Wizardquest 3 Part 4: Conspiracy Theory

Chapter 9

The assassin awakens and looks about, confused. Pitch black darkness surrounds her, making her question if she’s still asleep. She tries to turn her head but finds it quite difficult as something is compressing her neck and forehead. Struggling, she finds in horror that her entire body is encased in a rough, hard material that feels like stone. As she does so a violent pain courses through her hands and she lets out a muffled cry of pain. Relenting in the face of this, she lets out a grunt of frustration before closing her eyes and focusing, trying to get hold of her chakra and utilize her jutsus. But it’s no use, unable to use her hands or move her body, she can do nothing.

                Something shifts nearby and her eyes snap open. Though she still can’t see, a moment later she hears a male voice say, “Ah, she’s awake.”

                A bright light suddenly appears and she closes her eyes to shield them from the light, though it still stings. Blinking, it takes her eyes a few moments to adjust before she sees two forms in front of her: you and Tabitha.

                Holding your staff in your hand, the arcane item glowing with the magic coursing through it, you give the assassin a hard look. The chair under you creaks and you stand, wound on your chest hurting as you do so. Tabitha merely puts a hand on her sword as you approach the assassin watching her.

                “Do you speak Deleorian?”

                She stares at you with a blank expression before making to spit at you again. As she does so, you send forth a small pulse of power and her bindings, a sheet of granite, compresses her neck, causing her to cough and sputter. Pulling back on the magic, you just wait until she’s finished choking on her own saliva before asking again, “Do you speak Deleorian?”

                She glares at you in a way that says, “Yes, I do speak Deleorian you son of a bitch.”

                Nodding, you say to her, “I trust you understand why you’re being restrained the way you are. If it’s any consolation, I wasn’t allowed to be the one to give you a cavity search before encasing you in here. You rap the bindings, a solid block of granite pulled from the floor you’ve encased her in, with your knuckle. “It’s solid rock and your hands are… well they don’t look much like hands anymore. I’m well aware of your… what did Ako call them… ‘Justus?’ And I know how effective they are for you Kunoichi.”

                She continues to glare at you as you continue. “I’ll be blunt. I can’t see a way in which you get to live for what you did. I know your sort are very loyal to those who hired you. While I don’t relish having to do this, I can make it quick and painless. I’m no stranger to executions.”

                Your expression becomes hard as rock. “Tell me who hired you and why. That’s all you have to do to end this.”

                She continues to remain silent, her eyes boring into you with hatred. Well, she’s got guts at least. Sighing, you turn to Tabitha and say, “Very well, we’ll be going then. We’ll return when you’re more amenable.” Without saying anything further, you and Tabitha turn on your heels and walk toward an iron-wrought door, closing it behind you without even locking it. Turning away from her, you snap your fingers and part of the granite bindings shift in their consistency, becoming coarse and incredibly, incredibly irritating. A moan of discomfort whispers from her lips as you walk down a tunnel away from the cell, the light vanishes, casting the prisoner back into darkness.

                You and Tabitha walk through the ruined tunnels of an old dungeon under the palace that was mostly ruined by the Wurm assault in silence, the only sound the clicking of Tabitha’s metallic legs and your staff as they scrape along the old stone floors. The light of your staff illuminates the tunnels until you reach a section with lanterns hung on the walls and three Lizardmen guards. They nod as you approach, one of them asking, “Did she say anything?”

                “Not yet. I doubted she would so soon. Make sure she has no visitors and only arrive to give her the bare minimum of food and water. If she tries to speak, don’t answer. Don’t allow her to do anything to harm herself either.”

                The guards nod their heads, looking a little uneasy. They’re not squeamish at all in battle, but torture… that’s another beast entirely.

                Part of you feels the same way. You’d rather just end her and be over and done with, but nothing’s that simple. This Kunoichi is going to be difficult to get your answers from which means torture is the best method. If your adventure in Ectria taught you anything, it’s that sometimes you need to be hard about these things. Sometimes you have to suck it up and do what needs to be done.

                Tabitha places a hand on your arm and squeezes, as if sensing your conflict. Nodding to her, you head further down the tunnel to the stairs up, where you find more guards outside. It’s only been a few hours since the Kunoichi was caught, the sun barely having risen, but the palace is alert and alive with people protecting the council members, searching the grounds further, etc.

                Entering a room where the others of your party are waiting, you stifle a yawn as you cast another [Privacy Barrier]. Veronica nods to you and pours you a cup of tea, which you accept gratefully as you sit down. She asks, “Anything?”

                “No, but I didn’t expect it.” You say, sipping the tea. “But I suspect in a few days she may be more amenable.”

                “I don’t like it.” Veronica says, brow furrowed. “Torture is not something we should aspire to.”

                “I have to agree with Veronica.” Bardam says. “It’s not something the Order typically condones.”

                Tabitha lets out a sigh for you. “We know, but do you have a better way to get the information? I doubt she can be bribed with their sense of honor and she’ll kill herself if we give her the chance.” She waves to a box nearby which holds the woman’s clothing and items. “We even found a poison on her person, likely to be taken if she suspected she’d be killed.”

                “Sadly that’s about all we found.” You say, though again, Tabitha wasn’t keen on you feeling up another female. Not that you’d really find any pleasure in running your hands down the fit and surprisingly feminine form of the Kunoichi.

                Veronica sighs. “Fine then. We would not like further deaths if possible. However…”

                She trails off as Bardam says, “There’s likely more than one culprit, isn’t there?”

                “Probably.” You say, annoyed. “A lot of this doesn’t quite add up. While it could make sense that she would know where the mayor sleeps, there’s no way she could have known who would be in what bed chamber last night. To make a random guess at one doesn’t fit. Someone had to have told her.”

                Tabitha frowns. “The decisions were made after the council meeting. Theoretically the information could have gotten around, but only the maid staff would have known besides the members of council themselves.”

                An uneasy silence permeates after that. The implications of such a statement hang heavy in the air. Unless there were means you didn’t know about, the only people who could have leaked this would be those working in the palace or the councilors. Someone is a traitor.

                Bardam is the first to break the silence. “That’s just silly. The Lizardmen aren’t always the brightest, but they are honorable. To assassinate someone just doesn’t fit!”

                “Lizardmen can do some pretty dishonorable things.” You say, thinking of the slavers in Ectria. “However… they are still upfront about it. I wouldn’t rule it out, but it seems much more likely to be one of the other races, right?”

                ‘Well…” Tabitha says, frowning. “There is a Wurm on the regular house staff, as well as a Lamia, but they’re well liked and do a good job. They seem happy here.”

                “Hrm.” Veronica muses. “I suppose we should question the council members then, perhaps the maids and such as well.”

                “No.” You say, shaking your head. “That will show our hand. Anyone crafty enough to work with the Danuki like this would be crafty enough to keep their mouths shut and play dumb.”

                “You assume it’s the Danuki.” She says with a cocky smile. At your flat stare, she just chuckles. “Very well then. However I worry that someone will try to free our assassin while we investigate.”

                “Doubtful.” Tabitha says. “She’s a broken tool now, even with healing magic those hands will take time to heal.”

                Veronica raises an eyebrow at this but says nothing. Instead, she turns to you. “This will not be as quick or easy. How long do we intend to keep the mines out of operation?”

                “Not long.” You say. “In fact, I probably need to do some investigating in the mines myself. I’m worried that someone’s been going in there without authorization.”

                “Oh?” Bardam asks, clearly interested. “What do you mean?”    

                You tell him about the tracks belonging to Valeria you found and he frowns, concerned. “Is that so? I hope she’s not thinking about taking it for herself.”

                “It would be difficult to hide that fact.” You say, shrugging. “So I’m confused at why she would do it at all. Still, just to make sure I’ll be checking on that in a little b-bit.” A yawn escapes your lips, to which Tabitha frowns.

                “Oh no, you’re getting some sleep. Besides, you have that wound on your chest.”

                “Dear please, it will form a nice, sexy scar. Besides, it doesn’t hurt that much and we need to be working at this together.”

                Veronica chuckles, “It’s fine. Bardam and I will take over listening in at the council meeting, which I’m sure will occur. I’d say you earned some sleep like her.” She nods to Maya who is curled up in the corner on some blankets, snoozing silently.

                “She’s… much more dependable than I’d expected.” You say, honestly meaning it. “I’d probably be dead if not for her.”

                “So I heard.” Veronica says. “While I’m glad to have her here, it’s a shame what happened to lead her to this position.”

                You sit up, interested. It seemed rude to ask much about Maya’s past and she wasn’t one for telling people about it. Your eyes drift over to the sleeping form of the Mouse Girl and you swear you can see her ear twitch, but she makes no other movements. Curiosity winning out, you turn to Veronica who leans forward and sighs.

                “From what I understand she was one of the highest order of scouts in the Order itself. Her ability to get into small places, to find things other couldn’t, and to be on her own for weeks at a time were remarkable. She’d be sent here and there, always in demand from various commanders who wanted her skills. I’d heard multiple stories of lives being saved by an arrow fired seemingly from nowhere.”

                You blink, amazed at hearing all of this, and yet somehow it doesn’t surprise you. Veronica continues, not even looking at the sleeping Monster. “I believe about a year ago there was information passed down that a rather violent group of brigands was to be moving through a forest in western Deleor. Maya was assigned to locate the brigands as they’d move through and fire a magitek flare when she did, allowing the soldiers she was with to come down on them.”

