Not Alone, Chapter 3

Preface: Greetings, all! This is the third chapter of the tale that began with “Not Alone – Chapter 1,” comes immediately after “Not Alone – Chapter 2,” 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.

Not Alone 

Chapter 3 – Gleaming Gold

     The trouble had started with honey.

     Belinda’s Golden Nectar was a well-travelled roadside shop favored by many of the monstrous inhabitants of Goslar.  Born of a hive of bee women that dwelled within the outskirts of the elder forest, Belinda had developed an entrepreneurial spirit that was rare for her kind.  She had, at great pains and eventually with the aid of a keg of dwarven-brewed ale, convinced her queen of the advantages of selling their leftover honey.  At first, it had been an effort to deter the grizzlies that had frequently raided their stores, reducing the temptation for the monstrous ursine gluttons by removing their excess product.  Later, though, it had enabled the honey bees to enjoy the fruits of currency, including the ability to hire on human laborers to construct a more elaborate hive, which had included lavish bedrooms for enjoying the further labors of those same workers.

     The wealth that had flowed into their hive like the viscous nectar that flowed out of it had been a surprise to Belinda, who had been warned of the difficulties a starting merchant would face.  Instead, however, the honey she had brought into Goslar on her first visit disappeared almost immediately, leaving her with a pile of money and enflamed ambition.  Word spread throughout the town of the deliciousness of the gooey fluid, along with unusually-correct rumors of its aphrodisiacal effects on both monsters and men.  When Belinda next returned to town, encumbered with double the amount of jars of her hive’s finest, she found a crowd awaiting her at the empty lot she had claimed on the streetside, and within an hour her stock was gone, destined for the bellies of enthusiastic monsters and their mates, with perhaps a few sensuous stops along the way.

     Now, matters had changed a great deal for the once-threadbare store.  In place of the rough patch of earth where once Belinda had squatted with a few jars of honey stood an elaborate booth, protected from inclement weather by heavy cloth and with crude glass windows that displayed the day’s delicacies.  The hive had taken to the challenge of production with decidedly bee-like determination, while the atypical Belinda had encouraged them to develop new recipes, seasoned with different pollens and plants, even going so far as to make deals with distant alraunes for a variety of nectars, the fluid that formed the base element of the honey the bees made and which gave it its licentious side effects.  The newest batch, crafted from liliraune nectar flown in from a sister forest of the one outside Goslar, had been an absolute hit, and demand had been staggering.

     That was why, by noon of that day, Belinda found only a single jar of her basic honey left in her stores.  Hefting it onto the counter, she waited for the day’s last customer, idly chatting with familiar faces to pass the time.  She didn’t have long to wait.

     Fresh from a shift in the mines, her simian muscles aching from swinging a pickaxe for hours, a kakuen miner made a beeline for the honey shop.  She had just gotten paid, and well-remembered the result of her last purchase, when weeks previously she had spent a great deal to buy a jar of Belinda’s best.  She had taken it straight home and offered it to share it with her boyfriend, who had cautiously accepted.  Afterwards, she had been too sore and exhausted to make it to work the next day, as had her boyfriend, and instead they spent the day trying to clean their shared room from all of the goo that had somehow made it all the way to the ceiling in their fervent savoring of the honey and its effects.  It had likewise taken several baths to remove all of the sticky honey from their respective and varied hair, though that too had been rather enjoyable for them.

     Her heart flew into her throat when she saw a single jar awaiting her on Belinda’s counter.  Her heart then crashed stomachward as someone intruded in her field of vision: a feline shopper crying out with delight at discovering the single remaining jar of honey.  The monkeygirl miner watched in despair as the werecat inquired about the price, and then reached for her waist… only to discover that her moneypouch was absent.  The feline woman looked about in a panic, but quickly sighed in relief when she spotted the wayward wallet at the next stall over, which she had previously been perusing.  Stepping back in that direction to retrieve it, the werecat snatched it and turned back towards Belinda’s booth, only to find the jar of honey firmly clasped in the hands of a beamingly-triumphant kakuen.

     “Pardon me,” the werecat purred dangerously, “but I was in the process of purchasing that.”

     “Not anymore,” the monkey proclaimed, her grin reaching for her earlobes. “It was unattended when I got here.”

     “Actually, she-” Belinda began, utterly ignored by both women.

     “I left for but just a moment.”

    “I never saw you at all.”

    “Well, I had already claimed that, so-”

    “Guess not, considering I’m the one holding it.” The monkeygirl grinned ferociously at her opponent, certain she had the upper hand.

    “Well, neither of you have paid for it, so…” Belinda flinched back as two fists were thrust her way, coins threatening to spill from both.

     “Sorry, but the man I have been trying to court has had a sore throat recently, and I wanted some honey to help soothe it,” lied the werecat piteously.

     “Yeah, that’s sad.  But I need this for my sick aunt.”

     “My mother is also sick-”

    “Both of my grandmas are sick.”

     The two cutthroat customers glowered at each other, realizing their previous tactics would not work.  The catwoman’s paws shot out, clasping the jar, and the kakuen’s eyes opened wide in outrage. “Unhand it and go suck on a banana, fleapicker,” snarled the feline contestant.

     “Maybe later, you hairgagging harlot,” grunted her simian opponent.

   The pair pirouetted in their wrestling over the jar, snarling insults, as their fight drew them further from Belinda’s stall and into the main causeway, though cart traffic was thankfully light so close to lunch.  The werecat was so focused on her struggles with the more muscular monkeygirl that she didn’t pay attention to her footing, stepping unevenly on a loosened stone and succumbing to the pain erupting from her wrenched ankle.  She tumbled back, slamming into a heavier form as she lost her grip on the honey jar.  It happened so suddenly she didn’t even get to enjoy the fact that the kakuen also released the jar, though the shattering of glass would have stolen any sense of victory from her.

