Preface: Greetings, all! This is the sixth chapter of the tale that began with “Wisdom in Shadow – Chapter 1,” comes immediately after “Wisdom in Shadow, Chapter 5,”and is the third story is 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.
Wisdom in Shadow
Chapter 6 – Hallowed
Simon opened his eyes, squinting against sunlight as he flailed for his glasses. He had fallen asleep on his back, and it seemed he had scarcely moved in the night, though Gina had apparently woken enough to crawl into bed next to him. She clutched him in her sleep, and he smiled at her as he put on his spectacles. She barely stirred as he leaned over to gently kiss her forehead, though one ear twitched and he swore he could see the faintest upward tilt to her lips.
For a long moment, he was tempted to do more than just that. The blankets fell away as he shifted, leaving one of her breasts bare to the air, and he admired it eagerly, fighting back the urge to caress it. He remembered the look in her eyes the previous day, and knew she would have absolutely no problem with him waking her that way; she would probably be thrilled, and that thought made it even more appealing. He wanted to treat her, to pamper her, to please her, and that urge itched at him. He wanted her so bad he ached, and he didn’t know anymore why he needed to hold back.
He sighed irritably as he covered her once more with the blanket, watching as she snuggled into it. No, he knew why he needed to restrain himself. Nothing had changed; in three or four days, the caravan would arrive to take her far from here. He imagined for just a second the thought of fleeing with her, but he knew that would only bring the Lector in pursuit, putting her in greater danger. He could only dream that someday, somehow, he could find her once more. That bitterness dragged at his shoulders as he dressed himself, taking up his staff as though it weighed as much as a boulder.
He paused, giving Gina one final longing look before turning back to the door. He would see to breakfast, and then go out to report to Themras. Perhaps he would have time to bring the food back up and eat with Gina, he consoled himself as he opened the door. Stepping out and closing it behind him, he turned to start down the stairs, only to freeze in place as he found Lector Themras, dressed in his full regalia, only three stairs down from him.
“L-Lector, I’m sorry, I didn’t think I overslept!” Simon stammered, his eyes wide.
Lector Themras gave him a cold stare that lingered for a long moment. “Sloth is the enemy of good works, child. I have been awake and active for hours, and tired of waiting for you to appear. Come. We have work to do.” With that, he turned and strode down the stairs, his crosier tapping against the wooden steps, not bothering to look back to see if Simon followed. Simon hastened to do just that, eager to put distance between the priest and the bed where Gina still slumbered. His heart pounded a frantic staccato as he remembered what he had nearly started just minutes before, and how the Lector would have found him and Gina if he had.
As they walked through the inn’s common room, Themras’s head turned to regard Charles Kramer as the burly innkeep polished his bar with a rag, and beyond him Mary cowering in the kitchen. “Errant, that servant girl insisted, almost to the point of defiance, upon waking you herself when I came to fetch you.” Themras turned to spear Simon with a stare, his grey eyes sharpened to metallic points. “As an Inquisitor Errant, you should know the dangers of fraternizing with the laity. You never know what devilry hides in the hearts of men, or especially in the soft flesh of women.”
“Yes, Father,” Simon agreed, bowing his head. When the Lector resumed their pace, Simon shot a sympathetic glance back at his allies. Charles was glaring daggers at the priest, but Mary was staring at him with fear in her eyes, and he offered her a subtle smile to reassure her, which she mirrored openly, clutching her hands over her breast.
When Simon and the Lector stepped out into the open air, Simon was surprised to discover that morning had hardly passed any more than it had the previous day when he had reported to Father Wulfe’s old home. He glared at the back of the Lector’s mitre, but forced civility into his tone as he spoke. “Pardon me, Father, but where are we headed this morning?”
Themras did not look back. “We are going to the monastery so I may do the job I assigned to you, of course.” Turning towards the road that led towards the mountain, the Lector could not see the alarm on Simon’s face. “You found very little of interest to my pursuit. I intend to remedy that.”
Simon’s staff clashed a little harder with the earth as he walked behind the priest. “I beg your forgiveness, but, seeing as how you never told me specifically what you were seeking-”
“Excuses are unbecoming of an Inquisitor, Errant.” Simon’s hand tightened on his staff, but he waited for the Lector to continue. “But I will allow you this.” The Lector paused, and turned to face Simon directly. “There are those, much higher in our faith, who believe that this region is tainted by an old association. Many years ago, not long after the Last War of the Demon King, there was a laboratory built here, although we do not know precisely where. Many of the townspeople here are likely descended from the laborers who helped construct it. We believe that this location might be related to the disappearances of the pilgrims, and the faithlessness of the populace.”
Simon’s eyes narrowed as he regarded the Lector. Deep in his mind, he was surprised at how cogent the priest was, a far contrast from his behavior the past few days. This new information did explain Themras’s desperate search through Father Wulfe’s letters, at the least. More than that, though, some of the things the Lector was saying felt wrong to him. “Why now, though? Should that not have been a problem ever since the laboratory was constructed? And who had it built?”
