Wizardquest 3 Part 3: Home is Where the Heart is.

>Rommel

The road to Blackfire Reach was just as uneventful as you remember it. Not the first time, of course, because you had to fight slavers, crazy abomination possessed constructs, and the raging hormones of your companions, but more like the trip you recently made to Sanctifrond. This time, the only thing you had to deal with was the raging hormones of one companion. Thank the Gods she’s your wife.

                On your trip back, you’d gone through familiar towns and villages, not staying for very long. Thankfully you have horses this time and can ride home at a much better pace than before. Still, a sense of nostalgia washes through you as you visit the town you met Sophie and Sylphie in, the place which changed the course of your life. Though you didn’t visit, you remember the path you took to reach the village where you met Ebe.

                A pang of sadness goes through you at that. Though you’ve exchanged letters, it’s been some time since you saw the Gandharva. You understand she’s doing well in Ectria, but you miss her gentle attitude sometimes. Of course, Tabitha jokes with you for thinking about other women, but both of you know that’s just silly.

                The skies are clear overhead as you reach Blackfire Reach, the imposing mountains looming around you. You navigate your horses through the side pass in the corridor that leads between Deleor and Ectria, a large sign proclaiming “Blackfire Reach” posted at the opening. You remember how proud the citizens were to have made that sign, and the hard work they made to clear the path and make things more accessible to travelers. Of course, you had to use your magic to clear a lot of the rocks, but that’s neither here nor there.

                You happily did it for your home.

                “Blackfire Reach, huh?” A female voice says next to you. Turning, you see a middle aged woman with long, brown hair wearing plate armor like it weighed nothing. A polished mace sits at her side while a long cape flutters behind her horse’s hindquarters. She smiles, a few wrinkles at the corners of her eyes as she says, “Did you make that sign, Tabitha?”

                The Lizardman frowns, “No, Veronica. I did not. A few other Lizardmen and a Wyvern who moved out here did.”

                Veronica chuckles, “I’m just teasing you. Still, looks like someone took good care of this road.”

                “Still a little bumpy though.” A male voice calls as he rides up beside you.

                The man is tall, dressed in hard leather armor with a sword belted at his side. Though his expression is serious, you can tell it’s out of duty, rather than being some kind of asshole. Somehow this realization makes you feel a sense of kinship to the man with the short, black hair. More than anything, he just seems to be exasperated with Veronica’s antics, despite her position. They seem pretty close, to be honest.

                Thinking of your new companions, you realize someone is missing. You look around with confusion until a voice enters your mind.

                {Aww, looking for me?}

                {Erwin.} You sigh mentally, following the mental signature of your familiar bond to the form of a ruddy red fox curled up on the back of Tabita’s horse. {I know exactly where you are, we have a magical link, remember?}

                {I still like to feel loved every now and then.} He sends back with a smug tone. You frown at him and he mentally chuckles, {Yes, yes, I understand. You’re looking for the mouse, right?}

                {Yes, where is Maya?}

                Erwin yawns, {Didn’t she ride off ahead? Said she had some scouting to do?}

                You sigh at this, remembering the discussion now. {Yeah. Which means she’s probably-}

                “Ah, there she is.” Veronica says, catching your attention.

                Ahead of you, nestled into some larger rocks and patches of grass, you see the swish of a horse tail. Riding closer, you recognize it as the one belonging to Maya, your other companion. Groaning, you call out, “MAYA!”

                A small yawn sounds from deeper in the rocks and a moment later you see a small form emerge, rubbing at her eyes. Maya is short, perhaps a little over four feet tall but still has a few curves to her lean body. She wears light leather armor with multiple pouches and wears a bow with a full quiver behind her. Looking at the short woman with short, mussed grey hair, you’d almost think she was human. However a few features, namely the long, worm-like tail protruding from her backside, the grey fur extending from her elbows and knees down to her hands and feet, and the small, mouse-like ears atop her head, proclaim her as a Monster.

                The Mouse Girl yawns again and waves to you. “Allo Rommel. Path ahead is clear though I’d watch out for a small pitfall created by a Wurm tunneling. It’s a nice day out, isn’t it?” She smiles, half-asleep, not really looking at anything.

                “Maya.” You groan. “What did I say about going to sleep in the middle of the day?”

                “Hmmm.” She touches her mouth. “Don’t do it?”

                Exasperated, you turn to Veronica, “Was she really the best the Lord Commander could send us?”

                “Yes.” Veronica says, amused. “She’s quite good at her job, as you well know. She just has… a difficult personality.”

                “Nuh uh.” Maya says, expression still sleepy. “I just use a lot of energy is all. Just a quick nap to make things fine is all I need-“

                “Maya. Get back on your horse.” Bardam says, voice commanding.

                The Mouse Girl snaps to attention, giving a salute, her eyes full and wide open now. She blinks a few times before pouting. “Aww dang Bardam. You tricked me awake.”

                You sigh and turn to Tabitha, who rolls her eyes at you before leading her horse away. The little Mouse Girl nimbly leaps up a rock and jumps off to land upon her horse’s saddle, though due to her weight, the horse barely seems to notice continuing to munch on grass the whole time. She yawns and says, “Okaaaaaay, let’s go!”

                She takes the lead of your little group, navigating the path far better than even you, someone who lives here, could. You’re surprised to see the hole she mentioned, almost hard to see due to some cover from brush. You’ll have to talk with the Wurms again about this…

                It’s hard to stay mad at the cheery scout. If only she was bad at her job, but she isn’t. Still, you think you understand why she was recalled off duty in the first place. Any officer would surely have had it up to here with her.

                It’s early afternoon by the time you reach the first set of gates to Blackfire Reach. The gate guards, a pair of Lizardmen, let you in while asking about your trip to Sanctifrond. While you’d love to have small talk, you decline, saying that you and your guests are tired. They don’t give you any trouble, though they do notice the Order symbols on your other members with curiosity. You pass through the other gates without difficulty as well, eventually opening up into the wide caverns of Blackfire Reach.

                Light shines down from holes in the mountaintop, illuminating a vast underground structure of stone buildings. Intricate stonework covers the structures while tiled streets and elaborate well structures and fountains give life to the grey city. Here and there flowers brought in from outside, or grown in the rich, volcanic soil add some color, and you’re heartened to see citizens, mostly Lizardmen, Wurms, and other scaled varities of Monsters working with each other.

                And there is much work to be done.

                Though the entryway to the city is grand, much of Blackfire Reach is still rubble, destroyed during the Wurm invasion years ago that killed many Lizardmen and drove the rest out. When the schemes of the treacherous Danuki were brought to light and the Wurm Queen was driven out east, the former residents, or at least their descendants, returned to rebuild their ancient homeland.

                Despite the troubles of the past, some of the happy-go-lucky Wurms stayed after their Queen left, as this was the only home they ever knew also. Though there were some misgiving at the start, they quickly integrated well with the Lizardmen, and more and more Monsters who relished the warm heat of the dormant volcano flocked to make homes in the empty city.

                Your group draws many stares as you ride in, the citizens surprised to see you leading Order members. They’d been around a few times and caused no trouble, but it’s still an oddity. Some of the citzens eye Bardam with lecherous eyes while others furrow their brows, confused. Most, however, just greet you and Tabitha as you make your way to your home on the other side of the city.

                Once the horses are stabled at a nearby inn (it’s not like there are many horses inside the mountain), you head to your home, a stone structure that survived most of the years of neglect from the Wurms. You’d managed in these past few months to make it something respectable, both with stone cutting skills learned from craftsmen brought to the city and with your Geomancy.

                Veronica looks quite impressed with the structure, whistling as you open the door. A voice calls out to you as the grating stone opens.

                “Hello? Who is it?”

                “It’s just me, Helene. I brought guests!”

                From down the stairs slithers a Monster with purple skin and a long, purple scaled snake’s tail. She wears a simple tunic and skirt to cover herself ample curves, while long, brown hair spills down her back. She smiles as she sees you, her glowing red eyes framed by black sclera no longer frightening you.

                “Brother!”

                She slithers forward and gives you a big hug, her monstrous strength still enough to make you grunt despite your build. Before you can say anything, she lets you go and plants hands on her hips. “You’re back sooner than expected. And with guests who are…” She trails off, studying the Order members before frowning.

                “I thought you said you weren’t going to get into anything like this again.”

                You sigh, knowing you’d be unable to get past your sister’s wits. Before she was made host to an ancient Monster and transformed into this form, she was a survivor out in the wastes of Ectria. Hiding things from her was always going to be difficult.

                “It’s a long story.” You say, to which she sniffs.

                “I don’t have anyone to babysit at the moment, so I have time.”

                “I’ll go make tea then.” Tabitha says, her metallic legs clicking on the stone flooring. “Everyone make yourselves comfortable.”

                The other spread out onto your furniture, Veronica amused at the Ectria style rugs and cushions. So you had a flare for culture and connections with the Sultan. That doesn’t mean anything about your tastes at all! Bardam gives you a worried look, but you wave it away, knowing you can’t keep this from her, especially if you were going to be staying in the city.

                Maya lays down in a pile of cushions and promptly falls asleep while Helene coils onto herself, Erwin jumping into her lap. She strokes his fur as you tell her your story, the things you learned at the meeting. By the end, her tea is untouched and she has her hands folded before her, dark eyes calculating.

                “So you believe there’s an artifact of Sveth somewhere in the city?”

                “Unless the Danuki took it, yes.” You sigh out, “But I’m not certain where to look first.”

                “There’s records leftover from the Danuki in the palace.” Helene suggests. “But the Wurms have been all over the city, I don’t know where something like that could hide!”

                “That’s what worries me too.” You say. “But we have to search, because if it’s not here, then the world itself could be in peril.”

                Helene’s mouth quirks. “The world could be in peril?” She snickers a few more moments before lightly punching you on the shoulder. “So melodramatic!”

                “Did you not just listen to the story? And the stuff we went through before-“

                “Hush, I’m well aware.” She sighs. “It’s just fun to tease you.” Taking a deep breath, she claps her hands and says, “So, where do we start?”

                “Helene…” You begin, feeling a little nervous. “I… was hoping not to involve you in this if I could.”

                “Oh Gods.” Tabitha groans, rubbing at her forehead. “That’s the worst way to keep someone from being involved.”

                Helene plants her hands on her hips and rises high into the air above you on her tail. She stares down at you, her piercing red eyes boring into your very soul. “What was that, dear brother?”

                “U-uh. That is to say… you can come along… at least for now.”

                Her expression suddenly turns cheery and she reaches forward to pat your head. “That’s what I thought. Anyway, Tabitha, some of the others gave me some food, do you want to help make some?”

                “Sure.” Your wife says, gently patting your leg. “I’ll be right there.”

                “I can help as well.” Veronica replies but is shot down by Tabitha who insists she is a guest, which she is.

                The woman watches the two reptilian Monsters leave the room before chuckling. “Tabitha, domesticated? My I never thought I’d see the day.”

                You turn your head to her and shrug, “To be honest, I’m as surprised as you are. Though she fell into it easily so I secretly think she always wanted this sort of thing.”

                Veronica gives a more girlish giggle. “Is that so? Well good for her. I’m glad she found someone who makes her happy.”

                Studying the woman, you feel that she earnestly means this. It didn’t take much to figure out that Veronica and Tabitha had a kind of bond that transcended a simple friendship, one made from shared tragedy and hurts. She cares deeply for her best friend, though the hint of sadness in her eyes as she says this hurts you though. From what Tabitha had told you, in saving her life, the Grand Wizard had made her infertile.

                As if reading your thoughts, Veronica claps her hands and asks, “So, how goes the baby-making?”

                “Damnit Veronica!” Tabitha shouts from the kitchen.

                “Do you have to tease them about this so often?” Bardam says, shaking his head. “And even in their own house?”

                “This is the best time to tease them about it!” Veronica huffs, crossing her arms. “Besides, I have dibs on being the Godmother.”

                “I’m sure Tabitha won’t complain WHEN that happens.” You sigh, feeling beet red. Wasn’t she supposed to be a holy woman? All you’ve seen of her thus far on your journey is that she’s fairly easy going and can swear like a sailor. Guess Tabitha’s stories were true after all. “Anyway, let’s get down to talking about where we should start.”

                Standing up, you walk over to a desk and pull out a rolled piece of parchment, which you lay out on a table. The others (save for Maya, who is still passed out), gather around as you weigh down the edges. It’s a map of Blackfire Reach, recovered from the palace. While some of it is now inaccurate, most of the layout of the city is correct.

                “Hmm? Why do you have this?” Bardam asks, the man’s eyes quickly scanning the map with practiced ease.

