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Enter the Ebon Wing (part 2)

Page history last edited by Anonymoose 1 year, 6 months ago

Across the threshold was space between time, or perhaps it would be better to say it is time without space? Wherever we were, Minte and I had slipped through reality into some other place. Behind us the portal we had entered through closed shut. It was so near, but also so far away. While it looked as if I could have reached out and touched it, the damn thing would have invoked an honest to God Zeno's paradox.

 

     “Do not stop,” I heard Minte utter her warning.

 

Our way out opened in front of us as soon as it had closed behind us. I did not need to be told twice. Merely existing here felt like a meat hook was trying to scoop out my brains. Everything seemed perpetually out of reach as it moved just out of reach no matter how close you got. It appeared to be on the horizon, and infinite number of horizons. We were no longer in three dimensional space. Everything but the exit which came to us of its own accord and not our own. It came twisting in toward us through the kaleidoscope-like tunnel.

 

Unexpectedly, the journey ended before I knew it. It felt as if it had taken no longer than a few seconds, yet when I tried to dredge up what had actually happened nothing came to mind. It was as if there had been no time at all between taking the first step beyond that threshold and our destination. Perhaps I had forgotten in order to protect my delicate mortal perceptions? All I can say for certain is that we skirted along the edges of infinity and learned should never be observed. Minte and I reached the end of that long, twisting and technicolor tunnel and got spat out elsewhere. That's when the true gravity of our journey through non-euclidean space dawned on us both. I looked over my shoulder, with Minte in tandem, and saw the gate had vanished behind us.

 

Minte and I turned toward one another and confirmed the two of us were still in one piece. I let out a sigh of relief that she, nor I, had become the Starchild. I began to understand why teleportation is a subject handled with trepidation. One wrong turn and you'd surely find yourself lost in infinity. I now had a better idea why this meeting was so important. Were we to ever hope of finding ourselves on the other side of the blockade around Yaleria, the wizard here would have to assist.

 

We were now in a place I'd have to call unreality for now for lack of a better term. This place had been constructed whole cloth by some mortal hand. It certainly lacked the polished touch of some divine creator. Even I could tell that much. It had the visage of a gaudily decorated mansion inside a blister of space-time. If it were not for the jovial sound of musical instruments muffled in the distance it would all abjectly horrifying.

 

     “Are you alright, Minte?” I asked the girl clinging to me.

 

She nodded her head in affirmation.

 

     “At least that makes one of us,” I said, blinking heavily as vertigo sunk in.

 

Although she clung to me in embarrassment, it was me who relied on her like a pillar of stone to keep me standing. In response, the girl twitched and flustered while reaching up with her hand to feel my forehead. There's no fever to be found. I had merely lost all sense of balance in the process and my brain played catch up.

 

As I closed my eyes the darkness behind my lids churned like a maelstrom cloud. It took some time till I found equilibrium. My double vision ended soon after and I was able to grab hold of and lower her hands back down to signal I finally got back on my feet.

 

Now I could catch a proper glimpse of where we were: suspended on a floating island against a starry backdrop. We were standing on a floating hunk of rock which housed upon it a lone palace. Others like it were barren of all life and orbited around it. Beyond that was nothing but horizon in every direction. Why I had felt so queasy suddenly made sense A voice in the back of my mind was going stark raving mad at every Newtonian and thermodynamic law being violated right in front of us.

 

     “That took you long enough,” came a voice to playfully chide us.

 

Hyria was the first one to welcome us and seemed not at all concerned with our surreal surroundings. Neither did Minte, but she never displayed emotion to begin with. She could be freaking out the same as me for all I knew. Her clinging to me like the color green to grass being my sole hint into her current feelings. She could be doing that due to embarrassment over that fancy dress she's wearing though. There's no way in hell she could hide wearing it. I could attest that, because my eyes were being drawn back toward it constantly. My eyes eventually found their way over to Hyria, so I could reply:

 

     “We followed right after you.”

 

     “Did you now?” she answered, feigning indignity. “I have all the time in the world, so I don't mind. It is your time which is valuable, is it not?”

 

     I asked the obvious question with a sense of dread, “How long were you waiting?”

 

She looked over at an adjacent clock tower attached the mansion before us. My eyes soon followed and there I spied something more at home in a Salvador Dali painting.

 

     “About an hour.”

 

     It was not nearly as bad as I had dreaded, but could not help but blurt out, “We were no more than ten seconds behind you!”

 

     The wight princess cradled her chin in her pale hand, deep in thought, before sighing aloud, “I'll have to ask our hosts to take more care while securing our return trip.”

 

Minte and I exchanged worried glances. Or at least I did, perhaps she was merely comforting me with that bedrock emotionless expression which belied neither confidence nor fear. I did seem to be the only one here rather animated over the clear lack of inconsistency with time itself.

 

     Before I could raise another object, Hyria flashed her ghostly claw to silence me, and calmly declared, “No. Worry not. Time doesn't flow differently here. It is not accelerated. You could say it doesn't flow at all... I could arrange it so that we return after a mere minute has passed... I could also convince them to return us before we left.”