     When the werecat opened her eyes, wincing at the pain from her ankle, the first thing she noticed were the broad shoulders of the person she had collided with as she had collapsed. “Why, hello…” she began, noting the defined muscles of the arm propping the figure up, but her lusty tone died as soon as it was conceived as she immediately felt a wrongness about the masculine figure before her.  Her horror grew as she noted, underneath the spreading glob of splattered honey, the blinding whiteness of the tabard the man wore, as well as the gold-darkened symbol it bore: a sword superimposed on a flame.  It was the symbol of the Holy Order of the Purifiers, or, as they were known in tavern whispers and curses, the monster hunters.

     “Stupid bitch,” the knight snarled, reaching down to smear off the once-precious honey and sling it into the dirt below him with a scornful flick of his hand. “You mongrels aren’t happy enough tainting this town with your presence; now you have to literally stain me with this filth?” He snarled at the trio of monster women in front of him, fighting to regain his footing.

     The three, and all of the other townspeople watching, paled.  The reputation of the Purifiers was well-discussed.  The Church of the Holy Martyr had agreed to do business with Goslar, hungry for its ores for its burgeoning military, but neither side were entirely pleased by the arrangement.  More than once, Goslar’s mayor, a minotaur and former miner named Tara Rockhorn, had nearly come to blows with the church’s representatives.  Every time knights were sent to guard shipments of metal and weapons, they forbiddingly kept their own company, sneering openly at the thought of having to spend any time in the presence of monsters. 

     That was why this accident sent cold terror trickling down the spine of the supine feline; she knew that she would be hard pressed to escape this situation without things getting out of hand. “I’m so sorry,” she stammered, trying to reach out to wipe honey off the man’s clothing, only to watch him flinch away as if contact with her would defile him more than the nectar. “I swear, I will pay to have it washed-”

     “Sorry doesn’t fix this, now does it?” the knight snarled.  He reached to his belt, drawing forth a short-handled cudgel and raising it behind his head.

     He froze as he felt the hand gripping his wrist. “I won’t let you do that,” said the kakuen solidly, her gaze resolute despite her earlier conflict with the woman she had just saved from a bruising assault.  She stared directly into the man’s eyes, daring him to test her, his muscles bulging as he struggled to move his arm from her grasp.

     She was so focused on their contest that she didn’t hear the whisper of steel on tooled leather, didn’t notice the other knight until the agonizingly-sharp blade rested at the base of her throat.  She swallowed, and the swelling of her throat pressed her skin against the edge enough for a thin red line to appear, crimson swelling to a bead that trickled downward. “Let him go, apeface,” chuckled the knight beside her darkly.  She glanced at him, barely noticing his youthful mien, or the hair he wore pulled back aside from a single lock that dangled before his right eye; instead, she saw only the manic smile he bore, teeth bared in a predator’s grin.  She didn’t nod, fearful of opening her own throat with any movement, and instead released the honey-stained knight and stepped backwards.

     The blade pursued, sticking to her throat as if glued there, even as the man holding it rotated to face the kakuen directly.  His smile wavered as little as his sword, and he stared into the fearful eyes of the monsterwoman as she noticed the other four knights spreading out to surround her and the downed werecat.  Knowing that six armed men against them was hardly fair, she looked further, meeting the eyes of gawking townspeople on the streets nearby.  She saw the same fear there that she felt, but no one made a move to rescue her and the other woman, and she began to despair at getting out of this situation unharmed.

     “Well, well.  Open assault in the midday,” taunted the man holding her at sword’s edge. “You monsters just don’t give a damn about how we do things in the civilized world, do you?  If you wanted to fight us, you only had to ask.” The other men nodded, and she shrank back further from the crowd looming over her. “Now, should we take care of this here, or arrest them and take them back with us?”

      The kakuen held no illusions about the idea of arrest.  If they were removed from the city, she and the werecat wouldn’t live to see any other destination.  Still, the weapons in their hands made it clear the men wouldn’t see the matter ended without violence either way, and she closed her eyes, praying that someone would save her, someone would-

     “Hey, assholes,” interrupted a slurred voice from behind the knights. “Over here.”

     As the knights turned, the kakuen opened her eyes to discover that salvation came in the form of a visibly-intoxicated orc, who stood swaying just in front of the crowd that had gathered to watch the impending conflict.  The face below her light brown hair was flushed deep pink, and her green eyes were glassy.  The orc held a sword, albeit awkwardly, the blade almost reaching the ground and partially hidden behind her leg.  The monstergirls were just as surprised at the orc’s sudden appearance as the knights, unified in gaping, and the orc scowled at their silence. “You want someone to fight?” she challenged, snorting. “Bring it on.”

     The knight that was still holding the sword at the kakuen’s throat glanced to his comrades for a moment in disbelief, before finally removing the sword from the monkeygirl’s throat.  She breathed in audibly, finally feeling free to by the sword’s removal, but her breath caught as the blade pivoted to point at the orc. “Are you seriously challenging us?” the knight demanded, genuinely surprised at a conflict that he and his fellows hadn’t had to manufacture. “You realize you’re going to die, right?” His eyes scanned over her, not a hint of lust within their depths, and he smiled as he noticed the torn, unarmored tunic she wore, and the bandages wrapped around one of her legs. “And you’ll die quickly.”

     “Talk less, tin can,” the orc responded, pleased at her own wit.

