Wizardquest 3 Part 2: Nothing Good Happens in Cair

Chapter 3        

                With your supplies stowed and everyone off the leyway, you head inside the city to find a nice inn. Thankfully by the nature of Cair being a major destination city, inns are frequent and finding one nestled away from the main sights of the city isn’t too difficult.

                As you walked through the city however, you can’t help but see some of the scars from the terrorist attack before. Buildings with fresh paint, or some which had merely tried to hide the damage from sight. The glitz and glam of the city were still evident though, with magitek lights illuminating all the walkways and signs above various establishments promising whatever pleasures anyone could want. Still, you can see in the way people look about nervous, their antics a little too forced. They’re scared an attack could happen again, and this time with more consequences.

                The inn you chose thanks to Rayleigh’s suggestion, “The Sleeping Gopher,” is filled with a few patrons at this time of day, most people going out to the larger bars and gambling halls. Still, a few people and here and there sit at the tables, laughing while drinking away at mugs of various alcohol.

                As you take care of setting up rooms with a fat, balding man who looks oddly like a gopher, you notice your teammates muttering amongst themselves. Unfortunately, this has the effect of drawing the eyes of the patrons. They either run their gazes over the forms of the Monsters in your group or stare at the order iconography on Finn and Rayleigh’s outfits. So much for being inconspicuous.

                Sighing, you walk over to your group and hand a key over to Finn for one room while you hand another to Clint for the other. Ophelia gives you an odd look as you hand the keys over to both men, but you dismiss it. She knows the order around here.

                “Alright, so we’re buying a wagon and some horses tomorrow. As it stands for tonight, might as well go out and try not to draw that much attention. Do as you wish, just don’t cause trouble.”

                Your gaze turns to Finn and Rayleigh, who both sigh and make to head upstairs. The others move after them, heading to the rooms to store items before heading out for the evening. For yourself, you sit down at a table and sigh, running a hand through your hair. Sleeping on the floor was not exactly ideal, and you figure you won’t get a bed tonight either. You could assert yourself and take someone else’s bed, but… that might not look good to your new team.

                Eight people. Gods above, you better be able to command this right or there’s going to be some shit.

                To your surprise, the group that comes down the stairs first is Rayleigh leading Ophelia, Patricia, Clarissa, and Ginelle. The spunky Squirrel girl chats amiably with the other four, leading even Clarissa to giggle as she does so. You find, with relief, that she’s removed her light armor with order sigils and instead wears a simple tunic, though she still has a few belt pouches filled with vials of various solutions.

                “Where are all of you going?” You ask, leaning on the table.

                “What are you, my father?” Rayleigh asks, giving you a cheeky grin.

                “No, but if you want I can arrange a meeting with him.” You say with a flat expression.

                She stiffens for a moment before nodding to you with respect. “Yes sir Mr. Shady sir. We’ll take good care not to cause any trouble, sir!”

                You sigh and wave at them. “I was mostly joking anyway. Just don’t set anything on fire, okay?”

                She chuckles, “That’s why I got shipped off to Derrick in the first place! I’m sure I can contain myself just fine.”

                “Besides, we’ll keep an eye on her.” Ginelle says, rolling her shoulders. “I’ll keep anyone from causing trouble.”

                “Thanks, that does make me feel better.” You sigh before frowning. “Where’s Alice?”

                “She didn’t want to come.” Ophelia says, shrugging. “Maybe she still isn’t that comfortable around Monsters.”

                “Or maaaaaaayyybbbeeeee I just want to go drinking with the boys, hmmm?”

                The group of girls turns about to see Alice, still in her armor, standing behind them, a shit-eating grin on her face. Chuckling, she claps Ophelia on the shoulder. “Don’t worry bunny, I got better about it. Getting your ass beat by the Wanderer will do that you. Of course, she doesn’t do much wandering anymore with Rommel’s dick between-“

                “Ahem.” Finn says, coming up behind her. Unlike Alice, he did shed his armor, wearing instead a leather jerkin, his sword still at his side. “I think it’s best not to harass them, unless you want to make even more of a scene.”

                Alice huffs as Clint, dressed in a nicer suit, walks up and gives Ginelle a light kiss before passing her the key to their room. “Alright, you keep them out of trouble. We aren’t here for vacation, though that could be arranged in the future.”

                The Badger Girl sighs and rolls her eyes. “I know, I know. Rayleigh just wants to show us some shops. We’ll be on our best behavior.”

                “Don’t spend all your money on honey.”

                Ginelle huffs and walks after Rayleigh and the others.

                Sighing, you shake your head and look up the remaining members of your party. “Well? What are your plans this evening?”

                “We should be asking you that.” Clint says, chuckling. “Safest bet would be to stay in the inn and not cause any trouble.”

                “Oh please, since when have I been that kind of person?” You say, waving a hand dismissively.

                “It would be advisable.” Finn says, nodding his head. “Can’t get into trouble if you don’t go anywhere.”

                “Yes, but being a homebody in Cair is also strange.” You sigh, stretching. “Might as well do our best to blend in. Though we should probably not do much drinking.”

                “Ohhh, who said you were coming along with?” Alice says, smirking.

                “Me, because I’m the big boss.”

                Alice compares your heights and smirks. “Sure, thing, big guy.”

                You begin to growl something when Clint puts an arm over both your shoulders. “Please, it’s only been a few days since you were reunited. Let’s try to save killing each other for later, hmm?”

                “Yes, I’d hate to have to clean up the mess.” Finn says.

                The three of you turn to the man who looks around before frowning. “What?”

                This just sends Alice into fits of laughter as you wave for the others to leave the inn after you.

                The streets of Cair are filled with people who bounce from delight to delight and despite the wariness in the back of everyone’s minds, the sounds of merriment and drunken laughter still pervade the area. Without any real idea of where to go, your group makes their way toward the heart of the city, where the Coliseum stands.

                From what you’d heard in reports, the coliseum was the epicenter of the attack, with multiple people losing their lives as many “terrorists” started attacking people. Multiple attacks happened at various points through the city but they were isolated and contained in time. Still, it was enough to close down the central district and the Coliseum for over a month as they cleaned and rebuilt.

                As you walk, you study Finn. Alice, despite her changes, is pretty obvious and you know Clint, or at least you did. He still seems a little off to you from before and frankly, you’re still a little miffed that he broke contact with you. That can wait however, as the more pressing enigma is Finn.

                The man is quiet the entire time you walk, his eyes watching any and everyone for signs of danger. He’s a model soldier it seems, so you just can’t figure out why he would go and pick a fight like that. Was it to get discharged? That’s not very difficult in the Order since it’s fairly voluntary. So why would he do it?

                Frowning in consternation, you don’t hear Alice until she tugs at your arm, nearly pulling you off your feet. Waving your arms wildly, you round on the woman to find her pouting.

                “Hey! I was trying to get your attention!”

                “Fiiiinnnne, you have it!” You sigh, shaking your head. “What’s up?”

                She points over to a building with a magitek sign out front, proclaiming in bold letters, “Porcelain Pony.”

                You frown deeper at her and she sighs. “What? It’s just a bar and restaurant. Did you think it was some kind of strip joint?”

                “I thought the order paid you well enough you didn’t need to resort to that kind of thing.”

                “Oh Tobias! Two days away from your wife and you’re already asking other women to undress?”

                “Please, you do that when no one asks anyway.”

                She sniffs and says, “Point taken, but we’re still going in.”

                Sighing, you follow after her as she leads you in, her armor attracting a few looks, though it may be more her hair and curves than anything. As you sit down at a table, a lovely young Cat Girl bounds up and brings you a menu, taking a drink order before heading back to the kitchen.

                “I figured Cair to be a little more rowdy than this.” You say, looking about at the moderate climate of the restaurant. “Or to be more precise, that you’d take us somewhere rowdier.”

                “Maybe if it was Finn and myself alone, but you two stick in the muds are married.”

                Clint chuckles, “Sure, sure. Doesn’t mean we still can’t have fun tonight.”

                “It means moderation.” Finn says. At this, the Cat Girl returns, depositing a large mug of ale in front of the man. He looks about the table at your dubious looks and he shrugs. “This is moderation for me.”

                Alice drains a large draw of her own beer. “Ah Finn. Tell me again why we were separated?”

                “Because you burst in on me while I was bathing and offered to strip nude to make things even.”

                “You always did play hard to get.” She sighs. “But really though, sorry about that. I suppose that’s what ended up getting me transferred to Helmscrag too. Big learning lessons from all of that.”

                “Hmph. Well, you do seem a little repentant from what I’ve been told around the Hero’s Hall.” He says, taking another drink. “At least your swordplay is still sharp.”

                As the two talk you look at your own drink and shrug, taking a swig of the rich liquid. Clint chuckles at you and says, “Been awhile since we’ve out like this.”

                “We are kind of in a lot of mortal peril at the time too.”

                “Yeah, I suppose.” He says, studying your expression. “You’ve changed though. Where’d the smart-ass from before go?”

                “He’s still there, just trapped in the role of someone playing at being a leader.”

                Clint looks down. “Even though you’re an Illusionist, you don’t have to pretend to lead people. It’s a natural charisma you have. Whether Richard taught you that, or you gained it yourself, it’s remarkable. I, on the other hand, feel like-“

                He’s cut off as the server returns, taking orders before scampering back. When you look back at him, he just shakes his head. “Nevermind. So, how’s your daughter doing?”

                “Which?”

                “Both?”

                “Heh.” You say, drinking again. “Well, Akela is doing great in school, she’s probably top of her class, though she’s still a little standoffish from the other kids. I hope she’ll make friends but she’d rather study.” You rub your chin.

                “As for Erica? I don’t know. She’s an enigma. Only Saya knows how to even feed her, and no, I won’t go into details, and it’s hard to tell her expression. I swear she’s started trying to change shape, so we’re looking to introduce some things for her to latch onto, but it’ll have to wait until this is all over.”

                “Damn. Sounds like you’ve got the life.” Clint says.

                “Why, are you jealous? You should damn propriety like I did and just pop the question to Ginelle. She’s also a Monster so I know she’s thirsty for children. You’d make some cute babies.”

                Clint rubs at the back of his head. “It’s not as cut and dry as your situation. It’s just been…” He sighs and looks down. “Difficult.”

                Eyeing the man, you shrug and put down your mug. “I’ll be back.”

                “Going to drain the lizard?” Alice says over her mug, cat-like smile on her face.

                “If that means take a long piss, then yes, that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

                Walking away to the wash closet, you hear Alice laughing behind you. Well, at least she’s easy to please. Unfortunately the door to the room is locked, so you sigh cross your arms, waiting. Murmured sounds come from behind the door and you frown, leaning forward to listen.

                “Hey man, I know you said I owed you money but it’s my family you see-“

                “I don’t give a shit, and neither will you once I’m done with you!”

                Sighing, you tap your forehead. Great. A situation. Perhaps at one point you’d look to solve some problems, but you don’t need to get into any trouble. You just need to have a nice evening where nothing bad happens. Groaning, you look to a side door and go through it, stepping outside into an alleyway. Making sure no one is around, you make ready to relive yourself when you hear another set of hushed voices, a male and a female, from a connecting alley.

                “There’s no doubt about it, that’s the Illoma heiress.” The female voice says.

                “What’s she even doing here? There’s no conferences.”

                “It doesn’t matter. It’s our luck. Jennifer’s team is already moving to grab her. We just need to get her back to Galmathoria and we’ll have one hells of a ransom.”

                “You already have a team out there? Where are they?”

                “I don’t know, doesn’t matter. They’ll incapacitate the others with her and take the hostage.”

                “We weren’t supposed to start any operations until we heard further orders. Why did you decide this on your own?”

                “I’m taking commands from higher up the chain than you, or did you forget?”

                “Tch, but if this goes to the hells, don’t blame me. Just meet back at the station for the last leyway out.”

                The voices quiet down and you hear them walk away, the opposite direction from you. Sighing, you look down at the ground and groan.

                Why did you have to open your big mouth?

                With the coast clear, you finish your business then head back inside. The low murmur of the restaurant pervades like nothing happened, because as far as these people know, or care, nothing did happen. For your part, however, your heart hammers in your chest with worry for your companion. Of course there’d be someone coming after her, why wouldn’t there be?

                As you return to the table, Alice lifts a hand and chuckles, “Thought you might have fallen in!”

                You dig into your coin pouch and place a few silvers coins on the table. When Alice gives you a questioning look, you merely shake your head and say, “We need to go.”

                Her attitude suddenly becomes serious and she nods, placing her drink down. Clint has a moment of surprise, though Finn quickly falls in line as well, getting up and following after you. The Cat Girl server walks up after you and begins to say something, but notices the coins and sighs, shaking her head. Clearly, this sort of thing happens in Cair frequently. At least she has the sense not to make a scene.

                When you get outside you nod toward a quieter area of the square and keep walking as you speak.          

                “While out back I overhead someone with designs to kidnap Ophelia for ransom.”

                “What were you doing out back?” Clint asks, confused.

                “He was taking a piss.” Alice says, curt. “Alright, did you see them?”