 

     She leaned over toward Minte and whispered, “Have you ever thought what you could do for your man here with two of you?”

 

She didn't whisper quietly enough, so I heard that loud and clear.

 

If she got any worked up than she did just now, the cute little hat atop her head would burst into flames judging by how red her face went. Minte swung around my back and put myself between her and Hyria. She glared over my shoulder at her, but retreated from sight altogether when our eyes met. The princess could not stifle her laughter if she tried. She must think the sight was adorable. I had a hard time disagreeing, but had a responsibility to be the shield and sense of reason here.

 

     “Let's not tempt a time paradox, thank you very much,” I said with trembling timbre to my voice.

 

The image what she had so brazenly suggested was stuck right in there now and I couldn't dislodge it. No doubt it made my protests seem far less convincing in their sincerity.

 

     “Or perhaps you are the adventurous one?” Hyria said with a wry smile, her white pupils tried to pierce right through me.

 

I winced in pain because Minte's fingernails were starting to dig into my skin through the fabric of my suit jacket. It came so suddenly I couldn't help but lose the staring contest as I winced in pain.

 

     “Oh!” Hyria said as that huge spectral claw daintily covered her mouth. “Perhaps I have teased you long enough.”

 

Hyria giggled once again before twisting her back and rotating her arm to stretch out and make herself more limber.

 

     “I believe that is enough playing around for now. This is far from enemy territory, but you never know whose path you could cross here... You seem to be more calm now, so shall we proceed?”

 

She asked that, but didn't wait for a response before setting off toward the entrance in the distance, beyond the gardens. I had a few things which needed to be put to rest before we reached that second threshold, so I wasted no time. I could feel myself almost dragging Minte behind me as she's almost sewn to me at this point.

 

     “If you were trying to get us to unwind you are doing a terrible job of it,” I said, chastising the princess,

 

     “You are far better off being red in the face as you are than thinking about what's going to be beyond those doors. Not even I can see that far. Not from here,” Hyria replied with a more somber tone. “This is a gathering of the Ebon Wing. Summoned here are among the most powerful magic users loyal to the Monster Lord... Or at least their subordinates. It depends on how busy the higher ups are.”

 

     “And first impressions will be key then?”

 

     “I'm sure they already know you well enough. I doubt they would have invited you personally otherwise. You should not tie yourself up in knots worrying about it.”

 

     “And if they know who I am, and I presume what I'm going to ask, why are they bothering with this—”

 

     “Masquerade?” Hyria said, cutting me off. “'There was a time, long, long ago, when the elite of the Monster Lord were ruthless and backstabbing weapons of war... Now they are much more... whimsical. Life is or has been long—believe me—so they still relish these positive emotions. I doubt they will ever be able to consider them novel. They are treasured and considered something all too precious.”

 

She stopped in her tracks, heels clacking loudly against the cobblestone path as she turned to face me.

 

     “And besides, your eyes, windows into your heart, are more honest than the rest of you. You cannot truly know without seeing it with your own eyes first. I knew of your impending arrival in my domain weeks ahead of time, but not until I meet you, face to face could I have known you'd help me... You'll have to wager it all on how you measure up in their own eyes.”

 

     I came to a halt too and flung back at her, “A minute ago you were telling me to relax and not worry about making a good first impression.”

 

     “Oh, you misunderstand Laven. I am sure they have already made up their mind on whether to help you or not. The question of the night will be whether you decide to accept their help.”

 

Whimsical is an understatement. It seemed to be my lot in life to deal with such things now. Yet as I stood there confused and began to waver a tug at my shoulder rooted me back onto solid ground. Minte looked up and gave me an affirmative nod. I am here. That's what her eyes were saying to me. I am here no matter what happens. Should the worst come to pass I at least had an ace clinging to my sleeve. She's worked out well in that roll more than once already.

 

     “Once we enter, I will not be able to assist you. I doubt I would be able to come to your aid at all if our hosts did not wish me to,” Hyria said as she made her way to the main entrance beyond the garden's edge. “I will no doubt be there when it is time for us to leave and that is all. You will have to rely on your own guile and your little sweetheart there from here on. Be cautious about what deals you make and whose side you take. This is no longer the place where the underlings of the Monster Lord slaughter one another and jockey for positions of prestige, but there's still plenty of competition, rivalry...and...bad blood.”

 

The doors leading into the mansion opened automatically as the princess neared. Shadows enveloped her beyond the threshold and not even her pale corpse white skin reflected the light. Minte and I filled our lungs with one final inhale and followed suit. Our expectations of darkness were quickly dashed. We were instead greeted by a well illuminated and long palace hallway. No windows, but plenty of incandescent orbs lined the wall. White marble floors and a red carpet floor. What did go terribly wrong is that behind us the hallway seemed to stretch off into infinity. Despite my best efforts I coulI dn't discern where the horizon was. Either it stretched impossibly into infinity, or it's an illusion conjured to inform me not to try. Regardless, the sound of hustle and bustle, in addition to music and other fanfare, came in front of us. A short and finite distance in front of us an archway waited for us both and invited Minte and I forward.

