Thomas had a hard time believing that the ghost town before her occupied a prime spot near the market plaza.
The main impression she got from the interior was the poor lighting.
Darkness shrouded the entire inn, which was despite the crackling inferno occupying the middle of the room. Beneath the thick veil of smoke hanging over the room, rough cut furniture gave the tavern a rustic aesthetic. The look was wholly inappropriate for a tavern in the middle of a crowded urban city.
Each sturdy piece of wood, which appeared to have taken the brunt of many an unruly night-time crowd, was arranged neatly around the hearth. Well cushioned booths were propped up against each windowless wall. Thomas’ gaze lingered on those; Hero wouldn’t stand to sit anywhere else, given the opportunity. As per the advertisement outside, a dire boar’s head hung against the splotched, smoky walls of the tavern. Mounted and stuffed, it looked almost huggable.
Thomas coughed. Its purpose was to clear her lungs of woodsmoke and to hopefully attract the attention of whoever or whatever ran the tavern. Her cough met by silence, she cast her gaze around seedy business and found what appeared to be the satyr proprietress drunkenly dozing off at a corner. The scene could almost have been arcadian had it not been framed by an old drafty pub. Poetic though it was, it was unfortunately not what she was looking for. The alp sighed. How a six-foot-something oaf clad in obscenely thick plate could simply vanish was beyond her.
With a resigned sigh, she pulled herself up a chair at the counter and made herself as comfortable as she could manage. As soon as she sat down, she wanted to stand back up. It appeared the establishments function as a bar complimented the furniture, insofar you had to be hammered in order to sit comfortably. Thomas briefly thought about rousing the half-goat peacefully sleeping on the counter and, wrestling with her conscience, decided that she had little other choice.
Before she could so much as call out to the unconscious satyr, a waitress cleared her throat behind her. The elation she felt at knowing that there was somebody else in the tavern quickly soured once she swung around to see half a glowing skull masking the waitress’ features. The other half of the face was fairly normal in comparison, bar the purple skin and teary, saucer-like, orange eyes. Thomas and the skeleton locked eyes for a moment before an orange light pulsed gently from the waitress’ skull, causing Thomas to hastily scoot backwards.
The waitress took no notice of Thomas’ lapse in composure, and flashed the alp a large reassuring smile. Or at least half of one. Looking at the skeleton’s ernest expression, the mage quickly relaxed, unclenching a fist that she had instinctively balled up.
The undead waitress looked like she had been waiting for her. “You must be Thomas,” she chirped, “the big armored man said that you were going to be coming in.” The alp, though she couldn’t manage a frown with the bubbly skeleton in front of her, made a mental note to remind Hero not to gush to strangers.
The skeleton continued, “Anyways, I’m sorry it took so long for someone to help you. The innkeeper’s blacked out from drink,” she apologized, sheepishly scratching her bleached white hair. “But don’t worry, I’ll fix Ira over there for you.”
The barmaid motioned for Thomas to move over, which the mage puzzlingly obliged. Behind Thomas, the sleeping bartender had somehow rolled across the table and was suckling on a rag. Giving the alp a quick word of thanks, the skeleton leaned over the counter, planting her skeletal hands firmly on the counter beside Ira’s head. Then, almost tenderly, she brought her mouth close to the satyr’s ear and took a deep breath.
“Ira!” The bartender’s name rang through the entire tavern and woke Ira up with a start. The satyr, eyes wide in panic, fell backwards into a shelf. Thomas winced, first at the unholy volume and again at the resulting sound of the bartender crashing into a rack of liquor. She would have appreciated some kind of warning; her news ears were rather sensitive.
Her chest puffed out from her vocal performance, the skeleton turned back towards Thomas. She patiently waited for Thomas to finish rubbing her pointed ears before gesturing for the mage to follow her. Thomas misinterpreted the gesture and took the hand for a handshake. Quite literally.
With a pop, Thomas pulled the skeleton’s arm out from its socket. There was a slight pause while the two decided their next course of action, during which Thomas decided to stop thinking altogether. However, in contrast to the mage’s blank expression, the skeleton’s face creeped into a wide grin.