                “My specialty is geomancy and I’m married to the Wanderer, so we have a little bit of celebrity status.” You sigh. “It took a lot not to be put up in the palace, but it did get me into a role as foreman for rebuilding the city and the mines.”

                “Hmm.” Veronica says, tapping the map. “So these with the marks on them are destroyed?”

                “Yeah, we’re tearing them down and rebuilding. Thankfully space isn’t an issue yet, but hopefully it will be as more couples move here.” Folding your arms across your chest, you sigh. “I wanted to confirm by looking at it, but I’ve been in most of these houses, there really isn’t much left from the Wurm invasion. We found a few things, but nothing like this relic we’re looking for, I assume.”

                “The Danuki were in control for a long time.” Veronica says, crossing her arms. “If they found that, it might already be in Danusreal.”

                “They keep records about these kinds of things, right?” Bardam asks. “I’ve heard the Danuki are quite meticulous, a good trait.”

                Both you and Veronica give the man a flat stare. He blinks, confused before coughing into his hand. “Aren’t there any leftover after they were driven out?”

                “We found some reports in the mines.” You say, shrugging. “But the rest might be in the palace? None of the Wurms knew of anything there and I’ve been around, looking through their old rooms. I didn’t find anything of importance, though it’s not like we tore the place up or anything.”

                “That doesn’t fit with what I’ve heard of them though.” Bardam sighs. “Maybe we should search the mines instead? Possibly find something there if we look?”

                “We could be down there forever and never find anything but black lung.” Veronica sighs. “We need a clear goal.” She considers,

                “What about the Wurm Queen, Emphrasea? She seemed pretty on the ball.”

                “She’s someone in Ectria.” You sigh. “It would take too long to find her also.”

                “So, what do we do then?” She asks, turning her gaze on you.

                You pause, her expression cooler than you remember. A quiet resolve sits there, something which bores into you and demands an answer. It makes your spine crawl and you now also believe the other stories you’ve heard of the woman. No wonder she and Tabitha get along so well.

                “I suppose we check the palace again.” You sigh. “Tomorrow, we’ll head over and do a search. Hopefully with more eyes we can find something.”

                A shuffling sound catches your attention and you turn to see Maya rolling in your cushions, her expression blissful as she naps. She doesn’t seem to have heard anything in the discussion and is sound, sound asleep.

                Or maybe you’re just shit out of luck.

———————————————————————————————————————–

                The next day after breakfast you head toward the palace feeling rested at having slept in a bed next to your wife. Of course, since you had some privacy you may have let loose a little too, but in moderation, though Veronica’s knowing eyes at the breakfast table made you wonder if Tabitha was a little too loud at points. Erwin assures you this was the case.

                Regardless, you meet with Helene, who had retired to her own home after dinner last evening, and head through the streets to the large palace on the edge of the city. Being inside what is essentially a cave makes a building like this stand out, despite the grandeur of it. It had taken many blows during the occupation by the Wurms, but restoration had moved swiftly, marble being used to replace many of the broken features.

                While the descendants of the royal family had yet to return for whatever reason, a mayor had been elected in the interim so she stays in the palace, running the general affairs of the town along with a council of other citizens, which Tabitha is a part of. Traveling dignitaries and non-Danuki merchants seeking to make deals with the city and Order members present to keep the peace also stay there, though none are currently present.

                A red-scaled Lamia watering a garden inside the palace grounds waves to you while a Wurm trims hedges, much to the consternation of a Wyvern hovering above her. They all wave to you as you pass by, the Wyvern flying off ahead to announce your arrival. Celebrity status, wooo.

                “Doesn’t this make covert operations a little more difficult?” Bardam says, seeming worried. I get that it gets us into places, but won’t people notice what you’re doing?”

                “Aww don’t worry so much.” Maya says, yawning. She rubs at her eyes before adjusting her armor. “Everything will be okay.”

                Bardam gives her a look that makes it seem like everything will NOT be okay, but he lets it slide as you approach the entrance to the palace. A dapper looking Lizardman dressed for some reason as a butler lets you inside where you enter a dazzling foyer. Freshly polished marble floor decorated by Ectrian rugs greets you while ancient paintings that the Danuki didn’t sell off hang on as many walls as they can, giving a sense of class. The place didn’t look half this good when the Danuki ran it before.

                Tabitha lets out a sigh, which Veronica notices. Shaking her head, the Lizardman says, “We questioned why they’d put so much effort into restoring this place first, but this is a significant place for many who were scattered. Seeing it restored makes others work that much harder to get the city back in order.”

                “Indeed, Mrs. Leitner!” A voice calls down from above. Craning your neck, you look up to see a Lizardman walking toward you, though not of the common variety. She has coal-black scales and light brown skin along with long, red hair spilling down her shoulders. While this wouldn’t be too uncommon for a Lizardman, her tail, which burns with a perpetual fire, marks her as a Salamander. She adjusts her clothing, a rather revealing set of light armor, and walks down to greet you.

                “You two came back fairly quick.” She says, planting hands on her hips. “Got bored of the big city and wanted to come back home?”

                “Lydia, please.” Tabitha sighs. “We have some business to conduct.” She scrunches up her nose. “And shouldn’t you be wearing something more… mayoral?”

                “Pshaw.” Lydia says, waving a hand. “No one here cares and my husband likes it, so whatever. Besides, always have to be ready for a fight, right?”

                “I should hope not.” You say, offering your hand. She takes it in her clawed hand and you feel a wave of heat flow through you as opposed to the usual cool of most reptilian Monsters.

                “Well, it must be important to head straight here. What can I help with?”

                “We wanted to look over the old Danuki files and their rooms.”

                “Huh? Well that’s fine but what do you think you’ll find? You’ve already been over them before.”

                You shrug, “Won’t know until we find it.”

                She purses her lips. “Alright then. If you need help, then just ask one of the staff.” She considers. “Feels strange calling them staff given that’s basically what I did for a few years after we got exiled, but well, that’s what they want so-“ Her words cut off as she seems to notice the others in your party.

                “Oh goodness me, I apologize.” She bows. “Members of the Order are always welcome here. I am Mayor Lydia Turlayne. Please make yourselves at home.”

                “That is quite alright.” Veronica says, giving a motherly smile, though it seems quite likely that Lydia is older than her. “My name is Veronica, and these are my companions, Bardam, and Maya.”

                The Salamander blinks a few times before studying Veronica and then gasping, her tail fire flashing. “Oh hells, you’re-“

                Tabitha shakes her head and the Salamander cuts off, coughing into her hand. “Ah well, sorry about that. Anyway, let me know if I can help and enjoy your time in our fair city!” She scurries off after that, leaving a bewildered Bardam behind her.

                “Is… she really okay to be mayor?”

                “She’s done well enough.” Tabitha says. “Besides, she used to live her before the Wurms came. Yes, she did age very well.”

                No one says anything further as you head up the stairs and into the hallways leading to the rooms. Here and there you see a bustle of Monster staff cleaning, and occasionally a human male or female going about the same business. Bardam has to drag Maya as she stares at a comfortable four-posted bed in one of the rooms, but eventually you reach one of the rooms frequented by the Danuki.

                Opening it, you find the room dusty and lit only by residual sunlight creeping in from the curtains. Throwing them open, the light reveals a study-like room with a large desk in the center and multiple bookcases. While there are normal books, there are also multiple ledgers and mining records covered in layers of dust. You haven’t exactly been keeping up with them and others don’t like to be reminded of what happened here in the past.

                “We’ve been through all the records here, but it was fairly boring. Still, that means we might have missed something, so let’s take a look.”

                The others nod and start pulling books off the shelves, flipping through them. You take one as well and sit down at the table, the comfortable chair creaking under your weight. The boring tasks is as boring as you suspect. The others take it well, though you notice Erwin curled up in Helene’s lap as she reads while Maya peruses about the room, pulling on books and sniffing the air.

As you flip through your fourth book, a ledger of ore transactions from ten years ago, you hear a shuffling sound and look down. Maya is on the floor next to you, her ears twitching as she sniffs. Her expression is half-lidded as if she’s sleep walking, and you’re about to say something when she huffs and crawls past you and under the desk. You fumble for a moment as she jostles your legs before making grunts of effort and sighs of disappointment.

                “Maya, what the fuck are you doing?” You whisper, pulling away from her. Looking up, you see Tabitha watching you with a strange expression. She puts down the book she was helping Veronica with and walks over to you, asking,

                “Everything alright?”

                “Uhhh.” You say, not certain how to respond to this situation. “I have no idea.”

                “Aha! Got it!” Maya says from beneath the table. Everyone’s gaze shoots toward the table as she stands up and gives a thumbs up. “There you go Rommel, no problem.”

                Before you can even turn red from embarrassment or anger, you hear a grinding sound as one of the bookcases nearby begins to swing inward, revealing a set of stairs leading down. You look down at the Mouse Girl to find her standing smug, hand on her hips. “I knew there was something weird under it. I worked at it though and it finally released!”

                Both Tabitha and Veronica look at each other for a long moment before they break out into laughter, their voices echoing in the small room. Helene blinks in surprise, putting a hand to her mouth while Veronica has to lean on Tabitha for support. You bury your face in your hands, not certain what just happened here, but at least thankful that your wife isn’t angry. You think.

                “Good Gods, Rommel.” Helene says, shaking her head. “Infidelity! How shameful!”

                “H-Holy fuck, ahaha.” Veronica says, wiping tears from her eyes. “What a choice of words after- ahaha!”

                “R-Rommel, you should s-see the look on your face!” Tabitha says, having a hard time breathing.

                “Maya.” You say, hands drifting to your side. “Explore that tunnel.”

                She salutes, somehow oblivious to the situation. “Okie dokie!” Gathering up her bow, she walks toward the passage, waving to Bardam, who follows her with a worried expression.

                {Pffff.} Erwin sends to you. {You should see your face!}

                {Not now, fuzzball.}

For your part, you sit there, watching your wife and her best friend laugh at you. Once they begin to only snicker, you ask,

                “Got it out of your system?”

                “It sounded like she jacked you off!” Veronica says.

                “Typically that’s not a good thing for a relationship.”

                “Oh please.” Tabitha says, chuckling. “I know what you look like when you’re letting it loose, it’s just funny.” She takes a deep breath and sighs out, patting Helene’s shoulder to relieve her, “Besides, I know you’d never let that sort of thing happen.”

                You sigh out though you kind of wondered what she’d look like jealous, “Well good then, glad we-“

                “Heeeeeeeeey!” Maya calls down from the tunnel. You’re surprised her voice carries that well. “You should come down here!”

                The three of you nod and head down the cramped passageway to enter a room about the size of the one you just left, crowded with more bookshelves. In the light of a magitek lantern that Maya turned on, you see books covered in dust. A small desk crammed into he corner has a book atop it as well, and you open it to find the book filled with various maps of what you assume are tunnels.         

                As you flip through the pages, the others take down books to find ledgers which differed from the ones up top and manifests of different shipping contents. Seems the Danuki were keeping some things hidden from the others, especially areas where they either skimmed from the top or sent off treasures they never reported.

                “Hmm.” You say, staring at one page in your book while Erwin cocks his head and tries to piece things together. Tabitha looks over your shoulder and asks,

                “Something wrong?”

                “This tunnel here, I don’t remember it on any of the maps.” You flip another page, “This one too. It’s far into the network, but I remember seeing where these branch on the maps and these aren’t listed there.”

                “What does that mean?” She asks as you point to some scribbles in the book. The words, “Explore at later date,” and “Do not let the Wurms in” are marked there. The tunnels look to go a distance before cutting off, however.

                “There’s something they found and didn’t want anyone else to know about. Why though? If it were valuable, wouldn’t they want to have the Wurms be expendable for them?”

                “I don’t see anything in here about something like this ‘Heart of the Crags.’” Veronica says, putting a book back on the shelves. “I can’t be certain until we read all of them, but it’s looking like they may never have found it.”

                Tabtiha clacks her fingers on the wood of the table. “Which means… we may need to go digging? Gods, how long would that take by ourselves?”

                “Not sure, but guess we’ll need to find out.”

—————————————————————————————————-

                None of the other records had anything relating to this “Heart of the Crags.” There certainly were interesting information about other relics left behind by fleeing Lizardmen or the royal family sold off to various places in Deleor, Ectria, and the eastern countries, including Danusreal, however. Tabitha finds this most frustrating of all, and resolves to make sure they can track down and trade or purchase these items back.