 

By now I have participated in quite a few of these gatherings, these balls, but out of them all this one took the cake with its gallery of weirdos. Any thought that Minte and I would stand out like a pair of sore thumbs were quickly dashed. All manner of man and monster were about and the dress of many were eccentric to say the least. No small number were dressed as gaudily as I was or pea-cocking to the degree Minte is in that gorgeous dress of hers. I spied quite a number of men dressed in painfully cliché wizards robes and hats. Some had the star details on them. It is as if the fashion had never gone out of style.

 

There were no lack in the variety of different monsters as well. I spied all manner of succubi to women with snake tails instead of legs—one with snakes in her hair. At the very least everyone seemed to be keeping it in their pants, but the sexual tension was thick in the air. The way couples often looked at one another gave me the impression they merely needed the flimsiest of excuses to find a secluded corner to wring it all out before returning to the fray. Perhaps the soft melodic ball music playing from the live orchestra kept those instincts at bay. Certainly a very soothing and it carried an air of dignity.

 

I did a quick head count, and there must be between a hundred and one hundred and thirty souls in the expansive football pitch sized room. Platters with hors d'oeuvres and tiny glasses with wine floated about the room on clouds which could have been made out of sentient glitter. Any messes were likewise not long for the world as the other help was animated in the form of cleaning supplies moving all on their own. The pulse of magic was in the air and its utilization not being held back on any account. It instead appeared to be put on display as if to show off.

 

My biggest fear had been, first and foremost, that Minte and I would draw attention fast. Hyria's plan had been to keep me safe by pairing me up with perhaps one the most vicious killer these people knew. Yet despite my misgivings, the party goers had barely recognized us at all. It was then that I began to finally piece together the exact nature of our good fortune: we were fashionably late. This party had begun some time ago and all the rituals had been completed. The guests were free to mingle with one another as they saw fit. A cavalcade of conversation assailed my ears speaking of distant places I had never heard of, people I had never met and jargon I could not begin to decipher. What had been left to us to find someone who actually belonged to The Ebon Wing to make our case.

 

     I turned to Minte and whispered, “Do you recognize anyone?”

 

She shook her head.

 

     “Is that a no for 'I don't know anyone', or—”

 

     “Lady Bellivere Dalnet,” Minte muttered meekly as she pointed with her antenna to an indigo skinned devil woman. “Wanted. Distributes profane literature, including treatises critical of the Church. Preferred dead.”

 

By the inquisition, no doubt. Dressing up appeared to be too much for the lady, because she wore no more than a bikini's worth of cloth over her body and a pair of leather thigh high boots with stiletto heels in them. Some jewels, earrings and necklace, beyond that. The demonic wings suspended from her lower back, spaded tail from her backside and horns atop of her gave her an imposing aura. Complicated by the bean thin man she had her arms wrapped around. Her tail appeared fixated on prodding and slithering over his trouser legs. With the glasses on his face and tussled unkempt hair he looked utterly out of place next to her

 

     “And I presume that to be Mister Dalnet?”

 

Minte nodded and added, “Arthur of Dalnet press. Wanted. Dead.”

 

     “I thought you said you didn't recognize anyone.”

 

     “No one of the Ebon Wing,” she curtly replied.

 

     “Maybe we ought to ask these two then?”

 

Minte shook her head again. They looked rather preoccupied as they spoke to a classically dressed wizard in his finest flowing robes, a woman with bird wings for arms, a nobleman in tuxedo and what appeared to be some manner of woman made out of pure energy beside him. Pure energy in the shape of a woman, but some manner of monster all the same. It looked as if she was kept together by linen ribbons.

 

There didn't appear to be space for us to sneak in edgewise. They didn't appear to be the right people to suddenly barge in and ask: hello there, speak with any enigmatic wizards in serve of the Monster Lord lately?

 

And that is how what I had feared the most had come to pass. We have been separated from Princess Hyria. Minte and I were equally on edge with our backs rigid and our heads on a swivel. We were but leaves in the wind and a gale force of high society blowing all around us. What surprised me most is that we had yet to draw any sort of attention at all. Me, an amnesiac and lost in space, and a notorious master class assassin who in a previous life had killed someone that anyone here would have been at least an acquaintance with. I had agreed to stick my neck out so far to put some hope back into my journey, but now I had nothing but reservations and a desire to get the hell out of here. Yet I could no longer find the door we had come in from. Perhaps it no longer existed at all?

