Chapter 91

We tumbled fifty steps downward through the tunnel before I managed to get Rose's attention. My left arm, still firmly in her grip, felt as though it had nearly been pulled from its socket. A couple dozen more steps of that and gnawing my own arm off at the shoulder wouldn't have appeared as extreme. Thankfully, my pleas for her to stop, listen and follow me back up to the surface did not land on deaf ears.


Her face flushed a deeper shade of red. The girl's excitement, which had halved her mental age along with her maturity, was finally being tempered by embarrassment. She stopped towing me along and that gave me the opportunity to free my arm. She released my wrist from her grip, wrapped my hand around her claw and let me lead her back up to the surface. I pulled gently and she didn't put up any resistance.


Meanwhile, on the surface, the other girls were busy being in a panic. When our heads bobbed back into view, I watched as they ran back and forth in a frantic effort to pull the stakes of the camp back up while barking orders and hurling soft insults. Adrenaline sloughed off them like winter jackets in a sudden and unexpected heat wave.


     “Of all the brazen acts—“ Shoshanah huffed.


Rose offered nothing more than a nervous laugh and forced smile as an apology. That would have to do as everyone dropped what they were carrying and gathered back around the campfire and bubbling strew in the pot. Everyone's eyes were elsewhere though, the point at which I had grabbed Rose's claw. The warm feeling finally sunk in and I released her from my own grip while stifling a cough.


     “W-we should eat first before going in,” I stuttered.


     “And, least we forget, yonder catacombs make no pretence to be anything other than labyrinthine,” Susan sighed, “I'd very much prefer to avoid what I fear would be the inevitable fragmentation of our company.”


     “I got the string good to go!” Chris declared, pulling section of a butcher's twine taut between her wing talons.”


     “This ain't like your fairy tails, thunder thighs,” Ba'el snided lazily, chin resting on paw.


That was more than enough to send Chris into story telling mode, much to Ba'el's chagrin. A few details and places were mixed up, but it sounded similar to another one I was more familiar with, but Susan stepped in between the two; a gesture that demanded attention.


     “Rose—“ the anubis seethed through clenched teeth.


The hairs on her black tail bristled. A fake smile was plastered across her face. Susan displayed herculean will power devotes solely to remaining calm... If calm could be considered the appropriate term to describe her right now.


     “Enlighten me: What didst thou expect to accomplish... Alone... Dragging Laven along with you?”


     “Ehehehe,” Rose laughed nervously, “I got a little excited. I've got a lotta bodyguard and merc work under my belt, but never adventurer work.”


With a questioning look from me, Rose turned toward me and preemptively answered the question on the tip of my tongue.


     “You could say... not so monster friendly folks got a monotony on adventure work.”


     “Monopoly,” Susan and I corrected her at the same time.


We cleared our throats together in the exact same manner. I threw an awkward glance toward her and she returned an identical one at me before we each made a hasty retreat by quickly looking away. Susan and decided to cut and run. I walked back to the fire and took my seat with a confused Rose in tow. She sat down on my right with Susan on my left and other three girls arrayed on the opposite side of the crackling fire pit.


     “Yeah, what I said,” she said, “Anyways, they don't give out that kinda work to the likes of me. Not even with the paperwork I could throw around.”


We continued the conversation as the stew, still waiting patiently in the blubbing hot pot, was quickly emptied because it had to be spread among six bowls.


     “Because such things are not a matter of discretion... Tis banned outright,” Susan declared, pointing her spoon toward Rose and then drawing a continuous circle with it up in the air. “I know not the spirit of the law, but conjecture leads me to conclude the reason is twofold—“


     “Loot...And—” Rose cut in and answered first.


     “Extermination,” Minte said, her voice soft and pained.


She materialized from the ether and gathered up a lot of courage to say just one word. I'm certain that... carried a hefty memory for her.


     “...Because the monsters are where the adventurers are going, or are they there because there are monsters?” I asked.