An unsettling gleam entered the Lector’s eyes at the final question. “Perhaps the mongrels fear the growing power of the church, and that is why they act now. But as for who, it is nothing you have been taught. Still, in these circumstances…” The Lector shook his head, restraining his righteous anger, and his hand tightened on his staff as the bronzed flame icon at its head glinted in the dim sunlight. “Long ago, during the founding era of our church, as our faith was born out of the old multinational Order, our Fathers decided to work with a wizard of great power to create the Barriers that protect our cities. He pretended to be a servant of the faith, but in actuality, he was conspiring with the enemies of mankind. For his treachery, the Arch-Heretic was put to death, but it seems his old creations linger to trouble us.” Themras reached out with his free hand to take hold of Simon’s shoulder, gripping harshly. “That is the importance of our mission here. We have been giving a sacred calling, and only by conquering this can we be worthy of the honor they afford us. There will be much glory for us all, should we bring this to purifying light.”
Simon nodded slowly, digesting that information. Still, even as he thought back over all he had read in the monastery’s libraries the previous day, he struggled to think of a single shred of knowledge that had anything to do with the Lector’s suspicions. “There was nothing of this in their collections,” he muttered, his brain reparsing everything he had read once more.
“And that is how we know they are guilty,” Themras proclaimed, a self-pleased smile lighting his face. “Come. We shall have the truth, however hard we have to press to find it.”
Simon followed behind the priest as they turned to ascend the mountain that pierced the heavens, his feet dragging heavily as if tied to the girl that still slept in the bed in the inn.
When the two men entered the monastery, the outer narthex was empty, save for a lone nun that immediately dashed away, no doubt racing to retrieve the prioress. Unlike Simon, however, the Lector was not content to wait. Instead, he strode forward without pause, and Simon followed at his heels, dreading the confrontation to come. Themras did not slow until he passed the statues in the inner narthex, glaring at the unusually-placed statue of the Priest. “They cannot even be bothered to order our sacred icons correctly. Such sloppy devotion hardly inspires great faith.” Shaking his head, he marched on to the nave, and Simon followed, but only after giving a slight bow to the statue of the Priest as if in apology.
Themras was halfway to the pulpit when the prioress emerged from the hallways beyond, and he stood his ground in the center of the chamber of worship, imperiously awaiting her arrival. Perhaps it was Simon’s imagination, but he believed that he saw the sister’s pace slow as she noticed that, and moments passed almost in silence as she approached. As she drew closer, Simon noticed the way she looked directly to him, her eyes hard as if expecting betrayal, but he shook his head minutely, and she turned her gaze to the priest.
“Welcome, Lector Themras. Errant Hopkins has said much of you.” The prioress smiled at the older man, but the expression held no warmth. “I had wondered if you would be paying us a visit.”
“I am sure you did,” Themras replied harshly. He glanced around the nave, noting the nuns that gathered in small clusters along the walls of the aisles. “We must proceed to your offices to discuss the matters I bring to you.”
Simon swallowed at that, but Sister Benevolence smiled and bowed her head slightly. “Of course. If you will follow me?” Without waiting for reply, she turned and walked back the way she had come, and after a moment’s pause Themras followed, Simon behind him. The Inquisitor remembered her office from his visit the previous day. It had taken him a moment to realize the importance of the owl carvings on her desk. He wondered if it would take Themras that long, and how she was might handle it if he did deduce her true faith.
When they arrived at the summit of the stairwell, he found his answer as she led them, not around to the offices that she had used the previous day, but instead towards the unoccupied abbot’s office. As she opened the door to allow Themras to enter, she glanced appraisingly back to Simon, but he kept his lips sealed, realizing that they both carried high stakes in this game. If he revealed her, she would reveal Gina, and in front of a man that had no compunctions about using flames to purify those he deemed wicked. The prioress read his face in an instant, but revealed no relief on her own as she entered the room behind him.
Once the door was closed behind them, leaving the three of them alone in the spartan chamber, the prioress circled the plain desk, taking a seat in the simple wooden chair behind it. Simon’s eyes flicked past her, to the door he noticed in the background, which bore a heavy lock, presumably the chamber that contained the Priest’s relics she had mentioned on his first visit to the monastery. Simon started to sit in one of the two chairs arranged in front of the desk, but paused as he noticed that Themras had made no motion to do the same.
“Let us dispense with niceties.” Simon’s eyes widened as he felt a power building in the room, and Themras slammed his crosier down onto the stone floor of the chamber, the staff’s butt ringing a harsh echo that filled the room as the flame icon at its head glowed with holy light. At that moment, a burst of light filled the room, and when Simon opened his eyes, blinking away the glare that had blinded him, he noticed a golden haze in the air. He glanced around, amazed, but his heart plummeted as he realized what had just happened. The Lector had cast a spell; a very, very powerful one.
