By the time Ruth was filled in on the details of Hero’s curse, she had dragged Ira, kicking and screaming, over and the others had mostly finished their food, save Thomas. She didn’t have that big an appetite after gulping down a jar of her own bodily fluid. The mage wondered what starvation rations tasted like.
Thomas and Krula had finished going through Hero’s story again, this time without any magic tricks by Thomas. “You got all that, Bones?” Krula asked.
Ruth nodded, grabbing the satyr’s horns to make her nod as well. Ira made a weak bleat of protest. Ruth had moved a table and two stools over so that she and Ira could sit by the four in the booth and listen. Though she was still somewhat in disbelief about the story, the skeleton took David and Krula’s word for it.
Of course, while Krula and Thomas were explaining to Ruth about Hero’s skin condition, the Hero in question was devouring his lamb. Thomas had cut herself a small slice and had nibbled that. It was quite juicy.
Hero cast an eye towards his friend’s plate and hungrily leaned over towards Thomas and her food, “You gonna eat that?”
Thomas shook her head and slid the dish over to him with a sigh. He rubbed his hands in anticipation and reached for the mutton. Suddenly, Ruth shot her hand over to Hero’s gauntlet, stopping him. He glanced up curiously, along with the rest of the table.
“Wait, so you can’t get touched, right? But what about if I touch you with my hand?” She ignored the skeptical look coming from Thomas. “I mean, technically it’s not really alive.” To emphasize her point, she fluidly wriggled her skeletal fingers in front of Hero. Ira, sensing a terrible idea in the making, leaned over and clung to the waitress’ apron. She cupped a hand around Ruth’s ear and murmured into it. From what Thomas could make out, her voice was melodious, as befitting her species. The skeleton turned to Ira with a wide grin, “Don’t you worry about a thing, sweetheart! I won’t hurt him too bad, if at all.” She winked, “Dead sure of it.”
Her reassurance may or may not have been lost on Hero, who had already removed his gauntlet, revealing more tattoos. On his hand, the markings followed his veins more closely and had the swirling black lines connecting them to his fingernails, which were completely black. In his other hand, he was eating more mutton.
“Okay, go for it,” he said. All of the assembled company had the less than vague feeling that Hero was about to regret his experiment, except Ruth, of course. Krula and David, however, were curious at how severe the curse truly was.
Ruth touched the tip of her finger on Hero’s hand.
The reaction took a second. Hero was raising the shank to his mouth when the waitress brushed his skin. Instantly, he stiffened and dropped the mutton, followed by the rest of his body. Ruth retracted her hand just as quickly and protectively covered Ira’s eyes from the sight of Hero’s convulsing frame. The satyr’s gaze summed up the entire table’s sentiment; we told you so. Thomas, lips tightened into a grim line, leaned over Hero’s slumped body and gingerly lifted his gauntlet. She ignored the pathetic groaning coming from the crumpled knight and, grunting from the exertion, picked up the armor beside Hero’s hand. Then, with little else she could do, Thomas waited for his spasms to subside.
Ruth, her eyes wide, opened her mouth to apologize. Thomas cut her off, not taking her eyes of Hero, “Don’t waste your breath. He was asking for it.” She furrowed her brows, running a hand through her blonde hair, cursing when she caught them on her horns. “Hopefully this won’t last too long. I remember the first time his mother hugged him after the incident.” She shivered at the memory.
David let out a low whistle, “Shit. I watched him slug through a foot of steel like it was nothing, and then Ruth, most harmless thing in the whole place touches him and he goes down.” Krula leaned over her dishes, sniffing Hero.
“So, is he gonna be okay?” From Thomas’ position, the hellhound looked like she was guarding some stash of treasure, ready to sniff out and attack any wayward adventurer unlucky enough to happen upon her charge. She felt a pang of jealousy.
Thomas tiredly waved away the hellhound. “It’s just severe pain. Maybe he might pass out for the time being, but there’s no danger. The problem is that when we’re traveling and there’re less assurances for his personal safety while writhing on the ground. Luckily for the both of us, I’m quite capable of defending the both of us.” Feeling flushed with the feel of her magic replenished, she conjured a crackling ball of lightning at her fingertips to make her point.