     “Both,” Rose said, and then continued when neither Minte nor Susan cut in. “The story goes, as it got told to me many times... After this last Great War, some thousand years ago, or something, monsters scattered without their Demon Lord to give em orders. So they ran away from Humans. Humans, who got their act together real quick, started poking around the old haunts they got pushed outta. Monsters were squatting there since they had nowhere else to go. Most of em would fight till the end thinking it was there homes now. Besides, they had nowhere else to go... A lot of old heirlooms and valuables got left behind in those places when the humans booked it. A lot of monsters didn't care for em, didn't need em or use em. So you got together a bunch of humans to go and push those monsters out. Take whatever they find and sell it—“


     “Or use it,” Ba'el spoke up from beyond our little circle conversation. “There's a whole business set up around salvaging old magic items. And this business didn't end because the monsters started getting pretty faces. Buncha ne'er–do–wells hunting for the kind of stuff the dolts today couldn't dream of making on their own. An enchanted chamberpot is worth more than regular one filled with silver... And that's got nothing on a good enchanted sword—”


     “Or shield,” I said, reminiscing.


The thought of that armoured tank with nothing but a shield in a narrow corridors of that ship. An unassuming shield, but anything that hit it bounced right back in a near perfect about-face. The glimmer the shield gave out beforehand was a dead giveaway that something supernatural had occurred. I shuddered at the thought that you'd have whole gangs of people like that.


     Susan nodded and appeared to remember it as well, “That which sets the wheat apart from the chaff.”


     But all that said, it left me with a lingering question I had to ask, “If that's what adventurers are... Then why would you ever want to do any of that, Rose?”


I looked back to see her cheeks were puffed out after shovelling too much stew into her mouth all at once. Her confused eyes shot back at me and she quickly swallowed everything all at once to answer me as quickly as possible.


     “Going down into the unknown, danger around every corner, daring feats and, of course... Challenging those squatters to a fight!”


Okay. I should have seen that last one coming.


     “There's a lot of monsters hanging around in the deepest parts, those that stick around after a long long time have to be real strong. Really real strong!” She said thrusting her spoon into the air as if fighting an invisible foe.


     “And they wouldn't let you in because...?”


     “—A lot of the good old ruins already have these little towns that pop up almost overnight.”


     “Like a gold rush,” I mused, juggling the similarities.


     “More valuable than just gold,” Ba'el claimed. “We're talking loot. Jewels, artifacts, old books, magic scrolls! The real good stuff. You imagine a whole city, abandoned centuries ago, thousands of years ago, buried in the dirt. It's crawling monster colonies.... Whole communities of em... Well, those are tough nuts to crack... If they ever crack at all. Sometimes those towns that pop up over night become ghost towns overnight. Once the risk-reward gets flipped on its head.”


     “Verily, different from any Demon Realm, as they colloquially are referred to as,” Susan added, but then cocked an eyebrow and asked, “But how are you familiar with so much of this? Rose I could understand—“


     “I spent near forty years undercover; bouncing from one orphanage to another. Little girls talk. That's all they ever fucking do. Talk talk talk. Rumour mill here, some gossip there. Little girls romanticize the exploits of the real handsome men and make idols out of the pretty and brave women.”


     “Not that popular so far north,” Rose said, crossing her arms and leaning back from her crossed leg sitting position. “You hear less an' less the more up ya go.”


     “For all the tales of valour you tell me of now, never before had I heard such tales...” Chris muttered with her face disappointed and downcast. “They never let any of these adventurers set up in Domdracveria. The only tales I recall are the brawls between the dragoons and bandits.”


     “Reason being: they forbade it by more than taboo. Verily, it is committed to law,” Susan declared. “Certain regions, who have sensitive areas of cultural and national interest, do not allow others to plunge their depths.” She turned her head and addressed Chris directly, “Hence why they would be formally declared bandits in your homeland.”


She let out a long sigh as she wracked her brain over our current situation.


     “Even here in Yaleria, beyond the great Brightwall, which you should not struggle to see on the horizon... Lays a land entirely off limits.”


     I had to step into the conversation, “Since when?”


Susan stroked her chin in her paw, her eyes becoming focused on something far beyond our current surroundings. Her supernatural power as a divine judge gave her the power to read the laws of the land. But her forehead wrinkled in distress.


     “Since... Forever...”