     At this, his smile falling into a confident grin, the knight shifted his stance.  He led with his right foot, snapping his sword in a tight circle, in a fencer’s form, revealing his dueling experience.  He watched the orc as she hunched forward, holding her sword clumsily in front of her, the tip wobbling and dancing in the air.  It took him just a moment to realize how much he outmatched his opponent, and he started his lunge, only to pull up short as he watched the edge of her sword, his brain finally making sense of its unusual shape. “Are you mocking me?” he demanded, face reddening apoplectically. “That sword is shaped like a-”

     Her swing was clumsy, a horizontal clubbing aimed at his head at eye-level.  He parried instinctually, mentally lost to his rage, but he was scarcely prepared for the weight she had accidentally put into the attack, her balance lost in the movement.  The dulled edge of her sword pushed past his guard, coming right for his head-

     The knight tumbled to the dirt, knocked senseless by her blow.  He had hardly landed when swelling began to discolor the side of his head, as thin trickles of blood ran down from the point of impact.  The orc gaped down at him as he groaned, as did every other one of the spectators.  It was obvious he would survive with little more than a crippling headache and hobbled pride, but still the shock of the fight’s immediate ending rippled through the crowd.

     The stillness ended when, as one, the remaining knights drew their weapons, and the orc found herself facing a rapidly-closing iron maiden of swords and cudgels as they encircled her.  Danger finally breaking through her intoxicated overconfidence, she looked to start to flee, but a heavy step on the wrong leg brought her wincing down to one knee, and she desperately tried to point her sword at all five men at the same time, face reddened in outrage.

     For the first time since she had arrived in Goslar, Priscilla regretted ever leaving the side of Berala and her gang.

 

******

 

     When Roger returned to his shop, he wasn’t surprised to see someone standing outside the door.  He was accustomed to customers needing his services at all times of day, and knew the hours he had taken off today meant that several of his regulars would be impatiently expecting his arrival.  While the town had several doctors living within its borders, a necessity considering the likelihood of injuries while mining or working metal, he was one of the only sources of more regular pharmaceuticals, along with the other chemicals he produced for various purposes, from home cleaning to machine lubricants. 

     His eyes widened, however, as he recognized the face of the monster woman standing at his door.  She stood rigidly despite their familiarity, the practiced poise of an experienced warrior: the lizardman captain of the Company of the Forked Blade, Lacerta Steelscale.  Even now, she wore reinforced leather armor and had a short sword strapped to either side of her, which was typical for her.  Despite the weeks he had spent with her, both during the time his caravan had hired her band of mercenaries to protect them on the road from the barrier city to Goslar, and in the visits she had paid him since that first arrival here, he had never seen her truly at ease, though she seemed slightly more so while they were alone.

     “Lacy!” he called out, grinning despite himself.  She returned the greeting with a wry smile, still resisting his use of that nickname, since there was absolutely nothing frilly about her.  Instead, she offered him a curt salute, its seriousness only moderated by her upturned lips.

     “You look well,” she stated bluntly, as was typical for her. “It seems life with your new roommate isn’t treating you too poorly.”

     “Yeah, well, it’s hard to sleep with her around.” He paused in mid-step, immediately regretting his phrasing. “She snores.  I mean, from across the room, separate beds.  Really loud snoring, not-”

     Lacerta’s raised eyebrow was the only response she needed as words continued to pour from his mouth, and Roger led them both into his shop, flipping the sign over to ‘Open’ as he did so.  She scanned over his store as she walked in, impressed with the progress he had made since she had first visited, shortly after he had purchased the empty house and converted its lower floors into his shop.  He was settled in, had made a solid place for himself here in Goslar.  That was not going to make her task any easier.

     “So, Lacy, what brings you in?” he asked genially, having gone behind the counter and already busying himself with a mortar, pulling buds from a plant and bruising the flower petals with his pestle.  She watched him for a moment, sniffing and even flicking her tongue out to taste the air.

     “Is that lavender?” she asked, carefully avoiding his question.

     “Dark lavender, specifically.  Be careful not to get too much of a noseful of it; it will make you drowsy really quickly.” Roger set his tools onto the counter before him next to the remainder of the plants and moved to rummage through a nearby cabinet. “It’s for an invention a friend of mine has been working with me on, something that will really help out a lot of the people here.”

     “An invention?” She scrunched her nose up, frowning. “You’re not working with that madman, Metius, are you?”

     “Valerian is an old friend of mine, yes, and his inventions only occasionally explode,” Roger replied defensively, his voice echoing from the cabinet as sounds of glass tinkling against glass rang out from it. “This one definitely won’t.” Laughing in triumph, he pulled his head out of the cabinet and held up several miniscule vials of a darkly-colored liquid.

     As the lizardwoman watched, Roger pulled a couple of spherical objects from a box laid atop the counter between them, and twisted them with his thumbs.  The upper halves flipped open, and Roger squinted as he began trying to insert the vials into the delicate machinery, removing and discarding the bits of cork that had sealed their tops. Lacerta drew closer, staring at the elaborate cores of the ball-shaped clay objects Roger was tinkering with. “What are those, again?”

     “Watch!” Roger cried triumphantly, closing both of the orbs, the vials enshrined within.  He carefully twisted the upper hemispheres, and they clicked closed. “You see, a lot of the night shift miners have difficulty sleeping during the daytime, and constantly come to me for teas to help them rest better.  It would be a lot easier to give them something they could use at their leisure, instead of waiting for the tea to steep.  Hence, these: dark lavender diffusers!” Roger beamed at her, immensely proud of his completed brainchildren.

     “So… they’re ‘not’ weapons?” Lacerta hazarded, eyeing the orbs cautiously.

     “N-no!  Here, watch.” Roger delicately twisted one of the orbs further, and it clicked once more. “We even worked out variable flow control, though it could be a little powerful at higher levels.  I might need to adjust the strongest setting down.” For a long moment, the device did nothing, and Lacerta glanced back and forth between it and the expectant Roger.  Finally, the device began to issue a faint whistle from the vents at its top.

     “Oh, it sings them to sleep?”

     “No, that’s not right,” Roger mumbled, inspecting it closely, but he jerked back as a puff of lavender mist suddenly burst from the top, continuing to emanate in a wafting stream. Roger held it out towards Lacerta, yet still safely away from her, and just from the faint whiff she caught she could see it was effective.  Immediately her head began to swim, and her eyebrows to droop, as a restful feeling seeped into her muscles.  Quickly, Roger twisted the orb back, and the flow of mist ceased.