“Revealing Light of Truth,” Themras explained, staring unwaveringly at the prioress. “Are you familiar with this spell?” Simon was, though he was far from being able to cast it. Only the most powerful priests he knew could. Its purpose was simple: the light would remain as long as all in its field spoke the truth as they knew it. If any lied, the light would fade to a black miasma around them – harmless, but undeniable. The spell wasn’t without its flaws; for one, someone could truthfully speak something false if they did not know they were misinformed, or believe they lied about something that was actually factual. Still, if anyone tried to consciously lie, the spell would reveal them in an instant.
Sister Benevolence smiled, leaning back in her seat. “Of course, though I hardly see a justification for using it among friends.” The light around her remained golden, but Simon dreaded how this interview would proceed. “Still, you may ask your questions, and I will answer.”
“Of course.” Lector Themras’s smile bared his teeth, framed by his beard. “First: are you a follower of the Church of the Holy Martyr?” Simon’s heart plummeted at that question.
“How insulting.” The prioress’s eyes narrowed as she scowled at the older man. “You will find few more devout than I. And I swear to you, you will find no followers of the Demon Queen within this monastery.” The light remained unchanged.
The Lector’s smile faded. “Hmph. You are quite certain of yourself.” Simon glanced sidelong at the priest, surprised. For all of Themras’s posturing, he still didn’t see the obvious holes in Sister Benevolence’s statements, though Simon admittedly had an advantage. “Very well. Do you know anything of the missing pilgrims?”
Sister Benevolence took a long moment to answer that question, tapping her chin in thought. “I do know that many of the pilgrims who disappeared left the monastery before they went missing, so it is possible that they were taken by those who waited for them to leave our mountain. I do not think anyone here would harm any of the faithful who come to our doors; we show them all kindness. I also don’t know of any monsters that live in the forests outside the town, so I doubt that is behind the disappearances.”
Themras nodded, but pressed on to the real reason for their visit. “Next, then.” He paused, looming over the desk and the woman, his face as wrathful as a thundercloud. “Tell me what you know of the Arch-Heretic, and the laboratory he had built in this area.”
“The Arch-Heretic?” At this, the prioress seemed genuinely confused. “Do you mean- the Warlock?” She was quick to see the fury building on the Lector’s face, and pressed on. “He worked with the church to help develop the Barriers, yes?” Themras nodded, while at his side Simon sighed; he was getting rather frustrated with everyone knowing a story that he had previously never heard of, and this one sounded interesting. “I had heard he had worked in this area, but if it was near Videre, I was not aware of it. In any case, wasn’t he executed?”
“Surely you know more than this,” Themras pressed.
The prioress blinked, obviously caught off guard. “Well… perhaps there would be some records of use to you. I will have them collected for you from our archives. My apologies; this request is different from what your servant asked of me yesterday, so I may have directed him to the wrong books.” The light around her remained golden, and her tone seemed genuinely apologetic. “I will send someone immediately to retrieve the correct ones.”
“No need. I will go myself.” Lector Themras instructed.
“Of course. I can lead you to the sealed archive immediately. I had merely assumed you would be pressed for time, and would prefer to have the relevant tomes brought to you. I assure you, any that relate to your search will be retrieved, and you can take them back to Videre with you, if you would prefer that.” The prioress’s tone was neutral, but Simon was quick to decipher her play. ‘Sealed archives’ – she meant the forbidden library in the catacombs, and she was trying to lead Themras away from going down there. That was useful information, considering how hard she had pressed Simon to go in that direction.
“Are they not just behind you?” Themras motioned to the door beyond the prioress. Immediately her gaze hardened, drastically enough that Simon was taken aback.
“No. That chamber is sacred. It contains relics of the Priest himself, one of the Seven Heroes. Not even I enter it, out of respect to his sacrifice.” The Lector regarded her carefully, surprised at her fierce piety, but a cruel mirth entered her eyes. “After all, the Priest is the perfect representation of mercy, kindness, and sacrifice, instead of the sins of cruelty and self-aggrandizement. Aren’t those virtues you aspire to for yourself?”
“Of course,” the Lector snapped, and immediately the air around him darkened. Snarling, he waved his hand, and the golden gleam faded from the air. The prioress said nothing, leaning back in her chair with a satisfied smile, and Themras looked to neither of them. “Send your sisters to fetch the tomes we need, immediately.” Sister Benevolence stood from her seat, bowing her head as she passed the Lector, but he ignored her. She met the gaze of Simon, and he noted the sharp edge to her smile as she approached the door, opening it and calling for a sister beyond.
Soon, Sister Benevolence turned back to the waiting men, asking their leave to go with the sister to be certain they retrieved all of the needed books, and the Lector granted permission with a flick of his hand, his brow beetled as he poured back over the prioress’s statements. As soon as she was gone and the door closed, he turned to face Simon, his expression turbulent. “Observations?” he demanded.