                Veronica looks down, hands cupping her tea. “The flare never came though. The soldiers, awaiting the signal to move in to attack didn’t expect the brigands to come from a different path and attack them. Though the soldiers prevailed, they took casualties they shouldn’t have. When they eventually found Maya she was asleep in the crook of a tree right by where the brigands should have passed. Because of that, she was brought back to the Hero’s Hall under censure and so far as I’ve known her, she’s been like that.”

                You risk looking back at the sleeping Mouse Girl again to find for some reason her face looks a little pained, as if she’s having a bad dream though. Furrowing your brow you turn to Veronica and say, “Why do you think that happened?”

                “I don’t know.” She says. “She didn’t say much in her defense initially and I doubt she’ll come out about it now. In time, perhaps, but as long as she does her duty, then all is well.”

                “As long as she doesn’t fall asleep at another critical moment.” Bardam says, shaking his head as he stands up. “Alright, we’ll go with Tabitha and check on the council and see what’s happening next. You get some sleep and check out the mines.”

                “I thought I was team leader.” You say, raising an eyebrow. The man merely shrugs and goes to wake Maya while you consider just how nice a nap would be right about now.

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

                Erwin trails behind you as you enter deeper into the mines, your staff providing illumination. The warmth of the mines feels nice after your rest, though you didn’t sleep too long at your house, your familiar waking you. As it stands, it’s around noon by the time you trek through the mines, pausing as Erwin notices fresh tracks again.

                {Yep, she’s here again alright. I don’t see return tracks either.}

                {Alright. I doubt she’ll do anything dangerous, but we need to be on our guard.} You send back, preparing yourself. As you move forward, you cast [Privacy Barrier] at intervals to muffle the sound of your approach until you reach the new section of tunnel you just excavated, where you’re certain she must be.

                You wonder if she’d be able to even get in there if you hadn’t spent the time to widen it a few days ago, but it allows you entrance as well. Continuing to muffle your presence, Erwin eventually twitches his ears and sends, {Ah… I hear something ahead.}

                It takes quite some time to reach the end of the tunnel and come to the large cavern housing the gold and runite. As you walk into the area, the heat becomes even more oppressive due to your proximity to the volcano. Loud, striking noises reverberate through the cavern and you turn your gaze to the far side where you see the form of Valeria striking the stone with her large pick-axe, breaking off huge portions with each swing.

                She turns and wipes dirt from her brow and you can see with surprise that she’s bare from the waist up, her rather shapely breasts covered in glittering red scales. She rolls her shoulders before reaching into the hole she made and yanking, pulling out a piece of glimmering gold. Placing it close to her chest, she lets out a sigh before looking up and seeing you.

                The gold tumbles from her clawed hand as she stares at you with wide eyes, a mix of shock and anger playing over her features. This lasts for a long moment before she lets out a booming roar and leaps through her air, her wings unfurling and carrying her in a bound that delivers her before you faster than you can react, her draconic feet nearly shattering the stone under her as she raises herself to her full height before you.

                Fire burning in her eyes figuratively and smoke drifting from her mouth literally, she growls out, “What are you doing here?”

                Despite having faced down abominations, impossibly powerful demi-goddess, and even a Sandworm, you’re still a little afraid of this enraged Dragon. Taking a few, calming breaths, you force yourself to stand up straight and look up into her eyes. She watches you, making no movement, though smoke continues to gently drift from her mouth. Taking a moment to steady yourself, you say with what you hope is authority,

                “I was inspecting the mines for traces of the assassin when I’d noticed your footprints. I was hoping to find you here to ask why you’re mining when the mines are supposed to be shut down.” You give her a cold look, “Taking resources from the mines without permission is rather frowned upon you know. Even more so if such resources are given to those outside the city. Even MORE so if this is done while there is a current threat to the lives of the people in the city.” 

                Valeria looks down at you like you’re an insect. Perhaps this is a trait common to Dragons, but part of you wants to quiver under that glare. She speaks, her voice rough as gravel with all the smoke. “Are you accusing me of using the killing to gain gather materials to give to the Danuki? That I work for them?”

                “It is not an accusation, but a questi-“ You cut off as she suddenly backhands you, sending you into a full spin before you crash to the ground in a heap. Though you’re fairly certain you’ve stopped moving, the world continues to spin and you see stars in front of your eyes. Erwin lets out a cry of shock and anger, but before you can do much else, Valeria plants a taloned foot on your back, pressing down hard.

                “If I was working for them, then I could kill you like it was nothing. You may have your magic, but I am a DRAGON. Humanity is nothing compared to us, all other Monsters are WEAK compared to the might of our ancient race.” She leans down and her hot, smoky breath plays over you as she breathes in and out before surprisingly pulling back, her taking her foot off you.

                “While it is true, when taken too far, it leads to what happened to my cousin. It leads to resentment, to strife.” She shakes her head as you push yourself up. “I was hoping I wouldn’t be caught so quickly, however.”

                You cough, your old back injuries and your new chest injury catching up with you. “W-what was that for?”

                “Is it not customary to be angered when someone accuses you of being a pawn of someone?”

                “I-“ You don’t have a good response for that. Instead you say, “So I’ll believe you’re not working for the Danuki. What are you doing?”

                “Mining.” She says, as if it’s obvious.

                Erwin stays by your side, glaring at the Dragon as you push yourself to a sitting position. “Alright smartass, why are you mining? You seem rather… interested in the gold.”

                In a rather shocking turn of events, Valeria covers up her breasts (not that you can see much with the scales) and turns her head to the side. “I… didn’t want to waste any time not mining. Who knows how long the operation will be closed? I didn’t want to just sit at home not doing anything and I’m perfectly capable of mining by myself. I was going to leave it here when the operations started up again and we’ve already have made headway and…”

                “… Valeria, do you get aroused by gold?”

                She turns to you and if Dragons could blush you’re sure she would. “No! I mean. No, that’s… not… true.”

                It’s actually adorable to see the big, scary Dragon suddenly act like this. She lets out a sight a moment later and says, “Almost all Dragons have a similar sort of feeling toward gold and treasure. It is nearly irresistible at times. Perhaps my late cousin was one of the few who didn’t have this desire.”

                “So you’re out here mining with no one around because it turns you on?”

                She sniffs. “No, though with an opportunity like this… anyway, as it stands I do truly want to get this gold mining started because it will benefit the city. I was not lying when I said I want the city to prosper and am not interested in tricks left behind by the Danuki. I do not want any part of these political games any longer, I merely want… an honest life.” She sighs and turns her toned back to you, wings unfurling. She looks over her shoulder, eyes searching. “What are you going to do?”

                You sigh, not certain how to handle this. On one hand, it’s innocuous enough what she’s doing and could even be beneficial. You also trust that she would have killed you if she was working for the Danuki. On the other hand, it goes against protocol, and as the foreman it’s your duty to keep this behavior in line.

                “For now, just put your clothing back on and head back with me to the city. You’re on house arrest until I decide what to do with you.”

                A flash of pride appears in her eyes for a moment, but she relents, instead leaping back over to the pile of her clothing on the floor, which she puts on without seeming to care if you’re watching. She eyes the gold for a long moment before you wave your hand and cover it to some of the surrounding rock. She lets out a huff and joins you as you leave the mines.

                When you step outside of the mine complex she sighs and turns to you. “I trust it will be fine if I go home myself?”

                “Sure.” You say, shrugging. “I’ll be in touch. I don’t want you going back in there though, I’ll know.”

                “Alright.” She says, expression stoic. She readies herself to fly but pauses, looking back at you. “I didn’t mean to cause any trouble with this. Really.”

                “We’ll see.” You say, nodding at her as she takes off. You watch her fly away as Erwin walks over to you, shaking his head.

                {You believe what she said?}

                Rubbing at your back you mutter, “I don’t know.”

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

                >Four days later

                The council meeting a few days ago just highlighted the general concerns of the council. They too figured there could be more than one assassin and until the one being held had been broken, they wanted to stay on their toes. While their proclamation against the Danuki was made, curiously there was no reply from them. No further requests, nothing as of yet, though Wyverns did confirm that they were still there at the outpost.

                The mines have stayed closed and you’re reasonably certain that Valeria is staying at home based on what people in the city have told you. Though the mines have stayed closed, the council does allow access into and out of the city again, although all people going in are inspected thoroughly this time. Oddly enough, very few merchants have come into the city since but many of those who had finished their business left quite quickly, though a final one had left earlier this morning, laden down with various goods they’d purchased.

There have been no strange interactions from the council members during meetings that Veronica or Bardam can report and no further assassination attempts have been made. They mostly spend their time in their rooms or in the large meeting chamber, rarely going about to other business like overseeing trades, etc. Though Maya and Erwin do their best to tail the house staff, they don’t see anything strange happening to the rooms and the living situation for the council is randomized before bed with only Veronica knowing who will go where. Hells, no one has even attempted to get to the prisoner. It feels as if you’re on pins and needles all the time though, wearing you out.

                Speaking of the prisoner, as per your instructions, she’d been fed a sort of gruel which was enough to keep her going, but barely. The guards report that each day she seems a little more unhinged, her expression tired. One of them thinks they heard her ask them to scratch this itch, though they couldn’t be certain. Taking it as a sign, however, you descend into the dungeon in the afternoon with Tabitha at your side, ready to try and get some answers.