     “Forever?” I said with doubt.


     “No written law, nor common law, exists from a time before that monolithic wall. The only mentions which exist. Are of manning it with a defensive force at all times, and it being forbidden to venture beyond it.”


Our whole company went quiet for about a minute while we processed that thought.


     “So... Are we being baddies right now?” Chris asked.


     “N-no! Absolutely not,” Susan shouted. “We have the very key necessary to enter this place. Without an ounce of effort needed to circumnavigate or nullify any seal. Our job here is a legitimate request from someone of direct descent. Neither do we lay anywhere near the Brightwall and the territory beyond it. There is no embargo against adventurers within Yaleria. Otherwise, you would not have encountered those Silver Bannermen at the manner. Am I mistaken?”


She rattled all that off in quick succession. No doubt desperate to justify herself as not being on the wrong side of the law. If she got carried away more than that she might start hyperventilating.


     “O-of course you ain't,” Rose said motioning her claws downward to calm Susan down.


     “Y-yeah, t-that sounds about right,” Chris joined in, making the same gesture with her wings.


     “Anyways,” Ba'el raised her voice, “Like we were talking about before: A Demon Realm is something that's popped up in the past hundred years or so. Human settlements taken over by monsters... That said, not much use in sending sellswords to sweep those places up. Ain't no loot worth their time or the risk. That's what a good ol' fashioned crusade is for.”


     “Oh!” Chris raised her voice, pounding one set of wing talons into the other. “Those big parades of soldiers waving the Star Banners everywhere, right? I remember it now. Years ago... It took almost a week for it to pass through Domdracveria's narrow mountainous paths.”


     “Toward Vilmheim,” I added.


Battle scarred ramparts and walls surrounded that city... Years later and they were still being repaired. A pagan majority area of the north; monster friendly, or at least tolerant enough. Open couples everywhere, but it hadn't quite fallen into what I'd say is a Demon Realm. I don't recall that same level of destruction being inflicted onto that succubus haven. It certainly had not been a tent city which could up a move out of an army's way... Maybe it was due to the corrosive atmosphere of that place: A revertible Viagra miasma.


And that's the two pronged doctrine of the Empire, is it not? I stole a glance at Minte whose head was hanging low and letting her spoon's handle roll along the rim of the bowl. She certainly had to have an intimate knowledge for one of those prongs. Yet she continued to stay quiet about it. The pained expression on her face, mostly hidden by the bangs of her hair, and the shadow caused by it, squeezed my heart with an icy claw and stopped me from pushing her to spill out what she knew.


Pagan territories worshipped a pantheon of old gods, or paid most (if not all) respects to a single god who ruled over something that said community relied upon. That is what Shoshanah lectured me on weeks ago. Some even venerated certain types of monsters due to roots of animism and shamanism. That's why they got along so well with monsters. If they weren't trying to enslave, kill or eat them, what difference did they have from the spirits they believed in? But all that would be heresy to The Church of the Almighty. And that Church was the lifeblood of the Empire. Without faith in its doctrines, and obedience to its church, no doubt the Empire would fray and its power split between all the regional peoples.


And then there would be no crusades. Which would mean no Demon Realm land reclaimed.


It's not like we were in any position to stop any of it. Nor was it an obligation. Knowing even a small fraction of what she had to know... It is likely better that I didn't know.


     “Now hold on one minute,” Susan spoke up, interrupting the conversion and my train of thought. “You were not entertaining the idea of looting this place, were you?”


The anubis pointed a claw accusingly at the baphomet seated opposite of her.


     “Yeah, and?” Ba'el replied, not even understanding how that could be a question.


     “This place is a burial site!”


     “Tsk,” Ba'el clicked her tongue and looked away.


     “Laven briefed us that the mission's objective is to return and artifact to a specified location. A ritual to pay respects to long departed souls. A ritual long overdue... Not to plunder it for all its valuables!”


     “Oh come on now, they're not gonna miss them.”


Susan's face contorted into a strange expression that was mixture of anger and amazement that she could be capable of having said that at all.


     “The belongings of the dead are for the souls of the departed to take with them unto the life thereafter! You cannot take that which is there's like items which were lost and not reclaimed!”


