When Thomas opened her eyes again, she immediately wanted them closed again. Despite the sturdy canvas walls of the tent, the noonday light managed to punch through with stunning alcarity.
She wondered if she shot a big enough bolt at the sun if it would oblige her and darken several degrees.
Grimacing, the mage sat up, rubbed her eyes, and stretched. After, she cracked open her eyes to the sight of Hero, kneeling in the entryway of the tent. His unwavering stare made her feel slightly exposed, and she pulled her blanket up a little higher.
“Your stripper outfit is falling off,” he stated matter-of-factly.
Thomas felt the urge to throw something at the knight but didn’t want to let go of the blanket covering her up. Looking down at herself, she was happy that she still possessed a certain degree of modesty. Though, true to Hero’s observations, her rather flimsy top was sliding down, exposing a dangerous amount of shoulder.
Hero continued, unabated by Thomas’ sleepy, venomous gaze.
“Going to sleep and rolling over is normal,” he mused, “so it’s probably normal to have your clothes messed up, right? But, your clothes fit pretty tightly, last I saw. It’s magic, isn’t it? I mean, I bet it’s a thing meant to appeal to me.”
“Well,” she began irritability, as one would likely be if somebody was watching them sleep for an unspecified amount of time, “maybe this is based on your preferences because I don’t think I can control the costume or cast charms while I’m asleep.”
“Well, that’s fine. Anytime I get any thoughts, I just remind myself that I’ve known you had a dick—however small—for like twenty years. Besides, you’re flat.”
Thomas groaned and walked outside of the tent into the daylight, pushing Hero out of the way. She hadn’t slept nearly long enough to deal with the knight.
While the sky was still clear, a light breeze ensured that the day wasn’t unbearably hot. Despite the fact that her outfit was virtually climate controlled, she wasn’t going to be too pleased with a tan, especially in her current attire. Maybe the clothes also took care of that? Best not to take chances.
Thomas reluctantly dressed back into her cloak and pointed hat. While she was doing that, the knight went about collapsing the tent and stuffing all their possessions into a small sack. Thomas had enchanted that sack while still at their town’s monastery when he was a student. It wasn’t nearly as potent as her own bag, but it still held far more than it should have been able to. Not that Thomas had let Hero forget that.
Once everything was packed, they stood around a cold fire pit while Thomas ate a small breakfast of jerky. She then washed it down with a milky white bottle from her bag.
Hero pointedly looked away from her while she was replenishing her energy.
“So, how long was I out?” she asked between sips, making sure not to have any of it run down her chin, “and how long were you just staring at me?”
“I got up a little bit after dawn. Did my usual morning routine; you know, I chased after rabbits and stuff. When I got back, you were still asleep, so I just ate breakfast. I thought about waking you up by just collapsing the tent on you but figured it was too much effort. Then I went inside to grab the bag and just saw you with your covers all over the place, drooling, and your skimpy top making its way down to your hotpants.”
He picked up the bag at his feet and slung it over his shoulder.
“Dunno about how long I was there though. I kind of alternated from staring at you and feeling creeped out and chasing rabbits again.”
Thomas rolled her eyes.
“You’d think that since I’m the monster here, I would be the one with more creepy habits.”
She placed the now finished bottle back into her small bag and tied the string.
“Alright, back on the road, Hero?”
The knight nodded, and the two of them set out in the direction of the road. After wading through a sizable amount of tall grass, they found their way back to the dirt road. The road didn’t look like it had seen any kind of traffic in a fairly long time, as the shorter grasses had almost completely reclaimed the soil.
The trail was hardly the width of Hero from shoulder to shoulder, so Thomas was forced off the main path. She had to make do by tramping through the tall grass with her boots. Otherwise, she had to trek behind Hero and dodge Hero’s massive gait. Not a particularly appealing prospect.
The alp would have preferred to flit around Hero and occasionally perch on his sizable pauldrons, but her robe—which Hero insisted she wear—prevented her from using her wings effectively.
Thomas was very much considering removing her cloak and being free from the grass. She had already stopped caring about whether or not she would get an uneven tan by not wearing her cloak, despite only making that decision a scant ten minutes ago. It hadn’t taken her long to take notice of the fact that her boots seemed more suited for strutting and less for long walks on an overgrown country road.