                As you approach with your staff lit, the Kunoichi looks up, incredibly weary, her face covered in sweat and dried gruel. She licks her dry lips as you sit down in the chair again and watch her. She stares at you with haunted eyes before eventually saying, “Fuck you.”

                “At least you can talk.” You say, nodding your head. “Who are you?”

                “Nothing. No one cares who am until I put on the mask.” She looks down and chuckles, which comes out more as a cough. “But it doesn’t matter.”

                “You seem quite willing to talk now.” You say. “Is it the itching? Would you like me to make it stop?”

                “It would be extremely nice.”

                “Yes.” You say, nodding your head. “For you. Do you remember what I said before? Just tell me who hired you and why.”

                She coughs again. “Just kill me.”

                You sigh and channel some of your will. The Kunoichi’s eyes bulge and she screams as the pressure on her mangled hands increased. You shake your head and say, “Now is not the time for death, assassin.” You relieve some of the tension. “That comes later.”

                Gasping, she lets out more hacking coughs before groaning. Tabitha next to you shakes her head, “What true loyalty do you owe to the Danuki? As a failed tool, they’ll leave you to rot here and never acknowledge your existence. They won’t send help either. They have no honor, why should you honor them?”

                The Kunoichi glares at Tabitha. “Honor is more important than you know. It is the lifeblood of my people.”

                “I understand.” She says, nodding. “But is it worth the constant itching? The sensation shifting against your skin, rubbing against your nethers, driving you mad with irritation? My husband described what he’s doing and even I’d have difficulty in there.”

                You hold up a hand to quiet Tabitha. “We can keep you alive for quite a while, making things more and more miserable for you.” Sighing, you stand and nod toward the door. “I’ll be back in a few more days then. I hope you’re more amenable.”

                “W-Wait.” She says, causing you to stop. Turning your head, she whispers, “How long has it been so far?”

                “Seven days.” You say, lying.

                She closes her eyes. “Good enough. Very well, I’ll tell you want you want to know.”

                When you turn to face her, she says, “I was hired as part of a bodyguard detail in Danusreal for a Danuki client and traveled to this land via boat. My interactions with them were limited, however I was given information on targets and assassinated one before being caught.” She chuckles, “Is that good enough?”

                “Who gave you the information? What did the Danuki hope to achieve?”

                “I don’t know, I had received orders through the Communion Matrix. Even if you found the glass I used, you can’t follow the runic signatures. As for what was hoped to be achieved?” She chuckles, “If it’s been seven days then it’s been enough time.”

                “Time for what?” You ask, frowning.

                “Check your vault.” She coughs, “Now do it.”

                You briefly consider letting her live, allowing her to suffer. But no, even you aren’t that cruel. Taking a pebble into your hand, you shoot it through her head, piercing her skull and instantly killing her.

                Her head slumps within the cage and you frown at her words, turning to Tabitha. She nods and you both hurry out of the dungeon, taking the guards with you. Your entourage increases in size as you walk through the palace, gathering up Veronica and Bardam as well until you reach the large vault inset deep into the Palace. A large, combination lock keeps it closed, which Tabitha opens, knowing the code. As the large door opens you’re shocked to see that the inside is almost barren.

                The city’s stores of coins are depleted somewhat, but most importantly the samples of runite and other artifacts recovered from the city are missing. Tabitha goes through the vault in shock as the rest of the council arrives, showing equal surprise. One of the older members, shakes her head, distraught.

                “We don’t have the food production to supply the city without the money to purchase it!”

                Another holds up a scaled hand, “We have found a gold deposit, right? We’ll mine it and trade that.”

                “But to who? The last few days have had very few merchants come by and the rest left the city!”

                As you search the room, you find a section of the wall that’s different from the rest. Using your magic to remove it, you find a hole tunneled in through the thick stone of the vault. From the looks of it, and the few spilled coins, it was recently dug. Questing out with [Survey], you find it leads out to around where you think the stables might be. Carrying something out of the stables in a wagon wouldn’t be surprising and someone digging through there wouldn’t attract as much attention. Especially since you’re certain you know what was used to dig it.       

                Standing straight, you watch as one of the Danuki-favoring councilors says, “We have no choice, we’ll have to trade with the Danuki unless we can find where it all went.”

                “Perhaps.” You say, feeling angered. “Are there Wurms who work out on the grounds or in the stables?”

                Tabitha blinks in surprise. “I… think there’s one, why?”

                “Where is she?”

                One of the Lizardmen butler says, “She loaded up a wagon for a merchant heading out of the city very early this morning. I think she went into the city afterward.” She considers for a moment. “Now that I think about it, the Wurm on the house staff took the day off for personal business in the city also.”

                “Damnit.” Tabitha says, gritting her teeth. “Who could have seen Wurms playing us like this?”

                “They haven’t gotten the last laugh yet.” You say, gripping your staff tight.

 

Chapter 10

                The rest of the occupants turn to you, waiting for what you have to say next. Despite the anger making your blood pump hot, you calm yourself down and say in only a small growl, “When was the last time the vault was opened?”

                “Yesterday.” One of the councilors says quickly. “I checked it yesterday to complete a trade deal and everything was in place.” One of the house attendants next to her nods her head to confirm the story.

                “So this must have happened last evening or this morning. Given the patrols at night recently, it would have been difficult to smuggle anything out of the grounds without being noticed.” You grit your teeth as you say, “I was looking for tunnels leading out of the palace, not those within it.”

                “No one expected this.” Tabitha says. “But what you’re saying is it was stolen this morning, then what happened?”

                “Likely it was transported out on a wagon.”

                “So it’s still in the city?” One of the councilors says. “Alright, form up a search party and-“

                “We don’t know that for certain.” You say, cutting her off. “It’s possible, but I suspect it may have been smuggled out of the city.”

                “There was someone who left this morning.” Another councilor says. “They probably already reached the outpost by now, however.”

                The assembled Lizardmen begin to get agitated, their hands moving to their weapons. If you’re not careful, they’re like to form a posse and try to hunt them down yourself. Unfortunately this will not end well when a group of angered Lizardmen attack a neutral outpost housing a Danuki of all people.

                Veronica is the first to recognize this and with a whispered prayer she speaks, her voice amplified as her eyes glow a slight shade of yellow.

                “QUIET!”

                The bickering stops as all eyes turn to her. Still giving off a faint glow, she says, “Before we jump to conclusions, we should confirm if the Wurms who did this are still in the city. We should also try to get a better idea of who these potential smugglers are. To that end…” She nods to Bardam. “Can you and Tabitha speak with the guards at the gate?”

                “Sure, but what are you going to do?” He asks.

                “Rommel, Maya, I are going to find the Wurms. If someone can provide a description of them, we’ll get going.”

                One of the other house staff starts giving a description of Veronica while you send to Erwin, {Go with Tabitha. Keep in contact if we need you.}

                {You got it.} He sends, walking over to Tabitha, who seems to understand as they leave with Bardam.

                Once you have the description, you head out of the palace while the remaining councilors try to organize what’s left in the treasury and plan for the worst. You hope to the Gods it doesn’t come to that though. This dream of theirs only just started, it would be a shame for it to collapse so soon.

                You reach the city in short order, the sun still shining in the late afternoon. Using the descriptions you have, you begin to ask other inhabitants, though most can’t seem to recall seeing anyone like that. It isn’t until Veronica speaks with a young Wurm child that you get any kind of answer.

                “That sounds like big sisters! They aren’t my real sisters but they say I’m their little sister so I play along so they won’t be upset.” She nods her head like she’s doing a good deed for playing along, though clearly she enjoys it. “They were excited about getting a prize they said. They went big sis Yuel’s house but that was this morning.”

                She points you in the general direction of where the Wurms went and you thank her by sculpting her a doll out of stone. Her eyes sparkle and she hugs the poor thing with a little too much force, cracking it, but she doesn’t seem to notice as she hums and slithers away.

                Maya yawns as she leaves before looking up to the faint sunlight filtering down. “Hmm, that took a lot of time. We’re going to miss bedtime if we don’t get answers soon.”

                You nod your head, having finished conversing with Erwin about this. Seems that only one wagon passed out of the town again, a male merchant with a rather large collection of weapons and metals crafted in the city. The guards didn’t find anything strange, though they truthfully were paying much more attention to things coming into the city rather than those leaving. Honestly, you’re not sure if you could blame them for that.

                “I understand. The others will stay put for now while we go and ask the Wurms nicely to answer where the treasury is.”

                “What is they don’t answer nicely?” Veronica asks, giving you a questioning look.

                “Well then we’ll…” You trail off as she lifts an eyebrow. “You aren’t going to let me torture them, are you?”

                “You’re learning, good. Next thing you know I’ll have you at church twice a week.”

                Maya shudders. “That’s prime nap time…”

                “Fine.” You sigh. “We can restrain them if need be, though honestly someone more intimidat…ing…” Your words trail again as you notice a familiar figure walking down the other side of the street.

                Valeria tears at a piece of grilled lizard caught near the reach. She looks up and blinks when she sees you, lizard leg in her mouth. Her expression grows concerned, however, when you start walking toward her.

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

                The Dragon lets out a grunt of annoyance as she walks behind you. Your strange group draws a fair amount of attention as you walk down the street, but most people get out of the way of Valeria, allowing you each passage.

