’s him.” You declare, pointing to the portly, well dressed human waddling down the street, the form of the Shoggoth almost flowing as it demurely moves beside him. “Set me down in the alley there.”

“Cry thou in a loud voice shouldst thou need my assistance. For yea, I shalt employ mine…” Bella whispers covertly as she sets you down.

“I got it Bella.” You chuckle, patting her Talon and kissing her cheek briefly. The Griffon’s mouth twists in a slight pout, before she beats her massive wings once, rendering herself airborne once more.

“Mr Goldstein, I presume.” You muse, stepping from the alley into the path of the portly man.

“M-Merciful Tyris!” He squawks, recoiling in surprise, his voice thin and reedy. “What do you want?”

“Hold the fucking farcaster…” You declare, noticing the difference between the portly man’s voice and the deep, resonant baritone you had heard in the T&G office. “…You’re not…”

A glint of steel catches your eye as a thin blade taps absently on your shoulder. You freeze, reaching for the Logos… And then the Shoggoth looks at you again…

“Gah!” You gasp, throwing an arm instinctively across your eyes, promptly cutting yourself on the blade resting on your shoulder. “OW! FUCK!”

“Well it serves you right for squirming” the more familiar voice chuckles from behind you, removing the blade. “Thank you Neville, that will be all.”

“N-no worries Mister Goldstein…” The portly man gulps, mopping his brow with a yellowed kercheif before waddling away at top speed. You weren’t exactly sure WHO the fat bastard was running from, to be perfectly honest.

Holding the cut on your arm, you turn to face the Magnate who has just outfoxed you.

“Adam of Gibson Holding I presume…” He drawls urbanely, a smug smile on his smoothly shaven face, finely boned like the most precisely bred Magisterian diplomat, his silver hair absolutely immaculate, high collar trailing down into a jacket and trousers which positively screamed obscene wealth. Tyris be Glorified, even the Baron didn’t tote such finery!

“That…” You grumble, holding up your cut arm. “…Was fuckin’ off value.”

“You tried to ambush me, did you not?”

“Tried to catch you off guard.” You correct.

“It amounts to the same thing.” Goldstein sniffs. “Come. Have a drink with me.”

“Master…” Yisbeth echoes, flowing towards you, her glowing yellow eyes suspicious.

“Yisbeth, don’t play with our creditor.” Goldstein chides gently, sheathing the thin blade into the haft of an ebony cane. “And please don’t dawdle Freeman. I have much to do and only so much time to afford you. Come.”

What could you do? You went…

“Fuck me…” You breathed, looking wide eyed at the subtle opulence of your surrounds.

“I’d really rather not. You’re a little rough for my tastes, Freeman.” Goldstein quipped in reply, gesturing for you to take a seat at a low table opposite him.

“Not what I… Nevermind.” You sighed, not willing to be drawn on the matter, especially not in such surrounds. “So… The Crux Club… High end.” You venture, sinking into the luxurious cushioning of your seat and feeling obscenely out of place. From the covert glances you were getting from nearby patrons, you weren’t alone in this conclusion. Goldstein murmurs a few words to the Shoggoth accompanying you, and with that same disconcerting flow of motion, Yisbeth moved to murmur quietly to the other nearby patrons, who near universally made haste to be anywhere but there. Soon, you were alone in the luxurious lounge.

“A completely manufactured exclusivity I assure you… In fact I can assure you there are a number of regular members here who Juni would just love to get her hands on.” Goldstein replies with a slight grin, signalling one of the few remaining waitstaff with the casual nonchalance of those used to being instantly obeyed.

You give a whistle of mock sympathy. “In the red?”

“To the proverbial neck.” Goldstein admits.

“Like who?”

“Ut ut… confidentiality, dear boy.” Goldstein chides, pausing as a Kikimora bends forward with a tray containing two tulip glasses with a rich, dark spirit within them. “Thank you Chesna. What are we blessed with today?”

“A rye distillate fashioned after Zipangan tradition. A favourite of The Aestenland High Lord, I am told, Sir.” The Kikimora replies demurely.

“Well then, in Zipangan tradition, Kampai.” Goldstein declares, raising his glass towards you.

“That’s disgusting.” You reply, making a face.

The magnate looks at you levelly. “You haven’t even tried it.”

“Yeah nah I don’t care how much of this plonk you fill me with, I’m not making a cum-pie.” You declare in revulsion.

“What? No… KAMPAI, you idiot…” Goldstein chuckles helplessly, shaking his head in disbelief. “Cum-pie… Really… What in the name of Tyris?”

“Old story…” You admit, somewhat bashfully after your obvious gaffe. “…’Bout how Succubi’ll milk you into a pie until you die from exertion. We used to tell each other the craziest shit when we were in the Abbey.”

“The most worrying thing there is that I can see it happening, under the right circumstances.” Goldstein remarks thoughtfully. “Nonetheless drink. Tell me what you make of it.”

You sip the spirit, feeling it burn its way across your palate. It was… interesting, almost ‘fresh’ in comparison to the smoky, and at times almost sickly sweet distillates popular in the Australs. You were, you had to admit, pleasantly surprised… Plus it kicked like a mare in heat.

“That’ll put some hair on your arse.” You declare, smacking your lips.

“I thought you’d enjoy it.” Goldstein replies, seemingly pleased with your reaction. “Still. To business. You put something of a hole in one of the walls of my office.”

“Thought it was Juni’s office…” You respond without thought.

“She may like to believe it so. Chesna, I believe we’ll move to something longer, perhaps involving citrus. The days do grow warmer after all.”

“Certainly, Sir.” The Kikimora replies deferently, her feathered tail rustling against her skirts as she moves away, but not before fixing a murderous glare at the back of the Shoggoth’s head. Yisbeth smirks, her glowing yellow eyes smug, yet she does not move from her position at Goldstein’s side.

“Kiki doesn’t like your assistant.” You remark.

Goldstein spares the departing Kikimora the slightest turn of his head. “Shoggoths and Kikimora have something of a… natural rivalry. Still, that’s besides the point. It’s easily repaired, in fact unless I miss my guess Juni probably has already strongarmed a stonemason into doing just that.”

“I’m not paying her back for it. Unlawful deprivation of liberty is a secular sin, and let’s just say her reasons for doing so wouldn’t make the church too pleased either.” You retort defiantly.

“She planned to rape you. I’m aware.” Goldstein replied nonchalantly, as if you had told him nothing more than your preferred fishing bait. “And the fact you did was expected and natural. I’m not seeking recompense from one of my best performing creditors for something so trivial. What I’m interested in is how.”

“Not bad this…” You remark, swirling the remaining spirit in your glass before polishing it off “…be interesting to find out how it’s made.”

“Zipangan distillers are remarkably close lipped about their… Ah.” Goldstein trails off, realizing your point. “Don’t ruin an edge by making it known.”

“For a man who keeps a pig-sticker in his walking stick I’m surprised that you weren’t expecting that response.”

“Still, there are other ways of revealing hidden truths. I did after all, invite you here to find out about you.” The magnate remarks, before promptly pulling a shard pistol from his jacket and pointing it at you.

“Tyris fuck!” You exclaim, rapidly raising a resonant shield in front of yourself.

“There.” Yisbeth remarks in that echoing voice. “He did it.”

“Resonance… Remarkable…” Goldstein almost purrs, rapping the barrel of his pistol against your hastily raised shield, the dull ‘chunk’ of alloy against whatever force prevented ingress through it sounding like nothing more than a spoon against a hard, stale loaf of bread.

“How commonplace…” Goldstein chuckles, as if reading your thoughts.

His nonchalance stings you. “Right.” You begin, your mouth curled with disdain. “So. You know from threatening me life I could set you and your moist little terrifying fuckin’ mate on fire with me brain and no law in the land could gainsay me?”

“Oh please, enough with the dramatics, it’s not even primed.” Goldstein scoffs, squeezing the trigger which does nothing but cause the device to emit a brief, impotent buzz. “Besides. I’m completely aware of the effect Yisbeth has on Resonants…”

Suddenly the Shoggoth was in your face, her glowing eyes filling your vision. Shrieking madness filled your brain and you cried out, squeezing your eyes closed. “I get the bloody point! Leave off!”

“Ufufufu…” The Shoggoth snickers smugly, tapping you on the nose with a cool finger. “…He’s cute when he’s scared.”

“Yisbeth. Don’t gloat, it’s unseemly.” Goldstein chides.

“Yes Master.” She replies automatically, and you feel more than hear her moving away from you. Experimentally, you crack an eye open to see her back at her place beside the finance magnate, moist hands folded demurely as if she had never moved.

“Orright… HOW.” You demand exasperatedly.

“Shoggoths are sensitive to changes in reality, considering their… Origin.” Goldstein begins.

“What are you talking about? They’re born of Hell the same as all Mamono.” You scoff.

“Oh no…” Goldstein tsks, shaking his head. “…They are projections into this world from… elsewhere. Expatriated and embraced by Maou in the centuries following, it’s true, but if you think Yisbeth is terrifying now, be glad you’re alive now and not in the time before that occurred.”

“How long are we talking?” You gulp.

“A million years or so, wouldn’t you say pet?” Goldstein queries.

“Yes Master, in vague terms.” The Shoggoth agrees.

“Fuck off.” You blurt. “You’re a million years old.”

“Dear me…” Yisbeth giggles in that echoing voice “…No. My memories are drawn from the sweet and warm times of my parents’ parents’ parents’ parents back to the beginning. The bits of a million lifetimes coalesced into a birth gift of complete awareness.

“Dinkum eh?” You reply, trying to look like you understood a single word of that. “Still doesn’t explain why you looking at me has me cheese perchin’ very precariously on me cracker.”

“Have a care, Mister Adam…” Yisbeth echoed warningly “…For there are forces beyond your ken at work in the world and when you know enough to see them…”

“Again? Tyris be bloody glorified I’ll stop you there.” You beg, holding up your hand. “At this stage I’m wondering if I shouldn’t find these ‘Forces’ and let them know a whole buncha cunts are talkin’ shit about them down here.”

Yisbeth blinks slowly, before raising a hand to her mouth and chuckling. “He’s funny, Master.”

“He certainly recovers quickly from the unexpected.” Goldstein admits.

“Mate if you knew even the bloody half of it…” You laugh, gladly taking the offered drink from the returning Kikimora. “Cheers sheila.”

“Well, to it then. Baron of Kalbarri.”

“You’re fuckin’ berko.” You reply absently, drinking deeply.

Goldstein steeples his hands. “You don’t want the position?”

“I’m not even twenty one yet. How the bloody buggering hell you reckon I’m gonna run a Barony?” You demand incredulously.

“You wouldn’t be the first. Ivy does have an eye for talent, she wouldn’t be putting you forward if she didn’t believe in you.”

You look levelly at the magnate over your goblet. “And I’m sure T&G are just gonna back me out the goodness of yer hearts… You know the kind of power a Baron has, legally, right?” You snort.

“We would of course insist on certain… Assurances.” Goldstein admits

“Such as?”

Goldstein rested his stick across his knees. “Your child.”

You call upon the Logos instinctively, the air around you positively crackling with power as you float from your seat to hover in the air. “There had better be a fucking explanation following that, fucking sharpish, or I’ll obliterate half the fucking block for that Heresy, cunt.”

“Language…” Goldstein sighs, seemingly unperturbed. “…And do calm yourself. We mean no harm, merely that you proceed as you already have been.”

“Explain.” You order, forming a white-hot ball of fire between your hands.

“The Kobold, Adam. Father her child… AFTER you become Baron.”

The shock of the suggestion shattered your attention, causing both flame and levitation to flee your mind like a covey of pigeons. With a slight exhalation, you collapse back in your chair. “The fuck? You know that’s a guaranteed way to find myself warming a square, right?”

“By Tyris, I do think he’s grasping it.” Goldstein remarks to his Shoggoth attendant. “Yes Adam. That is the idea. Play nice, and we keep your secret. Put us at odds, and suddenly our confidentiality will be much less guarded.”

“The Faith Militant would have questions for anyone who bore that information.” You remark, eyes narrowing suspiciously.

“After Neisha? You’d be lucky for the Paladins to GET to Kalbarri before the public lynches you.” Goldstein smirks. “Look, this can be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, if you agree. A long and prosperous reign for you, and the Ascendency of Tenno and Goldstein in the Financial markets of The Australs.”

“I’m not the only option though.” You remark, reminding yourself as much as the Magnate.

“True. Chad of Gilgai Holding is a more than acceptable candidate for the Barony, and much easier to ingratiate into our influence, to be honest.” Goldstein admitted. “Look, this is getting much more heated than I intended, and my time, as I said, is limited.”

“What’s to stop me from going to the Waylanders with this the instant I leave?” You ask helplessly.

Goldstein smirks, putting an arm around his Shoggoth attendant and pressing his lips to hers. His silver hair shimmers, becoming a glossy black. His eyes change from ice-blue to a verdant green, and even his face seems to change.

“Please. Show me the Waylander who can find “Mister Goldstein” if he doesn’t wish to be found.” The Magnate chuckles, tapping his forehead with the metal head of his staff before standing and departing. “Enjoy the Hospitality of the Crux Club for as long as you wish, Adam. I will make a Baron of the Man who meets me here at this time tomorrow.”

“Fuck.” You grunt, throwing the remainder of your drink back.

“What’re you gonna do Boss?” Blue whines, looking at you askance with her azure eyes.

“No fucking idea Blue… But I for one am a bit fuckin’ peeved.” You admit, patting her absently. “Wanna go bully a Danuki?”

“Maou YES!” Blue grins rapaciously.

“Verily, I would question the wisdom of this course of action.” Bella muses warningly.