Simon took a moment to gather his thoughts. The spell that detected lies was gone, but still he knew he would have to tread carefully. “She does strike me as faithful, although I don’t think she likes you very much.” Themras waved that off as unimportant. “She was genuinely surprised that you asked about the laboratory. Earlier, you said that the people of Videre are probably descended from the people that built it, but isn’t it more likely that they come from the people who rebuilt the monastery?”
Themras nodded, but his scowl remained. “Perhaps both, though I am not certain. Still, I know the laboratory is here. The Holy One said-” He froze, and Simon looked at him curiously. “I know it is here,” he restated, and the look in his eyes forbade further questions.
An awkward silence lingered for long minutes as Simon looked around the room while the Lector lost himself in his own thoughts. An errant idea occurred to the Lector, and he glanced to Simon dispassionately. “Oh, and do be careful about going into the woods. The other boy said that another of the mercenaries turned up missing last night.” The offhanded tone he offered the warning with seemed completely at odds with its contents.
“Another?” Simon’s stomach fell. “They were supposed to work in pairs, so they wouldn’t be alone.”
“Apparently he wandered off. No doubt, he fell into the clutches of the villains we seek. Our enemy is insidious, never forget that.” Before Simon could respond, the door opened once more, and a nun entered toting several large tomes, which she placed delicately on the desk. Simon was relieved to see the nun was not the flippant sister from the previous day; fortunately, he had not seen Sister Faith since he had entered the monastery with the Lector. Bowing, the subordinate nun made a swift exit, though Sister Benevolence entered before the door could close once more.
“These records cover much of our monastery’s dealings with people from outside the region, as far back as the reconstruction after the Last War of the Demon King.” Sister Benevolence rounded the desk, facing Themras directly. “We keep these locked up for their protection, but the other books in the archive are kept there per the church’s proscription.” She shuffled through the books, her eyes widening as she noticed the writing on one’s cover. “Ah, like that one. My apologies, the sister I sent must have picked it up by mistake. Let me send her back with it to return it to the archives.” Simon glanced at the book in question, and had just enough time to read the cover: Thesis on Teleportation.
“I see,” responded the Lector dubiously. He disdainfully glanced at the book she held as she walked past, then stepped closer to the desk to flip through one of the remaining tomes. “These are quite… detailed. You say this includes all interactions with people from outside the monastery?”
Sister Benevolence was slow in responding, handing the book she had reclaimed to the sister outside the door. As she returned to them, however, she nodded briskly. “Yes, including records of our weekly supply wagons, and lists of all visiting pilgrims. It also includes occasions when members of our congregation left to perform duties elsewhere.” She sat down, watching with a faint smile as Themras scanned over the pages before him. “Now that I think of it, there was one time, shortly following the reconstruction, that the abbot traveled to a nearby town to examine construction supplies being brought in; I had always thought that curious, since most of the work on the monastery itself should have been completed.” She frowned, leaning forward to select one of the tomes and flipping through it rapidly. “Not this… no, earlier… ah, here, yes.” She turned the book to face the priest. “Here is the record, though admittedly it is rather succinct.”
Themras squinted at the text, scowling as his eyes raced over the words. “That’s the extent of it? There’s not much information there.”
“I’m afraid so.” Sister Benevolence spread her hands helplessly. “I am afraid we would have nothing else on that particular event, though perhaps the people of that town may have records of their own. I believe it’s over a half-day’s travel to the west from here, however.”
Themras closed the book, nodding to himself. “Very well. It isn’t much, but perhaps it bears investigating.” He motioned Simon toward the books with a wave of his hand, and the Inquisitor stepped forward to pick them up, struggling to achieve that and hold his staff at the same time. “I… thank you for your cooperation.”
“Of course.” Sister Benevolence inclined her head slightly. “Anything for my faith.”
“Good.” Themras turned, walking towards the door. “In that case, see to those other books in your sealed archive. If they are proscribed by the church, then they serve no purpose. Burn them.”
Simon glanced back at the nun, and found her staring at the priest with slackened jaws. “What?” Her tone was outraged, scandalized.
Themras glanced back at her coolly. “You heard me. Burn them all. After my investigation is finished here, I will be returning with a greater accompaniment to insure that it has been done. It is clear to me that the administration of this monastery needs a reminder about how things are done in our modern church. First off all, we have little need for things better left to languish in history.” His gaze left hers to stare briefly at the locked door behind her. “Such things are better consigned to the fire, because they only lead us to stray from the proper path.” He turned once more, opening the door. “Come, Errant.”