                “I shouldn’t have said yes.”

                “I’m glad you did though.” You say. “I’d appreciate it a lot, and it would go a ways to help forget about the-“

                “Fine!”  She says, cutting you off with an angry growl. “Are we almost there?”

                “I believe so.” Veronica says, checking the description. She nods to Maya who yawns before making her way forward, checking the place out. She circles around the house a few times, her mouse-like ears twitching. Returning, she nods her head and says,

                “There’s more than one person inside. Seems like they’re having a good time.”

                “Hmph. I’d heard some of the Wurms were like that.” Valeria says, standing tall. “Too much time without many men. Would have ‘a good time’ with themselves.” She shakes her head as she stomps toward the door. “Shameful!”

                “H-Hey!” You say, trying to stop her, but it’s too late. The Dragon steps before the door in one motion kicks it in, driving the whole thing off its hinges. Dust flies up everywhere as she does so and she lets out a draconic roar before entering the house. Cursing, you dash in after her, readying you magic. When you cross the threshold however, you find something you weren’t expecting.

                In the center of the room upon a comfortable rug you find the two Wurms you were looking for- both are dressed in very loose clothing which, by the way it’s slipping off their bodies, does little to hide their shame. They don’t seem to care much as they look up at you with dopey expressions, bottles of liquor held in their claws.

                They give Valeria dopey (well, dopier than usual for a Wurm) looks as they lay there before one of them sits up and says, “Hey! You’re not the delivery girl!”

                “What the fuck is this.” Valeria says, waving a claw at you. “They’re drunk off their ass.”

                “Hey!” The other Wurm says. “I’m not certain I have an ass. There’s an essay written by a very smart man that says I should have an ass, but I’m pretty sure it’s more of a cloaca.” She giggles. “I don’t know!”

                Your party enters, bewildered at the sight of the Wurms in their drunk state. Veronica just shakes her head as Maya looks about before shrugging and falling asleep in the corner.

                “Uh… are you Yuel and Kayla?”

                “No.” One of them says. “I’m just Yuel, I don’t know who ‘yuelankayla’ is.”

                The other Wurm giggles and drinks more from her bottle, a liquor you’re unfamiliar with. Sighing, you continue, “Do you two work in the palace?”

                “Yeeeeeeep.” Yuel says. “I’m a good stablehand. Only thing I’m better at is digging.” She chuckles.

                “Mhm.” The other, you’re certain is named Kayla, says. “I work in the big house cleaning beds! And other things!”

                “You can’t be serious.” You mutter to yourself. Honestly, you were half hoping to find Emphrasea tier Wurms ready to spring a trap on you, but instead you’re dealing with these idiots. Well, when dealing with idiots the best way is to be straight forward.

                “Did you two steal from the treasury this morning?”

                “Nope.” Yuel says, drinking from her bottle before giggling. Kayla begins to giggle too and you stare at them with hate before it dawns on you. Then you just feel tired.

                “Did you steal from the treasury last night?”

                “Y-yeah!” Yuel snickers. “It was before 6:24am, which is true morning! S-so we got you!”

                Both of them laugh at this. Even Veronica is getting annoyed.

                “What did you do with the contents? Where did you transport them?”

                Yuel suddenly becomes quiet. She sits up straight at stares at you with an serious expression, her lips drawing thin. “Excuse me. You break down my door and begin asking me questions to a very serious matter as if I were a criminal. I do not take kindly to this behavior and would ask that you leave my residence this every moment. I will take this matter up with the council if I must and it appears I shall have to do so to redress grievances.”

                Even Maya picks up her head at this sudden change in speech. Kayla gets up as well, crossing her arms under her breasts as she pumps herself up, staring at you with cold eyes. A tension fills the room, forcing Veronica to slip her hand to her mace while Valeria flexes her knuckles, readying for battle. Licking your lips, you say slowly,

                “If… you tell me then I’ll get you more alcohol.”

                Yuel’s eyes narrow.

                “And I’ll see about getting the two of you husbands?”

                And like that, the tension is broke as the two Wurm’s eyes widen, their mouths opening wide. Yuel throws her arms up in the air, “Yaaaaay! We can have babies!”

                “And people won’t call us lizard beans anymore!” Kayla says. “It doesn’t make any sense!”

                “Uh. Right.” You say. “We don’t have much time so uh-“

                “Yeah, yeah.” Yuel says, waving a hand. “We were asked some guy to do this in exchange for a lot of this tasty stuff.” She waves to the bottle. “Didn’t seem too hard and he was a really nice guy, said we’d get a lot more good things when his boss came into town.”

                Kayla sighs, “But a husband would be the nicest…”

                Veronica rubs at the bridge of her nose while you try not to groan. “This merchant, can you describe him?” They do and it fits the description of the one who left this morning out the gate.

                “Alright.” You say. “Did you give him all of it?”

                “Yeeeeeeeep.” Yuel says. “We aren’t thieves, we don’t keep stolen items.”

                “That’s-“ Valeria begins before shaking her head and turning to you. “Are we done here?”

                “Yeah.” You say, fishing for some coins in your pocket. “Go buy more liquor.”

                They cheer as you leave the house. A few passersby stare at the broken door, but you don’t have time for any of that bullshit. Walking down the street toward the gate, you relay the information to Erwin until a tug at your shoulder nearly throws you to the ground.

                Catching your balance, you look up to Valeria who growls at you. “Alright, what was that about? They fucking stole the treasury of the damn city? Why didn’t you say so sooner?!”

                “Because you’d do exactly what you did before, but probably with more fire!” You say, annoyed. “Look, thanks for coming along, but we need to get going to the outpost. If we’re quick we can probably catch them before they’ve transported it out to Port Dorning and-“

                You gasp as Valeria puts an arm around your waist, pulling her to your side. You try to make protest as she does the same to Veronica before growling at Maya. “Get on.”

                The Mouse Girl doesn’t question it and crawls in between the Dragon’s wings. Despite her feminine physique, her strong muscles seem to have no issue lifting all three of you. Her large, draconic wings spread out to the side and they begin to flap, generating impressive levels of lift. Despite the changes wrought to the strength of Monsters twenty years ago, it seems like Dragons didn’t get the memo. Even still, as she leaps into the air, all three of you as passengers, you swear you can feel a pulse of magic flowing through her body.

                Or, maybe it’s just her heartbeat you hear as the force of her flying drives your face into her breast. Boy are you glad your wife isn’t here.

                It’s a very, very short period of time before Valeria dumps you onto the ground before the gate, her wings allowing her to land with little issue. She lets Veronica down gently however. At your approach the rest of your party and some guards show up, Erwin giving you a smug look.

                “Alright, what’s going on?” Tabitha asks, her eyes searching Valeria’s. The Dragon just gives her a flat, disinterred look, to which your wife slowly nods her head.

                Groaning, you stagger to your feet and say, “We were right the Wurms were bribed into stealing the treasury. The man who left earlier smuggled it out.” The nearby guards blanch when you say this.

                “Damnit. Alright, we’ll get horses ready and go-“ Tabitha’s words cut off as the ground beneath her shifts and rises. You stand there, radiating magic as you say,

“This is much, much faster.”

                Veronica laughs at the ingenuity while Bardam just shakes his head and mounts the rock. You nod to Valeria and say, “Alright, we need to get going, thanks for the help-“

                “Oh hells no.” She says, spreading out her wings. “I’m going with you. If ANYONE seeks to harm this place, I’ll tear them to shreds!”

                You blink at her for a moment before shrugging and saying, “Well, glad to have you aboard I guess.” Shouting to the guards to open the gates, you use [Rock Slide] to propel you forward at blistering speeds. Normally this spell would tire you out after doing this much, but you got a lot of practice out in Ectria. Might as well put it to good use.

                Speeding down the canyon separating the Reach from the outpost in the mountain pass, you almost feel silly for making a trip like this to save one city when the entire world could be in peril. Of course, you think to yourself, Blackfire Reach is your home where your family is. It might as well BE your entire world.

                The trip to the outpost would normally take about half a day on foot, but a wagon would have reached there sooner and your spell would certainly move faster. Above you, Valeria flies, her wings dark against the rapidly lowering sun. You’re certain you won’t get there before nightfall, but that may be to your benefit anyway.

                “Hmm.” Veronica says, sitting on the rock as if this was totally normal. “We left Maya on the Dragon, didn’t we?”

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

                You arrive at the outpost a little after nightfall to a group of confused guards. Most of them don’t like you after what you did to one of their superiors in the past, but they know better than to mess with you. Still, it doesn’t help things when Valeria lands down next to you, a sleepy Maya slipping off her back and letting out a yawn.

                “Rommel…” One of the guards says as you return your rock to the earth. “What are you doing here? Business relations won’t be open until the morning and the rooms are currently all full. You should return to the Reach until-“

                You snap your fingers and Valeria picks him up by the collar with little effort. Both he and she look at you with surprise, the later growling for acting on instinct. You step up to the man and say, “Is there a Danuki party staying here?”

                “W-What? Yes, but you can’t just-“

                “Right then. They’ve been expecting us.” You say, waving to Valeria, who drops him to the ground. He rubs at his neck and says,

                “Hey! You can’t just do this! We’ll put you under arrest-“

                The rest of his words choke off as you give him a look devoid of any fucks. He visibly shivers before calling the rest of his men to stand down. You don’t even bother looking at him as you stride toward the inn run by the outpost for travelers in between the two nations and Blackfire Reach.

