Wizardquest 2: Chapter 5- Blackfire Reach Pt. 1

“Hmm.” You muse, looking out over your merry band. Well, most of them are merry anyway, but one sticks out like a sore thumb, and that’s not because she’s the only piece of caramel in your otherwise vanilla party. Well, strictly speaking you had like, orange and chocolate if you count the horse and the fox, but that would be a strange cold cream flavor party and you shant have any of that.

Your caramel flavored… ehm, your esteemed party member named Ebe, looks a little dull still, despite your little heart to heart. The bag carrying her items lays next to the one with the broken pieces of the guitar, or ghitar, or however she wants to pronounce it, and without the complete picture she seems a little glum. Thinking back to last evening, she did manage to rouse people’s spirits well enough with the borrowed one, so it wasn’t like she couldn’t use another instrument, and frankly a bard without one is a sad sight. Besides, there’s something else you think you can find that Ebe might enjoy.

“Well, we need to travel back through the Ectrian side of town to get to the pass anyway.” You say, nodding your head. The others look to you and nod in agreement, a little puzzled at you stating fact though. Continuing, you say, “I think there’s a stop or two to make along the way, a few little things extra. I assume the Ectrian side of town has a market itself?”

This last part is addressed at Ebe who startles at being spoken to, blushing. “Uhm, ah, yes it does, though not nearly as large as this one.” She say, nodding. “Mostly Ectrian food, some basic household supplies, things for the community more than for the larger Deleorian markets.”

“Perfect.” You say, walking to the east side of town. “Oh and I’d forgotten something at the inn, let’s run by there since it’s on the way.”

Your journey back to the inn is short and uneventful, which you find rather refreshing. After the events of the last evening, the innkeeper seems rather pleased with herself, counting coins like a Danuki after a good sale. What was oddest was that she put them inside a ceramic, spherical jar which jangles as the coins were placed inside. When she sees you enter, she stoppers the jar and rolls it toward her, wings flaring up behind her back before she stops and recognizes you.

“Oh. It’s you. I thought you checked out already.”

“Yes, we did, but we forgot something last night.”

“Ah fuck.” The beetle-like Monster says. “You’re here to kill me then. Finally, all my evil deeds caught up with me.” She sighs and rolls the ball of coins. “What a cruel world.”

“What?” You say, blinking in confusion. “No, why would you think that? I’m actually here because I forgot to ask if we could buy that guitar off you.”

“Huh? You’re not here to… Ah, aha…” She chuckles, wiping sweat from her brow.

“The… guitar?” You say, looking at her askance. The innkeeper looks at you without comprehension for a moment as Ebe touches your shoulder and says, “Rommel, I don’t need this…”

“Ah, but you’re the only one who can play the silly thing.” The innkeeper says, sighing. “It was an old trinket from back when I was in a raiding… I mean uh, back from the old country. It was just gathering dust all this time so having someone play it again and hearing the songs of Ectria again…” She gives off a soft smile, which makes her face seem rather cute, especially when applied to her small size.

“I thank you for its use, but I don’t believe that I should… I mean it’s not.”

“It’s not made of Feywood, like yours is.” The innkeeper says, laughing as Ebe blinks in surprise. “I see it poking out of that bag. Rare wood, must have meant quite a lot to you.”

“Yes… it does.” Ebe says before sighing. “I don’t believe it could be repaired out here though, Feywood doesn’t grow in Deleor and the import of it is…”

“Quite expensive, yes.” The innkeeper says, nodding her head. “Well, I made hand over fist last night, so why don’t you just take this thing.”

“Ebe cries in Ectrian, looking surprised.

“la, la ‘astatie ‘an ‘afeal dhlk!”

” hal tarfud hadiat khbry?”

Ebe flushes before looking down, ashamed. She mutters something in Ectrian before the Khepri chuckles and pulled the guitar from behind the counter, giving it to her. The Gandharva looks over the instrument before nodding and slinging it over her shoulder, squirming about to get it to fit right. She shrugs it into place and then bows to the innkeeper who smirks.

“Come by again sometime, pay for my next vacation why don’t you? I could use a trip to Cair… well, once it’s fixed anyway.”

“I will remember this.” Ebe says, nodding again to the innkeeper before turning back toward your group and saying, “Well, I guess we’re off then.”

You wave your thanks to the innkeeper who raises her eyebrows at you, to which you frown back at her and follow the others out. What you find is Sylphie poking at the guitar with a curious look before saying, “So what’s this Feywood anyway?”

Ebe sighs and waves Sylphie away. “It’s a rare tree that grows in the wastes. Trees in general are rare beyond the oasis and the major cities, but the Feywood trees are often solitary and grow in weird places. I don’t know really why they grow there, but their wood is of the highest quality, and some say it’s filled with magic.”

She chuckles at this, “But that’s rather silly, no human shaman or Monster Witch can use it as a magical implement, but it’s quite nice looking.”

This piques your interest and you look at the broken guitar again. “Maybe there is some truth to this and… wait, human shamans?”

“Ah, yes.” Ebe says, continuing to lead you toward the market, the city going about its business around you. “Shamans are sorcerers of a sort. Mana crystals are rather scarce out in the desert, so humans born with magic have to resort to using runes and rituals to use their magic. It’s more of an art than a science in their case.”

“Huh.” Sylphie says, tapping her chin. “What do the witches do?”

“They drink semen, of course.” The Gandharva says, smirking. Sylphie pouts and crosses her arms, muttering about how dirty it is, all while holding vials of refined jizz in her bag. There is an irony here, but it’s not worth pointing out.

“Sister, you know you like it.” Sophie says. She gives you a sidelong glance and you roll your eyes before gently inclining your head. You bet she’s weave shit on the damn communion matrix all day if she got the chance.

“I do not!” Her sister huffs, stamping her foot on the ground before sniffing and turning back to Ebe, following behind her. Sophie snickers before coughing into her hand and resuming the air of poise and dignity that she normally carries. If her sister takes after her Father like you assume then… Gods, the leader of the Monster Nation must be a pain in the ass to be around.

“Here we are!” Ebe says, waving a wing before you. Stopping and looking, you see a small marketplace that pales in comparison to the bustle of the main markets. Ectrian Monsters and humans walk about, chatting amicably and purchasing goods, various foodstuffs and other items to remind them of home. Looking about, you see the object you’re looking for and walk up to a shop where an old, sun-wrinkled human woman sits surrounded by various cloth and thread.

” ‘ahlaan bik.” She says, looking at you and smiling with a gap-toothed grin. When you give her an odd look, she blinks a few times before sighing and saying in broken Deleorian, “Hello. Cloth, yes?”

“Yes, I was looking for some sewing supplies. Do you have any for sale?”

“Cloth?” She says, cocking her head and pointing.

You rub your face and say, “Yes, cloth.”

“Twins above…” Ebe says, shaking her head. “Is this another nice thing for me?”

“It would have worked better if I could have purchased it before you caught me, but… yes, I remembered you like to knit.”

She closes her eyes and then chuckles for a moment before bapping your head with her wing. You blink a few times as she walks over to the cloth seller and speaks in her tongue before pointing to a few spools of thread and some sewing supplies. The woman nods her head and gathers the supplies, handing them to Ebe who bows and then looks at you.

“Uhhh.”

“Two silvers.” The woman says, clearly having no difficulty saying this.

You sigh and dig into your pouch to pull out the two silvers, which the woman bites before nodding and throwing into a sack. She giggles as you walk away, Ebe looking down at the supplies before putting them in her bag.

“Rommel… you’re a nice guy, you know?”

“I just think the journey would be nicer if you were happy is all. Besides, I need you in good spirits in case we’re attacked before you get home.”

She cringes for a second before shaking her head. “Heh, is that all, huh? Whatever you say Rommel.” She turns about and you shrug before noticing the twins staring at you, their ears twitching.

“Rommel never gets us guitars or cloth.” Sylphie says, pouting.

“He was almost smiling while helping her, maybe he likes delicious brown.” Sophie says, nodding her head.

“Oh for the love of…” You say, throwing up your hands. “Do you want a bolt of cloth?”

“Nah, I’d rather gossip.” Sylphie say before giggling as you groan. Looking down at Erwin, you send,

{Don’t say it.}

{But I think it’s cute.}

{You also think potatoes are sentient.}

{You’ve never been alone in a forest with the potato king and nothing but your claws.}

There is no reason to dignify this with a response. What the hells is a potato king and why would a fox encounter it? You assume it was something from his normal fox days when things were strange and weird. Maybe he just saw an abnormally shaped potato. Maybe…

“Come on, we should get go-” You stop as you say this, noticing an alluring Lamia behind a stand, wearing a sheer costume of silk that managed to hide her shame and at the same time magnify it. She catches your gaze and her red eyes twinkle, to which she waggles a finger toward you in a “come hither” gesture. You turn and walk toward her, staring at her with interest.

“Mmmm.” She says in a heavily accented Ectrian accent. “You like what you see?” She placed an arm under her chest, pushing her copper breasts up, making them more prominent. You hear a sort of rattling nearby but pay it no mind as you reach forward and her eyes twinkle.

Your hand rests upon something soft and you ask with a shallow breath, “Is this a book of magic?”

“Eh?” The Lamia says, blinking in confusion. She looks down at your hand, resting upon a leather tome before her and she blushes furiously. “Ye-yes,it is! I… oh Twins.”

Picking it up, you flip through it to find it written in Deleorian. “Interesting, it’s about… sound manipulation?”

“Yes.” She says in a soft voice, hiding her face with her hands.”It’s audiomancy, basics on privacy barriers, amplification spells. Mostly cantrips that most sorcerers and witches can do despite their magical alignment, though some are aligned specifically in this field.”

“Audiomancy?” You say, cocking your head. Sylphie walks up and taps your shoulder with her staff.

“Yeah, it’s actually a newer field, sort of like plagamancy. In truth it’s been around a LONG time, but like some schools of magic, it was forgotten. I think it’s mostly used by a few Wizards these days for basic little things, but there was this one guy who used sound waves in a weird fashion.”

“Yes, you can do that kind of stuff with this.” The Lamia, who is clearly a Monster Witch, says, having recovered from her embarrassment. She pouts some at you, waggling her breasts and you roll your eyes.

“Yes yes, they’re very nice, but I’m interested in what else you have.”