                “Hmm.” You say, tapping your desk back at home. You returned there after informing the mayor, who sent some Lizardman scholars, not that there were many, to go through the books. “So as of yet the only lead we have is those tunnels they closed off.”

                “Why would they do that?” Helene asks. “The Wurms, while very nice girls, aren’t exactly the brightest. They probably wouldn’t understand what they saw.”

                “They also can’t keep a secret.” Tabitha sighs. “I’m guessing that’s the reason.”

                “Seems odd that Emphrasea wouldn’t know about it though.” You muse, rubbing your chin. “As much of a conniving bitch she was, she did care about her people and was genuine. Asking her would probably be useful.”

                “We don’t have time to go to Ectria.” Bardam says. “We’ll have to do an exploration of the mines ourselves.”

                “Well, we can maybe send a message.” You say, pulling out some paper and a pen. “The Wyverns who migrated here are quite adept at handling messages, though it does make the various harpy messengers in Deleor upset.”

                “Technically we’re not Deleorian subjects.” Helene says, waggling a finger. “They can suck it.”

                Veronica cocks her head, as if about to ask what she means by, “it,” but keeps it to herself. Instead, she coughs into her hand and says, “Mining is rather difficult, is it not? Had we more than one geomancer, that would be easier, but I believe that would be rather taxing for you, wouldn’t it?”

                You sigh. She’s right, of course. While your magic can stabilize things and shift the very earth itself, moving that much rock will have you flat on your ass in minutes. As the city has been expanding, more and more Wurms and other varieties of reptilian Monsters, including a red Dragon for some reason, have begun to take up mining jobs. While much of the gold had been depleted, new veins of other ore are being found and trade to both Ectria and Deleor has begun in earnest. Hells, even metalworking has started up.

                They’re all very good at their jobs and due to their physiologies they don’t need to worry nearly as much about certain hazards that affect human miners, but getting them involved in something of this nature could be troublesome. What could be so bad that the Danuki wouldn’t try to exploit it? The Wurm’s lives were cheap to them, so either they didn’t think the Wurms could deal with it, or secrecy was far more important.

                “I’ll think on it.” You say, as you begin to write to the Wurm Queen. “We should explore those shafts first. I have a good idea where they are.”

                “Hmm.” Bardam asks before flicking Maya’s head as she sleeps on the cushions again. She makes a small, mewling sound, but continues to sleep. “Well, people are going to notice us coming and going in the mines anyway. They’ll start to ask questions.” He sighs and drops a pillow on Maya’s head.

                “Not that big an issue, at least at first.” Tabitha says. “Order members inspecting the mines alongside the foreman isn’t much to get worked up about. When we ask others to come though… well hopefully it won’t take too long to mine through.”

                “Exactly why we’re going to explore, right!” Helene asks, beaming.

                Both you and Tabitha exchange looks. Veronica notices and coughs into her hand. “Excuse is, we need to write a report.” She grabs Bardam’s arm and the man sputters a few moments before being dragged away upstairs. Once you hear the click of a door upstairs, you sigh and look to your sister.

Scratching at your chin, you say, “Helene, maybe at this stage… it might be best for you to stay behind and watch the kids in town.”

                She blinks, surprised. “What? What are you talking about, of course I’m coming.”

                Erwin shakes his head and you feel a mental sigh come from him, but you push forward. “Listen. You know I care for you dearly and because of that I’m worried about you on this venture. You’re still a witch, but you don’t have nearly the power when you were possessed and I don’t think dark magic is going to be horrible effective there.”

                You look to Tabitha for help, but she just shrugs, throwing you to the vipers. Gee, thanks honey.

                “The others are warriors of the Order and they signed up for this. I just… I just don’t want to see you hurt over this.”

                Helene looks between you, Tabitha, and Erwin before crossing her arms under her breasts. She takes in a deep breath and hisses, her snake tongue flicking in and out. “Is that so? You think your sister so weak and helpless that she can’t do anything here? I thank you every day for what you did for me, but I will not accept being called useless. Though my body has changed and I can no longer do some of the things I could before, I am still myself.”

                Her eyes flash and you blink in surprise as you see tears forming there. “I will not be so insulted by my little brother, the one whom I gave everything to save. This was all supposed to be over, but you go and tell me to wait behind as you go off into who knows where to do who knows what so you can fight a damn Goddess.”

                She sniffs, tears actually falling this time. “Did you even consider that, you asshole?”

                “Helene…” You begin, but words soon fail you. Gritting your teeth, you look down, unable to say anything further. What can you say? She’s right, you didn’t consider it, but at the same time you know it’s best for her to stay behind.

                A firm hand squeezes your shoulder and you look up to see Tabitha beside you, a look of resolve on her face. “Helene, you know what he’s saying is right. He said it in kind of a blunt way, but you know how he is.” Her expression doesn’t change as she continues, “We need someone to stay behind though, someone to help on the backend and in the city. Besides, people look to you for support as well.”

                Helene rubs at her eyes and sniffs. “Fuck you, Tabitha, even though you’re right.” She sighs and leans back on her tail. “Dollora, I’m tired.”

                “Plenty of room in the pillows.” A muffled voice says from the side. All of you turn to see the pillow slip off Maya’s head, though she still looks dead to the world as she sleeps.

                Helene blinks a few times before snickering. She rubs at her face again and says, “I’m going home. Just… just let me know if you need anything I guess.” Taking a deep breath, she heads for the door and leaves your house.

                {Smooth.} Erwin sends to you, watching her go.

                Feeling drained, you slump down in your chair as Tabtiha gives you a back rub. “Gods, I feel tired myself.”

                “Comfy, comfy…” Maya says before snuggling further into the pillows.

——————————————————————————————————————————————

                Your footsteps echo inside unending tunnels of rock, making it seem like you’re traveling into eternity. Soft light from your staff and Maya’s magitek lantern illuminate rough hewn walls, dug from years of miners searching for gold and other valuables. To many, it feels suffocating, but to you, who has spent time honing Geomancy, it somehow feels comforting.

                “I wonder if I’ll find any new friends today?” You say, placing your hand on the wall, feeling through the stone. Nothing much there, maybe some traces of iron. You’ll have the other miners look into it later. For now, you’re out exploring the mines after having your letter delivered, hopefully, to the Wurm Queen.

                “Dear, you know I love you, but your fascination with rocks is a little creepy.” Tabitha says, her voice muffled by the mask over her face.

                You, along with the rest of the group, all wear masks which over your mouth and nose, attached to a vial of liquid which bubbles softly via a tube. Lizardmen working in the mines had long ago found a way around the dangerous gases of the mines, inventing alchemical filters which allowed easier breathing. Goggles would do for dust particles and helmets for protection from falling rocks.

                You look very silly in this attire, but it’s well worth using based on the risks. Thankfully you’d been able to procure them easy enough after resettling- the Wurms for some reason aren’t affected by the gasses and their naturally strong bodies don’t require the extra protection from armor. Hells, you had to stop Wurms from going to work naked some days!

                “Shh, she doesn’t mean it.” You say, patting your pouch where some of your friends sit. Yes, they’re rocks, but they’re still friends and you won’t let anyone else disagree. You still have hope she’ll come around someday.

                As you continue to walk you check the map again. Yes, this fits about right with what you felt. Signaling a stop, you gather the others up into a group. “We should be close to the first of these blocked off passages. The one which said, “Explore at a later date.”

                “Right-o, scouting time then.” Maya says, beginning to move. You make a curt gesture and Bardam grabs her by the collar, making her flail in the air before pouting.

                “I’m going to check first if there’s any dangers I can feel with my geomancy.” I’ll have you scout the other particulars later.”

                Walking forward through the tunnels, you quest out with your magic until you find an opening to a tunnel boarded over with wood. There’s a few like it in the network, sections which had been drained or were too dangerous to visit by the former miners. Most had been destroyed by Wurms searching on behalf of their masters for scraps of gold, but a clearly a few had remained or been erected later to remind them not to enter.

                This one appears to be one of the former. Looking at the wood, you see a section of it had been broken away, too small for a Wurm, but large enough for a Danuki. Seems odd one of them would take a risk of exploring by themselves without Wurms to guide them, but if one of them was willing to hide their records from other Danuki, surely they’d hide other things.

                Placing your hand on the wall, you quest forward, searching through the stone. The tunnel is empty for a portion, but soon enough you reach a collapsed portion of the tunnel. Must have been a localized cave-in before the assault by the Wurms. You imagine some cave-ins were done by the Wurms also!

                Sending Maya in to check, she confirms the same: Large rocks in the way, but nothing else dangerous. Makes sense why they’d want to check this later, it would take awhile even for Wurms to dig through it. Though once you get closer you feel there’s more tunnel along the other side, you’re not certain where it goes, or if it’s worth pursuing.

                Gathering the others, you head down the paths toward another marked spot, a tunnel marked “Keep Wurms out.” You have trouble finding it at first, because where the tunnel should be, all you see are rocks. Questing out with your magic, you get the impression that there was once a tunnel dug here but it also caved in.

                “Hmm.” You say, studying the tunnel as the others approach. “This is weird.”

                “How so?” Veronica asks, looking at the tunnel. “I’m not a connoisseur of rock, so I do not know what I’m looking at.”

                “Well, this is clearly from a cave-in also, but it doesn’t extend that far. In fact, I’d say a dedicated mining team could clear it in a few days at worst. There’s clearly a tunnel further, so why would the Danuki mark it for the Wurms not to enter?”

                “Do you think the Wurms caused this cave-in?” Bardam asks. “They seem like they could cause problems.”

                “I don’t think so.” Maya says, leaping down without a sound from the pile of rocks. She holds up some black powder for you. “Hey, use your magic on this.”

                With a frown, you feel the contents with your magic. Your eyes open wide and you gasp, which sounds funny in your mask. “This is remnants of blasting powder. This tunnel was deliberately closed.”

                The others look about, worried. “What could have made the Danuki blast a tunnel like this?” Tabitha asks, hand on her sword.

                “Come on, we’re going back to clean up and figure out how to proceed.”

———————————————————————————————————————————

                Returning home, you flop down onto your chair, creating a mess that makes Tabitha huff at you. Rolling your eyes, you use your magic to gather the accumulated dirt from people before packing it into a ball and throwing it outside. It’s a familiar song and dance at this point.

                The guests head to the public bathhouse, the Reach not having systems for private bathing yet while you, Tabitha, and Erwin stay behind, organizing your thoughts. Tabitha preferred less busy bathing with you anyway. Half of it is because you’re husband and wife, the other is because she doesn’t like people staring too long at her legs.

                “There.” You say, finishing writing your findings. “At least we have some idea of where to go.”

                “Think you can clear those tunnels?”

                “Yes, eventually. It would take awhile though, time I don’t know if we have.”

                She sighs. “So we may need to bring the others in on this anyway. But who?”

                “Well, from the mining teams we have a few Wurms I could contact. A couple Lizardmen which are better at keeping their tongues… I just don’t know how many to gather though. The more people, the more they’ll talk.”

                “Hmm, that Dragon is good at clearing tunnels, right?”

                “Sure, but she’s also… well, she draws attention in her own right.”

                “Well.” Tabitha says, patting your shoulder. “I’m sure you’ll figure it out. We’ll go recruiting tomorrow and pick which tunnel to go down.” She grins and kisses you on the cheek.

                “Hells, maybe we got the easy job. Just have to do a little of what we do every day and we might just find our relic.” Her hand slides along your shoulder. “Maybe after we bathe later, we can continue where we left off before-“

                A knock comes at door, souring Tabitha’s expression. Sighing, she walks over and opens it to reveal Helene. She has a troubled look on her face and she declines when you offer to let her in.

                “Sorry to trouble you so soon after yesterday, but I’d heard you returned recently from the mines. There’s been a development.”

                “How so?” You ask, frowning.

                “An messenger has come from the outpost between Ectria and Deleor. They bring word that tomorrow a Danuki merchant caravan wishes to come and speak with the mayor and the council.”

                “What? Why would they come here after all they did?” Tabitha says, growling.

                “I don’t know, but the messenger said they’ve come bearing items as gifts and for trade. Mostly crops and seeds. You know how much we’ve needed some seedstock.”

                Crossing your arms, you feel a headache coming on. Great, now instead of focusing solely on this task, you had to deal with… whatever this is also. You have a feeling tomorrow is going to be a long day.

 

Chapter 7

You awaken the next morning with a headache. Your comfortable evening had been turned upside down by Helene’s little pronouncement, something which did not go unnoticed by much of the city. An emergency council had to be formed where it was decided that under no circumstances were the Danuki to be let into Blackfire Reach.