You shrug, still too irritated to really take her seriously. “Eh. Was gonna do it anyway Bella.”

“Certes. Well. Forsooth, ‘tis indeed thy fortune that I dine this eve with Miss Ivy.” The Griffon remarks. “…And mayhap it is better that ‘tis done by thee than by me.”

“Eh?” you grunt, raising an eyebrow at the Griffon.

“Thou wert churlish to tease her, certes. But parfay her actions were beyond pale in their own right. Also… I am made joyous at the thought of a Danuki begging.” Bella admits with the ghost of a smile and a covert wink.

“You’re a savage Bel, and I fuckin’ love you for it.” You laugh, ruffling the Griffon’s headfeathers.

“Were it not thee I would not be so accommodating. Daresay thou shalt owe me for this.” Bella replies naughtily.

“Wasn’t me.” Blue adds with overt innocence as you turn to regard her suspiciously.

You shake your head helplessly. “C’mon pup.”

The purple and orange tinges of twilight stain the dusty roads as you make your way through the thinning crowds towards the T&G office once more. All around you, a melange of delicious smells begins to waft, the cries of street hawkers vending all manner of fried mystery, probably as unhealthy as it is delicious beginning to ring out in the cool evening air.

“Reckon we shoulda eaten first?” Blue murmurs, staring longingly at some kind of fist-sized rodent impaled on a stick and fried in a thick golden batter.

“We’ll get a proper dinner at Joe’s later.” You assure her with a pat on the head.

The streets are nearly empty when you reach the office. A light is still on in the window. Good, you didn’t have to hunt her down.

“She alone pup?”

Blue nods. “Me first?” She asks pleadingly.

“Since you asked so nicely…” You grin, making a hooking gesture at the locked door, a resonant glyph raising the latch and pushing the door gently inward.

Blue barrels through the door at breakneck speed. “HIYA FLUFFYCALVES!” You hear her cry.

“Blue? What are you…ACK! S-stop!”

“Why? You didn’t…”

Okay probably a good idea to get in there. You sidled through the door, to see Blue pinning Juni against a bookshelf, the Danuki’s wrists pinned to the small of her back, Blue’s other paw yanking teasingly on her thick, fluffy tail.

“Wanna take liberties with MY Alpha? Juni… You KNOW that’s not how this works…” Blue almost purrs.

“Ngghhhaaaa” Juni moans, flushing in a mixture of discomfort and arousal. “W-wasn’t a big deal.”

“Sorry? Try again. All I heard was ‘Please Blue, can I have another…” The Kobold whuffles, sliding her paw lower.

“B-bitch!” Juni pants, shoving with surprising strength and bowling the Kobold over. Vaulting nimbly to her feet, Juni turns to glare at Blue “Your footwork sucks, Kobold.”

“Wasn’t me who soaked the floor…” Blue growls in retort, circling the Danuki with a predatory glare. “…how many times have you rolled up your little ball of yarn this afternoon?”

“N-none of your business! Dammit! This is MY office. I’M in charge here!” Juni shrieks, launching herself at Blue.

The Resonant Glyph you use is almost instinctive, it comes to you so easily, catching the Danuki almost in mid-air.

“Do you feel in charge?” You muse in a low, mocking tone.

“Adam? How…” Juni gasps, finally noticing you. “…Wait… You’re Resonant?”

“Mmmhmm.” You affirm, smiling smugly as Juni struggles against the bonds of pure force holding her in place.

“Then, this afternoon, you could have…” The Danuki gulps.

Your smug smile turns into a deaths-head grin. “They’d have been lucky to find enough of you to fill a bucket.”

“Speaking of buckets, boss…” Blue giggles, eyeing you naughtily.

“Behave.” You chide, popping her on the backside absently. Blue gives a short squeal, biting her lip as she stares at you lustfully.

“W-why play dumb?” Juni ventures.

“Not the sort of thing I’m supposed to just wave around. Politics. I’m sure you understand.”

“Then why…”

“Well your boss already knows, so I guess, who’s left to tell?” You shrug. “But that’s besides the point. What to do with you?”

“P-please… Don’t kill me…” Juni begs, seemingly on the edge of tears.

“Pfft… Yeah nah, not gonna kill you.” You scoff “Still… Can’t exactly just let today go.”

“Then what… aaahhh!” Juni’s query turns into a scream of surprise as you pull her bodily towards you, sitting on a nearby chair and positioning the Danuki face down across your lap.

“Now you’ve been a very, VERY bad girl Juni…” You remark, wrapping your hand absently around her tail.

“It’s just the season! Y-you’ve been doing nothing but teasing me and… Oooohhhh… P-please…” Juni sobs, squirming on your lap as you pull on her tail ever so slightly.

“Still, that was very unfair to Blue, wasn’t it pup?”

“Yehboss.” Blue growls throatily, ducking down to grin smugly in the Danuki’s face.

“What are you going to do to me?” Juni babbles in near-panic.

“A lesson needs to be learned, Juni. You’re used to getting your way, but I think it’s time someone reminded you what ‘Freeman’ really means.” You continue, bunching up her skirts and hiking them up, leaving her rounded backside covered by only a sheer set of smallclothes.

“You’re not serious… You’re going to spank me?! L-like a disobedient child?” Juni cries in disbelief. “Maou preserve me… This is so humiliating…”

A musky scent tickles your nostrils. Humiliated she might be, but from the way she squirmed, she was also absolutely SOAKED.

Drawing back your hand, you deliver a ringing spank to the Danuki’s buttock. Juni jolts with a squeal, her tail bottlebrushing and standing stiffly on end. You repeat the process on the other buttock, your experience chastizing Blue quickly letting you settle into the comfortable rhythm of habit. Still, as you warm Juni’s round, pert backside, you note with absent interest that at no point does she ask you to stop.

“Have we learned our lesson?” You ask in a low voice, almost a purr…

“Y-yes Freeman.” Juni sobs.

“Then what do you have to say to Blue?”

“I-I’m sorry for trying to rape your Alpha.”

“S’orright.” Blue whuffles with haughty magnanimity. “Now ask nicely.”

Juni stares disbelievingly at the Kobold from her position across your thighs. “What? You’re… letting me?”

“If you ask nicely.”

“P-please?” Juni whimpers. “I need it… I need it so fucking bad, I swear to Maou.”

“Boss?” Blue wheedles. “Could you do me a favour, please?”

“What would my good girl like?”

Blue’s answering grin is dripping with malicious mischeif. “Fuck the shit out of fluffycalves while I hold her down?”

“Hold… Wait…” Juni gasps as you raise her with Resonance, flipping her over so she lies on her back atop the counter. Blue wastes no time in straddling the Danuki across the torso, roughly pulling her clothing away until top and skirt are bunched in a rough wad around her waist. Planting her paws atop the Danuki’s hands, her blue eyes seem to positively blaze as she grins manically in Juni’s face. Opening her mouth, she licks at Juni’s jawline with her small pink tongue, drawing a squirm and a moan from the Danuki.

“Open up for him like a good girl now…” Blue pants, shifting her mouth to a nipple atop one of Juni’s ample breasts and biting teasingly with her small, sharp teeth.

Juni makes a noise halfway between a squeal and a moan, and opens her legs to you. Above her thrashing tail and the curves of her thighs, you notice your earlier assumption was correct. The Danuki was sopping wet, the petals of her innermost secrets seeming to open of their own accord. The sight made you almost hungry with desire, and you wasted no time freeing your own rapidly hardening manhood.

“Please… OH SWEET MAOU that’s all you!” Juni cries in shock where she peeks over Blue’s shoulder to regard you.

“Did you think he stuffed his drawers?” Blue chuckles.

“T-the possibility had entered my… Ooooohhhh Hell’s Throne! G-Gentle! Please!” She cries as you enter her. She isn’t quite as tight as Blue had been the first time, and she evidently is no virgin, but obviously the Danuki talked a much bigger game than she was actually experienced in.”

“Take it, Fluffycalves… Feel my Alpha inside you…” Blue growls, grinding atop Juni’s torso in rhythm with your thrusts. Having experienced her mischevious, playful submissiveness for the better part of your time together, seeing this dominance was an altogether new sensation… one you had to admit aroused you more than you expected.

“Maou… I’m… Cuh-cuh-cuhmmmiiinnnnggggggg” Juni shrieked, and you were grateful for latticed windows and thick walls as she cried out in her ecstasy.

“He could make you cum for days if he wanted… He can do anything… And who was his girl first?” Blue demands.

“W-what?” Juni groans, her eyes still unfocused with the aftershock of orgasm as you continue to thrust within her.

“Who. Was. His. Girl. First.” Blue repeats, her face mere inches from the Danuki’s

“Wuh… Y-you! You Werrrrrr… OH MAOU AGAIN! I’m… I’m…”

Juni’s fluffy calves clamp pythonlike about your waist and you feel her moisture positively dripping down your legs as she shakes around you.

“Blue… Pup… I’m getting close…” You grunt through gritted teeth.

“Yessss…” Juni hisses, staring at you with lustful eyes.

“Ut ut…” Blue tsks, pulling down her own shorts and presenting to you. “For me, master… For me…”

Almost instinctively, you pull yourself out of the Danuki, her yowl of protest transmuting into another sobbing moan as your dextrous fingers replace your member. As your teasing touch brings Juni to a third shaking orgasm, you plant yourself to the hilt within the Kobold’s molten core.

“M-master!” Blue moans, and the sensation of her around you sends you over the edge. With a choked groan, you erupt within her, feeling as if you would never stop. If you still held the Glyph on Juni, it had long since evaporated, your mind empty save for the waves of pleasure washing over you.

The three of you paused there a moment, A sweaty, heaving mass of flesh, fur, hair and clothing.

“Wow.” Juni moans. “And to think I would have been satisfied with you trussed up like a Midwinter ham.”

“Well I trust that our relationship will be a little more equitable from this point forward?” You prompt smugly, glancing at her shaking legs as Blue hops off her torso, The Danuki languorously fixing her clothing as Blue in turn straightened her shorts with a satisfied whuffle.

“Mmm…” Juni replies noncomittally.

“Do we have to go over this again?” You chide sternly.

“Oh… No… Trust me… I am DONE. I’m gonna be lucky to be walking tomorrow and Maou Bless you for it.” Juni replies. “And it’s evident that you can do whatever you want to me and I can’t do a thing about it.”

“Glad that’s settled.” You reply.

“C’mon Boss, I’m hungry.” Blue demands, once again the petulant submissive as she pulls at your wrist with a tawny paw.

“Oh, Freeman?” Juni adds as you open the door.

“Yes Juni?”

“Who really got what they wanted tonight?”

You pause as the realization hits you. “C’mon Blue…” You grumble, closing the door to the sound of the Danuki’s satisfied chuckling.

“I’m confused boss… Did she play us or is she just pretending she did to save her own ego?” Blue asks, looking up at you, her azure eyes luminous in the darkness as you walk towards the light and noise of Joe’s Tavern.

“Let’s go with the latter and be happy with it, pup…” You sigh. “…The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about.”

“Mfff” You mumble, still half asleep, your nose and mouth occluded by a soft, furry object. “Blue.”

“Myehboss?” The Kobold’s sleepy whuffle replies.

“Get your paw off my face.”

Blue moves, cuddling into you and you are struck with an intense sense of deja-vu. Outside in the morning light, a raven caws harshly.

“C’mon Blue… We’d better get up.” You prompt, pushing the Kobold off you gently and swinging your legs out of bed.

“Ten more minutes…” The Kobold whines, throwing her paws about your torso.

“Nah, my fuckery-sense is tingling. Something happened last night and I’ve got to figure out… Wait… Where’s Bella?”

“She was talking to Chad and Ivy when we left, remember? River walked back with us.” Blue yawns, stretching slowly, obviously trying to entice you with her scantily clad form.

“On any other morning that would work pup… Something’s bothering me though… Did she come to bed last night?”

“Not that I can remember…” Blue admits. “…But she’s a big girl boss, she can take care of herself.”

“You’re right…” You sigh. “C’mon. Bacon awaits.”

That was enough to get the Kobold moving, and in short order you both found yourself dressed and seated within the dining area of Cicerello’s Inn.

“See boss? There she is!” Blue declares, pointing at the Griffon who seems lost in thought. “Hey Feathers!”

Bella looks over at you, her face conflicted, as if something was bothering her. Before you can say anything, Chad presumptively plants himself at your table.

“Adam, thank Tyris. I really need to talk to someone…” The young man begins earnestly.

Blue sniffs the air and her jaw drops, eyes wide as saucers. “No bloody way!” She gasps in utter astonishment.

Your brow furrows in thought, as you look over at the Griffon and back to the Human at your table… Both with the same uncomfortable bearing… both looking anywhere they could except for at each other.

“Tyris be fucking glorified…” You groan, burying your head in your hands as you chuckle helplessly.

“Come on Adz, this isn’t funny.” Chad remonstrates in a rather hurt tone.

“No, I imagine it wouldn’t be.” You admit. “And if Blue’s jaw on the floor is any indication it’s probably a conversation we’d be better off having in a more private locale. Tell you what, there’s a factor’s office called ‘Breyten Trading’ on the west side of the trade district. It should still be vacant. Meet me there in about an hour?”

“Thanks Adz. C’mon River.” Your fellow human beckons with a tight smile.

“But I haven’t finished my breakfast!” River whines sulkily.

“She can hang with us if you like Chad. We haven’t even really started after all.” You offer.

“You alright with that little one?” Chad asks. River nods eagerly, pushing her way next to Blue who eagerly makes space for her fellow Kobold.

“Eat up Girls…” you encourage “…I’m gonna talk to Bella.”