“Potions, mostly. You basics, though I’m out of healing potions after last night.”

“Of course.” You say, nodding your head. “Do you have anything on familiars?”

“Familiarity with Familiars? Yes, I have a copy.” She digs through a stack of books and pulls it out and in doing so a scroll falls from a stack, opening up to show some diagrams with a man present, arms in a strange fashion.

“What’s that?” You ask and she looks down before cocking her head.

“Oh, this is a scroll detailing a shamanic ritual for mana manipulation in regards to…” She looks it over. “Geomancy, I suppose. It’s written in Ectrian though, so I’m not certain how useful it would be for you.”

“Hmm.” You say, looking at it and then to Ebe, who shrugs.

“I can read some of it, but you have to understand, we weren’t really taught much about letters.” Ebe says a little sheepishly. “Sorry.”

“Hmm, well the patterns seem alright, could be neat to look into.” You say, nodding to Sophie, who rolls her eyes and pays for these books along with some more mana potions for Sylphie. Can never have enough! The Lamia also as a supply of mana crystals, which you have Sophie purchase as well. When she asks why you need these, you say, “Just in case.”

>You gain [Mana crystals]

>A sack-full of mana crystals, naturally rare in the Ectrian wastes, but power many magical devices and sorcerers

>You gain [Familiarity with your Familiar]

>A book on the basics of familiars and how to work with them. You know most of this from the communion matrix

>You gain [Scroll of Ectrian Geoflexing]

>You’re not certain what it’s really about… but those exercises look interesting, at least

>You gain [Speak Up! Audiomancy for the Astute Mind].

>A guide on Audiomancy, the manipulation of sound

Well, you think you’re set now. The sun hasn’t quite hit its zenith yet, and you figure you can make good time through the pass. Perhaps not make it to the rest stop yet, but you shouldn’t be too far in for the Wurms to get uppity… you hope.

With preparations all set, you head out through the gate and move to the Mountain Pass. From the trees spread out before the town, all you can see is a large path heading through the forest toward the mountains that dominate the eastern sky. The sun bears down before you, illuminating the crags of the mountains, the edge of Deleor. How strange to think you’ll be leaving the country you’ve known all your life…

Due to the pass’s importance, you find yourself traveling alongside others, mainly merchants heading with carts, wagons, and all manner of things toward the pass. Thankfully you don’t happen to see any slavers along the road as you travel, but you remember that you might further in, and certainly will once you reach Ectria.

Most people are very nice however, and they speak with joviality as they describe their passes into Ectria. Many of these people travel to and fro the trading outposts on the other side of the pass, though few ever go to the capital. They admit that the feelings toward Deleorians is rather shaky, and has been for the past decade or so. No one really knows why, but merchants can go through the pass without issue, though going further into the wastes is not really recommended without a guide.

You ask one merchant, a Deleorian Wolfgirl, about slavers and she says that she’s seen some, but there’s really nothing they can do about it. They won’t touch merchants this close to the pass though, as the guards here can only dismiss so much. People seem worried but… it’s not really their problem. It’s an attitude that pisses you off but is not worth dealing with at the moment.

It’s early afternoon by the time to reach the pass itself to find a Deleorian military outpost, going over the people coming in and out of the pass. There is a slow down because of it, but it gives you the time to look up at the pass and truly marvel at the size of the mountains.

Raising so high into the sky that you can’t see the tops from the base, the mountains rise up almost sheer at this point before turning into crags and points. While things even out a little further down, you can see how it would basically be impossible to cross these without the pass, which is a wide, open area that heads into the heart of the mountains, packed into a easily seen path due to years of traveling.

Looking about, you see an odd sight, a very tall Monster with a long, serpentine body and extremely dense scales. She’s talking with a Guard, using far too many gestures as the exasperated guard shakes his head and waves over someone else to comes and talks with her, handing over some paper to which the Wurm claps her taloned hands and then springs into the air before burrowing into the dirt. You blink in surprise but the guards groan and fill in the hole. Now that you’re looking, you see a few of these holes about. Common occurance, huh?

“Ah, don’t worry about the Wurms.” The Wolfgirl, her name being Hilda, says. “They’re mostly harmless, only cause some trouble when they get confused and wander away from Blackfire Reach.”

“They don’t attack the merchants?”

“Nah… well, maybe if they spy a cute, unclaimed male.” She looks you over. “Mmm, might want to watch your back.”

“I’ll be careful.” You say.

“You’ll be wed!” She chuckles as her wagon is waved through.

The guards spend a rather inordinate amount of time questioning you and your group about your travel. You tell them your wards have always wanted to see Ectria and found a guide in Borne who would take you. The guards blush at seeing the faces of the beautiful twins, especially Sophie’s refined elegance and they seem to buy that excuse, going through your things and not finding anything too suspicious, though they don’t check your coat pockets. With a gesture, they send you through into the pass.

Though you’re traveling near others coming and going, you find that the pass is oddly comforting. Trees line the sides of the mountains as you get a little further in, thinning out as the rocks climb higher, and though you see little side paths, it would be quite difficult to climb. The wind passing through down the mountains is pleasantly cool and Ebe says she can’t wait until you get closer to the other side, where the pass grows hotter as you reach the desert.

Ebe practices with the new guitar, singing jaunty tunes, and you converse with Sylphie about the finer points if familiars. She tells you much you already know, but tells you some of [Metamorphosis]. She looks a little askance as she says it though, mentioning that you need a very good bond with your familiar in order to use it. While she has used it on Mr. Ed before, she’s not certain you can make it work with Erwin yet. She apologizes afterward and says no more.

Making a mental note to read more about this later, during a little rest you look over that Geoflexing scroll and Sophie reads some over your shoulder, trying out a few of the moves, which looks ridiculous because she’s wearing skirts and the cloak. Still, she has an air of dignity and strength with it, and the way she makes it look easy makes you ask her for pointers. She agrees to help you out later, adding, “Maybe you could learn some hand to hand skills also.”

As night falls and no rest stop in sight, you continue until you see a fire in the distance and go over to discover Hilda and a few other merchants, mostly men, sitting around a fire and laughing as they eat their meals. She welcomes you to the fire and passes you a bottle of some strong smelling substance, which you decline for now, though Sophie takes a long drink before breathing out heavily and passing it back, much to the delight of the assembled merchants.

Finding it to be advantageous to be in numbers, you decide to hunker down there for the night, and Ebe performs for the group, getting back some of the good spirits she had before. As she dances, you smile and look off in the distance to see torches coming down the path from the Deleorian side. With some concern, you show it to Erwin, and you inform the others, preparing as a large wagon rolls into place, laden with metallic crates and armed men.

You stand up as a single figure walks forward, a short Monster with short, sandy-blonde hair and a cheery smile. She walks into the firelight and you see her back is covered in spikes, though her skin is the copper color of Ectria. She waves a clawed hand at the group and says, “My, finding company here. Would you mind us sharing your warmth for the evening?”

This Monster is, without a shadow of a doubt, a slaver. She may look all nice and innocent and smiling, but it’s all a ruse, a farce to get you to lower your guard and then BAM! Off to Ectria to be the cum slave of some lazy Anubis with too much money. You won’t be tricked so easily.

“Share our warmth? You say, pushing your magic into the ground, using [Survey] to see what’s about. Nothing of much value, but there’s a little copper, and you’re damn certain you can make them “warm” for the rest of their lives with this, no matter how short that may be.

“Fire’s big enough!” Hilda says, waving her flask. “How many you got with you?”

“Myself and six guards.” The newcomer says, smiling toward the Wolfgirl.

“Are you sure about that?” You say, gesturing toward the wagon. “Sure you don’t have any more people with you?”

The Hedgehog looks at you and raises an eyebrow. “I am quite certain. Do you believe I have stowaways?”

“No, of course not.” You say, shaking your head. “Stowaways would be unintentional.”

The Hedgehog gives a bell laugh, placing her hands over her toned stomach. “Oh ho! I see, I see.” She turns to one of her men and says, “Open up crate three and show the nice Sorcerer what we have with us.”

You frown at being called a Sorcerer, but it’s probably for the best that she doesn’t know your full potential. Will make it easier, although why would she open up one of her crates if there was a slave inside? Maybe one of them is empty, and they show it off as such to get through the borders…

The guard, dressed in a collection of dull, metal plates and wearing a dust cloak, walks over carrying a few bottles of wine. The merchants all around you cheer and throw up their hands as another guard produces cups and they take the proffered wine without resistance, drinking deep before you can stop them, though you doubt you could.

When the wine comes to your group, you put your hand over Sophie’s and shake your head, saying, “We’ve had a fair amount to drink already, need to keep our wits sharp for tomorrow.”

“Bah, it’s a straight shot through the pass, easy traveling, easy money.” Hilda says, taking another swig of the wine. “Damn this stuff is good. Is this… Loveuran?”

“It certainly is, multiple crates full of the finest bottles I could secure.” The Hedgehog says, smirking as she stands at the edge of the circle.

 

“Well fuck me sideways.” The Wolfgirl says with joviality, though you see the wink she gives to one of the guards in invitation. “Damn fine product, going to sell for a ton of gold in Ectria.” She pats the ground and says, “You’re alright, come and sit. What’s your name anyway?”

“Nane.” She says before motioning her men to sit about the fire, drinking from a bottle themselves, though it’s different than the one you saw before. The Hedgehog herself takes a seat and sighs. “This climate is always so cool on this side of the pass. I do not know how you Deleorians deal with it.”

“Hah, well when you come from a damn oven, somewhere normal DOES seem a little cold, doesn’t it?”

“Hmph, well I suppose living in an icebox would have a similar effect.”

You watch the normal camp banter with mounting unease. The Hedgehog makes no threats toward you and only one of her guards sits back at the wagon with the crates. None of the people who had any of the wine had passed out so… what gives? Frowning, you bore a hole into the Hedgehog with your eyes until she takes notice you and gives you an annoyed glance, but doesn’t act on anything.

One of the guards is chatting amiably with Sophie who, like her twin, keeps her hood on while speaking with the men. She giggles, putting a hand to her mouth and egging him on, though she politely refuses the proffered cup of wine that he hands her. Good girl.

{Erwin} You send, and he rolls his eyes.