     “So, that’s not a weapon?” Lacerta repeated, blinking rapidly and shaking her head to waken herself. 

     Roger grinned sheepishly at her demand. “I mean, no, not really.  Maybe you could put someone to sleep with it temporarily, but I don’t think it has enough potency to be fatal even to the smaller races.” Lacerta frowned at him, disappointed that he didn’t see the more practical applications such a device could have in warfare and stealth, but he ignored her, instead turning back to his flowers. “I had enough samples of dark lavender to make a couple diffusers’ worth of extract, but the stuff I bought today will make a lot more.  I need to run tests to see how long they last, so I can determine if they are really worth the investment, but I have high hopes, based on its potency.” He paused, shaking his head slightly. “Sorry, I’m being rude.  What brings you in today?  Everything going well with the Forked Blade?  Need more explosives?”

     Lacerta grunted, waving her hand in front of her. “No, don’t worry about it; I was the one who asked.  Actually, there has been some news from further west that I wanted to ask you about.  You have family back in the barriers, right?”

     Both of them jumped as the door to the shop banged open, and a panting goblin stumbled into the room, panting loudly and nearly sinking to the floor.  Lacerta’s hands flew to the hilts of her swords, and she glanced at Roger, who was gaping at the goblin girl, recognition painted on his face. “You’re… Mori?  No, Muri, from the smithy?” The goblin looked up at him, nodding at the second name, her chest heaving in waves. “What’s wrong?”

     “Trouble!” the goblin managed between deep breaths. “Town… square.  Knights… miss Priscilla!”

     Roger’s eyes flew open, and he looked to Lacerta with fear in his eyes. “That sounds bad.  Will you help?”

     She saw the plea in his gaze, and nodded.  She had enough experience with the Holy Orders to know well what kind of trouble this could be. “Let’s go.”

     Leaving the exhausted goblin to sink onto the floor of his store, Roger and Lacerta raced for the exit from his shop.  The streets outside were mostly cleared, as the nearby inhabitants had likely already heard something of what was going on and had chosen either to keep themselves indoors, or had joined the swelling crowd they could see down the road.  Even as they made their way towards it, Roger’s lungs burning while Lacerta loped with swift strides, they could hear the angered hubbub from the throng, with furious shouts ringing off the walls of nearby buildings.  Both the chemist and the lizardwoman sank into the crowd, surrounded by livid faces directed towards the center, and were able to push themselves to the front line of the heated crowd.

     Roger’s heart fell as he emerged into the open.  In front of him, three knights held the crowd at bay, their weapons out and their faces daring any of the civilians to try to interfere.  A fourth knight was struggling to rise from the ground, holding the side of his head with unfocused eyes.  A strange sword lay on the ground near him, and by it were the final two knights who were raining kicks and punches down on a prone figure between them.  That unfortunate soul was curled into a ball for protection, but the knights were persistent, and the force of their blows sounded dully from her body, along with cries of pain.  Roger took a step forward senselessly when he recognized the voice, the pale pink skin, the torn tunic.

     A hand on his shoulder held him for just a moment. “Roger,” Lacerta cautioned, “this is bad.  If you say to, I will go in, but…”

     Roger stared back at her helplessly, his heart fracturing as he heard another pained whimper from Priscilla.  He knew what Lacerta was offering him.  She would fight, and die; there was no way she could kill all six, and even if she did, then it was impossible to know what would happen to her afterwards.  One of the Holy Orders specialized in finding specific targets, and she would be a focus immediately.  He could go in with her, but without any fighting experience, he would die too.  He couldn’t ask that of her, or of himself.

     He was nodding anyways when the voice rang out across the crowd. “Enough!” bellowed a husky bull-legged woman stepping closer to the knights.  Roger glanced at her, as did five of the knights, the last flinching and falling back as the volume pounded into his aching skull.  She towered over most of the men and monsters in the area, with long curved horns and bared biceps that looked like skin over stone.  Roger recognized her as Tara Rockhorn, the town’s mayor and former head miner.  Her years of swinging a pickaxe showed in the muscles that shifted under her tightened shirt, which stretched painfully over her broad shoulders as she crossed her arms before her.  Behind her stood her husband, a man that seemed to have been chiseled from the mountains she had mined, with a chaotic coal-black mane and dense beard, mimicking her stance with a similarly-steely stare at the troublemaking ruffians.

     “By the authority I’ve been granted as mayor, I demand you cease and desist immediately.  Our town guard will handle any further disputes, by our laws and judging.” She spoke with the heavy authority of someone used to being in the middle of conflicts, which were not uncommon in the multi-taverned mercantile mining town.

     One of the knights stepped toward her.  This was the eldest of the bunch, with armor that looked slightly more ornate, including small flourishes on his tabard.  His chin jutted under his close-cropped grey beard, and he scowled openly at the minotaur. “Your ‘laws?’ Don’t make me laugh.” The severity of his expression suggested that was a rare occurrence. “My men were assaulted in the middle of your stinking streets, and you ask that we leave this matter to your ‘laws.’ This is our matter, under our jurisdiction as representatives of the Holy Church, and by the Law we follow we have the right to punish any monster who attacks our knights.  If your men think to intervene, just remember that doing so will put you at war with our nation, and know you will have a fine chance to see what your ‘law’ looks like from the end of our pikes.” As he barked his final words, spit flecking his facial hair, he turned and nodded to one of the knights who had been beating Priscilla.  The other man returned the gesture, and his hand slipped to the mace he had strapped to his waist.  The knight raised it over his shoulders, taking aim at Priscilla’s head, as Tara bellowed in outraged impotence, as the crowd started to surge forward despite the blades bared at them.

