Wisdom in Shadow, Chapter 7

Preface: Greetings, all! This is the seventh chapter of the tale that began with “Wisdom in Shadow – Chapter 1,” comes immediately after “Wisdom in Shadow, Chapter 6,”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 7 – Baptism

     When Simon woke in the morning, only one of his arms was occupied.  For a long moment, his hazy brain wondered why that surprised him, but his body was more certain, his arm groping blindly in search of the girl that had been snuggled against him mere hours earlier.  As he opened his sleep-caked eyes, rubbing at them numbly, he glanced down at Gina’s head, finding her still pressed against him, her leg thrown possessively over his, her paw resting on his chest.  He squeezed her instead, and she contentedly sighed in her sleep. 

     Though he had gotten accustomed to it, Simon noted the staccato drumming of rain upon the inn roof.  While the previous evening’s rumbling had died away, the rain had redoubled its efforts, an absolute torrent that only wavered as the wind whipped through it like ripples.  Simon sighed as he looked out the window at the deep grey skies, despairing at the thought of having to ascend to the monastery.  After the previous day’s disastrous meeting, he already knew that it was not going to be pleasant, but the idea of trudging to the summit in this downpour was spirit-crushing.  He imagined for just the barest moment that perhaps, just perhaps, Lector Themras would show mercy and let him study the tomes instead, but he laughed out loud at his own naiveté.  He might was well wish that the rain would form a wave that would wash him up the mountain. 

     He knew he needed to get up, even though he was certain he had woken earlier today than usual.  Lazing about the previous day would have been disastrous.  Still, the sound of the rain on the roof was hypnotic, and Gina’s warmth was irresistibly pacifying.  He let his hand stroke up and down her back over the blankets as he relaxed, thinking about nothing at all as he let his legs internally grouse about their soreness.  Eventually, he idly wondered when Mary had left the previous night, and whether Charles Kramer would say something to him about it.  That thought roused him with a mild panic, but he resolved to trust that Mary would keep her father calm.  After all, they had just slept in the same room.  Under the blankets, in the same bed.  With a naked kobold.  Yes, definitely better if Mary handled such matters.

     An errant thought struck Simon as he petted Gina.  He had seen illustrations of kobolds before; crude ones in educational texts detailing various monsters, drawn, he now knew, to emphasize ferocity over accuracy.  Still, those depictions had differed from Gina in one notable respect, beyond the blood-dripping fangs and claws shaped to rend the flesh of men: those kobolds had been decidedly less… bare, than Gina.  They had been shown with a furry coat that encircled their waist and chest, almost like a corset of fur.  Gina, however, was bare along her torso, until her upper thighs and mid-bicep, as well as her lowermost portions aside from her tail, at least from the glimpses he had unintentionally gotten.  He wondered if the artwork in question had been altered to make them less appealing, although that certainly hadn’t been the case with some of the other monsters, much to the consternation of his teachers and the juvenile thrills of the other Pages and Squires.  He believed sometimes that he had gotten a better education in female human anatomy from those books than monster physiques, although perhaps he hadn’t always been the best student.  Still, he was better than some of the boldest of his fellows, who had taken inordinate joy in defacing the texts with rival genitalia, as if in defiance of the monstrous sexuality confronting them.  Considering the rarity of such texts, he had always been surprised such defacement had not been more harshly punished; perhaps the instructors had recalled their own creative additions to the tomes, decades prior.

     As he glanced down to Gina, still curious about that discrepancy in her appearance, he noticed that she had stirred to wakefulness.  She met his eyes in silence for a long moment, smiling up at him, before finally she closed her eyes in a ferocious yawn, extending all of her limbs in a quivering stretch.  When her stretch was finally finished, she collapsed back into a puddle half-atop him, sighing in contentment.  He chuckled at that, petting her hair, and she pressed against him with a wiggle, rubbing her face on his shoulder.  She looked up to discover he was watching her with a smile, and she returned the expression with a grin of her own.  His expression dropped to surprise as she lifted herself up from the bed, her nakedness more on display, as she brought her face closer to his for a kiss.

     That kiss was the first of several, although after a moment Gina winced back, waving her paw in front of her face. “Well, excuse me!” Simon protested with a laugh. “Forgive my morning breath!” She shrugged at that, but mischief still danced in her eyes as she drew nearer again.  This time, she kissed his cheek, then downward, nuzzling his neck with her lips roughly, and he groaned happily at the feeling, his lower self beginning to flex into a morning stretch of its own, especially as Gina’s kisses pressed against his chest, nipping gently at the skin through the fabric of his nightshirt.  His heart began to pound out a crescendo, however, as he felt her continue her southward trail across his stomach, and he glanced down to see her nostrils flaring as she drank in his scent, her cheeks reddened and her eyes dulled with aroused desire.  Simon swallowed through a tight throat as she looked up to him for permission, and he met her stare, too paralyzed to do anything, though his eyes flicked downward to her pale breasts.  She licked her lips, her eyes imprisoning his once more, and her paw moved the blankets away from his waist.

     Before she could continue, however, Simon noticed her tense up.  She straightened abruptly, loudly sniffing at the air, her head turning this way and that. “What’s wrong, Gina?” She ignored him, still huffing the air, until she turned towards him, placing both paws on his shoulders, her eyes widening in panic.  Simon heard footsteps thumping on the stairs outside, and he met Gina’s terrified gaze with his own despair.

    “He might be up… let me knock and see,” they could hear Mary saying through the door, her voice muffled even though she was clearly speaking very loudly.  Simon and Gina clambered from the bed as the knocking rang through the room. “Mister Hopkins!  Are you awake?”