                “No. Sounds like multiple people involved and a team is currently on their way to incapacitate the others and take her. No telling what would happen if they figured out who Patricia is though.”

                “Any idea who they are?” Finn asks, his eyes darting back and forth though he never breaks stride.

                “Could be run of the mill thugs looking for a quick score. Could be Galmathorian agents as they want to bring her back there. Either way, they plan to use the leyway to smuggle her out.”

                Clint frowns. “Well, we just have to find them and make sure nothing happens, right?”

                “Yes, but I’d like if someone could make sure the leyways don’t leave. Just in case we’re too late.”

                The man nods his head. “Right, I’ll do what I can.”

                “Finn, go with him.” You say. “Just in case we need to invoke the Order on this.”

                The man frowns. “Would be best to keep our presence quiet if possible. But I’ll see what I can do.”

                The peel away from you and Alice, the two of you changing direction to head toward the heart of town. No one seems to pay you much mind, only catching brief looks at Alice’s hair but otherwise finding nothing out of the ordinary. There’s one thing to bless this city for you suppose.

                “So, what’s the plan?” Alice asks. It annoys you some that she’s obviously slowing down as not to outpace you. “We find these guys and cut them up?”

                “That would work, and also get us jailed.” You say, sighing. “We’ll have to figure it out after finding the others.”

                “Hmm.” Alice says. “They said they were going shopping… but this city is huge with shops everywhere. Where do we start?”

                Sighing, you turn to a shopkeeper and ask, “Excuse me, sir, have you seen a group of five Monsters with a Badger Girl and a Crow Girl?”     

                “Hum.” The gruff looking man says, rubbing his chin. “I believe I did happen to see some of thems. Strange group really, but this is Cair after all.” He points further into the city. “Think they went that way.”

                “Thanks.” You say, nodding your head to him before heading further down the busy streets. Despite the glitz and glam, you’re only focused on looking out for your party members. They’re your responsibility, but they’re also your friends. Best not to start this journey with anything happening to them.

                “You okay there?” Alice asks, frowning while still looking ahead. “You seem a little on edge. Weren’t you some kind of goof?”

                “There’s… a lot going on.” You say, scanning the crowd. “I don’t exactly have the time to goof off.”

                “Sure, sure.” She says. “Maturity is one thing, but having fun is important too.”

                “Can’t we discuss this after we find them?”

                “Fine.” She says, shrugging before asking another shopkeep about the group. This owner, a portly human woman points to a large, two-story building.

                “Yes, I recall watching them with surprise. The little Squirrel looked familiar is why I watched, but they went in there.”

Nodding to Alice, you thank the woman before pushing through the crowd to find reach the entrance where you see two young Wolf Girls walking out, looking annoyed.

                “Ugh, pushy bitch. I don’t want to shop there anyway.”

                “Who gave her the right to be such a queen? Tch.”

                You and Alice trade looks before heading into the building. You’re unsurprised to find it a women’s clothing store, catering as well to Monsters. It’s still a little strange to be in a place like this, but going shopping with your wife did dull some of the embarrassment. You do try not to stare at the frilly undergarments designed for what you assume are Kitsunes based on the large tail openings.

                A Monster clerk walks up to you and bows her head. “I’m afraid we’re closing early tonight.”

                “I’m looking for someone.” You say, turning around the store. Damn, did they already leave?

                “There’s no one else here but staff.”  She says, bowing her head.

                You frown at the Monster, inspecting her. She has generally human body and features but large, pig-like ears hang atop her disheveled black hair and you can’t help but notice the pink, corkscrew tail coming from behind her. An Orc, huh? Not usually what you’d expect to see in a trendy store like this.

                In fact, the more you study her, the more you start to wonder. Her clothing is rumpled and doesn’t fit her quite right, her bust seemingly packed in like canned fish. The skirt seems tight to the point of ripping and overall she seems rather uncomfortable.

                Any employee in a store like this would dress so poorly. Even you know that. So why is this person here and why are they closing early?

                “I’m sorry, but do I need to escort you out?”

                A glint of eagerness comes to her eyes at this. Your eyes move to a nearby hammer stored behind a counter and you frown. Yep, something isn’t right and she’s not good at hiding it. Sighing, you wave a hand and channel your magic, creating an illusion of sound from behind the Monster. She grunts, turning about to give Alice the chance to knock her unconscious.

                The large Monster lets out a gurgling, porcine snort, before slumping to the ground, her eyes out of focus. Shaking your head, you have Alice help you drag her behind the counter, where you curse to see the naked form of a human female gagged and unconscious.

                “Well.” Alice says, hand on her sword. “If this isn’t the place, then we’ve at least run into something equally as bad.”

                “If it’s a standard robbery, we’ll just let the town guard handle this.” You say, nodding to a series of ramps on the other side of the room. Guess when you have Monster clientele, you need things even quadrupeds can use. Alice nods back, hand on her sword as the two of you creep up the ramps, listening for anything.

                As you reach the top of the ramp, you hunker down, looking out into the store. Rows of racks with various kinds of women’s clothing stand around the room while a central stand has a counter for purchases to be made. Here and there you can see some racks on the floor, their contents scattered about, while a commotion sounds on the other side of the large room.

                “What the… the fuck is this?” You hear Rayleigh say, her voice slurring. “I’ll… burn this whole place down… ground…”

                “Sure kid, whatever you say.” A husky, feminine voice says. “I think you’ll enjoy your nap like the others first.”

                “You bitch!” Ginelle’s voice shouts. “I’ll tear you apart!”

                “Tch.” The original voice says. “This one might cause some more trouble.”

                You nod to Alice and the two of you creep forward with more urgency, slinking about to the back of the room where you find a group of four more Orcs dressed in dark clothing while a taller, darker skinned Orc stands with arms crossed under her breasts, chuckling.

                “You want a little bit more? I don’t mind.” She reaches in between her breasts and pulls out a vial of something before tossing it to the ground, shattering the glass. A shimmer appears in the air and Ginelle, standing defiant before the group begins to waver, her motions growing sluggish.

                You notice with worry that behind her, Ophelia, Clarissa, and Patricia are collapsed in unconsciousness while Rayleigh starts to stumble side to side, flames appearing as small sparks in her hands but never starting.

                Ginelle growls, though you see her too grow a little unfocused. The Orcs, on the other hand, don’t see fazed at all by the scent, merely chuckling amongst themselves as you notice other people passed out around the store. They have weapons on them however, ready to draw to use against Ginelle if needed.

                “Still standing? Dollora, don’t you know when to go down? Come on, I don’t have all night. Just let us take the bunny and we’ll be on our way, okay?”

                “Fuck… you.” Ginelle says, growling.

                “Hmph, if only.” The darker skinned Orc sighs, waving to the others. “If she doesn’t go down soon, take her down. A little blood won’t be a big issue, but we have a leyway to catch. I’d rather not be on the bad side of Rose, she’s got too many thorns for my taste, but she has the ear of the marshalls.”

                Thankfully, they haven’t noticed you yet, so it might be easy to just have Alice run up and cut them apart. Still, whatever is in those vials worries you if even Ginelle can feels its effects. If you’re not careful how you handle this as well, the town guard is going to cause problems for you too- something you’d rather not deal with again.

                “Alright.” You say, coming up with a course of action. “I’m going to distract the bacon bits, you get the hunk of ham, alright?”

                “Hmph, now he’s being a funny guy.” She whispers, voice tight.

                You spare a glance to her before turning back to the Orcs. No arguments, no questions on what to look for. You figured she’d challenge your authority more or try to assert her own, but the look in her eyes is focused, her body coiled like a spring to leap when you’re ready for her. Despite what you’ve noticed before, you’re convinced now that Alice is a different person.

                Taking in a deep breath, you concentrate on your magic and reach out into the minds of not the Orcs, but of Ginelle and Rayleigh. Subtly, you influence them to feel more tired, an easy feat given the fact that they’re about to pass out as it is.

                Rayleigh stumbles and collapses, face first, her eyes going out of focus as she passes out. Sorry squirrely, no firestorms for you. Ginelle grits her teeth and staggers to one knee. She swats at the dark skinned Orc, who casually brushes her hand aside before slugging the Badger Girl in the face. Ginelle grunts before falling backward, unconscious.

                “Tch.” The leader Orc says. “She wasn’t so tough. Anyway, lets grab the girl and go.”

                “Just her?” One of the other Orcs says. “Surely we can get something for the others?”

                “Moving more than one person would be difficult. Besides, I doubt any of these run of the mill Monsters is would ransom for anything.” She turns over Patricia with a boot. “Tch, whoever heard of a bookworm Wolf Girl?”

                She waves to one of the others, who moves to grab Ophelia. Just as she does though she jumps backward and shouts, the other Orcs responding with curses as well. They turn and run to another section of the store, leaving the dark-skinned Orc to bellow in amazement.

                “What the fuck? No one escapes my gasses!”

                Though you feel your head hurt a little and hear a soft buzzing in your ears, again, you see Alice waste no time in springing forward, sword at the ready. She can’t see what the others were chasing after, but that’s because you didn’t target her with the illusion. It probably won’t fool them for long, the illusion of Ophelia bounding awake and making a run for it but it’s certainly enough to allow Alice to take down the leader.

                You yourself chase after, preparing to help fight in whatever way you can when you feel something start to weigh you down. Your steps begin to slow and you blink in surprise before it hits you.

                Aww fuck, you stepped into the range of the gas. Hurriedly pulling your shirt up to cover your mouth, you look around, vision swimming as Alice charges at the Orc. Fear wells up in you as you see her wavering, the blue glow of her sword unsteady as she goes in for a slice.

                The Orc turns about faster than you’d expect, her nostrils flaring. She dodge’s Alice’s swing and comes around with a punch to the woman’s gut. Alice’s impeccable skills allow her to move her body enough that the blow hits her armor, pushing her back but not hurting her. She staggers but is able to regain her footing, putting two hands on her sword.

                “Who the fuck are you?” The Orc says, gritting her teeth while reaching in between her rather large breasts for something. “Tch, no town watch has a sword that fancy. You with the fucking Order?”

                She steps back and snorts, “Fine, I’ll drop you and take your pretty sword. I’m sure we’ll find a use for it.” When she retracts her hand from her cleavage however, she blinks in surprise, looking down.

                “Huh? I know I have more of those damn vials in he- gah!”

                Alice charges in, breaking her concentration. You drop to a knee, feeling weakness spread through you. Fuck, you should have thought of the gas getting you too. At least you had the wherewithal to send forth another illusion to keep her from pulling out another vial. Still… this isn’t going as you’d planned.

                The other Orcs notice the commotion and peel away as you drop your illusion on them. Your mind is starting to grow sluggish and you can’t think quite straight. Damnit, you need to something to stop breathing in more of this… whatever it is and allow your body to remove the stuff. If only you could forget about-

                Right, right, that will work.

                “Alice, you’re stronger than this!” You shout, subtly influencing her with your magic. She staggers to the side like a drunk, avoiding another blow from the Orc. When she sets her balance next though, she stands straighter, her posture more composed. Chuckling, she says,

                “Of fucking course I am!”

                The Orc leader blinks in surprise and digs through her cleavage with greater urgency as she tries to pull out another vial while backing up. “H-Hey!” she shouts, panicked, “You’re supposed to be passed out!”

                “Yeah well, you’re not supposed to be this slippery you greased-up pig!” Alice says, charging forward. She slashes at the Monster, who barely dodges backward. Seems Alice thinks she’s better, but some things can’t be fully solved by illusions. Like your own sleepiness.

                Something grabs you from behind and slams your face onto the carpeted floor. You wince in pain as you nose hits the solid ground and it takes you a few moments to realize you’ve been pinned down. Turning your head, you see a large set of pink breasts pressed upon you while a pretty face smiles and licks her lips. “Maybe the boss will let us take you as well, hmm?”

                She starts to chuckle, though it sounds like snorting as she leans down toward your ear. You feel her hot breath on you for a moment when a cry comes out and she looks up, her grip on you weakening. Normally you’d use the opportunity to get up, but you find moving anything but your head difficult, so you settle for that.

                Across the room the Orc leader dances out of the way of Alice’s blade while the other three Orcs push in. Alice whirls on them, her sword driving them back. In that moment, the dark-skinned Orc drives a fist toward the woman but cries out, falling to ground as something pulls her down. She scrabbles for a moment in confusion before a horrific growl fills the room, making the Orcs quake in fear.

                Ginelle stands up, hand gripping the head of the Orc leader in a vice-like grip. She snarls and then drives the other Monster’s face into the ground over and over until it’s a bleeding mess, the Monster unconscious.

                Dropping the limp Monster, Ginelle staggers slowly to her feet, breathing heavily, rage in her eyes. The pressure upon you abruptly vanishes as the Orcs back away, cowering in fear. They squeal like piggies as Ginelle stalks toward them, cracking her knuckles. Though you begin to drift off, you feel like Ginelle isn’t wholly there either. The last thing you see is a furred foot stomp in front of you and the squealing of Orcs.

                “Get your lazy ass up.”

                You awaken with a start as someone slaps you. Cheek hurting to accompany the hurt in your nose, you look around in confusion.