     “Damn you all,” Roger snarled, as piercing whistling erupted from his white-knuckled fists.  A dozen faces turned towards him just in time to witness him toss two clay balls into the middle of the circle of knights.  The townspeople stopped, and the armed men stared at the shrieking orbs in confusion that caved into shock as thick plumes of deep purple mist began to volcano out of the devices.  The knights fell back, coughing, confused, collapsing.  In just a moment, all of them were on the ground, heads swimming too much to see the two forms dash past them with mouths covered with cloth, and by the time those two forms returned carrying a third between them, all six of the knights were in the deepest sleep of their lives.

     Roger and Lacerta, and Priscilla unconscious between them, did not stop until they were safely back at his shop, despite the wooziness that drug at their heels.

 

******

 

     When Roger came down the stairs to the main room of his store, he wore a tense expression on his face.  That expression did not lighten when he noticed the contemplative scowl on Lacerta’s face, and certainly could not improve when he noticed the hulking third person in the room: the ever-intimidating Tara Rockhorn. “So.  How is she?” the mayor asked bluntly, her face in a frown that may have been habit, may have been the results of preceding events, though Roger could not tell which.

     Roger wiped his hands clean with an old cloth as he sighed, blowing out his breath in a rush. “Well, she’ll be okay, but she will hurt a lot for the next few days.  I’ve cleaned her wounds and administered a topical anesthetic, but there’s not much more I can do.  I’ll call for a doctor to check her again to be sure, but the best I can tell is that the worst is some deep bruises and a few gashes.” He sighed once more. “Again.”

     “Well, a moment more, and we would have been wiping her brains off of the main street.” Tara snorted, shaking her head. “Later, you and I need to speak about those weapons you used-”

     “They’re not weapons,” Roger and Lacerta said, simultaneously.

    “Whatever they are, I might buy a bunch of them.” It was Tara’s turn to sigh. “Listen, mister Miralis, we are taking care of the knights: I’ve ordered my people to load them onto a cart headed out of town, and to bind their weapons and place them at the bottom of the shipment they were supposed to be protecting.  The guards have been warned to watch for them, and if they try to return, they’ll be met with drawn bows and strong suggestions that we’re all closed for business for the day.  But I need you and your orc mate,” Roger started to interrupt, but a steely glance made him hold his tongue, “to stay… indoors for a few days.  Sounds like she could use the rest, and maybe a few words about how much she drinks before noon.”

     “You’re one to talk, Tara,” murmured Lacerta with friendly familiarity, and the minotaur fought down a smile.

     “Just stay out of sight, for your own protection.  We’ll take care of the rest.”

     Roger met the mayor’s eyes with an unwavering stare. “You know they won’t let this end here.  I grew up in a barrier city.  I have family in the Orders.  They’re bastards that won’t stop for anything but blood, and they won’t stop then, either.”

     “And you think we don’t already know that?” Tara shook her head, but her eyes were grave. “If it hadn’t been this, it would have been something else.  Lacerta, you know that too.  That’s why you came here, isn’t it?”

     Lacerta glanced away from Roger, not meeting his eyes. “Something like that.”

     “Anyways, I’m going to go see to the rest of this mess, make sure the two girls they were after are alright.  Just stay quiet, and everything will be fine.”  No one in the room felt confident about her final words, but the lizardwoman and the chemist thanked the mayor and bade her farewell.

     Silence reigned for a long moment after the door closed behind the minotaur.  It was enough tension that even the morose mercenary began to fidget. “Listen, Roger-”

     “It’s about my family, isn’t it?”

     Lacerta met his eyes evenly. “No.  I mean, yes, kind of.” She sighed, struggling for words, having long surpassed her normal daily allowance for speech that wasn’t bellowed orders. “Trouble is coming.  She was right.  This town… this whole area, is going to see rough times.  You should consider going back.”

     “Going back?!” Roger all but shouted.  “Do you know- I told you what it was like there.  Either you went all in on the church, or you were an outsider.  Either you were a noble son, or you were trash.  Studies, work, life: it was all about a faith in something that I never really understood or believed in.  It all felt like a lie to me.  My oldest brothers always knew they would inherit the estate, so it was expected my other brother and I would join the Orders.” He paused, smiling bitterly. “I always got along with Richard; he was smart like me, unlike the two thugs who were lucky enough to be born first.  I guess he’s doing just fine in the Orders, but… it wasn’t for me.  I could never be… that.” He motioned vaguely towards the square they had just dragged Priscilla from. “I could never be like any of them.”

     Lacerta stared at him for a long moment.  Roger had shared much of this with her already, when she had guarded the caravan that had carried him from that life.  She hadn’t seen this deep bitterness then, however.  She had been wrong to suggest him returning to it.

    “Sorry,” she started. “I just didn’t want you here when war comes to Goslar.  I’ve seen enough to know how terrible it can be, and my connections say there isn’t much that we can do to stop it.” Her expression was flat, but her eyes were oddly compassionate. “I know what they tell you about us monsters, back there.  I know what you believe about us.  I’ve just seen who the real monsters are these days, and I don’t want you to see that.”

     Roger’s smile was soft. “Yeah, well, I’m a quick learner.  Just a few weeks ago, I thought Priscilla was about to enslave me and beat me.  Now, I know much better what she is actually like.” As he turned back to put up the plants he had been working on when they had first arrived in the store, he missed the alarm in Lacerta’s eyes.

     “Actually, orcs are kind of-”

     “And I know that the same is true of most of the monsters here.”

     Embarrassed for him, Lacerta covered her face with one hand, muffling her words. “Well, actually, there have been a lot of monsters I’ve talked to about you that really want to-”

     “Now that I think about it,” Roger blurted, lost in his own thoughts. “That gives me an idea.” He whirled, facing Lacerta with a suddenness that made her jump imperceptibly. “Could I ask a favor of you?”

     The vertical slits in her eyes widened, then narrowed. “Yes, of course.”