“Kayboss.” Blue murmurs from around a mouthful of bacon.

“Unku mushtuh Adam.” River burbles through a mouth full of eggs.

“Right…” You chuckle, making your way over to the Griffon. “…You alright Bel?”

“Adam… Certes… I…” Bella blusters, refusing to meet your gaze.

“Bella…” You entreat. “…it’s me.”

“Verily, I know not. Parfay it all happened so fast, and now… I doth not know how I feel!” Bella gushes helplessly, shifting her massive wings.

“Right. Definitely not a conversation to be had here.” You confirm. “Blue? You remember where Breyten’s is?”

“Yehboss.” Blue replies, digging into a bowl of beans

“When you and River have finished emptying Cicerello’s larder, meet us there?”

“No beating up whoever hurt Feathers until I get there!” The Kobold insists seriously.

“Me too!” River demands.

“Yeh right…” You chuckle. “…C’mon Bel.”

“I pray they do not cause mischief on my account.” Bella ponders, following you from the Inn and up the road.

“Nah. They love you though, in their own weird, overenthusiastic way.”

“Thou art becoming most attuned to the Kobold mindset, Adam.” Bella remarks.

“Yeh… Guess spend months on end together and you’re gonna pick up on each other’s bad habits eventually.” You admit.

“Certes.” Bella agrees softly.

“So. I’m gonna take a few guesses, and you let me know if I’m anywhere close to the mark.” You offer, patting Bella on the talon comfortingly. “You, Chad and Ivy were talking and drinking and generally having a beaut old time until quite late last night.”

“A-aye.”

“And at some point, you stopped talking.”

“Well…”

“Hmm?”

Bella wrings her talons “I-Ivy left first… Chad and myself were talking about rock moorings… Forsooth, for be it all wonder that climbing the Gorge walls is a popular pastime for the young men of Kalbarri. I too remember similar joy in exploring the hidden mysteries of a sheer face. Then… We stopped talking.”

“And things got heated.”

Bella spares you an uncertain glance. “A-Aye.”

“Ahhh… Dammit.” You groan.

“Prithee forgive me, I did not mean to hurt thee, yet…” Bella begs, clinging to your arm with her talons.

“Shhh… It’s not that Bel.” You assure her, delicately extracting your arm from her deadly talons “Do you like him?”

“I… I think I may.” Bella admits. “I mean forsooth indeed I am fond of thee to great extent but he… He’s different.”

“Don’t stress Bel.” You wave magnanimously, trying to keep the sting from your voice. It was only sex, it wasn’t like you were losing her as a friend, so why did this bother you so much? “Remember I’m human, we’re bred to take this sort of thing philosophically.”

“I suppose.” Bella agrees, yet her face is still troubled.

You raise an eyebrow. “So what’s still bothering you?”

“Do you think he likes me?” Bella asks in a small voice.

“Bella, in the months on the road I’ve never seen Chad show an interest in any Mamono apart from River.”

“Wilt she not be incensed, yea, that I hath…”

“Oh! No! Tyris…” You laugh suddenly “…River and Chad are… so not like that… Bloody hell.”

“I do not understand.”

“I’m sure he’ll explain everything.” You assure her, swinging the creaking door to Breyten’s abandoned office open. A human figure spins around in the dim, cool interior.

“Adam. Thank Tyris.” Chad breathes in relief. “And… Oh… Lady Bella.”

“Certes, Chad… After last night I would think we had dispensed…”

Chad starts making strangling noises, looking at you in wide eyed consternation.

“S’orright mate, I know.” You assure him. “But there’s one thing I want you to answer me true.”

“Of course.” Chad assures you.

“Do you like her?”

“Adz! She’s… Right here!” Chad chokes, flushing beet-red.

“Should make it easier. Now answer me, or I’ll thump ya.” You threaten.

“I… Tyris forgive me, I do! I’ve never met anyone who… GETS me like she does!” Chad admits desperately.

“Parfay…” Bella murmurs, flushing crimson and covering her cheeks with her talons, wings luffing up clouds of dust.

“Ack… pthpt…” You spit, waving the dust away from your face. “Well fuckin’ congrats, and I pray The God keep yer tryst away from the nosy eyes of the Church.”

“Blasphemy!” Chad gasps.

“Really cunt?” You reply levelly.

“Ah… point… I withdraw.” Chad concedes.

“Your Grace is received.” You wave dismissively. “Now… What’s got me a bit concerned is Ivy.”

“Ivy? She’s a lovely woman, what’s the issue?” Chad asks in a puzzled tone.

Briefly, you outline Goldstein’s stick-and-carrot speech from the afternoon previous. “…Needless to say, I have no bloody interest in a Barony I barely know, let alone my ability to govern it.”

“You’d be better than Neisha…” Chad counters.

“Fuckin’ BLUE would be better than Neisha.” You snort. “…Point being though, I can’t dismiss Ivy tryin’ to get you to put a bun up Bella for the purposes of future fuckery.”

Bella screeches in outrage and Chad makes a similar noise. “How fuckin’ dare!?” He gasps incensedly. “You reckon I’m so fuckin’ green I’ll go to bed with a Mamono, regardless of my station, just because a Taurean, who’s done NOTHING but go out of her way for us, mind you, suggests it?”

“Oi cunt, don’t shank the fuckin’ messenger.” You retort.

“Bearin’ false witness is a sin Adz, and right now I’ve got nothing to go on but a tall tale about some rich prick in the Crux Club.” Chad replies evenly, folding his arms. “I think me and Bella owe each other some discussion… In Private.”

You glance to your side at the Griffon, who is looking at you with a slightly hurt expression. Fuck this. If they weren’t going to listen to sense, then it was their bed.

“Fine. Fifteenth toll at the Crux Club. You want to be Baron? Be there. Maybe you’ll thank me for it someday, maybe you won’t… Hope you’re alive to do it. Just be fucking careful.” You grunt, exiting through the creaking door. “Ungrateful cunts…” You grumble to yourself.

You’re not exactly sure what’s driving your wandering outside of pure bloody-minded irritation, but you head into one of the smaller taprooms on the whimsical decision to try and wash the acid out of your throat… Sure enough, there at a table, laughing it up with Garrett and a couple of her other employees, the lush form of the Taurean Ivy.

You were going to use Resonance to set fire to the next Raven you saw, and fuck the consequences.

“Well Howdy Sugar.” Ivy declares. “Ain’t this some good luck?”

“If you say so…” You muse evenly, narrowing your eyes.

Ivy’s floppy bovine ears do not fail to catch your tone. “Orright boys. Here’s y’all’s wages, don’t spend it all on drink now.” She chides motheringly, handing each of the men an Underwriter’s note. “Adam, I wasn’t expecting you to be here, but I’ve got my book upstairs if’n you feel like popping up for a bit.”

The men’s chuckles turn lewd and knowing as they grin mockingly at you.

“Spell it out boys…” You grate, fixing the group with a death’s head grin and putting your hand atop the hilt of your cutlass. The chuckles die off, replaced with puzzled looks.

“Don’t pay him no mind. Go on now, y’all know the beer here’s terrible.” Ivy tsks, waving them away. “C’mon Adam, we’ll get you sorted out in short order.” The Taurean insists, beckoning you up the stairs at the taproom’s rear.

“Now…” Ivy sighs, closing and bolting the door after herself after ushering you into a cozy if humble room. “…Mind tellin me why you’re acting so fanny-flustered?”

“Where to fuckin’ begin, Ivy? You were gonna let me get raped yesterday…” You begin.

“Lemme stop you there. I KNEW Yisbeth was on her way. The whole point was to warn Juni in the first place… But then you had to swagger on in and get distracting. If’n you had just played it straight Juni never woulda even got that worked up!”

“So you’re telling me the whole ‘let it happen’ spiel was for Juni’s benefit…” You offer suspiciously.

“She’s still Senior Factor on the West Coast Adam! I need my Job!” Ivy declares incredulously “Juni was in NO shape to listen to reason. Maou… You really are as dense as they say, aincha?”

“Get a dog up ya.” You retort.

“Ain’t my taste, though yer girl is sweet as pie. She don’t deserve a man actin’ the dang fool like this…” Ivy rounds on you, hands on her broad hips.

“You keep yer fuckin…” You begin, raising a finger.

“HUSH yo mouth.” Ivy demands in a tone of unquestionable authority. “And then I hear you done went back and drilled her a quarter inch into the bench anyway. So you can SPARE me the woe-betide-me act because that werewolf don’t hunt.”

“How bout the one that got Bella and Chad bumpin’ uglies?” You retort. “That one got a better nose on it?

“What in tarnation are you on about?” Ivy demands.

“Oh, dunno… just your Boss giving away your plan to use Blue’s potential daughter as leverage on me if I accepted the Barony?” You muse smugly “You knew Chad was the better candidate… It just makes sense.”

“You… You think that I…” Ivy gasps.

“Don’t lie to me. Goldstein told me you wanted my child.” You growl.

“YOURS, you dumb fucker! Because we ain’t got shit else on you” Ivy retorts, pawing the floorboards with a digitigrade hoof. “You done go pulling the impossible out your ass like some kind of… Some kind of….”

“What.”

“The fire… The Ghoul… Bella with that dang boat… thing musta weighed a million tons… Juni wasn’t exaggerating! You… You’re Resonant!” Ivy gasps, backing away from you.

“Don’t try and play to my ego, Ivy… We’re not talking about me right now.” You warn. “You pushed Bella at Chad. Go on, deny it.”

“Alright! I did. Could we use their kid? She ain’t even sure she can have them, mind, there’s one thing you didn’t know we talked about, and I betcha something you never even asked.” Ivy accused. “But yeah, it’s a factor. Was it why I did it? No. You want the truth, Adam of Gibson Holding? I did it to get her away from you!”

“The FUCK?!” You exclaim.

“Fuckin’ frontier packer, right down to the bone, you don’t even know you’re doing it!” Ivy laughs, tears welling in her eyes. “Blue’s the sweetest girl, but she’s changing you. You’re becoming a Pack Alpha… and while that works for some Mamono… The rest of us? It’s fun for a little while, the dominance, the wildness… but some of us need more.”

“I don’t understand… It’s just Sex…”

“And there it is… The dang Pax, havin’ a sick ol’ dance with the pack mentality in yer brain there. You Humans are losin’ it… little by little, year by year, generation by generation. It’s killin’ you and y’all don’t even know it.”

“You’re lucky I’m not a Paladin, Ivy…” You warn, completely astonished by her outburst.

“At least a Paladin I can rely only thinks with one head, not three!” Ivy snorts. “You’d break that poor girl’s heart. Dangit… I nearly let you get to me… I… I like you sugar, you’re a one-of-a-kind sorta guy… but you’re like black lotus blossom… eventually we gotta give you up.”

“I…” You blurt helplessly.

“Your account’s been updated. Go check with the office if’n y’all are wanting a full statement.” Ivy sobs, sitting on the bed, big tears falling from her soft brown eyes. “Might wanna give Juni a day… She’s indisposed this mornin’… Can’t think why.”

“Ivy…”

“Just go…” the Taurean sniffs.

“Ivy… I’m…” You begin, feeling somewhat guilty now the burst of self-righteous irritation had run its course.

“If the next word outta your mouth is ‘Sorry’, I’mma hit you, Resonant or no, y’hear?” The curvaceous Taurean interjects with surprising heat. “We are who we are, that’s all we can be… We all gotta make our way in this broken ol’ world.”

“I didn’t want…” You attempt, halfheartedly reaching for her.

“I know y’didn’t sugar…” Ivy sighs, taking your hand and pressing it briefly to her tear-smudged cheek before patting it briefly with her other hand and releasing it. “…but y’did, and you can’t take it back now. I don’t hate you, for what it’s worth.”

“If things had been different…” You offer lamely

Ivy gives a great, gusty sigh, fixing you with her red-rimmed eyes. “Criminently Adam, will you quit tryin’ to shove the Djinn back in the bottle?! You’ve said yer piece and I’ve said mine. Hatchet’s buried but you’re REALLY tryin’ me right now.”

“Yeh. Right. Fair enough… Until… next time, I guess.” You offer by way of farewell, waving slightly as you leave.

“Yeah. See you, Freeman.” Ivy offers absently, holding a pillow to her chest as you close the door behind you.

“One down, I suppose.” You murmur to yourself, walking absently through the late morning crowds. Blue and River would have no doubt found Chad and Bella at the office by now… Strange that your own Kobold hadn’t sniffed you out after discovering that you were no longer there.

“…Must admit, I am surprised that you managed to find me so readily.” A deep, smooth voice exclaimed from somewhere within the muted din of daily commerce. You swore internally, you recognised that voice.

“Adam’s not the only one with a few tricks up his sleeve, Goldstein.” Chad’s reply sounded, freezing you into surprised immobility. “I’ve still got a few people in House Reinhardt’s court who remember which Gilgai kept his mouth shut.”

“Ah me… to be so cynical at your age!” Goldstein chides, and you spot the pair through the crowd, the Shoggoth Yisbeth flowing demurely a pace behind them.

They hadn’t spotted you yet. You hid yourself unobtrusively behind a dusty pile of empty crates, waiting for them to pass you by. Court intrigue… Yeah, if anything solidified your decision not to have anything to fucking do with the Barony, it was that. Something sticky meets your hand as you rest it atop a nearby crate. Absently, you wipe it off on your shirt, too engrossed in the conversation to care.

“I don’t understand the obsession with him.” Chad continued. “Seems like everywhere I turn it’s Adam of Gibson Holding this, Adam of Gibson Holding that… Tyris, what am I saying… I shouldn’t talk behind the bloke’s back like this.”

“You’re hardly impugning his character, dear boy.” Goldstein scoffed “But I’m not the one who brought him up.”