Thomas turned to look at Hero, who was continuing at his implacable pace.
“I don’t seem to remember allowing you to pick out what I dress in. In fact, I remember you saying the exact opposite. You can’t possibly maintain that it would be that much of an inconvenience if I took off my cloak.”
She left out the part where landing on his shoulder like an imp would most certainly be an inconvenience.
In a poor attempt to convince her friend, she added, “You didn’t have too much of a problem with me wearing this last night.”
Hero shrugged, “You wear what you want to wear. But if possible, I don’t want to make it super obvious that I’m walking around with a succubus. You know what people will think when they see a big knight and a tiny imp-thing like you.”
He shuddered slightly, images of a hamster and a banana filling his head.
“Also, yeah. I didn’t have a problem with you last night cause you were feeling down and we were alone. I’m not gonna lay it on when you already feel like crap.”
“How kind,” her tone was still peeved, but slightly appeased, “very well, I’ll continue to walk along this backwoods trail surrounded by tall grass with my new boots. I will no doubt need to get these boots looked at when we get to whatever the name of that hamlet is that we’re off to.”
She slung her bag over onto one shoulder and rummaged through it before producing a map. She unfurled the vellum and scanned it before settling on a barely noticeable thread of a marked trail. Tracing it with her finger, she finally settled upon a faintly marked dot with the label “Illona.”
It was presumably named after some kind of obscure angel or saintly figure from the Church canon, though Thomas couldn’t be sure. Her memory of the Church scripture was hazy. She imagined becoming a physical manifestation of heresy had something to do with it.
“So how much longer to wherever it is? Walking through an ugly-ass-looking nature sucks.”
Hero was ever the pragmatist.
“The town, if I can call it that, is named Illona. According to the map, we shouldn’t be too far off.”
She tapped her chin, computing distances in her head, “If you decided to run, at your pace, we’d be there in no time at all. And by run, I mean, you run, and I’ll fly.”
Thomas unconvincingly winked at Hero from beneath her wide-brimmed hat.
“Yeah, nice try,” the knight responded, chuckling at his friend’s thinly veiled intentions, “but, we’ll walk. Also, what do you mean not a town? If we show up and it’s actually just a bunch of clustered houses with thatched roofs I’m gonna tear up a tree.”
“That’s what a hamlet is. It’s less than a town. A collection of homes. With thatched roofs.”
This elicited a groan from Hero and half a chuckle from Thomas.
Generally, the bigger the cities, the more monsters that lived among the general populace. And with enough monsters, there was bound to be a place to stay with accommodations for some of the larger species. In that situation, it just so happened to be one of the few times Hero could fit in a bed and Thomas could feasibly weave a levitation spell for him anchored above the bed.
The alp shook her head, “I’ve never heard a word about this village until you decided that we just head west until we get to bigger cities. I barely managed to pick the name of this town from the map we received at the Cathedral.”
She replaced her map into her bag and turned to Hero. “I still think that your plan of heading west until something happens is a faulty plan, just so you’re aware.”
“Yeah sure, maybe I should ask a stuffy Venerate where the ‘Royal Demon Realm’ is. I bet he’ll then submit my application through seven bureaucratic hells. If I pray hard enough, I might get the Divine Reverence himself to descend down to me, painstakingly point in the right direction with one of those old geezer fingers, and I’ll be off on my own merry crusade. Sounds like a better plan than mine if you don’t mind waiting until you’re dead.”
“You are planning on chasing a Lilim down. Your ‘plan’ is convoluted and impractical start to finish.”
She shook her head, sending a merry jingling into the air. They were slightly annoying, though a welcome reprieve from the constant sound of wind whispering through the plain.
“Anyhow, about Illona; I’ve never heard about the town, and as you should well know, I’m very well read.”
Hero snorted. Thomas pouted.
“That aside, it’s hardly marked on the map! Nothing but the name and relative location. It was issued this month! How many more of these tiny little villages are there on the journey west?”
Hero groaned. “Whatever, I guess we’ll see when we get there.” He turned his attention back to the road and laid eyes on something unexpected.
Further down the dirt path, flanked by two massive boulders, were two armed figures standing before a stone wall. The impressive work of masonry stood at twice the height of the aforementioned boulders, each of which was easily fifty feet high. Hero stopped in his tracks. Thomas just frowned and stared at her map and then back up.