     “Hey, buddy!  Rise and shine!” Simon winced as he recognized George’s voice.

     Simon looked at Gina, his brain racing.  She had to leave the room before the Purifier came in, but the only door was blocked.  There was the window, but-

     The door opened, and Simon acted.  He pictured a runic circle in his mind as he laid his hand on Gina, and he felt a surge of power pass from him to her.  Gina jumped slightly, but on first glance that was the only change she underwent, aside from a slight pearlescent shimmer on her skin.  As he drew his hand away from her, however, she vanished from his sight, just as George rounded the corner and grinned broadly at him. “Hey, pal, nice place you’ve been shacked up in,” the Purifier Errant started, though his brow furrowed as he sniffed at the air. “It… it kind of smells like dog in here, though.”

     Simon hid the relief he felt.  His Blindness of Impurity spell had worked perfectly, hiding Gina from sight for a short while. “Yeah, I think the previous people who stayed here had a pet,” Simon lied, shooting an apologetic smile back to Mary, who stood at the door looking in, confusion written on her face as she anxiously clasped her hands in front of her chest. “Let me just open a window and let some fresh air in.”

     With George still standing in the way, and since Simon hardly knew how long his spell would last, there was only one way out of the room, although there was still the problem of being on the second floor.  As Simon opened the window out into the rainy air, he stepped back, leaving an open path.  He felt something brush against him, and he glanced out again. “Man, it’s really coming down out there.” His words almost drowned out the sound of a pair of feet splattering the muddy earth below his window, and he could see a bodyshade passing through the pouring rain, an invisible pair of furred legs outlined in mud sprinting away from the inn towards the forest at the edge of the town.  Gina appeared as she neared the treeline, too far from him for his magic to persist, but by then Simon had blocked the window with his body, keeping the other man from seeing her race into the woods.

     “Yeah, I’d hate to be traveling in this.  The Lector chose a really bad time for his trip west, if you ask me.” George offered Simon a conspiratorial smile. “Good news is, though, both of us are off the hook while he’s gone.  He told me that we could just keep an eye on the town when he left this morning, so I figured I would crash with you today.” George stepped closer, but paused, glancing down at something at his feet. “Oh, sorry, what is that?” He bent over, straightening with a wide strip of grey cloth in his hand.  It took only a second for Simon to recognize it as Gina’s breastwrap, laying where she had thrown it the previous evening, and a second more for the alarm bells to resound in Simon’s skull.  He had no idea how to salvage this one.

     “Oh, that’s mine.  It’s just a cleaning rag!” blurted Mary, dashing into the room.  She quickly claimed it from George, and proceeded over to Gina’s original bed to grab the other part of her attire. “I must have dropped them when I brought these extra blankets!”

     “Is that so?” From his tone, it was immediately clear to Simon that George did not believe that the cloths were cleaning rags.  It was also clear that George had already decided what they actually were, and who they belonged to, from the glance he gave Mary, followed by the growing grin he was giving Simon. “My apologies, then.” Simon could tell that George’s appraisal of him had just risen greatly, for all of the wrong reasons.

     “I-I’ll be leaving, then!” Mary squeaked, rushing for the door. “I’ll bring breakfast later!” She closed the door behind her, but Simon still saw the glow in her cheeks from where he stood at the window.  She had realized what George would think had happened, and had jumped in to save him and Gina anyways.  He would owe her big for that one.

     “Not bad, man,” George mused, rubbing his chin with an eager grin. “She’s really cute.  Makes me wish I had been the one to get the inn, instead of some old mansion.” His smile was the expressive equivalent of the old-fashioned teasing elbow to the ribs. “I bet you’ve got some stories to tell, right?”

     “I don’t want to talk about it-”

     “Aw, come on!”

     “No, really; have you seen her dad?” Simon swallowed past the lump in his throat, feeling like he owed Mary even more for going along with this.

     George thought for just a moment, then paled. “Oh, wait, is it the innkeep?  That man looks like he could rip a door off its hinges with his fingernails.”

     “And so that doesn’t happen to that door right there, let’s change the subject, aye?” Simon forced a smile onto his own face. “So, the Lector has left town, you say?”

     George nodded happily. “Yep!  And there’s no hunting in this downpour; I doubt any monsters are going to be out in this, and I don’t want to be either.” He walked over to Simon’s bed, plopping down casually. “Since the Lector wanted us to stay in town, care for some company today?”

     A pang of guilt made Simon think of the naked kobold out in the forest, but he could think of no way around this. “Sure, that sounds good to me.  Sounds like it might be a bit before breakfast, though, and I’m sure the common room is empty at this time of day.”

     “That’s fine with me.” George’s eyes fell to the collection of books on the floor. “Oh, doing a little research?”

     “Hardly.” Simon plucked one of the books out of the pile, opening it so George could see the illustrations inside. “I’ve always had a weak spot for the old storybooks about the Seven Heroes.” He was surprised to see George’s face light up with delight.

     “Wow!  That is awesome!” George extended his hands, looking up for permission, and Simon handed him the book.  The Purifier Errant flipped through the pages, his eyes wide as he closely examined each illustration. “I wish I had something like this growing up.”

     “Did your family not keep books?”

     “No, not that I remember.” George’s smile slipped only slightly. “I was orphaned pretty young; there was a bad disease that swept through my hamlet, and the healers barely got to me in time.  It was too late for my mom, though.” His eyes lost focus on the page for only a moment. “But the church took me in, so I never had it that hard.”