                You’re on the first floor of the store, the rest of your companions around you waking from grogginess. Ginelle grunts in front of you before sighing. “Damnit Tobias, what the hells are you doing here?”

                “Saving your butt.” You say, shaking the fuzz from your mind. Some of it stays though it feels more like lint than metaphorical fuzz. Great, now your brain is itchy.

                “I had it under control.” She says, gritting her teeth. “I bet you’re the only to made me pass out, huh?”

                “Didn’t want you to get hurt.” You grumble, looking about. The Orcs are down here as well, tied and gagged. “How long was I out for?”

                “Only a few minutes. Whatever the used works fast but doesn’t seem to last long.” Ginelle says, not looking at you. “I knew it was weird that I’d go down so fast. Couldn’t shake the thought and when I realized something was off, I popped awake.”

                “Well… it all worked out I guess?”

                “Don’t use your illusions on me again.”

                “Err.” You say, scratching your cheek. “Sorry Ginelle, I didn’t think-“

                She sighs and shakes herself. “Sorry. I just saw what you can do with them and… well now that you’re here we need to figure out what to do.”

                “Right.” You say, watching as Alice helps drag Ophelia awake. The Rabbit Girl yawns and looks around with a dazed expression, her ears limp. “We heard of a plot to kidnap her for ransom and came looking for you. Despite what you say, we got here just in time.”

                “Tch, I bet that bitch from the station was the one who tipped them off.” Ginelle sighs.

                “Maybe.” You say, looking over the battered form of the Orc leader. “We probably don’t have that long until we need to get out here. Get everyone awake and I’ll try to talk with the leader here, get some answers.”

                “Well, if you need some muscle.” Ginelle says, cracking her knuckles. “You know where to find me.” She walks over to Rayleigh, helping her up while muttering something about just wanting to find cute clothing.

                The Orc’s eyes slowly come into focus as you roll her over and remove the gag from her mouth. She blinks at you before frowning and then looking away. Sighing, you reach over in between her breasts, making the Monster blush and squirm.

                “W-what are you doing?”

                “Taking a look at these.” You say, looking at the vials in your hands. They’re small and filled with a clear liquid that must become a gas when released. “What is it?”

                “My distilled sweat.” She says, frowning at you. “By the way, it’s improper to dig in a woman’s cleavage without even offering her your dick.”

                “I’m quite aware, I’m married.” You say, frowning. “Seriously though, what is this? Why weren’t you affected?”

                “Because it’s my fucking sweat. You don’t know shit about Orcs, do you?”

                “No, can’t say I do. But Monsters do weird things, I do know that.”

                “Fuck off Tobias.” Ginelle says while waking up Rayleigh.

                “So, what are you going to do with us?” The Orc asks, moving away from the question. “I assume you’re with the Order or the DSS. Going to turn us in?”

                “Can’t exactly walk you out of here and I really don’t want to kill you.” You say, shaking your head. “Just answer a few questions and I’ll refrain from sicking my companion on you.”

                “Once again Tobias, fuck you!” Ginelle shouts.

                “Fine, whatever.” The Orc says. “I’d like to get married someday, so if you can spare my face more, that would be great.”

                Huh, that’s… surprisingly easy. “Who are you? I know you’re targeting Ophelia for ransom, but why take her to Galmathoria? Are you agents for them?”

                “Not exactly, though we were hired by them.” She says. “I don’t particularly care for the country myself, but they pay well.”

                “What do they even want with her? The Order won’t be able to deal with this and the Crown is unlikely to negotiate, which leaves the Manufactorum. Is it gold? Magitek?”

                “I don’t know.” The Orc says, trying to shrug. “We were just told to grab her.”

                “You clearly weren’t here just for Ophelia. Who is this Rose you’re taking order from and what are they planning here?”

                “You heard that huh? Well whatever, I doubt you’ll find her, it’s a code name anyway. She’s some blonde-haired bitch who has the ear of the Marshalls in Galmathoria. Speaks with their voice. I assume she was laying in wait for something with a few teams like us in town for another attack, but we never heard much until she gave us these orders. And no, I don’t know where the others are or who they are.”

                Blonde hair, huh? “Does she have a penchant for green dresses?”

                “I guess? She was wearing one this evening.” The Orc says. “It doesn’t matter, as soon as she realizes we failed, she’ll be out here.” A porcine chuckle escapes her lips. “Of course, now that she knows one of the Illomas is traveling, you might have some trouble on your hands.”

                Damnit. You know she’s right about that. If you can’t find this Rose then she’ll spread info about Ophelia and your party. Even worse, what if someone realizes who Patricia is? You’re not certain it’s safe to send them back to Sanctifrond at this point either.

                Alice walks up, her steps a little uncertain. “Everyone’s awake. We should get going.”

                “You going to be alright?” You ask, wobbling some yourself.

                “Psssh, it will just look like we had a good night out drinking.” She says, waving a hand.

                “Ugh, my head.” Rayleigh says, wobbling.

                “See? She’s playing the part well.” Alice says, ushering everyone toward a back entrance for deliveries.

                You take one last look at the Orc before sighing. “For kidnappers, you were pretty amiable.”

                She beams back at you, face a mess, hands bound behind her back. “Hey, for pigs, you were pretty nice too.”

                You pause for a moment, trying to process this before shaking your head and walking out with the others.

——————————————————————————————————–

                Despite your wobbly feet, you make it to the leyway station mostly intact. You’re surprised the Trolls don’t give you any grief looking the way you do, but they’re clearly preoccupied with something else. Looking into the platform you see a commotion as leyway officials and Troll guards sigh and look confused at each other.

                “This is unacceptable.” Clint says, shaking his head. “I will not travel in such filthy conditions.”

                “My lord, this leyway is the best of it’s kind, first class in every regard.” A bald, sweating man says. He dabs at his face with a handkerchief before bowing. “This is even fit for the king to ride!”

                “Hmph.” Clint says with a tone of noble arrogance you’re only too familiar with. “To insinuate such things about our king is an affront to the crown! I wish to speak with someone above you on my grievances.”

                “Sir, you’ve delayed the leyway already, we’re running behind schedule.”

                “Now see here-“ Clint begins before cutting off as Finn, who had been standing there, still as stone, taps him on the shoulder. He points toward you and the noble looks in your direction before turning his attention back to the bald man. “On second thought, I will travel at another time. I expect when I return that the leyway provided will be of the HIGHEST class.”

                “O-Of course, Lord Fullvora.” The man says, bowing as Clint turns and walks away, Finn trailing behind him. You see the bald man sneer at Clint before ushering the Trolls to get things moving.

                Clint walks up to you and sighs out in relief. “Oh thank the Gods, everyone is safe. I don’t know how much longer I could keep up that act.”

                “It was very convincing.” Ginelle says. “You sounded much like your cousin.”

                The man grimaces. “Great, now I feel sick.”

                “I think we should return to the inn before speaking more.” Finn says, nodding. “People are watching.”

                You take his suggestion, moving through the streets back to your inn. The whole while you keep an eye out for anyone trailing you, your party members with better senses than yours (Patricia and Ophelia) doing the same, despite their condition. Thankfully you arrive unmolested, and all head into the room you’re sharing with the Order members.

                Despite wanting to just go to sleep then and there, everyone fills each other in on the events of the evening. Apparently after you separated, Rayleigh led the girls to some shops she used to frequent as a girl in the streets of Cair. When they entered the larger clothing store, the other patrons were knocked out by the gas or sweat or whatever from that dark-skinned Orc. Patricia informs you that those are often chieftains of the Orc tribes and are often alchemists which modify their own sweat in various fashions.

                You’re kind of glad you only got this knockout variety… you think.

                Clint and Finn caused a commotion at the station by pretending to be a stuck-up noble, something the younger man is extremely embarrassed by. You assure him he captured the character perfectly, which also sets the man to groaning.

                Caught up to speed, you cross your arms and sigh. “So that’s where we stand. Guess they didn’t clear all the Galmathorians out after the attack. I would assume they’re planning something, but I bet this ‘Rose’ has gone to report this.”

                “We can’t let another attack happen.” Rayleigh says, determination in her eyes. “I’ll burn those fuckers for what they did. Should have made bacon from those bitches.”

                “Murder isn’t what we need right now.” Finn says, his voice quieting down the Squirrel Girl. “However, we can’t ignore this either.”

                “We don’t exactly have the time to dally.” Patricia says, shaking her head.

                “Yeah, and what if they come for me again?” Ophelia sighs. “Sometimes I hate being from such a prestigious family.” She looks up as Patricia puts a furred hand on her shoulder, the two nodding in some unspoken bond. To be honest, you know exactly how that feels.

                “It might be best to leave a note for the town watch and the Order members here.” Alice says, shrugging. “We might have targets on our back either way though. We still need to buy a wagon and horses, which is going to take some time.”

                “Yeah.” You sigh. It’s just not possible to leave the city at night like this unless you walked out, which would also be dangerous. Best course would be to stick forward with the plan, but can you keep with that? Should you take the time to root out the agents in this city or find this damn Rose?

                “Ah, he’s making that face.” Ginelle says, smirking. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that.”

                “Heh, you’re right.” Clarissa says, putting a wing-hand to her mouth. “It’s his, ‘what do I do?’ face.”

                “Hey, I don’t have one of those.” You pout. Truth be told though, that’s exactly what’s going through your mind.

 

Chapter 4:

                With a sigh, you sit down on a bed and shake your head. “There’s nothing for it, we’ll just have to wait until the morning and head out as planned.”

                Rayleigh frowns at you. “You don’t want to smoke these bastards out? What if they attack Cair again?”

                Finn watches you as you clench your hands. “I’m afraid we’re going to have to leave that in the hands of the local Order forces.”

                The Squirrel Girl stiffens, her expression becoming angered. Sparks begin to appear in her palms. “What? You can’t be serious, Cair’s had enough suffering and what if it got to my-“

                “Rayleigh.” Finn says. At his voice, she stops, her eyes drifting over to him. She looks down and sighs out a long breath.

                “Fine. Fine, I get it, the mission, whatever the fuck it is, is important. It’s important enough to have the Lord Commander personally request us, I get it.” She grits her teeth though, looking down with anger.

                “But that doesn’t mean that I have to like this.”

                “None of us do.” Alice sighs, placing a hand on the younger Order member’s shoulder. “The local group will be able to handle it though. I doubt they’ll chase us out of the city and they can clear them out.”

                Rayleigh nods and narrows her eyes while Clint sighs and rubs at his head. “Well, we’ve blown any cover we may have had. People are going to wonder why a Fullvora went to Cair before heading North. I doubt Ophelia has escaped some people’s notice either.”

                The Rabbit Girl looks uncomfortable as Clarissa puts a wing-arm around her back. You nod to them before saying, “We’ll deliver word in the morning while gathering arrangements. We’ll have to stay alert, but it should be smooth once we get near the fort. I assume they’ll have increased patrols and I doubt anyone would chase us there.”

                Clapping your hands, you say, “I think it’s best we retire for the evening. Any questions?”

                No one makes an objection, though Ophelia perks up. “Oh!” She digs into her bag and pulls out a set of small, black boxes. “Frankly, we should have sent these out beforehand but… well, I suppose I haven’t been on an adventure in some time.”

                You look down at the box she hands you and recognize similarities to the short range magitek communication device you’d used before, though this one has a number 2 on it. She hands another to Finn and Patricia before nodding her head. “That should be decent coverage for the four I have.”

                You push the button on the side of the device and the other three crackle to life as you whisper, “Benis.” Finn and Patricia give you flat looks. Okay look, you can’t be serious all the time, especially with this really cool magitek in front of you.

                “Ahem.” Ophelia says. “These upgraded versions can be directed to specific boxes as needed by flipping the switch to change the frequency. They were made in the hopes of tapping in through the leylines and creating a larger network in a similar fashion to the [Port-o-Glass] system the Grand Wizard developed but seeing as the leylines are… well.” She coughs into her hand. “Anyway, these are attuned to each other so we’re safe.”

                Finn looks over the device before stowing it. “Good, we can keep in contact if anyone needs help. I suggest keeping a watch in each room anyway.”

                “Sounds fair.” Clint says. “I think we have our game plan.”

                He, Ginelle, Clarissa, and Ophelia leave. The last member cocks her head toward you as she leaves, but you wave her away as before. Even though Rayleigh is still sulking, you think it’s best to stay here. Of course, it means the floor for you…

                “Here.” Finn says, patting the bed. “I’ll take watch since I wasn’t affected. I’m less likely to pass out.”

                “Bless you sir.” You say, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Bless you for this wonderful blessing of a comfortable bed.”

                “I’m not sure you’d be thanking me.” He says. You just shrug and remove your suit before crawling into bed and sighing in relief. A nice, comfortable sleepy sounds-

                You pause for a moment, feeling your shoulder blades itching. Slowly, you turn your head to notice Rayleigh staring at you intently, her eyes boring a hole into your back. Gulping, you turn back about and shudder.

                Welp.

                You awake mildly refreshed and yet your back feels like it has a sunburn on it. You’re not entirely certain if you’re just being crazy or Rayleigh did something to you- she wasn’t best pleased last night. But hey, you are slightly insane also, so says the buzzing in your head. So that’s fine.