     “Who said they practice the same burial rites?” Ba'el shot back. “Yalerians cremate their dead.”


Susan's anger abated immediately.




The anubis had to know what that word meant and its implications. The questioning stutter had been rhetorical. Her encyclopedic knowledge, the dictionary lodged into her brain at even the lowest levels, flipped through and illuminated that single word. She probably wanted it to shrug it off and pretend those canine ears of hers had not heard it at all, but that wouldn't happen.


From the land Shoshanah lived in long ago, hundreds, no, thousands of years she spent locked up in a tomb, all because from her culture, the body in this world, along with all the belongings it was buried with, carried on into the next and its journey to the final resting place of paradise. An unprepared soul would get lost or sink on the journey there. I wasn't sure what the customs of burial or the afterlife here, but cremation was an outright incineration and destruction of the body in this world.


That would have some serious and troubling implications from Susan's point of view.


And from the corner of my eye I spotted the priestess waver on the large stone she used as a stool. The back of her left paw reached up and pressed against her forehead. The poor girl was about to faint! I dropped my bowl and the rest of contents all over the grass to reach over and catch Susan as she keeled over backward.


     “That's... It's actually by law,” her voice came out weak while I raised her back up by the shoulders. “Cremation. Never a proper burial...But why would they...?”


     “So...” Rose interjected, “Does that mean they really don't need anything?”


She was asking cautiously, but I could sense a tinge of hopefulness in her voice.


     “People bury valuables with their dearly departed all the time. Who's gonna remember if you pinch something or other after a few hundred years. No one left alive is gonna miss any of it or notice it's missing,” Ba'el's poisoned words coagulated into logic.


     “Grrr,” Susan growled.


     I whispered into her ear, “You'd best compromise instead of fight a losing position. Get a verbal contract from Ba'el. She's a demon and will have to abide by it.”


     “Dark Beast!” Ba'el pouted.


There's no way she should have been able to hear that!.. Unless her hearing has always been better than she's let on until now... No. Right here, right now, we'll have to settle this.


I thrust a finger at the baphomet with her arms crossed over her chest and her cheeks puffed out in a nauseatingly cute manner.


     “You told me over and over again when we first met that you were a demon. You were damn proud of it to. What's with the sudden change the last couple weeks?”


     “You ever heard of a demon that cannot return to hell?” she said and let her rhetorical question sink in before continuing: “That technically makes me hell-spawn, not a resident of hell. Therefore, as punishment for breaking such a serious contract with that Crone, I am bereft of all my rights and privileges as a citizen of pandemonium, along with it all responsibilities.”


She gave out a wicked little grin and stared right back at me.


     “Except the detail of the little pact you pushed on me,” She shrugged her shoulders and raised the palms of her paws into the air, “Oh, how horrible you were. Taking something so important from me with such violence.”


She raised the back of her palm to her forehead in a gesture that mocked Susan's previous fainting.


     “Now I'm trapped here. Trapped in this mortal coil... With Big Brother,” She said, opening one eye to look back at me.


A seductive and knowing glance.


A divine ring, a hum and a radiant gold light filled the corner of my right peripheral vision. Shoshanah materialized her staff and thrust the gold Ankh crowing it toward Ba'el. The baphomet didn't see it right away with one eye shut, so she didn't know of it till she felt it. It didn't touch her, but it as soon as it got within some invisible boundary near her, she let out a short yelp and fell backward.


     “H-hey hey hey!” She hissed back, baring her fangs.


     “So why is it that you still be reproached thus?


     “Ehehehehe,” The Demon let out a weak and apologetic whimper.


     “If anyone finds anything in, next to, or in the vicinity of any burial spot, leave it be. Respect the dead,” Susan demanded.


That wasn't a suggestion. It was an ultimatum. It was mostly aimed at Ba'el though.


     “S-sure, whatever you say, 'mam, ” Ba'el managed to utter while raising her paws in surrender.


Susan moved the staff's head closer.


     “I'll leave any valuables next to any corpse or pile of ashes alone! I give my word!”