     Simon didn’t know what to do in the face of that confession, so he clapped a hand on George’s shoulder. “I lost my parents too.  The church recruiters found me and took me from them, but while I was training… they said it was a monster attack that killed them.”

     George nodded at that. “Well, at least we’re on the road to paying the church back for taking care of us, right?” Simon’s smile was fake, but it fooled the other man.  He had come to question whether he really owed the church for that, considering he would have been with his parents if not for that recruiter, and maybe he could have done something to save them. “And we’ll make sure that no other kids have to deal with losing their parents to monsters, too.”

     Simon didn’t reply, taking a seat beside George and bending over to straighten his books.  As George flipped through the pages, still lost in a childlike wonder at the fanciful pictures, Simon picked up the book he had been reading with Mary the previous night, his cheeks warming at the memory.  Trying to distract himself, he looked over to the book George was perusing, noting the other man was staring at a drawing of the Martyr dueling a monstrous knight whose head floated free of its body. “You know, you could borrow that one, if you wanted,” Simon offered graciously.

     “That’s alright,” George declined hesitantly. “I don’t have a lot of time to myself these days; the mercenaries are a handful, and the guy that owns the mansion keeps wanting to show off his property and collections of antique weapons, not that I mind.  Still…” George’s grin grew as he flipped the page, looking at an illustration of the Conqueror marching towards the Demon King’s castle, spear raised in defiance. “I mean, I can read, you know.  I can read.  But I just don’t have time.” The Purifier looked up from the book, excitement spreading across his face. “Hey, why don’t you tell me some of these?  That’d definitely be faster.”

     Simon nodded, not at all bothered to share some of the stories he had always enjoyed. “Do you have any preferences?”

     George thought about it only a second. “Something exciting.  I know!  Did the Heroes ever fight dragons?  Those make for the best fights.”

     “Well, I can think of one story.” Simon frowned, toppling his stack of books in search of one in particular.  Finding it by the mark of the Holy Flame upon its cover, he took it up and flipped it open, searching forward and back until he stumbled across the particular page he sought.  His destination found, he offered the book to George, who took it eagerly, marveling at the illustration that showed the silhouettes of the Seven Heroes fighting together against a gargantuan scaled beast. “During their first foray into the Demon King’s lands, the Demon King finally realized that they were a threat, and sent one of his mightiest lieutenants to destroy them.  The Demon King had empowered it enough to overwhelm the heroes, and it nearly succeeded; this was a monster that had destroyed entire cities and broken armies.  Still, the Seven Heroes were blessed by the gods, and they met its challenge directly.” 

     “First, the Ranger shot arrows to cripple its wings-” Simon couldn’t help but smile at the way George was sitting forward, practically at the edge of the bed, his mouth slightly open. “Once the beast was grounded, the Conqueror rushed in, stabbing for the beast’s heart with his spear.  The Scout attacked its back legs, slashing at the tendons, dodging its tail as it sent trees flying with every swing.  The dragon inhaled, preparing to release fire upon them,” Simon mimicked this, puffing out his chest, and he could see his audience approved, “but the Paladin dove in the way, his blessed shield protecting them from the flames.  As the Priest tended to the Conqueror, who had been flung aside by a swipe of a mighty claw, the Martyr himself stepped to the fore.  He dove in, sword flashing with holy power, and with a slash knocked the beast’s head to the side.  It roared in anguish, tearing at the earth and trying to catch the Martyr with its claws, but it couldn’t find him.  It realized that the Hero had climbed atop its back, but before it could try to fling him off, the other Heroes attacked, distracting it: arrows flew at its eyes, and a spear plunged into its soft neck while daggers and a hammer punished its sides.  The dragon tried to fly away, but the Martyr had climbed up its neck, and as it rose into the sky, he raised his sword over his head and drove it straight down, into the dragon’s skull.” Simon pantomimed this as well, and George looked to be on the verge of applause. “The dragon crashed back down to the earth, the Martyr riding it all the way down, finally pulling the sword from its skull when it lay still on the ground.” His impersonation complete, Simon stood, and George looked from him to the book and back again, a wide grin plastered on his face.             

     “That is amazing!  I wish we had had more stories like that in our training, instead of drills and anatomy lessons.” George closed the book, handing it back to Simon. “But just think: we’re Errants now.  We get to do things like that, go face and slay terrible monsters, have stories told about us just like that!”

    Simon returned his friend’s enthusiasm, but his smile slipped a little as he considered the exact implications of what the other man was saying. “I know what you mean, but… aren’t things different now?  The monsters aren’t like that anymore.”

     “Oh, you mean their shape, right?” Simon nodded, though that wasn’t entirely what he had been implying. “That’s just to confuse men, since we naturally want to protect women.  Inside, they are still the same evil beasts that the Heroes fought.  Given the chance, any monster will gladly tear you apart.”

     Gina’s face, her wagging tail and cuddling arms, occupied Simon’s mind.  He knew the things George was saying were wrong, at least about some monsters. “Tell me… have you ever seen a real, living monster?”

     The Purifier hesitated. “Well, no.  I have been to the Field of Glory, though, more than just the time we passed through it when we left the capitol.”

     Simon’s face fell as he remembered that grim monument.  Rows of skulls on spikes, just inside the barrier that protected Olympus City from monsters, each of them taken from monsters slain by members of the Orders.  His treasonous mind returned once more to thoughts of Gina, and he couldn’t keep the disquiet from his expression. “That’s… not the same, George.  Do you ever wonder if maybe there are monsters that are… better than that?  Just living their lives, not wanting to kill or destroy, just to be happy?”