Simon followed, but he spared a glance behind him. Sister Benevolence did not meet his eyes. Instead, she stared at the Lector’s back, a simmering hatred clear in the curl of her lip and the intensity of her gaze, and for just a moment Simon felt a strange power in the room, but his course took him between the two, and her anger faded as she regarded him instead. He nodded to her once, and she returned the gesture, something complex and unreadable in her eyes. Simon had little time to consider it, rushing after the Lector, who was marching relentlessly towards the stairs.
The two men did not speak as they walked through the monastery. As they passed through the nave, Simon felt the eyes of the nuns along the walls upon him, and a shiver raced up his spine. Suddenly, the monastery felt far less welcoming, and even the statues of the Seven Heroes seemed to look down upon them in judgment as they traversed the narthex. The feeling of being watched persisted until they exited the building, and even then Simon felt like the windows of the monastery observed them begin their trek down the mountain, while the skies to the west rumbled ominously as dark grey clouds gathered to catch the falling sun.
“You will return tomorrow. Continue your own investigation. Interrogate the sisters, but avoid that woman. Her tongue twists like a serpent.” Themras did not look at Simon, scowling into the distance. His gaze drifted to the ground before him, then aimed to the storm-shrouded skies to the west. “I will pursue the lead she offered, though I have little faith in anything she has provided us.”
“Yes Father.” Simon chained in a sigh. He was not looking forward to returning to the monastery after this visit. Now, the thought of it felt vaguely like shoving his face into an agitated beehive.
“When we return to the capitol, I intend to have a new abbot sent to this location. I do not think ‘Sister Benevolence’ will enjoy stricter guidance, but it is for the good of the faithful.” Lector Themras nodded to himself, a rare smile forming on his lips. “And if she cannot adjust to the real commandments of our religion, then perhaps she, too, is better left forgotten in history.”
As they descended further, Simon looked at the man, who ignored him. Deep inside his heart, Simon felt the last faint flame of his own faith waver, all but extinguished in the face of Themras’s cruelty. He had come to Videre to hunt monsters, and now he knew he had found one after all.
When Simon walked into the inn, hours after he had returned with the Lector to begin reviewing the tomes he had carried from the monastery, he immediately noticed how hushed the conversations inside the usually-crowded common room seemed. He was quick to notice how few of the villagers had come out to dine at the inn, and those who had shot barely-hidden scowls in his direction. The only friendly face in the room was that of Charles Kramer, the top-heavy innkeep washing mugs. He, at least, gave Simon a grin, and Simon crossed the room to speak to him directly.
As Simon drew near, Charles raised the mug he had been washing. “Fancy a drink?”
The younger man shook his head, smiling wryly. “I’ll pass, but thanks. The other night was enough for me for a long while. Still, I, ah, might take dinner up with me.”
“Heh, I figured. I’m sure you’ve worked up an appetite.” For the last, Charles raised his voice just slightly, providing an excuse to the room for the heavily-laden tray that Simon would soon be carrying up to his room to share with Gina.
“Best believe it. It’s been quite the day.” Simon sighed, leaning against the bar in front of Charles, the only other person within earshot. “By the way, this morning-”
“I’m sorry, lad. We tried to let you know ahead of time, but that bastard wouldn’t listen.” Charles frowned as he rethought what he had said. “Sorry, I shouldn’t say that about your superior.”
“Let’s just leave it at ‘that bastard,’ shall we? You were right to say it. No, I meant to apologize for how he treated you, and Mary.”
Charles’s eyebrow raised, and he stared for a long moment at Simon. “You owe us no apology. Wasn’t you that did it. But, lad, you should know there would be a seat for you, too, on that caravan that’s coming in a few days, if you’d just ask.”
Simon offered the burly innkeep a smile blunted only by fatigue. “I appreciate that, truly. But to do that would just put… her, at risk. I won’t do that. I will stay here, if just to draw the Lector and George off her tracks.”
“Damned brave of you, lad. That Purifier isn’t the brightest, but the priest has the mind of a man bent on murder, make no mistake. There’s none so dangerous as those who think their killing to be righteous.” Simon nodded at that, remembering the Lector’s conversation with Sister Benevolence. “Just… you keep yourself safe, alright?” Charles reached out to grip Simon’s shoulder with a meaty hand. “Least of all, because I think my little gal is sweet for you. You should be proud; that’s a first for her.” The innkeeper laughed at Simon’s spluttered denials, turning towards the kitchen. “I’ll get your tray together.”
Simon glanced over the small crowd, several of them still looking at him with heavy brows and dark stares, and noticed Mary weaving among them, carrying a tray of drinks and handing them out. When she caught him looking in her direction, she smiled brightly and waved to him, and he returned the gesture before looking away, hoping she didn’t notice his reddened cheeks. He tried to force down what Charles had said, but he felt a decidedly-confused giddiness nonetheless. The innkeep soon returned with his heavily-laden tray, and extended it towards Simon with a grin. “Eat up. Making all of those trips up the mountain, you need the energy. You’re going to end up with legs as thick as oak trees.”