 

The gravity of the situation dawned on me fully when I turned around and spied a certain gaggle of girls. A mere glimpse of them nearly gave me a heart attack. Luckily my double take didn't draw the attention of this trio of Ba'els. I hadn't drunk anything yet, so I could not be seeing double. Three baphomet were minding their own business and giggling while slamming down shot after shot with apparently little effect on their minute constitutions. A second glance revealed they merely looked similar. A family resemblance if I had to say anything. Different, in any significant way, only by hair color, style, dress and the shape and size of their horns. What felt the same was the overpowering and oppressive aura they gave off. Not at all different from when I had first met Ba'el. Since I could feel it, the reality that some truly powerful, and dangerous, creatures were all around us finally dawned on me.

 

My trembling hand became still only when Minte grabbed hold of it tight. I looked to her and she gave me a stoic nod in return. To see her nerves were still steel put me at ease.

 

     “They are not so frightening once you get to know them,” a melodious and mature voice ambushed from behind. “A tad immature, thus unpredictable, but ultimately harmless... Unless provoked, of course.”

 

I thought this would be the last place you'd encounter improper etiquette. Sneaking up on strangers did not appear to be that list. However, I was more concerned over who had whispered directly into my ear. Behind me stood a lone woman. Two things stood out immediately. First the wide brimmed hat with its tall point, almost absurdly tall, which made up the quintessential witch's hat. Second were her child-birthing hips oozing with sex appeal. The black and purple cocktail gown strained to hug those curves. She dared to bend over a little there would be nothing it could do to hide anything.

 

     “Oh, boy, you flatter me with a blushing face like that,” she giggled as she lasciviously pushed up the brim of her hat to better show her face.

 

Dark magenta lipstick on more than full lips, eye shadow makeup with extra long eyelashes. She was aiming for that early forties MILF look and succeeded with flying colors. Her gown hang low. Too low. That fabric had a job no thread would envy, straining itself to stretch over her already absurdly undulating bust. Any further and you'd start seeing areola. I managed to keep my eyes off only by virtue that I had been desensitized by a bigger pair on my resident chuunibyou.

 

     “How rude of me,” she cooed as she stopped leaning so far forward. “I couldn't contain myself.”

 

I knew it! She had been leaning over on purpose.

 

     “The name is Lavinia Delhower, charmed.”

 

She was about to raise her dainty and excessively manicured hand, but as I turned to face her, Minte came into her line of sight. Her reaction was briefly extreme before she managed to regain her composure. I watched her eyes shoot open wide and her face grimace with dread. Her hand withdrew and she nearly took a defensive stance. She only barely managed to catch herself and instead grabbed hold of—what little fabric she could—from her form fitting dress and curtsied instead. That's about when I noticed the menacing aura radiating right next to me. Minte had her antenna at full mast with eyes radar locked on the target in front of her. Despite Lavinia's oozing with confidence before she couldn't help but let out a nervous cough while straightening out her back a second time. If I was not seeing things there's a bead of sweat hidden underneath her hairline as well. I took it upon myself to break the ice...a second time.

 

     “Well, if only for formality's sake... I'm Laven. And this is—”

 

     “Minte, the Green—” Lavinia said to her with a forced smile. “I've heard so much about you.”

 

Those words came out with quite a chill to them. Sparks were nearly visible from where their mutual glares met in the air between them. Minte wasn't making any effort to offer a polite gesture in kind. It felt as if there were an invisible wall of force keeping them a safe distance apart. If either tried to cross the threshold there would certainly be more than just sparks. Minte is coiled like a snake ready to strike at a moment's notice. What had her on edge was contagious, so I couldn't dismiss her instincts and so I kept myself on edge as well.

 

     “Mr. Laven, you do keep such interesting company,” she said with politeness straining her voice.

 

Now I began to doubt Hyria's wisdom. Couldn't any of the other girls played security detail and not rile up the hornet's nest? If she were that worried about magic shenanigans she could have ordered her lich to—no, that might have made these much, much worse....

 

     “I was warned there would be a lot of interesting people here,” I replied.

 

     “Fair enough,” she sighed. “Interesting times breed interesting people...So...What brings you here to this humble gathering?”

 

     “I was told this would be the place should I want to meet with the Ebon Wing—”

 

Her eyes shot open widely yet again. She quickly turned her head left and right. It was so overt a display of distress it stopped me dead in my tracks as well. Yet as I was about to put my head on a swivel to check if she had seen something I had not she raised a finger to her lips and shushed me.

 

     “Do we take this somewhere else, or?”

 

     “No, Mr. Laven, you surprised me is all. I do not recall the existence of such things being revealed to you. Ever.”

 

     “I have friends with impressive foresight,” I smiled back.

 

     “Princess Hyria Yaleria. I would have thought she learned her lesson about seeing sights one was not yet meant to see...Worry not, it is no grave concern. The white noise of a boisterous party is actually more helpful to speak of delicate than you'd imagine... I shall confess, however, I underestimated your perception.”

 

I stared blankly at her for a moment in confusion. Not until Minte spoke up with her usual monotone voice did I manage to shake it off.

 

     “As an Ebon Wing associate.”

 

I breathed a sigh of relief. Nice save, Minte. Had she not chimed in I wouldn't have a clue what this Lavinia lady was talking about. Diplomacy like this is all about hiding and showing cards at your leisure. It would put me at a subordinate position if I gave off an aura of being completely clueless.