     The doubt plaguing Simon found no home on George’s face. “No.  Remember, monsters were created to destroy humanity.  They nearly did it, too, during the Martyr’s era.  If it weren’t for their sacrifices, the Demon King would have killed everyone.  They are still trying, now that the Demon Queen is in charge.” George stood from the bed, placing a reassuring hand on Simon’s shoulder. “It’s normal to have doubts; that’s what they want.  But that’s why we can’t afford to show mercy, because if we do, people suffer.  People like…” George motioned behind him, towards the stairs leading towards the inn’s common room, and Simon knew he meant Mary. “Like what happened with the werewolf that brought us here.”

     Simon’s eyes snapped up, and his frown set the other man back a step.  It wasn’t what George was saying; that was all the same as what they had heard from the priests over and again, drilled into their heads since they were children cleaning floors and studying scripture.  Instead, the kindly face of Father Wulfe came to mind, and Simon knew that the Purifier was wrong when he thought about what had happened to a man that had merely been trying to safeguard his granddaughter. “Father Wulfe tried to protect a child.  He was saving someone he loved, someone who didn’t choose what had happened to her.”

     “Someone who would have attacked everyone in this town, if she had fully transformed.” Anger had finally found its place on George’s brow.

     “Then why didn’t she?  Because he sent her away, not because we came here to burn her grandfather.” The words were cruel, and George looked away, wincing visibly.  Simon remembered the pained expression that George had borne when Father Wulfe had spoken to them both that final time.  It had probably been on his own face as well.

     “How do you know that she isn’t doing just that, somewhere else?”

     “How do you know she is?” The two young men stared at each other, tensed, as the feelings that had haunted them both for days finally came to the fore.  Neither of them wavered for a long minute, until finally George looked away with a bitter sigh.

     “Listen, we just got a bad first mission, alright?  Things here haven’t gone the way they are supposed to, but our next assignment will be better.” His face brightened, and he leaned closer to Simon to share a secret. “Don’t say anything, but I think I know where they might send us next.  Some of my friends told me they had been chosen for a big campaign out east.  All of the Orders are working together to establish a new foothold near Vindabona, and the rumor is it might be the beginning of a new crusade against the monsters.  They were being sent to retake human territory that had been overrun by monsters, near a mining town called Goslar.  If we do well here, they might send us to join the fight there next!” Once again he clasped Simon’s shoulder, smiling reassuringly. “Just think: if we get sent there, then that is our chance to have our own stories, to be heroes.”

     Simon nodded, but the other man’s words rang hollow to him.  Deep down, he knew that they might have a chance to earn their own legends if they went to fight the monsters, but he didn’t know if he could spend the rest of his life wondering if he was the villain of his own story.  Maybe the monsters there were everything the priests had told them.  Maybe they were bloodthirsty and cruel.  But how could he strike before he knew?

     “Hey, breakfast might be ready by now, right?  Let’s go see.” George’s smile was bright enough that it did pull Simon slightly away from his doubts. “Everything will work out fine, just wait and see.”

     Once more, Simon envied the other man’s faith.  Still, he nodded, and the two Errants left the innroom behind, headed for a warm meal and less-weighty conversation.  Over the next hours to come, Simon would not be able to shake off his doubts and fears, but for a while at least he would be able to relax, to spend time with someone he had come to see as a friend, and that meant more to him than he had realized.  Maybe George was right, he would wonder as he leaned back in his chair in the common room, laughing out loud at a joke the other man had told.  Maybe everything really would work out just fine.

 

******

 

     Lector Themras stared down at the paper in front of him with a cold smile.  He had reviewed the age-yellowed parchment a dozen times already, but still his eyes scraped the truth from it once more.  He forced his hands not to shake as he read the shipping manifest, reading over the lists of arcane apparatuses and ritual tools, an incomprehensible catalogue of magical equipment that meant little to the priest, save for the fact that these implements were precisely what he had been searching for.  These were tools for a laboratory, not a monastery, despite the fact that the manifest listed the Chapel of Divine Revelation as their ultimate destination.

     “Sir?  Is this… everything you had wanted?”

     Themras glanced to the side, remembering the slight man that had led him to this discovery.  The previous day, when he had arrived at this town, larger than Videre but hardly enough to be considered a city, he had been pleased to discover that it served as something of a trading hub for the region.  It had taken little investigation to find that the primary shipping company had been founded shortly before the reconstruction of the Chapel of Divine Revelation, and had begun its rise to fame by overseeing the transportation of the supplies needed to rebuild that sacred site.  It had received enough profit from that venture to expand, to the point that now it sent caravans from Olissipo to Olympus, Avalon to Palatine, running the whole of the Hellenestic Empire.

     Fortunately, however, the founder of that company had obsessively maintained records of the goods shipped through the town, at least at that time.  In his honor, those records had been kept, though many had been lost to various mishaps in the intervening century.  Still, the specific records that Themras had sought had miraculously survived, proof that his mission was fated to succeed.  Now, he only had to pursue the lead this offered, straight back to the monastery, right to that serpent-tongued false sister.

     “This will be sufficient.  I will be taking this.”

     “Ah, I don’t know if I can let you take that-” The man, a manager at the shipping company, stared at the Lector with wide eyes, but Themras ignored him, brushing past.  The other man made no moves to pursue him, as the priest knew would be the case.  His was a holy calling, and his mission more important that any base sentimentality that would have them keep these records.  If the manager had pressed the matter, Themras would have given him ample reason to regret that decision.