“If they don’t fall off first,” Simon quipped. He reached out to take the tray, but both men jumped slightly as the resounding crash of thunder shook the inn. Both of them looked up as they heard a quiet susurrus, which gradually gained in volume as the heavens above Videre began to release a deluge onto the defenseless hamlet. “And that isn’t going to make the trip any better.”
“Better you than me. That storm’s been brewing for a while, and it won’t be quick in passing.” Charles shrugged in sympathy as Simon turned to take the tray towards his room. “Don’t be surprised if you get a visitor later; she’s been on about it all day. Just, ah…” Simon swallowed nervously, glancing back to find the other man leaning forward with a toothy grin that was surprisingly intimidating. “No hanky-panky, aye?”
“We’ll have a chaperone,” Simon replied, wondering for a moment which girl Charles thought would be the minder, and which the paramour.
“Right you are then!” Charles guffawed, and Simon beat a hasty retreat, though his eyes did seek out Mary once more. She was still making her rounds about the customers, but her eyes flicked once and again to the windows, as it watching for the telltale flash of lightning. When she looked to him, he gave her a smile he hoped would be reassuring, and her eyes lit up with gratitude.
The trip up the stairs was a tad precarious, though less so than the time he had managed to achieve it similarly encumbered and drunk. Still, he was glad when he entered the room without spilling the food. Once again, the room was empty, but Simon could hear the soft sounds of Gina sniffing the air, and soon enough her head popped around the corner, immediately blossoming into a brilliant smile. “Wait, wait!” he warned, nodding to the tray, and she dutifully obeyed as he moved closer to setting it down, though she swayed side-to-side rapidly as if constraining her urges, her tail beating the air behind her. “Alright, now-” Simon began, turning to face her, but she was already upon him, colliding with his chest with enough force to press the air from his lungs. He chuckled, petting her head as she sniffed fiercely at his chest, drinking in his scent ravenously before rubbing her face against his sternum. His hand made long strokes down her hair as she hugged him tightly, refusing to think about releasing him until she was good and ready, and he didn’t suggest it either.
“Ah-!” Simon groaned, as her hug became drastically tighter in response to another bass explosion from outside the window. As he winced, surprised at her strength, Gina whined, shivering a bit as she snuggled as closely to him as she could manage. “So, you don’t like storms, huh?” Simon deduced, and she looked up at him with pitifully-wide eyes, nodding minutely. “Well, it sounds like it’s getting closer, so let’s hurry and eat so we can turn in sooner. Maybe you can sleep through the worst of it.” Gina stared at him for a long moment before nodding, but even as they carried away their food to sit down, she still clutched to him with one arm.
They ate in silence, Gina pressing against him every time the heavens growled. When he could, he reached over to stroke her back, and she took breaks from her meal to lean close and lick his cheek, sending shivers dancing up his spine when she flicked against his ear. Any further amorous intent was elsewise quelled by the increasingly-vocal skies, and Simon didn’t know whether to be relieved or saddened about that, as after that morning he would be paranoid about Lector Themras bursting into the room if they began to pick back up where they had left of yesterday.
When they were finished, Simon returned their platters and cups to the tray, and returned to the bed, where Gina had already thrown back the blankets and wedged herself against the wall. Simon laughed as her clothing came flying past him wadded into balls, and Gina looked at him curiously, the blankets firmly pulled around her shoulders, though not enough so to hide her shivering. Simon took a moment to strip down, leaving on his breeches as he recalled Charles’s suggestion that Mary might be joining them later, and then slid into the bed. Gina responded by pulling on him until he was laying in the center of the bed, pressing her firmly against the wall. Satisfied, she snuggled into the gap between his arm and body, burrowing her face against his chest. Still, her ears flicked at every thundercrack, and he squeezed her reassuringly whenever she released soft whimpers.
To distract himself, Simon scooted to the edge to take up one of his books, though Gina was swift to plant a paw on his chest to discourage him from rising from the bed. By straining, he was barely able to scoot his stack of books close enough to pluck one out, though he recognized it as a treatise on holy magic, and he let it slump to the floor with a frown. A second cast of his arm snagged another book, and the faded cover proclaimed it as one of the aged storybooks that he had received from his parents. He flipped open the well-worn pages, smiling at the nostalgic illustrations as Gina re-adhered herself to his side.
By the time the knock came at the door, Gina was softly snoring despite the continued rumblings from the skies above, and Simon’s own eyes were dragging heavily on the words in the dancing light of the diminished candle. Simon delicately freed himself from the bed as Gina drowsily sniffed at the air before returning her head to the pillow. Taking a moment to self-consciously brush the wrinkles from his clothing, Simon walked to the door and opened it. To his relief, Mary stood on the other side. She had taken time to change into a different outfit, a casual dress decorated with a floral pattern. Simon was sure she had decided to change out of the clothing she had been serving food in, though he admitted to himself that her new outfit certainly was cuter, and more feminine, showing the upper limits of her breasts and the incline of the deep valley between them. She had also released her brown hair from its usual braid, which was a good look for her, Simon noted. “Sorry it’s so late, I had to help pa finish cleaning. He was turning in for the evening.” Mary smiled at Simon, her cheeks flushed as she looked at him over the rim of her glasses. “I told him I would just be talking with you two for a while.”