“Yeh… Sorry. Had a bit of a blue with him this morning… Personal matter. I’ll get over it.”

“He told you that I was planning to ransom a potential daughter against his cooperation?” Goldstein replied evenly.

“Tyris! We’re in public for fuck’s sake, Goldstein!” Chad hisses, looking around furtively… Damn, they were getting too far away. You moved as unsuspiciously as you could up the line of rude stalls and shopfronts, making some show of examining a pair of vintners shears.

“Nobody’s interested in us, Yisbeth is seeing to that.” Goldstein assured the younger human, gesturing presumptively behind him at the Shoggoth..

“…Did you?” Chad finally blurted.

“Of course I did. Leverage is leverage after all, and I don’t think he appreciated how MUCH power a Baronial seat would have given him over our affairs in Kalbarri.”

“And I got salty at him for telling the truth…” Chad sighed guiltily.

“Yeah. Put that in yer pipe and smoke it.” You thought with mild viciousness.

“Don’t tell me you’ve played the commoner for so long you can’t see the converse, My Prince.” Goldstein chides. “If he’d betrayed us, we wouldn’t have been shy about exposing his Heresy, it’s true. But loyalty runs both ways as well, A positive relationship would have meant our unconditional protection on any… let’s call them ‘Happy Accidents’.”

There were no more stalls… You grumble, looking around. That roof wasn’t exceptionally high…

Stepping into a side alley, you called upon the Logos, lifting yourself up to the flat rooftop before crouching at its edge.

“Can I assume you’ll be looking to make similar arrangement with me?” Chad asks suspiciously.

Goldstein laughs, “With what you have planned in the Murchison? That’s small beer, my Prince.”

A cloud of dust swirls around you, accompanied by the sound of massive wings, making you turn in surprise.

“Verily, it is rude to eavesdrop.” Bella chides evenly.

“Oh yeh? What’re you doing then?” You retort with a cheeky grin.

“Hush thou…” Bella retorts, trying to suppress a smile. “…Adam…”

“Nah shaddup a sec.” You plead, holding up a hand. “I’m sorry Bel. Didn’t matter how right I may have been, it didn’t give me the right to go wavin’ my proverbial about, especially considering how touchy y’both were about what happened last night. I shoulda treated you both with more regard.”

“I… Thank thee.” Bella admits, hesitantly reaching out with a talon.

“Geddere…” You insist, grabbing her talon and pulling her into a warm embrace. The Griffon screeches slightly in surprise, yet soon melts into the hug, her talons tight against your back.

“Forgive me?” You ask.

“C-certes… And… I hope…” She stammers, fighting tears.

“You’re going with Chad.” You finish for her. Why does that sting again?

“It is not as thou mayest think.” Bella assures you, slight desperation in her voice. “We had much opportunity to discuss things earlier. Chad shalt be Baron, which will mean much change to things such as they are. Mayhap it shall mean that all we shall ever have was one night and enduring respect and affection.”

You raise an eyebrow in confusion, “Then why go?”

Bella releases you from her embrace. “His dismissal of Neisha shalt be somewhat… declarative. The Mamono of the surrounds shalt be in disarray. He believes that I can be of some assistance in allowing sweet reason to prevail.”

“No arguments there.” You agree. “And of course the other reason.”

“Prithee… Other reason?” Bella asks, failing to keep a poker face.

“Bella you will never be able to lie worth a damn. Thank Tyris.” You chuckle, shaking your head. “You know… Me getting all packy, apparently.”

“Thou sayest it as if it were a bad thing!” Bella objects. “Parfay, ‘tis not! Thou art whom… and I pray He forgiveth mine presumption… Thy God hath made thee to be. I hath not known any other man before thee, in any sense. The Order were not human as thou art, as all of thee art! They wert… twisted. Broken. Mamono may lament the strictures of the Pax but I say truly unto thee, if they had lived through the alternative as I hath… They would not be so quick to lament.”

“Tell that to Ivy, I think she needs some perspective.” You drawl softly.

“Certes, I agree with thee on that front. She is a most intelligent and talented woman, but she doth allow her heart to lead her on far too many occasions. I am told ‘tis a Taurean thing.” Bella nods. “But… yea. After the opportunity to SEE humans as they live, both here and in Kalbarri… Nay… I am sorry. I shalt always be grateful to thee for saving me in Thealiss, I shalt always hold thee as most treasured friend… but I cannot any longer be with thee, lest mine heart be broken, for thou shalt never be what I wish thee to be.”

“I’m sorry.” You offer sincerely.

Bella shakes her head. “Thou needst not be. The Gods hath a plan for thee, e’en as my faith dictateth they holdeth one for me.”

“You’ll… Let Blue say goodbye?” You ask, your throat feeling oddly… thick.

“Oh certes.” Bella assures you. “Now I must away, lest that man and his horror convince Chad of actions most unbecoming a Noble of enlightened and chivalrous bearing.”

“Chad?” You scoff.

Bella sniffs. “Hush thee.” She demands primly before taking wing.

“Whatever you say Bel…” You muse with a note of melancholy to the dusty ghost of her departure.

“Where is me damn Kobold?” You mutter to yourself, before cupping a hand to your mouth. “Blue! Geddere!”

“Cooo-eee!” Comes a ringing cry.

“Hold the fuckin’ farcaster… that’s not…” You begin in slight alarm. Breath whooshes from your lungs as a broad pair of oversized feet plant themselves squarely in your back, driving you to the ground.

“Tyris FUCK…” You groan, rolling over to see the grinning form of Kira, Tristan’s other indentured Kangaroo. “…fuckin’ ‘Hello’ woulda done.”

“Yeah nah” Kira retorts. “You’re up to something.”

“Kira I told you when I was seventeen, I’mma tell you now. I am not going to play strip-search with you.”

“How Lewd!” Kira gasps girlishly, putting a slender, sharp-clawed paw to her sun-kissed face, deliberately pressing her modest breasts, clad in a leather jerkin together and giving you a deliberate eyeful of cleavage. “And have Blue do me hammies? No fuckin’ fear freeman, I’m on duty.”

“Then why the introduction to the road?” You demand, getting up and dusting yourself off.

“Because everyone’s been looking for you most of the day. Master Tristan got some REAL interesting things said about you.”

You swallow briefly. “Such as?”

“Well someone real high up in the tulies said that they didn’t know where you were, and were worried you were gonna do something dumb, but you hadn’t done it yet, so Tristan wanted me to come get you, then Blue comes barging in…”

“Blue’s at the Tavern? Why?” You interrupt.

“Looking for you, believe it or not, and she’s in a right state, causin’ Tristan no end of grief.”

“Tyris… Blue…” You breathe, heading off in a run towards the Taproom which comprised Tristan’s waylander ‘Office’.

“Hey!” Kira calls, bounding alongside you. “I get to say I found you.”

“Why…” You pant absently.

“Because Master will pat my head and tell me I done good…” Kira sighs dreamily, driving herself a good eight feet in the air with an enthusiastic hop, her thick, muscular tail stiff behind her.

“Bloody Mamono…” You grumble, dodging various townsfolk in your mad scramble to the tavern.

…And I want the Dominus, and the Kitties, and Princess Tittywings and her sisters, and Hatty-Lady and Fangs, and Blondie, and all the waylanders, and that angry man from Kalbarri, and the Horsepussies, and…” You heard Blue demanding as you stepped into the tavern.

“Blue! Down! We’ll bloody find him! Tyris be Merciful…” Tristan grumbled. “…will someone get ahold of her?”

“She’s too fast Waylander!” Another voice bemoaned.

“Tyris Almighty… Blue, Geddere.” You order shortly, pinching the bridge of your nose.

“Boss! Bossbossbossboss…” Blue cries joyously, before clambering straight over the top of the milling crowd and throwing herself into your arms. “…Icouldn’tfindyouandnobodywaslookingandIwassoworriedand… Angon…” The Kobold paused, pushing herself away from you.

“Blue…” You begin, feeling slightly concerned.

“Why don’t you smell like him? Who are you and what have you done with my Boss!” Blue snarls, baring teeth and hackles at you.

You stare incredulously at the Kobold. “Blue, it’s me, what’s gotten into you?”

“Reverence?” Tristan asks, and the crowd parts to let the wimpled form of Sister Rachael step through.

“Priestess-Lady… Make it take off my Boss’s skin! Make it do it now!” Blue pleads, clinging to the High Priestess’s robes.

“What the actual fuck…” You demand, only to feel Kira’s claws sieze your shoulders. Your heart hammers in your ears. The room seems to go dim around you.

“Do not think that you have gone unnoticed…” A voice echoes inside your head “…And do not assume that Obedience is the same as Acceptance… We Shall be watching you…”

“It’s in my HEAD!” You shriek as the room returns to normal, throwing your arms into the sign of the sunburst. “Holy God above All, is there no help for a Son of the Church?”

The High Priestess jerks as if struck by those ritual words. “Sir Neil! The Benedictus!” She orders, pointing at you with a long, slender finger.

The Paladin wastes no time, pushing through the crowd and grabbing you with a mailed hand, his other hand igniting in golden fire as he calls upon the Divine Blessing.

“Absolve me…” You beg, desperately searching for the Logos from within the miasma of fear roiling in your skull.

“Hold on Adz…” He murmurs, waving his hand across your body. “…There. Shoggoth. And POTENT with it.”

“Adam!” Rachael chides in disgust.

“She was a maid and I swear I never touched her!” You reply quickly “Put me to the Confession if you don’t believe me!” Screw it, you’d take the lashes for your indiscretions and be glad for it.

“Won’t be necessary… Here…” Neil remarked with distaste, pulling his hand away as if drawing a wound. Driblets of dark matter leech from your stained shirt, and you feel a tugging as Blue’s rooster-spur totem pulls with it.

“You slimed Blue’s present!” Kira remarks mockingly. “No wonder she’s pissed.”

“Sorry pup…” You offer sincerely. Blue glares for a moment, sniffing the air.

“I… I can smell you again! Oh Boss…” Blue crows, reaching out for you before being halted by the High Priestess.

“The Benedictus isn’t good for you, little pup.” She chides gently. “Are you finished, Sir Neil?”

“Just about…” The Paladin grunts. “…and… there.” The light flares brightly and the dark matter hanging in its luminescence is incinerated with a tiny puff of noxious smoke. “You, Adz, are one lucky son-of-a-bitch. Tyris bless and keep you…” The Paladin places his hand momentarily on your head in blessing, before cuffing you behind the ear. “…Next time be more careful what you wipe on yourself.”

“Yes, Your Worship.” You agree readily.

“One moment. Mental traces may yet remain.” Rachael adds, placing her hand against your face, the sigils upon her forehead glowing.

“Is it done?” She asks in the vaults of your mind.

Yes…” You reply.

“The Kalbarrian?”

“Yes.”

“With Tenno and Goldstein as his backer… it is not ideal, but it is acceptable, speedy, and in all likelyhood, stable… Well done.”

“He is fine.” Rachael assures the curious crowd out loud.

“Can I PLEASE hug my Boss now?” Blue laments. Rachael laughs, and the wind is nearly torn from you a second time as Blue fervently throws her paws around you.

“Good girl Blue.” You murmur, patting her head. “Well Tristan, I’m here, you can call off the search parties.”

“Bonza.” The Waylander declares, still clearly nonplussed by all the carry-on.

“I found him!” Kira gushes, bounding up to Tristan’s side and almost wiggling like a puppy in anticipation.

Tristan sighs, rolling his eyes and placing his hand between the Kangaroo’s long, furred ears. “Good girl, Kira.”

Kira gives a high squeal of pure delight, looking as if her legs were going to give out from under her at her master’s praise. Blue peers at the Kangaroo quizzically.

“At least I don’t do that in public…” She murmurs against you.

“Whatever you say Blue.” You chuckle, patting her on her back and pretending not to notice her frantically wagging tail.

“Perhaps you’ll tell me what the bastard Hell you’ve gotten involved in that I’ve got courtiers from the Baron’s select council telling me to keep the eye on you.” Tristan asks, folding his arms.

“Nothing. Someone with a bit of clout made the mistake of thinking I’m someone I’m not. Corrected the issue, no more problem.” You assure him. “Listen Waylander, I’m burning daylight and those three shit-lizards are eating me dry the longer they stay stabled. Mind if I…”

“Yeh… Gairn… apart from seemingly being the most interesting cunt this side of the docks today y’ain’t done nothing illegal. Git.”

“Good to see you again Tristan. C’mon Blue…” You offer, putting an arm about the Kobold’s shoulders and leading her from the Tavern.

“No more Shoggies Boss.” Blue harrumphs sulkily.

“Tyris help me I hope not… They can get through me Resonance and THAT shit ain’t fun… and to find out their goop lets them in me head? I see another one I’m running or setting it on fire.”

“Best Boss Ever.” Blue whuffles happily. “Where’s Feathers?”

You grimace. “Ah… That one’s gonna be a thing… C’mon pup… I’ll tell you back at the Inn.”

Blue’s disbelief turned to tears as Bella arrived to say her goodbyes in person. Saddened though the Kobold might be, she seemed to instinctively understand Bella’s reasoning.

“I wanna go home…” Blue snuffled into your chest as you lay in the quiet dark with her.

“Back to Gibson? No dramas Blue, we’ll stop through tomorrow morning, maybe even stay a couple days if you want.” You assure her, kissing the top of her head.

“No Boss… I wanna go to Nulla’s Line, and I want you to come with me.”

You raise her face to meet yours, wiping a stray tear away gently with your thumb. “Where’s this coming from? This about the whole ‘Pack Alpha’ thing?”