     As the Lector walked along the sodden earth, splattered by the drizzling rain that still fell, his mind was removed from such triviality, turned instead towards the next steps he would have to take.  Now, his instincts had been proven right once more, and ‘Sister Benevolence’ had been outed as a liar.  On his ride to this town, he had had time to review his conversation with the pompous prioress, and had chided himself for allowing her to escape with such scant responses.  His true desire had been to pry from her what she knew of the Arch-Heretic’s laboratory, and he had allowed his haste to offer her an escape from his scrutiny.  Now, he would have the truth from her, even if it meant relying on other tools than magic.  He respected divine incantations, but there was much to be said for the purifying power of flame, even in smaller, more precise dosages.

     As the Lector walked into the inn he had claimed as his home for the evening, he noted the surreptitious glances of the fearful throng in the common room, but he paid them no mind.  He instead headed straight for his room, his mind whirling with myriad possibilities, faces that might have hidden betrayal all along.  If the monastery indeed concealed the laboratory, then it was likely others would have known this, and many of the people of Videre could have conspired to shield it from him.  He would have to reexamine them all, until he was certain he had rooted out all of the heretics among them.

      As soon as he entered his room and placed the records on the small desk the inn had afforded him, he moved immediately to check his other belongings.  Two items in particular worried him whenever he was parted from them, and he breathed a sigh of relief when he discovered that they remained safe.  One was a small wooden box, sealed by a metal clasp and decorated with an engraving of the Holy Flame, while the other was a slip of paper, a letter that had grown dingy from frequent viewing.  He could recite the latter from memory, but still he unfolded it, allowing the letters to sear themselves into his eyes:

     You have been chosen.  This mission requires a man of abiding faith, someone willing to commit whatever is needed to discover impiety.  Your career has been watched since you were spared, and your continued piety is pleasing.

     Evil dwells in Videre.  The Arch-Heretic created a laboratory there for his experiments, back when he pretended allegiance to the faith.  Search scrolls and souls for it.  It must now be found, and its contents seized.  Allow none to see the texts within, and if any try to stop you, they are unworthy of mercy.    

     Failure will not be accepted.  Once before, you faced censure for your zeal.  Now, it is needed.  Heed the will of the faith, and you will be exalted.

      The letter bore no signature, other than a seal, a flame with a scroll superimposed.  The symbol was similar to that used by the Holy Orders, save that none of them carried a parchment as their unique symbol.  If not for an earlier encounter, its meaning would have been lost on Themras, but he knew he would never forget it after that one day.

     Excommunication.  That had been the threat he had faced that day over a year ago, the punishment under consideration for his acts of faith.  He had not long before taken it upon himself to investigate reports of a monster-worshipping cult in a village near to the capitol, and had diligently pursued every lead, regardless of the measures required.  In the end, several men had confessed to laying with monsters, and one even claimed a beast as his wife, though the creatures themselves had escaped Themras’s pursuit.  Still, the heretics at least had been put to the flame, regardless of their social standings.

     The Ecclesiastic Council had not seen this as a triumph.  They rebuked him for his zeal, accused him of torture and brutality, of murdering the mayor of a wealthy village.  They spoke of a town whose people now feared the church, as though such were a bad thing!  Righteous fear, Themras knew, was as powerful a tool as righteous anger.  As the censuring continued, Themras had faced the bitter old men without regret, his face set like stone, unafraid of his fate.  He would gladly have sacrificed his own future to ensure the well-being of those cowering townsfolk, safe from impiety now for generations.

     He could still see, in his mind’s eye, the room the Council had called him to.  It had been immense, enough to make any man feel small.  Placed high on a pedestal, an arched table faced the accused, sitting before thirteen high-backed seats, each decorated with the insignia of its occupant.  Six of the seats bore the marks of the various militant Holy Orders, while six alternated between those bore the marks of the Archbishops, the leaders of the various civil sects responsible for the administration of the capitol’s day-to-day affairs.  In theory, these twelve men were the greatest powers in the Hellenistic Empire, and each of equal power and authority, though it was hardly a secret that intrigue and politics had rooted itself even in this highest of councils.  Such was clear from the debate over the fate of Lector Themras, which devolved into bickering as several of the Archbishops each claimed the right to determine his punishment, while the six Paladins sat mutely, hardly sparing a glance towards the accused. 

     The thirteenth seat, the central chair placed above the others and marked with the flame and scroll, sat empty.  This had drawn Themras’s attention as he had entered the room, but he had quickly deduced it as an honor intended for the man that had founded their faith.  It further surprised him, however, that like each of the other seats, this empty chair had an unlit candle placed before it.  He had been told that, when it came time to deem him worthy of mercy or not, each member of the Council would vote by either lighting their candle to spare him, or leaving it barren of flame to condemn him.  By this point, however, none of the candles were lit, and Themras had begun to resign himself to his martyrdom.

     And then, just as Themras explained his justifications for his actions for the seventh time, a flame appeared upon the wick of the central candle.  Without a word, in eerie unison, the six Paladins raised their hands, and six more flames appeared on the candles before them.  The Archbishops looked as shocked as Themras felt, jaws hanging loosely, but an instant later the six priests all but raced to extend their own hands, regardless of the anger and vitriol they had shown him minutes before, and in a moment thirteen fires danced to celebrate Lector Themras’s reprieve.

     That moment had changed Themras’s life.  He had been spared, somehow, by the very father of their faith.  Admittedly, he had been consigned to duties within the capitol, under closer supervision.  He had accepted this stoically, even though he knew in his heart that his calling laid elsewhere; he would have served better hunting down those who would impugn the faith, and he had felt restless serving as just another sermonizer.  When he had been observed by a man sent by the Council, a Prelate of powerful reputation, Themras had even said as much, practically requesting his freedom to search for heretics once more.