                Finn reports nothing happened over the evening, a blessing you’re sure. The other team had the same experience, so you get your supplies in order before heading downstairs to share breakfast. The inn is quiet at this time thankfully, though the innkeeper does give your motely crew a strange look. Well, not like you’re really hiding much at this point.

                Once finished with eating, you split the group again. The Order members head to the local outpost while the rest of your group move to a large sale barn where you hope to purchase horses and a wagon large enough for your group. This is easier said than done since you have nine people, but Clarissa assures you she’d rather fly, so you have that blessing.

                Clint helps you select two fine geldings, one a chestnut and the other black while Ophelia looks over available wagons. She laments the lack of magitek, but without proper magic to power them, non-leyway vehicles are still stuck to horse drawn wagons. You swear Alice mentioned something about a, “tank” she rode in during her time in Ectria, but you have no idea what that is. It sounds cool as fuck though.

                Down a considerable amount of money later, you watch Clint as he and the works at the barn help get the horses hitched. Finn and the others rejoin you soon after. It would appear they took longer than expected to report to the Order in this town, as they had acute interest in possibilities of attack again. With that settled, you load up and hit the road.

                Cair is not a city known for its walls, and over the years it’s spread outward like wildfire as more and more smaller housing structures appear for workers in the area, those coming south from the Monster Nation, and less than reputable establishments. It takes some time to clear the area entirely, but as you sit next to Clint, bless him for his equestrian skills gained out west, you notice civilization begin to thin out as the northern part of Deleor spreads out before you.

                In the far, far distance, you can see the vague shapes of mountains while to the west you see hills that comprise the Thunderbird territory. A warm, summer wind blows by and you sigh as the sun shines overhead. It’s a good day to be on your way it seems, though the farther you go ahead, the less traffic you see on the roads. This suits you just fine, as it means it’s less likely that you’ll be attacked or anything. That may be a little difficult for anyone to do though, since Clarissa flies overhead, circling the wagon and giving you information every now and then. 

                The first day is unremarkable, which suits you fine. Your camping experiences are limited, but Clarissa is able to find a good spot to hunker down and the Order members +Clint and Ginelle help make a decent campsite. Thankfully your bags of holding kept the tents, cooking supplies, and good well stored, and you soon have a nice encampment.

                As night falls, you sit down next to the campfire, eating some of Clint’s Five-Alarm chili, a specialty of his from out west. After almost dying from eating the first few bites, you find yourself wishing someone else had done the cooking. A few others have similar sentiments, though Rayleigh eats it with gusto, her eyes lighting up.

                Setting down you bowl after draining your waterskin, you sit down next to Ophelia and pant. “Oh Gods, I thought I was going to die.”

                “Huh? Oh, the chili, right.” She says, fiddling with the device in her hands. It’s one of the communications devices. “Yeah, I could smell the heat in that. I think I’ll still to something less threatening. Like carrots.”

                “Isn’t that a stereotype?” You ask, looking over at the device. “What are you doing?”

                She frowns. “It’s weird, after getting out of the city I’ve been getting some feedback from these on some different channels. Our network is fine and it’s not transmitting, but it’s really strange.” Her eyes move to you. “Oh, and there’s nothing wrong with liking carrots. I don’t care what anyone says.”

                “Fine, fine.” You say, waving a hand. “So you think the devices are broken or-“

                “Or there’s some magitek out here that’s getting into the frequencies. I’ll just keep messing with it.” She says, tapping the device before shrugging and pulling a carrot out of her bag. She looks at you and munches on it, smirking.

                “Wow, it’s a shock you’re not married yet.” You say, to which she sticks her tongue out, carrot crumbs stuck to it. She pouts and then goes back to fiddling with the device as Finn walks up.

                “We should set watches for the evening. This area is fairly safe due to proximity to the city and the fort a few days ahead, but I’d rather not take our chances.” He says.

                “Sure, makes sense.” You say, shrugging. “I’ll put you in charge of organizing that.”

                The man pauses before nodding and going about to organize the watch. You follow him as he speaks with Clint and Ginelle before turning back to Ophelia, who frowns. “He’s always so serious. He’s kind of scary, in a way.”

                “Well, it has to do with his past I bet.” You say. “I don’t know much myself, but I don’t know, he seems like we can rely on him in a pinch.” Sighing, you say, “I don’t know about Rayleigh though.”

                “Hmm.” Ophelia says, musing. “Well, we managed to make things work before with less, right?”

                “Yeah.” You say, nodding. “We’ll do it this time too.”

                The next few days are boring, which suits you fine. Ophelia still gets the strange signals from her device, but can’t find a reason for it. She seems to find them mostly at night, so you wonder if it has to do with the weather?

Speaking of which, clouds begin to form up, heralding oncoming rain. Clarissa decides to rest inside the covered wagon due to this, which is likely why you don’t have any warning until Ophelia’s ears perk up and she turns about in confusion.

“Horses?” She says, cocking her head.

The wagon stops soon after as you hear calls coming from a distance, followed by the hard sounds of hoofbeats. You crawl to the front where Clint and Finn are watching three horses approach from the northeast. They have no weapons drawn, and when they arrive they stop before you, their horses dancing with nervous energy.

All three are dressed in the colors of the Deleorian military, though all three are Monsters. One, a Wolf Girl with short, brown hair seems to be the leader while the other two, dog-like Kobolds with blonde hair and fur dance their horses about with precision as well. The Wolf Girl frowns and says,

“Travelers, state your business coming north.”

“We’re headed to the fort.” You say, holding out your DSS badge. “Official business.”

The two Kobolds exchange glances while the Wolf Girl frowns. “I’m sorry if I don’t take much stock in badges. We’re going to need to search the wagon.”

Finn frowns. “Under what orders? Isn’t this patrol a little far out from the fort?”

                The leader sneers at him while waving at the two Kobolds. They dismount and walk around the wagon, sniffing. “I can see you’re from the Order, or so you claim, but if you haven’t seen, we’re at war here. Orders are to be thorough.” She walks her horse closer to him as she gives a wolf-toothed grin. “Or would you rather I give you a personal inspection.”

                “Thanks, but I’d rather not have fleas.”

                She grins before turning as one of the Kobolds walks up to her and whispers. She frowns and then looks up at your wagon. “I see. I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to come with us.”

                “What? Why?” You ask a moment before a sword is thrust in front of your face.

                “Because you’re under arrest for suspected sedition.”

                The rest of your group tenses up, hands going to their weapons. Your heart begins to beat hard in your chest, but you take a deep breath and calmly say. “Where would we be going?”

                “To an outpost for detainment. Come along quietly and make this easy, or I’ll be forced to call for back-up.” She pats a device at her side that looks much like your communication devices, though of a different make.

                Clint looks to you, eyes searching. He has his rifle ready under the driver’s seat to be pulled out at a moment’s notice. At a word from you, you can probably cut them down, but harming soldiers of Deleor for a misunderstanding is not going to end well for you either, especially when they go missing.

You feel droplets of rain begin to pitter down as the standoff grows more tense. All eyes move to you as you decide your next course of action.

                As the rain begins to come down heavier you look at the length of steel in front of your face. It’s not a bad sword, pretty good make actually, not that you can really tell. Seems pretty sharp however, could probably kill you fairly easily. Good enough as a sword you suppose.

                Sighing, you look up from the sword into the eyes of the Wolf Girl. She blinks in surprise at your cool expression, clearly not expecting this from you. With a roll of your eyes, you wave a hand toward her and say, “Yes, that’s a nice sword and all, but do you have any proof you’re actually Deleorian military?”

                The Monster before you blinks in surprise again, clearly surprised. Her horse dances nervously and she shushes it, withdrawing her sword for a moment before thrusting it back in place. “Excuse me, but you aren’t exactly in the position to ask that, are you?”

                “Well, I see you’re not accepting my identification, why should I accept yours?”

                “Because I’m the one with the sword in your face, that’s why-“

                She cuts off as a metallic whirring noise sounds followed by a low hum. The Wolf Girl’s eyes drift to the side to see the barrel of Clint’s gun pointed directly at her, the man staring at her with his finger on the trigger. She frowns and slowly withdraws her sword from your face.

                “Very well then. I see we’re at an impasse.”

                “Mmm, possibly.” You say, shrugging as the rain pitter down upon you. “Now that we’ve established this, we have a few ways to go. One, either I’m a terrible criminal out to destroy Deleor and you’re hard working military woman doing her job by somehow determining my guilt from smells or…” You wave you hand,

                “You’re brigands trying to extort us using authority you don’t really have.”

                One of the dismounted Kobolds gives a worried look to the Wolf Girl, who growls at you. “Well then, which one do you think we are?”

                “Finn?” You ask, getting the man’s attention. “Do patrols usually come this far south?”

                “Fort is about two days away, less if we really push it. They sometimes do, but all things considered, an assault from the south is unlikely, so they mostly range up north.”

                “So you’d say this is probably bullshit, right?”

                The older man considers before nodding his head. “Yes, I would say that would be the case.”

                You shrug and turn back to the Wolf Girl. “I’m inclined to believe the man. This smells like bullshit, I’m afraid.”

                “Should have said, ‘dogshit.’” Clint says, his aim never moving.

                “Ah yes, I’m sorry.” You say, nodding your head. Your gaze goes ice cold as you stare the Wolf Girl in the eyes. “So that means you’re likely brigands.”

                “So what if we are?” She says, furred hand drifting to the device at her side.

                “Then I’d think twice about using that.” You say, waving at the device. “Have you not noticed it’s raining? Those things don’t exactly work with that level of interference.”

                She pauses, frowning down at the device. Her eyes widen a moment later as she sees the device begin to spark. A simple illusion, once you’ve laid the groundwork. Gritting her teeth, she slowly moves to place her hands on the reins of her horse. She takes a deep breath and then moves with blurring speed to knock the magitek rifle out of Clint’s hands.

                The man gasps, grabbing it again, but tumbles out of the driver seat. Before he can aim again the Wolf Girl is already riding away, cursing. Her two companion hurriedly mount as well and begin to bolt, but you merely sit back and say, “Rayleigh? I’d like to keep them alive if possible.”

                The Squirrel Girl leaps to the front of the wagon and cackles and power alights in her hands. You can feel mana pooling in her as she thrusts out a furred hand, the fingers steaming in the rain. Despite the horses having cleared a great amount of distance, they don’t get far enough before a wall of flame appears before them. The horses rear up in panic, throwing their riders to the ground.

                “Ginelle.” You say, waving to her. She bounds forth from the wagon and lopes forward to reach the dazed canines, subduing them further. Yawing, you wave to Clint as he hops back onto the wagon.

                “You ready to practice those hog tying skills again?”

                “What do we do with them?” Clarissa asks, looking at the three Monsters.

                You wait out under the cover of a nearby treeline, the heavy boughs protecting you from the worst of the rain. The three brigands or whoever they are sit unconscious next to your wagon, their weapons confiscated while Clint tries to calm down their horses.

                Rayleigh puffs out her modest chest and proclaims how great her pyromancy is to a half-listening Finn while Ophelia tinkers with the device she from the Wolf Girl. She sighs and waves to you,

                “So this is based on an earlier design which had some limited mass market appeal. It’s not the same though, so it must have been made by a secondary source. It’s possible this was made in Deleor, but I have no idea where.”

                “It’s… counterfeit?”

                “Something like that? It still works though.” She quirks an eyebrow at you, “Though this thing will also work in the rain. Did you use one of your illusions?”

                “Bah.” You say, flipping your hand back. “The real illusion was just getting her to begin to doubt.” Squatting down next to her you say,

                “Is this what was giving that weird frequency?”

                “Probably.” She says, popping the device open. You see wired connecting to a core filled with some shards of mana crystals. “Frequency seems about right. Though clearly she was speaking with someone using this, and someone nearby.”

                “Cair?”

                “Hmm, no, not from this device. There are some which are larger and can get better signals though, but they aren’t exactly handheld.” She cocks her head, wet rabbit ears dripping. “She mentioned an outpost, right? I’d suspect the ones this is connected to are there.”

                You turn to the unconscious Monsters and frown. “We should deliver them to the fort. They’ll be interested to know there’s people impersonating them out here.”

                “Ballsy really.” Ophelia says, nodding her head. “Not that far between Cair and a major fort. There aren’t that many people who travel down this path either, and it’s usually just merchants moving out to the fort. I’m surprised they attacked us.”

                “Maybe they thought we were an easy score?” You say, shrugging.

                Ophelia gives you and flat look before tapping her nose. “They’re all canids, they have good smell. They could probably tell there’s multiple people here once they got close enough. Seems strange to try to pull this bluff knowing that.”

                Worry begins to grow in you. “You think they knew who we were?”

                The Rabbit Girl’s ears stand up and she begins to grimace. “Oh… oh fuck.”

                A hiss of static cuts through from the device in her hand. She yelps and drops the device to the ground. It hisses a moment more before a female voice cuts through,

                “Hey, Pontia, what’s the deal? You find them yet? This rain is really picking up.”