                A Wyvern was sent with the messenger to make certain the council’s decision was sent to the Danuki in the wee hours of the morning. The discussion had taken so long because some of the council members were intrigued by the supposed gifts the Danuki brought. Some wanted nothing to do with them, but did want to take their gifts before throwing them out while others were willing to hear them out, though only tepidly. Thankfully Tabitha and your voice carried enough weight on the side to keep them out that you were able to come to such a decision. Only then were you able to get sleep.

                “You look like you need more sleep.” Maya says, sitting next to you while eating breakfast. The way she smiles at you like a cheerful young girl without bags under her eyes makes you annoyed, but you manage to suppress it. For now, anyway.

                “Can’t.” You sigh. “We need to go and set up the work crews.”

                “Have you decided who you want?” Tabitha asks, looking equally tired.

                “Yeah, I’m thinking about getting Io, Willa, Laurica, Penelope, and Valeria.”

                You wife cocks her head. “Let’s see… the Wurm twins, those Lizardmen miners and…” She trails off before frowning. “The Dragon? Why?”

                “Why not? She’s good at her job and seems to enjoy it. I think a little diversity will make things go smoothly, don’t you?”

                “You sound like a Danuki.” Veronica says, taking a sip of some juice. Without missing a beat, she says, “Speaking of which, what happened last evening?”

                “Ah, you heard of it.” You sigh. “We told them to stay put. I suspect they’ll make another entreaty later, but the gates won’t open for them if they decide to come. The Reach has had enough of their schemes.”

                “From what it sounds like, yes, that’s true.” Bardam says. “Very well, shall we go with you to gather this mining team?”

                “No, you can relax for now. I’ll gather them up and let you know when we’re going in.” You smirk, “I’ll warn you though, mining is a little more than you think it is.”

                Bardam shrugs his shoulders. “You swing the pickaxe and break the rocks, how hard can it be?”

——————————————————————————————————————————————

                “Wow, you’re bad at this.”

                Bardam groans and sets down his pickaxe as one of the Wurms, Io, shakes her head at him. The reptilian Monster with green, armor-hard scales running along her body and snake-like tail reaches down with a talon-tipped hand and busts apart the rock Bardam was working at, causing a shift in the structure of the collapsed tunnel.

                “Everything alright?” You ask, walking over to the man as he watches the Wurm work. Both of you are covered in sweat from the day’s labors, despite things having begun later than you’d have liked.

                “I was insulted by a Wurm.” Bardam sighs. “I believe this is one of the low points of my life.”

                “They’re pretty adept at this kind of work.” You say, shrugging. “It suits them to be honest.”

                “I suppose. Progress seems pretty good though.”

                “Not as great as you’d think. At this rate we may be another day or two out from clearing enough to explore further.” You say, shrugging. “But recruiting Valeria should be a big help.”

                Both of you turn to see the Dragon, wearing none of the mining gear either, raise a sledgehammer and demolish another section of the rock. As she does so, the Lizardmen team and Veronica move in to move the debris and prepare for further movement. Bardam frowns at this.

                “Honestly, at her age she shouldn’t be doing this. It’s not good for her back.”

                “What was that about age?” Tabitha asks, walking up from behind the man. Bardam blanches and touches his sword hilt, which he insisted on brining, before seeming to calm down. He casually turns to Tabitha and says, “Nothing, I was just concerned about her welfare.”

                “Hmph.” Tabitha sniffs, appraising the man before shaking her head. “You should know how strong Veronica is, she wouldn’t just sit on the sidelines like that mouse.”

                “Well the mouse has little to do at this point.” You say looking at the tunnel. “But we’ll get her in here once we’ve made more progress.”

                “Hmph.” Tabitha says. Maybe Erwin can make her be useful to Helene while we’re gone. “Why choose this tunnel anyway?”

                You look toward the miners and pull Tabitha away, whispering into her ear. “Seems like it collapsed before the Danuki could do anything with it. I doubt they’d have set it for exploration at a later date if they didn’t suspect there was something to gain from it. Whatever was in the other tunnel that made them blast it might just be a danger that has nothing to do with what we’re looking for. It’s at least a place to start.”

                Tabitha nods, understanding. Of course, the reason you gave to your mining team was that some newer maps were found, detailing possible ore veins. It’s not a lie, but it’s not the whole truth either. The best kind of lie.

                A buzzing in your pocket makes you look down. Rifling through your pockets, you pull out a magitek watch, an almost life-saving device down here in the mines. Seems it’s time for the shift to end for the day. Unfortunate, but you made decent progress so you might as well take that as a blessing.

                “Alright everyone, it’s end of day.” You call, clapping your hands. The Wurms slump their shoulders and sigh in relief while the Lizardmen nod, taking it in stride. Valeria rolls her eyes and shoulders her pickaxe before brushing past you, making her way outside. You watch her go for a moment before shaking your head. What a strange Monster to come all the way here from the Monster Nation just to be a miner.

                Gathering up your materials, you head outside and wish the others well before returning to your own abode to get cleaned up. A good day’s work always feels nice, and it cleared your head from the annoyance this morning. Unfortunately, when you arrive home, you find the Mayor there drinking tea with Helene and a half-asleep Maya.

                “Ah, Rommel, Tabitha.” She says as you enter. “How was work?”

                “Good, we’re making progress.”

                “And how was… Valeria?”

                “No complaints, she did her job well working with the others.”

                “I see.” The Mayor says, frowning. “Well, as long as she’s doing her work, that’s fine. I was worried when she came here she’d try to wedge herself into the ruling class like many Dragons do. Dollora knows she would have had support as almost all scaled Monsters look up to Dragons.”

                “She seems content and I’d rather not bother her about it.” You say, shrugging as Helene brings you some tea as well. “What do we owe the pleasure?”

                “Ah yes, that.” She sighs, her tail flame flickering. “The Danuki sent another envoy for us to reconsider. This time they brought some of the seedstock with them as a gift with no strings attached. Some on the council are considering going out to meet with them personally to discuss the state of affairs.”

                “What?” You say, grip tightening on your mug. “They can’t be trusted farther than you can throw them! Don’t they remember what they did before?”

                The mayor’s expression darkens. “Oh, I recall. I recall quite well.” She sighs again, “Others, however, have shorter memories or they did not live during that time. The connection was only recently shown to be true, if you recall.”

                “Ugh.” You sigh, sitting down and rubbing your head. “What did you do with the gifts they gave?”

                “They’re being stored at the Palace for now. From what we can gather, the quality seems good and we do need more food production…” She trails off. “However, I know that a gift from a Danuki isn’t without cost. Since the only other magic user in the city is Valeria, I was hoping I could have you take a look at them…?”

                You look to Tabitha, who takes a deep breath before nodding her head. Two nights together ruined by these Danuki, what a pain in the ass. Nodding, you stand up and say, “Well let’s get this over with.”

————————————————————————————————————————————-        

You arrive at the Palace a little later, still sweaty and covered in dirt. The inhabitants pay it little mind as they live in a damn cave, but you’d rather have cleaned up first. Still, it’s best to get this business out of the way first.

                You’re taken to a chamber where various items are stockpiled, a mixture of foodstuffs and other supplies. The mayor hefts one of two chests set onto a shelf to a central table before opening it and revealing the contents. Sectioned into multiple areas, you find bags of seeds labeled for the plants they’d grow. Most are vegetables as well as some crops for grasses that might live well in a more volcanic region. The possibility of raising livestock outside the reach may be open with this, though most likely it would be something like goats, though that’s not a big issue.

                “I’m not a biomancer you know.” You say, looking over the bags. “So I don’t quite know what I’m looking for.”

                “It’s fine, I’ve heard you have this sight or something, right? Just look for any traps they may have placed on there.”

                “Right…” You mutter as you open a bag and activate your [Mage Sight].

                The colors of the room shift as your vision is overlaid by the magic of this vision. All Wizards had access to this as well as a few sorcerers and Monster witches. Technology allowed anyone access to a limited version of it too, but it’s just not the same. They can’t get the same intricacies of seeing spells laid onto items or the workings of a spell the way you can.

                As it stands, the bag of wheat you’re looking at seems… boring. Switching to some other grains, you find it’s about the same. There’s no traces of magic upon them in the slightest, though you can’t be certain if any Biomancy had been done to the actual seeds to alter them in a fashion that wouldn’t be detectable to your sight.

                “Well, it’s not like they’re going to explode or have eavesdropping spells layered onto them.” You say, frowning. “Looks like they’re fine, though I’m not certain I’d plant them just yet.”

                “Good advice.” The mayor says, nodding her head. “But it takes a load off to know they’re safe.”

                “So what will you do with the Danuki now?”

                “They’re at the outpost so there isn’t much to be done. I imagine they’ll continue to send envoys, but we’ve made our position clear. Eventually they will find that the costs outweigh the benefits and they’ll leave.”

                “I wonder about that.” You say, scratching your chin. “I really do.”

                “By the way.” The mayor says as you walk back outside. “What are you digging for anyway? People are starting to wonder why you suddenly came in town with an Order escort, dug through Danuki records, and then started to dig in previously unknown tunnels.”

                “What else? Gold.” You say, shrugging.

                “Hmm.” The Salamander says, her tail flame rising. “I wonder about that… but we haven’t dug up much gold. A new deposit would be perfect for trade to get things jumpstarted. So… best of luck!” She chuckles and pats you on the back.

                Rumors starting to circulate, huh? You figured it would be fast, but not that fast. Well, as long as things don’t escalate and you can get your mining done, it won’t be that much of a problem, right?

                “So we’re digging for gold, right?” Willa asks the next day, eyes sparkling.

                You stare at her, tight-lipped before shrugging. “Who can say. We’ll know once we get this cleared.”

                “I hope we get a biiiiig chunk of gold!” She says, cheery as always. “I’ve always wanted to see a big one, but all we ever found were little bits.” She pinches her fore and thumb talons together.

                “Like I said, we’ll see once we get there. Now, back to work.”

She huffs before going back to digging. Progress is going well, better than expected actually. Using your magic and the materials provided, you’re able to make support structures in the rock and reinforce the tunnel as the others dig. Based on what you can feel with your magic, you’re maybe another day from getting through the old cave-in. You’ll have to invite Maya in to explore soon enough.

“Foreman, can I speak to you?”

Turning about you see Valeria, her coverall clothing covered in dirt and dust, standing behind you. Dragons by nature are on the taller side, though she takes it another level and is even taller than you, though not my much. It feels weird having to look up to her and makes her even more imposing of a creature, not that her large, red scaled wings, thick tail, and powerful claws didn’t make her imposing enough.

“Yeah, what do you need Valeria?”

“I’ve noticed rumors about the city saying that we are searching for treasure hidden by the Danuki. While I am quite fine digging for minerals, I do not appreciate being used to find something so pathetic.” Her deep green eyes bore into you with an intensity that makes you feel uncomfortable. “Do you understand?”

Gulping slighting, you nod your head and say, “We’re not digging for anything like that.”

She stares into your eyes before shaking her head and going back to work. Seems you can’t escape the rumor mill no matter where you go, huh? Doesn’t help that this morning you heard that some of the council members who wanted to listen to the Danuki decided to go to form a group to go to the outpost and speak with them. Unfortunately you didn’t have time to go and make them see reason, so Tabitha and Veronica both went. It left you with less people, but it’s not so bad considering who is doing the bulk of the mining.

When the work is finished for the day, you’re surprised at how little there is left to do. You’re certain that tomorrow the rest of what’s blocking the tunnel will be cleared. Feeling with your magic, there’s definitely more open tunnel further along. You can’t feel any specific minerals or anything but more boring varieties of rock, but it is encouraging. Everyone leaves with good spirits and you return home, hoping to find your wife returned from her trip.

Sadly, she does not return until later that evening and her mood is less than excited. Sitting down and digging into the cold dinner before her, she grumbles to you about what happened at the meeting.

“There were two Danuki there along with an escort guard for their wagons. Damn Monsters seemed like they owned the place, which in the past they very well might have.” She shakes her head. “They acted quite kind, thanking us for appearing and apologizing about the behavior of the Danuki who lived there beforehand, trying to put water under the bridge. No one really bought it, but I could see the wheels turning for some of the council members.”

“They aren’t going to deal with them, are they?”

“No, though they tried. Seems that business is secondary for this Danuki, though she was certainly interested in our mining affairs, asking about new veins of gold and such. She really wanted access in order to take some personal effects from her sister who lived here for a time, one of those we executed.”

“I see.” You say, remembering the battle with those rotten racoons

“They offered us more supplies, but we declined and Veronica threatened them with censure from the Order if the trade routes were mysteriously closed due to their presence.”