“Well, to find your friend, I thought you’d need a hand. It’s a big place.” She beamed, “Anyways, no need to worry about it, it’s really no h-ARM done.”
The alp succeeded at suppressing a full-blown laugh at the unexpected low-brow humor, but she was unable to stop a half grin from sneaking out onto her face. A tiny smug grin on her face, the skeleton turned and trotted away, beckoning for Thomas to follow her. The mage heard the sound of bone on wood multiple times as the skeleton stumbled through the smoky room, giving Thomas something to listen to as they made their way deeper in. Finally, Hero’s hulking form emerged from the wispy dimness of the tavern a little ahead of the skeleton. The alp stared at Hero, who was clumsily opening and refolding a menu with his gauntleted fingers.
Thomas returned the waitress’ arm, smiling in response to the skeleton’s word of thanks, and slid into the booth beside Hero.
“When you’re ready to order, call for me, alright?” The two at the table nodded, prompting the skeleton to leave with a curtsey. Once the skeleton disappeared back into the depths of the smoky tavern, the knight let out a relieved sigh and placed the menu back onto the table.
“Dude, why does this place even have a menu? I thought that I’d just yell something and they’d make it or something. That’s how it works everywhere else.”
Thomas gave Hero a playful push, “You’re just angry that there aren’t any pictures on the menu, aren’t you?” Had Hero the ability to sound indignant, he most certainly would have. Instead, he wordlessly slid the paper over to Thomas, a purposeful look on his face. She rolled her eyes and picked up the menu, looking for something that would sate Hero’s appetite. They had been together for long enough that Thomas knew every single nuance in Hero’s diet.
The knight got her attention with a nudge of her bare shoulder, “Now, I’m not trying to sound like a dick or anything, but how come you’re sitting right next to me? Close, too. Shouldn’t you sit, like, across from me?” Thomas suddenly became acutely aware of how little space there was in the booth. She also noticed that she was distinctly trying to rub as much of herself as possible against Hero. Hiding her own embarrassment, she hastily rose and plopped into the seat opposite to Hero.
“Ah, my mistake. Force of habit,” she apologized, chuckling nervously. Thomas wondered if Hero had objected to him sitting next to him before, or if indeed she always insisted on sitting beside him. She did not remember. Then, He’s got several inches of plate in between the two of us. What does he have to complain about?
Hero shrugged, “Hey you didn’t have to say sorry. Didn’t have to move either, cause Krula and David are probably gonna be here soon.” He patted the cushion beside him, “I was just kinda weirded out, I’ll get used to it.” The alp bit her lip in hesitation, but her resolve held for only a second before she bounded out of her seat towards Hero’s.
She caught herself mid-air, realizing she almost jumping across the table. She sat back down, consternation written across her face as she tried to rationalize what she had done. Wanting to sit next to your friend is one thing, but clambering across a table to do so is quite another, she thought.
Thomas glanced up at Hero, who was, thankfully, blissfully unaware. She would ignore what she had just done, but she was beginning to feel that the transformations had much more to do than just her physical appearance. With a still smoldering face, she recomposed herself before shakily getting up and slipping quietly into the seat beside Hero. She kept her eyes on her boots.
“You got the order already?” Hero asked, not waiting for an answer. He took the menu and filed it to the corner of the table. “Is it gonna be a surprise? I hope you order me a salad or something so I can starve to death.”
Thomas took a deep breath and brought her eyes back up to meet Hero’s gaze, “I’m afraid not. Do you find a mutton shank agreeable or are you more in the mood for the entire animal?” Before Hero could answer, a dark shaggy paw gripped Thomas’ shoulder, eliciting a distinctively un-gentlemanlike squeak from the mage. Hero let out a short bark of laughter, while Thomas covered her mouth with a hand to prevent any other noises from leaking out.
“That’s a pretty good choice, pip-squeak. That’s my favorite thing here, actually,” remarked a familiar gruff voice. Krula and David slid into the seats across from the pair, David giving a slight wave of greeting.