     “It’s Priscilla.” Roger laughed nervously, his voice getting louder as he let himself babble a bit. “She ‘was’ getting better, but even after this, she’ll be fine in no time.  She… she won’t stay here forever.  She will have to have something she can do, because she can’t go back to…” He waved vaguely in the direction of the southern mountains. “To what she was when I met her.  She wouldn’t last long like that, alone.  She needs something more, something that she can use to take care of herself, a skill.”

     Lacerta watched him closely, nodding. “You want me to train her as a mercenary,” she hazarded, and he nodded, grateful the suggestion had come from her.

     “If she could become a caravan guard, or part of the town watch, then she would be okay, no matter what happens,” Roger elaborated, sinking a bit into himself. “Even if we all have to leave Goslar.  Even if she decides she wants to leave for her own sake.”

     Lacerta stepped closer, her eyes scrutinizing his face, and her voice was low. “And that might just give her a way to stay near you, too.” Roger didn’t respond, but a blush infused his cheeks.  Lacerta nodded, mostly to herself, and rested a hand on his shoulder. “I’ll be with my company, just outside of town, in the northwestern fields.  When she’s well enough, send her to me, and I’ll see what I can do, for as long as we’re stationed here.”

     As she walked out, Roger called out to her, “Thanks, Lacy.  I appreciate it more than you know.” The lizardwoman paused at the door long enough to offer him an atypically-unguarded smile in response, and a silent nod.  And then the door closed, leaving Roger alone with his fears and anxieties in silence.          

 

******

 

     The sound of the door closing travelled up the stairs and into the bedroom that Roger shared with Priscilla.  At the sound, the orc on the bed shook her head, sighing in grief.  She had messed up, badly, she knew.  She had been struggling to stay conscious, wavering in and out of wakefulness, wrestling with the after-effects of her insobriety and that purple mist and the pain that screamed from a thousand difference places in her body like a discordant orchestra.  She had to give it to those knights: they were remarkably thorough.  Still, the pain their boots and fists had left her was nothing to the feeling in her chest, like her heart had plummeted into her stomach and been found agonizingly indigestible.

     Priscilla hadn’t heard much of the conversation from downstairs, but what she had heard had been enough.  She had heard Roger talking to that lizard with a familiarity that made bitter jealousy curdle her stomach.  She heard him speak of leaving.  She had heard him talk of her leaving. 

      She should have known it was coming, especially after the trouble she had just caused.  She had already been near enough to recovery that she had wondered when Roger would finally decide to evict her from his life.  She had nothing to give him for his kindness, for the bed he had go so far as to purchase for her, for the clothing he had bought her, for the food he prepared and shared with her every day.  Anyone would tire of such a leech.

     She had known it was coming, deep down, if she was honest with herself.  That had been behind her desperation to get closer to him, had consumed her thoughts over the past days.  She had been so worried about it that she had thought about forcing herself onto him, though that notion stemmed as much from her lust for him as from her desire to stay by his side.  She wanted to be with him, wanted him to be her mate, though not entirely as she had originally intended.

     Back in the days of the old Demon King, the orcs had been some of the fiercest enemies of humanity.  They had been created with an innate craving for conquest, and a natural willingness to submit to those stronger than themselves; that had been how the Demon King had kept them in line, once he had unleashed them to despoil the works of man.  The first spell of the new Demon Queen had changed everything, for all of the monsters: her Incantation of Divine Transformation had changed the once-asexual monsters from agents of destruction to fully female forms, capable of reproduction instead of being shaped by their lord’s own hand.  That left a certain hole in their natural course that could only be filled by the human men they had once hunted, though still their ancient instincts remained: oppress the weak, obey the strong.  At the least, that had been how her tribe’s elder had explained things to her, long before she and many of her sisters had broken off to join Berala’s band.

     And so her instincts had led her to find a man to conquer, and on that day on the mountain she had done just that.  Had it not been for that rockslide, she would have forced Roger to come with her to the damp, shallow cave she had claimed as her home, and to serve her every need, with an emphasis on one need in particular.  He would have been her mate, though many orcs struggled to differentiate that term from ‘slave.’

     But things had not gone that way, and now she had no idea what to do.  Every day, she choked down an impulse to ravish Roger.  Every morning, she came closer and closer to waking him up by attacking him in his bed, and every evening she scooted her bed closer to his, just a bit.  She wanted to force him down, to take him and make him hers, irrevocably and completely.  The desire was becoming a need, and she didn’t know how much longer she could fight it.  She at times struggled to remember why she did.

     Such thoughts were more overwhelming now, considering she lay in Roger’s bed, under his sheet and blankets, surrounded by his scent and feeling the warmth that hugged his body each night.  Whether it was because it was the closer one to the stairs, or because Roger was so used to tending her leg atop that bed each morning, she had awoken there instead of upon her own bed as Roger was treating her wounds.  For a moment, she was lost in an overwhelming feeling of déjà vu from the first time Roger had cleaned her wounded leg on the floor downstairs.  Now, though, she could enjoy this feeling of closeness to him, even at the moment she feared she was about to be torn from him by her own stupidity.

     She inhaled deeply as a warm ache suffused her, and her hand reflexively crept below her stomach, a recently-familiar solution to her doubts and disquiet.  Pain stopped its progress, both that of her radiating bruises and that deep within her chest.  She was always taking things from Roger, but she had nothing to give.  She didn’t even know what he wanted. 

     But whatever he did want, she decided with agonizing determination, he deserved.  He had offered her so much, and that meant that, if he wanted something now, then she would give it to him.  If he asked her to leave, if he told her he intended to leave, whatever it may be; she would accept it.  He deserved to be happy, whatever it cost her.  That thought lingered with her, a bitter medicine that hung like the taste of bile in her throat, yet it granted her enough resigned peace of mind to descend slowly back into unconsciousness.  She fell asleep with the scent of the man she loved all around her, but with tears budding at the edges of her eyes. 

