Preface: Greetings, all! This is the tenth and final chapter of the tale that began with “Not Alone – Chapter 1,” comes immediately after “Not Alone – Chapter 9,” and is the second story in a series that began with “What You Don’t Know,” also located on this site, although it features a mostly-different cast of characters.
As always, my standard disclaimer: The monster girls featured in this tale, and many elements of the setting, are based off of the works of Kenkou Cross, and as such this work is intended to be a tribute to his creativity. The characters, however, are my own. Pray neither sue nor steal; I have very little to take, but I love that which is mine.
Chapter 10 – Heroes
Crusader Lord Julius Leopold scowled down at the charts before him, his mind focused on other matters than the daunting task that lay before him. As an experienced veteran of several campaigns, he had led forces to victory against rebels, secessionists, and monster sympathizers. He had fought, and killed, and bled, and had earned his title through sheer bloody-handed conquest. He had not, however, ever faced the literal decimation of his forces before the first battle could begin. The trap the monsters had laid for his men in the mountains had been devastatingly effective, and he could not even offer the rest of his soldiers a chance for vengeance, as all of the accessible mountain passes to the south had been destroyed at the same moment. The coordinated rockslides left his army no way to pursue the fleeing refugees until the stones were cleared and the roads restored, and that could easily take weeks.
And so, all he could do was see to the boarding of his men within the abandoned village, and send word of their tainted victory to the greater powers within the Barrier Cities, and prepare for the mission yet to come. He had not even looked over the place that was to serve as his own lodgings; the men that had surrendered to them as they had entered the village had pointed out this as the home of the bestial mayor of the town, and so he had claimed it as his own, but there was little to indicate it had belonged to any being of power. It was a fairly typical cabin, complete with two bedchambers and a large living room with a fireplace. As he was used to spartan conditions during his time at war, this was more than comfort enough for him, though he sneered at the ‘luxury’ these beasts had managed to achieve.
A polite rapping at the door did not pull his eyes away from the maps spread chaotically on the table before him, and he barked a command for the one who knocked to enter. The door swung open, and the rapping of hobnailed boots against the wooden cabin floor drew near to him before Leopold turned to glance at the man who had interrupted him. He immediately recognized the young man by his slicked-back dark hair and general look of discomfort; the soft lad had apparently never journeyed far outside the Barrier Cities, and had taken poorly to an extended trip upon a horse, his gait suggesting awkward soreness and blisters in the worst of locations. Despite his mildly-bowlegged march, the young knight carried himself with the regal dignity of a monarch, a contrast that brought a cruel smile to the Crusader’s lips. “Inquisitor Errant Richard Miralis reporting, my lord.” The young man offered a parade-ground salute and bowed his head respectfully, but Leopold was not fooled. He had seen too many ambitious upstarts with political daggers up their sleeves to relax around such a boy as this.
“Report,” he commanded brusquely.
“Sir.” The Errant raised his head, meeting Leopold’s gaze without wavering. “Our forces have searched the town and apprehended all of the remaining residents. All of them are male, and are in the process of being interrogated by my Inquisitor superiors. Preliminary information suggests that most of the monsters fled by caravans on the main road, with only the final train leaving by the south. Some monsters, however, fled into the forest to the north.”
“They’ll regret that. Have the men that are judged innocent enough put into labor groups. Half will be sent to the mines; the rest to begin deforestation. Let them take the brunt of any resistance to our efforts here, but keep Purifiers on hand to intervene if monsters dare attack them.” Leopold glanced at the map behind him once more. “Have the Warders begin scouting the southern mountains, also. They must report any routes that appear to have been repeatedly used in the past.” The young man raised his eyebrow at that, but the Crusader gave him no further explanation. “Was anything else of interest found?”
The other man coughed, suddenly looking nakedly uncomfortable, his artifice falling in the face of his next words. “Well, sir, we did locate a strange clay statue hidden in the basement of one of the taverns. We believe it may have been some sort of fertility idol: it looked like a man, wearing a chef’s hat, with exaggerated muscles and-” He choked on his words. “And a massively-oversized bulge below the belt, sir.”
“Like a small melon, or-”
“That will be enough, Errant.” Leopold shuddered in horror at the obscenity of the enemies of mankind.