“That…” Blue admits. “…It’ll be easier to… explain it there. But mostly I feel… I need to… reconnect. To the Spirits, to the sacred places…”

“How do I say it again?” You ask, trying to mimic the oddly complex movements your Kobold was showing you.

Blue makes an odd bark-whine, which you do your best to replicate.

“Mmmaybe you should just stick to Magisterian, hey Boss.” The Kobold suggests delicately, stifling her giggle with a paw.

“Just trying to make a good impression on yer mum, pup.” you retort gently, mussing the Kobold’s short, tawny hair.

“I’m pretty sure you’ve already done that.” Blue yawns, stretching out atop the wagon’s canvas cover in the afternoon sun, clad once again in naught but a brief pair of shorts and a leather halter. “She couldn’t stop talking about what a nice young man you were… Between Rats.”

“Heh, taking meat in Port Fremantle… Seems like forever ago.” You chuckle.

“It does hey…” Blue agrees. “…It feels like there was never a time we weren’t together.”

“Blue…”

“Mmm?”

“Look at me.”

Blue props herself up on her elbows. “Yehboss?”

The words “I love you.” leave your mouth like they have countless times before, yet this time there’s something… different behind them. Deeper. Blue’s azure eyes widen, her heart nestled therein, and her cheeks blush rose-red.

“I-I Love you too, M-master.” she stammers, wringing her paws as her tail thumps furiously against the canvas.

“Do you really think they’ll like the presents?”

Blue shrieks in frustration, hitting you with a furred paw. “Way to completely kill the mood Boss!” she laments, not really fighting as you restrain her by hugging her slender body against yours.

“It just seems so… Domestic.” You explain.

“Metal pots? Hides cured in tannin and not brains and piss? Good steel tools? Glasswrought beads?” Blue asks incredulously. “I am going to have to tie you to Four to keep my cousins off you!”

“You’re not tying me to shit, Pup…” You declare, kissing her briefly.

“Awww…” Blue laments, snuggling into you.

“Getting hot.” You declare, removing your hat briefly and wiping the sweat from your brow.

“In the middle of the road like this? Why Boss, what will people think?!” Blue snickers lewdly.

“No, I mean LITERALLY Pup…” You chide, tapping her nose with your finger. “…Never liked Summer in the interior.”

“You haven’t BEEN to the interior Boss.”

You look down at the Kobold incredulously. “Did you miss the bit where we spent like a straight month or so in Thealiss?”

“In summer, I mean. A two-dayer out to the Sawyer’s doesn’t count either.” Blue declares primly.

“Oh really…” You reply, tickling Blue’s midsection mercilessly, ignoring her shrieking, howling laughter.

“S-stop! Please Boss!” Blue begs desperately.

“D-don’t stop! Oh! Boss! Don’t Stoohhhhaaaaaaaaa!” Blue’s panting exhortation turns into a shuddering cry as she throws her limbs around you, shaking with orgasm. Feeling your own passion rising, you give a choked moan as you feel yourself erupt within the Kobold’s scalding depths.

“You think…” Blue gasps as you roll off her, your own chest rising and falling with exertion “…we’ll ever get bored of this?”

“Well I’m a bigger fan of beds, serve to keep the sticks out of me arse better than the swag Blue…”

“Not what I meant!” Blue retorts, playing with the sparse hair on your chest absently as she rolls over to look at you. “I mean this… Being on the road… just wandering…”

“It’s been paying the bills pretty reasonably…” You shrug.

Blue nestles her head into the crook of your shoulder. “We didn’t even slow down as we went past Gibson yesterday though.”

“Wanted to get up the scarp before nightfall pup, you know that. Even with Resonance I can’t keep those idiot lizards from doing a leg in the dark.” You explain, ruffling her hair and kissing her on the forehead. “Besides, we’ll stop in on the way back.”

“What if we don’t?” Blue asks in a small voice.

You peer at the kobold with furrowed brow. “How do you mean pup? Eucla holding’s a refit and the Baronial Township of House Esperance itself won’t be drawing dick yet, I don’t care how hell-for-leather Breyten’s been spending.”

“No Boss… What if we don’t go back at all?”

“Pup? You sure you’re alright? Throwing up this morning and now this? Sure you don’t have a fever?” You ask concernedly, putting a hand to the Kobold’s face.

“No Adz, I don’t have a fever.” Blue sighs, rolling her eyes before wrapping her paws around you. Something moves in the darkness beyond the firelight, you catch the glint of eyes from within the swarming black.

“Something’s got a deathwish.” You remark, loudly enough for anything sapient to hear. A clattering growl sounds from the dark, followed by a hiss and a wet crunch, the bungarra snorting and hissing as they fight over their new morsel.

“Mihirung?” Blue yawns.

“Or a trapdoor without the sense Tyris gave a flea.” You reply. “Between you, me, and the Bungas, nothing’s sneaking up on us tonight, right Blue?”

“Yeah nahboss.” Blue mumbles, nestling into you with a dreamy smile on her face as you stare at the sea of stars above you.

“Fuck’s sake…” You grumble, looking up at the pitiless blue expanse of the sky above you before wiping your brow and angling your hat down to reduce the brilliant glare from the angry sun high overhead. “…The woodlands were bad enough, but this?”

“Least the air can move out here.” Blue replies, seemingly totally unaffected by the blistering heat.

“Orright…” you chuckle, shielding yourself from another boiling gust rolling over untold miles of desert. “…We’ve got movement.”

“Boss, what’s got you so stroppy? You’ve been madder than a cut lamia since we hit the resupply depot at Eucla holding.” Blue insists, turning to you and taking your hands in her tawny paws.

“I just don’t like not knowing where we’re going. I mean, Nulla’s line, sure. We crossed it, officially, and now we’re…” You trail off, gesturing around you at the scrubby nothingness. It was the kind of landscape which drained hope, and if not for the string of sun-baked wagoneers resupplying and tending to exhausted and dehydrated beasts, one you would never have thought to attempt to cross.

“Here.” Blue insists.

“How philosophical of ya pup.” You drawl teasingly.

“No, HERE boss, turn inland.”

You peer at the Kobold, looking again at the utter nothing stretching to the horizon. “You sure?”

Blue fixes you with a level stare.

“Orright, you’re the Kobold.” You accede, pulling the Bungarra’s reins and directing the wagon off the wide, packed road into the rocky scrub beyond.

“Trader are you mad?” A voice yells from beneath a covered wagon trailing along fifty metres or so behind you. “You get stuck out there and there’s nobody coming to save you.”

“She’s right mate.” You assure the trailing wagon absently as it trundles past the tracks in the rocky sand where you have just turned into the featureless scrub. “Tyris favours the brave and the foolish I’m told.”

“Dying of exposure’s not my preferred way to get to heaven mate!” the trader yells back at you.

“Mine either, I’m trusting you here Pup…” You murmur, turning towards Blue, who promptly hops down off the wagon and dashes off into the scrub.

“Of fuckin’ course…” You grumble, lashing irritably at the Bungarra with the leather reins as you trundle further into the interior.

“I will fuckin’ split you if you don’t jog on sharpish…” You snarl at the Kangaroo trio who sit back on muscular tails, grinning at you openly as the sun’s molten blob melts towards the horizon.

“Well I DID have designs to that effect anyway. Why don’t you let my sisters go through your supplies, and you and me can get to know each other a little better?” Their leader chuckles, putting clawed paws on her hips and flexing her muscular arms.

“Nobody touches my fucking rig.” You growl, pulling your cutlass from its sheath with a steely hiss..

“The wagon or your…” The leader grins teasingly.

“In your case fucking either!” You retort savagely, planting a foot on the trace behind the scarred form of Two and tapping the Bungarra on the flank with the flat of your blade. “Fuckemup Boys! Dinner’s on!”

“Whoo!” The Kangaroos exclaim, bounding to the side rapidly as the Bungarra spread maw and frill, lunging at the trio. “Nice trick!” The leader continues. “Shame they can’t move so well when they’re all tied…”

“Sis!” One of the others exclaims, pointing over your shoulder with a look of horror.

“Maou’s tits, give it feet!” The Kangaroo shrieks, feet booming against the dry earth as the trio of would-be raiders positively flies away from you into the wilderness beyond

You freeze… What were they so scared of? Something made the back of your neck stand up on end…

“You breathe so loud pack-f…” A voice near-purrs in your ear, silenced as you instinctively spin, whanging whoever it was about the chops with the basket-hilt of your cutlass.

“Owwwww!” A female voice laments as the unknown, hide-clad kobold grips the side of her face from where she is sprawled on the canvas, looking at you with the hangdog expression of profound injury only a canid mamono can do justice to. “Why’d you hit my face, Pack-Friend?”

“Maybe he’s not a Pack-Friend… Maybe Blue gots the twizzly-head…” Another voice snarls, and a number of Kobolds bearing deadly, obsidian tipped spears seem to appear as if birthed from the low scrub, pointing them at you with clear intent.

“I’m Pack-Friend… Bloody hell…” You assure the Kobolds, putting your blade away and pulling out the necklace Blue had carved for you. “…And if you will sneak up on a bloke…” You remonstrate gently, helping the kobold atop the canvas up.

“My face hurts.” The Kobold whines, pointing a furred digit at her reddening cheek. Yeah, that was gonna bruise. Though she had snuck up on you when your nerves were clearly frayed, you still felt like a bit of a cunt.

“Well I’m sorry. But you’re lucky you didn’t lose half your head!”

“Blue says you’re cute when you’re surprised. I wanted to see!” The Kobold sulked.

You chuckle unthinkingly at that. “Oh did she?”

The Kobold angles her cheek towards you, her eyes half-lidded. “Kiss it better, Pack-Friend?”

“Brooke!” Blue’s voice rings out, making the Kobold before you squeal and leap acrobatically from the canvas. “Gerroffmeboss!”

“Glad you decided to come back pup. Kobold stuff?” You remark evenly, turning to see your tanned indentured in her leather halter, her skin glistening with the slightest sheen of sweat, her modest bust rising and falling with her deep breathing.

“Yehboss.” Blue confirms, holding up her tawny paws presumptively to be lifted into the wagon.

“Getting lazy…” You tease. “…These your cousins?”

“Yehboss, they didn’t get too frisky with ya I hope?” Blue asked, glaring bloody murder at the surrounding Kobolds who shuffled their paws self consciously under her possessive gaze.

You scratch your face before grinning sheepishly at your indentured, “In actual fact, I accidentally smacked Brooke there in the face… Sorry again about that… But in my defence I was just about to split three Kangas up the middle and…”

“It was so HOT Blue!” Brooke gushed, scampering up to her cousin’s side and gripping her leg eagerly, her minor injury forgotten. “He was like if the Bulls actually had something besides hair and teeth between their ears… Like a real…”

“Alpha.” Blue finishes presumptively. “MY Alpha.”

“I-I didn’t mean…” Brooke stammers.

“And he ain’t kissing SHIT better unless I say you’re worth it first. Got it?”

“Yehblue…” The Kobolds answer as one.

“Look at you… Little-Dog of Gibson…” You murmur teasingly in Blue’s ear.

“Everything’s relative Boss… I don’t think we need to go spreading the nickname Other-Boss gave me though.”

You nod, putting an arm about her waist as you guide the Bungarra behind the Kobold band sauntering ahead of you. “That Simmo or me Dad?”

“Yes.” Blue answers simply.

“Right…” You chuckle. “…Say pup… don’t take this the wrong way, but have I spoiled you too much?”

“S’afunny question. Why?” Blue asks, her azure eyes upon you in puzzlement.

“Just noticing you’ve got a bit of a tummy there…” You remark, stroking the bare skin on her midsection.

Yes Boss. Yes I have.” Blue replies in a clearly patronizing tone, obviously expecting the other shoe to drop… It does not.

“Awooooo!” One of Blue’s cousins howls, setting the air around you to ringing as countless replies ring out from unseen throats around you.

“Where in Tyris…” You gasp, looking around for the unseen Kobolds.

“He’s real cute Blue…” Brooke remarks with smug glee as the Kobolds pull away a section of what looks to be nothing more than dead weeds and scrub, revealing a surprisingly sizable limestone cave beneath. “…But he can’t see worth shit, can he?”

“Sometimes…” Blue admits, leaning up to kiss you warmly. “…Welcome to Nulla’s Line, Boss. Hope you’re Hungry, Mum’s gonna wanna take meat, hopefully she makes an exception for me, all things considered.”

“All things considered? Why would you…” You begin, when like the crack of doom, the other shoe drops.

“Hold the fuckin’ farcaster…” You hiss as the wagon trundles down the wide rocky slope into the cool earth below. “…You’re PREGNANT?”

“Thank Maou and the Spirits, you DO know where babies come from.” Blue drawls mockingly.

You fix Blue with a level look. “Don’t sass me pup, and of course I do, the Abbey’s fuckin’ downright DETAILED about the process, considering how seriously we take continuance.”

“Then why would it shock you? We’ve made love a whole buncha times after all.” Blue whuffles, looking at you concernedly. “Is something wrong boss? I mean, this is what I’m a’sposed to do, right?”

That gave you pause. Officially, fathering a child to a Mamono was a legally complex affair. Without the records of the Church, parentage was acknowledged in the purely matrilineal (and often oral) traditions of that particular band or species of Mamono. None but the most zealous of the Faith Militant liked dealing with it, and nobody who found themselves in that position wanted it made too public for the same reason. So, oftentimes the mother, frequently an indentured, would find herself returning ‘home’ for a ‘Well deserved respite’ until the child had been born, and little said afterwards about the matter.

The question was… how would Blue’s mother react to the news?

“A-are you mad at me Boss?” Blue whimpered, her eyes azure pools filled with trepidation.