     She wasn’t awake when the footsteps climbed the stairs, not stopping until they paused at the edge of the bed beside her.  She only made a soft sound and nuzzled the pillow, lost in the blissful peace of slumber, as a hand brushed a lock of hair away from one of the livid bruises on her face.  She didn’t stir as the blanket was pulled further over her shoulder and chest, nor at the sound as the bed across the room scraped backwards as someone sat upon it, only, after a long moment’s consideration, to scoot forward exactly as much as it had just shifted.  The man atop the bed sighed and stared in her direction, but she never knew.

     Silence reigned over the room for a long time as two hearts beat in unconscious unity, lost in their own fears and concerns, yet neither able to find the refuge so close at hand.  

 

******

 

     Even the air of the city gleamed with golden light.  It was especially obvious when one looked to the colossal edifice at the heart of the city, the Temple of the Holy Martyr that was lit throughout the day and night by torches and braziers, the dancing light of individual fires united into a single unwavering glow.  The great monolith was constructed of white marble that returned that shine, so that even at night the city seemed to defy the darkness.

     Olympus City, as it had been renamed long ago, had become a place of order and cleanliness.  The unbesmirched glory of the Temple was mirrored, albeit in a lesser fashion, by the five great buildings at the end of the main avenues that ran through the town and terminated at the Temple, with lesser roads connecting each of those structures to the others.  These were the headquarters of five of the six Holy Orders: the Inquisitors to the north, Defenders to the east, Hospitalliers to the southeast, Warders to the southwest, and Crusaders to the west.  The rest of the intervening space was filled by the necessities of a normal city, homes and businesses and people, all still held to the expectations of precise organization, all still oriented towards the Temple constantly. 

     The only variation from that perfect star-shape was the final great building, which sat directly in front of the Temple, facing it directly yet still dwarfed by the looming monolith.  It was the headquarters closest to the heart of the city, and the Order closest to the heart of their faith, or so the inhabitants claimed: the Holy Order of the Purifiers.  It, like all the others, was emblazoned with the mark of their religion, the bronzed flame, but superimposed was the symbol of their organization, the Divine Sword, the weapon of the Holy Martyr.  The building, nearly a fortress in and of itself, shared a courtyard with the Temple, but while the holy sanctum was thronged with supplicants and pilgrims, the end of the courtyard near the Purifier’s Keep was all but abandoned, because those knights found their duties kept them further afield.

     Only a single young man strode across that barren expanse, walking with the steady stride of one with an important appointment to keep.  He kept his eyes affixed upon his destination, glancing upwards only once to marvel at the light emanating from the summit of the Temple, a shimmering beam of pale golden light that, higher in the heavens, cascaded back down as a vast dome, the Holy Barrier that protected the city from its monstrous enemies; such was visible throughout the city, including from the northern districts familiar to him, but was especially tangible so near to the core of their conviction.  Instead, he made quick progress to the doors of the Purifier’s Keep, where the guards nodded a brief salute to him.  Despite the youthful face under his slicked-back dark hair, they knew better than to question him, judging him instead by the silver and white trim of his surcoat, colors typical of a man of the Orders, as well as by the symbol upon his breast: it was much like the symbol of the Purifiers, but with the sword replaced a short staff topped by a star-in-pentagram with an eye at its heart.  That mark in particular earned a respectful, fearful silence from all it looked upon, and even other knights were not immune from its power.

     A young page was quick to meet the man as he entered the building, and soon led him further inside, leaving behind the austere foyer and travelling down well-lit halls peopled occasionally by conversing servants and bold, guffawing knights, all of whom were muted to some extent by the sight of the newcomer.  If this response pleased the young man, so new to his station and the power it brought, he bore no sign of it, instead looking onward with a raptor’s eye, missing nothing and, it was whispered as he departed, quick to detect secret sins.

     At long last, the page, perspiring slightly, delivered the young man to his destination.  With a single knock at the great oak door, he announced himself, and a voice inside beckoned him in.  The doors opening and closing betrayed no conversation, and the portal had barely sealed when the page made his retreat, eager to put this task behind him.  He knew, as did any who dwelled within Olympus City, that one behaved with especial care in front of an Inquisitor, even one that was only an Errant. 

     The scene within the office the man had entered was far more cordial.  The young inquisitor ran an eye over the room, noting its spartan decorations, typical for a man of the faith like the one seated at the massive desk placed before the room’s single, Temple-facing window.  Much of its ornamentation was found in the rich wood of the furnishings, and the assortment of books placed in decided order upon looming shelves.  Disrupting the peace of the room, however, were a wealth of musty papers, stacked in leaning piles and scattered in overlapping proximity upon the desk.  Some were even pinned onto the wall, maps colored with fresh ink.  At any other occasion, the young man knew, the owner of the office would have been aghast at such chaos, but this had been of his own making.

     Said owner sat like a stone amidst the paper hurricane, casually proofreading the letter before him without looking up to ascertain the nature of his visitor.  Only once he was finished did he lower the paper again to the table, nodding contentedly.  The man, dressed in the plain-yet-rich regalia of a high-ranking member of the church, was fairly unremarkable, with short-cut brown hair and no beard to cover his lips or squared chin, yet he had an unmistakable presence.  He looked up with a placid smile, taking note of the insignia upon his guest’s chest. “Ah, my boy,” he said, his voice clear and crisp, “it seems congratulations are in order.  You have attained your promotion to Errant, have you not?”

     Having been acknowledged, the young man stepped closer to the desk, nodding curtly as he came. “I have indeed.  My most gracious thanks for your recommendation.”

     The priest sat back, templing his fingers before him as he did so. “But of course.  The Inquisitors are not the most populous of the Orders, and are always in need of bright young men like yourselves.” His smile held a hidden blade, steel shared by the man across the table, like two predators on a shared hunt. “And, considering your Order holds greater power here than most, it is always good to have friends deeper among their ranks.”