“Will there be anything else, sir?”
Again, Leopold looked to the charts that covered the table behind him. “Yes. Send in the prisoner we brought. I would speak to him, alone.” The inquisitor offered his commander another sharp salute, but the Crusader Lord waved him off without looking, his mind already lost in the diagrams before him. He had been sent here with one mission above all else, and he would not waste a moment in achieving it. He would use any resource that it took in his search, even one that had been tainted by the monstrous wretches that opposed his holy empire.
Another knock at the door came minutes later, and again Leopold ordered it opened. This time he turned to watch the other man enter. This creature was far removed from the young man that had deposited him at the cabin’s door, though he too was a man of fewer years than Leopold: instead of the immaculate colors of the Orders, the prisoner wore coarse linen rags, and instead of a greased style, the man’s lanky, uncombed blond hair hung low in front of the dense spectacles perched unevenly upon his nose. The heretic’s arms were painfully thin, partially from the life of an academic, partially from malnutrition. He weakly tottered forward, his blue eyes focused upon the ground between them, his lips tight and twitching nervously. He stopped a short distance away from the Crusader Lord, awaiting his orders as he rubbed at where the manacles had chafed at his wrists.
“Well, Axander Marinus,” Crusader Lord Leopold started coldly, “you and I will be working together for a while. On pain of death, you will help me read these old maps to find any sign of the ruins I know lay in these mountains. Together, we will locate the Temple of Apollo, and bring the light of judgment on these cursed lands.” His smile bared his teeth, but his eyes bared the zeal burning in his soul.
Night had fallen on the southern mountains, an ink-black stream that flowed into the ravines and seeped behind the boulders, shy of the moon’s brilliant glow. The death of the sun had brought a new silence to the hills as even the wind whistled low through the winding paths, as if afraid of disturbing the ring of wagons sitting in the heart of the valley deep within the range. Those carts protectively circled a cluster of campfires that twinkled in the darkness, the dance of those flames suggesting a merriment that should not have been found amongst a crowd of refugees. Still, they had all survived the day, and that was cause enough for contentment, if not celebration.
High on the hill that sloped down into the valley, far above the ring of wagons, another campfire burned as one man watched over the group of men and monsters as they succumbed to slumber. Even he seemed atypically casual, still armored yet propped against a stone in a relaxed slouch, like a sated hunter resting off his last meal. He had even left his sword laying near his small campfire, casually discarded as he had taken up his watchpost.
Despite his relaxation, his head turned smoothly to face the woman approaching him, even though she had hardly made a single sound. She smiled at that, emerging into the light of his fire, her hand resting easily on the pommel of her own sword. She walked close to him, taking a seat on the ground beside him, taking a moment to sweep the ground beneath her with one hand while she pulled her cape out of the way with the other.
They sat in silence for a long moment, looking together over the drowsing caravan and the dimming lights of campfires burning lower. Finally, she was the first to speak. “The boy you mentioned, the chemist with the strange mana. He and his orc mate held off the bandits that would have attacked those wagons. Delfie and I rescued them, but he had managed to put all the bandits to sleep somehow. You were right about him after all.”
The knight beside her nodded, then shook his head in disappointment. “If we lived in a different world, one where the gods we knew hadn’t vanished, then he could have been a Hero.” The man glanced over at his companion. “What about those bandits? They could still attack.”
Ceann leaned back with a haughty smile, looking up to the heavens. “I spoke to them. They’ll be too scared to cross a servant of the Demon Queen. Anyways, I made sure they knew that the young man had beaten them, so they wouldn’t stand a chance against him and all his allies.”
The knight stared incredulously at her. “You said what?” When she frowned at him, he released a deep groan, covering his helmet with his hand. “You told a bunch of orcs, even emphasized to them, that a man beat them? That poor bastard. They’ll never stop chasing him now.” Ceann stared at him blankly, confused, especially when he began to chuckle under his breath.
They sat in silence again for long minutes. At one point, Ceann shifted, moving her hand to adjust her weight. Her fingers brushed against his left gauntlet, and she pulled back, blushing, but that expression fell when it registered that he hadn’t noticed at all. She nodded to herself, sitting up, crossing her arms over her chest.