{If I get taken captive by another homicidal, super powered, robotic spirit of a crazy snake lady, I’m leaving.}

{That probably won’t happen.}

Erwin sends an annoyed sigh before slinking away to scout out the wagon. They’re hiding something, you’re certain of it. Well, while he’s doing that

“So.” You say, nodding toward Nane. “Did you travel all the way to Loveura to purchase that wine? Even with those guards, that’s quite a long way to go.”

“Well, Deleor is much less dangerous place than Ectria can be, and its populace is much more complacent.” She shakes her head, “However, we only traveled to Sanctifrond and purchased through a wholesaler before bringing the wine back via Leyway. Expensive, but still quite the profit.”

“Uh huh. And do you happen to have your Leyway tickets still?”

“Why would I keep those?” She says, seeming irritated. “There is no reason for such a thing, especially since I keep my own records.” When you raise an eyebrow, she says, “No, you may not see them.”

 

“I see.” You say, tapping your fingers together. The merchants around you still carouse without concern and you begin to doubt yourself. Maybe they are just merchants with weird, slave container shaped wine crates. It’s possible but…

“I’ve seen those crates around before, are they popular in Ectria? Seems like they’d make things stored in them rather warm in the desert heat.”

“A side effect, yes, but everything gets warm, the air holes allow them to breathe a little though, so it helps out. In this climate it does excellent keeping things cool as well.” She says, and you’re pretty certain that’s not how it works, but you keep quiet as she continues. “They’re fairly standard and easy to come by, made of cheap, but sturdy Iron.”

“Pretty unrefined stuff?”

“It works well enough.”

“Hrrrm.” You say, reaching out to Erwin, who has leapt into the cart bed. He sniffs the crates before recoiling, a sense of pain going through your mind through the bond.

{Are you alright?} You ask with some alarm.

{GAH! It’s like they packed the damn things with alcohol or something.}

{Like… wine?}

{I don’t know, but it REEKS. I can’t smell anything else and I doubt any border Monsters could smell anything either. Either they’re doing a shitty job of storing wine, or someone spilled some strong stuff on these crates.}

{All of them?}

{Ergh…} Erwin sends before the pained smell comes back. {Fuck me, yeah, all of them.}

{Can you get a look inside?}

{Too dark, nothing’s moving inside there at least. If I was able to get a light…Oh wait, yeah, how about that?}

{I can put in some fire but that doesn’t sound so hot with all that alcohol.}

{Pfff, sounds hot to me. Get me a distraction and give me some light}

“Distraction huh…” You say, rubbing your chin. Well, there’s a lot you can do, maybe have Ebe sing to them, maybe ask more stealthy questions, maybe just-

“So, how many slaves do you have in there anyway?”

Everyone goes quiet as they stare at you with looks of shock and horror. The Hedgehog blinks in utter surprise, stuttering to get an answer from her mouth, which makes her as guilty as she possibly could be to you. Oddly enough, none of the guards stand to assault you or anything, but Hilda swings her arm toward you, spilling wine everywhere as she drunkenly says,

“What the fuck Rommel? Are you calling her f-fucking slaver?”

“Maybe I am.”

“You piece of shid, I thought that you’d be a cool dude and want to f-fuck me but this is CENTAURSHIT.” She stands up quickly and staggers on her feet, looking a little dazed before gasping and falling face first into the dirt, unconscious.

“H-hey.” One of the other merchant’s says. “Hilda can drink me under the table, what the hell is… is-ah… ungh.”

He makes to stand as well and then falls over into the dirt, passed out. The other merchants who drank the wine begin to panic, but their movements soon lead into a sleep of their own, and they drift off in fitful heaps.

Your attention turns back to Nane who rises from where she is sitting slowly and says, “It seems the others have had far too much to drink. What a shame! I suppose it would be best to be going.”

“Not so fast.” You say, pointing at the wagons and saying, “Illumination over the carts, if you’d please.”

Sophie steps before her sister, putting herself between the guards and herself, allowing Sylphie to plant her staff and channel some magic before shooting out a ball of light that illuminates the entire pass, moving slowly until it hangs over the wagon. Erwin leaps atop a crate and hisses as he sends,

{There’s Monsters in here! Slavers!}

“Yep.” You say, cracking your knuckles. “Just as I thought. Don’t try to hide it, you coated the cages in alcohol and put your slaves in there.”

“Tch.” Nane says, rubbing at the back of her head. “Multiple spellcasters. Great, I had HOPED you’d drink some of the damn wine, or maybe those stupid merchants wouldn’t have moved so soon to make it look better.”

“Well, I suppose this is where I tell my men to get you?” She says, nodding to her men, who had already stood, hands on their swords. “I can always use more slav-“

In the blink of an eye, Sophie dashes forward, her tails cutting the men’s hamstrings, or throwing them to the ground. The one near the wagon gasps as all his companions are cut down and Sophie stands before the Hedgehog, smiling as her tails wrap back up and she gently pats the head of the now sweating Monster.

“I’m sorry, what was that?”

“Oh.” She says, looking at her men as you bonk them on the head, knocking them out cold while you make your way toward them. The ones cut by Sophie aren’t cut terribly bad, and Mr. Ed stares at final man down, making him shit his pants, so says Erwin.

“Oh indeed.” Nodding to the man near the wagon, you say, “You, open the cages.” He fumbles about for a moment until Mr. Ed snorts and he squeals before hurrying to open the cages. Erwin watches the man as he takes out the captives, allowing you to turn back to Nane.

“So!” You say, clapping your hands together. “This was probably the easiest slaving group we’ve dealt with.”

“How many have you dealt with?”

“You make three.”

“Tch.” She says, shaking her head. “We’re technically in neutral territory, so I guess you’ll just kill me, eh?”

“Nah.” You say, rubbing your chin. “Not worth the trouble, so I think I’ll leave you in a pit for someone else to find.”

“Fair enough.” She sits down and reaches behind her, to which Sophie slaps her hand and she curses, dropping a knife. “Fiiiiiinnneeee. Well, get on with it then, I could use a nice nap.”

“I have a few questions first.” You say, squatting down to look at her. “First, when was the last time we were in Ectria?”

“One month ago, it was a fairly short trip.” She nods over at the lone guard who hauls out a drugged Catgirl. “Desert Catgirls are nice and all, but there’s something about these fair-skinned beauties that really makes some good coin.”

“Uh huh. So, what is the current political climate like in Ectria?”

“Politics?… You’re an odd one. Well, I suppose the Prophet is still ruling as always. She’s been active for the past oh… ten years or so, but is not far more active than before, proclaiming things about how the Twins are growing in power and that nothing now stands in our way from leaving the sands, etc etc.”

She shrugs. “I think it’s a load of crock, but she allows us now to enter Deleor for slaving, which was very difficult to do before, but hells, your guards are easy to bribe.”

“Why is she allowing slaving though? Are slaves really that important in Ectria?”

“Yes.” She says, looking at you as if you’re an idiot. “Almost all construction is done by slaves, and they make a large bulk of the army. Many menial tasks are performed by slaves and frankly they’re the backbone of our society.”

“Disgusting.” You say, spitting to the side.

“Until only recently, the Monsters here took slaves.” Nane says. “Humans also used to kill them on sight. In Ectria, the weak are claimed by the strong, but there is peace. Can you say the same for your Deleor?”

Frowning at the Hedgehog, you look into her eyes and find an incredible calm there. This makes you feel rather… uneasy. Why does she look so unconcerned, why does she look like she’s still in control? Rubbing your chin, you ask, “So, is your Prophet going to invade Deleor? Over the mountains?”

“They won’t stop our slaving.” She says, shrugging. “Why would they stop our invasion? You’re too busy with Galmathoria or whatever it is. I don’t care much either way, but I’d watch yourself.”

“This, from someone who is a prisoner.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that for much longer. Is he opening the last crate?”

You look over at the wagon to see the man hesitate before being nudged into opening the crate and pulling something out. It’s not a captive, but instead some kind of flat disk that you can smell from here. He takes a few steps away from the wagon and drops it on the ground, where it makes a hollow thunk, echoing through the Pass.

“Yep.” The Hedgehog says. “What a waste, but what am I going to do otherwise?”

“What are you talking abou-” You are cut off as the ground begins to rumble under your feet. The two Cat o’Ninetails’s ears perk up and the look about in confusion as the rumbling increases in intensity. Mr. Ed rears up before turning about and kicking the guard toward the disk and then galloping away as Erwin leaps on his back. The other wagon horses bray in alarm and try to run away, but it’s too late.

The guard staggers to a stop and then looks down, sighing in defeat as the ground explodes under him, sending him up into the air in a shower of dirt and rocks. He screams in terror before letting out a grunt as he hits something solid. As the dirt rains down around him, he blinks in confusion, looking down to realize he’s not on the ground but rather being held up by something. Something large, scaly, and with an impressive bust.

“Oh what is that nice smell?” The Wurm says, cocking her head and sniffing. She turns to look at the disk which is impaled by one of the horns jutting from her black hair, and she says, “Ohhhh, I love this stuff!”

She makes to reach for the disk and then pauses, realizing something is already in her claws. Blinking, she looks down at her large, reptilian claws and sees the guard in them, cradled by a child. She blinks a few times before her eyes go wide and she says, “Oh! Oh! I caught a man! Haha, and Mom always said I’d get baited into something bad! Well suck it Mom!”

She leans down, her beautiful face coming to look at the man, green eyes sparkling as her serpentine lower half shuffles. “Hey, what do you think that phrase, ‘suck it’ means?”

The man’s jaw works frantically as the Wurm looks up and over the rest of you, just realizing you’re here for the first time. “Oh wow, there’s so many people here! Oh and so many men! Ah, I’m not supposed to pick on people from the Pass but… but! Ahhhh!” She wiggles back and forth, a joyous expression on her face. “I’m going to get my friends, just stay here!”

She looks down at the man in her arms. “Oh, except you. You’re coming with me.” She says and then giggles before diving into the ground, back where she came in.

“What just happened?” You ask, looking confused as all hell.

“A Wurm was baited in and now she’s going to bring all her friends and this place is going to be crawling with them.” Nane says, her voice distant.

You start and look all over to find her down the pass toward Deleor. She must have slipped away in the confusion, damn her. “I’ll take this as a loss, but I have plenty of capital to get home. Better than being killed in a Wurm stampede!” She shouts and then starts running, moving faster than you could have expected from such a small Monster.

