Thomas began to stir around an hour later. Hero had refrained from falling asleep for fear of Thomas waking up pinned beneath his drooling bulk. He had the tendency to move around in his sleep.
Watching in rapt attention, he remained still as he could manage while Thomas shifted underneath her blanket. The alp’s eyes began twitching and she emitted a long contented groan. She lifted her arms out from under the covers and rubbed the sleep from her eyes with monumental slowness. Thomas blinked uncertainly and turned her head around to peer out at the city, before quickly turning back from the visage. The transition from the shade of the wall to the radiant palace proved to be too much.
She looked back up at Hero and a look of confusion spread across her sleepy face before instantly melting into a look of regret. Now that Thomas was awake, Hero was ready to appear slightly less caring. He wrapped the alp in a bear hug, doing his best not to squeeze her to death. Now, he would appear less caring. Thomas was taken off guard by the hug, and was even more muddled after the knight put her back down.
She shivered slightly. “I thought you were going to be angry at me because I ended up fighting,” she yawned. Hero didn’t answer immediately, instead slinging their bags over his shoulders again and walking out into the road, making sure the drowsy alp could keep up. Thomas uncertainly followed her taller friend, scything through the foliage with her boots.
“Yeah, a little.” They continued walking towards the city, listening to the rustling of the grassland.
“I should apologize then, I take it?”
Hero stretched with exaggerated satisfaction. As Thomas’ best friend, he was against any kind of scolding, though that was strictly for a fixed amount of time after. A day later was fair game. As a result, Hero did what any other friend would do and completely avoided the topic, instead artfully changing the subject.
“You know, this place is still here. Wasn’t it, you know, not supposed to be here?”
Thomas exhaled out through her nose in annoyance, “Fine, fine, you’d rather bury this until tomorrow and drop it on me when I least expect it. You can have my apology now anyways.” She looked up again at the visage of the city and its lofty towers in the distance. The alp could have kept up with Hero better had she flown, but she didn’t trust her wings enough to use them again. “Anyways, this city seems very real. But it shouldn’t be here unless somebody actually moved an entire city and all of its people here through magic. Then that leaves us with about two suspects, the Goddess and the Monster Lord.”
“Yeah, the flag of this place doesn’t have the Church’s Mark. I’m pretty sure the Goddess wouldn’t bother.”
A strong breeze blew across the field, causing Thomas to shiver. She realized exactly how cold she was from exertion, and grabbed her cloak out from her bag, her fascination with her skimpy outfit all but forgotten. “I noticed that too. I also don’t see any cathedrals in the skyline, and on top of that, this is still technically a Demon Realm, even with all this greenery,” she said, her breath coming out in spurts of fog. Hero glanced at his friend and produced a heavy woolen blanket out from his own bag and draped it on the alp. She gave him a nod of appreciation before continuing. “I can’t imagine what the Demon Lord’s agenda was for moving this city though. It just seems kind of inane.”
They walked in silence for a little, silent save for the sound of their footsteps on the now gravel path. Eventually Hero interjected, puzzled, “Inane?”
“Silly. Foolish. Not-right-in-the-head motivation,” she explained, “anyways, I can’t say I have too much of a grasp on the Demon Lord’s motivations. But I suppose for now we’re going to just go into town and fix their dragon problem?”
The knight immediately lit up at the prospect of fighting a dragon. “You think I’m actually going to get to fight one? Dude, David said four of them, and holy, am I hyped.”
“I wouldn’t doubt it. Also, don’t you believe that you’re getting just a little ahead of yourself? We hardly know if the Prince will just jump at the opportunity of letting a strange adventurer handle his city’s affairs.”
“Come on bro, you know that’s how things work around here. Nobody’s going turn away a Hero who’s been knighted. Besides, even if he doesn’t want me screwing around in his walls, I’m still going to fight those lizards.”
Knighted by a monster, she thought. Aloud, she was more tactful, though there was a snort nonetheless, “I’m sure you will. They are, of course, some of the most powerful monsters that exist, but by all means, I’m sure that you are above the consequences of challenging them to a fight.”
“Hey, I’m not the one who lost to a hellhound and a dude with a chain,” the knight retorted.
Thomas clutched her chest in faux agony at Hero’s passing remark. “Must you make me relive that? I felt like I was dreaming as soon as David flew over me and started twisting around me with his chain.”
Hero snorted and pinched Thomas’ horn, much to the alp’s visible displeasure. He looked at the frowning mage beside him, “Oh yeah, I completely forgot about that, you were supposed to tell me what happened. I didn’t really get to see all of it because of the smoke and the whole you flying thing.”
The alp shrugged, “Hey, I cleared the smoke, and if you wanted to, you could have just leapt the walls or something along those lines. There were boulders there.” She tapped her chin and frowned, “I’m sure you won’t mind if I withhold my tale for a little bit.”