                Music is playing inside and you hear laughter from many voices. He wasn’t kidding about it being full, if the wagons nearby mean anything. A quick [Survey] doesn’t reveal anything though. They probably have it inside in the upper levels. You hope, anyway.

                Nodding to the others, you throw open the door to the inn and step inside. The smells of fresh food, beer, and unwashed people and Monsters hit you as you enter while the music of a harp being played by a bard echoes in the room filled with chatter drowning them out.

                An innkeeper makes to greet you but pauses, a mix of recognition of you and confusion at the Order members and the Dragon in his establishment. Before he can say anything you move into the common room where you find an assortment of people dining and chatting. At your approach, they fall silent, and every eye in the room sits upon you.

                You scan about, seeing many unfamiliar faces, until you happen to lock eyes with a man fitting the description of the merchant you’re looking for- sitting at a table with three Danuki.

                He hurriedly looks down while one of the Danuki with long, brown hair and glasses puts down her fork and adjusts her suit before saying, “Excuse me, is there a reason you’re causing a disruption? Do I need to call the guards?”

                You give the raccoon Monster a level look. Though they can pass as human at times, those greedy eyes and fluffy calves aren’t human. The raccoon ears on their head and the large, fluffy tails don’t help matters. Before you can say anything, however, Veronica steps forward and displays her Order sigil.

                “On behalf of the Order of the Heroic Brotherhood, I am hereby conducting and investigation into the whereabouts of goods stolen from Blackfire Reach. Until such investigation is finished, I shall have to ask that no one leaves this facility.”

                The Deleorian merchants mutter between themselves while the Ectrian ones give annoyed stares or flat out can’t understand what she’s saying. At the back of the room one of the Danuki gives a small laugh,

                “A theft from Blackfire Reach? That’s terrible to hear! However…” She spreads her hands, “This outpost is technically neutral ground. The authority of the Order isn’t recognized here.”

                The other merchants look visibly less afraid now and instead start to give you smug looks. Well fuck, so much for that. Looking over to Tabitha, your wife clears her throat and says, “Very well. We understand that you had wished for a discussion with the Blackfire Reach council. I am Tabtiha Leitner, representing the council.”

                “Hmm.” The last Danuki, this one having red hair that you’re sure she had to fight to keep straight. “I think the council at Blackfire Reach denounced our involvement, didn’t they? To change your tune so soon is… strange.” A predatory grin spreads on her mouth.

                “But… if you’re willing to make some concessions in reparation, then perhaps we can hear you out. Tomorrow, however!” She waves her hand dismissively as she returns to her meal, the chatter in the room beginning again.

                Positively seething, you barely keep from leveling the whole place. Unfortunately, doing so will turn merchants off the Reach for good, basically dooming the fledgling city. You have to think of a way to show that they stole from you, but how?

                Gritting your teeth, you nod to the others to back away and return outside to make a new game plan when Valeria, sweet, sweet Valeria, walks up to the Danuki table, grabs it in both hands, and throws it across the room.

                The assembled merchants scream and run back and out of the common room as Valeria stands before the Danuki and the other merchant, who has now pissed his pants. Smoke begins to boil from her mouth as she says, “You pieces of shit are lying. I can smell it on you. Where is the treasury? Tell me now and I’ll kill you slowly.”

                “Oy vey!” The brown haired Danuki shouts so EVERYONE can hear. “You’re going to kill us? You’re going to commit another horacaust? You’re going to murder six million innocents?!”

                “No, but if you keep this up I’ll do at least three!”

                “Well then.” The black haired one says, dry-washing her hands. “Then I suppose this means Blackfire Reach is assaulting merchants now.” She pats the man next to her, who seems about to pass out. “You saw it as our witness. We are justified in defending ourselves.”

                “What the fuck are you talking abou-“ Valeria cuts off suddenly as a familiar-styled knife appears in her neck. She staggers backward, coughing up smoke as she clutches her neck.

                Maya gasps and bowls into your legs, toppling you forward as another knife flies forward where you were standing before clattering off Veronica’s armor. Immediately you’re on your guard as three figures seem to appear out of nowhere. All three are female and clad in dark, eastern garb with black facemasks. They look up at you with the same, dispassionate eyes as the other Kunoichi.

                The Red-haired Kunoichi pushes the struggling Valeria away from her as she giggles. “Now then. Die for us so we can finally get down to business.”

                >What do you do?

 

>Story continue

                “Fucking hells.” You say as Tabitha pulls you to your feet. The Kunoichi watch you rise, making no further motions as your party spreads out, ready to attack. The Danuki chuckle and rise, making ready to leave. The black haired Danuki chuckles as she stands.

                “Ufufufu. I’m sorry, but I believe being near such dangerous people could be a hazard. We should really evacuate the area.”

                Flicking out your wrist, you call up a wall of stone that blocks the doorway at the back of the common room. The rock shatters through the wooden floor, throwing up splinters which shower upon the Danuki who cry in surprise.

                As soon as you begin casting your magic, the Kunoichi are in motion. Though they cannot stop your wall from being built, they are able to move in to close range to attack and throw you off balance. Fortunately, Veronica and Bardam intercept them, the warriors battering aside their attacks with well trained skill and steel.

                The Kunoichi leap backward, throwing knives at the exposed portions of the order warriors, but you reach out with your magic and take hold of the metal, stopping the weapons in mid-air. With a flick of your wrist and a cry of power, you throw them back at the Kunoichi. Two of them stare in surprise while a third, dressed in dark purple clothing, moves her hands quickly and with a release of power, the weapons are blown aside by a gust of air, sending them flying across the room to embed into wooden pillars.

                An uneasy tension fills the room, the only sounds that of the Danuki’s dry rubbing, the whimpers of their merchant boytoy, and Valeria’s choking gasps. Gritting your teeth, you weave [Amplify] and shout, “Do not interfere or you will learn what your sister experienced!”

                The purple Kunoichi cocks her head but says nothing however, merely placing her hands together, preparing to use a jutsu, perhaps.

                “You are honorable, unlike the Danuki. Ask yourselves, who drew the first blood in this encounter?” You’re certain that the other guests of the inn, those who didn’t piss themselves and run away at the sign of battle, can hear just fine. Good, that’s the intention. “We never wanted any of this to happen, but they sent one of you to assassinate the mayor of the Reach! You are only doing your duty, but they will destroy you the moment it becomes convenient. It is who they are! It is what they do!”

                Shaking a fist you scream, maybe with a little more force than intended, “Don’t forget what the Danuki did to Blackfire Reach in the past! They sent the Wurms to murder innocent Lizardmen so they could take the fucking gold in the mines!”

                “W-what is this crazy man saying?!” The red-haired Danuki wails. “He’s going to kill us! Help! Someone help us! Please, he’s insane!”

                The other two begin to shriek as well, crying as they claw at the wall in front of them. Two Kunoichi form up in front, one in dark blue drawing out wooden sticks tied together with rope while the other in dark green pulls out a hollow tube while lowering her mask.

                No metal in these, huh? Well shit. Stepping back behind your armored wall, you prepare your magic again. “If you would just stand down and allow these Danuki to be brought to trial, none of this would need to happen!”

                “AHHHHH! He’s going to kill usssssss!” The Danuki scream. Annoyed, you cast out [Privacy Barrier], shutting out their yelling.

                Not waiting for the Kunoichi to attack first, you throw up another wall, trapping the Danuki in. As if anticipating this, the Kunoichi with the tube lifts it to her mouth and something flashes across the room. Tabitha gasps and moves in front of it, trying to hit the projectile with her sword, but it slips by and hits her in the side of the neck. She winces at the pain for a moment before pulling out a small dart.

                “The hell is-“ She begins before wobbling.

                The other two Kunoichi take the initiative and dash forward, the one with the wooden weapon dashing under Veronica’s guard and delivering a savage strike to the elbow joint of her weapon arm while the other moves her hands quickly, causing blades of wind to strike against Bardam, driving the man back. The two Order warriors rally however, Bardam struggling against the windstorm while Veronica lashes out with a kick, neatly passing her mace to the other hand as she begins to glow with holy energy.

                Dashing forward to Tabitha, you throw out a cluster of pebbles in your pocket and [Shotgun Pebble] fire them at the Kunoichi with the dart gun. She neatly flips over the projectiles and fires another dart at you, which you manage to stop with [Deflect]. Pulling up a quick wall between you and see, you look down to your wife, panicking.

                “Oh Gods, Tabitha? Are you okay?”

                “I… I’m a little…” Her eyes widen and she turns to the side before puking. Gasping for breath, she says, “Everything is spinning…”

                “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” You say, trying to remember the small amount of plagamancy the Grand Wizard showed you. Let’s see, uh, find the humors and then… gah!

                “Rommel!” Tabitha shouts, breaking your concentration as you look atop the wall you built. The Kunoichi is crouched atop it, blow gun at her lips.

                “YOU FUCKING BITCH!” You shout, the force of it imbued with your magical might. As you shout, the rock underneath her violently breaks through the floor as you cast [Rock Slide], sending up a shower of wood as she’s thrown bodily into the wall. She bounces off it and into a roll before you can catch her in the rock to crush her, however.