Krula remained unimpressed, her own ego boosted by her earlier victory, “Hey, looks like you learned your lesson about fire. Oh boy, I can’t wait to tell Ruth about that.” The despondent skeleton nodded and looked up with teary eyes at Ira, who had taken charge and was dabbing at Ruth’s eyes with her apron.
Thomas clenched her hand, smothering the sparks, and sneered at the hellhound, “You can see that I learn. Next time, I’ll singe far more than your equipment.”
“You really are more arrogant than I thought.” The hellhound leered unpleasantly at Thomas, “After we beat you another time it would be simply unsightly if you, again, ended up flat on your ass.”
“Yes, I shan’t make excuses for myself, though I would like to point out that apparently staying calm isn’t something that comes to females easily.” She gave a meaningful look to Krula and relaxed a bit, “I would have it that I need to meditate more before I can retain my previous levels of concentration. You require immense levels of-” Thomas covered her mouth as she yawned, “-concentration.” Then the mage remembered something Krula had mentioned.
“Anyhow, before you mentioned how other monsters were, ahem, fed, with these starvation rations.” She steepled her fingers in an attempt to hide her sheepishness, “You’re aware that I’m an alp and I haven’t exactly been taught how being a monster works. So I’d like to ask a few questions while I’m free from Hero’s ridicule.” Thomas abandoned the steepling completely and fidgeted nervously before adding in a hushed tone, “If, of course, it wouldn’t be too much to ask of you.”
The table was silent. All eyes were on the suddenly insecure alp, including Ruth, who had finally pulled herself out from Ira’s comforting bosom.
David glanced at the blank faces of the assembled monsters, a roguish expression appearing on his face, “So, should I give you ladies some privacy?”
Krula nodded, “Thanks honey. Always knew how to read a situation.” The hellhound gripped the guard by the back of the head and slammed his forehead onto the table with a resounding thud. David did not get back up. Thomas opened her mouth to say something, but Ruth shook her head.
“She knows exactly how hard to do it. Bruises, but nothing breaks and he’s off dreaming about weresheep.”
“He’d better not be dreaming about weresheep or I might wring his little neck!”
Ira and Ruth shared a knowing grin and the waitress turned back towards Thomas. “Well, there’s no need to be a stranger. Us monsters are a bit more generous than you’re used to.”
“Girl talk!” Krula threw her head back and laughed boisterously, her enthusiasm slightly relaxing Thomas. While the monsters began their thorough description of life as a monster, the mage’s thoughts drifted towards a certain goblin outside. She shook her head and looked back at the table. There were biological functions to be discussed.
After a good hour had passed, Thomas had digested the block of new information, not to mention a sizable amount of gossip, and Hero began to stir from his pain-induced stupor. Noticing this, Thomas quickly rapped his helmet with her knuckle to rouse him. The knight groaned, stiffly straightening up, and stretched. Thomas thought he almost looked like someone waking up from a refreshing nap instead of a pain induced coma.
“What’s good?” he asked groggily, looking around at the still giggling table.
Thomas rolled her eyes and held up Hero’s gauntlet, “I don’t imagine you’ll be for very long, provided you intend not to put this back on.”
The knight’s gaze moved from the gauntlet up Thomas’ bare arm towards the mage’s face. Thomas noticed, instinctively shying back, but feeling a slight blush touching her cheeks. Seriously? You’re blushing because he’s looking at you? And I thought puberty was bad, she thought disparagingly.
Hero caught her, ‘what-do-you-want’ gaze and explained himself, “Wait, before I do that, we gotta test something,” he took the piece of armor from Thomas, carefully avoiding her slender fingers, “I’m pretty sure that when Ruth touched me, it hurt a lot less than when somebody actually touched me.”
David had woken up and, as Ruth had predicted, suffered only a bruise. He raised an eyebrow at Hero, “You passed out. Are you telling me when an actual somebody-,”
Ruth made an indignant sound and, once again, buried herself into Ira’s chest, much to the half-goat’s chagrin.