“This is bad.” Sophie says, throwing back her hood. “If that Wurm returns with friends, we’re in some deep shit, we need to go.”

“But what about all these people?” Sylphie says, looking horrified. “They’re all going to be taken or even hurt by the Wurms!”

“We don’t have time to gather them all up and get away!” Sophie snaps, biting her finger. “Rommel, what are we going to do?”

“Wurms…” You say gritting your teeth. While you’ve never fought Wurms before, you’re DAMN familiar with the history of Blackfire Pass and how even the martial prowess of the Lizardmen was nothing compared to the power and resiliency of the Wurms. Even the Spellblades, the Monster Witches of the Lizardmen, were almost entirely killed in the fight. As far as you know, none survived when the Danuki came in.

It seems highly unlikely that you would be able to take down multiple Wurms. Taking this into consideration, it’s time to figure something out. You can collapse the tunnel and maybe kill the Wurm, and definitely kill the man, but would that even stop her? If that bait, or whatever it is still remains, is it going to attract more Wurms?

Fucking hells, you should just run for it, but you can’t seem to do it. You don’t have any particular empathy for the people here, but it just… isn’t Wizardly. What would a Wizard do, what would a Wizard do…

“Ah, right.” You say, snapping your fingers and sending out some magic. The ground rumbles and walls rise up beneath you and your companions, taking you into the air. You leave the unconscious guards down, but manage to bring the merchants and prisoners up. Their horses panic, but are unable to get out from their tethers, and you’re pretty sure if you brought them up, they’d run off and die or something. Mr. Ed is just fine though. He watches the whole affair with little concern.

“Ah, the [High Ground].” Sophie says, nodding her head with sagacity. “We have the advantage now.”

“Pretty sure Wurms can get up here through this.” Sylphie says, frowning. “It’s a good delaying tactic anyway but…” She points a thumb behind her. “What about that Hedgehog?”

“Hmm? Oh.” You say, staring down at the shadow that is the Hedgehog. “Tch, that’s a long shot, and she’s too far out of range for my geomancy.”

“Think you can hit it?”

“If I had better light…”

“I can spot for you.” Sylphie says helpfully. You cock your head and she taps her eyes. “I got cat’s eyes you know.”

“Do you have nine lives also?” You ask, pulling up a pebble and shaping it with your magic. You could try with metal but… you want to make sure you hit. “Give me some directions here.”

“She’s maybe… one hundred yards, no wind. An archer could probably hit this, and honestly if Mr. Ed and I went down there…”

“No, let’s do this.” You say, squaring the shot and opening up your [Mage Sight]. While not a good substitute for any sort of night vision, it allows you to get a better view of her. Taking a deep breath, you channel your magic, shaping the shot and at Sylphie’s word, you fire the [Pebble Gun].

The pebble whistles through the night. Sylphie is right, there is no wind, and the pebble flies true and sure, zipping forward to the Hedgehog and…

Missing.

The rock hits the dirt next to the Hedgehog, but she doesn’t seem to notice, running further and further away. She’s still in your range… probably. Quickly pulling up a new pebble and shaping it, Sylphie gives you further orders on changing your shot, something you find weird that she’s know how to do on instinct, but you don’t question it and with her directions, fire another pebble. This one sails through the air and hits it’s mark, driving the Hedgehog to the ground with a cry that echoes through the Pass.

“Hit confirmed, nice shot.” Sylphie says, patting you on the shoulder.

“Where did you learn this kind of stuff?” You ask, shutting off your [Mage Sight]. “You’re talking like some kind of war veteran.”

“I mean.” Sylphie says, shrugging. “I did study some aeromancy, and I’m pretty good at other studies. I think the most important thing is that Veronica would visit sometimes and she felt it was undignified for a lady not to know how to kill something with a bow.”

“That…” You say, cocking your head. “Is interesting.” There isn’t really much you can say to that, but you certainly expected that the Ascendant would do something like that from what you’ve heard of her. Of course, you’d expect the Wanderer to have done that instead though-

“Don’t forget our lessons with Tabitha.” Sophie says, waggling a finger.

Ah well, there’s that. Sighing, you rub your chin and look down at the hole where the Wurm went. “I think the Hedgehog will live okay. She’s not going anywhere far, I assume.”

“Yeah, she’s kind of not moving.” Sylphie says, frowning. “Ehm, you didn’t kill her, did you?”

“Probably not.” She could maybe bleed out, but well, that’s a problem for another time. “I have questions for her, she seems smarter than she lets on. But hey, Ebe.” You wave to the Gandharva. “Please go collect that speedy Hedgehog. If she gives you any sass, ask her about her pre-teen kitsune friend and the egg-shaped man she has problems with.”

“Uhm. What does any of that mean…?” Ebe mumbles before leaping down from the wall to glide toward the Hedgehog.

“Yes, she seems to have had a lot of bases covered.” Sophie says, sitting down. “Like the alchohol to keep people from smelling things, or that strange disk she had to summon that Wurm. I wonder what it did.”

“Probably resonated through the ground, making any nearby Wurms feel it in the dirt, and then the smell brought them in.”

“But they’re… underground.”

“I don’t pretend to understand Wurms.”

Sophie hums and taps the wall under her. “Sylphie is right though, Wurms are stupid and don’t know when to give up. The Monster Nation used to use them as living battering rams or tunnelers, but they often caused problems for our side as much as to the Deleorians.”

“Our side?” You ask, giving her an odd look.

“You know what I mean.” She sighs. “Easy to sway, or they used to be anyway. It was surprising to see them take over Blackfire Reach and stay there. We know the Danuki are controlling them, but it’s still kind of weird.”

“If Dad were here, he’d probably find some way to blow everything up with a bomb of feces or make them into some kind of personal army or something.”

“I’m not your damn-.” Words cut off in your mouth as your mind jogs with thoughts. Wait a minute, waaaaaiiitttt a minute. Sophie tries to ask you something, but you hold up a finger, thoughts racing.

“The Wurms can be… used.” A plan forms in your mind and you begin to smile. “Oh yes, this will work.”

Mr. Ed neighs and you Sylphie says, “You’re scaring him.”

“Nah, it’s nothing so bad.” You say, shaking your head. “Don’t fight them when they arrive.” Nothing further is said, and the twins look to each other in confusion. Ebe returns with the Hedgehog, dropping her down at the edge of the wall which you raise up before forming a little cage around the Hedgehog. She groans in pain, but the bleeding doesn’t seem bad and you create a sort of roof to the cage by making an outcropping in the larger wall, holding it over.

It takes longer than expected, and yet shorter than you’d feared, before the ground rumbles again and ten feet away from the initial hole, the Wurm bursts forth, disk still on her horn. Her arms are free though, and she turns back to call into the tunnel, “HEY, OVER HERE!”

All around her more emergence holes appear as four more Wurms pop out of the earth. Why they didn’t use the same tunnels as before, you don’t know, but only one made a mistake and managed to plow through the fire, crying out and swatting at her burning hair as the others laugh.

“Woah! There are men here!” One of the new Wurms says, slithering up to an unconscious guard and picking him up before shaking him like a rag doll. “Aww, I think he’s broken.”

“Nuh uh, you just don’t know how to handle a man.” Another says, grabbing one of her own. “Watch.” She holds up a hand and raises a pinky up before shaking him and then frowning. “Hum, maybe they are broken.”

“Was this wall always here?” Another Wurm says, scratching her head. She slithers up to it and knocks on the wall before pausing, as if waiting for an answer.

“Hello?”

“BUWAH TALKING WALLS!” The Wurm says before diving down and putting her claws over her head, squealing in terror.

“I TOLD YOU ABOUT WALLS.” The Wurm with the burned hair says. “I TOLD YOU!

“Uhm… hello?” You call again.

“AHHH IT JUST KEEPS HAPPENING!”

“Hey…” The initial Wurm says, rubbing her chin. “This wasn’t here before, I’m sure of it. Weren’t there more people also?” She taps her chin before looking up and blinking in surprise. “Oh hey! There they are! How did you get up there?”

“Don’t worry about it.” You say, shaking your head.

“Oh. Are you going to come down then?”

“Maybe, I think I’d like to talk abou-“

Before you can finish, the Wurm slithers up to your wall and digs her hands into it before shouting something as she climbs it faster than you can imagine, looking on in surprise as she digs her claws into the wall and uses her tail to somehow… slither up the wall. You try to snap out crops in the wall to smash her off, but she uses them as handholds and leaps over the edge before holding her hands up as if sticking some kind of landing.

“I did it!” She says, smirking. “Hah, woaaaah we’re pretty high up!”

“Drop her.” Sophie says with a flat voice. You go to use the magic but then stop and shake your head. No… not worth it. Sighing instead, you raise your hand and say,

“Well that was well done!”

“I got hit in the head once by a rock!”

“Yeah that’s… that’s something.” You sigh before shaking your head. “Anyway, I’m glad you’re here.”

“Huh?” The Wurm asks looking confused. “Y-you are?”

“Yes, I was afraid you wouldn’t come back, and I had something important to tell you.”

“Y-you do?” She stutters, placing her claws to her cheeks as they flush. “B-but I just found a Husband and… oh this is so wrong!”

“What? Oh, no, I’m sorry.” You say, holding up a hand. “I didn’t mean that. I would never suggest such a thing.”

“Oh good.” She says, placing a hand to her breast and sighing out. “Dollora… if I had to choose between men, my poor brain would be fried.” She perks up and points to the other Wurms, saying, “Oh, but my friends would be good for you! You’d make cute babies!”

“Yeah… no, I have something else to suggest.” Coughing into your hand, you say, “I couldn’t trust this information to anyone else, because I’m afraid the men at the end of the pass are compromised.”

“Well, they make deals with us something.” The Wurm says, rubbing her chin.

“No, no I mean, I’m afraid they’re taking money from bad people.”

The Wurm’s eyes go wide. “B-bad people? Like the little Lizards?”

“Worse. From mean little sand people.” You hiss, and she gasps, pulling back.

“Mean little sand people?!” She says in utter horror before blinking and then cocking her head. “Wait, mean little sand people? The sand people are nice though, they give us cookies sometimes.”

“It’s all just a trick.” You say, shaking your head. “They’re giving you cookies because they’re afraid of you. I’ve learned that this mean little Hedgehog wants to come in here and steal all the husbands!”