 

     “And they sent you out to test the waters instead of meet me directly?” I said, adding a bit of faux outrage to my intonation.

 

     She actually bowed apologetically as she replied, “I assure you, no offense was intended. My Ladies are as cautious as they are curious. Such is their position as the Monster Lord's hidden hands.”

 

Now I began to feel a little bad for pressing my position like this. If there was a time to reset it would be now. Perhaps I can maneuver for some basic information for once and not make myself out to be a total country bumpkin. The alternative would be to confess I came here from a whole other time and space, but I doubt that would go over well at all. I'd be lucky if I were seen as crazy.

 

     “It was a shock to me when Princess Hyria told me my presence had been requested by those who work so closely with the Monster Lord's court. I didn't think they would meet with anyone they had not already vetted directly.”

 

     “Your circumstances are... unique, Mr. Laven,” the wizardess said. “As I was saying before, all sorts of interesting people have been brought here this evening. The Dalnet couple, so you have seen.”

 

     “Those two who run their own publishing house?”

 

     “So you have heard of them? He came to the attention of the wider world with a device he devised in a garden shed. Now the grapevine has informed me that he has developed, over the past decade, a wondrous piece of technology to improve it further. Many have speculated it will have lasting repercussions for generations. I believe he called it, 'moveable type'?”

 

     “To mass produce writing?”

 

Another incredulous look from the woman. It dawned on me a bit late that the ordinary person would have no idea what she is talked about. Apparently this was cutting edge here in this world.

 

     “Yes, in order to better distribute his wife's literature... Are you familiar with her work?”

 

     “I can't say I am. Minte?”

 

No reaction. I looked over and saw her eyes were still locked on target. She had picked up a glass of sparkling wine from one of the floating magic trays at some point. It didn't appear as if she had drank any of it yet though.

 

     “No... No we haven't.”

 

     “Hmm? You would have to be living under a rock to know nothing of her work.”

 

     “That would be true in a manner of speaking,” I said blithfully.

 

It's not really a lie. That's the earliest memory I can drudge up. My bedroom apartment, ripped straight from the building, dropped right in the middle of the woods far to the north. I still thought it would be a bad idea to reveal my amnesia.

 

     “Right...” she said with a cocked eyebrow, but payed it no mind and continued. “As you have already surmised, the implications are revolutionary. It currently takes armies of scribes to merely transcribe existing texts. Limited runs, exuberant prices. I myself could only borrow, at great cost, my personal favorite: The Cock Fighter... A story of a pugilist, a professional pit fighter, who falls in with an exceptionally shy cockatrice who together have to—Ahem.”

 

Her eyes had lit up and her breathing becoming hot and heavy before stopping herself with an inconspicuous cough. She raised her hand to cover her mouth which had twisted into a rather unladylike grin.

 

     “My apologies... Where was I? Ah yes. If books were rendered cheap enough, they could be distributed far and wide. The Nuptian Church and Order of the Violet Circle are salivating at the mere thought. The scriptures of our fair lady and the volumes of magic knowledge that even the most poor and destitute can get their hands upon... Such as every lurid detail of that barrel chested hunk bungling with that adorably shy, petite, delicate little—AHEM”

 

     “No, please, don't mind me,” I said, raising my hands up in deference.

 

Oh geez, she is starting to drool a little now too.

 

     “And of course—!” She cried out trying to drown out her own embarrassment and redirct the conversation.”—that ties directly to Mr. Gregory Huang,” she said while waving her long and flowing sleeve across a couple to our left.

 

Mingling with a large crowd were another two people whose fashioned clashed with the classic wizard's attire. A man who looked as if he were plucked from the far east wearing colorful silk court robes. Most peculiar was the hat with a large flat top and glass bead tipped tassels covering his face. It looked odd, but dignified. Standing next to him a woman with bluish-white skin. I had spent enough time in Yaleria to recognize an undead's skin at a glance, but this woman looked a bit different. Her arms appeared locked in place, sticking out in front of her. Her whole body appeared stiff. Like the man beside her, the woman's face half obscured by some manner of paper talisman obscuring half her face. Besides that, her courtesan outfit is salacious as one could expect from monster girls of this world.

 

     Without missing a beat Lavinia continued, “A humble former adventurer traveling the Gold River basin, nestled far away in the Misty Valley regions. He stumbled upon a tomb of Biyu Yeoh, or Huang now, of course... A legendary martial artist of the Ninth Path discipline and master of the Dragon's Constellation Chakra school. For centuries we had thought the Old Middle Kingdom's records and expertise in that school of chakra had been lost. A whole eight-hundred year gap of precious knowledge found intact within her. There is quite a bit of excitement for those interested in the field.”

 

There were certainly areas of the room which appeared more magnetically charged than others. Quite a crowd had gathered around the man and his lovely yet zombified china doll. Besides the those two couples I spied a third.

 

     “And that leaves those two over there,” I said whilst craning my neck to my right.