“No!” Hero half shouted. Catching himself, he stammered out a less impassioned plea, “Uh, I mean, come on Tom, just tell me.” He stretched the last syllable, prompting a smirk to break out across Thomas’ face.
“Alright, if you absolutely must know…” she began, much to Hero’s delight. Thomas spun her yarn to Hero, her hands and face wildly expressive as they made their way towards the city and its looming palace.
Illona’s market was in full swing.
Lining the gracious stone brick streets, merchants were selling assorted goods. Tinkerers meandered around, displaying minute brass contraptions, weavers proudly displayed fine tapestries with various scenes of monsters and human before their stands, and blacksmiths, goldsmiths, and jewelers hung their respective works of metal from tall wooden racks, all well watched by toll collectors and guards of all species. In the main square, cobblers and apothecaries choked the main square with booths and their various wares. Towering above the grand square and its people was a statue of a knight holding a drawn sword, sweeping his protective gaze across the market before him. Beneath him, threading their way through the precarious thoroughfare of the market were human men and monsters, casually intermingling.
“Well, I suppose there’s the reason that this city isn’t sanctioned by the Church,” Thomas muttered, watching a scholarly-looking man argue passionately with a lamia over the contents of a dusty tome.
“Uh, maybe the whole not existing stuff has a little to do with it.”
“Yes, yes, I am aware that the other possibility is that the cartographers at the Church missed this massive city that isn’t too far from the nearest major Cathedral.” Thomas suddenly furrowed her brow. “However, that could potentially be a fair enough explanation. This is conjecture, or a guess, but perhaps the city bewitches anyone within an area and forces them to enter the walls, never to leave,” she mused, not sounding too alarmed.
“Well that would blow hard. That’d mean we just got unbelievably played.” Hero shrugged, matching Thomas’ nonchalance, “I don’t really care, as long as we actually make it to the Royal Demon Realm, I’m okay with going anywhere.”
Thomas nodded and wordlessly scanned the plaza before finding the tavern that the guards had indicated. Hero had filled her in with the details of their conversation while she was unconscious. He omitted his sentimentality of course, but it was necessary to tell Thomas the name of the place. Hero himself couldn’t read, and not every establishment used a picture for its door sign.
Thomas tugged Hero and pointed at a cozy looking cottage with a wooden shingled roof. At the front, a rustic looking wooden sign read ‘The Boar’s Head’ in weathered red paint. The squat log building was in the far corner of the plaza and surrounded by a variety of colorful booths all peddling food stuff. As the two walked past the booths, Hero casually examined some of the displayed wares laid out. While there were groceries he was accustomed to seeing such as links of sausages, heads of cabbage, and freshly caught fish, there were also some things that were fairly unusual. Set off to the corner of one the booth’s displays, exotic looking fruits and vegetables adorned the table beside less eye-appealing mushrooms.
A goblin running the stand caught his gaze and called out to him, “Hey! You looking for something guv’nor? You look like you’re an adventurer, and Auntie here has the finest wares for someone like you.”
Thomas looked back at the slight, cockney goblin behind the stall. Her brown hair was wildly poking out from beneath a weathered horned cap and occasionally covered her large golden eyes. However, despite her childish wiry build, Auntie’s voice had a surprising richness to it. Hero was taken by it, and his curiosity got the better of him, much to Thomas’ vexation.
Hero curiously pointed at a pink, heart-shaped fruit, “I think I might’ve seen that thing before, but what’s it do? Does it heal poison or something like that, ‘cause I think I read that somewhere before.”
Auntie threw her head back and laughed raucously, putting Hero off some. “Not quite, love,” she began, recovering from her gales, “this here is called a ‘prisoner fruit.’ Pretty common, so I’m a little surprised you haven’t seen the thing before.” She allowed herself one last chuckle, “Hoo, dearie, an antidote to poison, that’s a new one.”
Thomas sighed and nudged the enraptured knight, shooting him a peeved look. She was eager to get some hot food as a change of pace and was currently disinterested in any of the colorful produce being sold. “Auntie’s” constantly shifting accent and piercing golden eyes putting her on edge also didn’t help. In response Hero gave her a pleading look, or at least, the best pleading look he could through a helmet. “C’mon, I just wanna hear about this stuff. It’s interesting.” The mage rolled her eyes and motioned for him to continue. He gleefully turned back and looked down at the goblin shopkeeper, “So anyways, what’s the pink prisoner thing do?”