                The commotion catches the attention of your entire party, all of you watching the device with bated breath. It hisses again as the feminine says again, “Hey, answer the damn thing! I ain’t fucking around here. We got orders so you better answer.”

                “Can they track this device?” You ask Ophelia, who blinks in surprise at you. She shakes her head before breathing out and then saying,

                “I- yeah… if they have a way to lock onto the mana signature. If we destroy it though, they’ll know for sure something’s up.”

                “Oy, are you dead? Fucking hells, hey Irina, you nee-“ it cuts off a moment later.

                “Shit.” You say, groaning. “Alright, let’s get packed up quick and head to the fort. The rain should give us some cover to-

                You pause as Patrica walks over, scoops up the device and, in a perfect imitation of the Wolf Girl, says, “Hey, sorry, was taking a piss.”

                The line is silent for a moment before it hisses and a frustrated voice says, “I swear to Dollora, are you a fucking idiot? You don’t say that shit on the line.”

                “Yeah well, it’s just us and the horses, I don’t think anyone minds.”

                “Filthy little mongrel… Anyway, what’s the status.”

                “Didn’t see anyone. We’re about to keep searching.”

                “Fuck. Rose ain’t going to like that. I’ll send out more teams. They can’t be allowed to reach the fort.”

                “H-hey, there’s no need for-“

                “I’ve made up my mind.”

                The line goes silent after a moment of hissing static.

                Patricia looks down at the device and sighs before handing it back to Ophelia. “Well, I did my best.”

                “Uh… huh.” The Rabbit Girl says, staring incredulously at Patricia. “That was…”

                “Wow.” You say, surprised. “I thought I could do good impersonations, but that was damn impressive. How did you manage that?”

                “People studies.” She says, shrugging. “You watch people long enough, you pick up some things. Besides, I’m mimicking another Wolf Girl, it’s not THAT difficult.”

                “Nevermind that.” Finn says, walking up to you. “Looks like we’re in for some trouble. There’s no good way to get to the fort without traveling down the road.”

                “What are the chances we’d run into a real patrol if we got moving now?”

                “Slim, especially given the rain. We’d be more like to be seen by these brigands, and I doubt they’ll hesitate to signal for back-up.”

                “Great.” Ginelle says, cracking her knuckles. “We’ll just beat them up. Easy peasy.”

                “Not if there’s a lot of them all at once.” You sigh, gut wrenching. “They’re after Ophelia again, they’ll use whatever they can out in the open.”

                The Rabbit Girl looks downcast again. “Sorry…”

                “It’s fine.” Rayleigh says. “We’ll burn them all! I don’t even care if they bring a caster, I’ll take them down too!”

                Take them down… You blink at this and turn to Ophelia. “Do you think you can track where the signal is coming from?”

                “Huh? Oh.” She says, shaking her head. “I… probably?” She taps her [Magesight Goggles]. I think I can follow the aetheric signatures and tap into their frequency if we need to. It won’t be absolute though, just a general area.” She frowns,

                “You aren’t suggesting…?”

                “Keeping the option on the table.” You say, thinking over a plan. “Just keeping it on the table.”

                >What do you do?

                >Story continue

                “What exactly are you suggesting?” Alice asks, cocking her head. “You want us to storm their location, slice them open, and take their secrets?”

                “Uh.” You say, giving her a worried look. “No, why would you say that?”

                “Keeping the option on the table.” She says, shrugging.

                Sighing, you wave your hand in dismissal. “Tempting but no, we’re going to push on ahead.”

                “Won’t they come after us again?” Finn asks, giving you a critical look. “A small patrol we can take care of, but they’ll grow suspicious soon enough.”

                “That’s fine.” You say. “We’ll just need to keep moving and try to get distance. We know they’re after us, so we can intercept without worry. The rain will help us too.”

                “What if there’s a real Deleorian patrol?” Clarissa asks, worried. “We don’t exactly want to get into that kind of trouble.”

                Nodding, you turn to Ophelia. “If they have comm devices, can you identify the signature?”

                “Oh, uhm.” Ophelia says, scratching her head. “Yeah, I think so-oh!” She smiles at you. “Riggghhht!”

                “That will only work assuming the brigands have devices. Some of them might not, so it’s a gamble still.”

                “If we determine they’re bad, we’ll be able to take them out before they can get away.” You say, shrugging as you stand. “Come on, let’s load up.”

                Ginelle thumbs over her shoulder at the captives. “What about them?”

                You consider for a moment before sighing. “Take them with us. Just make sure they’re well tied up, I don’t need any issues being caused.”

                “Not much room in the wagon if we do that.” Finn says.

                He’s right, of course. With so many people, you’re packed into the wagon as it is. Sighing in frustration, you look up to see the horses the brigands were using, neighing with annoyance as Clint tries to calm them down.

                Ah, that will work.

                Mud flies up on the road as the wagon trundles down the road. The horses hitched to the wagon neigh in annoyance at the rain, but continue onward, deviating only slightly from the path. A bump from a rock jostles the wagon, causing you to almost slip on the slick driver’s seat.

                “Hey! What the fuck!” Ophelia says, sitting next to you. Her ears push up the hood she’s wearing as she frowns at you, the magitek goggles shining in the darkness of the overcast sky. “You’re going to make me break this if you’re not careful.”

                “Sorry, I don’t exactly have practice driving a wagon you know.” You grumble, shaking water off your own hood. At least the Arachne-silk suit is basically waterproof. Gods do you love these things.

                “Then why did you send out the two who do?”

                “Because they’re also our best equestrians.” You sigh out. “And they have the ranged weapons.”

                “And why did you send Alice out also?”

                “Because…” You try to come up with an answer before shrugging. “She likes to hit things with her sword?”

                A rustling comes from behind and you turn about to see Rayleigh poke her head out. “Those idiots are still out cold, though Ginelle is watching them.” Her eyes sparkle. “Have we seen anyone I can burn yet?”

                “No Rayleigh.” You say, looking up. Clarissa circles through the air, though you have to imagine it’s difficult to fly in that kind of rain. In the distance you hear the crack of thunder, making you frown. Damn, how long can she stay up there?

                Ophelia’s ears perk up and she turns as from the distance you see a single rider come closer. You ready your magic, but Ophelia just goes back to scanning, assuaging your fears. Besides, Clarissa didn’t swoop down either.

                Clint rides up, rain sliding down his leathers. He looks naturally at home on the big horse, his rifle slung easily in reach. He tips his hat to you. “No sign of anything as of yet. Pace isn’t very good though, you sure you know how to drive these horses?”

                “I know… enough.” You say, turning your eyes back to the road in time to guide the horses back on path. “See? Fine.”

                “Well pick up the pace.” He says, frowning. Looks like thunder rolling in, might make it harder to ride if the horses spook.”

                One of the communications devices in Ophelia’s lap crackles to life and you nearly jump, heart thumping as you look to see which one made the sound.

                The Rabbit clearly calmly picks up her own device and says, “This is cottontail to HUNK, what’s your status, over?”

                “There’s some movement up ahead to the northwest. Alice and I are hanging back to investigate, but I’m sure they’ll see me soon. They’re near the treeline, so they might not have been spotted by the bird.” He’s silent for a moment before crackling back, “Over.”

                You signal to Clarissa, who nods and adjusts the angle of her flight toward where Finn indicated. The comms go silent and the only thing you hear are the horses clomping through the mud and the downpour of the rain. Clint nods and pulls away, vanishing into the rapidly intensifying rain, soon vanishing from sight.

                “These aren’t exactly ideal travel conditions.” Ophelia says.

                You frown at her and ask, “WHAT?!” When a blast of thunder drowns out your words. The horses you’re driving scream and try to pull away, making the wagon rock back and forth. You cry out and pull on the reins, forcing them to rear back and stop, the wagon tipping to the side dangerously before crashing down on all four wheels.

                You pant, summer rain pouring about you. Though it’s cool on the skin, you’re sweating from the stress and the sudden shock of handling the horses. Groaning, you look behind you and ask, “Is everyone alright?!”

                “Yes!” Patricia shouts back. “But are you trying to get us killed?!”

                “HEY! I’m doing my best he-“ You cut off as an arrow zips by your head, embedding itself into the wood of the wagon behind you.

                “Shit!” You shout, diving below the seat as two more arrows follow the first. “Ophelia!” You shout, pulling her down next to you.

                “Where the hells did they come from!” She shouts, her voice hard to hear in the rain.

                “How the hells should I know? I’m not the one with the super ears!”

                “It also means I can’t hear very well in the fucking rain!” She cries.

                “See if they have the signal, I’ll call Clint back!” You cry, grabbing the comm device from her. She nods her head and scans about with her [Magesight Goggles] while you contact Clint.

                “Get your ass back here Cowboy, we’re sitting ducks! Over!”

                “Damnit, I’m on my way, over.”

                “Yeah, that’s them.” Ophelia hisses as you crouch next to her. Another arrow embeds itself into the canvas of the wagon, eliciting a shout.

                “RAYLEIGH!” You shout behind you. A moment later the Squirrel Girl leaps from the wagon, her body blazing with fire, steam enveloping her form as the rain tries with futility to put it out. She giggles and you look up to see a wave of fire spray from her hands, lashing out into the rain to illuminate the form of five riders. Their horses scream in panic and one bucks their rider, a Cat Girl by the looks of it.

                Your communication device hisses in Ophelia’s hands. She blinks down at it for a moment before cursing. “Damnit, they’re probably communicating with each other! Give me a sec-“ She tinkers at the stolen device for a moment before it buzzes to life with a feminine voice,

“Alpha, this is Lara, we’ve found them on the road. No sign of Pontia though. They’re stopped on the road and we’re engaging a pyromancer.”

                “Fill her with holes! I’m signaling the others to advance on your position!”

                “Got i- Oh fu-!”

                The sound cuts off and you look up to see a gout of flame appearing between the horses, throwing another rider. Rayleigh’s cackles can be heard even through the rain and thunder however as she fires off spells. Unfortunately, you notice the remaining three riders peel off, their bows in their hands. One of them readies an arrow when a bolt of purple light cuts through, throwing her from her horse, which runs off down the road.

                Off to your left, Clint rides in, magitek rifle recharging as he continues to aim. He pulls the trigger again, dropping another one of the riders while the final one panics and turns their horses, fleeing before Rayleigh can catch her.

                Clint rides back up to you and shouts, “GO!”

                A soon as Rayleigh mounts, you crack the reins, moving the horses into motion. Clint keeps pace with you, his horse keeping the other two on the path as you pick up speed. Ophelia grabs the communication device from you and signals to Finn. You receive no reply, however.

                “Damnit.” You say, gritting your teeth. “Clint!”

                “On it!” He says, pulling away toward where Finn should be. You look up to the sky but can’t see Clarissa anymore in the driving rain, the sky lighting up with more lightning while thunder drowns out sound.

                “Ophelia, keep an eye out for more signals!” You shout, putting all your focus on the road. Damnit, you’d like to make an illusion, but you’re not certain where the enemies are and you’re afraid to [Project] without having an idea of who is around. You could tax your brain for no damned reason!

                Ginelle pops her head out from the wagon interior. “We have a problem, the prisoners are waking up!”

                “Then beat the shit out of them!” You shout back.

                “Fair.” Ginelle says. A moment a few shouts and jostling is heard before the wagon calms down. Rayleigh slips out from the back and sits down next to you, her eyes looking down. When you give her a look she just shrugs.

                “That badger is scary when she’s angry.”

                “Yeah, tell me about it.” You say, feeling a little mirth despite the situation.

                “Hey… I’m picking up a signal.” Ophelia says, looking around. “Southeast of us!”

                You grit your teeth and keep driving the horses. There’s nothing for it, you’ll have to keep going until Clint and Finn arrive. Gods you hope they’re okay. If you can keep moving, they shouldn’t be able to reach you. Still…

                “Rayleigh, think you can climb atop the wagon?”

                “And do what? Shoot fireballs at anyone coming after us?”

                “Would you?”   

                “Never thought you’d ask!” She giggles before scampering up the slick canvas, clearly not bothered when climbing. Oh right, she’s a squirrel. Duh.

                Wind rushes around you as the rain now drives into your face, despite your hood. Lovely. You shake rain from your face when you hear a loud howling, as is from a wolf. The horses try to pull away at the sound, but you hold them firm this time, exerting all your will.

“Don’t you fucking do it!” You cry, keeping them moving. The momentary change however is enough for Patricia to thrust her head out toward you and cry,

“There’s someone behind us!”

A moment later, Rayleigh lights up, fireballs flaring from her hands. The rain diminishes some of their power but they light up the darkness, revealing no fewer than ten riders after you. Cursing, you turn your eyes back to the road as Ophelia’s ears begin to twitch.

“They’re gaining on us!”

As if on cue, a rider moves up the side of your wagon opposite from you, this time another Kobold dressed in a motley assortment of clothing. She reaches out to try and grab Ophelia, but the Rabbit Girl shrieks and lashes out with something from her pocket. A brilliant flash of blue light appears and the rider cries in pain before slumping off the saddle, dragging her horse down as they both fade away from sight while you’re moving forward.