The two stared uncomprehendingly at the structure before them. How they hadn’t seen it from nearly a mile away was either magic or a severe lack of awareness.
Thomas immediately consigned Hero to the latter.
The mage checked her map one more time. The word Illona and the accompanying tiny hut symbol seemed to mock her.
“In your face, Tom,” Hero sang, under his breath.
The mage’s brow furrowed. “Shut up, Hero. Though you’re right, this doesn’t make any sense.”
Though his visor helped conceal it, Hero was feeling much the same way as his companion. He decided to focus on his immediate concerns. “I thought we weren’t supposed to get here this fast.”
“We weren’t,” Thomas mumbled as she studied the map, “we’re still a little far out from the actual site of Illona. But, well…”
She crumpled up her traitorous map and shoved it into her robe, examining the imposing turrets that occasionally broke up the wall.
Thomas followed the parapets of the wall. The structure extended far off into the distance, barely visible despite the staggering scale. She guessed that the massive stone walls were encircling something substantially bigger than a small village. Rather, the wall seemed more fitting for something closer to a city-state.
“I just don’t know.” Thomas was at a loss.
“Cause you’re dumb,” Hero said agreeably.
She sighed and examined the wall again. Something caught her attention, and she elbowed Hero.
“Say, we don’t have a very good idea of what to do, so perhaps we could find someone standing on guard in front of the wall?”
Hero snorted. “I wish. I don’t see any fuckin-”
He then noticed the large imposing gate that Thomas caught sight of. The gate was a large wooden affair framed by a slightly protruding stone arch. The gate consisted of sturdy wooden planks that were polished to a slight gleam with an overlay of a spiked criss-cross of cast iron. This seemed like a gate where guards were likely to be posted.
One was a man clad in plate armor, though more lightly armored. He lacked a helmet, exposing his scarred face and wild black hair. He was lazily swinging around the slack of a chain. The chain led to the collar on the guard beside him, a hellhound with her red hair in a cut in a rather unladylike mohawk.
“Kinky,” Thomas whispered. Hero shot her a look, then returned his attention to the hellhound.
She was dressed in a lighter, chain hauberk, and seemed to be on the verge of falling asleep. However, her grip on her halberd was more than secure, despite her apparent drowsiness.
The guards had a crest that neither of the two had ever seen before stamped on their chest pieces. It consisted of a central trident being held down by three strands of rope, one for each point, across a yellow background. It lacked a golden halo that was customary for a Church supported state, explaining the monster.
The human guard noticed the duo approaching and tugged at the chain to get the hellhound’s attention, gaining her ire for a moment. She finished glaring at her partner and then swung over to glower at Thomas and Hero. Brandishing her halberd threateningly, she bounded towards the pair.
“Alright, you’ve walked far enough. Now, what’s your business her-”
Midway through her challenge, the first guard yanked the chain taut. Thomas frowned. She had thought the chain was longer.
The hellhounds choked gurgle interrupted Thomas’ thoughts. After several seconds of choking and gagging—which seemed to bring a gleeful smile on the first guard’s face—the hellhound turned furiously on him. To his credit, in the face of her ire, he was checking his nails out.
“Fuck you, David, you giant asshole!” she roared, her crimson mohawk bristling, “fucking get over here right now, or I’m gonna tear you a new asshole right next to the one on your face!”
“Krula dear, remember what the captain said? All this ‘fucking’ you’re talking about, we can’t do that on duty,” His grin not leaving his marred face, David straightened up from the wall and approached the raging hellhound.
Thomas examined the man’s features as he got closer. His curly black hair framed his face well, and despite the multiple scars that lined the bridge of his nose and cheek, he still maintained a rather handsome appearance. Hero caught his friends glance and examined the guard as well.
Leaning over, the knight whispered into Thomas’s pointed ear, “You know, he is pretty hot but I don’t think you should go for that. Looks like he’s taken.”
Before Thomas could do more than spin around affronted, the hellhound broke into their conversation.
“You’re damn right about him being taken. And also he’s a bit,” she grabbed the chain connected to her collar with her free paw, “-slow!” The hellhound yanked the chain. Hard.
The unsuspecting David, who was taking his time, made the mistake of keeping a hold on the chain. He practically flew forward. To his credit, however, he managed to land on two feet with as much grace as he could manage.