“Well first of all, the fruit tastes bloody delicious and it can keep a bloke on his feet for a whole day, but, there’s a catch. You can’t just eat one you see, you take one and the thing tastes so good you just gotta pop another one, and once you’re done eating the whole lot you end up knockout gorgeous,” Auntie pursed her lips and paused, her cheerful salesman facade lowered as she rethought her sales pitch. The grave, ruminating expression on her face could have belonged to a middle age general, and looked singularly out of place on a goblin. Then it shifted back, her voice even more chipper than before. “That’s not too bad of a catch innit? No, I think that the whole ‘imprisoning’ of the other gender is the iffy part. If you eat these enough, you might end up getting attacked by a monster, and then you’re in for a rough night.”
In proportion to Hero’s palpable decline in interest at the revelation that most of those fruits and mushrooms were indeed Demonic, Thomas’ interest was suddenly piqued.
The alp took a look for herself at the display, “You’re being awfully upfront about the sensual properties of your wares. I take it that these are desired because of the aforementioned effect?”
The goblin nodded, a pleased grin on her face, “I’m an honest merchant, and I trade a lot with monsters and humans of all sorts. Generally, if you’re frank about what you sell, people like you more. So, you gents want to learn anything else?”
Hero shifted uncomfortably, “I’m done with… this. We should probably grab something for when we head out again though. You’ve got that stuff, right?” The goblin nodded enthusiastically and ducked behind her counter to rummage for provisions. Thomas gazed at the display and focused on a particular red-tinted black fruit.
“I’ve had that before, haven’t I? I seem to recall that exploding in my face.”
“Yeah, you were still a dude, and I kinda laughed my ass off. How was it, anyways?”
Thomas grimaced at the recollection, though the expression quickly sweetened, “It wasn’t bad, not at all. Even the part that I had to lick was pretty sweet, and the cream tasted just as good as it looked. Suffice to say, it was divine.”
The goblin popped back up from the counter with an assortment of dried meats, fish, and some candied fruit. “Here’s the typical adventurer fare, and at a bargain too, I might add.” Hero nodded and paid for the goods with some coins he withdrew from his bag, his distinct lack of haggling horrifying Thomas. “Thank you, guv’nor. Hope I’ll see more of you in the future,” Auntie chirped. Hero put the newly bought provisions into his bag and tightened the string, beginning to walk towards the entrance of the tavern.
Thomas called out to the knight as he walked away, “Hey, Hero, I’m going to talk to Auntie for a little longer, alright? I’ll catch up with you inside.” Hero waved his hand to show he heard and continued walking. Once the knight went through the door of the tavern, Thomas turned back towards the goblin. Eager as ever, the perky goblin was already eagerly leaning over her counter to hear what the alp had to say. As earnest as her ear-to-ear smile was, Thomas still couldn’t help but notice the intensity of her eyes on her, seemingly exposing her.
“Got a secret for Auntie, do we? If it’s to help you get closer to your big man over there, well you’ve come to the right place. After all, at my village, I was the most loveable goblin that ever existed,” she gave a clumsy wink to Thomas. “So, have you raped him yet?” she asked casually, causing Thomas to very nearly follow Hero into the Boar’s Head.
“Erm, I would have it that it wouldn’t need to come to that. However, granted that I am inept at the entire feminine grace drivel, not to mention previously a male, I may very well need the assistance of one of your wares.” The goblin nodded thoughtfully and walked out from around her booth, pulling Thomas down to her and pulling her into a surprisingly strong hug. Thomas, surprised at the second hug today, wriggled slightly, but the diminutive goblin’s grip was anything but.
“An alp then? Well don’t worry for a moment, love, by the end of this, we’ll have you in the arms of your man yet, won’t we?”
She released Thomas from her grip and grabbed a sheet of parchment from her stand, scribbling onto it. Bobbing in excitement, she turned back around, “Now, we don’t want him to get too suspicious, so I’ll send you on your way for now, but this is where I live and work, and you can drop by whenever you feel like it. ‘Ol Auntie will walk you through this alright? First thing tomorrow, if you’ve got time, we’ll get you some new clothes. You’re dressing a little boorish if you ask me.”
She handed Thomas the scrap of paper with her address and wheeled her towards the entrance of the Boar’s Head. With a considerable amount of force, she pushed her towards the entrance. “I’ve got to get back to work now, so I’ll be leaving you on your own. But don’t worry lass, you’ve got a valuable ally in your little fight. Now go on, get at him!”
Thomas clutched the sheet of paper to her chest, and propelled by the overenthusiastic merchant, stumbled towards the tavern door. However, before she entered, she heard Auntie’s silken voice call out to her again.
“One last thing love. The ‘black fruit’ is a licking fruit, and the part you licked is supposed to taste terrible to men. Except, of course, men who are bound to become alps. Take of that what you will.”
Thomas sighed and ran a hand across one of her horns, feeling the bumps with her petite fingers. It seemed that being an alp had its very deep roots. At least I believe I’ve made a friend here. In this city that shouldn’t exist, I now have someone I think I can rely on that shouldn’t be real, Thomas thought sardonically.
The mage pushed open the door to the tavern and entered.