                “Get to the back!” You cry to Ophelia. She nods and turns out, but shouts in panic,

                “They’re gaining from behind too!”

                You chance a look behind to see balls of fire raining down behind you as Rayleigh tries to fend them off. Some of the magical balls of fire hit, but most are avoided, or fizzle out in the rain. You hear a small shout of rage followed by a large surge of mana. What the hells is she about to-

                You never find out as another cry is elicited from the Squirrel Girl. Looking back again, you see her slip from the roof and begin to tumble, an arrow sticking out from her shoulder. Eyes going wide, you cry out,

                “GINELLE!”

                Powerful arms rip through the canvas of the wagon, grabbing the falling Squirrel Girl. She screams at the impact, but Ginelle pulls her close to the side, tearing the canvas further to bring her into the wagon.

                You don’t have time to sigh in relief as more riders appear to the sides of the wagon, this time brandishing weapons. You curse as a Wolf Girl slams a mace down toward you. Managing to pull back in time, the weapon glances off the wood, throwing the ride off balance. Unfortunately, you’re unable to physically retaliate, or else you’ll lose control of the horses.

You can, however, mentally retaliate.

                “In front of you, bitch!” You shout.

                The rider turns her head for a moment before crying out and pulling on the reins of her horse, the sudden motion causing her to be thrown from the saddle. You sigh at the sudden use of your power, but thankfully it was a believable obstacle. Turning your head, you curse as you see another Wolf Girl on the other side, reaching for Ophelia.

                She tries again to use her new device on the Monster, but this one bats it aside, tossing it to the back of the wagon before grabbing her arm. Ophelia cries out in panic, but you’re unable to stop her from being pulled off the wagon. The rider gives a howl of triumph and pulls her horse away from you, Ophelia kicking and screaming.

                “SHIT!” You cry out. Oh fucking hells, they took her!

                You turn your head around again to see them pulling away, fading into the rain. Cursing, you pull up on the reins, causing the horses to scream in panic. The wagon slides across the slick road as they try to stop themselves and everyone aboard cries out as you do a 180 on the road, coming to a dead stop facing the opposite direction.

                You pant, heart racing at what just happened before screaming and slapping the reins, driving the horses back from where you came. They scream in protest but do as you will, pulling the wagon back toward where they stole Ophelia.

                Damnit, damnit, damnit! You think, tears welling in your eyes from frustration. They can’t have gotten her, not over something stupid like this!

                “Tobias, what’s happening!” Ginelle shouts as she pulls up to the front of the wagon. “Where’s Ophelia?!”

                “They took her damnit!” You shout, trying to drive the horses faster as thunder booms around you. “I’m not leaving her!”

                “Gods damnit!” Ginelle shouts. “They’re probably long gone now!”

                “Not if I can help it!” You shout in frustration. No, no you WON’T allow this to happen!

                “How are we going to catch up with them?” Ginelle asks. “And where’s Clint and Finn?”

                “I don’t fucking know!” You say, wracking your brain. “I just-“

                Patricia pokes her head from in front of the wagon and takes a deep breath before letting loose a howl so loud it pierces through the pouring rain. Though your ears ache from the pressure of it, you hear the sounds of return howls ahead of you.

                “Hmph. Dumb animals.” Patricia says, her studious outfit becoming soaked. “They’ll reply to anything. Must have been raised outside of civilization.”

                “That didn’t sound that far away.” You say, not voicing your concern that she basically just insulted her mother. “If we can use that to momentarily gain some ground, we can do this! Ginelle, think you can outrun a horse?”               

                “For a short period, maybe. Would really help if we could cast another wall of flame but Rayleigh is out of commission.”

                “Damnit.” You say as shapes appear in the distant rain. About seven figures riding. They’re a little far out, but you think if you strain yourself, you might be able to-

                A bolt of lightning illuminates the area before you as something large swoops down from the sky, dragging one of the horses to the ground. It flaps into the air a moment later as a flash of purple appears and two more of the riders drop. The remaining four turn their horses about, facing the threat from the side.

                As you close in, you see two horsemen ride forward, clearly Clint and Finn. Three of the brigands band together while the other, hangs back, a large form on the back of the horse. You hear a canine howl of rage as the horses ride forward, weapons held high.

                You pull on the reins of the wagon as you approach, watching as two of the brigands drive after Clint, swords held at the ready. The man curses and tries to pick one off, but they juke to the side and slash at him, forcing him to pull back. The other one cuts his horse deep however, and the steed rears in pain, bucking the man to the ground.

                Finn races toward the one charging him, a rather large Wolf Girl his bow slung over his back as he draws his sword. They cross paths, blades glinting in the light of lightning strikes before they turn back around and come again. This time, his opponent throws their sword at Finn, causing him to pull away enough to allow the Wolf Girl to leap from the saddle and knock him off his horse. He lands in a heap as well, his armor making a resounding thud on the ground.

                As you pull up, you shout to Ginelle, who springs forth from the front of the wagon and leaps upon one of the riders coming for Clint. They shout in panic as Ginelle’s raw strength pulls both her and her horse to the ground, all three of them ending up in a mass of limbs and shouting. Crimson blood flies in the air as Ginelle tears at her victim before shouting in pain as the second rider cuts Ginelle in the back with her sword as she rides by. Her victory is short lived however when Alice rides out of the rain, her sword glowing bright. She decapitates the Monster in one blow, the headless body being carried away by the terrified mount.

                Finn rises to his feet, his armor muddy, but intact. He looks over at his sword, far to the side and grunts as he squares off with the large Monster, almost as large as he is. She snarls like a feral dog and says, “You bastards. This isn’t the shit I signed up but, but I’ll be damned if I ain’t going to kill all of you and rape the survivors.”

                “Just try it, bitch.” Finn says, shouting as he charges her.

                The Wolf Girl howls again and the two meet, clasping fists. Their feet slide into he mud as they try to gain traction, both looking to topple the other. Finn grunts, his body clearly abused by the fall, and you notice his knees beginning to buckle. Hurriedly, you reach out with your magic and the Wolf Girl blinks before crying out and falling to the side as if she’d slipped, though she does slip a moment later.

                Finn doesn’t waste the opportunity and pulls her into a submission hold, the Wolf Girl squirming underneath him. She gashes her teeth and tries to pull out of it but Finn just slams her head repeatedly until she goes limp in his arms, the two tangled like rope.

                You leap from the wagon and corner the final rider as she backs her horse up, Ophelia slung over the back. The Monster licks her lips before shoving Ophelia off the back and into the mud before turning tail and fleeing. Clint snaps up his rifle, but you hold up a hand as moment later, Clarissa dives from the sky and grabs the Monster in her talons before throwing her off the horses to land motionless in the muck.

                “Ugh…” Ophelia groans, rubbing at her head. “I feel like I was thrown off a horse.”

                “You were and you better be thankful you didn’t break your damn neck.” You say with relief.

                You took a stop again after the brigands were defeated, needing the time to tend to your wounded. Ophelia was out like a light immediately after while Clint and Finn were both bruised. Ginelle has a fairly bad slash on her back from the sword cut but she barely seems to notice, the Badger Girl’s resilience playing through again. Rayleigh though is unconscious from her fall and the blood loss, though it seems to have been minor.

                Finn easily removed the arrow and tended to her wound, and she currently sleeps peacefully while you wait, the raining starting to clear. All things considered, you’re very tired.

                “Oh, well.” She looks down at her muddy feet. “Guess this is twice my lucky feet saved my life. Heh.” She looks up at you with a wan smile on her face, but then looks back down when she sees you’re not laughing. “Sorry.”

                “Gods, I thought we’d lost you. Thank the Gods Clarissa came when she did.” You sigh. Looking up, you see the bandits, the living ones anyway, tied up again. A few died from the falls from their horses, while the others died from battle wounds. In total, you had six captives, including the three from earlier. This is going to be a pain to transport them all, and even worse, two of the horses you captured were too injured to keep going. Clint had to put them down, though the man was none too pleased by the situation.

                “What are we going to do with them?” You ask, shaking your head. “We might have to leave them here, or execute them. Gods, I really don’t want to do that.”

                “I’ll do it.” Finn says, touching the sword at his side. “If it needs to be done.”

                “Same.” Alice says, touching her sword. “I’d relish it, to be honest.”

                You frown, considering your options when Ophelia’s ears perk up. She turns about and says, eyes going wide, “Oh no, more riders coming.”

                Those of you who can stand rise up as a duo of riders dressed in Deleorian military colors appear. One is a Wolf Girl while the other is a man. They pull up short of your group and call out, “Who goes there?”

                You grit your teeth and say, “Are you more of these brigands too?”

                “Brigands?” The man says, looking to the Wolf Girl, who shrugs. “Why would you think-“ He cuts off as he noticed the tied up captives in military outfits. Sighing, he touches a communication device at his side, which makes you go rigid. You ready your magic when Ophelia places a hand on yours and says,

                “That’s a newer model, standard issue Deleorian military.” She says, looking relieved. “I know because I helped design that model.”

                “Ah.” You say, feeling your tiredness sink in while the man signals for backup. Sitting down on the muddy grass you side and hang your head back. “Good.”

                Despite how hard you rode, it still takes a day to reach fort Carlsbad. The patrol stays with you the whole time, getting your story from you while another patrol comes to help with the captives. The process is slow, but you need the time to patch up your wounded and rest after the encounter you didn’t expect to have so soon.

                Some of the captives awaken before you reach the fort, but they have nothing much to say of any value. The leader, the one who Finn beat into submission, stays out the entire trip, still unconscious as you deliver them to the fort. Thankfully, your escort vouches for you when you arrive, and you’re greeted by an Order Hero assigned to the fort instead of the Commander.

                The man is a little on the shorter side, but is slim and carries himself well, a longbow strung on his back. He wears leather armor with Order sigils and has a handsome face which looks all the better he smiles when greeting you.

                “Welcome! I am Order Hero Bernholt. They’ve asked me to help get you patched up and see how I can assist you. I was told there are members of the Order with you as well?”

                “Yeah.” You say, thumbing over your shoulder at Finn, the man carrying Rayleigh in his arms.

                Bernholt smiles up at Finn before going stone faced. “Oh. It’s you.”

                You and Clint exchange looks of surprise at the man’s sudden change in demeanor. The two don’t speak with each other for a long time before Finn grunts, “We have wounded.”

                Bernholt takes in a deep breath and says, “Of course. I’ll summon aides to take them to the infirmary.” He waves to a soldier for said help before turning back to you, his voice cold as ice. “I’ll make arrangements for you to stay until the morning. Let me know if you have any concerns.”

                He stalks away, leaving you bewildered by the exchange. A yawn comes from behind you, and you turn to see Alice dismount from her horse, rubbing at her eyes. She blinks and watches as Bernholt walks away before cocking her head.

                “Hey Finn, isn’t that Bernie? Didn’t you and he used to be in a unit together?”

                “Yes.” Finn says, voice rumbling. “We did.”

                You’re glad there’s beds being made for you, because you feel incredibly tired all of a sudden.

 

Chapter 5

                Sunlight tickles your nose and you awaken with a groan, rubbing at your eyes. Blearily, you look around your surroundings to find yourself in a small room with bunks inside a bland, stone chamber. With a yawn, you push yourself out of the simple bed, your body aching all over. It was better than the ground, but not by much.

                Rubbing at your eyes, you turn to the small slit of a window in the room and wonder how long you slept. While some of your party needed more immediate medical attention, after handing off your captives, you promptly fell asleep in an assigned room for travelers. Looking it over though, it was probably a storage room converted with extra bunks from the barracks.

                You rap your knuckles against the slats above you and a female voice groans, “Ugh, I don’t wanna get up.”

                “Alice.” You sigh as you stretch and rub your muscles. “Come on, we can’t stay here forever.”

                You hear a loud sigh followed by the view of disheveled silver hair framing a half-asleep face. The covers drop down further and your roll your eyes at the sight of decidedly NOT military issue undergarments. She doesn’t seem to mind at all as she adjusts herself before springing down out of the bed with a flourish. With a smirk, she asks, “See something you like.”

                “Please, Saya can be twice the woman you are.”

                Alice blinks in surprise and seems like she wants to say something before putting a hand to mouth and thinking very hard.

                Suppressing a chortle, you turn to other bunk where Finn rests on the bottom while Clarissa lays on top, snoring. The man, shirtless, pushes himself up from the bed and looks to the half-naked Alice before rolling his eyes. “I thought she said she’d changed.”

                “Hey!” Alice huffs. “I did change, these are new.”

                Finn frowns at her as Clarissa’s breathing changes. She grumbles and rolls over to the side of the bed. “Huh? Morning already?”

                “Yeah, rise and shine.” You say. “We should check on the others.”

                “Fair enough.” Finn says, reaching for the rest of his clothing. He frowns at Alice, who runs her eyes over his muscular body before nodding to Clarissa, who lifts a wing up as a screen. Alice huffs and turns away to don her own clothing, though you can’t help but notice Clarissa sneaking a peak every now and then at Finn too.