     And then he had received the letter and the box.  The items had been laying inside his chambers when he had returned to them one evening, and he had assumed them a gift from one of the devout inspired by his impassioned sermons, even as he had wondered how they had managed to reach his private room.  Upon reading the letter, however, he had immediately realized that he had been granted his wish: a chance to hunt once more, to bring the fire of their faith to dark places, dark hearts.

      Themras delicately folded the letter once more, placing it beside the box.  He reached out to touch that item, not bothering to open it; just from a simple caress of its wooden surface, he could feel the power dwelling within, and knew that its prize was safe.  He felt euphoria at that familiar potency, and clutched the box to him as he knelt on the floor to begin his meditations.  Perhaps in time he would require the item inside to pursue his duty, but for now it was enough to hold it, to drink in the holy power it contained as he focused his mind.

     Soon, he would return to Videre.  His mission was divine, and he would not stop until he found all who turned their backs upon his faith.  Whoever they were, whatever their role or power; any who defied him would burn.  This thought gave Themras peace and clarity, and he meditated long into the night, his thoughts replete with sacred blood and fire.

 

******

 

     Night had fallen when Simon heard the door to his room open once more.  It had been hours since George had left, and he had adjourned to his room after eating dinner, unable to hide his anxiety any more.  Even though they had somehow managed to keep George from discovering Gina, Simon couldn’t rest until she returned to his room, and had spent much of the evening pacing, tapping his fingers, or futilely attempting to read to distract himself.

     When he heard the door creak long after the lights had been extinguished in all the other rooms in the inn, he bolted to his feet, racing around the corner.  To his delight, he found Gina standing at the entrance to the room, and he started to bolt to her, his arms outspread.  He slowed his pace, however, as he noticed the miserable look on her face, the way her hair and ears were matted and sodden, plastered to her head by rain and mud.  The fur across her body was similarly soaked, especially her lower legs, which were caked with mud practically to her knees.  She looked to him plaintively, but he offered her a wry smile in response. “I am happy to see you, but you are definitely not getting in the bed looking like that.” Her shoulders slumped, but the look she gave him was so full of exasperation that he could hardly restrain a laugh.

     His mirth was choked by surprise as he noticed something unusual about her.  Now, unlike the other times he had seen her without clothing, she wore fur about her midriff and chest, including fluffy tufts over her breasts.  He remembered his earlier contemplations about such that morning, but now she looked almost identical to the illustrations in his textbooks. “Wait, how did you do that?” he asked, pointing to the fur in question.

     Gina glanced down before grinning at him sheepishly.  She pointed past him, towards the blankets where the wraps he had reclaimed from Mary were waiting.  He glanced to them, and then back as he felt an odd power in the air, just in time to see the fur vanish from her body, leaving her chest, stomach, and groin bare once more. “H-hey!  Have you always been able to do that?” He stared at her incredulously, but she didn’t respond, drawing closer to him with a wide smile, her hips swaying enticingly. “No, you are not going to distract me.  The first night you got into bed with me, you could have just made your fur reappear?  Why have you been naked all this time?” Now, Gina was within arms’ reach of him, and she bit her lip as her paws slid up her stomach towards her breasts. “You are not going to make me forget this that easily!” Simon protested weakly.  Obviously, she had probably been taught to wear clothing by either Father Wulfe or Lyra’s parents, and that fur would have gotten in the way, so it made sense she would make it vanish while she was dressed.  Still, every night she had been in bed with him… had that just been to make her seem more vulnerable?  Or so she could seduce him?

     Seducing was definitely in her current plans, from the way she had drawn close enough to touch, her eyes capturing his as her damp tail began to wag heavily, slinging droplets of water about the room.  However, she drew back, outraged, as he sniffed loudly, flinching away from her. “Sorry, but you need a bath,” he demanded, reminded more than a little of the smell of wet dog.  She pouted up at him, but suddenly that expression fell away, replaced by a decidedly devious grin.  She whined softly, pointing towards the washroom, then extending her paws towards him helplessly.  He glanced down at them, noting the puffy paw pads, the indelicate claws. “Are you saying you can’t wash yourself because of your paws?” He frowned as he asked the question, trying to imagine her handling a bar of soap, and she nodded enthusiastically, her eyes locked on his as she bit back a smile.

     “Well, Mary is gone to bed, so she can’t really wash you.  I suppose you could sleep on the blankets tonight, and in the morning-” Simon paused as a single claw tapped meaningfully against his breastbone.  He blinked, meeting her eyes again, seeing the mischief playing therein. ‘Oh, hells.’ “Are you really suggesting I wash you?” he asked incredulously, and her grin was a transparent answer.  She didn’t wait for a reply, walking towards the washroom, her hips swaying as she went. ‘I bet she really has fur covering her butt, too,’ Simon groused internally, but his eyes were prisoners to her naked rolling cheeks.  Gina paused at the door to the washroom, looking back to him eagerly, and with a sigh from deep within his chest Simon resigned himself to his fate. 

     The washroom was a simple affair, tiled with a low stool and buckets of lukewarm water, though on a previous visit Simon had discovered that it featured a bar of soap scented with some floral extract; a further extravagance beyond the presence of the washroom itself.  Most poor people would make do with a nearby stream for their bathing, but this inn room had been intended for wealthier patrons.  It was barely big enough for two people to fit in, but Gina certainly did not seem to mind such as she took a seat on the stool, picking up a bucket of water and dousing herself with it, shivering as she began to brush away the worst of the mud. 