“Good. Though certainly they’ll leave soon, right?”

Tabitha and Veronica exchange glances. The woman speaks up, “That Danuki seemed quite willing to stay for some time. Given how well stocked she seems to be and the willingness of some of the council to speak with her… I don’t know if we can discourage her to leave. I’m worried they may eventually cave.”

None of this sounds right, but what exactly are you going to do about it? “Well, for now we’re about to make it through the cave-in section tomorrow. I don’t know how much more digging we’ll need but I want everyone present tomorrow.”

Hopefully you won’t need them to fight, but who’s to say what you’ll find down there?

                Valeria and the Wurm twins give out a mighty shout and break the final section of large boulder. Debris falls all around, opening up a section of the collapsed tunnel to the other side. A rush of warm air blasts past as they do and everyone cheers, finally creating a wide enough gap for Maya to slip through.

                Erwin heads off with her, following behind as you stabilize the tunnel and remove the remaining debris. Seeing through his eyes with your familiar bond, you see little of interest. This area had been mined beforehand, however some of this tunnel also appeared natural. It extends quite farther than you’d expect but there’s plenty of air and eventually it opens into a wider, natural cave.

                Maya sweats from heat roiling from the core of the volcano, making you wonder how close you are to the heart of the mountain. This encourages you however! Wouldn’t the Heart of the Crags be at the heart of a volcano? That makes sense to you!

                After about an hour of exploration, Maya reaches the end of the cavern, finding nothing but solid rock. Perhaps the reason this tunnel wasn’t opened back up was that it took too long to reach this point, or perhaps because there just wasn’t anything to be found? Sure, you see some limestone deposits, maybe some granite if you go looking, but there isn’t much here.

                Frowning, you channel your magic through Erwin, sending pulses through the stone to feel for anything hidden. As you pulse through a section at the end of the cavern, your eyes go wide when you feel something. Not just a little something, but a LOT of something.

                Gold. A whole trove of raw gold hiding here, a little too deep for the miners to have found easily, but it’s there. As well as something else, something you’re having trouble identifying due to the scarcity of it, but that makes you all the more certain that it’s one of the most prized materials in the world: Runite.

                It’s a discovery of a lifetime, and a huge economic boon for the city if you can properly exploit it. The people will be overjoyed to hear of it and work will likely begin soon upon it. It is exactly what you said you were digging to find however… it’s not what you’re looking for. You need to continue mining the other tunnel, but how are you going to get people to help?

                “What’s wrong?” Tabitha asks, noticing your expression. The entire group gathers around waiting for what you’re going to say, their eyes sparkling in excitement.

                No sense in keeping it to yourself. Taking in a deep breath, you look amongst the assembled group and sigh out, “We didn’t find what we were hoping for.”

                The others let out sounds of disappointment, the Wurms in particular looking glum. Tabitha places a hand on your shoulder and gives you a reassuring smile for just a moment before she tenses, then narrows her eyes.

                “But…?”

                “But…” You begin, your wife catching you in your life. “It’s more than we’d hoped. We found a deposit of not just gold, but possibly even runite.”

                The Wurms perk up, goofy smiles coming to their mouths as they let out a cheer. The two Lizardmen cheer as well and even a surprised looking Valeria raises a fist before turning aside and coughing into her clawed hand. Tabtiha gives you a cool look before shaking your shoulder and congratulating the others.

                “So, let’s get right to it then, shall we?” Penelope the Lizardman says, hoisting her pickaxe on her shoulder. The others share the sentiment, but you shake your head.

                “Not today. It’s getting late and there’s much to do in order to plan for this. We need to gather more crews, set up possibly a cart system, survey the area further.” You sigh, “Besides, we need to consider excavating the other tunnels too.”

                Valeria frowns at you. “Why? We have found the gold here, we should focus our attention fully on this since we know it’s there.” She leans in close, “It is there, right?”

                “Yes, of course.” You say, feeling nervous. “But please, trust me on this.”

                The Dragon crosses her arms under her breasts but says nothing else as you turn and communicate with Erwin. The fox gathers up the Mouse Girl, who fell asleep again, and the two begin their journey back. As they do so, you help the team widen the tunnel further and set up more support for the tunnel.

                When you return outside from the warm, oppressive air of the tunnel to the slightly less warm, oppressive air outside, your crew lets out another cheer and makes to depart. As they do so, you hold up a hand and say, “Wait one moment.”

                The watch you, confused as you say, “I’m going to be doing some more work behind the scenes to get things set up for the mining venture. Until then, I don’t want you saying anything to anyone about it. This discovery will be for the good of the reach and I’d rather it not be spoiled.”

                The miners look between each other and shrug before nodding their heads. Io and Willa laugh before saying, “If you say so, you’re the foreman!” before plowing down the road toward the tavern. Introducing alcohol to Wurms was a dangerous game, but thankfully mostly of them are cuddly drunks. To be fair, being cuddled by a worm is also a dangerous game, but it’s less property damage.

                The two Lizardmen follow as well, heading back home while you gather up your party, making to do the same. You have plenty of preparations to do tonight, which means you… still might not get to have private time with your wife. Someday. Someday.

                As you turn to go, you notice Valeria staring at you. The Dragon’s brow is furrowed, arms crossed under her breasts. She huffs and a small gout of flame appears as she takes a step forward. Before she can say anything though, she pauses and looks down before shaking her head. Sighing, she turns about, her wings unfurling, and then leaps into the air, flying down from the mines and into the city.

                “What was that about?” Bardam asks, watching her go.

                “She’s a strange one.” You say, leaving it at that.

—————————————————————————————————————————————–

                Though you said you wanted to keep it quiet, the first thing you do after getting presentable is go to speak with the mayor. You and Tabitha go alone, leaving the others to explore the city more as they aren’t exactly needed for this part. Last you heard before leaving, Veronica wanted to try out the taverns also, something that required poor Bardam to join in on to “keep her in check.” Tabitha’s disappointment at not being able to go was palpable.

                When you arrive, you’re surprised to find Valeria already there, speaking with the mayor. The Salamander’s tail is bright and dancing with flames as you approach, her face just as lit up.

                “You found a deposit of gold? How large is it? Can we reach it easily? Oh and what about this runite? I heard there was some of that too, oh how exciting!”

                You sweep your gaze to Valeria, who stands there with her arms crossed, giving you a cool look. Standing up straight, you take in a deep breath and say, “I had thought we weren’t going to be sharing this information quite yet.”

                The Dragon replies smoothly, “You were going to tell the mayor anyway, I had business so I figured I’d fill her in.”

                “Indeed!” The mayor says, nodding her head. “We should gather the council tomorrow and begin setting aside work orders to start mining. We’ll divert all other teams to this venture so we can reap the benefit. We’ve found some gold recently, but a lot of veins were tapped by the Danuki years ago. This is a great boon and it means we can get those sneaking- I mean, those wonderful ladies outside town.” She puffs up, “I can finally get the naysayers on the council to tell them to get lost!”

                Tabitha coughs into her hand. “Mayor, that may be a bad idea for now. If the Danuki’s aims beforehand were to extract gold from the mines, then letting them know that more veins were found would be a bad idea.”

                “Then what are you saying?”

                “She’s saying.” You interject, “That we should make sure we’ve found all the veins before we make it known publically.” Pulling out the journal you found with the marked tunnels, you say, “We know of at least one more tunnel that had been collapsed but marked by the Danuki in the past. I say we dig through this one first.”

                “Hmm.” The mayor says, her tail flickering on and off. “There is some logic in that, however…”

                “However, we have gold in front of us, so says the great Wizard, so why are we chasing after something else?” Valeria cuts in, narrowing her eyes. She places claws hands on her hips and stares down at you. “Are you truly going to tell us to drop work and move on this other venture? It’s not adding up, foreman. Why did the Danuki take such interest in those other tunnels? Why do you also take that interest?”

                Your spine stiffens and you make to respond when Tabitha slides in between the two of you, her eyes cold as ice. Though she stands a head shorter than the Dragon, her gaze never wavers as she says, “You know what Valeria? I’m tired of your shit. I know you don’t like me or my husband because I was on the quest that killed your cousin. I’m sorry for the fallout that killing that piece of shit caused and I’m sorry you got your ass kicked by Selene too. But if you DARE insinuate that we have ANY sympathy for the Danuki, then you might as well be prepared to duel right here and now.”

                Her hand is already on the hilt of her sword, ready to draw in an instant. Dragon scales are quite hard, but this blade is magicked as well- it wouldn’t exactly be an easy fight for the larger Monster.

                Valeria just stares down at Tabitha, not saying anything for the longest time. Smoke gently wafts from her nostrils. The Lizardman doesn’t back down the entire time either and even the mayor stands with hand on her own sword, watching with quiet intent, her normal attitude replaced with cold calculation.

                Eventually, the Dragon breathes out, “Who told you all this?”

                “I’m friends with the fucking Monster Lady’s husband, it’s not hard to ask a few questions over the Communion Matrix.” She huffs. “Word travels.”

                The Dragon looks to the side and breathes out some smoke. “Fine. I believe you do not work with the Danuki, but I still do not believe your sincerity on what is in the other tunnel. I will not help you.”

                “That is fine.” You say, nodding your head. “I wanted to ask you to head up the crew digging for the gold, though on more… amiable terms, of course.”

                Both the mayor and Valeria turn to you, surprise on their faces. Frowning, you say, “What? You’re good at what you do and the others respect you. Clearly you care about the reach other ‘Danuki tricks’ too, so this way you’d be focused on what you want to focus on.”

Raising an eyebrow, you ask, “Is that a problem?”

                Valeria frowns deeper and looks to the side. “I don’t understand.” She says. “Shouldn’t you hate me for how I treated you?”

                “A little, sure. But not enough to deny your skills and work ethic.” You shrug. “Seems amiable, right mayor?”

                “Oh, right, yes.” The mayor says, coughing into her hand. “Yes that sounds lovely.”

                “I’d still like if we don’t call a council tomorrow. Valeria do you think you can gather your team and keep quiet on the particulars? I’d like to borrow Io and Willa for this next part but I trust you can make all this work?”            

                “I- hmph.” She shakes her head. “Being put in charge… tch, and here I thought to get away from all of that.” Sighing, she walks away from you, her scaled feet clacking on the marble. As she reaches the door she pauses and says without turning.

                “For the second part of your request… word travels.”

                Saying nothing further, she leaves, not bothering to close the door behind her. As you stand there, surprised by what just occurred, you hear Tabitha let out a sigh of relief.

                “Oh thank Gods, I was afraid I’d actually have to fight her.”

——————————————————————————————————————————————

                As if her words were prophetic, by the next morning it’s apparent that someone blabbed.

                The entire town is abuzz with word that gold and even the rare ore runite was found in the mines, drawing plenty of miners to your doorstep to get work in mining it out. On one hand, this is great! On the other, it’s making it difficult to get a team ready to work on the other tunnel- the miners would rather feel they’re doing something than clear away rubble for potentially no gain.

                A mildly hungover Veronica and a tired looking Bardam inform you that while they were at the tavern, it quickly became the hot topic around the bar, especially over this mysterious runite. The small samples found already were being stored in a large vault within the palace, a repurposed one from when the Danuki were present. As it stands all the precious metals found are being stored there until they can be sold off to mineral merchants.

                Speaking of which, amidst the flurry of trying organize work crews, you receive word that merchants had come in through the pass. This is not exactly surprising, though they don’t come every day due to the distances needed to travel and the checkpoints between the pass. The guards thoroughly checked them to make sure no Danuki had snuck in and only found foodstuffs and other tools. Once you’d heard that there weren’t any of the Monsters trying to sneak their way in, you quickly lost interest- there’s other things to be about.

                When it reaches about midday you find yourself still with no headway in gathering crews. Though you try to get people to help you with the other tunnel, none of them have any interest! Even if you are the foreman, people still won’t go mining for things they don’t want to- especially when everyone knows that there’s a lot of work to be done for the gold. Even enticing them by finding another vein doesn’t seem to work.

                Your salvation, ironically, comes in the form of Valeria, whose mere presence quiets down the squabbling groups. With an almost practiced ease, she directs work teams, conspicuously managing to keep a group of Wurms and Lizardmen with good track records off the team. It’s not the ones you worked with before, but you know them and they’re competent at their jobs.

                “So we just go back to mining iron?” One of the Wurms who didn’t get selected asks, downcast.”

                Valeria turns to look at you, a frown on her face before she turns away and says, “I understand the foreman is looking to open another tunnel. Who knows what he’ll find.”