“Sorry it took so long, we still had a little bit left in our shift. We also had some extra work that we had to take care of, thanks to you guys.” Both of the guards’ hair and clothing were wild and unkempt, of which the majority was not Thomas’ doing. The unruly state of two left little doubt to what had happened soon after Hero and Thomas took their leave. The knight was surprised that he didn’t hear the “extra work” through the walls. He thought that they said it wasn’t allowed on duty.
Now that they were here, Hero began waving his arms wildly to see if he could catch the waiter’s attention while Thomas turned her attention back towards the guard and his chained companion. Pleasantries were in order.
She cleared her throat to get the hound’s attention. Krula was currently engaged in having her head scratched by David, and reluctantly cast a glowing eye upwards towards the mage. Slightly tensed, Thomas began her introduction, doing her best to raise her voice over the sound of Krula’s tail beating, “I don’t believe that we’ve been properly introduced yet. My name is Thomas, and my friend beside me is named Hero.”
David arched an eyebrow at the name, but the hellhound was much less tactful. Krula shifted and melted further into the David’s armored lap, only then lazily swinging an incredulous gaze towards Thomas. “Wait, the Hero’s name is actually ‘Hero?’ That’s, um-” she paused looking to the ceiling for the right word, “-unoriginal.”
Hero ignored the comment and continued his frantic arm waving. As a reward for his persistence, the skeletal waitress materialized before the table dressed in a dull orange apron and a wide grin.
David and Krula greeted her in kind. “Nice seeing you again Ruth,” David said.
“A compliment! How kind. Do I look extra nice today?”
David motioned towards the assembled party, “Of course, you always do. Anyways, these guys worked up an appetite for me. Heroes and all that.” Hero and Thomas shared a mock look of indignation before the alp turned to order from the skeleton.
“Two lamb legs for us, please, and-,” she glanced over at the couple sitting across, “-what are the two of you ordering?”
David ran a comforting hand through his hellhound’s surprisingly pliable mohawk, “Just the usual Ruth. Maybe another portion, the pup’s all tuckered out.” Bearing her fangs in a yawn, Krula protested with an unconvincing arching of her back, driving herself deeper into David’s chest. Ruth tapped her skull with a bony finger several times, committing the dishes to memory by some peculiar fashion. Then, she gave a slight curtsy and detached her arm, causing Hero and Thomas’ to simultaneously choke. She handed it to Krula and the hellhound took it graciously.
“Okay guys, I’ll be right back.” Giggling to herself, the skeleton turned heel, and was once again was swallowed up by the hazy interior.
A scream rang out, presumably from the Ira, followed by some light hearted teasing from the waitress. Thomas looked disconcertingly in the direction of the scream while Krula and David, regulars that they were, did no more than cock their ears. Evidently, Ruth regularly abused the poor bartender.
Krula turned back towards Thomas, the effect of her piercing red stare abated somewhat from the waitress’ humerus clamped in her mouth. “Anyways, after we eat, we’ll take you to the prince,” she said, mumbling past the blockage in her mouth, “Dave’s second in command of the guard, so we should be able to get him, no problem.”
Hero nodded eagerly and reclined while Thomas mirrored the action, except leaning against the knight’s thick armor instead of the cushioned booth behind her.
David nudged the hellhound in his lap, whispering to her. “Dear, can you please make this less awkward? You know I’m no good with conversation.” He looked up, glancing at the mage stiffly leaning against Hero. Krula following his gaze and drew herself up limply, though, not by much. David muttered out the side of his mouth, “Weren’t you asking something about the ‘Hero’ thing? Go with that.”
At this, the puddle of a guard picked herself off of David and nodded. Before the pair of Heroes got irreversibly comfortable, Krula decided her curiosity had to be satisfied. “Anyways, like I was saying, what’s the deal with the whole ‘Hero’ thing? It’s kind of weird,” she said with a mouthful of somebody’s arm.
Thomas grimaced, and turned towards Hero, “Do you want to tell them? I wouldn’t say it’s a terribly personal thing to share, but at the same time, advertising it to people who we’ve just met is inadvisable.”
Hero snorted, “It doesn’t make a difference, dude. If they wanna know, then just tell them. It’s not like they can do anything worse than talk about it.”