Susan pulled her staff away after it got a few centimetres from pressing up against Ba'el's cheek which had just now got drenched with sweat. I'd have to be more careful with that girl from now on... And I mean that for both of them. Susan's mood was certainly soured... And with Ba'el... I had to remember to take everything she said with a pinch of salt... No, a whole handful of it. To toss it over my left shoulder when needed.


     “Well then!” Rose shouted while jumping to her feet. “I think that settles all that. It's gonna be dark soon, but we got a couple hours walking left in us. Ain't gonna be a good time sleeping on this soggy ground neither. We'll find ourselves a nice dry and solid slab of stone inside. Wont rain on us either.”


Our little elevated mount of dirt about thirty meters square was a bit cramped. It's also wet and trying to set up tents or sleeping mats might give me the back kinks of a lifetime. We appeared to finally be in agreement so we gathered up the camp and prepared to plunge into the depths.


     “We have yet to prepare marching orders,” Susan stated.


Everyone looked around at each other and realized no one had actually yet planned that far ahead. It was a little embarrassing.


     Susan sighed, “I figured as much... No matter, I have thought this matter over.”


     “Darkness, traps, ambushes from unknown forces,” Rose said, psyching herself up.


Adrenaline was a drug this girl had an addiction to. She wasn't reminding Shoshanah of the dangers ahead, the girl uttered an itinerary.


     “That is why you will take the lead and illuminate the way,” Susan said. “Chris, due to her height, will be the rear guard. You will still be able to see over the others.”


     “Rear guard, the shield of the party...” Chris mused and happily accepted the role.


     “Minte and Ba'el shall provide support where and whenever needed to those two,” Susan said glancing at the two... no, glaring at Ba'el.


     “Affirmative,” Minte nodded.


     “Hold on a second,” Ba'el protested. “That leaves you—“


The anubis priestess clanked the bottom of her rod against the ground and a golden light shone within the keyhole of the ankh.


     “I shall remain in the middle... With Laven...”


She puffed out her chest and declared it with pride and confidence. I had a bad feeling. Ba'el's displeasure and sense of injustice spread among the others rather quickly.


     “I am to provide support to all, and we are all to protect Laven... In addition to the all important stone he carries. It is logical that I remain in the centre with him.”


A fuzzy feeling wrapped around my hand. Susan's soft paw-pads closed up around my hand while the warmth of her black and silky fur gently tickled my ever fraying nerves. So too for Susan, whose face couldn't hide the blush or keep her lips straight. Her composure and poker face unravelling.


     “A-and please do not become lost or separated, Laven. W-we'll make sure of it by maintaining a—“


     “Oh no ya don't!” Rose shouted and reached back to grab my left hand.


     I broke my silence and pleaded, “Come on! Not now—“


But no one heard me, or cared, because it was Minte next who materialized close behind me and daintily took a bit of the hem of my shirt into her hand. That anchored her right behind me. Next a lightweight dropped down on my shoulders and a pair of fuzzy legs wrapped around my hips and locked in place by a pair of hooves across my stomach. Ba'el piggy backed and rode me while crossing her arms across my neck.


     “I'm toooooo short to see otherwise,” She smiled and purposely breathed into my ear and down my neck.


     “Ah ha ha ha ha ha~” Chris stood off to the side, laughing dubiously with a frail tone.


Now I knew something was wrong when Chris was being the most mature one out of us all. Meanwhile, the rest of us undulated back and forth in a giant mess. Rose took the lead, pulling me along, Susan wrapped herself around my right arm and nearly hung off me as she pulled me back toward herself instead, cursing at Rose and everyone else all the while. Minte quietly hung onto my shirt with a bit of fabric pinched between her thumb and index finger while Ba'el's giggled and I felt her flat chest pressed up against my back. Her hips bumped against my lower back as if they were spurs to urge me onward.


And like that, our whole party stumbled its way through the threshold of the crypt and down the stairs. How we didn't all fall and crumble into a mess down the stairs... I don't know. How long they'd keep this up before coming to a trice and separating... I didn't know that either.




When the entrance closed behind them... Neither Laven, nor the others, noticed. Nor would they have known or could have predicted how, or why.