“That’s fine, I hadn’t fallen asleep yet.” Simon motioned her into the room, and she curtsied slightly as she came in. She paused when she came to the foot of the bed, glancing at Gina.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to wake her,” she apologized, but Gina opened a single eye and freed an arm enough to wave at Mary before reinserting herself back into her blanket bundle. Another flash, followed soon by a quaking rumble, drew a pouty frown from the kobold as she glowered at the window before looking plaintively to Simon, who was also noticing the slight jump Mary had given at the sound. Mary glanced at the bed before making her way to the pile of blankets, taking a seat and smoothing the skirt of her dress. Simon, meanwhile, sat on the bed, scooting close to Gina while still remaining upright, and the kobold took the opportunity to rest her face in his lap, sniffing curiously. “So…” Mary began, awkwardly looking at her hands as she struggled to find something to say, and Simon laughed as he sympathized with her.
“So, you’ve seen all of my books. Your turn. What stories do you know?”
This brought a light back to Mary’s face. “Oh, of course! Have you heard the stories about how the Ranger received his blessing?”
Simon frowned. He had read very little about the Ranger, the quiet member of the Seven Heroes that was usually charged with bringing down the flying beasts that attacked their party. “No, I just know about the blessings of the Priest and the Martyr.”
Mary grinned mischievously, leaning forward. “It’s really funny. The story I read said that he followed a huntress goddess that didn’t like men very much, so at first she refused his requests, even though he was born to be a Hero. Everyone told him to ask another god for their blessing, but he refused, because he believed he was called to serve her. He kept going back to her temple, but her followers would chase him off again and again. Still he kept sneaking in to leave offerings, until one day he decided to show her how devoted he was to her faith. So…” Mary reached up to tug at the shoulders of her dress. “He had a friend of one of the other Heroes help him infiltrate the shrine. They used powders and rouge, and found a dress that fit him, and styled his hair. This time, since he looked so convincingly like a woman, the priestesses let him into the shrine, and he participated in a ceremony of praise. They even let him join their sacred archery games afterward, and he impressed them all by bulls-eying target after target. The only problem came when they decided to bathe in the sanctified springs afterwards. He couldn’t escape, so they brought him there, but when he refused to enter the holy pool, one of the priestesses stripped him of his dress.” At this point, Mary was biting back laughter, and Simon stared at her in scandalized humor. “So, when they all see his… you know, they all scream. But the most maidenly scream of all…” This broke the storyteller, and Simon joined her laughter, imagining the situation perfectly. “Was his! Before the priestesses could attack him, the goddess herself spoke to them, and told them to spare him. Instead, she gave him her blessing!”
The laughing in the room was loud and long, and Gina looked curiously at the pair before taking the chance to nuzzle closer to Simon’s lap. He absent-mindedly reached down to stroke her hair, and she closed her eyes with a satisfied smile. “You know, I think I see why the Church got rid of most of the books with that story,” Simon admitted, lifting his glasses to wipe the mirthful moisture from one of his eyes. “They don’t take very kindly to people disrespecting the Heroes, but that story just seems… human. Weird, but human.”
“But they were!” Mary insisted, shaking her head with a lingering grin. “That’s the kind of story I like. The Church says that humanity is important, but most of the time they don’t really feel like they like people acting human.”
“That’s true,” Simon admitted. “Where did you find that book, anyways?”
“My father bought it from a passing merchant, oh, five or so-” Mary cut off with a squeak, hopping to her feet as a brilliant flash illuminated the room, and the entire building shuddered from the nearness of the thunder’s voice. Simon grunted as Gina plowed her face into his crotch, though with less amorous intent than he might have expected. “Sorry,” Mary apologized, shivering a bit as she rubbed one of her arms. “I’ve never liked storms, ever since I was a little girl.”
“It seems you’re not alone in that,” Simon acknowledged, pointing subtly at Gina. “I don’t mind them, myself.” Simon had never feared storms; they seemed to agitate him more than scare him, though he had never understood that restlessness.
Gina’s head raised from his lap as she stared across the room at Mary, barking softly. When the other girl looked at her curiously, Gina freed an arm to wave at her, then pointed a claw towards the bed on the other side of Simon, who blinked down at her in surprise. Mary’s cheeks immediately darkened as she caught the kobold’s meaning, and she shook her head rapidly. “Oh, no, I couldn’t-” She had started to sit back atop Gina’s intended blanket-bed, but another stringent rumble thrust her back to her feet and away from the wall. “Well…”
Simon glanced down to Gina, who met his gaze and nodded. Shrugging as he fought to control his own blush, he glanced to Mary. “I don’t mind, I guess.”