“-somebody alive,” David corrected. Not to be outdone by the skeleton, Krula dove into the guardsman’s chest, momentarily knocking the air out of him. “If somebody alive touches you, are you going to just kneel over and die?”
“Well that was just cause I haven’t practiced dying in a while. I think I’m used to it now. So, Thomas, do me a favor and hit me.”
“I’m not here to assist you in suicide.”
“Nah, dude, I’ll be fine.” He presented his hand, insistently pushing it towards Thomas’ face, “C’mon this is important. If I ever have to fight somebody dead, then I can strategize.” He said the last word as if it were an exotic food that he wished to seem knowledgeable about.
Thomas’ remained unconvinced. “You are going to curl up and die if I so much as tap your hand, much less hit you.”
I full well understand the expression, she thought crossly, but said aloud, “I have no plans on facilitating your pain-loving ways.” On cue, Hero lolled his head back and heaved a melodramatic sigh.
“Dude, quit messing around. It’s an expression. You know what I’m talking about and I need to make sure if I’m right. Just like, a quick touch’ll do.”
“Well I suppose we’ll have to take it on face value then? I wouldn’t exactly qualify you as a scholar, fit to record your observations.”
Krula looked at David and gave a low whistle. She leaned over and whispered into his ear, “Talk about awkward.” The hellhound glanced at the standoff across the table and added, “I almost believed that she used to be a dude.”
Thomas slammed the table with a clenched fist, the little bang grabbing the attention of the table. Embers floated out from the length of the mage’s arm and lit small, pulsing red lines on her skin. Thomas hesitated. While it was unthinkable for her to throw a fireball at Hero under any circumstances, she also had no desire to do as Hero asked.
Of course, she was considering the needless pain she would inevitably inflict to her friend, but in the deeper recesses of her mind, something much worse loomed. The very thought of him recoiling in pain from her simple touch tightened her chest. She did not dare dream the of dread that would wash over her if she actually touched him.
Her mouth compressed into a determined line. Hopefully, she thought, Hero won’t make this too hard.
Hero glanced casually at the flaming arm. He allowed himself a small grin beneath his helmet despite Thomas’ almost pouty resolve. Thomas always did have a thing for fire. Looking at his friend’ newfound purpose, a nasty thought popped into his head and he decided to tease her.
“C’mon dude, you don’t even need the runic stuff. You did all those fireworks outside the walls without any of it.” He brought his hand even closer towards Thomas’ face. She yelped and hastily brought her face back. “Scaring me won’t work Tom, I’ll kick your ass.” The rest of the table got comfortable and settled back for the show.
A snarl flashed across Thomas’ face, accentuated by her eyes, suddenly overflowing with power. Thomas had expected that Hero would take some budging, but his approach was more direct than she would have liked. Obviously a less subtle approach would have to be taken in order to dissuade the barbarian. Luckily, her magical tank was full.
She began talking, her voice deepened and reverberating with magic, “Terrific. It would appear that the ribbing has begun already. I lose once and now you believe that you would have no problem against me? Withdraw your finger.” With nerve she did not feel, Thomas brought herself as close to Hero’s finger as she dared, challenging Hero.
The smile reached Hero’s eyes, though he took care to hide it by flipping down his visor. He threw back his head and barked a short laugh.
“You pickin’ a fight, Tom? ‘Cause you know that I’ll win. C’mon, when have you ever not ended up on your ass crying after fighting with me?” He jabbed his finger even closer, prompting Thomas to scoot back until she was hanging halfway off of the booth.
While Thomas was composing a pithy retort, she recalled many of the fights that she and Hero would have as children. Despite, as Hero had put it, she had ended up on her ass and crying, Hero invariably make it up to her, whether it be from something ridiculous to get her to laugh or, her personal favorite, hugging it out. Then, contact with Hero was savored. Now was a different story.
Her pithy remark was ready to take out of the oven, “Well, I assure you, if you can manage to rear back those unwieldy hunks of metal you call fists before I’m through with rusting your joints, then I’m sure you’ll have the victory you’re so looking forwards too.”