                Reluctantly, you gather a team of three Wurms and two Lizardmen. Unfortunately, due to the delay in gathering them all, there’s no way you’ll get started today, so you settle for outfitting the team. As night begins to fall, a familiar Wyvern returns to you, a weary look on her face.

                The Monster raises a scaled and membranous wing-arm to her head in a salute before saying in a tired voice. “I managed to find her, though it wasn’t easy. She couldn’t exactly write so she left a message with me.” The Wyvern coughs into her wing-arm before reciting,

                “The Queen does not know of an artifact being found which could be so powerful as all that. She was aware of them selling off many treasures from the Lizardmen, but her Wurms never found anything like that.” She coughs again, throat clearly dry from the trekk, before continuing,

“Regarding the matter of the Danuki hiding tunnels- the Wurm Queen was aware of them sneaking off into the mines through hidden passageways formed by her Wurms to survey the mines when no one was looking, but she didn’t care. They thought they were sneaky, but even when the Wurms were living there, their little excursions didn’t escape her notice. She had no reason to follow them or see what they were looking for however, though she was aware of one of the head Danuki being nervous of something in the mines and not setting foot in there having bringing in explosives one evening.”

                The Wyvern sighs and says, “That’s about all she said before shooing me away. The heat is kind of nice in Ectria, but it’s sooooo drrrryyyy!” She about collapses right there as she mewls, “Can I go home now?”

                You tip the poor girls and pat her head, her seeming to enjoy the latter far more than the former. She flies off, leaving you with more questions and worries than before. So the Danuki who wrote this journal sealed it off because she was nervous about something? That doesn’t bode well- but at least you’re reasonably confident that Maya can handle things when you get that far.

                That evening you have a wonderful meal with your friends, new and old, and share some personal time with your wife, which Maya complains about you being too loud again. Overall, you feel confident about the direction things are going, with the gold being mined for properly and a team set up to clear the other tunnel tomorrow, you think things may be progressing well.

Turning over in bed to watch Tabitha’s soft breaths, you place a hand over her stomach and gently kiss her on her neck. She lets out a soft sound but doesn’t wake up. Gods, you’ll do anything to protect this. You have confidence that you’ll be able to find this “Heart of the Crags” soon and be one step closer to doing that.

——————————————————————————————————————————————

                The next morning as you have breakfast, jovially chatting with your party, a knock comes at the door. Frowning, you open it to find a bronze-scaled Lizardman from the palace you recall seeing from time to time. She fidgets at the door before taking a deep breath and saying,

                “Foreman Leitner, I hate to break this news so early in the morning, but last night the mayor was murdered while she slept. She didn’t even have a chance to draw her blade before her throat was slit. An emergency council meeting has been called and your wife’s presence is requested.”

 

Chapter 8

 

“Murdered?” You whisper, astonished.

                Tabitha, sensing something is wrong, walks up behind you and places a hand on your shoulder. “What’s happening?”

                “Ah, Wander… erm, Mrs. Leidrel. I was informing your husband of some bad news.” The Lizardman looks down. “The mayor was murdered. The remaining council members have summoned you for an emergency meeting.”

                “By Dollora…” Tabitha says, stunned for a moment before growing angry. “Right, I’ll go right now. Let me get the rest of my party ready and we’ll all head-“

                “It’s a private council.” The other Lizardman says, looking worried.

                Tabitha furrows her brow but nods her head. “Of course. I’m ready to go now.” She turns to you and her expression softens a little. “I’ll meet with you later at the mines, though I’m not certain how long this will take.”

                “It’s fine.” You sigh, turning to the messenger. “I’m sure the city knows of this by now?”

                “Unfortunately, yes.” She sighs.

                “I figured. I doubt we’re getting much done today in that case.” Nodding to the others of your party you say, “I’m going to let the new team know and then we’ll head to the palace to help with the investigation.”

                “I don’t think we can…” The Lizardman trails off as she notices the order emblem on Bardam’s armor. Her eyes widen and she says, “Oh, but for Order members, that’s a different story!”

                She shakes herself. “Anyway, let’s be off.”

                Tabitha trailing behind, the two of them head off toward the Palace, leaving you to explain to your confused party members what just happened. Veronica is as shocked as you were while Bardam is just angry. Maya… Maya just lays on the table with half a pancake in her mouth as she sleeps.

                {This is strange.} Erwin sends. {The evening after it’s revealed that there’s a big deposit of valuable ore, the mayor dies? If I didn’t know better, I’d say it’s the Danuki.}

                {We can’t be sure.} You send back. {Though it probably is.}

                {How did they get in here and do it? The Mayor isn’t exactly a push-over and there are some guards in the palace. How did someone get in and kill her?}

                {I don’t know, but we’ll find out.}

                Everyone, being just as concerned as you are, agree that it’s probably the Danuki. But how does one go about proving that? You suppose the only course of action in this case is to check out the crime scene, though this is not your expertise. Gods, you just wanted to dig in the rocks and find a special rock. That’s all man can really ask for in life. Part of you wonders if that kid, Tobias you think his name was, would have been better suited for all of this.

                Well, nothing for it. You send the rest of the party off to the palace to snoop around along with Erwin while you personally go and inform your new mining team of the bad news. They’d heard, of course, and you can see the relief on their faces when you delay the start time on the excavation.

The Wurms don’t seem as concerned as the Lizardmen though- they seem to understand the implications of this as murders don’t happen in Blackfire Reach since the majority of the population are Lizardmen and they duel out their grievances. You’re not certain about the Wyverns but slashing a throat would be a little difficult for them. Wurms could, but you find it hard to believe that one of them wouldn’t leave a trail. Lamias and humans however… that’s where things get interesting.

You ponder this the whole way to the palace, where Erwin greets you.

{Took you long enough.}

“It’s a little bit of a walk.” You say audibly. “How goes the investigation?”

{Hmm. Nothing solid, no scent even. I think Veronica can explain better.}

Following him through the palace, you see worried workers going about their jobs, a stiffness present that wasn’t there before. They either look worried or on edge, as if something could attack them at any time. The Lizardmen in particular have their swords ready at their sides. At least they aren’t jumping at shadows like some of the groundskeepers.

Entering the palace proper, you’re told the council is still in session. You’d really like to see what Tabitha is being told, but you’ll just have to wait. Well, you could always send in one of your friends with a [NSA] attached to them and spy, but something tells you that such a breach in privacy at the moment would be bad.

One of the palace interior workers sends you to the Order members, the Lizardman not sparing a glance for Erwin since most of the city is used to him at this point. When you arrive outside the Mayor’s door you find Veronica and Bardam talking in low voices. Your escort leaves you as Bardam looks up and nods his head.

“Ah, Rommel, welcome.”

“You find anything?”

“Not much.” He says, nodding to Veronica. “They moved her body already, but we had a look. Cut was clean and precise. One slash. Looks like a rather sharp knife over a sword. The mayor seems to have thrashed some in the bed and fell off it, but her sword next to her bed was undrawn. Doesn’t look like she had a chance to fight.”

Veronica sigh, “It’s easy to see how the killer gained entrance though, the door was unlocked.”

You grit your teeth. “Most people leave their doors unlocked, they trust each other.” Looking to the side you sigh, “But the mayor spent most of her life as a hired blade, she’s a light sleeper. Someone opening her door would certainly have alerted her, wouldn’t it?”

The woman ponders this. “That would make sense, however…” She turns the door knob and it quietly swings open. “It seems like the hinges have been recently oiled. I suppose they take good care of it.”

“They would clean it, sure.” You say, confused. “But the mayor wouldn’t care much about a creaky door…” Shaking your head, you ask the obvious, “Where’s her husband?”

Veronica frowns, “He’s… obviously shaken up about it. He woke up to her thrashing but it was too late for him to help her. I had actually just returned from reading him prayers.”

“Did he happen to see anything?”

The two Order members seem troubled. “He was understandably busy, however he may have seen a vaguely human shape run through the door. He couldn’t tell if they were male or female, or if they had a tail or not, but it certainly wasn’t a lamia”

                You sigh, though you’re not certain if it’s because of the information or in pity for the man. “I see. Well that’s a place to start at least.” You nod to the woman, “Why don’t you go and comfort him more while I do a little search of my own.” She nods and makes to do so when you ask,

                “Wait, where is Maya?”

                Bardam groans, “I don’t know. We started investigating and she just trailed off, muttering to herself.” He shakes his head, “Honestly I do not see why the Lord Commander would give us someone like her to work with.”

                You grunt and enter the room yourself. It’s a modest size room, the mayor never being one for much formality. A large bed sits against the wall while two dressers and a desk flank the walls with a chest at the foot of the bed. None of them are opened, with the only disturbance being the bed, which is in complete disarray.

                The sheets are tossed onto the floor while a coating of dried blood clings to it, same as the smears all over the tiled flooring. Closing your eyes, you activate your [Mage Sight] to look for any magicked disturbances. Unfortunately no, you don’t find anything, and quickly return your vision to normal before investigating the blood smears.

                “Erwin, are you able to get any scents of our killer?”

                {I’m not a dog and also no, oddly enough.} He lets out a mental sigh. {The stench of blood is overpowering in here anyway, but surprisingly I can’t pick out any scent other than the two occupants. Didn’t even find any stray hairs or… anything dropped by the killer.}

                “I see. So it was probably someone who knew how to cover their tracks. Speaking of which…?”

                “No, we didn’t find or any blood trails.” Bardam says.

                “I was talking to Erwin.” You say, to which the man blinks in surprise before looking down at the fox who chuffs before stalking over to you.

                {He’s right though. This killer seems to be a professional.}

                “Most people in the city are professional killers, though usually through direct combat. Assassination isn’t their forte. Besides, what reason would they have to kill the mayor?”

                “Well, she did speak out against the Danuki.” Bardam says, shrugging. “Someone may not have taken kind to that.”

                You stand up and frown, “But to kill the mayor over it…? Well, I think that’s all we’ll find here. Let’s ask around and see if anyone saw anyone suspicious.”

                “Mmm, nope, not a thing.” A tired voice says from the doorway.

                Turning, you see Maya standing there, yawning. She looks grimy, as if she’d been rolling in dirt all morning, as evidenced by the mud caked around her fingers. One hand rubs at her eyes to which she winces, rubbing harder as she gets some dirt trapped in there.

                “Where did you come from?” You ask, noticing the trail of muddy footprints she left the hall like a good little scout.

                “Outside.”

                Part of you feels stupid for asking the question now. The other part just feels tired. “Okay… what were you doing outside?”

                “Searching.” She says, sitting down on the floor and leaning against the door.

                “For… what?”

                “Mmm.” She hums, eyes fluttering closed. “You said there were some holes that the Wurms had dug in the past around the Palace. So I went looking. On the way I overhead some of the staff talking and they all seem worried, the ones on staff last night didn’t see anything.” She yawns further.

                “Anyway… I found two holes. One of them hidden on the north side of the grounds looks like it’s been disturbed recently but the other seemed boring. They were hidden pretty well you know.”

                “Did you follow them?” You ask, excited.

                “Nope.”

                You blink, surprised. “Why… why not?”

                “Because.” She yawns. “I was tired.”

                Bardam frowns and takes a step forward. “Maya, I’ve had it up to here with this behavior. I’d heard you did this sort of thing, but stopping in your duties just because you’re tired is inexcusable-“

                “Oh!” Maya says, sitting up and cutting him off. “I also stopped because I found this.”

                She digs into her pack and drops a cloth covered object to the floor. It clangs as it hits the ground and both you and Bardam look surprised. Tentatively, the other man picks it up, pulling back the cloth to reveal a sharp knife with some blood and dirt along the edge. Surprised, he holds it up to Erwin who sniffs and nods his head.

                {Yeah, that’s the blood of the mayor alright.}

                After confirming it out loud, you turn to Maya and ask, “Where did you find this?”

                “Mmm, it was in the disturbed tunnel. I doubt anyone was going to find it there to be honest, so good hiding spot.”

                Bardam frowns at the sleepy Mouse Girl before scratching his head furiously. “I swear to Solos, Maya you’re the most infuriating person I’ve ever worked with and I’ve been working with Veronica!” He sighs and slumps his shoulders, “At least we don’t need to gather up all the knives in town to determine who has the weapon or anything.”

                “Mmm.” Maya hums. “I’ll go check the tunnels out if you order me to later. For now I’m going to take a nap.”

                “Not in the damn crime scene you aren’t.” You say, hoisting up the Mouse Girl. You’re surprised at how little she weighs and she makes no attempt to fight you, merely falling asleep in your arm as you carry her under one arm. Seriously, what do you make of this girl?