                “R-Rommel.” Tabitha says, panting. “Take care of them first then- hurgh.” She  vomits again.

                Everything in your body screams to take care of Tabitha, but you know she’s right. You have to remove the Kunoichi threat or else all of you will be dead. To this end, you scan the battlefield, watching as the blow gun Kunoichi reloads her weapon while the other two fight against Bardam and Veronica. As for Maya…

                You blink in surprise as the Mouse Girl yanks the knife out of Valeria’s throat before pouring a thick, red solution into the wound. Despite blood welling up, Valeria’s coughing becomes less pronounced and she merely faints, her neck steaming. Wait, when did Maya take your health-?

                No time for that however, as you block another shot from the Kunoichi. Rage overtaking you, you cast [Build the Wall] around Tabitha to protect her before stomping on the ground and sending a ripple in the stone that bursts up underneath your opponent. She reacts quickly and leaps through the air, firing a dart at you while reaching for something in her pocket.

                Instead of deflecting the dart this time, you let it strike your shoulder as you run forward, the thick leather of your [Trenchcoat] absorbing the dart. From your pocket flows sand and gravel that gathers into your hand, spinning faster and faster into a ball. As you near the Kunoichi, instead of shooting at you again she throws something, a small, black ball. Shouting at her, you thrust your ball forward, [Flurry] racing ahead of you. It contacts little black ball and the device explodes into a violent display of light, temporarily blinding you.

                The Kunoichi leaps around to the side and draws a knife from her belt as you stagger, disoriented, but before she can reach, the ball of concentrated dirt explodes outward, catching her in the swirling radius of debris. She cries out as her skin is rubbed raw while her eyes are filled with the sand. She tries to back away but a hail of accelerated pebbles hits her in the chest, perforating her lungs and heart, near instantly killing her in a spray of blood and gravel.

                Blinking furiously to clear your eyes from the flash, you thank the Gods you can detect presences through the swirling sand or you’d never have hit her with that attack. Your [Goggles] pulled down over your eyes, you turn to the other two Kunoichi and make to direct your [Flurry] at them when the purple-clad Kunoichi sweeps Bardam’s legs and makes a furious flurry of hand signs.

                A galeforce wind blows away your [Flurry], shattering windows at the far side of the room. You get hit by the tail end of this and spin around before crashing to the floor. Groaning, you pick yourself up to watch as Bardam, still on the floor, grabs the leg of the distracted Kunoichi and yanks her down to the floor as well. The man is unable to use his sword properly, but he holds onto it tight as he grabs the woman by the throat and chokes her, his expression cool and steady the entire time. She tries to move her hands in gestures but he throws his sword arm forward, using the flat of his blade to bludgeon her hands before using the same gesture on her head, knocking her unconscious.

                For Veronica’s part, she stands on shaky footing, one arm limp while the other holds onto her mace. The Kunoichi before her whirls one end of her weapon in a circular motion while the other is grasped firmly in her hand. Veronica narrows her eyes and shouts a litany, running at the Kunoichi who lashes out with the weapon in an attempt to catch Veronica’s mace arm again. Surprisingly, as the weapon is about to make contact, Veronica drops her mace and uses her limp arm to grapple the Kunoichi, pulling her into a tight embrace.

                The eastern woman blinks in surprise and fumbles to pull away until her eyes go wide and she lets out a gasp of pain. She turns her head to the side to see Maya latched onto her back, knife driven in deep. Gurgling, she slumps to the floor as Veronica lets her go. Instead of letting the Kunoichi die however, Veronica places her hand upon her back and recites an incantation, holy power flowing through her to seal the wound. Alive, if barely, the Kunoichi lays motionless on the floor next to the other.

                By this point a pack of guards rushes into the room, weapons held at all of your necks. While you’re certain you can probably beat them, with Valeria and Tabitha in their conditions, it would be dangerous and someone may be wounded too badly to heal. Slumping your shoulders, you sigh as the latest captain of the guard, an Ectrian man named Mustafar walks in and growls,

                “What in the name of the twins have you done you idiot?”

                “Nevermind that, help me get her some medical treatment.” You say, reaching into your pocket to pull out your other [Health Potion.]

                One of the guards places his sword before your face and you give him a glare so hard he backs away, eyes flicking to his captain for guidance. Brushing the sword aside, you kneel down to Tabitha who looks a little pale, but is still breathing.

                “Hey, hey drink this honey.” You say, pouring the liquid into her mouth. She sputters a little after drinking it but restores some color a few moments later, though she still looks sick. You breath a sigh of relief as the Danuki start to scream again behind your wall, your [Privacy Barrier] going down in your battle.

                “Help! He’s trapped us in here and is going to gas us!”

                “This is anti-Danukic! Someone save us!”

                The guard captain glares at you and you sigh, lowering the wall. The Danuki, tears in their eyes, rush toward the safety of the guards, leaving the merchant they were with on the floor, looking fairly beaten and abused for some reason. Crying, the brown haired Danuki says, “They attacked us and killed our bodyguards! Oh, if you weren’t here to stop them, who knows what they could have done!”

                “Take them away and execute them!” The black haired Danuki says. “Beasts! Brutes! Murderers!”

                You make to rise but swords appear all around you again. Unsure of what to do, you hesitate until Veronica stands up, her body battered, but still glowing with holy light. The guards around her seem both awed and confused, unsure of how to handle this situation. Using her good hand, she gently lowers a sword in front of her and says, “Lower your weapons. We mean no one any further arm. We were forced to defend ourselves when our companion was attacked.”

                “Liars!” The red haired Danuki says. “You’re the ones who attacked! We have witnesses!”

                A murmuring comes from behind as the other guests of the inn talk amongst themselves. Anger courses through you, but you manage to keep yourself in check, holding onto Tabitha’s hand as the guard captain groans.

                “I must arrest both of you while we consult our governments. You will be imprisoned while we discuss this.” He waves to his men to restrain both of you when you blurt out,

                “I can prove they’re in the wrong!”

                The captain sighs and turns to you. “Rommel, I swear by the Twins above, if you pull any further bullshit-“

                “Fuck you, my wife is poisoned, I don’t have time for you bullshit.” You say, waving your hand dismissively. “Check the Danuki’s rooms. There you’ll find good stolen from Blackfire Reach.”

                “Preposterous!” The red-haired Danuki shouts. “You would trust the word of this barbarian? I will have you know that my mother is one of the Danuki Triad and I will bring down the full force of Danusreal on this miserable little outpost if you don’t release us!”

                The captain looks down, gritting his teeth. While the old captain was certainly bought and paid for, you have to believe that Mustafar had a little more integrity. Still, this place was and probably still is heavily financed by the Danuki… in which case it may be hard for him to say no.

                “Then ask him.” You say, nodding to the merchant from before. A guard helps him to his feet and he shudders in pain before spitting some blood from a busted lip. Mustafar narrows his eyes and walks over the man, asking,

                “Is what he says true? Do these ladies have ill-gotten goods?”

                The man hesitates, looking between you and the Danuki. The Monsters give him silent glares, to which the man shies back, whimpering. As he does so you say, “If you admit to it, then you will not be given punishment by Blackfire Reach. In fact, we will set you up with a loving wife, one who would never allow the Danuki to harm you.”

                He stares at you, hope in his eyes as you say in a lower voice, ‘Scalie puss is the best puss.”

                Tabitha, despite her miserable state, squeezes on your hand while the man weighs the pros and cons. Eventually he sighs and says, “T… the loot is in their rooms, hidden in chests.”

                “NOOOOOOOOO!” The brown haired Danuki shrieks, rushing at the man before being tackled to the ground by guards. The black haired Danuki looks to the ground, defeated, while the red haired one’s eyes roll in the back of her head and she faints, mouth foaming.

                Mustafar pinches the bridge of his nose and sends guards upstairs to check before turning to you and saying, “Fuck you Rommel. Fuck you.”

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

                You stay the evening in the inn, watching over Tabitha as Maya returns to Blackfire Reach to inform the council of what happened. The Danuki and the Kunoichi, the later thoroughly bound and stripped (though you’re certain some of the guards may have taken that a little too far) are held in cells while you secure the treasury. Thankfully most of it is there, however you have no doubt that the guards helped themselves to some of it. At least all the runite you can recall gathering, pitifully little of it as it is, is still present. Guess the guards would rather take Deleorian coinage, which is fine.

                One of the guests at the inn is a healer, who manages to remove the poison from Tabitha, her slow, reptilian metabolism keeping it from causing any major harm. Still, she’ll be out of it for some time he says, unsuitable for strenuous activity. Yes, sex counts as strenuous activity, he assures you. With Tabitha, this is quite true.

                Valeria, on the other hand, is up before the end of the night. The potion that Maya administered healed the wound very well and her naturally tough skin managed to keep the wound from being too bad. Her voice seems to gotten a little more raspy, like that of someone who smoked green herb all their life, but she’s alive and angry. Guess it really is hard to put a Dragon down for good.

                In the morning three of the council members flown in by Wyverns arrive and a deal is made with the guards to have the Danuki turned over to Blackfire Reach. True to your word, you do not punish the man who smuggled the goods out of the city, but you do have him help bring it back in. The Kunoichi, having learned of their employer’s fates, resign themselves to your service as you see fit. Unable to think of how to deal with them, for now you have them return with the wagon and await judgement. Oddly enough, they go along with it.