Thomas nodded, and cleared her throat in preparation for her fantastic storytelling. Belying her confident demeanor, she herself was not completely in the know about the origin of Hero’s name. In fact what she knew was completely second-hand knowledge gathered from exhaustive questioning of Hero and his mother. However, she did have the advantage of being much wordier than the knight, not to mention a sizable repertoire of magical tricks up her metaphorical sleeve.
The inside of the wooden building was stifling. Luckily, the only person it impaired was David, and that only extended to making him a bit more sluggish. Hero remained as unperturbed as ever, Krula was a hellhound, and the temperature slightly helped Thomas forget the chill from her earlier magical showboating and cast some minor illusions.
To set the mood, Thomas darkened the light around the booth, save for a ball of glowing purple light that she willed on the table. The mage frowned at the unintentional coloration of the lighting, but continued onwards, angling the were-light to throw her face into shadow. Krula flicked an ear and narrowed her black eyes at the newly-made bard. David, sweating rather unhealthily beneath his plate, didn’t give too much of an indication that he was listening, instead absently running a hand through his partner’s fur.
“Hero grew up in much the same way you’d expect a knight to. Raised by a former nun.” The alp generally fancied herself as witty.
Hero settled back into the booth, watching as purple sparks leapt from Thomas’ fingers onto the table. Shimmering on the rough wooden surface, the sparks settled into the shape of a small burly boy with a rat’s nest of hair and a brooding face. The light puppet of Hero stamped across the table, back slouched a correct amount of degrees to convey a sense of delinquency.
“As you can see, not quite among the best behaved of children. In fact, as far as I can recall, he didn’t make too many friends.” Hero scowled at Thomas. She was having a bit too much fun at his expense. Thomas smirked, keeping her eyes on the captive audience sitting across the table. “But of course, you generally don’t get a name like Hero by setting your goals low. So of course, the first encounter that Hero had wasn’t very regular. Pity the encounter wasn’t voluntary, though I’m sure he’d choose it anyhow.”
Krula mumbled something from her position face down on David’s lap. On top of her back, Ruth’s arm apparently giving her a massage. Thomas paused her lightshow for a moment and gave the guard a questioning look. He nodded imperceptibly and whispered something into the hellhound’s furry ear. She mumbled into his codpiece again, louder. David nodded, “She says that she wanted a story about how he got his name, not a comprehensive history of his life.”
Thomas began to give Krula an irritated look, but realized that she wasn’t exactly disposed to see it. Instead, the alp fumed, determined to continue at the same exact pace, and with even more embellishment where possible.
Hero rested his head on his hand, startling the mini-Hero on the table. It shook a tiny fist at his armored bulk, while the larger iteration glanced inquisitively at the couple, “You can tell all that just from her talking into your lap?”
David’s lips curled up into a smile. “We’ve been together for…,” he stopped to run his hand down Krula’s back and onto her suddenly wagging tail, “…a while.” Thomas, though unable to see very clearly, courtesy of her own magic, could sense the most unrestrained grin emanating from the facedown Krula. Unsure whether to feel embarrassed or flattered from how candid the near strangers were, she decided to continue with her dramatic retelling. Thomas reached up to tap Hero’s helmet like a bell to bring the table’s attention back to her puppet show. Hero didn’t even know his helmet had those acoustics.
“Now, because Krula has specifically requested it, if I may, I will at once recant the tale, without further ado, not allowing any more delay.” She ignored a well-deserved rude gesture from the hellhound and snapped her fingers, a swirling nebula appearing in the middle of the table, “Continuing, it seemed that our town was attractive to something, and that particular something, for lack of better words, ruined our collective days.” She gestured towards the magical display before her and the swirling nebula of purple melted and reformed into the form of a curvaceous succubus. “I’m not sure if Hero would ever have become a hero through the clergy-approved miracle, but evidentially, there are different methods of obtaining the title.”
Thomas stared across at the table, meeting David’s intrigued gaze and glanced down at the hellhound, still face down, feigning disinterest. If not for the bolt upright ears, it could have almost been convincing.
Thomas continued with her theatrics for the remaining two at the table. She waved, and in response, the succubus shape flew upwards, high above the table, while the shape of Hero disappeared and was replaced with the visage of an entire city. Most of the gesticulation was unnecessary for magic, but Thomas thought that it made the spells look more flashy.