He rubbed his back, wincing in pain. “Love you too, girl,” he muttered, much to the hellhound’s delight.
Tail wagging ecstatically, she gave him a slobbery lick that turned into a slobbery kiss before turning her attention back onto the onlooking adventurers.
“Oh yeah. You guys,” she said, remembering Hero and Thomas’s existence.
Not a hint of embarrassment, Thomas thought. She felt a twinge of jealousy.
She turned and looked at David, “ Honey, how about you talk to them. I’ll just look scary and support you.” She made a heart shape with her paws. David ran a hand down his face, wiping some slobber off.
“Think that went out the window the moment you sicced me with your tongue,” he muttered. He turned to look at the pair, disinterestedly appraising them. His gaze lingered for less than a second. He waved dismissively, yawning, “Looks like they should be fine. Just have them pay the toll and let them through.”
“There’s a toll? Seriously? For this deadbeat road?” Thomas looked back at the dirt path leading to the wall.
Hero groaned. Then he gave her a sidelong glance and elbowed her to remind Thomas the reason that they approached the guards. Also to stop her from haggling.
“Ah yes. Erm, is this the entrance to Illona? We’re new in this area, and we had no idea that there’d be a city around here.”
David shrugged. “Figures. Nobody ever really comes out through this way to trade in the east, and we see exactly zero people traveling here. But yeah, this is Illona.”
“So is Illona large? And if it is big, how have I not heard about it?” Hero asked, looking up at the sheer immensity of the wall before him.
“Yeah. And as far as you never heard about it, I dunno. Nobody from this place ever goes east, but its been like that.”
“I see,” Hero said skeptically.
Thomas decided to inquire about the city more once they were within the walls. They weren’t going to get too much more out of the apathetic guard. “Well, thank you. Anyhow, you mentioned something about a toll, but as we both mentioned, you don’t get traffic here and you’re still expected to collect the toll?”
Krula’s ear suddenly twitched as she was leaning on her halberd. Sniffing, she turned to face Thomas, red eyes intent.
“Well, I mean, if they do it at the West Gate, we probably have to do it on the East Gate too.” She yawned, exposing her canines.
Thomas blinked, her ears twitching slightly.
This woman doesn’t appear to like me, she thought.
David explained further, “Yeah, we’re trying to refill our coffers too, because we had to pay a pretty handsome amount of money to a bunch of dragons. They’re roosting on a plateau a little ways out. Don’t think they’d have too much use for it up there, but, hey, I dunno.”
Thomas frowned, now even more incredulous, “An entire flight of dragons? When did this happen?”
Hero’s interest was piqued immensely at the mention of dragons.
“Something like a week ago? We got a threat delivered from a wyvern who literally flew circles around everything we sent at her. After that, we had a scouting party trail her back to wherever they were roosting up. They all come back, out of breath, and swearing that not only is there a wyvern, there’s a wurm, a full-blown dragon, and—believe it or not—a ryu. Everyone was saying how those don’t really live on the continent, but they swore by it.”
David snorted, clearly skeptical. “The Prince didn’t want to risk it, so a pretty sum went to the dragons. Now here we are, trying to refill our coffers.”
Hero nodded slowly. “So you people have a dragon problem then? Does that mean a Hero like me could get a favor out of your Prince if I got the dragons to scram and bring back whatever you sent to them?”
Thomas gaped. “Goddess, Hero, do you know what a ryu even is? Or is two syllables too much for you?”
Hero ignored her snide comment.
Krula straightened up to her full height, standing a full head over David. Her ruby eyes glittered in curiosity.
“Well, that probably depends on the favor. But anyways, as a Hero, you should be doing this stuff for free, shouldn’t you?”
Hero’s shoulders sagged, “Yeah, you’re right,” he said in a dour tone. “Whatever, I’ll do it. A bit early to get a quest like this, I guess. I’ll try not to screw up.”
David laid a hand on Hero’s armor giving some reassuring words. “Don’t sweat it, I’m sure if you’re capable of fighting dragons then the Prince’ll do his best to get you what you want. And since you’re Heroes anyways, I think I can waive the toll fee.” This made Thomas smile.
“Cheap-o,” Hero muttered to the alp.
David turned to Krula and gave her an expectant look. She seemed to understand immediately and they shared a smile, sending Krula’s bushy tail wagging.