                For your party, you create another block of stone, this one much larger, and head back to the Reach as the councilors, Erwin, Bardam, and Veronica try to figure out a way to pay for the damages. You’re pretty sure they’re going to confiscate Danuki goods, all things considered.

                Riding on the stone in the late morning, you turn to Tabitha, who is asleep next to you. Brushing aside a strand of her hair, you sigh and turn to Maya, who yawns but is for some reason awake. Smirking, you say, “Hey, thanks for all the help recently. Saved everyone’s lives.”

                “Hmm? Oh. Sure.” She says, seeming disinterested. Or maybe just tired. “Just doing my job and such.”

                “Yeah, but it still means a lot.” Thinking for a second, you say, “Hey, lean in close.”

                She gives you a suspicious look before leaning in close. Lifting your hand, you place it on her head and begin to give her a headpat. At the motion her eyes widen and she looks at you with shock as your fingers begin to glide through her short hair, massaging her scalp. She looks down for some reason and you’re surprised to see tears well up in her eyes. Her lip trembles ever so slightly as she leans into the pat.

                When you finish, she shudders and lets out a small gasp before looking up at you with tear filled eyes. She blinks twice before turning about and rubbing at her face. ‘I’m taking a nap!” She declares, promptly falling asleep on a moving boulder.

                “Huh, what was that about?” A husky voice asks next to you. Turning, you see Valeria leaning over, watching the poor Mouse Girl. “You have magic hands or something too?”

                “I don’t think it’s just that.” You say, watching the poor Monster. How terribly sad that expression was… it makes your heart ache just looking at it. Sighing, you turn to Valeria and say, “I think she just needs a little time.”

                “Hmm.” The Dragon muses. “Is it such a grand thing to have your head pat?”

                “Huh?” You say, surprised. “You’ve never had your head pat?”

                “Dragon society is a little different than human society.” She says. “We can’t afford such things. It is weakness and Dragons cannot be shown to be weak.” Her gaze shifts downward, “Though I suppose… modern times have shown that to be false for more than one reason.”

                “Ah, you’re plenty strong, Valeria. And you’re nothing like your cousin, from what I’ve heard.” Smirking, you lift your hand and say, “Listen, don’t tell Tabitha about this, but just this once, as a reward.”

                She blinks at you, confused before leaning forward for you to place your hand upon her head. As you begin to move your fingers her eyes too grow wide and tears immediately begin to stream down her cheeks. She stays, frozen in place as you work your dark magic, running intricate lines through her scalp and around her horns. When you finish she just stares forward, not looking at anything much at all.

                You don’t say anything else as you ride the rest of the way home to Blackfire Reach.

Chapter 11

                You’re not welcomed back as great heroes returning from slaying some great tyrant. In fact, you’re not really welcomed back much at all beyond a guard asking, “Everything alright?”

                It’s probably best you don’t receive any fanfare considering. Certainly the city had to know by now something was up with the sudden departure of council members outside, but they’d be assuaged for now with the information of, “dealing with the Danuki.” This is fine enough of an excuse, you suppose. It’s at least true.

                You escort the merchant and his wagonload of treasure to the palace, where an armed escort takes both him and the rather docile Kunoichi under custody. While the Kunoichi are guarded rather closely after a uh, “thorough” search, the man is given a little more comfort in a room with no windows. You suppose you’ll have to introduce him to his new uh, “girlfriends” soon. Gods hope they don’t tear each other apart trying to get his clothes off when they meet.

                The Danuki, however, are thrown right into the ruined dungeon where the poor Kunoichi you last captured was residing. They have plenty of guards watching them and you make certain that their bonds are more than just a little heavy. Honestly you wish you could just end them here and now as their mewling is rather pathetic, but unfortunately you have larger plans.

                With that squared away, you take the time to rest with your wife while Valeria and Maya slink away to their own devices, the two oddly not wishing to speak about much of anything. Ah hells, you just hope Tabitha won’t get upset when she hears about the headpats. Which she probably will the next time Erwin wants to take a jab at you, judging by his grin.

                The rest of the party and the council return the next day and plans get in motion for a trial. A show trial, because you know exactly what you’re going to do, but a trial nonetheless. Veronica wouldn’t dare hear anything less, and frankly it’s for the best that everyone can see the Danuki crimes. When you do get around to executing them, at least it will have that much more justice.

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

                Summer sun shining down through the hole in the mountain caves and warm, volcanic rock below, you bless the enchantments on your clothing as you stand next to Tabitha while the oldest council member, a blue scaled Lizardman, addresses the assembled crowd of residents.

                “And so, we gather you here today to put on trial the Danuki who have been accused of hiring an assassin to kill the mayor as well as try to interfere in the affairs of trade to Blackfire reach.” She tacitly does not bring up the treasury missing, however. Probably best that people don’t know how easily the wealth of the city was plundered. The current accusations are fine enough.

                The councilor steps back, allowing Veronica to walk before the crowd on the platform which normally sits in the city square. She clears her throat before speaking, her voice going through your [Amplify] to reach all of the crowd.

                “My name is Veronica, a member of the Order of the Heroic Brotherhood who has been investigating these crimes. Much evidence has been found to incriminate these Danuki, but it is the way of the Order to allow them, or any others who would wish to, speak in their defense.” She holds up a hand and a group of Lizardmen guards bring up the shackled Danuki. They look about, tired, disheveled, and frantic.

                “W-what are you doing? P-Please this is a joke! Y-You can’t really expect to accuse us of anything?”

                “Help us good people! They’re trying to frame us!”

                “Uhn… ugnnnhhh!”

                Tears begin to stream down the brown-haired Danuki’s cheeks as the others shout at the audience, though all they manage to get are scornful and embarrassed looks.

                Veronica waits for a moment before addressing the crowd again, her voice overpowering that of the Danuki. “These are the Danuki assembled. As said before, they stand accused of assassination and plots to inflict monetary and physical harm upon the citizens of Blackfire Reach.” She turns to the three, her silent intensity cowing them.

                “What say you?”

                The red-haired Danuki licks her lips and speaks up first. “I deny these charged whole heartedly. We are proud merchants who would never resort to such means. To insinuate otherwise is slander and an affront to Danusreal and all Danuki!” The other two nod their heads in agreement.

                “Do you know how the mayor was killed?” Veronica asks.

                The Danuki blinks in surprise before spitting out, “How should I know that? I was in the outpost until recently.”

                Veronica doesn’t miss a beat. “It was by a Kunoichi assassin from the far east. Very similar to those you had in your employ and which you ordered to assault us upon visiting you at the outpost.”

                “Preposterous.” The black-haired Danuki says. “They are bodyguards first and foremost and have no connection to this supposed assassin. Do you have proof it was a Kunoichi?”

                “Do not play coy with me.” Veronica says, her voice steely. “I was there when she attempted a second murder and I have seen her remains. I can fetch them, if you wish, but I doubt you’ll want to see them.”

                “Hmph.” The red-haired Danuki sniffs. “That still doesn’t incriminate anything. It’s merely a coincidence. We only had three Kunoichi in our employ and only to protect us when YOU assaulted US!”

                Veronica waves to the guards and they bring forth one of the Kunoichi, the one in purple. She says nothing as she’s lead forward, wearing clothing that leaves little to the imagination, her legs manacled and hands encased on rock. Precautions are important after all. At her approach, the Danuki hiss and chitter amongst themselves.

                “Tell me.” Veronica says to the assassin. “How many of you did the Danuki hire?”

                “Four.” The Kunoichi replies in heavily accented Deleorian.

                “We encountered three of you. One was killed in our encounter, but where is the fourth?”

                “She was sent on mission. No return.”

                “What kind of mission?”

                The Kunoichi says nothing further, merely shrugging. Well, can’t have everything. Still, it’s enough to make the Danuki squirm as Veronica sweeps her gaze over to them.

                “You said you only hired three?”

                “I-I misspoke.” The Danuki says, dry washing her hands. “It’s a stressful situation, ehe…heh.”

                “What mission was she sent on?”

                “T-To fetch some supplies for us!” The Danuki says quickly. “She must have been killed by a bear or something. How tragic.”

                “I could have this woman confirm the corpse.” Veronica says, nodding to the Kunoichi, who nods her head slowly. The brown-haired Danuki hisses about lack of professional decorum or something but the crowd is already murmuring in your favor.

                “Hmph.” The red-haired Danuki sniffs. “So you’re taking a misstep in speech and trying to blow it out of proportion. What other ‘evidence’ do you have?”

                “Before returning, we spoke with many assembled merchants at the outpost. They claim they had been told either directly or indirectly by yourselves that Blackfire Reach was too dangerous for trading, that the inhabitants were like, and I quote, ‘to fall upon them like ravenous beasts as is their nature in response to a threat.’” Veronica looks up from a piece of paper she’s reading from. “This is signed, by the way.”

                The red-haired Danuki’s eye twitches. “Rumor and hearsay. Other traders do not appreciate us due to how successful we are. They’re just trying to frame us!” The other two nod in agreement.

                “Finally.” Veronica continues, ignoring them. “We have the fact that wealth from Blackfire Reach which was found to be smuggled out was found in your rooms at the outpost.” She holds up a piece of paper. “This is signed by the outpost commander, authenticating my words.”