Hero ignored the threat and leaned forward, the finger closing on Thomas’ face. She could feel the heat radiating off of it and felt her own temperature rising in response. She screamed mentally. If she ever found the lilim that had put the curse on Hero, she would do whatever necessary to trash her. For now, she had to back even further away from the exposed finger.
Suddenly, she felt herself going slightly too far over the seat, and a customary lack of balance. Her sudden lack of balance was immediately countered by a strong pull from Hero, who had seized Thomas into his chestplate, his gauntlet pressing her into him. The metal was warm against her cheek.
Thomas looked up, noticing Hero’s exposed right hand held up high, far away from Thomas. She smiled in relief, even as Hero taunted her.
“Now what was that you were saying about my ‘unwieldy hunks?’ By the way, that means ‘clumsy,’ right?”
Thomas murmured in agreement, enjoying the feeling of Hero pressing a hand into the small of her back. She half closed her eyes to savor the moment, then snapped them back open. While she enjoyed this thoroughly, she wasn’t going to let herself fully savor this until he was hers. This oaf was clearly unaware of his actions.
One could argue the very same about a certain alp.
The flickering flames on Thomas’ arms were extinguished and quickly replaced by a thick layer of frost. Hero noticed the chill, though the mage could not have been described as hiding it, and gently nudged the hostile alp off of him.
Thomas allowed herself to be pushed away, her brows knitted into grimace from breaking contact. This helped her deliver her response with an appropriate amount of anger. Whether it was more directed towards Hero or her own weak mental state was debatable.
“Ah, thank you for the ‘save,’ I suppose. Now then, I don’t see any reason for you grabbing me so brusquely.” She examined her wrist in mock horror, “I’m sure that I would have been fine. Two feet off of the ground is hardly an impediment for someone who happens to be able to fly,” she observed dryly.
Good hearted ribbing, the cornerstone of solid friendship.
“Ingrate!” the knight bellowed. The familiarity of the word indicated that he used it often. Hero sprang to his feet and began beating his chest, a deafening percussion filling the air. He reared his head back and let out a throaty roar, slightly disrupting the tavern ambience with a cacophony of metal and his voice. Hero pulled his arm back and threw a punch at Thomas’ face, which drove the assembled company into action.
The air was filled with indistinct shouting. Ira swooned into the apron of her waiter, who had leapt bolt upright, toppling her chair. Similarly, David and Krula had both jumped onto the table, their slack jaws struggling to catch up with their taut stances. As tensed as they were, the effort was half hearted. If Hero’s blow connected to Thomas, there wouldn’t be much to do except clean up the mess.
Thomas crossed her arms, looking straight into the still fist before her. Then, the arm began to tremble as the knight at the other end collapsed into a bout of coarse laughter. Thomas, an unimpressed eyebrow cocked, giggled slight herself and blew a lock of hair out from her face before turning around, a contented smile on her lips. At the sight of the distressed guards standing at the table, she furrowed her brows in confusion and cast a questioning glance at the hyperventilating skeleton and swooned satyr. Her ears flicked once before she realized that Hero’s jokes were unacceptable in polite company. Her face reddening, she spun around and elbowed Hero, who was still absently chortling.
Thomas’ withering look cut off Hero’s gales, and he took a quick peek at the still standing group.
Thomas muttered out the side of her mouth, “Please do me a huge favor, and try not to do that in the presence of the Prince.”
“Oh,” Hero repeated dumbly.
Jokes were the cornerstone of most friendships, especially one as close as Thomas and Hero’s. The exaggerated aggression is another case entirely.
David sighed and clambered off of the table, leaving Krula behind to slouch, likely glum that there were no criminals to be apprehended. Nonetheless, a snarl remained on her face as her rippling muscles began to relax and her ears perked up again. The hellhound decided she wanted some fun at the two’s expense.
“What the hell was that shit? You think that that shit’s funny? You could’ve splattered your blonde bimbo’s fucking head across the upholstery,” she was practically growling, “So much for the whole, ‘carrying her to safety’ routine, eh?” The hellhound’s eyes were glowing brighter than ever before, and her tail was reaching a fever pitch. Thomas had to admit, she was looking for a fight almost as much as her.