                “Erwin, do you mind scoping out that tunnel?”

                {Sure thing.} He says as you attach Maya’s light to his head before he bounds out of the room. You hope he doesn’t run into any issues.

                You make your way back to the central foyer of the palace where an attendant shows you to a room where you can sit and wait for the council to finish. Maya slumbers peacefully while you and Bardam go over your facts.

                First off, the murderer is humanoid, which narrows it down considerably. Second off, the entered and left through the doorway but didn’t awaken or alert anyone to their presence, which means they were either incredibly lucky or incredibly skilled. Third, they’re used to killing in this manner and did so cleanly and with the proper type of tool. Finally, they potentially entered or left the palace grounds using a tunnel system yet to be explored.

                All of it points toward a kind of assassin. Assassins aren’t hired without purpose however, and they usually don’t come cheap. Which next begs the question of, who would want to kill the mayor and why? The answer seems obvious, but how could you possibly prove it?

                Your train of thought is cut short as the doors open, admitting Tabitha and Veronica, the two nodding to you before taking seats at the table. Your wife looks exhausted, which is usually rare for her. About the only things to tire her out these days are council meetings and excessive… marital relations.

                “How’d it go?” You ask, to which she shakes her head.

                “The council is understandably worried that they may be next. Proud warriors most of them may be, but so was the mayor! They can’t exactly stay awake forever, and that may be no guarantee that they’re safe anyway.”

                “What are they proposing to do about this?”

                “They’re shutting down operation of the mines and will continue gating off the city until further notice. An alert will be sent through the city, though everyone already knows about the murder.” Her lip curls up in a snarl. “The Danuki sent another messenger to give their regards and extended their help in any way they can.”

                You let out a growl, “They can’t be serious, can they? That’s a bold move to make right after the damn mayor was killed.”

                “Yes, well, it was received as a good gesture by some of the council.” Tabitha says. “There’s some who are quite vocal against them, still a majority, but a few are starting to wonder if their resources may not be a bad thing.”

                “What? But they can’t be trusted!” You say, to which Tabitha shakes her head.

                “I know, I know, and I said as much. If another murder happens though, we’ll be in trouble. The people are going to be on edge from all of this too. Well, for now we’re going to convene tomorrow to discuss this matter further.”

                Taking her scaled hand in yours, she smiles at the gentle pressure before asking about your investigation. You relay all the information you found and your thoughts to which Tabitha purses her lips. “I’m surprised tunnels like those could remain hidden for so long. Where do you suppose they lead?”

                Conveniently, at that moment Erwin sends, {Well that’s interesting.}

                {Huh?}

                {This tunnel leads to the mines. There were some branches, but they all seem to be pointing to the mines. I don’t think this one leads outside of the city. But it’s weird, I’m still not picking up any scent!}

                {How is that possible?} You send. {Did you find anything else down there?}

                {No, just dirt and… wait.} He’s silent for a moment before sending, {Well I’ll be. I think there’s a footprint here. Looks like it’s from some kind of shoe, though it’s not very large. Maybe a woman?}

                {Or a Monster.} You send, thinking it through. {Come on back, that’s good information.}

                {You got it!}

                You quickly relay this information to the others, who take it in. If that footprint belonged to the assailant… then it certainly narrows the possibilities even further!

“Those who wear boots or other human footwear are few and far between in this city.” Tabitha says. “There’s the men here, of course, and a few human women who wanted to stake a life here, but everyone has been here awhile and as far as I know, they aren’t exactly warriors. Same goes for the few Monsters with human-like feet here, though we can’t exactly know everyone, especially since there are some merchants who came into town too.”

“So it’s a hunt through the city to find who this could belong to, huh?” Bardam asks. “I suppose we can get lists of who is in the city and try to size things up, but that’s quite the area to search, especially if they stay hidden.”

“Well, unless there’s more tunnels leading outside beyond the ones we collapsed they have to had to have been inside the city last evening to make this work.” Veronica adds.

“And if they haven’t let anyone out of the city today either than that means the killer is still here.” Tabitha says.

“And until we find them, we’re not getting into the mines.” You sigh, rubbing at your forehead. “This was supposed to be a easy little mining trip.”

“When have things been easy?” Tabitha says, patting your back. “But we’ll find this assassin and find out who hired them too.” Resolve comes to her face as she says,

                “We just need to figure out a plan to catch them.”

                A chuckle escapes your lips. Yes, that’s Tabitha, never thinking of failure, always looking forward for a way to solve problems. Typically this involves her sword or her legs, but until you catch your mystery assassin, it’ll be brains that are needed.

                Snapping your fingers, you erect a [Privacy Barrier] around the room, making sure your words can’t be heard. Erwin confirms no one is around with smell and you’re pretty sure no one can hide anywhere in this little room, though somehow this assassin evaded Erwin’s nose so who knows?

                Shaking your head, you sit down and say, “Alright we’ve been over the evidence. Thoughts anyone?”

                Bardam rubs his chin. “Well, it seems likely we’re dealing with a human-like female, but given how few human women there are here they’d either have to have stayed hidden or be a Monster, though most wouldn’t be able to wear shoes. I suppose going and investigating them all could work?”

                “Or it would make them go underground for a time.” Veronica says, holding up a hand. “No, I don’t think being so obvious would work. A better clue may be to gather the remaining council members in the guest chambers of the palace and ambush the assailant when they come to strike.”

                “What makes you think they’ll strike again?” You ask.

                “Because the death of the mayor spooked the city, but they’ll get over it. Most of the citizens are accustomed to battle and loss. Nothing will have changed.” Veronica lifts a finger and begins speaking as if to lecture you. “A murder may occur in blind anger or as an accident, but it is often sloppy and easy to detect. An assassination takes careful planning and the will of the one who hired the assassin to be patient. The reasons are either for revenge or, more often, to further a goal by removing someone.”

                She gives you a motherly smile, “And what goal is furthered by the mayor being killed again?”

                “Reducing the number of council members available to keep the Danuki out.” You say, perhaps a little hesitant.

                “Indeed. Certainly the mine closure plays a role too, but even with Wurm tunnels, they can’t expect to mine that ore in sufficient quantities without being noticed. It’s not an easy feat to just tap a vein in that manner.”

                You nod your head, knowing how true that is. “Alright, you’ve made a good point. But what makes you so sure it’s the Danuki?”

                She gives you a look that suggests she knows that you know that everyone knows it was the Danuki who hired the assassin. “How did they know so quickly about the assassination?”

                “Communion Matrix?” You say, shrugging.

                Veronica blinks and then frowns. “Yes, well. Yes, probably, but let’s be realistic here.” She sighs and waves a hand. “You went and ruined with point with logic.”

                Bardam chuckles, “Oh? The great Ascendant’s reason defied. I’ll have to remember this.”

                She huffs at Bardam and crosses her arms under her breasts. “Well, never mind that. Everything else fits.” She leans forward. “Now then, if they’re so concerned with being allowed in, what if we put it out that the council will discuss a resolution tomorrow to, in the face of this adversity, still open the mines and make a public decision on the Danuki?”

                “Sounds like a good way to get assassinated.” You say.

                “Exactly. It will be an easy way to bait them out. Even better if we secretly get the council to stay in the palace.” Veronica says, smiling. She leans back and turns to Tabitha, “I suspect it will be easier to get the council to stay together if Tabitha makes a proposal since she is on it.”

                “True.” Tabitha says. “If I stay here then the others will too. Lizardmen do not take well to being called cowards. We can set up sentries to wait for the assassin to come again.”

                “In the meantime.” You say, “Erwin and I can explore those tunnels and make sure there aren’t any others. Might as well check if they aren’t still in the mines either.”

                “Rommel, that’s dangerous.” Tabitha says. “Your situational awareness isn’t always the best.”

                “Honey, that’s quite rude! But that’s why I’ll have Erwin with me.” You say, nodding your head. You can feel through your bond Erwin feeling the same way.

                “Still, I’ll take Maya too.”

                Everyone turns to look at the half-awake Mouse Girl who gives a thumbs up without looking at you. You really have no idea with her.

                “In that case…” Veronica says, reaching out to take the blade. “Bardam and I will go ask about the knife. There are very accomplished blacksmiths in here so I’m sure we can get a wealth of information from them about it’s origins, and thus the origin of our attacker.”

                Bardam shrugs, “I suppose it won’t be too strange for Order members to go asking those kinds of questions. It is kind of our job.” He considers for a moment. “Sort of.”

                “Sounds like a plan for now.” You say, rising. “I’ll go meet Erwin in the tunnels, we’ll regroup before sunset.”

                Slinging Maya again under one arm, you make your way out of the meeting room. As you pass one of the Lizardmen attendants dressed in a butler outfit, you pause and ask, “You didn’t murder the mayor, did you?”

                “No, slitting throats is for cowards.” She says smoothly. “How can I help you?”

                Maya chuckles under your arm and you both look at her for a moment before you ask, “Do you normally do cleaning around the palace?”

                “I do! My family comes from a long line of combat butlers. I was quite pleased to be able to leave service and return here to our ancestral home.”

                “The door to the mayor’s room, did you oil the hinges recently?”

                “No, oil for such purposes is hard to come by at the moment and the mayor insisted we didn’t do that despite the door being quite squeaky. I imagine she wanted to be able to hear it being opened to be honest. When I last cleaned her room yesterday morning, there was nothing like that present.”

                “I see.” You say, frowning. “Are you the only one who cleans rooms?”

                “No, of course not. There’s a few other Lizardmen and a Wurm who is aptitude for it. Honestly she seems brighter than most, which is quite nice and, oh-!” She leans over and waves to a Wurm dressed as a maid who shuffles with some laundry. The Wurm waves back, dropping the load and she cries out, going to pick it up with her big claws.

You watch her with amusement before sighing. Well, it must have been the assassin who applied the oil right? Potentially right before she did the deed or the mayor would have noticed when she opened her door for the evening. Either the assassin was planning this for a while or they had a contact in the palace who fed them information.

                Thanking her, you head out back to the tunnels where you meet Erwin, the poor guy covered in dirt. She shakes his coat clean and sits on his haunches, lifting his forearms up.

                {Upsies!}

                {Erwin, please, this is embarrassing.}

                {But I’m tirrreeed.}

                {You trekked through most of a country made of sand you lout!}

                {But the mouse gets to be carried!}

                You look down at Maya and shrug before placing her on the ground and rolling her over with your foot. She lets out a displeased sound and turns away from you, curling up in a ball. It would be cute if she wasn’t being such a pain.

                “Maya, if you don’t get up right now you’ll have to sleep on the floor with no pillow or anything.”

                She bolts up in a split second, flashing you a salute, her eyes firm and resolute. “Reporting sir! Ready for duty!” Blinking, she wipes some drool from her chin.

                “Maya, why are you like this?” You ask, shaking your head. “You seem to be good at your job, but why are you so lazy?”

                “I’m not lazy, I just get sleepy.” She says, yawning. “Proper sleep is good for your health you know.”

                You watch her for a moment, looking for her to say anything else, but she just watches you, eyes fluttering slowly closed until you sigh and ask, “Do you know what we’re doing here?”

                “Finding any other tunnels that lead onto the palace grounds and tracing the present ones so we can watch for any entrance by our assassin.” She says, still yawning.

                “I-“ You say, thinking to trip her up. So she was actually listening then? Hmm.

                “Alright then.” You say, rolling your shoulders before placing your hand on the ground. “Let’s see what we’re looking at.”

                A pulse of power goes through you as you cast [Survey]. You’re able to instantly grasp most of the landscape underneath the palace and feel the boring mineral composition of it. Questing outward, you sense the tunnel before you and trace it a good distance before pulling back and locating the other one Maya found. Spreading your net further, you’re unable to find any others, barring a few recent ones filled in by the staff due to some Wurms getting turned around and burrowing up into the grounds.

                Sharing the findings, you and the other two head down into the tunnel the knife was found in, you keeping a hand on the wall the entire time as you survey. Maya scouts forward while Erwin sits on your shoulder, ears twitching for any sounds. You’re able to discover a few collapsed side tunnels that go who knows where, but the main focus is upon the tunnels heading to the mines. When you find the footprint that Erwin mentioned beforehand, you study it and indeed, agree it must have been from a woman, or an exceedingly small man. Something about this nags at you, like you’re trying to remember something familiar about all of this but you can’t quite place it.

                The tunnel stretches on for quite some time but you still find no trace of your assailant or any other prints. Maya confirms the same when she meets you at the entrance to the mines, the tunnel coming out into a deep shaft near one of the depleted sections of mine. Would make sense that no one would follow this carefully as no one goes here much since the Lizardmen long ago stripped the area bare.