“Tyris… No pup. No.” You assure her, pulling her to you and stroking her back. “I love you so, so much, and I won’t deny it, I’ve thought about this. I just… A Father… The God be Glorified, I have no idea what I’m bloody doing!”

“Yay.” Blue whuffles happily before looking up at you smugly. “And don’t worry, I’m pretty sure I do all the work.”

“Afterwards, cheeky.” You retort, booping her on the nose, looking around as the ramped tunnel opened up into a larger chamber, smaller caves leading off it in places, the dim gloom lit by naught but the ambient light streaming down from the surface. “I mean, the Priestesses taught the Girls in the Abbey about raising young kids while we were learning something else.”

“Something else boss?” Blue giggles suggestively. “Please tell me you boys practiced kissing together.”

“Wha?” You remark incredulously “Yeah nah pup, I’m pretty sure it was math… And where in the name of The God did that come from?”

“Fine… Just destroy a girlhood fantasy.” Blue sighs, gesturing for you to pull the wagon into a small alcove. A number of Blue’s cousins crowd around, some poking at the Bungarra and dancing away before the irritated lizards can bite them.

“Quit teasin me lizards, girls.” You order absently.

“Whatcha gonna do about it?” One of the more brash Kobolds retorts challengingly. Blue growls, rounding on the speaker.

“Blue, down.” You order sharply. Blue accedes with a frustrated huff as you fix your own eyes on the defiantly grinning Kobold. “I’m not gonna have to REPEAT myself, am I sheila?”

“M-my name’s not…” The Kobold begins, fidgeting slightly.

“I asked you a question.” You interject “Am I going to have to repeat myself?”

“N-no…” The Kobold whimpers, now clearly flustered and unable to meet your eyes with hers, squirming her thighs together and blushing red beneath the deep tan of her skin.

“Good girl.” You praise briefly, before patting Blue’s head and gesturing for your indentured to lead on. “Now no touching. Any of you.”

“We’ll be good, Pack-Friend!” One assures you.

“…Why did she get praised?” Another demands

“Can you pat my head?” A third pleads

“…Can you pat my…” A fourth, more lascivious voice begins, before being shushed by Blue’s snarl.

“What have I gotten into?” You sigh helplessly, heading back out into the main chamber.

“You love it.” Blue whuffles, taking your hand posessively in her paws as she leads you expertly through the tunnels..

“Now into the gates of Hell, I guess…” You gulp, noticing the two guards before the beaded hide hanging which separates the alcove ahead of you from the cavern around it, two stern looking Kobold guards holding spears in expert paws to either side.

“Oh Boss…” Blue whuffles, “…You have NO idea…”

“Well, isn’t this a pleasant surprise?” the mature kobold lounging upon the rude hide-and-wicker throne chuckles.

“Respectfully Madam…” you drawl, bending slightly at the waist before the Matriarch. “…I have difficulty believing you didn’t know we were coming since Eucla.”

“Freeman!” The Matriarch gasps, putting paw to ample bosom in mock surprise. “And here I thought you held regard for the Kobolds of Nulla’s Line. We’ve known you were coming since you left House Boulder’s lands.”

You glance nonplussed at your indentured, still clinging to your hand. “Blue, woulda been nice for you to let me know we were being watched.”

“But then I wouldn’t have gotten five hours of pats while you were on watch Boss” Blue replies without a hint of remorse.

“Criminal…” You chuckle, mussing the Kobold’s tawny hair with your free hand.

“As lovely as it is to see my daughter and yourself again…” The Matriarch continues, rising from the throne with a slight grunt of aged joints “…Why do you come into our lands?”

You clear your throat, straightening and disengaging your hand from your Kobold’s paw.

“Madam…” You begin ritualistically. “…Though I seek forgiveness before the Throne of Tyris, my weakness has resulted in such occurrence as to render my Indentured in a state so as to impede upon her duties to me. Foreasmuch as we are both true servants of the Pax Deus, I am beholden to make such request of you, and assurance as to recompense for inconv…”

“Is he speaking Magisterian, Blue darling?” The Matriarch interrupts, looking at you with blank incomprehension.

“I think he’s being a retarded human and hiding behind tradition again.” Blue remarks in an unimpressed tone. “Mummy you know I’m pregnant, don’t make my silly master spell it out.”

“Well of course I do!” The Matriarch exclaims. “My question is, what precisely does he plan to do about it?”

“Do?” You echo dumbfoundedly, “W-well, as I was saying Madam, I’m more than willing to make adequate compensation for her to remain here as she requ…”

“Freeman, are you abandoning my daughter after getting her with child?” The Matriarch again interrupts, staring at you with her steel-blue eyes.

“Abandoning? Never!” You declare, hugging Blue against you instinctively. “She is MINE, and nobody’s going to take her away from…”

“Mum, stop teasing my Boss” Blue’s muffled voice sounds from against your torso.

The matriarch pauses for a moment, before bursting into peals of laughter. Grabbing the pair of you in her paws, she squeezes you against her ample frame in a matronly hug. “Dear boy, this is a blessing. It gives me such pleasure to welcome a pack-friend into the tribe.”

“As grateful as I am to hear it, Madam, I would ask that you don’t take the piss like that again…” You chide as respectfuly as you can manage. “…me poor nerves can’t take it.”

“Adam, don’t presume to order me, you’re not equipped for it.” The Matriarch remonstrates lightly, pinching your cheek. “Blue, take Adam to where you can both refresh yourselves. A Trader along the Line seems to have misplaced a couple of horses, much to our benefit. We shall take meat once the moon has risen.”

“Misplaced?” You echo suspiciously.

“Don’t poke Boss…” Blue whuffles, kissing you lightly and pulling you towards the hide flap. “C’mon, I wanna show you something.”

“Talk about unexpected.” You sigh, lying back in the dark, shallow water, Blue’s slender form wading out to join you, silhouetted by the light of the single oil lamp you had hung on a nearby rock. You look around at the hidden depths of the subterranean aquifer in wonder. “So this is how your people survive out here?”

“Kinda. The water’s got too much stuff in it to drink straight outta the lake here but it’s good for getting the dust off.” Blue replies, kissing you briefly before taking up position behind and underneath you, gently washing your chest with her paws.

“Pampering me pup?” You chuckle.

“If anyone’s earned it, it’s you.” Blue murmurs gently, continuing to lavish you in the mineral-rich water..

A distant, murmuring song pricks your ears. Echoing, etherial, almost on the edge of hearing. You sit up slightly, Blue making a slight noise of surprise and protest.

“Whazzat?”

Blue wraps her paws around you. “What’s what boss?”

“That song.”

“You can hear it?”

You look up, Blue essentially having your head and shoulders cradled in her lap at this point. “Well yeah…”

“Bugger…” Blue grumbles, before adding a few choice phrases in Kobold.

You had enough experience with the harsh, growling Kobold tongue to recognise a few phrases. That one was unmistakable. An emphatic negation with the promise of violence. Closest Magisterian equivalent would be “Not on (her?) fucking life…”

“Blue…” You press.

“Boss I really don’t wanna get into that right now… Later… Like next week… or next month… or after our baby’s first winter maybe?” Blue pleads.

“Pup…” You begin in a stern voice, sitting up in the water and turning over, so now you are looming over her. “…Are you keeping things from me?”

“Boss please, no good’s gonna come from playing knock-and-run at this particular bee-girl hive.” Blue whimpers, looking up at you pleadingly.

“And if I were to insist?”

“N-no boss… please, I don’t wanna…” Blue sobs. Okay, too far, dial it back a little. Chuckling softly, you trail light kisses down her body.

“Alright… Just wanted to impress the point…” You murmur.

“You are the WORST kind of Alpha, Boss.” Blue whuffles in relief and pleasure, running her paws through your lengthening hair (Seriously, when was the last time YOU had a haircut?)

“Ack, pthpt.” You spit, wiping your mouth as the bitter taste of the mineral-rich water hits your tongue. “You weren’t kidding about the water.”

“Told ya.” Blue snickers, pulling your head up insistently for a kiss.

“Mmm” you murmur, indulging her, your hand straying subconsciously to her swelling belly. Blue breaks off the kiss as she feels your hand, looking at you so tenderly you feared your heart would burst. You swallow, clearing your throat. “Hey Blue, reckon your Mum’s got a minute?”

Blue grumbles, rolling her eyes at you “You’re not going to bother HER about the song are you? I told you, nothing good will come from…”

“Nah Blue, I wanna know what it means to be a Pack Alpha… BEFORE I start growing hair in funny places…” You pause, looking down at your rather hirsute torso. “Well… More hair anyway.”

“Hair? Oh dear one, don’t be ridiculous…” Blue’s Mother chuckles, patting you on the cheek motheringly. You hadn’t experienced any kind of matronly affection since the abbey, and you had to admit, Blue’s mother was rapidly bullying her way into a very dear place in your heart. “…Do you know the Will of the Gods?”

“Outlined in the Laws of the Pax Deus and in the Holy Doctrines of Divine Tyris, the Immutable, the Eternal. May all Humanity cease not in praising and glorifying the name of the Most High.” You respond automatically.

“For Maou and Mamono…” Blue’s mother replied perfunctorily, making the sign of the Gates of Hell. “…Yes. The Pax IS Law, and we all do what we can to follow it. But it is not their Will.”

“Madam, that is heresy.” You correct sternly.

“Adam…” Blue’s Mother growls in no less implacable a tone “…I told you to call me mum.”

“Right… sorry… m-mum” you respond, decades of rote tradition fighting your utterance of that single word.

“And I suppose some could deem it Heresy…” The Matriarch admits with a shrug, gesturing for one of her attendants to make some minor adjustment to a wooden totem nearby. “…Doesn’t make it less true. The Pax is the law of survival, a law we Kobold understand all too well. But it’s not what The Sun and Moon wanted when they quit the sky together.”

“The… wha?”

“Tyris is the God of the Sun, yes?” the matronly Kobold whuffles.

“Well…. Yeah… I guess…” You admit, “…the light of the sun being the manifestation of the Order of Tyris being present upon all the earth or something.”

“Very poetic dear.” The Matriarch smiles indulgently. “But moving on. Women and Men were meant to support each other, to give each other strength and comfort in their own way. You’re becoming an Alpha because part of you has always been a leader, a trailbreaker, the kind of man she’s yearned for as long as she had the words to express it.”

“Mum!” Blue laments, blushing furiously.

“Am I wrong, Blue dear?” The Matriarch chuckles.

“Well no… But y-you can’t just TELL him like that!” your indentured whines, shuffling her paws.

You grin wordlessly, taking Blue’s paw in hand as you continued following along beside her mother. “So this isn’t a… bugger me don’t take this the wrong way because it’s the only word I’ve got for it…” You clarify. “A Corruption?”

“Boss!” Blue gasps, hitting your arm with her free paw.

“Don’t blame me for the limits of Magisterian, pup.” You retort.

“No, dear one. Women should bring out the best in the men they love… Mamono are just a little more obvious with it than Humans.” Blue’s mother assures you, pinching your cheek.

“So I’d have always been a bossy git, regardless of Blue being around?”

The Matriarch shrugs. “Maybe… Who’s to say someone else wouldn’t have nurtured a different aspect of your personality entirely?”

“Myboss.” Blue declares presumptively, gripping your arm with both paws.

“Yes Blue…” You murmur, patting her head with your free hand. “Thank you, Mad… er, Mum.” you quickly correct yourself “That’s definitely cleared things up a bit.”

The Matriarch smiles warmly. “My pleasure dear. Now you two run along. I’ve still got quite a bit to do before the moon’s properly up.”

“C’mon boss, I’ve got more I want to show you before it’s too dark for you to see.” Blue insists, pulling you towards a side passage.

“Don’t you mean ‘us’, pup?” You clarify, bemused.

“No.” Blue snorts in amusement.

“What IS that?” You gasp, taken aback at the deep, rhythmic booming which rings down the dark passageway.

“The Ocean.” Blue explains nonchalantly.

“But we’re at least a nautical mile from the coast…” You reply, frowning as you quickly do the math in your head.

“Yehboss. Sound goes a long way underground. Don’t get lost. You could hear the den like it’s right next to you and walk for hours in the complete wrong direction.”

“Too bad I don’t have your nose.” You jest lightly, booping the kobold on the bridge of her delicate little nose.

“My nose is way too cute to look good on your face, Boss…” Blue whuffles, scrunching up her face and grinning before throwing paws around your neck and kissing you soundly. “C’mon, we need to see them before the’re all the way awake.”

“They?” You echo uncomprehendingly.

“Yehboss.” Blue nods, pulling you onwards, down another fork until the whole place opens up into a vast cavern, tiny starlike lights winking across the span of its roof.

“Beautiful…” You sigh.

“Glowworms… They’re pretty from down here but up close? Eurgh.” Blue explains, making a face. “Besides… What I really wanted to show you was this.”

Blue pads delicately into the middle of the cavern before drawing in a massive breath, releasing it in a ringing, bell-toned howl.

“Eeek! Eeek! EEEEEEEEK!” voices shriek from every angle as dark shapes begin to whip around in the air above you.

“Tyris!” You curse, ducking as one of the things swoops uncomfortably close.

“Invaders! Intruders! Fly! Fly! EEEEEEK!” high-pitched voices shriek from all around you. In the dim light of your lantern, you see Blue doubled over with helpless laughter. Laughter cut short as three of the flying shapes drop on her at once, the Kobold falling to the ground with a short grunt of surprise.

“Blue!” You cry, ripping your cutlass from its sheath.

“Boss! No!” Blue yells, holding a paw supplicatingly from beneath the mass which envelops her. “It’s fine. Girls, this is your evening wake-up call, and I’d like to introduce you to my Master.”