 

There an odd couple were being wined and dined. A man with dark as ink skin wearing white face-paint patterned to look like a skull. It contrasted with his black tuxedo, white leather gloves and tall silk hat. But that had nothing on the girl at his side. With dark brown skin covered by nothing more than a grass skirt and tactfully placed garland necklace which covered her otherwise bare breasts. Yet that didn't draw attention away from the almost comically sized wooden face mask she wore. Her nature struck me as monstrous as well, what with the large knife-like elven ears protruding from the sides of her head from behind her mask.

 

     Lavinia's expression switched from exuberant to troubled as she spoke, “Not a situation for levity, I'm afraid. The tensions in the South-West seas have grown worse lately. Those two, of course, would be Mister Everyday and Isiwala Bruululu.”

 

I was tempted to ask her to run those names by me again, especially the second one, but she soldiered on regardless.

 

     “The Adwari Islaes are in a complicated spot. The Empire and the Church of the Almighty have crusaded hard over the past half decade. There had been an understanding with the previous governance, but that was all put down rather... harshly. For you see, piracy, brigands and slavers have regrettably persisted and resurfaced in the region time and time again.”

 

Pirates and highwaymen are not too much of a surprise, but it depressed me to think about slavery. I shouldn't have expected more from a world in a state such as it is. As harrowing as my own adventures have been, such topics had not been adjacent to them. As close as it had ever gotten, the run-ins with the more backward monster girl societies seemed to skirt the issue.

 

     “I think I heard about something similar with the—what do you call them—Merfolk?—to the South-West,” I chimed in. “The Empire put a lot of blood and treasure into pushing them out of the region recently.”

 

     “A great deal of trade moves through that region, Mr. Laven, and with it a great amount of wealth. As for the Merfolk, they have had to relocate to the continent's west coast, off the remote Free Port harbor of Glendiswell... That leaves the South-West in the hands of the Imperials, and Church, almost exclusively. The residents of the Adwari Island still hold the Free Ports in low regard. Something to do with the Free Ports being decedents of the same peoples who enslaved them thousands of years ago... But that is all a time before you or even I... It is the looming threat of the Dark Continent of Rucioustova further south of Adwari that the Empire is concerned about. Our Lady's court has little contact with its denizens.”

 

     “I find that hard to believe.”

 

     “You should not. I have heard you too have had difficulties in the past with the less civilized nations of monsters. The orkenkind, perhaps?

 

How could I forget. Lost in the woods for to the north, separated from home. My first encounter were with a bunch of pig women.

 

     “It is a situation that is worse throughout Rucioustova, save for the southern cape... I would heartily recommend a visit to the Vortrekalia Republic... Anyways, the age of the previous Monster Lord, the campaign of vicious genocide he led, eradicated the native populations. Only their distant cousins, those who been ferried into bondage millennia before on the Adwari Isles, remain... Yet even after the Demon Lord fell, the monstrous minions of his remained on the continent, alone. And now, in the age of our Lady, they too have been gifted with humanity... But not men.”

 

     I had an idea where this was going already, “And if the Adwari are having difficulties giving up old habits it is because those very habits are being rewarded?”

 

     “With mountains of ivory, towers of gold and diamonds. The best The Monster Lord could negotiate is an appeal. A compromise. Bought, but freed... Whether they can purchase the fare back home before some girl sinks her teeth into them, however...”

 

     “I'm finding it hard to buy into this powerless Monster Lord image you are trying to sell me. I have not once met a monster who didn't worship the ground she walks upon... The most mischievous types. And now you are telling me there are those who go rogue?”

 

     “Rogue is perhaps too strong a word. Tell me, Mr. Laven, are you familiar with the War of the Sixth Monster Lord?”

 

     “I've heard about it.”

 

     “Beyond it being nearly the end of the world?”

 

     “That he had to force it... Turns out a lot of monsters drew the line at pillaging and raping. Genocide would have been less than ideal.”

 

     “And so how could he have forced the issue?” Lavinia asked wearing a smug expression with waning continence.

 

I stayed silent. There's no way I could answer that. That's about where the small extent of my knowledge ended.

 

     “Psychic compulsion. He did not beat his goons over the head and whip them to war. You could also call it a certain supernatural charisma. He seized the crown of Monster Lord which granted him the ability to wield monsterkind as he willed. Their own desires be damned. It is the power one our fair lady possessed. Did possess. Yet, unlike any of the other Lords of ages past, she relinquished it. Slowly, at first, but surely and near absolutely by the time she married about forty years ago.”

 

     “Why?”

 

     “I wish I knew,” she answered flatly. “There's many problems which could have been solved today if she hadn't. If she took control again. Yet she refuses. Despite it resulting in tragic stories like your companion here.”

 

Her attitude was still very derisive toward Minte. Now I see what this tangent was meant for. The emotionless girl appeared to take no offense. I saw the antenna on her head still on full alert, but she had relaxed in the meantime to pluck some hors d'oeuvre off a floating service tray at some point.