                “Are you sure she went here?” Maya asks Erwin as she taps her head. “I really don’t see much of anything. How could they not leave any tracks?”

                The fox shrugs at her and she huffs while walking back to the mine proper. “I’m jealous. I bet they could sleep wherever they want and no one would find out.”

                “Any ideas on how they could mask their scent?” You ask, to which Maya shrugs. “Some soaps and such can do that, but even then it’s hard to beat an animal or a Monster’s sense of smell. There’s some magics that can do it, and I’ve heard assassins from the east can do it to, though I’m pretty sure that’s magic involved also.”

                You frown. “Assassins from the east?”

                “Yeah like, uh…” She frowns. “I don’t remember what they’re called, but they’re supposed to be really good at this sort of thing. Anyway, there’s a few ways to do it, though I’m not really a hunter or anything and it takes so much effort.” Another yawn escapes her.

                “Hmm.” You muse as you enter into the main shaft of the mine. “Well, looks like we’re in the clear here. Might as well head back to the palace and prepare for this evening.”

                “Are you sure? Because we didn’t investigate these tracks.” Maya says, pointing ahead of you.

                Confused, you look at the ground but don’t find anything much at all on the hard stone. Frowning, you turn to her when Erwin sends, {Ohhhh, that’s interesting.}

                “What? What’s interesting?”

                “You think so too, hmm?” Maya says, nodding to Erwin, who nods back.

                You sigh out, “Maya. Erwin. What are you talking about?”

                “The Dragon tracks.” Maya says without hesitation. “Heading further into the mine.”

                {Yeah, can’t you tell?}

                You groan as Maya walks forward and squats down next to some dirt. “The dirt here is disturbed with the size similar to that of the Dragon’s footprint. It’s recent and, given the traffic through here, it was likely today, though this set is going outside.”

                Eventually you see what she’s talking about. So Valeria was here today? But why? The mines were closed down, so she shouldn’t have been here. But there’s no other set of tracks, so it was only her? She… she couldn’t be related to this after all, could she?

                “What do you want to do?” Maya asks.

                “I think we should leave it for now.” You say. “She’s clearly not the assassin and we have more important matters to attend to. We’ll follow up later.”

                “Whatever you say, boss.” Maya says, slumping to the ground. “But… can you carry my back again?”

                “No.”

                {How about me?} Erwin asks, giving you sad eyes.

                {NO!}

                Both of them let out miserable sounds as you leave them behind on your way back to the palace.

——————————————————————————————————————————————

                It’s near sunset by the time you arrive back at the palace. Covered in sweat and dirt, you consider taking a bath, but as you’re the last to arrive, that option is taken from you. Maya, who you made walk the entire way here like a good member of a militant order, flops down on the table, complaining about sleeping while sweaty while Erwin saunters over to Tabitha’s lap and hops up into it, sighing at how cool her legs feel.

                “Hello to you too, you furball.” She says before nodding to you. “I see you’re alive, though I question that for your companions.”

                “I do as well.” You say, sitting down at the table and casting [Privacy Barrier]. “The mines were empty of our assailant save for someone who shouldn’t have been there.” You tell them about Valeria.

                “That’s…” Tabitha says, frowning before shaking her head. “You’re right, we’ll deal with it later.”

                “How’d they take your proposal?” You ask.

                She sighs. “Well enough. I think they understand the necessity and those who are a little more philosophical weren’t going to lie down and take the implication that they’re cowards for not wanting to stay here. The maids helped me set them up in rooms on the third floor of the palace with guards around the perimeter as well.”

                Veronica chuckles, “Yes, well at least that’s settled. I’m sure some of them understand the true reason behind it, but we know the rooms they’re staying in and can set up sentries, right?”

                You nod. “Yeah, I’ll set up some golem friends to keep watch. Anyway, how did your adventure go?”

                “Hmm? Oh.” She says, putting the knife back on the table. “This knife wasn’t made in Deleor or the Monster Nation. The metal composition and the techniques used to make it aren’t used here. It’s not exactly stylized in a manner that would be recognizable to anyone without the skill to do so, but it’s clearly eastern in origin.”

                Blinking you turn to Maya who looks at the knife with flat eyes. Licking your lips, you say, “You’re saying the Danuki imported an assassin from the east?”

                “Given the location of Danusreal, it’s entirely possible.” Bardam says, shrugging. “There aren’t many humanoid Monsters who come from that way and they’d be instantly recognizable in this city.”

                “A human, on the other hand, would be much easier to conceal their identity. Though as it stands no human has been seen in the palace today and all the rooms were already inspected.”

                “Could it be…?” You begin before shaking your head. “No, better not go chasing after this when we don’t have a definitive idea.” Looking to Tabitha you ask, “Does the city know about the resolution tomorrow?”

                “Yes, people are talking.” She says, having the same thoughts as you. “They have to know about it.”

                “Alright then.” You say, nodding as you pull out your friends and start shaping them into humanoid little golems.

“I guess the pieces are together. Let’s put the plan in action.”

——————————————————————————————————————————————

                “Pass the mountain elixir.” You ask Bardam, yawning.

                The man stares at you for a moment before handing you a jug of green fluid. You take a swing and sigh in relief. If there’s one thing this “El Dorito” is good for, it’s a constant supply of Mountain Elixir. Which is good, because it keeps you awake, which you need to be for this mission.

                It’s already very late at night with no sign of the assassin. There’s eight remaining council members, including Tabitha, all staying in the palace and you have a golem assigned to each as well as invisible sentries placed within corridors of the palace. Practice with your magic made this possible, but it is a little taxing to split your concentration between so many of them linked with [NSA]. Thankfully Erwin and Maya, concealed quite well, are watching the outside tunnels, and you’re going to just have to trust that the Mouse Girl isn’t asleep right now.

                “Anything?” Veronica asks, somehow not seeming tired. She flips through her scriptures as if they aren’t boring before setting it down on the table of your hiding area, one of the guest rooms near the council members.

                “No, not yet.” You say. “Maybe they won’t come?”

                “A loss for the Danuki if they don’t, however that may be best as combat is not always the answer.”

                Rolling your eyes, you send to Erwin, {Any movements from the tunnels?}

                {Nope. It’s super quiet here.}

                {Alright well, the gates are guarded so it seems unlikely that they’d come from elsewhere.}

                {If you say so. I’m not certain what Maya is doing though, I wonder if she’s asleep?}

                {Wake her ass up then!}

                {Fine! Just let me- wait.} He goes quiet.

                Your heart begins to hammer in your chest at the implications. He’s wasn’t harmed or you’d have felt it through your familiar link, however he’s not responding. You wait for an excruciatingly long period of time before he finally sends, {Maya thinks she saw something! Something came over the walls!}

                {What!} You send back. {Fuck, which way did they go?}

                {She doesn’t know, her night vision isn’t the best!}

                Snapping your focus back to the room, you say, “I think our assailant is here. I’m going to focus on the golems to find out where she’s going! Get ready to go!”

                You shift your focus to your sentries, trying to locate the assassin. All of the council are housed in one wing of the palace, so you’re able to get a good view of the hallways leading to it. The rooms are still secure, so when you shift back to the hallway you sense something in the corner of your vision. Focusing on it, you see a lithe, human-like form clothed in pure black clothing, their head concealed and obscured by a cloth mask. Only their eyes are visible, though through the spectrum of your sentry there’s no way to see what they look like.

                They sit in the shadows of the hallway not making a single sound. The candles on the walls illuminate the doors well and they seem hesitant to enter. The figure suddenly makes quick hand signs and the hallway darkens as all the candles are blown out. Visibility becomes nothing, and you lose sight of the assassin.

                Switching to your golems hurriedly, you stop as you view through Valinthia the [Bauxite]’s eyes a black form blocking your view to an older Lizardman councilor who sided against the Danuki. Damn, Tabitha’s room is closest to the stairs, how did they pick the room of one of the anti-Danuki ones? Cursing, you reach out with your magic for the other spell you laced into the hallway: [Vox Caster].

                Feeling terrible about this, but knowing the necessity, you utilize a spell you learned from the Grand Wizard. A spell you hoped you’d never have to use.  Sucking in your breath, you channel your will and sing the [Irate Frog Song].

                Sounds of angered frogs echo through the palace. In a distance part of your consciousness you feel the figure in the room dash out as the councilor awakens with a shout, sword suddenly in her hand. You exit your hiding place to see the door flying open but by this point Bardam and Veronica are already there, the later shouting a canticle as yellow light floods around her, illuminating the dark hallway.

                The figure, obviously female lets out a curse in a foreign language and throws a knife at Veronica, but she turns and it clips off her armor. Bardam charges forward in that moment, but the assassin is already dancing backward, her goal to exist the palace. A door opens behind her and Tabitha slashes out of her sword, but the assassin nimbly ducks underneath and sweeps with their leg, catching the lizardman and knocking her to the ground before she rolls away and toward a staircase.

                Before she can reach the end of the hall, you cast out with your magic upon the marble floor and with [Build the Wall] you wrench it forward to block off her exit. The assassin, seemingly unfazed, turns swiftly around and charges back toward the rapidly filling hallway, their hands flashing back and forth as a surge of energy pours through them.

                “Oh shit!” You shout, remembering this move. You throw up another wall as a gout of flame appears from the assassin. Thankfully your wall blocks it, but when you pull the wall away you see the assassin gone, a door inside that section open. Tabitha runs forward and shouts,

“She left through the window!”

Cursing your lack of foresight, you dash to the window and cast [Daylight].

The grounds are suddenly illuminated, revealing the assassin the stark contrast. They stumble for a moment and fall from the wall they were scaling using no tools somehow. Taking the opportunity, you leap from the window and [Rock Slide] down the face of the palace while casting [Rock Solid] on the assassin.

                Normally this spell would be useful for armoring someone, but it also slows them down. Rock assembles upon the female as she looks on, surprised before rolling and pushing to her feet with some effort. She says nothing as she makes more hand-signs and you feel another rush of power.

                Your spell crumbles around her. In your shock, she dashes forward while pulling out a knife similar to the one left in the tunnel. Before you know it she’s not five feet from you, weapon pointed at your chest. At this range and with the daylight, you can see her brown eyes filled with contempt for you, perfectly ready to deliver a killing blow. You try to bring up a wall of rock in time, but there’s just no way.

                Something whizzes past and the blade only slashes your chest, drawing a line of blood. You stumble back as your wall forms and the figure is out of sight. Quickly dodging to the side, you notice an arrow sticking out of the ground nearby and with another whizzing sound, the assassin rolls back, dodging another arrow.

                Kneeling in the bushes nearby you see the form of Maya, short bow in hand as she knocks another arrow. Shouting is heard all around as more guards make their way around the palace to where you’re fighting. Tabitha drops down too, her legs absorbing all the impact, sword at the ready.

                The assassin looks between all of you before nodding her head and reaching into her clothing for something. In that instant you reach out with your power and shout, catching her leg with a spire of stone. The assassin, mid-motion, throws down a ball that explodes into a cloud of black smoke, but it’s too late for her. Unable to move, you feel her struggle as you draw up with your magic and encase her in rock, only leaving her head open.

                Quickly channeling Aeromancy, you blow away the smoke to reveal the form of the captured, and frankly stunned, assassin. She stares at you with wide eyes as you stalk toward her, not even noticing the blood dribbling down your chest. Growling, you grab her mask and rip it off, revealing the face of a rather attractive, far eastern woman. She immediately spits in your face.

                Grabbing her hair and cranking her head back, you growl out, “Was getting caught part of your master plan?”

                She stares at you a long time before smiling. When you think she’s going to say something, she spits at you again. Feeling enraged, you make to knock her out when a hand rests on your shoulder and you turn to see Tabitha, who shakes her head.

“That’s enough. Don’t let her get to you.”

Your wife looks at the wound on your chest before turning her gaze on the woman. In a swift motion, she delivers a blow to her head which renders the assassin unconscious. When you blink at Tabitha, surprised, she merely shrugs and says, “I never said anything about her getting to me.”

Sighing, you give her a light kiss as Maya and Erwin walk up, the former shaking her head. “You should really be more alert, boss. What were you doing? Napping?”

You’d like to be angry at her, but honestly, she just saved your life. As guards and the rest of your party arrive you sigh, hoping with this, you can finally put it behind you and move forward. Unfortunately there are still too many questions and you need answers. But for now, everyone is safe, the assassin is caught. Let’s just take that as a small victory.

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