“But… there’s a lot on the ground there…” The Wurm says, pointing down at the guards who are being roughly shaken. “And you’re here.”

“I’m a lucky one. You see those metal boxes?” She nods. “They were being used to steal husbands from here and take them to the desert!”

The Wurm looks distressed. “But why! There’s plenty of husbands to go around!”

“They didn’t want you to have them. They want to horde all the husbands for themselves. Have you seen all the wagons coming through with them?”

The Wurm looks very concerned for a moment, thinking this over. As she does, Sophie breathes in your ear, “What the fuck are you doing?”

“I got this.” You whisper back, and she looks at the Wurm with worry.

“I hope you’re right.”

“Hrrrrmmm.” The Wurm finally says before tapping her head. “You’re right, there have been a lot of sand people recently… I didn’t know they would be doing that though…”

“Yes, if they keep doing this though, all the other Wurms won’t be able to find mates!”

The Wurm looks visibly distressed, rubbing at the disk on her horn. Looking at it up close, you can see that it’s more of a dome shape, and atop it sits a layer of incredibly aromatic cheese. She takes a bit and puts it in her mouth, chewing with great worry.

“Is… is that cheese?” You ask, looking astounded.

“Uh huh. Some nice person left it on the ground.”

“Yes but… how did you find it?”

“I smelled it.”

“You had to be like… how could you smell it?”

She shrugs, still looking concerned. “I don’t know, but this kind of cheese is super smelly and all Wurms like it.”

{So that’s what the smell is…} Sends Erwin. {Cheese. Fucking hells, it’s cheese. FUCKING. CHEESE.}

“I… okay.” You say waving a hand. “Despite the fact that this makes no sense, let’s go back to the topic at hand. The mean little sand people.”

“Oh!” The Wurm says, clapping her claws together. “Right! Bad things!”

“The Wurms are the only ones we can trust with this. You’re the only ones who will believe us, and honestly I think it’s because everyone isn’t as smart as you are.”

“Huh, well, yeah.” She says, rubbing a hand over her mouth to hide a smile. “That’s true.”

“We have to be going, but you… you live here. YOU can stop them! Turn them back to the desert, break the husbands free from their cages! Save your people!”

The Wurm’s eyes grow wide as you give the speech and they almost seem to sparkle in the night air. “Woaaaaah, you’re right! We can do this! We should do this!”

“So you’ll do it?” You say, hope building in your chest.

“Yeah! Just let me ask the Queen first.”

“Eh?” You ask, taken off guard. “Your… Queen?”

“Yeah, I mean, this is a pretty important decision.” The Wurm says, nodding her head. “We kind of are supposed to tell the Queen about this sort of thing.”

“Well… I mean.” You say, taken a little off balance. “I… suppose, but can’t you tell the others and…”

“I dunno.” The Wurm says, sighing. “I’m kind of a little forgetful.”

“Then have someone else tell her.” Sophie says with a little edge in her voice. Is it because of the circumstances or something else that she sounds so… annoyed.

“But the others are forgetful too.” She points to the ground as the same Wurm someone gets her hair on fire again. Tapping her chin for a moment she brightens and says, “Oh! Why don’t you tell her for us! You speak really pretty!”

“I don’t think that would be a very good idea at a-ahhhh!” Sophie’s words are cut off as the Wurm suddenly grabs her. She flails in the arms of the Wurm who hugs her close to her body, the Cat o’ Ninetails’s bladed tails bouncing off the Wurm’s armor.

“Hey, I’m going to take her to talk to the Queen, okay?” The Wurm says before winking at you. “We’ll stop these bad people!”

“Wait, wait, WAIT!” You shout, trying to use your magic to stop the Wurm from escaping, but before you can cast, she slides down the wall, digging one hand into the ninety degree angle of rock, using it to slow her descent. Both you and Sylphie furiously cast magic at her, changing the pattern of the wall, use air currents to push her off course, once even make a barrier of ice to lock her in place, but she plows through it all, using incredible strength, even after the weakening of twenty years ago as she slides to the bottom. In desperation, you drop the Wurm into a pit and then pause as you realize what you’ve done.

“Hey, thanks!” She says, holding Sophie firmly to her chest. “Go to the little buildings up ahead, we’ll bring her back later!”

With a final scream, Sophie is dragged into the ground, held by the Wurm as she tunnels. The other Wurms grab the men and dig after the first Wurm until the rumbling finally finishes, and you’re left atop your wall, stunned by the sudden events.

“T… they took Sophie.” Sylphie says, putting a hand to her mouth. “They took my sister!”

“Rommel…” Ebe says, looking distressed. “Where could those Wurms be going? Do you think they’ll really bring her back?”

You grit your teeth and feel like a fool. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this, but now Sophie is gone and it’s your fault. Gripping your hand tight on your staff, you growl out, “They’re going to Blackfire Reach. And if my hunch is correct, when the Danuki find out who she is, things are about to get a lot worse.”

“We have to get to Blackfire Reach before them.” Sylphie says, tapping your wall with her staff. It begins to rumble and lower itself to which you stamp it with your own staff, stopping the motion. She blinks in confusion and then stamps the ground again, lowering the wall, to which you also stamp and stop it again.

“Rommel, what the fuck!” She shouts, glaring daggers at you.

“I think you need to calm down for a second.”

“Oh fuck you.” She says, leaping from the wall. With some concern, you watch as she slows down with a gust of air before lightly touching the ground and then glaring at you. “This is your damn fault!”

“Oh come on.” You say, rolling your eyes and lowering the wall. You make certain that the Hedgehog stays in her cage as you walk over to Sylphie, a light appearing at the end of your staff. “Look, I didn’t think things would end up like that, but we need to take a moment to-“

Mr. Ed trots past you and over to Sylphie. She makes to nuzzle him, but he stops before her and snorts, causing her to step back, looking confused. Ebe, with Erwin on her shoulders for some reason, lands next to your group and looks worried, holding her wing-hands together. An uneasy silence spreads through the dark pass and Sylphie turns about, her eyes shining in the wan light of the broken fire.

“Okay, fine, I’m waiting.” She throws up her hands and says, “Don’t blame me then when my poor sister is killed by a damn Danuki and some retarded bumpkin wurms.”

Your eye twitches at her bratty behavior, but you keep yourself under check. The girl just saw her sister, the last piece of her family within reach, taken before her very eyes. You know her pain, and though it makes you want to scream along with her, you keep it within yourself as you say in a slow, deliberate voice.

“Sylphie… I understand, I really do. You need to trust me on this.” You hold her gaze and her lip twitches before she turns her to the side and sighs. Nodding, you continue. “Blackfire Reach has not stayed in Wurm hands for years merely because the Lizardman are disparate. It’s not even because the Wurms themselves are all that tactically smart, but it’s that Blackfire Reach was built by warriors. Even an idiot Wurm could defend them.”

“So, you’re saying going in there is suicidal.” She says in a flat tone.

“No, I’m saying going in there without a plan is suicidal.” You say, returning her tone. “Which brings me to the first question. Do you even know where Blackfire Reach is?”

Sylphie looks to the side and then sniffs before saying, “I was going to ask at the outpost.”

“Uh huh. So you’d go and ask at a Danuki controlled outpost about where Blackfire Reach is and then walk there through the front gate?”

“I-I mean.”

“What do you think would happen if you did that? Did you know that Blackfire Reach has three layers of gates with incredible stonework and defenses that could turn back almost ANY army?”

“I mean… no…”

“Did you also know that once you get INTO Blackfire Reach, all the buildings are miniature defensible structures with open avenues that allow any defenders to rain down death upon any invaders? There isn’t even a feasible way for an aerial attack to commence.”

“Rommel, I think she gets it…” Ebe says, placing a wing on your shoulder. Not taking your eyes off Sylphie, you tone down your voice and say,

“Not until the Wurms attacked has anyone even gotten past the third gate of Blackfire Reach. I recall reading that the Deleorian Army used its Sorcerers to break down the first two, but the Lizardmen stopped them in their tracks. It was a rout which kept them from ever returning.”

Sighing, you rub at your forehead and say, “But the one thing the Lizardmen didn’t think of, the one flaw in all their defenses, was that the proud people never looked down.” You point to the side and everyone’s eyes move to the tunnels.

“That’s how the Wurms got in, and that’s how we’re getting in.”

Sylphie looks at the tunnel and then nods her head sharply as Mr. Ed snorts with annoyance. Ebe starts to sweat some while looking at the tunnel, rubbing her wings together in worry. Taking a deep breath, you say, “Get ready, we’re chasing after a Wurm.”

{What about them?} Erwin sends.

Looking behind you, you see that all the guards were taken, leaving you with the drugged prisoners, merchants, and the captive Hedgehog. You’re pretty certain they aren’t going anywhere. The Hedgehog though…

Sighing, you walk over to the rocky prison and raise yourself up to look into it without actually lowering the walls. As you do so, you have to push to the side, instinctively using some magic on the metal of blade flying at your face. Thankfully the iron in the blade was able to be manipulated enough to save your life! Feeling annoyed, you look down into the prison and say, “Do you want to be stuck on a pole as a warning?”

“Well, to be honest, I thought I would kill you there.” Nane says, shrugging before laying down and wincing at her leg. Looking at it with the light of your staff, you can see that your pebble buried deep into the muscle of her leg. It’s probably why she’s not dead.

“Good try at least.” She nods her head as you thank her. “So, tell me why I should keep you alive?”

“You want to know who all the corrupt guards are to purge them and allow Deleor to have the semblance of a nation of justice?”

“Uh… well.” You scratch your chin. “Yeah, that’s a good reason.” You also raise a finger and say, “I’d like to know what kind of cheese you’re using to bait the Wurms.”

She chuckles, “I didn’t get this far without having a damn plan, alright?”

She sighs and leans her head back to the ground. “I heard your little speech though, you’re leaving off to Blackfire Reach, yeah?”

“Yes.”

“But you can’t exactly let me go, huh?”

“You’re not going far. Besides, I’ll let the merchants and your former captives deal with you.”

“Hmmm. Better chances than dying.” She says, shrugging. “Fine. First, the cheese recipe is just Limburger with Holstaurus milk. I have no idea why this makes it more pungent, but those damn Wurms can smell it from a mile away.”