                Once dressed, you head down the corridors of Fort Carlsbad, Finn and Alice leading the way. You assume they’d been here before, though Finn doesn’t seem to want to talk much about it. Alice, on the other hand, goes on about how she was stationed here for a brief period but that the Commander of the fort had her reassigned to Helmscrag due to, “extreme fraternization.”

                It doesn’t take long to reach the infirmary where you find Finn sitting next to Ginelle’s bed. The man looks quite tired, but the Badger Girl just rolls her eyes and says, “It was just a scratch.”

                “Ginelle, it was like an inch deep.”

                She sighs and gestures at you, “He’s been like this all night. I was fine traveling out here, wasn’t I?”

                “You did go through a few bandages.” You say, shrugging. She just rolls her eyes.

                “When are we leaving?”

                “Tomorrow, maybe. Need to get a few things in order first.” You scratch your cheek. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

                “Tobias, please.” She chuckles, “Feels like old times really. This worrywart won’t let me get into any trouble like this. Maybe I’m a masochist?”

                “Not in bed you aren’t…” Clint mumbles, to which Ginelle flushes and swats at the man.

                “Hey, this is an infirmary you know.” A voice calls from behind. Turning, you see Rayleigh sitting up, her arms crossed. She’s wearing only a light shirt and has bandages over some cuts and scrapes, as well as a larger one from the arrow wound she suffered. You’re surprised to see how toned her little body is, but you guess that’s what life in the Order will do to you.

                “How are you feeling?” You ask, moving to her.

                “Fine, I guess.” She says, shrugging before giving a wince. “Damn thing hurts like a bitch though. At least I can still cast magic.” A small flame appears in her hand before going quickly out. “Or I could if I had my damn spunk vials back.”

                “Continue to rest.” Finn says, standing behind you. The Squirrel Girl’s ears go up for a second before she looks down, cheeks red.

                “Ah, yeah. Fair enough.” She coughs into her good hand. “How’s the princess?”

                Turning to the bed next to Rayleigh’s, you see Ophelia sleeping with a calm expression on her face. She almost does look like she has a touch of nobility in her like this, though a moment later her long ear twitches and she mumbles, “Keep it down, I’m sleeping.”

                “Oh boo-hoo, ‘I got kidnapped and knocked out.’” Rayleigh says from the bed next to hers. “Pshaw, I got shot!”

                “Yes, and the bandage is lovely.” Ophelia sighs, opening her eyes. She yawns and says, “I guess nap time is over.” She blinks at you, as if expecting something.

                “Uh, how are you feeling?”

                “Good, actually.” She stretches her lithe body. “Just a few scrapes here and there, nothing I haven’t gotten in the workshop.” Her expression becomes sour, “What happened to those brigands anyway?”

                “I assume they’re in holding.” You muse, rubbing at your chin. “I’ll have to ask Bernholt next time we see him.”

                “This seems a good time to arrive then.”

                You turn about to see the man standing behind you, dressed in the same outfit as yesterday. His bow isn’t on hand however, but he’s clearly armed with a long knife at this belt. The more you see him, the more you think he’s some kind of ranger rather than a frontline warrior like Finn.

                “Hero Bernholt.” You say, nodding to the man. “We were just going to look for you.”

                “Indeed.” He says, pointedly looking directly at you and no one else. “We wished to speak a little more too on your reason for being here, as well as get some more information about the group who attacked you.”

                “Fine by me.” You say, motioning to Finn. When you do, Bernholt merely frowns and shakes his head.

                “I think you’ll be enough.”

                Frowning, you turn to Finn, who shrugs. With a sigh, you nod to the others and follow the man out of the infirmary. He doesn’t say anything as you walk, making you feel incredibly uncomfortable until you reach a small room with a desk and a few chairs inside. He motions for you to sit and you do, looking about the sparsely decorated chamber.

                “Looks like an interrogation room to me.” You say.

                “That’s because it is.” Bernholt says. He raises a hand as your spine stiffens, “The door is unlocked, it’s just a quieter place to talk.”

                “I see.” You say, crossing your arms. “Well then, you wanted to ask us a few things?”

                “Yes.” He says, expression business-like. “You have quite the rag-tag group here. Order Heroes, civilian nobility, even the eldest daughter of the Lord Commander.” When your eyebrows rise, he waves a hand and chuckles,

                “Please, they’ve gone to events in Sanctifrond before, it’s not hard to piece together. She’s doing well by the way, is currently speaking with the Commander here and being treated as an honored guest.” His expression darkens, “Unlike some of your party.”

                “Finn, you mean.”

                “And Alice. I’ve heard rumors of Rayleigh when I was last at the Hero’s Hall too. All of them are miscreants, but they’re still technically of the Order. Which makes this all the more confusing as to what you’re doing traveling up here without anyone sending word ahead of time.”

                “That would be because we didn’t send any word.”

                Bernholt narrows his eyes at you and taps the table. “I see. Considering the fact that there are Order Heroes with you, one would assume this was an order from the Lord Commander.” He looks deep into your eyes, “Or, you’re trying to escape somewhere.”

                “Escape some-“ You pause and then clack your tongue. “So that’s why Patricia didn’t stay with us.”

                “She’s kind of important. Have to make sure you’re not kidnapping her.”

                Looking about the room, you realize just how appropriate this is. “Very well then.” Digging into your suit, you pull out your DSS badge and put it onto the table.

                Berholt stares at it for a long time before sighing out. “Of course you’d be with the DSS. They never do things the way they should.” He shakes his head and says, “Assuming that’s real, tell me why you’re out here.”

                “Assuming this is real, I don’t exactly have to do that, do I?”

                “You don’t really understand the situation, do you?” Bernhold chuckles. “We’re technically at war, and tensions aren’t great with the Monster Nation these days. A strange group, even one with government sanction, moving north is going to raise questions. Questions that the Commander here wants answered.”

                You think it over for a moment. They don’t need to the full specifics of your mission, not even Finn knows it all yet. Still… they’ll notice you moving north anyway, and the only thing up there are some villages and the Juliant Manor, though you’re not going that direction. You’re a little skeptical about telling him everything, but you can tell him SOMETHING.

                Sighing, you look down for a moment before saying, “Fine, we’re on an expedition to the Monster Nation. The Lord Commander signed off on this and has offered them Finn, Rayleigh, and Alice as bodyguards. We had wished to come to the fort on happier circumstances, but we were assaulted on our way in.”

                Bernholt studies your expression the entire time before nodding his head. “I’ll take your answer for now, as it lines up with what we know. Now then, about those you had captured in our uniforms, what happened?”

                “We were attacked a few days out from the city. They were using communications devices to organize, and I believe they had set up a sort of outpost in the forests to organize. I assume there was a spike in brigandry recently?”

                The man grunts. “Some, but nothing significant. Riders couldn’t find much whenever they went searching and it was out of our normal patrol boundaries.” He shakes his head, “So you got unlucky, was it?”

                “I wish it was that simple. Their objective was the Rabbit Girl and I’m afraid someone connected to Galmathoria put them up to it.”

                Bernholt’s spine stiffens and he rises. “Galmathoria? What are you talking about?”

                “We were accosted by a group of Orcs hired to act within Cair with the intention to capture Ophelia. They said they were ordered by someone named ‘Rose.’ I believe they wished to ransom her from Galmathoria, which makes me suspicious that there are still cells after the terrorist attach inside Cair.”

                “Damnit.” Bernholt says, grabbing writing instruments from the desk and scribbling down notes. “We assumed, but with tensions up north, we couldn’t afford to stray too far from the fort’s defenses. I’ll have to send a rider into the city to increase patrols.”

                “We informed the local Order before leaving.” You frown, “What do you mean, ‘tensions’ up north?

                “Damn Monsters are giving a hard time to traders trying to go through the only useable road into the Monster Nation. There’re some smaller paths but they’re a little dangerous, despite the Yetis in the area helping. Given it’s summer, they’re also not exactly active and are probably hibernating so the paths are dangerous.”

                “Have there been attacks?” You ask, surprised.

                “Nothing out of the ordinary from roving raiding parties, but they’re not bound by the Monster Nation so it’s up to local garrisons and us to take care of them.” He shrugs. “Still, it might be difficult for you to just waltz on in there.”

                His eyes narrow again. “But you should have known that, given your connections. How do you plan to just waltz on in there?”

                Tch. He’s a good one, rather perceptive. He’s probably really good at his job, but you can’t exactly risk all of your secrets getting out. “We’re going to ask really nice.”

                “Please, can we be serious here?”

                You chuckle and wave a hand, “I am. We haven’t quite planned that far ahead. I’m sure things will work out though.”

                He studies your expression before sighing, “I bet you’re serious aren’t you. Gods above.” He shakes his head. “Fine, fine. I believe you’re not enemies of the state, not that Finn would ever traffic with anyone like that.”

                “Speaking of…” You begin, unable to stop yourself. “What happened between you and Finn anyway? Alice says you were in the same unit. Does it have to do with him and that military officer?”

                Bernholt frowns. “I’m surprised he told- Ah, you read his file, didn’t you?” At a nod from you, he grits his teeth. “We were both deployed near the Galmathorian border about five years ago, a regular detachment with to the Deleorian military. There wasn’t much going on, but Finn lead our little squad well. Everyone liked the man, hells, I even liked the man.”

                He grimaces, “But on a joint exercise patrol, we were ambushed by a raiding party. Could have been Galmathorian, could have been just roving Monsters. Either way, they took a good number of us out before we could respond. We managed to drive them back, but when the Deleorian officer assigned with us tried to organize a pursuit, Finn stopped him, physically.”

                Bernholt clenches his hands. “All of our squad was lost in that raid, taken by those bitches. The only consolation is that they’re likely alive to sire children, though I doubt they’ll ever see Deleor again. I’ve hated that man and his cowardice ever since. I had hoped he would have been executed, but clearly the Lord Commander didn’t want that. It sickens me to know he’s back here.”

                Looking you in the eyes, he hisses, “You had better watch yourself. If you keep traveling with him, he’s going to leave you for dead, or worse.”

                You frown at the man’s story. The way he breathes in and out, the look in his eyes, these are for show. This man is clearly reliving a traumatic event, so he doesn’t believe he’s lying. But the Finn you’ve been traveling with is a stoic, pragmatic warrior. He had plenty of chances to leave you for dead, but he didn’t, even putting himself in danger. So what’s going on here? Why did he punch that officer?

                “I see.” You end up saying, nodding your head slowly. “Thank you for the information, I’ll be careful.”

                “You’ll be dead.” He whispers before shaking his head. “Anyway, I think I learned what I needed here. You can join the others again and we’ll see you off soon.”

                “Ah, about that.” You say. “Those brigands, what are you doing with them?”

                Bernholt cocks his head.

                “Interrogation as well. Why?”

                “Ugh, my damn head.” The lead Wolf Girl says, letting out a groggy moan. “Where am I?”

                “Hey, this one can talk.”

                She looks up, disoriented for a second before shaking her head and locking onto you. Her mouth works silently for a moment before growling out, “Ah fuck.”

                “Ah fuck indeed.” Bernholt says, crossing his arms before her. She struggles at her bonds, but the manacles have her chained in a way that she can’t move. Sighing, she stares up at the man and says,

                “I’ll suck your cock if you let me go.”

                “Tempting, but you’re just as like to bite it off.”

                “Oooo, feisty, I like a man with spunk.”

                “Yes, yes, just like most cock-hungry Monsters.” You say, crouching down near her. She compares the two of you before sniffing and looking back to Bernholt. What a fucking bitch.

                “Who paid you to grab Ophelia?”

                “Maybe we just wanted some rabbit stew?” She says, smiling at the Hero.

                “Lotta loyalty for a hired goon.” You say, frowning. “I heard you on the comms. Tell me about Rose, what’s her connection to Galmathoria?”

                She chuckles, “Oh, so you’re telling me you tricked me? I should have known that was the voice of a virgin on the damn device.” She shakes her head, “Rose is a name for my horse you see, though I suppose she’s probably dea-“

                Bernholt delivers a punch to her face that sends her clattering back against the wall of her cell. She growls and leaps forward, but her restraints send her crashing to the floor where she spits curses and howls at the two of you.

                “Cut the shit and we might let you go.”

                “Bernie pl-“

                “The name is Bernholt and you’re not the good officer here.” He cracks his knuckles. “I am.”

                “Ahaha, damn is this making me horny.” The Wolf Girl says. “Fuck, you sure you don’t want some rough and tumble?”

                “Typically it’s called T&A, but that works I guess.” You say, shrugging. “Look, we know about your little outpost and your gang is either dead or in holding. Rose can’t get you here, so unless you want Bernholt here to rough you up in ways that aren’t sexual, I’d get to talking.”

                “He said you were the bad officer, what can you do?”

                “I can make you see, feel, and hear things that aren’t there to the point where you wish you were dead.”

                She snorts, “Yeah, okay. So what, you have a club or something?”

                You push the club Bernholt gave you behind your back. “That too.”

                “Anyway.” Bernholt says. “You gain nothing by keeping your tongue. If you cooperate, we’ll let your pack live.”

                “And if we don’t?”

                “Brigandry can carry a sentence of execution.”