 

     “Minte did not do any of that by choice,” I hissed back, taking it upon myself to take offense.

 

     “That is why I said like her. She is but one of seven. I have not heard of the other six Arc Assassins retiring... And how odd that you have yet to suffer the consequences of your good deeds, Mr. Laven... It is as if you have hidden benefactors.”

 

Now we were getting beyond the potatoes and straight to the meat. Had I something in my hand I would be of the mind to throw it to the ground for it to smash in dramatic fashion. I settled for staring daggers at the woman.

 

     “And that's why you have been probing me for my impression of your other guests and why your masters wont come to greet me in person?”

 

     “Yes,” she replied with her voice cold as ice. “And then you bring her here of all people.”

 

     “Minte has a name, and just because she wont get angry, that doesn't mean I won't.”

 

I did not realize how agitated I had become until I felt a small hand on my shoulder which pulled me back. My chest had puffed out and I had taken a step closer, only one short to be punching distance. I could feel my knuckles creak and tingle as I forced myself to let them go limp at my sides once more.

 

     “You gained a lover, Mr. Laven. I lost friends. Do not dare rebuke me.”

 

As fierce as Lavinia's eyes were, in spite of how they were burning—glowing—with magic and anger, I squared my shoulders. I shook off Minte's hand, took one step sideways and stood in front of her. Placing myself between the two. As a guest summoned by name, no matter what her feelings were or what anyone gathered here would think of Minte, a single hair on my head harmed would not bode well for her.

 

     “Why are you even here, Mr. Laven?” her furious tone giving way to a forlorn timbre.

 

     “I need the Ebon Wing's help,” I replied.

 

     “Such help does not come free, Mr. Laven.”

 

     “Speaking from personal experience?”

 

     “I was once human, like you, Mr. Laven. Four centuries ago I was once regarded as one of the Empires foremost magical scholars.”

 

     “Don't look a day over forty,” I heard Minte say as she had her glass raised to her lips.

Thankfully I appeared to be the only one to hear that.

 

     “I magically extended my lifespan by decades as a human. When I reached my limits in body and knowledge, I gleefully betrayed my peers, allied myself with the Monster Lord. Not once has an ounce regret weighed upon my conscience. I had to wonder why. I had traded away many things and received many gifts in return. Although I am more powerful and more free than I ever was before as a mere woman, I am at the same time bound and chained. As all monsters are. Our lady freed us, and cured us of our cursed forms, but we are eternally obligated to her. Bound to her. No matter how free she desires her daughters to be, they will share part her spirit. Her will is our own. The Sixth demanded bloodshed, our lady desires love... And so do we. Every heart throb she feels for her dear husband is one that pangs us in all our chests. A great collective will... Even if, in that pursuit of that same love, the monster serves other ends. As do the Arc Assassins serve out of love for a man most vile and dangerous. Your lover there's former master.”

 

     “Don't act as if I didn't know all of that already!” I raised my voice to interrupt. “She never once acted out of love for any of that.”

 

     “A puppet all the same,” she snarled. “The Ebon Wing, the left wing to our lady's radiant white. Only paired together can she fly. My masters work from the shadows and strive to see her dream realized. Knowing this, what would you asked of them?”

 

I took a deep breath and made my case, “I've journeyed from the far North and seek refuge in the Free Ports in the south. I aided Yaleria and played a large role in what it is now. This country is now besieged and my journey is halted. I have to go further south the jungles of the South-Eastern continent. That's the only place where I can know who I am. Why I am here... The Ebon Wing has a teleportation network that can help us bypass the Imperial blockade.”

 

     “You would have the Ebon Wing possibly compromise its entire network for a favor?”

 

Her reply was bone-chillingly cold. The tone I heard was also very curt.

 

     “How could you draw a conclusion like that?”

 

     “It's a network that has existed for far longer than almost everything else in the world. We inherited and brought it back into working order at great expense. It is also one of the few vital advantages we have in the face of the Empire, Church and Adventuring Leagues. You would ask that we allow non-vetted strangers to use it?”

 

     “And what cost to you would that be? I heard it takes up a great deal of mana. Did I not provide you with more mana than you could ever dream of? I watched as it vaporize an entire mountain!”

 

     “Regardless of your contributions, the fact remains that merely allowing you to travel through the network would provide you with more information than necessary to do it, and us all, great harm... If it were to fall into the wrong hands.”

 

     “And what benefit would that serve me now that I've made a great number of the same enemies as you?”

 

     “I did not say you would necessary hand it over willingly, Mr. Laven.”

 

     “Then let me ask you this: Why did you invite me here in the first place?”

 

     “Not because of what you did, but how you did it. You used a void crystal, with your bare hands, to erase a seal over two thousand years old put in place by the gods themselves... We had planned to make you one of the guests of honor, like those I told you about before, but you had not yet arrived. I do not know what your intentions were in being fashionably late, but it did not impress my ladies.”

 

     “I followed behind Hyria when coming to this place by no more than ten seconds. If we were late by an hour it certainly wasn't our fault!”