“Anyway…You want to know who the corrupt ones are?” She looks around before putting a hand to her mouth and saying, “All of them. All of them are corrupt.”

“Eh?”

“You heard me. All the guards are bought and paid for by Danuki. Oh, maybe some of the guards are fine in Borne, but here? Nah, the ones stationed here get a nice cut for keeping the pass open to trade.”

“I see.” You say, pulling out your [Port-o-Glass]. The Hedgehog looks at it with confusion and you say, “Oh, I’m just informing someone about this.”

“A Port-o… where were you storing that?”

“Please, these are usually half this size these days.” You say, finishing the message to Chaika, who had given you her Leymail address before leaving. “Good information to have, thanks.”

She glowers at you and you smirk before saying, “What, did you think I’d go to Blackfire Pass and die before I could tell anyone? Did you think that maybe you’d get out and tell the Danuki to take countermeasures?” Chuckling, you raise a rock and say,

“I hope your captives take good care of you.”

“Oh fuck yo-” She says before the rock strikes her in the forehead, knocking her out cold.

Lowering the wall and pulling out copper from the ground, you fashion a chain to keep her tethered to the ground. It’s not a great chain, and will probably break easily, but it’s on her wounded leg. Let her have fun breaking that shit.

“You didn’t kill her?” Sylphie says, walking up to you with the others in tow.

“Nah.” You say, shaking your head. “She at least held up her end of the bargain. If the ones she wronged feel otherwise, well, that’s their own buisness.”

“Hmm.” Sylphie says, tapping her chin. She walks over to her and pulls out some ink from her bag. With quick motions, she writes the word. “SLAVER” on her forehead before putting the bottle back in her back. Nodding her head, she smirks at you and says, “Let fate decide, eh?”

“And I thought your sister was the wild one.”

“Sophie isn’t here.” She says, eyes growing hard. “But she’ll be back soon.”

“Right then.” You say, channeling your magic. “You study [Trench]?”

“Of course.” She says, sniffing and popping a [Mana Potion]. Not even looking at it with distaste, she drinks the bottle in one go and throws the vial to the side and walks into the tunnel.

——————————-

“A-are we there yet?”

You turn your head to Ebe, looking at the Gandharva in the fey light of your staves. She’s sweating more than the warm tunnel should make her, and her normally caramel skin seems pale. With her looking about in distress, you can easily see that she’s discomforted by the tight confines of the tunnel.

Though your progress is good making the tunnel large enough for Mr. Ed and Ebe, it’s going slower than you would like. Sylphie casts [Trench] with gusto, putting an exceptional amount of effort into tunneling. You actually have to struggle to match her pace, but even still, it feels like this tunnel is never ending. You’ve lost track of how long you’ve been going, and even Erwin scouting ahead has yet to find the exit. More than once you’ve found a tunnel that intersects the one you’re in, but you figure that Wurms don’t turn much and will plow on forward. What simple creatures they are.

“Not yet, hang in there.” You say, trying to soothe Ebe.

“I-I’m alright.” She says, wiping her brow. “Don’t think I’m asking because I’m scared or anything.”

“Do you want a rock?” You ask, grabbing something from the trenching. A geode, and using your magic you crack it open to show purple quartz. “It’s shiny!”

“I… I think I’m fine without any rocks, thank you.”

“No one appreciates rocks…” You mutter to yourself, storing the rock and adding to your [Quartz] collection.

Mr. Ed neighs and Sylphie grunts, “He says you should just sing.”

“It feels so stuffy in here, I feel like if I sing all the air will be gone!”

“Fine then.” The Cat o’Ninetails says, shrugging and going back to digging.

You watch her as she works, feeling a little worried at her change in attitude. On one hand, seeing her focused like this is a godsend for her magic, but on the other hand, seeing the happy go lucky Monster being so cold fills you with a melancholy. But what can you do? Her reasons are justified so you can’t really talk her out of it. It’s not like you’re even related to her, so why should you care as long as she gets the job done?

{Hey… I’m smelling something. It’s… it’s that cheese from before!}

“Where?” Sylphie shouts, clearly listening or even talking with Erwin. It’s so damn inconvenient to have your secret thoughts being heard by others, damnit.

{Not terribly far ahead. I think I’m smelling something else to… a little bit of sulfur?}

“The volcano.” You say, nodding your head. “We’re close.”

“Volcano?” Ebe says, cocking her head. “What’s that?”

“In the center of Blackfire Reach is a mountain filled with lava, which keeps the whole place exceptionally warm. It’s a wonderful source for forging fantastic weapons, and thankfully it’s been dormant for centuries. In fact, it has only erupted once in recorded history.”

“Erupted?” She asks. “What’s that mean?”

“It threw magma through the skies and filled it with Ash. The devastation actually shifted the land and created the Mountain Pass, as well as shaping the area to be colonized by the Lizardmen.” Sylphie says with neutral tone. “It’s simple history.”

“She’s correct.” You say, nodding your head. “The lingering smell of sulfur shows how close to the volcanic mountain we are. Thankfully if we could smell it, we’d be a little too close for comfort.”

{Yeah, it’s faint. But I think we’re getting close!}

Nodding to Sylphie, the two of you power ahead and before you know it, you can smell something other than the stuffy air of the tunnel. Stopping short of the exit of the tunnel, you look through Erwin’s eyes and see the tunnel entering into a first floor of a building. There you see the disk, cheese still upon it, sitting on a table though the room is deserted. With that in mind, you enter the room with your full group, making the exit hole large enough for the horse to enter.

“Well, we’re here.” You say, helping Ebe out of the tunnel. She sighs in relief, shaking herself and rubbing her wings. As she looks around the room, she pulls her ghitar before her and nods, holding it like a weapon.

“So, we’ve entered Blackfire Reach.” Sylphie says, looking around the room. What used to be the nice first floor of a Lizardman house now lays ruined, with the majority of the furniture broken, yet still being used somehow. Only the stonework fixtures remain without ruin, though stairs leading upward you assume would show a rather intact household. A corner of cloth is where the Wurm probably sleeps and overall it feels like some kind of prison.

“Maybe the Wurms like living like this?” You mumble to yourself, to which Sylphie cocks her head, giving you a confused expression.

“Hey, is that…?” Ebe says, pointing to the blankets. You follow her gaze to see that there’s something under them, and you carefully walk toward the blankets before using your staff to push them aside and reveal…

The naked form of the unlucky guard, still unconcious. Ebe yelps and Sylphie groans as you cover him back in the blankets. Sighing, you turn back to the others and say, “Okay, I think it’s time to go.”

Mr. Ed snorts and then neighs a few times. Sylphie frowns but nods her head. “I agree, we do stick out like sore thumbs.”

“Can you turn us invisible?”

“It’s not invis-” Sylphie says before shaking her head. “Yeah, I can. Should be enough to fool some Wurms anyway. Pack in close.”

With a wave of her hand, you feel a shiver as the light about you wavers. Moving out of the ruined entrance to the building, you enter Blackfire Reach proper.

To say that Blackfire Reach was grand would be exactly the right words. Blackfire Reach WAS grand. All around you sit powerfully built structures made of hard hewn stone, often chisled out of the very mountain. While not beautiful like Loveura or regal like Sanctifrond, Blackfire Reach is imposing, a legacy of martial prowess.

Everything is built with the thought of military might in mind, but even in the middle of plazas ringed by defensive structures you can see statues of powerfully built Lizardmen, the rare Salamanders, and even a large, half-destroyed structure of the nobility of the Reach. Curiously there is even one of a man standing shoulder to shoulder to a Lizardman, both looking proud and powerful.

Of course, all of them show signs of being unkempt, and even though it hasn’t been a century since the fall, most are damaged or utterly destroyed. The tunnels dotting the stonework floors lay claim to the lack of foresight of the Wurms, and the only things you see in good shape are the recently laid minecart tracks running through parts of the town deep from the mines where large supplies of gold are said to exist. Gold that not even the Lizardman knew were present…

As you walk through the town, keeping yourself to the shadows, which are plentiful due to the high peaks and the imposing structures, you see many Wurms slithering about the town, some with men walking by them. They don’t seem unhappy, on the contrary, they seem rather content, talking with their husbands who also seem content, if nothing else.

“Huh?” A nearby Wurm asks, making you stop in place as she looks about in confusion. “Did you hear that?”

“Eh?”

“Yeah, yeah I heard like, ‘ka-clop, ka-clop. I’ve never heard that before!”

“Maybe it’s just some rocks falling.”

“Ain’t no rock I’ve never heard.”

“Maybe it’s a new kind of rock.”

“Woaaaah, a new kind of rock? Is that possible.”

“Well, there’s new food sometimes, so why can’t there be new rocks?”

“Ahhh, you’re so smart!”

“Hmph, that’s why the Queen made me a mine chief!”

“Woaaaah.” The initial Wurm says, nodding her head. “That’s true, that’s true. Say, did you hear that Ing’rid brought an outsider to the Queen?”

“Of course I did. She also brought some nice men too.” She chuckles, “Of course, not as nice as my man. We’re going to have an egg soon you know!”

“Ahhh, congratulations! Think it will be a girl?”

The two Wurms continue blathering on before slithering away and you sigh in relief, thanking the Gods that the Wurms are so dumb. Walking through the town further, you look for signs leading toward Blackstone Palace, the old seat of the Blackfire royalty. It doesn’t take you terribly long to find it, and soon enough you hide in the shadow of a ruined building, looking up the pass to the path toward the Palace.

Sitting alone from the rest of the structures, built fully into the walls of the mountain, the Palace is a large, imposing structure ringed by its own set of walls. Looking about, you can see the normally undisciplined Wurms sitting at attention, hammers held in their hands. You can’t even imagine the damage these Wurms could perform with those hammers, and while they still look bored, the way they sit up as someone approaches gives you pause.

A palanquin, held by aloft by four Wurms, makes its way to the entrance of the walls and the guard Wurms halt it, one slithering forward to look into the Palaquin. You see a slim hand appear and wave her away, to which the Wurm bows her head and slithers backward. As the curtain falls back, your eyes narrow when you see a flash of brown, fluffy calves.

“Danuki.” You hiss, hand tightening on your staff. “We have to get in there.”

“How?”

“Well, I was planning on saving this for later, but I think now might be the time.” You look to the others and say, “Sylphie, I need an [Amplify] spell cast, Ebe, I need you to play some suitably powerful music, and Mr. Ed? I need to ride you.”