A fourth shape alights on the ground before you, and you peer uncomprehendingly at the strange figure. For a moment you thought it a horribly deformed harpy, its clawed legs furred to the knee, the remainder of its lithe body covered in a rude hide tunic not unlike what the Kobolds wore. Its slender forearms were massively elongated, and the creature walked seemingly on its knuckles, a thin, lightly furred membrane visible between the ‘fingers’.

You gape uncomprehendingly at the creature, her delicate features crinkling with amusement as the nostrils of a slightly upturned nose which almost seems to large for her face flare exploratively.

“I think we broke him, Blue…” The creature snickers over her shoulder. “…Shame, he smells really pretty…”

A surprisingly light weight falls upon your shoulders as a second creature drops onto your back, mantling you from behind in her membranous wings.

“He IS really pretty!” The figure on your back muses throatily in the same high-pitched voice. Instinctively glancing over your shoulder, you’re met with the sight of a grinning mouth filled with teeth that would put the vampire Nasha’s to shame.

“Oi!” Blue retorts, pushing the trio off her and resuming her feet. “Myboss.”

“Awww…” The creatures all lament, the one perched on your shoulders sneaking a quick peck on your cheek before releasing you.

“Bats.” You mumble dumbly.

“You DID break him!” Blue curses, putting paws to hips and huffing at the Bats. “…So much for ‘Nice to see you again’.”

“S’orright Blue…” You assure your indentured. “…This was just… I mean… I didn’t even know youse existed!”

“Kinda the point Human….” A voice pipes up from somewhere in the gloom above you.

“This another ‘Dingoes and Murchies’ situation?” You clarify.

“Pfft… No boss.” Blue snickers. “Bats are recognised under the council, there’s just not much call to interact with humans when youse are all asleep in the middle of their ‘day”

“Diurnals…” One bat pipes mockingly.

“How do you ever get anything DONE?” Another cheeps

“…All that sunlight… eurgh.” A third adds.

Blue returns to your side, looking up at you as she takes your hand in her paw, guiding the cutlass still held dumbly in your hand back into the sheath. “I hope they didn’t scare you, Boss. Just… I was always the littlest growing up… They were my friends when Mum wouldn’t let me go out with my sisters.”

“We missed you!” A bat peeps accusingly.

“Yeah, where’d you go?” Another demands.

“She was helping us at Gibson Holding, it’s a human settlement to the west…’ You begin.

“We know THAT.” One of the bats scoffs.

“Yeah, used to visit her there all the time.” Another adds

A third swoops close, brushing your face with a wingtip “We mean since midwinter, she just vanished!”

“Ah… She’s been trading with me.” You reply without thinking.

“Trading… Heh… that’s a funny word for it.”

“Yeah, don’t be coy human, we can SMELL her all over you.”

“And… Blue are you pregnant?”

Blue nods, blushing demurely, which sends the bats into a flurry of screeches.

“You better not abandon her, Human!” One of the Bats demands in a tone you would consider threatening if it wasn’t delivered by a four foot flying mouse-girl.

“No bloody fear…” You retort, putting your arm about Blue’s shoulders. Blue whuffles happily, nuzzling into your chest.

“Pretty AND nice!” Another bat squeaks happily.

“Blue… Don’t feel like sharing with your old friends do you?” A bat laments pleadingly from somewhere behind you.

“Well we gotta get back to Mum soon, but… Dunno…” Blue grins wickedly. “…What’s in it for me?”

“I was curious about something…” You begin, flashing a cheeky grin at your indentured. “…I’ve known Blue since we were both about twelve or thirteen, but what was she like as a little tyke?”

“We met her when she lost her favourite toy…” A bat replies, ignoring blue’s pleading groan

“…She wouldn’t stop crying…” a second added

A third whooshes overhead. “…It was pitiful, really it was.”

“You stole it in the first place, you winged rats!” Blue retorts hotly, lunging at the nearest who takes wing with cheeping laughter.

“Wow, whelping Kobolds really do get moody!”

“Human, I wanna know if she still has that cute birthmark right above her…”

“Oh Maou why did I think this was a good idea…” Blue laments, blushing furiously.

“Want me to make it better?” You drawl smoothly.

Blue’s answering smile is almost demonic. “Don’t bust ‘em up TOO much boss, they gotta fly…”

“Nobody said anything about walking though…” You snicker.

“Ooh… hear him talk!” One of the bats jeers, flitting just inside the light of your lantern. “Human even if you had wings there’s no way a clumsy day-walker like you could ever…”

The bat’s remaining teasing is lost in her shriek of surprise as you pull her mentally towards you, the Mamono frantically beating membranous wings in an instinctive effort to flee.

“Shhh…” You insist, replacing the glyph with an arm, pulling the Bat against you and stroking her face with your free hand “…You were saying?”

“I-I’ll bite you!” The bat threatens, the shock of her sudden vulnerability written all over her face.

“Now now… I’m sure you want to be a good girl. Don’t you want to be a good girl for me?” You almost purr.

“Ohhhh Maou…” The bat in your arms moans, quivering now with something more than fear.

“Blue that’s cheating!” A bat flitting somewhere above you laments

“You never said he was an Alpha!”

“And you girls always said I was too picky…” Blue whuffles smugly. “…Be gentle Boss, she’s not used to proper…”

A slavering howl rings out through the passages. The Bat in your arms screeches with a mixture of irritation and concern, pushing at you as her fellows begin flitting from the cavern at speed. Bemused, you release her, and she screeches something about later before swooping through a hole in the roof of the cavern.

“Maou’s ample bosom!” Blue curses, grabbing your wrist and pulling you back towards the den. “What in the Spirits name is he doing out?”

“He?”

“My Brother.” Blue sighs lamentingly.

“Your… Brother…” You echo, trying to wrap your head around the reality of the situation.

“Did you think the talk of my pack’s bulls was just talk Boss?” Blue chides absently, insistently pulling you faster.

“Ease off Blue…” You demand. “…I’m Resonant. I don’t care if it’s Wagyl’s fuckin’ Bull, nothing’s got the drop on…”

“Boss there are three. He’s the Prime… well, at the moment. If he catches you alone with me in the caverns he’ll do anything to fight you, doubly so if the other two are with him. He’s violent and bestial and about as thick as Ivy’s arse but his instincts will tell him to leave you alone when you’re with the pack.” Blue explains. “I’d rather you didn’t have to fight him… He’s still family…”

“So that’s why you never went to the Bulls…” You sigh in revelation.

“Well that, and…” Blue trails.

“And?” You prompt.

“Well I was saving myself for you, wasn’t I?” Blue blusters, blushing adorably in the dim light of your lantern.

“…Can’t BELIEVE you girls would be so careless! If you get Blue’s Husband killed so help me Maou I’ll…” You hear Blue’s mother remonstrating savagely as you enter the main cavern, the totems now surrounding a cheerily burning fire, its smoke miraculously draughting through passages in the roof of the cave.

“Husband?” You chuckle, the Matriarch spinning and putting a paw to her breast as she sighs in relief. “Pretty sure that’s heres…”

“Hush.” The Matriarch demands, hugging you tightly before presumptively forcing you to sit on a rude hide in front of the fire. In twos and threes the other Kobolds enter, strange, savage symbols painted on their bodies. So enraptured by the markings were you, that it took you a moment to realize they were all naked. You cleared your throat, politely trying to keep your gaze in acceptable locales.

“Bit late to be acting innocent don’t you think Boss?” Blue giggles. Your retort dies on your lips as you see that the Kobolds have stripped down your indentured and are busy painting her with the same primitive markings, making something of a big deal over the slight swelling of her abdomen.

“Nice Tan-lines.” You state lamely, to which Blue pokes her small pink tongue out at you.

“Children…” The Matriarch chides, and it is all you can do to keep your expression neutral. You knew academically that the matronly Kobold had birthed multiple children… maybe dozens… yet her naked body showed no sign except for what could only be called a ribald overripeness, a voluptuous incarnation of womanhood that left no question in your mind about what the future held in store for you with Blue.

You had better start taking better care of yourself if you had any hope of keeping up with her, you concluded, trying not to stare as the Matriarch turned, allowing her attendants to cover her curvaceous form in the strange markings.

“Bring forth the prize of the hunt.” The Matriarch intoned.

“Quit perving on mum.” Blue admonished in a low whisper, punching you covertly in the side as she took a place beside you.

“Wasn’t…” You began.

“Shhh…” Blue insisted, and you grind your teeth in mild irritation. It took a full eight Kobolds to bring the body of the horse in, its powerful throat torn open in a worrying display of sheer brutality.

A burp of laughter forced its way past your lips, and the Matriarch narrowed her eyes at you. “Was there something, Adam?”

“Sorry uh… Mum… Just, we bought that stroppy sod down from Kalbarri and he would not cooperate unless I threatened to eat him.” You explain.

The Matriarch’s eyes widen in surprise. “I believe that counts as participation in the hunt, don’t you Blue?”

“Yehmum.” Blue whuffles smugly.

“You shall take meat with us, as Pack-Friend, Adam.” The matriarch declares.

“Ha ha…” Blue mocks under her breath.

“Jokes on you, I like horse.” You whisper, sneaking a quick pinch of Blue’s bare buttock, making your indentured squeak involuntarily. Whilst it’s true, you did… Raw might be another matter, and as the Kobolds stood you up and began removing your clothing, unassisted might also be an issue, as your knife and cutlass were removed to be placed elsewhere.

“Paws girls…” You murmur chidingly as the Kobolds painting symbols on you strayed towards your crotch.

“Blue, how do you take that whole thing?” One of the painting Kobolds asks, staring openly at your manhood.

“Practice…” Blue replies smoothly, with a grin that would put a cheshire to shame.

“Enough Chatter, all of you.” The Matriarch demands, and the Kobolds obediently take their places around the fire. The matriarch looks at you appraisingly for a moment and you could swear you saw the hint of a naughty smile curve the corners of her mouth… ‘Conflicted’ was perhaps the kindest word for how that possibility made you feel.

Raising her paws, the Matriarch began to chant in the harsh, guttural Kobold tongue. You did your best to replicate the responses, drawing suppressed giggles from the Kobolds nearest you, yet their expressions were patient, indulging… it reminded you like nothing so much as the Mothers at the Abbey when you were stumbling your way through your first Angelic incantation. Then, as if some commandment had been given, the Kobolds fell upon the Horse, tearing into it with fang and claw.

“No time like the present eh Blue?” You muse, taking a knee next to her and grabbing a leg of the horse carcass, pulling the thick hide back from where it had been torn, revealing glistening red muscle beneath. Licking your lips in preparation, you bent forward, your mouth agape. No big deal. You’d had rare steak hadn’t you? Stop being such a weak cunt and just…

A snarled invective gave you pause as you glanced upwards at the sound. From behind the fire loped three figures… the unmistakable, undeniable shapes of the pack’s Kobold Bulls. Blue promptly put herself in front of you, and for a moment your heart burst with pride. One of the bulls, black of hair, with a stubbly beard looked at her with lecherous eyes.

“Oh this will not fuckin’ do…” You growled, standing yourself. The Bull ignored you, until his eyes fell on her swollen stomach. With a howl of jealous rage, it began stalking towards you, before a second, younger, but powerfully built slammed a clawed, tawny-furred fist into his chest with a slavering challenge. Black-Hair stopped, lowering his pointed, lupine ears, but did not break his murderous gaze upon you.

“Behaving ourselves, I hope…” The Matriarch mused in a level tone, speaking in Magisterian clearly for your benefit. Blue’s Brother narrowed his eyes, scrunching up his face as if whatever he was thinking was incredibly painful.

“Why. That. Here?” He slathered, biting off the words and pointing a furred digit at you as if the entire concept of speech was a herculean effort.

“Pack Friend, son.” Blue’s mother explained condescendingly, as if to a very young (and profoundly retarded) child.

“Pack… Friend…” The Bull replicated the sound, and you weren’t entirely sure if it understood the concept.

“S’right mate…” You agree in a level tone, standing as tall as you could and pushing your chest out. They were still Kobold, which meant you had a bit over head and shoulders on them, but Tyris be glorified, they were nothing but corded muscle from brow to toe. You kept the Logos so near you swore you could see the glyphs whirling on the inside of your eyeballs.

“No.” It concluded. “Human. Hide under sisters tail… See you alone… Kill you. EAT you.”

Black-hair understood that well enough, gaping his fanged mouth wide in an eager grin of agreement. Fucked if you were gonna let this slide. Who was the fucking Alpha here? You, or a bunch of primitive freaks even the Gods didn’t want to talk about in polite company?

“Boss… No violence when taking meat… He’s goading you.” Blue whispered, looking up at you pleadingly.

“Cute.” You smirk, crossing your arms over your chest and flexing slightly. The better part of nine months on the road had lent you a hardness of build… not to mention in some primal, instinctive fashion, you FELT strong.

Also you could tell reality to sit down and shut the fuck up… which also helped insofar as confidence went. Blue’s brother cocked his head, baring his teeth again in confused irritation.

“Honour your Matriarch.” you commanded with all the authority you could muster. “Honour your spirits.”

“Thank you Adam. Please. Take meat with us.” The Matriarch instructed politely, yet there was an undercurrent of adamantite steel beneath her words. You inclined your head respectfully, bending down and burying your teeth into the horse’s flesh. It took the combined effort of your teeth, as well as the muscles of your upper torso to rip a bloody hunk of meat away, which you chewed deliberately at the bulls, keenly aware of the crimson which coated your face.