     Simon reached for the soap, but Gina interrupted him with a paw, tugging at his clothes expectantly. “Come on, I don’t have to undress to wash you.” Gina stared at him for a moment, and he crossed his arms before his chest defiantly.  He could see her lips turn up at that, and she stood from the stool.  Simon fought to control himself, but something about the beads of water rolling down her neck to the slopes of her breasts leashed his eyes, and despite himself he found his gaze wandering her naked body as he swallowed loudly.  After a moment of drinking in his gaze, she stepped closer, tapping a claw against his chin to redirect his eyes to hers, and she leaned closer to him, whining softly.  It took a long moment for him to remember what she wanted, and a faltering bit of resistance tried to fend her off. “I can wash you just fine with my shirt on, thank you.” Her eyes grew larger, and she whined again, her body almost against his, close enough that he feared she would soon discover his physical response to her below his belt.  His will snapped as she came ever closer, and he sighed in defeat. “Fine.” Gina grinned at that, pressing close enough to kiss his cheek, and he yanked at the bottom of his shirt, stripping down to his breeches.  Gina glanced at those, but he shook his head, and with a shrug she allowed him to keep that dignity, though her eyes did wander his chest for a long minute, her tail wagging behind her.

     With him sufficiently unclad, Gina returned to her seat, and Simon knelt behind her, taking up the bar of soap without interruption this time.  He began to lather her back, spreading the suds across her shoulders, working his way lower.  He did not rush, washing her deliberately, but inside his mind was on the verge of collapse at the feeling of her soft skin, at the thought of all the places his hands were about to go.  He took his time working the mud from her tail, and she waited patiently, savoring the pampering she was receiving.

     After he blushingly washed the heights of her lower cheeks, he paused.  The front was next, and she well knew it, glancing back to him with lower lip trapped by her teeth.  Instead, he reached for the bucket, and doused her once more, rinsing the suds from her as he dampened her hair.  This, too, he washed, and Gina sighed in contentment as he cleaned her hair from scalp to tip, even working her fluffy ears with his fingers.

     He couldn’t delay any longer.  He paused, trying to deduce the least embarrassing way to go about this: should he circle around to kneel before her, or wash her from behind, where she wouldn’t be able to see his face, though his fingers may blunder into places by accident?  She made that decision for him, however, turning to face him, her legs spread enough that he caught a glimpse of soft lips between them. ‘Oh, hells.’ Gina watched his expression with glee, leaning back on the stool patiently.

      Steeling what little remained of his resolve, Simon took up the bar of soap once more.  He saw to her face first, scrubbing away a few spots of mud, cautiously keeping the suds from running into her squinted eyes.  Rinsing that away, he tended to her arms next, travelling from the skin of her shoulders to the fur of her forearms and paws.  He took his time with this safer territory, but soon enough had to move on to her legs, his circuit traveling from lower thigh, down to her doglegged ankles and paws, spending extra effort cleansing each bit of dirt from her fur.  Once that was achieved, he glanced up to her expectant face, before soaping up her stomach and rinsing it clean. “There you go, all done-” His brilliant smile faltered in the face of her huff, and she looked down at him disapprovingly, before glancing directly down, her eyes falling on one breast, then the other, pointedly.  When he hesitated, she turned again in the stool, leaning back against him, and her paws pulled his hands forward, leaving them resting just in front of her breasts.

     Simon’s nerves screamed at him, but he nodded, and his hands descended.  He felt Gina shiver in his arms as he soaped her breasts, his fingers brushing against the hard nubs of her nipples, and she whined unconsciously, panting softly.  He washed her diligently, thoroughly, soaping her breasts entirely, washing from her shoulders down to the undersides, lifting her breasts in turn, and every time his fingers met her nipples she twitched, her voice singing out sweetly.  Simon’s own control was all but gone, and he gave in to temptation, trapping both of those nubs between his fingers and pinching lightly, and the moan she rewarded him with sent his own passion to new heights.

     His eyes widened as he felt her paws on his hands, and she glanced back to him desperately as she guided his arms lower.  When his hands reached her lap, he froze, but she kept her eyes toward him, begging him to continue.  Feeling entirely out of his depth, Simon nodded, proceeding to the other place he had avoided in his earlier circuit, and his trembling fingers touched her lower lips delicately.  Overcoming his nervousness, he cupped his hand, spreading the suds over her lower lips.  This was enough to leave her shuddering against him, and her panting resounded in his ears.  Soon enough, though, she had him pause, taking up the bucket and rinsing the soap from her breasts and groin, as well as his hand.  With that done, she leaned back against him, spreading her legs further, and her paw took his wrist, pulling it down between her legs once more, pressing his hand against a place just below her mound.  One of Simon’s fingers parted her damp lips, brushing against something there, and she bolted upright with a strangled cry.  Gina looked back to him, and there was no mischief in that glance, only a guileless plea.  Feeling a surge of control for once, Simon nodded, and his finger slipped again into that place, exploring determinedly.  Simon took note of her reactions, quickly finding what made her gasp, and pursued that place with extra enthusiasm, his finger flicking, circling, pressing, strumming.  Gina was mashed back against him as she shuddered, and her head turned towards his, her tongue lapping at his cheek.  Her paw darted to his wrist once more, pulling him lower, and his finger slipped deeper inside, into her core.  He slid his finger in and out, then curled it inside her, and her moan sounded like a passionate scream bitten off at its inception.  Her paw soon pulled him higher once more, and he pursued his earlier target relentlessly.