“Hero was raised in an average sized city, close to the size of this one, really. The key difference being that our city was deeply entrenched into Order territory and boasted a sizable cathedral, not to mention several fraternities scattered throughout. But, I think prayer happened to be one of the less effective methods of dealing with the sudden appearance of a lilim.” The succubus above the city pulsed harsh light across the miniature city, tearing down a massive spire from the cathedral, its sloped roof collapsing into itself. The rest of the town shook fiercely, with roads bobbing up and down like waves. One could almost hear the screams of an order of tiny monks. “Her goal was simple; turn the city into a Demon Realm, and all of its inhabitants into monsters or incubi. I suppose fortunately for the rest of the city, she decided to start at Hero’s house.”
“Specifically at his house? Did his parents just have a big sign hanging around the front begging for the nearest magically souped up monster to stop by?” The hellhound asked insolently, this time her head resting on David’s shoulder.
Thomas felt the warm glow of pride in her bosom from managing to extract Krula from David’s crotch and make her sit up. However, she was interrupted, and decided to give in to her irritation. “This is not a dialogue, hellhound,” Thomas snapped, “were it that I was privy to the private motivations of the upper echelons of monster society, then perhaps I could answer your question. Unfortunately, I am not. Now, should I continue?”
“Now, now, I shouldn’t hope to hear such prideful words from somebody that I personally helped introduce to the ground.” Her orange eyes sparkled intelligently, simply at the simple thought of somebody new to antagonize. “But I beg your pardon,” she said, the venom of a courtier dripping from her fangs, “do continue. If, of course, it isn’t unduly inconvenient for you.”
Thomas nearly reeled backwards. “I’ll continue, no need to hound me about it. You aren’t, after all, the main audience, mind you.”
“No! That’d be presumptuous of me, wouldn’t it. After all, I wouldn’t hope to believe that I was the one that brought up the topic, but, if you’d please, continue. You’re really quite a scintillating conversationalist, but your talent is much better used towards telling these fanciful yarns.” A peal of tinkling, false laughter escaped from her lips. Then they curled into a sneer, “Now, continue,” she commanded.
Thomas didn’t enjoy her victory, if it could even be called that. She avoided the hellhound’s literally smoldering gaze, and turned to back to the comforting visage of Hero. He returned his glance with a questioning earnesty, reassuring the mage.
“I would say the succubus had good taste in men, if one would not object to the entire blatant pedophilia business.” The entire table pretended they didn’t hear that unfortunate sequence of words. “Luckily for us, our plucky young hero did not take so kindly to the intruder in his living room.” She sighed, remembering the next part of the story. Then she took a sudden intake of breath from realizing what she had just said. Hopefully Hero doesn’t come to the same conclusion I just did, she prayed. Far too late.
Thomas turned towards Hero, her glowing puppet-show succubus wandering the set, “Do I have to tell them where you hit her?” It’s over, he knows. Unfortunately for her, Hero was well aware, but fortunately, cared for his friend very much.
“Yeah, dude, it’s cool!” He exclaimed.
Thomas chuckled, mostly to cover up her anxiety but also to display a proper amount of haughtiness.
“I don’t know what that means.”
“Of what? For what could I possibly be jealous of you for?” Thomas asked, exasperated.
Hero held up his hand, closing his gauntleted fingers one by one, “‘Cause I got to cunt punch her.”
David choked, covering his mouth to stifle his laughter. Krula’s howling was slightly less subtle. Hero puffed out his chest in pride, completely inappropriate while sitting beside the surly faced Thomas. Before the gales fully subsided, the mage shook her head once and the entire illusion around them was dispelled. Her light puppets fizzled out of existence and the feeble light from the hearth once again warmed their booth.
“Alright, the rest of the story is easy to explain anyhow,” she grumbled, “he did, in fact, ‘cunt punch her,’ though he paid for whatever severe pain he inflicted onto the lilim several fold by her cursing him. The curse not only erased any vestiges of his name from memory, but also with the curse that leaves him in the armored state you see him in today. Now to answer your question, his mother then gave him the name ‘Hero,’ for reasons that she keeps to herself.” She sighed and sat back in defeat.