“Of course though,” he continued, unable to keep the excitement out of his voice, “we’re going to need proof that you’re Heroes.”
The two immediately understood what he meant by “proof.” Thomas put a hand on her hat, “I have some papers from the Church. But, I suppose a rubber stamp isn’t what you’re looking for, is it?”
A devilish expression touched her face.
David broke into a small grin. “You say you can take on four dragons, so you’d have to be able to give me and Lala here a good workout, right? I’m looking for merit in a hero, wouldn’t be responsible otherwise.” He rolled the word around his mouth. “Merit. That’s a word that rolls off the tongue”
Krula shoved aside the ruminating David. “And it is so fucking boring here!” Krula butted in, twirling her halberd like a baton, “Nobody comes, nobody goes out, and we can’t even pass the time by fucking! Seriously! Nothing! Day in, day out. So before I forget to be grateful, then-”
Hero cut the hellhound off, putting his hands up defensively. “You guys can’t be serious. Look, I’m fine with laying out a couple of dragons out, but I’m not fighting you guys for no reason. Come on, Thomas, back me up here.”
He turned to look at his friend but immediately regretted banking on his friend.
Thomas had already folded her robe neatly and placed it, and her hat into her bag. She straightened and turned to face the two guards in her half dressed glory, black fog pouring from her eyes and open palms. The appearance was not helped by the wicked grin spreading across her face.
The unpleasant coldness of the previous night was all but forgotten as Thomas felt the Demonic Energy radiating surrounding her like a miasma and filling every corner of her body. The energy flowed much more smoothly than Spirit Energy ever did. She felt what seemed to be unlimited reserves beneath her skin straining to be unleashed. This was different. Primal, even. Despite her abject inexperience, her opinion on Demonic Energy was rapidly shifting.
Disapproval was radiating off of Hero like a stench. “Tom, you’re joking. You wouldn’t.”
“You are mistaken. I am most certainly taking up their offer. I’ve been dying to earnestly try out my magic. It would have been better if I actually got any decent practice beforehand, but,” she shrugged and sighed, “I suppose I’ll make do.”
Hero grabbed Thomas by the shoulders. “Seriously. We’re not getting in a fight with some random city guards just because.”
At Hero’s touch, Thomas’ magical aura abated somewhat. She pouted some.
“C’mooooon. I just want to use my magic for once on something,” she whined, “Hero, they’re offering! It’s rude to refuse. It’s not like I’m going to kill them!”
“Nope. Nada. Not a chance in hell.” Hero’s grip was firm.
David slouched a little, slightly deflated. Krula turned back to look at him. Her ears flattened on her head and she growled for a second before David walked forward and scratched her head. The growl faded and the hellhound’s shoulders sagged a little less.
“Why can’t you do that with me? Control your woman, Dave.” Krula smiled at the guard, answering her own question by radiating insubordination.
“Don’t have a woman, Lala. Have a dog.”
Krula turned up her nose in mock offense.
“You have a shitty taste in nicknames.” She turned back around to face Thomas and Hero, the latter who was trying to restrain himself from grabbing the mage’s throat.
Krula called out to the pair. The knight hoped it would be the hellhound revoking her challenge.
“Oi! If you want to protect your girlfriend from getting hurt so bad, just fight us by yourself! She can watch you having your ass kicked all cool-like!”
No such luck, just taunting. Hero released Thomas, who immediately began massaging her own shoulders for want of a pair of metal gauntlets.
Hero took a deep breath. Then, with barely a wind-up, he threw a punch in the general direction of David and Krula. The guards were puzzled. Before either of them could say anything, gale whipped past the two, almost knocking the two off their feet.
Air displacement. The wind’s howling tore away Krula’s choked gasp before she could hear it herself. Her eyes widened. David took a step back.
Hero pointed a single finger at the two guards.
“I don’t think your Prince will be happy when I tell him about this.”
Silence. Thomas choked back a giggle. All that showing off just to threaten to tell their bosses. Suddenly, free from Hero’s grip, she broke off into a run towards the slack-jawed hellhound.
Watching the alp run, Hero realized that Thomas was no longer in his protective custody. He let off a single interjection as Thomas skid to a stop several feet before Krula.
“Hey!” The desperation was one of a parent calling after a small child who had toddled off towards some indeterminate danger.