                The Wolf Girl hisses as you ask, “We know Rose was in communication with you. We know she wants Ophelia for a ransom, but why? Why were you even out there in the first place?”

                “Merchants are a good score, easy pickings which leads to good money we can spend in Cair. And if happens to deny resources to the fort, all the better.”

                “Are you Galmathorian agents?” Bernholt asks.

                “No, but Rose is. We were hired after that attack in Cair a few months back to cause trouble with the fort by denying resources as well as issues with north villages. I suspect they haven’t been getting many things and are quite… upset.”

                “Are there others like you?”

                “Probably? We were kind of on our own, only getting supplies from raids we were organized to do as well as drops every now and then. As far as I know, they keep things separate for this exact reason.”

                “Mercenaries again.” You sigh, rubbing your forehead. What is this Rose and the Galmathorians doing? “Why does she want Ophelia so bad?”

                “Isn’t that girl worth a lot of money? I’ll bet the pretty boy is too, but those weren’t our orders. We were just supposed to drop her near Cair so she could be transported out and await further orders, that’s all.”

                “Can you tell us anything else about Rose?”

                The Wolf Girl chuckles, “She’s a bitch, but she pays well. Not always the one in contact with us, but when she’s around, something serious is happening. Last time she was about was that attack if I recall. Lots of people dead, right? Must really suck for you people.”

                Bernholt makes to strike her again, but you grab his arm and shake your head. “No, she told us what we need to know, or at least all she knows herself.” When the Wolf Girl gives you a cheeky smile, you ask, “One last question. How would we go about finding Rose?”

                “Find Rose?” She lets out a throaty chuckle, “You don’t find Rose, she finds you!”

———————————————————————————-

                Bernholt shows you to the others in the infirmary once you finish questioning the prisoner, though you come back with more questions than answers. This Rose character… she isn’t going to follow you into the Monster Nation, is she? How could she, there’s no one here to report on you and comms shouldn’t reach to Cair, so says Ophelia. Things are fairly isolated here beyond the Communion Matrix, but that’s tightly regulated to only a few people, officers really.

                After telling the others of what you learned, they sit around, expressions worried. Ophelia again looks downcast, her ears flopping down. “Gods… I’m sorry, I had no idea.”

                “Again, it’s not your fault.” Clarissa sighs. “Sounds like they didn’t know who Patricia is though. But they should know about Clint…”

                “No matter, we should be able to leave with no one the wiser.” Rayleigh says, chuckling. “No one will think we’re headed to the Monster Nation, and the fort is secure, right?”

                “Those statements invite disaster.” Finn sighs.

                “Oh please, disaster like what?” The Squirrel Girl says, sticking her tongue out at the man.

                The door to the infirmary open to admit a flushed Patricia, her eyes worried. She takes a few panting breaths and says, “The blasted Commander made a report to his superiors and my father over the Communion Matrix!”

                Your face goes pale as the implications of that go through you. Well if they didn’t know who you were or where you’re going, they do now.

                First things first, you take a deep breath, then turn to Patricia and ask, ‘What did you tell them?”

                “Nothing you probably didn’t tell them.” She says, expression annoyed, though mostly with herself, you suspect. “I said that we were headed north toward the Monster Nation on business to meet with the Monster Lady as part of a delegation brokered during her time in Sanctifrond.”

                Her expression sours, “Clearly, they didn’t believe me, or thought I was acting scared. I was only ‘released’ when that Hero came to speak with the Commander.”

                “And they just let you go, even still?” Clarissa asks, surprised. “Not to offended, but we’re kind of a ragtag group and we’re headed into potentially contested territory.”

                “The Monster Lady’s name holds clout, as well as my own.”

                “I see.” You say, glad at least you’d convinced Bernholt of your innocence. “Well that still leaves the problem that information is leaked we’re headed northward.”

                “I don’t understand.” Rayleigh says. “The messages sent through Order channels on the Communion Matrix are encrypted with runic signatures. I doubt anyone could leak things unless…” She lets the implications of that hang.

                Hells, you knew this would come up at some point. You were hoping you could let it slide for awhile longer, but there’s no avoiding it now, especially given the look Finn is giving you. With a sigh, you check to make sure the hallway outside is empty before saying,

                “The leylines are compromised. Any and all information on the Communion Matrix is up for grabs to those who have invaded it.”

                Both Finn and Rayleigh’s eyes open wide in shock. The Squirrel Girl looks down, her expression deeply troubled while Finn crosses his arms and grunts. “This is why you said no leymail, right?”

                “Exactly.”

                He considers for a moment before sighing. “I don’t suspect you’ll tell us who has control of this, do you?”

                You study the man, remembering what Bernholt said. Rayleigh… you feel she’s probably trustworthy, she’s just too exuberant to hide things, but Finn? His past is convoluted. Maybe he really did abandon those men like a coward, or perhaps he led them into a trap to be captured. Your heart says that’s not the case but… but…

                “At this time, no. I’m sorry.”

                Rayleigh purses her lips together but looks to Finn, who studies your expression before shaking his head. “Fine. I understand.”

                “U-Uhm.” Ophelia says from her bed. “Well, if that’s all the information they sent, then it doesn’t mean that much, right? Sure, they could know we’re going to the Monster Nation, but what reason would anyone like those brigands or the Orcs in town have to set up north of here? If they’re related to Galmathoria, then they don’t want to cause trouble with the Monster Nation, and doesn’t the fort patrol up north a lot?”

                “Yes.” Alice says. “There’s many patrols going to outlying villages, the Juliant Manor, etc. Some Monster Nationals come down south as well and pass through the fort on their way to Cair and it’s a big risk to attack them, pending the kind of Monster they are. Most bandits are just raiding parties on the villages looking for men every now and then.”

                “S-so we should be fine heading up the main road, right?” Ophelia says, hopeful.

                You think it over for a moment before sighing. “Yes. We’d lose way too much time going through the passes around and there’s probably snow up there, even this time of year. Besides, we have a missive to deliver.”

                “Well that’s that then.” Clint says, nodding his head. “We just need to get settled and head out to the Monster Nation, right? Assuming everyone is feeling well enough?” His gaze turns to Ginelle, who growls and sniffs.

                “Heh, takes a lot more than getting sliced open to stop you, huh?” Rayleigh says. She winces but continues, “I’ll be okay. Arrow went kind of deep, but it was just muscle.” She bats her eyes, “I’m afraid I can’t be on guard duty though.”

                Finn snorts as Ophelia nods her head. “And I’m well recovered. We’ll leave tomorrow then?”

                You come to an agreement and leave the infirmary to make sure supplies are taken care of and your horses are well groomed. A quiet anxiety fills you the entire time however, a gnawing in the back of your head that says something is wrong about all of this. You’d like to believe things are going to be easy for you going forward, but is that really the case? Is this Rose just going to let you go? Perhaps it’s something to consider for the return trip, you suspect.

———————————————————————————-

                The next day comes without incident, and Bernholt sees you off. He pointedly does not look at Finn as he wishes you well, and you’re certain Finn doesn’t want to talk to him either. It makes the sending off both anticlimactic as it is routine. You’re perfectly fine with this.

                The moisture of the previous rains still hangs in the air as you start your journey, and despite the more northern climate, a humidity pervades which causes the hells for your Monster companions. Poor Rayleigh puffs up like a ball, doing her best to comb it all down while Ginelle is merely itchy, forcing Clint to keep her from tearing her skin with her own massive talons.

                Oppressive clouds hang overhead, but after the first few days no trouble reaches you. Uneventful is the best way to describe it, something you find quite relaxing, even if it has you on edge. When would something come your way? You’re not certain, but eventually. You can’t just have a normal journey, that’s not how this works, right?

                Thankfully Finn and Rayleigh don’t push any questions, though you do feel a cool kind of distance with the man. He gets along fine with Clint, but your relationship has become strictly professional with the Hero. Part of you says that’s just fine, but it does kind of sting. Well, you’re in charge so you have to get used to this sort of thing.

                The remaining days to the Monster Nation are as dull, thank the Gods. Seems Ophelia was correct in her assumption, you don’t see anyone. Given tensions with the Monster Nation, you’re certain that you weren’t going to see any travelers anyway beyond a patrol which leaves you alone. In fact, you’re surprised when you run across an outlying village one day, though you don’t stay long. Seems things have been oddly peaceful recently, a blessing you’re sure.

                As you approach, the mountains looming in the distance grow ever closer, their bulk managing to make you gape in surprise. You’d never been this far north, or the to range in the east between Deleor and Ectria. You’d read about them of course, but seeing it is a different story entirely. Even the slight chill off the mountains is surprising, given the time of year. Such an impressive barrier… Gods, to think that Monsters would pour over this every so often to attack Deleor makes your mind boggle.

                Despite being so close to their territory, you still see no signs of Monsters, no outriders, nothing. There isn’t even Deleorian outpost this far north, perhaps because they always got destroyed in the past before any word could be brought to the fort? Either way, you follow the well-worn road until you behold in the distance a massive gate seemingly built into the side of the mountain.

                Even the gates of Sanctifrond are nothing compared to this monstrosity, the entire structure made of rough-hewn stone with a portcullis of gleaming metal large enough to allow even a pre-transformation Dragon through. Beside the gate, carved into the side of the mountain are two statues, both mirror images of each other depicting a woman with half angelic, half bestial features holding their hands out over the gate.

                “Dollora…” Ginelle whispers, instinctively knowing the face of her Goddess.

                As you wagon wheels close, you’re stopped by two, utterly massive Minotaurs. You’ve seen the bovine Monsters before in Deleor, but none of them were anywhere near the size of these two. Their muscles seem large and stiff enough to deflect sword blows, even if they got through the heavy armor covering it. And yet, despite looking like they could single handedly break Finn apart with their bare hands, they still have a degree of femininity which even their armor plays upon, working across the strong curves of their body. Perhaps not overly protective, but do they really need it?

                One of them snorts and paws the ground with her cloven hooved foot. “Halt. This is the entrance to the Monster Nation, the gates are currently closed. You will need to return south.” Her eyes glint though. “Unless you wish to bring challenge?”

                Clint clacks his tongue. “I could probably bring her down with a shot to the eye before she could charge us.”

                “Probably so.” You sigh. “However that’s not our purpose here.”

                Jumping down from the wagon, you walk up to the two Monsters, who stand over a foot taller than you. Keeping yourself from feeling intimidated, you take in a deep breath and address the guards. “Good day. My name is Tobias Shady, and I come at the behest of the Monster Lady herself.”

                The Minotaurs snort and chuckle. “Oh, aye? Is that so. What proof do you have?”

                Reaching into your pocket, you pull out the [Monster Lady’s Missive] and hand it toward them. They look at each other before one reaches down with a hand that eclipses yours and takes it, looking the paper over before sniffing. She frowns and says, “Hrmph. Smells like it could have come from her.”

                “Are you… not going to read it?” You ask, confused.

                “Can’t read.” She says, as if this is unimportant. Even over twenty years later, it would make sense that most Monster Nation citizens can’t read, at least not Deleorian, you suppose.

                The Minotaur turns and calls back behind the gate, “Hey! Ulrica! Come over here, we got something for you.”

                The loud voice of the minotaur echoes through the gate, down a massive tunnel carved into the very mountain itself. Her voice resounds until another noise echoes back, growing louder and louder. It takes you a moment to realize what it is: The clopping of hooves on stone.

                From the torchlit confines of the tunnel you see a form emerge, much, much smaller than that of the Minotaurs outside. It’s a feminine figure, about your height with immaculate curves and well formed breasts. Her business-like clothing hugs her hips tight and she adjusts the spectacles on her face with a finger before looking you over and speaking in a brusque tone,

                “Well? What is it?” The Minotaur reaches down to hand the missive the Monster, who looks at the seal for a moment before she flicks it open with practiced ease and reads the contents.

                You watch her as she reads, taking in her other features. Her legs from her waist down appear to be covered in a dark grey hair which terminates into hooves similar to the Minotaurs. Atop her head, she also has large, bovine horns, but they’re smaller in comparison to the other Monsters. She shifts to read, you also notice the large, fluffy tail from her backside, though that’s clearly not bovine. Sniffing, she brushes aside her long, grey hair pulled into a ponytail, and you see something on her forehead that resembles an eye, though you can’t be sure it’s not just jewelry.

Pursing her lips, she holds out the letter toward you and says, “You’re a very interesting person, Tobias Shady. To have a letter directly from the Monster Lady herself proclaiming you as her son-in law. How curious indeed.”

O-oh. S-she thinks of you as a son? Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

“Hmph. I had figured that her daughter visiting the capital was unmarried, though I do recall she has two other daughters even if one is… whatever that is.” The bovine Monster shrugs. “Normally I would turn you away as these are MY gates, but family is very important in the Monster Nation. Besides, I wouldn’t hear the end of it from that dam-“ She cuts herself off and takes a deep breath.

“Regardless, arrangements will be made to bring you to the capital.”

“Uhm.” You say, worried. “I think we’ll be fine on our own, though we thank you for the offer-“

“Oh no.” She says, glaring at you while waving for someone to raise the portcullis. “You don’t understand. You’re going to be escorted to the capital whether you like it or not.”

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