     The inquisitor nodded at the priest.  The man seated before him was a Prelate, one of the highest-ranking positions within their faith, but both of them were aware of what was unknown to many: that priest had been given special missions and trust from the very highest places within the Temple, and serving with him was opportunity to climb the ranks very swiftly.  It was his unique quest that had seen him move his offices away from the high cathedrals where the other clergy reigned to this bastion of the monster hunters.  He had been assigned to pursue something that very important, very holy men believed might be the end of their war with monsterkind.

     He had also been the young inquisitor’s mentor, once he had left his family home and joined the Orders.  The church itself was somewhat removed from the militant orders, despite their shared purpose, but the knights were required to be frequent visitors to the cathedrals.  The knights were all taught that their faith was their shield against the perfidious arts of the beasts beyond the barriers, and the priests were their guides towards deeper piety.  On one of his own visits to the Cathedral of the Illuminating Flame, the youthful inquisitor-to-be had been approached by this same priest, who himself would later be promoted to his current high rank.  Familiar with the name of the inquisitor’s family, he had called upon the young man to pay him visit independent of his fellows, and that meeting had been the beginning of a friendship that had helped guide the young man’s ascension through the ranks of his Order.

     “Ah, but pray forgive me,” said the priest, reaching out to pull a rope that dangled near to the desk.  The rope ran into the ceiling, and from there doubtlessly to a bell in a servant’s waiting room. “There has been a bit of an incident at one of our holiest sites,” the Prelate explained, folding the letter he had been examining and placing it into a protective envelope. “It seems a parish priest, a man of some age and popular with the people of the town in the shadow of the Chapel of Divine Revelation, has been found guilty of giving shelter to a monster, of all crimes.”

     “And has paid for it with his life, I assume,” the younger man ventured.

     “It seems not everyone understands the Law as well as you, I fear.” Color began to creep into the priest’s cheeks, as few topics could inspire fury in him like those who betrayed their humanity by colluding with monsters. “The local officials have decided to show unreasonable mercy, unaware what effect such actions may have upon the flock.  I am countermanding that, and sending representatives to see it done.” He punctuated that statement by pressing his signet into the wax sealing the envelope.

     “Is that why-” The inquisitor paused as a knock came at the door, and a paling servant entered.  He didn’t resume until the bowing servant retreated back outside the door, letter in hand. “Is that why you called for me?”               

    “No,” the Prelate responded. “That requires more priestly action than you can offer, though I am sure a few junior knights may accompany the man I have chosen.  Instead, the matter I summoned you for relates to this…mess.” He swept his hands before him, sighing. “It seems such blasphemy as that priest’s is spreading these days.  These papers were seized from the business of a local cartographer, after he turned to heresy.  He was sent beyond the barrier on a mission, but returned spewing sacrilege about monsters being kinder to man than the church proclaims.  He was arrested immediately, of course.”

     “Inevitably,” the young man agreed. “Any who would consort with such filth deserves an ignominious death.  May the flame purify him for the afterlife.”

     “Not yet,” the priest sighed, irritably.  He stood, walking over to the charts pinned to the wall.  The young man recognized them as maps of their continent, but could spot a few uncomfortable details: cities and landmarks beyond the Great Veil to the east that protected them from the dark energies of the Demon Queen, while that immense barrier was itself unmarked.  The priest pointed to several locations as he spoke, distractedly. “The man has a talent the church can profit from, to be sure.  These maps are from the era before the Last War of the Demon King, the oldest and most complete I have seen.” His hand stopped at a location to the west of Olympus City, then travelled down to the southern sea, then to a destination far to the east of the Great Veil, tapping it absentmindedly. “Through his papers, we have located several sites of great importance to the greater plans of the Ecclesiastic Council, and are making moves to take them.” The inquisitor stepped closer, inspecting the map. “The mapmaker will serve us as long as he is able, and then he will suffer for his crimes.  As for yourself,” the Prelate turned to his pupil with a resolute stare. “The forces of the Holy Orders will be moving to take control of an area near one of these sites.  Each of the Orders will be sending forces of various sizes, but I need someone I can trust to report back to me on their progress.” His finger had come to rest upon a mountainous region to the north, and the inquisitor saw that it was near a town of some size, noted as ‘Goslar.’ “Will you be my eyes among the Inqisitorial representatives?”

     The young man bowed deeply to his patron. “I will gladly serve wherever you will have me.”

     The priest’s face showed a rare warmth, and he clapped the boy on the shoulder. “I knew you could be relied upon.  I will send word when more determinations have been made, but your force will be moving soon, so stand prepared.  You have my gratitude and favor,” he smiled, adding emphasis to the new title, “Errant Miralis.”

     Inquisitor Errant Richard Mirilas smiled broadly, saluting the other man. “We will make you proud.  That area will soon belong to the Holy Church; you have my word on that.  I will keep you well-informed.” And with a final respectful bow, the young man turned on his heels and left, closing the door to the Prelate’s office, well on his path to conquest.

Continued in “Not Alone, Chapter 4

Author’s Note: Once more, as always, I must offer my gratitude to those of you who are still reading my works, especially those of you who have offered kind words or rated my story; your encouragement and feedback keeps me pressing forward.  Today alone I hammered out the bulk of a chapter with a smile on my face, pleased to be making something that people are enjoying.

I must apologize for spamming this site with my frequent posts.  It shall continue at such a pace for only a while longer, because I am currently writing chapter 8, with my intent to wrap up with an epilogue after chapter 9, give or take a chapter, depending on how lengthy the final scenes become.  My dream is to be done with this story by the end of next week, over the course of my Thanksgiving break, though I learned long ago not to rely overmuch on such ambitions…

In any case, I shall return on Saturday with another chapter, and I pray you will join me then.  Soon, I shall take back up my pen, and launch myself at ending this behemoth of a tale.  But first, unavoidably, I must sleep…

~Wynn Pendragon

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