     It didn’t take very long until she was shaking, and he could tell that she was on the brink of something.  He curled his other arm around her, holding her steady, and she pulled that hand to her lips, kissing it needily as her whole body trembled.  To his surprise, she bit down on his thumb suddenly, not hard enough to hurt, and he could soon see why, as a wail built within her, louder and louder, muffled only by his skin, else it would have been a howl that may have awoken the whole town.  At its climax, she froze, and then slumped against him like a puppet with cut strings, her chest heaving as she looked up at him with bleary eyes full of love and satisfaction. 

     Simon held her like that for a long moment, conscious of his own throbbing need, but willfully fighting it down.  In his arms, Gina was relaxing, the exhaustion of a day spent running through the forest taking a heavy toll on her, and Simon knew the only thing ahead of her tonight was a short walk to the bed, and a long slumber.  Accepting this, he leaned her up enough to look for the bar of soap to return it to its resting place. “Oh, there it is,” he noted, spotting it near Gina’s feet.  To his surprise, Gina bent over enough to pluck it from the floor and offer it to him with a hazy smile, and he stared blankly at the bar of soap held perfectly between her claws. “You have to be kidding me.”  Gina laughed at that, and with a sigh he accepted it from her, returning the soap to its shelf.

     Gina made no moves to rise from her seat, her legs still unsteady.  Simon reached for a towel and began to dry her, and she allowed him to pamper her further, her eyelids dragging heavily as she leaned into his ministrations.  When she was at least satisfactorily dry, Simon stood, but Gina remained on the stool, her head bobbing as she valiantly fought off slumber.  Laughing through a sigh, Simon stooped to pluck her from the stool, one arm supporting her back as the other swept under her legs.  Her eyes widened at this, but she snuggled her head against his shoulder as he carried her back towards the bed, and she looked almost disappointed as he lowered her to the mattress, but he soon covered her in the blankets, and she relaxed with a deep sigh.

     Simon returned to the washroom to put on his nightshirt and remove his breeches, glancing down to his aching member with a sigh.  Maybe next time, he consoled himself, and the part of his mind that normally would have protested such hopes remained silent.  Instead, he returned to the bed to find Gina already snoring softly, and with a smile Simon extinguished the last candles, removing his glasses and sliding into the bed beside her, holding her body against his tightly.  Despite his still-pounding heart, it took very little time for sleep to claim Simon as well, and he joined Gina in slumber with a smile on his lips, his face close to hers.

    The night was well into its darkest hours before anything moved in the room.  Two sleeping faces were turned towards each other as even the sounds of the rain died away to silence, and the only sounds were two steady breaths.  When the shadows began to coalesce, however, no one was awake to notice, and dark laughter went unheard as faint lines began to appear on the floor of the innroom, the first arcs of an arcane circle.    

Continued in “Wisdom in Shadow, Chapter 8

Author’s Note: Well, after a cliffhanger is perhaps a bad time to announce this, but there is a strong chance that my next chapter will be delayed. I intend to spend New Year’s Eve hammering at the keys, but will be out of town much of this weekend, and my reduced productivity during my break has finally caught up with me; I only finished this chapter this morning. If there are any mistakes, feel free to let me know, as normally I would make a few extra editing passes before publication. Still, I wanted to release this chapter on time, at least.

I should note that, originally, this already-oversized chapter was intended to be much, much longer. I was forced to pare off another few (monumentally important) scenes to appear in the next chapter, and can only hope that I am able to work that remainder into a cohesive chapter. Still, Chapter 8 will be an important one, so look forward to that!

On the details about Gina’s fur: I will admit, I had been curious about how such would be handled, considering many monster girls feature fur or scales or other concealing details over their breasts and groins, KC’s method of keeping the profiles reasonably restrained. As I did further research for this tale, however, I found details in a story in World Guide 2 that display how monster girls use their mana to make such obtrusive fur vanish (I had heard such elsewhere, but seeing it in prose was very useful). Oh, and another thing I found in my research was the Statue of Wisdom, a magical device that is typically shaped like an owl. It was nice to find such, considering how well it tied in with my intents for this story, even if the statue itself doesn’t appear…

One other detail that I had to tinker with was the timeline. It is something of a trope that authors have poor senses of scale, and temporal scale is no exception, especially for me. Specifically, I had previously (in exactly one place) given a date for the Last War of the Demon King, when the Seven Heroes were earning their legends. I used the word ‘centuries’ in the third chapter of this tale, but have refined it to ‘over a century.’ I find that timeline works best with what I have planned; recent enough for the actors to be important, but distant enough for things to have faded somewhat into legend. I, of course, reserve the right to tinker with it further; in the words of Emerson, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” and as much as I like hobgoblins, I would rather not be foolish when it comes to making my story flow better.

Before I ramble or jest further, allow me to thank you all once more for reading. I appreciate all the comments I have been getting; the feedback has been very valuable, at only the least for showing me what specifically interests my readers. I shall endeavor to return in a week, if not sooner, and at that time I hope you will return to see what comes next for Simon and Gina.

But, for now, so that I can return to the keys all the earlier, it is time for me to sleep…

~Wynn Pendragon

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One thought on “Wisdom in Shadow, Chapter 7”

  1. Oh dear. Hm… did the unresolved lust in the room make it easier for [whatever] to happen?

    Hoping to see the Lich soon! Liches are just so adorable, and falling in love with your test subjects is such a cute species quirk.

    I’m extra curious about just what happened with the Lector’s excommunication trial. It’s been pretty strongly implied that (at least some of) the Heroes weren’t the sort to endorse his behavior.
    Actually… who founded the Church of the Holy Martyr, anyways? Is it the Martyr who is the reason the faith exists, or the person who made one out of worship for him? Because the meaning of that candle lighting by itself is very different depending on just who it is that founded the Church.

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