A thought occurred to her, and her eyes narrowed as she glanced back to her partner sharply. “By the way… those explosions that sealed off the mountain passes. You waited a long time to trigger them. Why? Delfie said her sisters placed all the explosives early today.”
The knight was slow in responding. Instead, he reached up, hooking his thumbs under the edge of his helmet. With a tug, he pulled it free, and shook his head as the cold night air embraced his skin. Under the armor, his youthful face looked to better match a man used to wielding a pitchfork than a sword, with unkempt brown hair and an aquiline nose. He didn’t meet her gaze, lowering his helm to the earth. “The Orders came for the refugees. I merely showed them why that was a bad idea.”
“You murdered them, John.” Ceann nodded to herself when he didn’t deny her accusation, a wave of cold realization embracing her, her expression stricken. “After our Mistress warned you-”
“Don’t worry, Ceann.” She looked at him, and flinched back from the golden gleam in his eyes as he grinned at her. “I just killed all of the monsters. After all, isn’t that what a Hero is supposed to do?”
When Roger Miralis opened his eyes, he knew that he was not alone. There was a monster in his bed.
It took him a long moment to figure out that his bed was not, in fact, a bed at all. Instead, he lay on the ground atop a thin bedroll, covered by one of his old blankets. Priscilla was snuggled tightly into his side, her smile blissful. He smiled down at her slumbering face, distracted from his wakening thoughts, but the dancing firelight drew his attention enough to force his brain to resume its march to consciousness. He gazed at the campfire a short distance from where they slept for a long, mind-blank moment before looking back to Priscilla, noticing the bruises and scuffs on her face.
Berala. The cave. The diffusers. He had fallen asleep carrying Priscilla to safety. Roger sat upright with a start, and beside him Priscilla grunted and clutched tighter to him, trying to wrestle him back down into the bed. As Roger noticed that they were no longer within the bandits’ cavern, but instead under the open sky, he allowed her to drag him back down, and she cuddled him all the more intensely with a pleased mumble.
“Do not worry.” Roger turned his head to see another woman seated a distance away from him, watching him with an amused smile on her lips. She was no one familiar to Roger; while he was acquainted with several harpies, this woman’s wings came from her back, while her arms ended in taloned hands. Her legs, however, were furred and leonine, and a tufted tail twitched from side to side behind where she sat atop a wooden crate. Her hair was brown, feathered with white, matching her plumage. She wore an embroidered deerskin shawl and a matching sash, but nothing else, leaving the bottoms of her breasts bared to his averted eyes. She laughed harshly at his shy reaction before continuing. “You are among friends. The Lady of the Blade bade me carry you and your mate out of those caverns after we went in to find you. Your lizard friend told her about the way you two went in there to save the caravan. That was very brave.”
Raising his head just enough to avoid disturbing Priscilla, Roger looked about them. His makeshift bed was at the edge of the light of one campfire, but many other fires glowed around them, shadowed by wagons and the silhouettes of those who had not yet retired to their own patches of earth. Above them, twin mountains framed the sky, and Roger realized the caravan had made it to the valley they had been seeking. The carts had escaped the mountain roads, and thanks to that rather imposing woman, he and Priscilla had rejoined them.
A closer examination of the carts around showed many familiar faces. Not far away, in the shadow of a large clay jug, Mithal laid asleep, though his face looked tormented. It was easy to discover why; five bulges were pressed against his body under his blanket, including a larger one that seemed to have claimed his thighs as her pillows while her sisters clung like lampreys to the chef’s various limbs. Beyond them, metal chimed quietly in the night as a cyclops bent over a small anvil, hard at work repairing battered armor, sending sparks soaring like newborn stars into the sky, while near her an ogre lay collapsed amid a collection of drained bottles. Not far from Roger was seated a small bowl in which was planted a familiar flower, and looking at it he felt a projected feeling of shared contentment, as if a distant alraune were watching over him. Finally, across the fire from him was seated the leader of the lizardman mercenaries, who was leaned back and staring up at the heavens with a faint smile of relief.