                “T-That’s j-“ The red-haired Danuki sputters.

                “That’s just things we’d traded for!” The black-haired one shouts. “Y-You’re stealing from us!”

                Veronica turns her gaze out across the assembled peoples. They all chatter amongst themselves with looks of anger. The Danuki pick up on this too and begin to throw out pathetic defenses, but no one is in the mood to believe them. They’d been swindled by the Danuki and their puppets once before and they’re not in the mood for it to happen again.

                “Through our investigations it evidence is clear that there has been influence by you three against Blackfire Reach. I, as an impartial observer, must declare you guilty.” She bangs her mace on the podium like a gavel before turning to the blue scaled council member. “The Order will stand by whatever punishment you wish to sentence.”

                The councilor nods and walks back over, speaking through your [Amplify]. “Very well then. In this circumstance the law is clear. The Danuki will be sentenced to mortal combat by the one most aggrieved.” She nods to fit, older man standing on the platform. “The late mayor’s husband. Will you choose a champion?”

                “No.” He says, drawing a sword from his side with practiced ease. “I will perform this task myself.”

                The Danuki squeal like Orcs as they see the blade, tears and terror pouring from them. One of them tries to make a break for it, but the Lizardmen guarding them tackle her down before dragging her back to the others. By the time the crowd is in a frenzy, the assembled peoples chanting for the dirty leaf heads to get the rake of justice.

                “W-what about the others!” The red-haired Danuki shouts, frantic. “You’re going to kill us, but not punish the Kunoichi who tried to kill you? Or the Wurms who stole from you? Or the merchant who smuggled the treasure out?”

                The Kunoichi in chains next to you looks at the Danuki like they’re less than insects at this before spitting, “You lack honor. Danuki said to be cowards, said to be cheats. If we had listened to master and stayed home, Kyoko and Kana would not be dead.” She turns her back upon the Danuki and says, “Do what you will with me, but I will not look at such shameful creatures.”

                “RRAAGAGHHHH!” The brown-haired Danuki screams and she tears at her bindings. “RAAAAGHHH ALL OF YOU DIRTY SCALE BITCHES SHOULD BOW TO US! LEARN YOUR PLACE!”

                You watch the pathetic sight before shaking your head as Tabitha steps up and speaks. “We will have the combat scheduled in two days time. Come to the arena at two bells and we-“

                The crowd turns on her, making her blink in surprise as they chant, “Rake the leaves! Rake the leaves!”, or some variant of disparaging remark toward the Danuki. Both you and your wife exchange glances before sighing. She nods to the other council members before shouting through your [Amplify],

                “Very well! We shall move to the arena at once!”

                The crowd cheers and, despite knowing they should be civil about this, pour toward the nearby building known as the arena. It’s styled after the coliseum in Cair, but is far smaller, meant normally for duels between interested parties or shows of skill. It hasn’t been used for an execution in quite some time, however.

                You watch from the ground level as the Danuki are pushed onto the volcanic gravel, working well enough instead of sand. They beg the guards for help as their manacles are removed and try to flee, but are thrown backward onto the dirt as the guards retreat and close the doors behind them. All three Danuki look about in panic as from the other side the mayor’s husband approaches, sword in its sheath.

                The crowd all around cheers encouragement as the Danuki huddle up amongst each other like frightened sheep, wailing in fear. The elder council member stands up from the royal box seat, not that royalty is like to use it anymore, and shouts, “In the name of Blackfire Reach, may justice be served in the eyes of Dollora! Take up your weapons combatants, and let they who win be guided by the righteousness of their plea!”

                Three swords are thrown onto the gravel before the Danuki. They each stare at them a moment as the crowd continues to roar before picking the weapons up as if they’d never seen one before. They stand next to each other, watching the man as he holds one hand on his sword, the other on his hip. He narrows his eyes and begins to walk toward them with a menacing gait.

                The brown-haired Danuki, panting heavily, her eyes darting side to side lets out a scream of terror and runs at the man, sword held in two hands as she slashes at him. Before her sword can connect, he draws his in a fluid motion and slices off both her hands in a clean motion. The sword, hands still clutching the hilt, flies away as the Danuki drops to the dirty, staring in horror at her stumps. She lets out an earsplitting scream of agony as the man slashes the blade across her throat, drowning her in her own blood.

                The other two Danuki watch in horror as he approaches, holding their swords out before them. The black-haired Danuki shakes her head back and forth, tears streaming from her eyes as he approaches, their friend’s blood still on his blade. In the last few feet he lunges, driving his blade into the crying Danuki’s gut, causing her to wail in pain as she clutches at the blade, scrabbling to pull it out of her.

                While this fails to actually draw the blade from her gut, it does keep it in place and make it difficult for him to pull the blade from her abdomen. He lets out a grunt before gasping and turning to the side as he sees the third Danuki, the red-haired one, slashing her sword into his side.

                “Thank you for your sacrifice, idiot!” She shouts. “I’ll be sure to live enough for the three of us!”

                The crowd’s shouts become frantic as the man staggers to the side, bleeding from the wound. His sword is still in the abdomen of the crying Danuki who kneels in the sand, weeping while futilely trying to pull the blade from her intestines.

                “Heh… hehe.” The surviving Danuki chuckles, blade stained with his crimson. “I’m going to kill you and when I come back, I’ll bring a whole fucking army to wipe you miserable little stains off this planet for daring to deny the Danuki what’s theirs.”

                The man’s breathing becomes shallow as blood drains down his side. He staggers to a knee, trying to keep balance as the Danuki raises her sword high to deliver a killing blow. Before she can, something grabs her from behind and she turns in surprise to see the impaled Danuki, blood dribbling down her chin.

                “H-Help me! HELP ME!”

                “You bitch!” The other Danuki shouts, slamming the pommel of her sword into the face of her friend. “Let! Me! Go!”

                The mayor’s husband wastes no time. He lunges forward, grasps his sword from the Danuki’s abdomen and, in one, fluid motion, he slashes a huge rent through the red-haired Danuki’s chest. He staggers to his feet as she blinks down at her chest, which is quickly turning crimson. Blinking, she looks at him and says, “Am I going to die?’

                “Yes.” He says, before driving his sword into her heart.

                She collapses onto the other Danuki, who by this point has stopped moving, her blood loss too complete. He stands there for a moment, wavering, before lifting his sword into the air and shouting, “MY WIFE HAS BEEN AVENGED!”

                The crowd goes ballistic with cheers as she slumps to the side and falls into the blood slick gravel.

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

                Three days later you find yourself sweating as your new team continues to dig through the collapsed rubble. After the excitement with the Danuki, you’d been able to get to work fairly quickly, the inhabitants not wishing to dwell upon any misfortune for too long. They’d all had enough of it and just wanted to get back to building their lives.

                The late mayor’s husband received prompt medical treatment but has been quiet since, looking after a painting of him and his wife from years ago. You figure it’s best to leave him alone for now. The merchant and the Wurms, as promised, were introduced again and they immediately took a liking to him. They were, of course, punished, but mostly with community service, which is almost like torture to a Wurm. Still, now that they had a uh, “boyfriend,” though you’re certain it will be “husband” that they share somehow, they’re pleased. The man doesn’t look too displeased either, though he now has an odd limp in his gait you think is from his pelvis.

                As for the Kunoichi? After the pitiful display by their former masters, they agree easily to work for Blackfire Reach to help protect against further assassins and thieves. You’re not certain there will be any in the near future as you haven’t received messages or anything from Danusreal or… really anything of note but it’s best to be careful. Around Danuki, shit gets spooky after all.

                At least the merchants came back after everything that went down (and some urging from the council members). Seems having an Order member perform a trial gives some credence to you, and word of a gold vein being found in Blackfire Reach is too hard to pass up. As it is, even within three days you’ve seen plenty of orders for gold and you’re getting some great trade, especially for crops and seeds for what you take for bargain bin prices. Maybe Deleor is expecting a bumper crop or something? So, as far as things go, this issue with the Danuki was a temporary setback but one you’ll grow stronger from.

                “Hey boss!” One of the Lizardmen workers on your team calls. “We broke through!”

                Shaking your head back to reality, you adjust your gear and walk over to the section indicated. A Wurm worker lifts a boulder fragment she smashed and you feel air rushing at you. Incredibly warm air. Sweating a little, you nod to Maya who, feeling better you suppose, crawls through along with Erwin and explores. Watching through Erwin’s eyes, you see as light begins to play through the tunnel, warm and orange, as everything gets warmer and warmer.

                “It feels like we’re in the middle of a volcano.” Maya says, panting a little as the light gets more intense.

                Looking through Erwin’s eyes you watch as they come to the edge of the tunnel as it opens up into a vast, expansive cave. The light from before is a sea of lava spreading out in all directions as it bubbles and pops while more flows down from the far walls. Around the lake you see swathes of tunnels crisscrossing through the sides of the mountain like cheese while below are rock formations that seem unnatural, as if long along they were structures.

                The two survey the area as the heat bores down upon them when a loud, rumbling sound, almost like that of a massive beast shakes the cave, causing the lava to ripple and small rocks to fall before subsiding. What in the hells was that?

                {It doesn’t just feel like the middle of the volcano.} You send to Erwin, feeling a tightness in your gut. {We’re actually in one. And somewhere down there must be the Heart of the Crags.}

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