“You see, you’ve seen Hero’s special ability, which is tattling.”
Nevermind the ability to make a noticeable gust by simply thrusting out his hand, she thought.
Aloud, she said, “Now you get to see mine.”
Thomas’ eyes lit up with a bright purple glow. She tapped the side of her head with a finger, “My most effective weapon is something you have no hope of defeating; my mind.”
Wow, did I actually just say that?
Krula chewed her lip. Her gaze was not directed at Thomas, despite the intimidating bolts of purple energy crackling around her body, but towards the visibly quaking Hero. His arms were held stiff at his sides and he was clenching and unclenching his fists. She did not want to be around when that particular knight was in a mood.
Thomas caught Krula’s wide-eyed glance, noticed it wasn’t directed towards her, and coughed to grab her attention.
Krula glanced at her for a second before shifting her attention back to the angry knight. She murmured something to satisfy Thomas, “Yeah, you’re mind’s great, you’ve got a bright future and all.”
David laughed, slightly forced, from behind Krula, “‘My most effective weapon is my mind.’ Fuck! Did you actually just spout a line like that?”
David barked a set of harsh laughter.
“That was awful! Did you come up with that?”
Thomas looked stricken. Her chances of a cool entrance gone, she considered her options. The eager fervor to jump into battle that she had earlier was gone. This was mainly due to Krula’s own anticipation for a fight evaporating at a show of Hero’s strength. Hard to blame her.
The knight in question was emitting such a strong desire to wring his best friend’s neck that it could almost be tasted.
The mage in question could feel the hairs on her neck prickling with a primitive impulse to flee. There was no doubt in Thomas’ mind that going through and attacking the two guards would be a decision that she would deeply regret. She glanced back over her shoulder and caught Hero’s glance. A chill ran down her spine and she shivered
“You’re shivering because you’re flying around in your underwear.” Hero’s tone was flat, and it was clear the brevity was forced.
Thomas realized she had very little to gain from antagonizing Hero. Additionally, now that the heat of the moment had passed, the mage was no longer as eager to start a fight. There was very little incentive to continue and Thomas desperately racked her brains to find a justification to continue.
Irrationally, she still had the desire to blast the hellhound through Illona’s massive walls. Then it dawned on her. This was Hero’s fault. She quashed her own immediate disdain for shifting blame off of herself.
Thomas had no illusions that her own obstinance was at fault here. Pride, the ugly thing, was preventing her from dropping the tough-mage act and walking away from the guard’s challenge and back to Hero to make up.
And maybe also her changing into an alp, but that was something she could worry about later.
But in its own twisted way, Hero was driving her actions. Thomas knew it would take something far worse than a spat with two city guards to get Hero truly angry. But she knew, by disregarding him to such a degree Thomas would have Hero’s attention. And while not truly angry, her friend was definitely somewhere in the ballpark of being chasing her down and yelling at her for a good half hour.
She would feel so wanted.
Thomas blinked. Scratch that being something she could worry about later.
Turning into an alp planted all these strange thoughts in her head. The ploys for Hero’s attention were most definitely not originating from her brain, more accurately, the thoughts were likely from the Demonic magic arcing across her skin and pulsing through her veins.
The mage knew this. The alp in her wanted Hero’s attention.
Obviously, now that she deeply understood how petty this entire affair was, she could articulate it to the big oaf and preserve her own pride while acquiescing. A win-win. She had known herself and had conquered her base instincts. Her lips curled into a self-satisfied grin, as she knew that she was about to walk back to Hero and not confront the two guards, despite being pumped full of cloying Demonic Energy.
She willed herself to remember that she was a male.
Thomas, of course, did nothing of the sort.
The mage jerked her head back at Hero and called out to him, her voice echoing with power, “Don’t worry about the two guards, I’ll hold back!”
Before the knight had so much time as to let out a strangled growl, Thomas stretched out her arm towards Krula and opened her palm. The hellhound defensively brought up her halberd. David straightened up. Instantly, a bright flash followed a massive burst of bright purple energy shot from Thomas’ palm. The air filled with a deafening roar as the burst of energy, twice the size of Krula, hurtled towards the guards.
Thomas heard Krula’s snarl. Metal links slithered against each other. She felt Hero lift his foot to slam the ground.
I’m kind of a monster, huh?