Everyone looks at you, flummoxed as you prepare yourself mentally for what you’re about to do. Of course the Danuki won’t buy it, but if you can get the Wurms on your side then…

{Uh, did anyone else see that?} Erwin sends, and your train of thought is ruined.

{Huh? What are you talking about?}

{Over there, in that ruined building.} Erwin says, nodding toward it. You look over at the building and see nothing until- a movement in the shadows. Two forms dashing between buildings. They move on two legs, but what the hells is that all about?

{Any idea?} You ask Erwin and he shakes his head.

{No, but something feels… dangerous about them.}

“Hmm.” You say, rubbing your chin while the others look at you, confused at your sudden change in demeanor.

“Uh, Rommel. You alright there?” Sylphie says, waving her hand before your face.

>What do you do?

 

 

>Story continue

{Leave it for now.} You send to Erwin. Whatever these skulkers want, it’s none of your business. If they’re here to loot some gold, more power to them. You have zero interest in anything other than reclaiming Sophie and getting the fuck out. Well, okay, maybe you have an interest in foiling some Danuki plots, but that’s secondary to that first thing.

“Yeah, fine.” You say, shaking your head. “Alright, like I was saying, we’re going to put on a show for them.”

“Is that wise?” Sylphie hisses, to which you say,

“They’re Wurms, they bend to authority. And what greater authority is there than a God?”

“You… are going to summon an Avatar?” She asks, cocking her head.

“No, no, I’m going to pretend to BE a God.”

“Ehm, I’m not certain you can pull off a good Dollora with those hips.”

“Good thing I’m going to be Sveth instead.”

Ebe, Sylphie, and Mr. Ed all look at each other with incredulity. Erwin merely sighs and rolls his eyes as you walk over to the horse and ask, “Please let me ride you?”

“We really shouldn’t.” Sylphie says, but Mr. Ed snorts and waves his hoof at her, to which she rolls her eyes and says to you, “Oh very well then, we don’t have the time to bicker.”

“Great. Ebe, get ready something… heavy.”

“Uhm. Heavy?”

“Something full of power and thunder, something hard as the mountain.”

“I don’t really… do that.” She says, looking confused. I more, you know, wave my hips at breasts at people.

“It’s fine.” Sylphie says, rubbing her forehead. “I’ll figure something out, just play as well as you can to his insanity.”

“Right then.” You say, removing your shirt (But putting your [trenchcoat] back on) and showing your fairly toned chest, much to the blushing of the two Monsters. You roll your shoulders and, mounting Mr. Ed with only a little difficulty, you say. “Let’s do this.”

You seem to appear from nothing to the eyes of the Wurms who all look at you with mix of surprise and lust, their eyes going wide at seeing a relatively topless man in their midst. One of the nearer ones slithers up, but you point to the ground and a pillar of stone erupts before her, making her back away in confusion. As you lower your hands, you feel a magic build up in front of you, the [Amplification] spell, and you hear a powerful strum of the guitar, blasting forward with so much force that you can almost feel a palpable wind.

The Wurms stare at you in wonder as the heavy, unearthly sounds of Ebe’s guitar play, the notes a little clumsy, but whatever it’s Wurms you’re playing to. As her cords build up in intensity, you raise your hands and fireballs spring to life before them as the earth trembles and shakes. Every Wurm in half the city rushes in at the sounds and you open hold your hand high up into the air.

“What is that sound?” A nearby Wurm asks, eyes growing wide.

“It’s a Devil screaming!”

“It’s an Angel singing!”

“It’s the pounding of Sveth’s hammer upon the anvil of time!”

“It’s fucking awesome!”

“It is a gift for you, my daughters.” You say, spreading your arms wide, your voice echoing with the power of the [Amplification].

“B-But who are you?” A little Wurmlet asks, slithering up next to you.

Smiling, you reach your hand down to pat her head as you say, “I am Sveth. The God of Earth and Fire.”

The Wurms start chatting to themselves in loud, over-excited tones. It’s not every day that a God appears out of nowhere and starts playing some pretty neat music. One of the human men points a finger at you and says, “Hey, you’re just a-“

You silence him by creating a bolt of lightning that booms through the city, and shakes the very foundations, loose rocks crumbling around you. Sitting up tall on your mighty steed, you say, “I AM THE LORD OF THE MOUNTAINS.”

Softening your tone, you continue, “I have come because for too long have my children toiled under the lash of an unjust rulers. The Wurms were not meant to spend their lives living in hovels, eeking out an existence under the yoke of tyrannical Danuki.”

“But the Danuki are the friends of the Queen!” A Wurm shouts, to which all the others nod their heads in agreement. “The Queen says they are alright, so they must be alright!”

“Who do you trust more? Your Queen, or your God?”

The Wurms grow quiet then, or at least quieter. They murmur amongst themselves, uncertain, and you take the opportunity as Ebe’s admittedly cool music plays from behind Sylphie’s little trick of the light to scan the surroundings. From where Erwin had picked out the two intruders, you see a human-looking female face with long, black hair that spots your gaze and quickly ducks back into the cover of the building. Could be a Monster but you have a feeling that it isn’t, at least not one of the more monstrous ones.

Turning Mr Ed around to the guards in front of the Palace walls, you make the ground rumble and large pillars of rock appear about them, which you spray with fire. The guards shake a little and you say, “I will speak with your Queen, for the sake of my people!”

“B-But we aren’t supposed to.” One of them says, her hammer shaking in her hands.

“Shhh! Don’t talk back to a God!” The other says, slapping her shoulder. She turns and quickly opens the gate before saying, “P-Please come in Mr. Sveth sir.”

“Thank you, my child.” You say, and without saying anything, Mr. Ed walks in through the open gateways. You pause a moment inside the gate and turn to address the crowd again, voice booming, “When I return, you will be FREE!”

This did not give the intended effect to the Wurms present, but some of them look about and chat with excitement, wondering what this crazy strange God is going to do and also what the hell does freedom mean?

As they bicker, you wait for Sylphie, Ebe, and Erwin to slip by under the guise of her little [Trick of the Light]. You create some extra fire for effect to obscure them and once they’re secure, you turn to enter the grounds yourself when you notice someone else slip by in your haste. Two forms, one in some armor the other with a long… tail? Before you can say anything, they vanish into the inner courtyard of the Palace and out of your sight.

Frowning, you continue forward, accentuating each of Mr. Ed’s footfalls via the amplification spell. Ebe’s music has stopped, but it had the intended effect, and on the same token it kind of makes your own blood pump. Devil screaming, huh? Hmph, maybe!

As Mr. Ed moves forward slowly, but surely, you see movement at the Palace proper as more guards shuffle about with anxiety and you see a short woman with brown hair wearing an elaborate suit, a brown and black striped tail swishing behind her. She huffs and then walks forward, her calves covered with brown, fluffy fur, before standing before you on the path. You come within fifty yards of her and she shouts, “That’s far enough!”

“Ah, Daughter of Dollora.” You say, keeping up the charade. “Why do you bar my entrance to this Palace?”

“Because, you’re just a pretender.” She says, narrowing her eyes. “Just some juiced up sorcerer trying to fool these innocent girls into believing you’re something you aren’t and I won’t have it!”

Pointing at you, she shouts, “Get him!”

The Wurms shuffle about nervously and you hold out a hand saying, “Peace, Daughters. Do not listen to this trickster’s words.”

They look about with confusion as you point to the Danuki and say, “This creature, a Danuki, why do you listen to her?”

“B-Because the Queen says so.” One says, holding her hammer close to her. “And… I thought we were also Daughters of Dollora.”

“Oh, my dear child.” You say as the guitar strums once again, making the assembled Wurm’s eyes go wide. “You are creatures of the earth, and thus my domain. How else could you swim through the ground as a mermaid swims through the sea?”

The Wurms nod their heads, seeming to understand this a little.

“Foolishness and Heresy!” The Danuki says, pointing at you. “Don’t listen to this imposter, did you forget the six million Danuki that were killed by the Lizardmen?”

The Wurms turn back to her, seeming distraught. One says with a timid voice, “N-No, of course not. That’s why they had to be removed, because they lived on our promised land and did such mean things.”

“Indeed!” The Danuki says, sniffing. “You and your Queen are our greatest allies and I would not see all you have worked for taken from you!”

Your stare at the Danuki with wide eyes that bore directly into her soul. Good Gods, you knew that the Danuki had to use some wise words to get these Wurms in here, but to make up that kind of shit? There aren’t even six million Monsters in all of fucking Deleor! She is only slightly unsettled, and when she tries to speak again, you hear Ebe’s guitar boom again, silencing her.

“What if I told you that this Daughter of Dollora speaks only lies? That there was no Horacaust, that the Lizardmen were not what they seemed to be?” When they look at you with concern you say, “Take me to your Queen. There I shall explain all to you.”

“Preposterous!” The Danuki says, veins in her neck bulging. “You cannot allow him to see the Queen, I shall not allow it!”

“But… but the Queen should speak with a God.” One of the guard Wurms says before all the others nod their heads in response. The Danuki looks about the assembled Wurms and then groans, throwing her hands up in the air and then turning to you.

“Fine, but when the Queen sides with me, your head will be adorned on a spike to let false Gods lay witness!” She snaps her fingers and most of the Wurm guards follow her, leaving you with one who looks very nervous and squeaks out,

“F-Follow me.”

Turning about, she slithers quickly forward into the Palace, far outpacing you, and Mr. Ed slows down instead of keeping up with her, which effectively leaves you alone. Oddly enough, no other guards are in the area, and you send a message to Mr. Ed, which you know Sylphie will intercept, to which the rest of your party falls in near you, keeping the mock-invisibility up.

“What the hells, that worked.” Sylphie says, whispering to you. “I didn’t think it would get us this far!”

“WELL.” You say but cutting off, your voice amplified. Sylphie gulps and dispells it, to which you continue. “Well, me either, but I think Ebe’s playing really stole the show.”

“I have no idea what I’m doing.” Ebe hisses back. “This is not Ectrian music!”

“No… but it’s now your music.” You say, nodding your head before looking back at the Palace. “We should be going in soon, we’re going to need to word this well to get Sophie out of danger and-“

A sword tip appears before your throat. Though it’s pointed from the ground, the steel blade is aimed with perfect precision and you stop in surprise, too stunned to leap back from the blade. You make to say something when an angry, female voice says, “What kind of danger is Sophie in?”