Roger nodded. He was among friends. He looked down contentedly to Priscilla, only to discover her looking up at him with open eyes. They were silent a moment before she drew closer, kissing him, then sitting up to look around. She nodded her thanks to the winged woman, who returned the nod silently. The blanket slipped from Priscilla’s arms, and she shivered in the night air until Roger sat up beside her, wrapping his arm over her shoulders, trying delicately to avoid one dark bruise.
“I’m sorry about what happened with Berala and the others,” Roger said quietly, squeezing her as tightly as he dared.
Her head turned as she gave him a confused glance. “Why are you apologizing? I was the one that ruined your plan when I insisted on fighting Berala. I should be apologizing for that, because I put you in danger.” Her face fell, and she glanced up at him through her bangs, her eyes pleading for forgiveness.
“I know why you had to do it,” he said, leaning over to kiss her head. He choked down thoughts about what had nearly happened to him. If they hadn’t been rescued… “No, I meant I’m sorry that you couldn’t work things out with them. They are your sisters, and-”
Her hand stopped his words as she gently caressed his cheek. She shook her head, looking at him all the while. “It’s okay. I don’t need to prove myself to them, not anymore. I have something they can never find.” She leaned forward, brushing her lips against his. “Anyways,” she purred, leaning back, mischief cavorting in her eyes, “I’ll just start my own tribe.”
Roger’s brow furrowed as he looked down at her. “What do you mean?” Priscilla didn’t answer, instead looking around the campfire. “Priscilla, what are you talking about-?”
“Lacy!” Priscilla called in a profoundly unsubtle whisper. “Come here!” Answering her beckon, Lacerta rose and walked towards them, her curiosity obvious. Ignoring the way her lover was staring at her, Priscilla beamed a smile up at the lizardwoman. “Why is your bedroll so far away? That has to be lonely. Come join us over here.”
Roger felt a cold fear trickle into his stomach as he pondered his lover’s actions. She responded to it with a devious grin, averted only when Lacerta returned carrying her bedding. “No, no, not here, this ground isn’t soft at all. Over there.” Priscilla pointed to the other side of Roger, confirming his suspicions. Lacerta looked away from him, her livid blush visible in the firelight, but she had come too far to refuse without looking even more awkward, so she followed her orcish subordinate’s instructions, placing her bedding just on the other side of Roger. The chemist swallowed as he heard her placing her bedroll, not too close to him, yet still close enough to leave both man and mercenary blushing, and close enough to paint an eager smile on the scheming orc’s face.
Roger collapsed back onto his bed with a sigh, staring up at the stars. Despite himself, he wore a smile, even as Priscilla laid back down into the curl of his arm, even as Lacy scooted closer, her tail brushing against his leg. He smiled into the night, even as he wondered what sky he would be under tomorrow, even as he knew their life would be changed in ways he hadn’t even realized yet. He smiled as he fell asleep, looking forward to discovering what the next day would bring to him and all those he loved.
No matter what happened, he wouldn’t be alone.
Continued in “Wisdom in Shadow, Chapter One“
Author’s Note: And so it is finished. This project, begun from the boredom of proctoring the PSAT and storyboarded on notebook paper over the course of a single hour, has taken me from October 10th to November 22nd. Not bad, honestly, for something over 60k words in length.
I’ll save my more lengthy commentary for the comments below; I have something of a tradition to discuss my methods and to offer a sneak peek in a final author’s note, but for the sake of sparing the eyes of those hastening to the end of the story, I will use the comment function for that purpose. I will, however, use this space to thank you all for reading this far. Writing this story has been a lot of fun for me, but I would greatly appreciate any feedback you may have now that the tale is at an end. Still, a final time, thank you for reading.
I say a final time, but I suppose I really mean ‘a final time for this story.’ This is because the sequel is already underway, with the first chapter complete. I’ll post “Wisdom in Shadow, Chapter 1” either this Saturday or next, depending on a variety of factors, including my schedule, my progress on writing, and people’s suggestions. After that, I will try to stick to a weekly schedule (at the least to stop spamming TFT with my stuff every two days!) unless my writing somehow outpaces my publishing; I shall play that by ear.
But this story is at an end, and I must now conserve my energy to write onward, more and more. And to do that, if only for a little while, I must sleep…