Krula didn’t bother to cast a glance at the completely mortified David, just as Thomas didn’t bother to look at Hero. She felt his weight shift from the seat and placed a small hand on his pauldron. There was a positively black expression beneath his helmet, no doubt, but Thomas was content to leave Hero out of Krula’s domineering little tests.
Looks like I’ll have to play dirty then, she thought, smirking. Then, Stupid dog.
As if by accident, Thomas made eye contact with Ruth, whose watery eyes were threatening to burst. Perfect.
With much aplomb, she tore open her wings with the sound of a sail catching a sudden wind and landed smartly on the table. Though Krula was slouching like a delinquent, Thomas barely met the hellhound’s literally flaming eyes. She could have sworn that the alp transformation, even with the boots, took off a few inches.
“Now then,” she remarked casually, letting her magic echo her voice, “let’s clear up some misunderstandings. Even if Hero tried, and planned his little head off-,” low rumbling from the knight, “-even if he planned his moderately sized head off, I am more than capable of defending myself. Now, as his friend, I ask you to retract your insult that he would ever have the inkling to hurt me.”
In one smooth motion, Krula turned around and slapped Thomas with her tail, coming back to face her and spit on her boots. The mage flinched slightly as the big bushy extremity buffeted her and opened her eyes to the sight of the hellhound’s gleefully exposed canines. Thomas didn’t pay for the boots, but it seemed that Krula was more than willing.
Thomas thrust her hand out behind her, “Hero give me your gauntlet.”
Krula’s eyes flashed as she took another step towards Thomas. “You’re gonna make it formal, huh, squire? Well I hope you like repeat per-” Thomas did not reach back to receive Hero’s gauntlet. She reached back to get a nice long swing. Her open palm connected to Krula’s cheek with an elastic crack, sending her stumbling. Thomas may or may not have used magic to enhance her arm strength, though, using the hips instead of only the arm was something she had picked up from her abbot.
David, who had been chewing on his chain to prevent himself from strangling his girlfriend with it watched wide eyed as Krula received the revered “bitch slap.” The guardsman began chewing the chain with renewed vigor, now to stop himself from erupting into loud cackling.
Thomas stuck her hand out behind her again, this time with which Hero responded with an obligatory high-five. Krula whipped around, her ears pressed against her skull again. Her expression was now feral, strings of saliva dripping from her bared teeth and framed by a set of molten orbs. Before the hellhound could tear out the mage’s throat with her fangs, Ruth, after gracefully depositing the sleeping Ira onto their table, leapt in between them.
“Please, no more fighting!” she practically bawled. A skeletal hand on her collarbone and a pair of weepy eyes was enough to reduce Krula’s stare into a smolder. To keep herself from hurting the skeleton’s feelings, the hellhound kept her eyes on the skeletons quavering pout. Very well she had, for if her eyes wandered onto the sheer smugness of Thomas’ expression, then there might have been some degree of property damage.
Overcome with large, fat tears, Ruth ran into Krula’s chiseled arms and buried herself into her fur, blubbering. Krula didn’t need to shoot Thomas a dour glare. They both knew how they thought of each other. Were she not taken, Krula would likely have committed to a relationship on spot, though it was doubtful the mage would have reciprocated.
Thomas hopped off of the table, magically evaporating the damp spot of her boot with a spark before she landed. Hero wordlessly stood up and the two walked out from the booth, waiting for the hellhound to break up the hug with the clingy skeleton. Once the two separated, David led Krula out and waved goodbye to the waitress, prompting Hero and Thomas to do the same. She waved emotionally before disappearing back into the mist of the tavern, leaving the two guards to lead the duo out.
David ran a hand through his black curls and threw a weary glance at the two girls, “You guys aren’t going to start anything in the throne room, right? Please?”
Hero caught David’s glance and stared at the two, suddenly amiable monsters with them. He looked back at the guard and traced a tear down his helmet.