The human girl made her way over to the bed, not looking Simon’s eyes as she came. He scooted as far to the side as he could manage, and Gina clutched to him tightly, sighing in relief. Mary sat on the very edge of the bed, but Gina reached across Simon to tug at her, and she scooted closer, pressing against Simon’s arm, though with her legs still dangling over the side of the bed. “Ah, just as long as your father doesn’t come in and see this,” Simon muttered, cold fingers gripping his stomach. “I think he would tear me apart.”
“Oh, Pa is just a great stuffed bear,” Mary laughed, shaking her head.
“He looks like he could wrestle actual bears. And win.”
Mary shot him a mischievous glance. “How do you think he got those scars?”
“Wouldn’t surprise me.” Simon leaned back against the wall, asking Mary to hand him the book he had been reading. He reopened it to where he had left off, but turned the book to where Mary could see it as well. “Do you know this story?”
The pair of them read together as minutes stretched into an hour, and then more. After a while, Simon sank into the bed, laying on his back, and soon enough Mary did the same. Simon thought it was the thunder that made Mary clutch to his arm, or perhaps the lack of space in a bed scarcely made for two, rather than three, but nevertheless he found himself firmly sandwiched between two girls underneath the blankets, both of whom had taken to resting their heads on his shoulders. Eventually, as soft breathing filled the air, he freed his arm enough to reach past Mary to extinguish the flagging candle, and to let the book tumble to the floor. The human girl took that opportunity to slide closer to him, and he blushed as he felt her generous chest press against his while she slid her arm around him, mumbling softly in her sleep as she nuzzled his shoulder. With all the subtlety he could muster, Simon dropped his glasses onto the nightstand, and carefully removed Mary’s and sent them tumbling as well, hoping they wouldn’t drop to the floor.
As he settled in to let drowsiness consume him, Simon stared into the darkness. He was surrounded by the smell of two beautiful girls, the feeling of their soft bodies against his, the sound of their breathing and the sensation of their arms clutching him tightly. He could not decide if this was meant to be heaven or hell, but his pesky lower brain had obviously made its decision, lifting the blankets in an eager spire, and that was making slumber rather difficult. Still, eventually the soft breathy melodies from either side brought him to rest, and as sleep stole him away he squeezed the girls closer to him, all of them finding peace in each other.
This night, at least, none would dare intrude on the succor they had found, and the storm raged on futilely.
The boy in the black cloak stood at a crossroads. The wind whipped at him, and the skies flared with violet lightning, but there was no sanctuary to be found. He shivered, and clutched the cloak tightly about himself, but it was little protection from the piercing chill that sought his bones. Desperately he glanced around, seeking the path he could take to safety.
Down one path was a great fire that raged into the heavens. Lines of figures staggered into its depths, an endless procession, and their black-silhouetted forms marched deeper into the flames as they burned, ignorant of the fire that consumed them. He could hear the fevered litany driving them into the pyre, and the words tugged at him, even as they twisted at his stomach.
The other path led into shadows that twisted and danced. That darkness felt comfortable, appealing, but he could sense the hunger within. He could hear cries of ecstasy, in voices that seemed almost familiar. The rattle of chains reached for him, and he recoiled, even as he felt a kinship drawing him in that direction.
He took a step in that direction, away from the flames, but a distant howl froze him before his foot could fall. He glanced to the side, between the two roads, and he noticed the beginning of a third path. He could see nothing in that direction, could scarcely see more than a couple of steps ahead of him. Still, the voices he heard in that direction, calling to him, turned him away from the path he had nearly chosen.
“Don’t.” The voice that spoke the command was powerful enough to nearly drop him to his knees. “You belong to me. You have always belonged to me.”
And still he took the step forward, seeking his own path. As he walked into the unknown darkness, away from the murky shadows and the consuming flame, he heard the frustrated screams ringing in the heavens, but he did not stop. He had made his choice.
“Continued in “Wisdom in Shadow, Chapter 7“
Author’s Note: Merry Christmas, all! I know just posting this a day early hardly counts as a gift, especially since I had hoped to have progressed enough to post an additional chapter tomorrow, but it will have to do. My writing progress has been slow over the past days, and the fact that the next chapter is immensely important and already looking to be much longer than usual does not help matters. Still, I shall endeavor to return with it Friday evening, and I hope that you enjoy this chapter as you wait for it. Big things are coming in this tale…
I shall keep this note brief, as I still have Christmas lunch to go to, and several other things to see to before Christmas’s end. Still, thank you for the attention you have thus far paid my story, and I hope that I continue to hold your interest for the chapters yet to come. And, again, Merry Christmas, and Happy Holidays.