You make to speak with another form, the armored one, skirts past Mr. Ed and into Sylphie’s spell, saying, “Ah, you’re right, there is a Catgirl in here! Clever!”

“Not a Catgirl.” The woman, no, the MONSTER who has a blade to your throat says. “A Cat o’Nintetails, just like the one I assume is inside, hmm?”

As she waits for your reply, you take the moment to take in the sight of your attacker. She has a well toned, mature figure and is of average height with long, brown hair pulled into a disheveled ponytail. Her clothing seems to consist of a tight fighting black shirt and spats covered by a traveling cloak that’s seen better days and a worn leather scabbard.

Her most defining features, however, are her arms covered in green scales and ending in sharp nailed fingers along with scaled ears and a long, lizard-like tail. Her heated eyes are slit like a lizard’s, but if that wasn’t enough, to top it all off her legs are not made of flesh and blood but instead of gleaming silver metal.

There is no doubt in your mind, there is only one person this could be. Licking your lips, you say in a calm voice, “The Wanderer, I take it?”

“I asked you a question.” She says, narrowing her eyes. “You don’t get to ask one of your own.”

“Oh my Gods, is that Tabitha?” Sylphie says from within her spell, her concentration wavering and dropping the magic for a moment.

“But that back up!” Tabitha hisses and Sylphie yips before casting the spell again. Once concealed, the Cat o’Ninetails asks,

“Oh my Gods, but it IS you! Tabitha, you have to help us, Sophie was kidnapped by the Wurms.”

“For the love of…” The Lizardman says, shaking her head and lowering her sword before ducking into Sylphie’s spell. “I should have known when I saw this lout grandstanding to the Wurms atop Mr. Ed.” The horse neighs and she says, “You’re not supposed to let her get into this kind of trouble, you know? You’re the adult here.”

He nickers in what you can only assume is shame as Sylphie says, “Look, no real time to explain, but Sophie got taken to the Queen and we need to rescue her.”

“By pretending to be Sveth? Do you know how many months of planning you’ve ruined with this stunt?”

“We’ve only been here like, two days.” The other woman says, sheathing her sword which glows a faint blue. “You’re super dramatic Big T.”

“Why did I ever let you come along with me?” Tabitha groans, placing a hand to her face.

“Well you could introduce me!” She says. When Tabitha makes no motion to introduce her, she rolls her eyes and says, “Well hello! I’m Alice! Former (second) best duelist in the Order of the Heroic Brotherhood!”

“Oh yeah, my brother in law talked about you I think. You’re a total slut who can at least swing a sword, right?”

“Total sl-” Alice sputters, flailing under Sylphie’s words. “And what do you mean, brother-in-law?”

“Ah, his name is Tobias and-“

“HIM!” Alice says a little too loud, to which Tabitha places a quick hand over her mouth. She mumbles under her hand something and the guard from before slithers back from the Palace, looking worried.

“Oh! There you are, I thought I lost you sir uhm… Sveth, my lord?” She fidgets and says, “Please would you come with me?”

You nod your head, not looking at the group hidden by Sylphie’s spell and spur Mr. Ed onward. Briefly, you wonder if she’s had to drink another mana potion for that spell, and then your mind returns to the task at hand. Entering the imposing entrance to the Palace, (still mounted), you find yourself within a large, stone entry chamber with a ruined red carpet upon the ground.

This is the only ornamentation, because otherwise the place is barren, any sign of any kind of oppulance long gone, though you suspect they didn’t have much to begin with. Stairs leading to various other parts of the Palace lead off in all directions, but the Wurm leads you down a long, straight corridor toward a set of massive wooden doors. Other Wurm guards sit at attention in the Palace, though they are few in number and whisper to each other as you pass by. Clearly there aren’t too many Wurms and most needed to be in the mines. Even this paltry force is still something to be reckoned with, you figure.

Erwin informs you that the others are hanging back, too much visibility in that little corridor to hide appropriately. He assures you that this Tabitha knows another way in, and they leave you to your own devices as you travel while Erwin feeds you the information to cast [Amplification] from Sylphie. By the time you enter the doorway, you have a decent grasp of the spell. Well, you hope so at least.

>You learn [Amplify]

>A simple cantrip that increases the strength of sound focused through the area of amplification.

When the doors swing open and Mr. Ed carries you inside, you find yourself staring out into a wide chamber filled with Wurms. While not as many as out in the city, there’s enough in the chamber to make you pause at their density. Most are guards, but some seem like more common Wurms, huddled about on the sides before a large dias upon which three thrones sit.

Of course, looking at the larger of the three for a moment, you realize that it USED to be a massive throne that now has the back torn off, turning it into more of a bench upon which an utterly massive Wurm sits. You have to pause for a moment as you take her in, beholding what you can only assume is the Queen of the Wurms.

Where most Wurms are large, this one is a head taller than they are with scales that seem as thick as armor plates and a long, powerful tail that flicks in annoyance. Despite being so large, her more human torso retains a very mature, almost motherly shape with very large breasts held in by an ornate bra, leaving the rest of her chest exposed beyond the red cape she wears draped over her shoulders. Though she has a tiara resting atop her black haired, horned head, her most striking feature is the cool eyes that bespeak a powerful intelligence.

“There, see? I told you he’s a fraud.” The Danuki says, seated in the throne next to her. “Now then, send your guards after him and be done with this farce. We have more pressing matters at hand, don’t we princess?”

You follow her gaze to the last of the thrones to find Sophie sitting there, her wrists and tails bound with heavy rope in a fashion where even her sharp tails should not be able to cut them. Her eyes flicker as she sees you enter, but she maintains a face of cool impartiality and says, “Do what you will, but the Monster Nation will not look kindly upon this action.”

“Hmph! Impetuous sow! Your Mother has no authority here!”

“Please be quiet, both of you.” The Queen says in a quiet, yet harsh voice. Sylphie immediately grows quiet while the Danuki’s eyes flash, but she keeps her cool, instead looking to you as the Queen looks you over and says, “I expected a God to be a little taller.”

Feeling the wind taken out of your sails by the Queen’s lack of being an utter retard, you fumble for a moment before casting [Amplify] and recovering. “If I were my true size, I would not fit in the dimensions of this room.”

“All three of them.”

“I see my Daughter is possessed of unncanny intelligence.” You say, smirking. “How it warms my heart to see the beauty of my labors.”

“You wished to speak with me, to tell me something important.” The Queen says in a flat voice. She looks over the assembled Wurms and flicks a hand, saying, “Go. I wish to speak with the God in private.”

The Wurms look about in disappointment before retreating from the room in a fairly orderly fashion, the door closing shut behind them and leaving only two guards about the dias who didn’t leave. The Queen looks them over before nodding her head and continuing.

“You may come off your high horse, I know you are not a God.”

“How are you so sure?”

She smirks and says, “I’ve been around for a very long time. I’ve seen things most men and Monsters cannot even guess at, and I have met my God, at least in passing, and I know you’re not one of her siblings.”

The Danuki snickers, rubbing her hands together. “See? I told you that you weren’t fooling anyone! Now then, he is still a sorcerer so-“

“From what you tell me, I suspect he is instead a Wizard.” The Queen says, cutting the Danuki off who furrows her brow at the information, looking a little nervous.

“Isn’t that correct?”

“Fine.” You say, dropping the spell, knowing it won’t have any effect any longer. Now you wish you were wearing your shirt though…

“And you can get off your high horse too.”

You sniff and slide down off Mr. Ed, patting him gently and saying, “He stays away from drugs you know.”

“Hah!” The Queen chuckles, a smirk coming to her lips. “A comedian who doesn’t resort to slapstick, how novel these days.” Shaking her head she continues, “Tell me why I should not kill you for entering my domain without reason.”

“First, I have to know.” You say, face growing hard. “Did you know what you were doing when you had your people invade Blackfire Reach.”

The Queen looks into your eyes and says, “Yes. I knew what had to happen.”

“Don’t tell him anything else, that’s an order!” The Danuki says, but the large Monster Queen ignores her.

“Why though? Your people work as slaves to the Danuki and their greed, and yet you allow them to continue under their yoke, but for what?”

“For a home.” The Queen says, her own expression filled with resolve. “The Wurms never had a homeland, and were always the pawns of Monster Lady after Monster lady in the cold reaches of the northlands. Used as nothing more than living siege equipment, we were blind to our own fates until I had a vision after taking a head wound in the twelfth Monster Invasion. I heard the voice of Dollora, felt her presence. The fog that clouded my mind lifted, and I saw what my people lived in, saw what we called good fortune.”

“And I despised it.”

Her voice echoes with an anger as she tightens her claw. “With the humans mistrusting us and my own people woefully ignorant, there was little I could do but try to bring them together under my banner. I tried to educate them too but…” She shakes her head. “You can’t change the nature of a race, I am afraid. No, instead I looked for places we could go, somewhere warm and safe, but everywhere was already taken, and no one would have us, why would they? We’re stupid brutes who are only good at breaking things.”

A dark smile comes over her face.”Of course, then the Danuki came and gave us an excuse. It was something to rally our people behind and with the Danuki’s backing, there would be little repercusions afterward.”

“Stop, stop, stop!” The Danuki says, getting incredibly flustered. “Why are you telling him this, you oaf?”

“Because, I’m tired to having no one to talk to, no one who is intellectually stimulating. I am so very tired of being the way I am, tired enough to see my people live with food, shelter, and warmth, if little else.” She sighs and looks at you with weary eyes. “Besides, it’s not like you’re leaving this place.”

“I don’t follow.” You say, frowning as the guards sit up a little straighter.

“I either have to kill you, to make you my mate. Sadly the Danuki won’t be happy if I let you go and fighting them would be tiresome in its own right. No, I won’t disturb the status quo here, but I assure you, you won’t want for anything.” She sits up straight and unclasps her cloak, giving you a full view of her scantily clad beauty.

Behind her, you see a servant’s door open slowly and a flicker of light as something comes through. Focusing your vision with your [Mage Sight], you can see that Sylphie and the others have arrived, hiding back and watching you for any kind of signal.

“Well?” The Queen asks, Danuki next to her sweating profusely while Sophie gives you a worried look.

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