David leaned forward, upsetting his dog “No way, she got rid of your body so your soul had to inhabit a suit of armor, didn’t she? Are you guys Heroes so that you can look for the Philosopher’s Stone?”
Thomas blinked at the guard’s sudden outburst and shared a hopeless look with Krula. She began, painfully, “The Philosopher’s Stone doesn’t exist, unfortunately. Moreover, the curse is nothing quite that grand.” She paused. “Though the inhuman strength is quite impressive.”
Hero took over, “I have to wear the armor ‘cause if anybody touches my skin it hurts. It part of the curse. And it hurts a whole lot,” he explained, “but, stuff that’s not a monster or a person’s okay. Like if someone throws a rock at my face, I’m alright. But if anybody actually touches me, I’m going to be on my ass for a little bit.”
Krula nodded sagely, as if what Hero had just described was commonplace.
“Yeesh, so if that’s true, then that’d mean you haven’t fed your girlie any Spirit over there.” She turned and looked at Thomas curiously, and asked, almost sympathetically, “So do you just live off of starvation rations or some shit? I’d kill myself if I ever had to eat that for more than a day.”
Thomas cocked her head and frowned, ignoring whatever the hellhound was insinuating, “Starvation rations? I’ve never heard of them. Likely because I haven’t been a monster for too long, if you haven’t exactly noticed.” Before David or Krula could so much as look incredulously at the mage, Thomas produced a jar of pearly-white viscous liquid from her bag and set it down on the table. “This is how, so far, I’ve been replenishing my Demonic Energy. It was mine from pre-monsterization.” David stared at it uncomprehendingly. Then his eyes widened in horrified revelation.
The guard glanced at Hero, a rattled, pleading look in his eyes, “No. No, that is not. That can’t be,” he breathed. Krula didn’t understand her partner’s sudden discomfort and stared blankly at the rest of the table for an explanation. Hero, taking care not to look in the direction of the jar, retrieved his field guide from his satchel and opened it to the appropriate page, sliding it towards the two. Krula’s eyes set on the title of the page at the exact moment Thomas opened the jar and began heartily downing its contents. A look of astonishment and awe appeared on her face as the lines of concern on David’s deepened. He shuddered and began looking around wildly, anywhere but at Thomas.
“Wow! Man, I sure do wonder where the food is, yep, Ruth? Please?” David half-shouted into the smoky tavern. As suddenly as she first disappeared, the skeletal waitress reappeared in front of their table, four dishes balanced precariously on the top of her skull, shoulder, knee, and remaining elbow. She panted as if she had just been running a marathon, which Thomas found somewhat odd.
“Right here Davie,” she said, catching her breath. Still breathing laboriously, the skeleton lithely slid each of the dishes onto the rough wooden table. David gave her a thankful look, for both the food and saving him from whatever horrors were about to exit or enter Thomas’ mouth. Krula, at the sight of the waitress, happily relinquished and reattached the skeleton’s arm.
Thomas finished her less than conventional drink and examined at the dish before her. Instead of the greasy tavern food she had braced herself for, the lamb seemed quite appetizing. Hero was of the same opinion, if the eager rubbing of his hands was anything to go off of. He flipped up his visor, revealing a small portion of his face surrounding his mouth. Ruth, now with two arms once again, leaned over in front of Hero. It seemed she had noticed something interesting.
“Woah! What’s with those tattoos on your mouth?” Ruth gaped. She stared at the Hero’s exposed mouth, the object of her interest. While the anatomy was nothing to call an exorcist for, the markings around his mouth were less so. The “tattoos” were in the shape of thin, almost delicate swirls that flowed into larger, more winding black veins. Every now and then, they unnaturally pulsed. “These are so pretty, who did them for you?” she asked, scooting closer to admire Hero’s tattoos.
Thomas provided an explanation, “Nobody did them for him, it’s part of the curse that a lilim put on him. I suppose proof that there’s actually a curse.” Ruth’s jaw dropped, revealing another fourth of her face underneath. It was extremely skeptical.
Krula sighed past a mouthful of mutton, “I think you’re gonna have to tell the whole thing from the top.”