“SUBMIT.” Blue’s Mother snarled suddenly. It was a tone of such savage, tyrannical authority that for a moment you almost called upon the Logos to shield yourself. It was said, that in the Day of the Midnight Sun, that Maou gave authority to the Matriarchs to command and dominate the bulls that had until that time, run rampant throughout the world. In that moment, you wholeheartedly believed it. The three bulls shied away, pressing ear to skull and grovelling, crawling towards the corpse as meekly as mice.

You understand now why Neisha, the centaur Matriarch of Kalbarri had failed so spectacularly. Being a Matriarch wasn’t a matter of bloodline, it was a matter of inherent ability, of innate will. It even gave you pause to re-examine some of the fledgeling mannerisms you had seen Blue exhibit. Could she, absent your dominance, be such a will to be reckoned with?

You shook your head, now wasn’t the time for philosophy, now was the time to eat horse. You took the bloody leg in your hands, burying your teeth into the crimson flesh again.

“BRAAAAAAP” You belched, the echoes bouncing off the ceiling of the cave somewhere above. You shifted slightly on the piled hides which formed your bed, soft sounds of other Kobolds getting comfortable around you.

“Nice…” A kobold giggled from somewhere in the darkness.

“I won’t hurt him if I can help it…” You murmur to Blue, half-asleep where she nuzzles into your chest.

“I know boss…” Blue yawns, hugging you tighter “…I’m just scared he won’t give you a choice. I don’t… I don’t want you to have to kill him.”

“Tyris willing.” You assured her, kissing her gently.

“Mmmm… Oh Maou” Blue sighed irritably, breaking off the kiss and sitting up. “What?” She demanded into the dark.

“Blue?” You murmured in surprise.

“I can FEEL them staring, boss.” Blue explained exasperatedly. “Go on, spit it out.”

“It’s just…” a kobold stammered lamely from somewhere in the black. “..I was wondering…”

“Go on…” Blue prompted, and you could tell your indentured was rapidly losing patience.

“Well… Can… Can we cuddle too?” The Kobold pleaded.

“Maou’s ample bosom. Fine…” Blue sighed, hugging you again. “…Paws where I can see them.”

You wheezed as an unknown number of lithe bodies clambered their way around and over you. You had months of this, you realized, before the baby was born… Maybe years, depending on what Blue wanted to do afterwards. You expected to feel concern at that, and were surprised when it was absent. You’d have to get word to civilization from time to time, you acceded, to stop Juni from simply absorbing your accounts if nothing else. But… Could be worse.

Could be worse indeed.

The sun baked down on your head as you crouched in the scrub, the form of the camel cow silhouetted against the shimmering horizon.

“No way you’ll hit it from back here, Pack-friend…” One of the Kobolds chortled.

You blew a lock of hair out of your eyes, the shaggy mane atop your head and face having long passed ‘unkempt’ and now into ‘wild man’ territory, you reflected you probably looked an utter fright. You flashed a grin at the Kobold, taking one of the obsidian spears in your calloused, sun-browned hand, before standing and casting it skyward with a suppressed grunt.

The Camel started, looking up at your sudden movement. You stood still, focusing on the black speck as it arced through the air, calling upon the Logos as you did so, forcing the spear to frightening speed as it lanced towards the camel. So fast was it travelling on impact that it tore out the beast’s throat, the deadly stone tip buried a good foot into the ground, shaft humming with the impact.

The kobolds gasped, staring at you disbelievingly. Did they suspect you of cheating so flagrantly? Who cares? The pack was fed for another few days at the least. They’d take it and be thankful for it. You stood there calmly as a group ran towards the twitching body, hauling it atop their shoulders, carrying it bodily back to one of the myriad entrances into the subterranean lair of the Kobolds of Nulla’s Line.

“You almost take the fun out of it, Pack-Friend” One of the Kobolds accused.

You shrug. “You want fun? Chase one down yourself. You ask me to come when you want it sorted, and you bloody well know it.”

“Y-yes, pack-friend…” The Kobold accedes meekly, shuffling her paws in the rocky dirt. You could take her here, you were perfectly aware of the fact. You could almost smell her desire…

Movement caught your eye… the lupine form of the auburn-furred bull you had come to call ‘white-eye’, on account of the injury he suffered when he lost the Prime to Blue’s brother. You narrowed your eyes. The male was following you again, and it was beginning to get on your nerves.

“Go on back girls.” You ordered.

“Are you sure, pack-friend?” Another Kobold asked dubiously “You’re not gonna get lost?”

“How long’s it been, Brooke? Three months?” You chuckle, shaking your head at the Kobold. “If I get lost now, I DESERVE to get lost.”

The Kobolds turn to one another, whuffling agreement with your statement, before jogging lightly back through the scrub to the cave entrances. You head deliberately towards the Bull, standing in that odd one-legged posture the Kobolds seemed to automatically adopt when they were looking for something.

“You’re following me again, White-eye.” You declare, approaching the Bull cautiously but confidently. Thus far he’d been the only one who hadn’t displayed open hostility towards you. You’d had to threaten to castrate black-hair the month previous for failing to leave Blue alone, her advancing pregnancy seemed to be taken as a personal insult by the bull. That had been stemmed off only by the Matriarch’s intervention, the concept of having to support or euthanize a sterile bull something more than Blue’s curvaceous mother was prepared to deal with. White eye stared at you with his one good eye, baring his teeth as if your presence was causing him actual physical discomfort.

“I’ll leave you alone as soon as you tell me why, White-eye.” You prompt. “Use your words like a big boy now.”

The mocking instruction seemed to puzzle the Bull, and not for the first time you wondered how much they actually understood. Clearly not enough to spot the obvious insult, White-eye must have been approaching forty, and your infantilization of him would have meant fisticuffs if aimed at a fellow human.

“See with eye.” The bull snarled, pointing to the milky, scarred eyeball. “See from spirit. Something come.”

“Well good fuckin’ on it. What’s that got to do with me?”

“Something come for you. You go. Go for tribe.” White-eye whuffled.

“I don’t know if you’ve spotted it, white-eye, but there is very little on Tyris’s sun-baked earth that can give me pause. The tribe’s in no danger from…” You begin, before your dismissal is halted by a full throat snarl from the bull.

“No!” He slathers. “If danger to tribe, I kill you! Not… not come for danger…” the bull chewed and growled, the effort of trying to form the concepts into words seeming almost agonizing. “Blue… You go, Blue safe… You no go, Blue danger. Tribe danger. Nuh-La danger. Australs Danger.”

“I have to go… or something horrible will happen?” You clarify, frowning at the impossible-seeming revelation. White-eye whuffles agreement.

“Let’s say I buy this.” You muse, crossing your arms. “When?”

“You know. Spirit say you know.” White-eye sniffs. “You go, or White-eye kill you before danger come.”

Your eyes narrow. “You’ve got no bloody chance of that.”

“No…” White-eye admits. “…But still try.”

For some reason that rocked you. The bull was serious. Serious enough to know that an attempt on your life was likely a death sentence for him. Serious enough to threaten you with it anyway.

“Well, thanks.” You murmur, not exactly sure how to take the news.

“Human go. Stink.” White-eye demanded, wrinkling his nose at you.

“And we shared such a touching moment.” You sigh mockingly, shaking your head.

“No touch or break arm.” White-eye promised, baring his teeth again.

“Tyris be fucking merciful.” You cry helplessly, throwing your arms up in surrender as you give the bull your back, clomping back towards the entrance to the den.

“That’s bullshit!” Blue declared, waddling her heavily pregnant form over to you and grabbing your arm presumptively. “Boss, they’re just trying to drive you off! They know they can’t do it openly after you threatened to cut off black-hair’s balls, then sat my brother over an eighty-foot drop for a day to think about what he’d done a week later.”

“Maou that was hot…” One of the other Kobolds sighs lustily.

“Yeah it was…” Blue agreed dreamily before spluttering and reigniting her indignation. “…N-not the point! You’re not going anywhere. White-eye’s full of shit.”

“Mmmm…” Blue’s mother muses hesitantly.

“Mum?” Blue demands, a sinking expression in her voice.

“Ordinarily I’d agree with you sweetheart… But… White-eye… His Father had the Sight.”

“His Father was the Spirit-damn Covenanter!” Blue retorts hotly.

“Covawha?” You blurt in confusion.

Blue curses in the guttural Kobold tongue. The Matriarch smiles rather smugly at her daughter. “You brought it up dear, you can tell him.”

Blue whuffles in frustration before sighing deeply. “Boss, you remember how you heard that music when you first got here? That was an Undine, a water spirit. She purifies the water we use for drinking, and in exchange we keep her Covenanter fed and healthy… And find a new Covenanter for her daughter when the time comes.

“I’m assuming the Covenanter is a human.” You remark levelly, folding your arms in disapproval.

“The water’s not just for us boss!” Blue babbles quickly “All the Mamono of Nulla’s line rely on the Undine to stay alive. Maou’s ample bosom, every drop of water you’ve had since coming here is thanks to her.”

“Still something I’m not fond of hearing you kept from me, pup.” You reply chidingly, before turning your attention to the Matriarch. “And you, Mum… You should have known it’s the kind of thing I REALLY should have been told about. For the sake of everyone’s safety, if nothing else.”

“Adam dear, I don’t know why you seem to have such an elevated opinion of yourself…” The Matriarch begins chidingly.

“Because, Madam.” You interject sternly, raising yourself from the ground with a resonant glyph “I could collapse every cavern in Nulla’s Line with an errant thought. Surprising me is Not. A. Good. Fuckin’. Idea.”

The matriarch recoiled in surprise and consternation. You felt a soft tugging at the leg of your pants, and you looked down to see your pregnant kobold lover looking beseechingly up at you with those limpid azure eyes.

“Please stop boss? You’re scaring Mum.” The Kobold begged.

“Adam…” The Matriarch stammered, still looking at you in awe “…I… I didn’t know…”

“And Tyris be Good I wanted to keep it that way…” You sigh before pausing as realization strikes you. “…Heh. Which makes me the biggest hypocrite in the fuckin’ joint. Forgive me, Mum, Blue. That was unworthy of me.”

“Of course we forgive you, dear one…” The Matriarch gushes, moving to you and cuddling you to her curvaceous frame. “Don’t we blue?”

“Yehmum” Blue agrees, cuddling into you before grimacing in discomfort. “Adz…” She begins.

“Blue?” You query.

“Our bloody child is sitting on something tender again.”

You laugh helplessly, bending down to caress Blue’s swollen abdomen, kissing the warm skin and marvelling at the faint feeling of movement within.

It was cool evening when you emerged from the den to walk the Bungarra. Kept relatively sedentary, the Lizards needed remarkably little food and water, but you still brought them out every day to keep their muscles from deteriorating too much. The pack would eat them one day, you were resigned to the fact, but not yet. Slaughtering your ‘faithful’ beasts meant a turning point in your life, a resignation from human civilization after which there was no going back.

“Besides…” You murmured to four, scratching the stupid beast above an eye ridge as it chewed on the leathery remains of some month-dead beast, “…If anyone’s gonna kill you shits it’s gonna be me.”

Four snorted slightly, snapping at your leg. You had to fight whimsical laughter as you kicked the lizard in retaliation.

“You’re a hard man to find, Adam of Gibson Holding.” A voice calls out from somewhere behind you.

“Ain’t it always the way.” You remark philosophically, peering at the somewhat foppishly dressed man picking his way through the scrub towards you. “You are?”

The man did not answer, but you sensed a resonant glyph being cast, and glowing sigils appeared upon the man’s brow.

“You’re not supposed to be here.” You remark evenly.

“Necessity, Adam. It makes criminals of us all” the resonant sighed. “I won’t beat around the bush. We need you.”

“We Who?”

“We the Lodge, who else? Raoul taught you some things, things that we need, things that if we don’t have, the world may be in very grave danger.” The resonant insisted.

“Easy enough. Sit down, I’ll go through them with you now.” You offered evenly.

The resonant smiled pityingly, shaking his head. “It’s not going to work that way, unfortunately. There’s a procedure to this sort of thing. You’re Summoned, Adam of Gibson Holding, and one way or another, you’re coming with me.”

You snickered derisively. “You know there’s probably twenty-odd Kobolds within striking distance of you right now, yeh?”

“Twenty-eight, to be exact.” The Resonant replied conversationally. “I can stop their hearts before you or anyone else can stop me. I don’t WANT to, of course, but necessity is a whore of a mistress.”

“You reckon.” You replied disbelievingly. “Isaac begs to differ, Tyris rot his soul.”

“I don’t think you or your Kobold understand how phenomenally lucky you were when she blindsided Isaac.” The Resonant explained. “He could have reduced every single person in that room to a messy red paste on the floor between one heartbeat and the next. In fact it’s the going opinion of the High Priestesses in the Lodge that it was Divine Providence which gave you the means to victory there. Realistically, you both should be dead.”

“Well Praise fuckin’ Tyris for small mercies… You’re serious, aren’t ya?”

“Deadly serious.” The Resonant agreed mirthlessly.

“Fuck.” You curse in impotent anger before turning to the seemingly empty field. “Tell Blue… Tell her I love her. I always will. Tell her I’ll be back. If I’ve got to rearrange the whole fucking world to bring us together again, by The God, I’ll do it.” you promised fervently.

“Please don’t joke about that.” The Resonant begged, pulling a crystalline device from within his tunic, gesturing for you to take the proffered extrusion.

“It’s possible?” You chuckled helplessly, gripping the device.

“Who knows? Maybe you’ll find out.” The Resonant answered enigmatically. The air shimmered like heat haze around you, and suddenly, it was as if you were never there.

A raven cawed harshly as the Bungarra continued to forage on the low scrub. Somewhere, deep within the earth, a lone voice howled in piteous anguish, building as sympathetic throats lent themselves to its lament.

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