 

Lavinia's hostile and defensive expression quickly transformed into one of confusion and then settled on one of pale faced concern.

 

     “Lavinia, how are you doing girl?” Came a boisterous voice from behind her. “Did you actually decide to leave that stuffy old library and socialize for once? What a rare sight!”

 

Emerging from the crowd came a succubus. Wings from the back, spade tipped tail, horns and the barest minimum of skin covered up by some leather straps. All the hallmarks of a succubus. She flipped her long dark green hair back over her shoulder while slapping her long nailed hand over Lavinia's shoulder, a friendly gesture.

 

     “J-Julie?” Lavinia replied with a slightly shaky voice.

 

     “Julie, yes. My Honey is with all the other boys talking about boy things in the anterior coffee room, so the girls and I are having a little girl talk on the west balcony. You absolutely must come... Maybe we can talk you old bag of bones out of your dry spell. Estevan, you know, Filly's man, has been doing business with this bachelor who is also a BIG fan of Dalnet's works. I know you two would have a lot to talk about.”

 

     “I have been busy, Julie. I'm here meeting with an important guest. For work.”

 

     “Who?” the succubus named Julie said while tilting her head in confusion.

 

Lavinia turned back toward us with her own face in a likewise confused stupor. Minte and I exchanged worried glances and then looked back in tandem to the scene unraveling in front of us.

 

     “I... I don't know,” Lavinia said rubbing her temple as if she had a headache coming on.

 

     “Right. That settles it. The great and mighty Lavinia is coming with me before she loses all her marbles from working too hard. I can't smell booze on your breath and you are starting to see and hear things.”

 

And with that Lavinia was grabbed by the arm and dragged away while looking back over her shoulder to where we were. Except our eyes didn't meet. Minte and I stood there dumbfounded for a minute not sure what happened. I felt her hand grab hold of mine tightly and that's enough to get my heads out the clouds. My first instinct is to reach out and get the attention of the nearest party guest, or waiter, but every time I reached out they up and moved away as if we were polar opposite magnets. They moved as if suddenly compelled to move away just shy of my hand clasping them by the shoulder.

 

     “What the hell?” I yelled.

 

No one noticed. What I noticed is that there appeared to be a naturally forming buffer of at least a good five meters around Minte and I. We were now standing back to back with our hands interlocked. I scanned the room nearly in a full on panic as Minte did the same with an appearance of complete calm and control.

 

     “How embarrassing, I appeared to have missed one... Those Ebon Wing ladies really are a slippery and unpredictable bunch~”

 

A woman's voice pierced through the malaise with razor sharpness. I heard it in stereo, from all directions, and could not tell which direction it came from. My attention was instead drawn to a rather unnatural break forming to my left in the surrounding circle. A lone figure emerged from behind it and glided into view.

 

     “It appears as though Lavinia managed to intercept you before I could lead you astray,” the woman's voice echoed jovially.”

 

At last the mystery woman drifted into sight. A paradoxical meeting of nightmare and a dream. Her skin, which she chose show much of, had a queer pink-purplish hue and immediately gave off an impression of inhumanity. As though it had been decided by whatever hand made her she also appeared to be clothed and comprised of many undulating tentacles. Her dress was alive. It had a mind of its own and it demanded my attention toward her nearly naked breasts, shoulders and abdomen. Any lower and she'd be flashing me too. They were in her hair too, merged together with the dark purple strands which cascaded across her forehead and down along her back. They coiled around and lifted up her hefty breasts, teasing and kneading them as if enticed by my mere witnessing of them. She swayed her hips while she moved closer on what I could never describe as legs. They were instead a mass of tentacles meshed together into a hobble dress. She certainly did not walk, but rather glided across the floor, carried by slithering tentacles which acted as her legs and feet.

 

With a single slender finger, basked in a sickly green glow of magic energy, she traced along the jaw line of a man who strayed too close. He appeared to have not seen her and had been on a direct collision coarse, but suddenly turned and took a serving girl in his arms, swept the girl off her feet and kissed her deeply. The girl, dressed in a maid outfit, had her whole body flicker like a dimming light. She was some kind of being made of pure magic and she greedily took the man's cheeks in her hands and reciprocated much to the delight of other guests by the sudden show of affection.

 

The whole while the tentacled woman wore a bemused and smug expression upon her face while her odd pink colored eyes never broke off from me. If those were the only eyes. As this woman got closer I saw a multitude of green orbs along her body, the tentacles, which were clearly as alive as the two on her face. Above her forehead, situated like a tiara, was a grand one which seemed to serve as a third eye. Even her ears were like two little tentacle nubs with the same green orbs as the rest. To top everything else off, the end of each woman's tentacles appeared to ooze with some mystery slime that never remained wherever she went.

 

     “I have looked forward to this meeting for weeks, but I suppose that's only as long as I've been aware of its inevitability. It is a meeting which had been overdue for many, many, years.”

 

Her lips were not moving. I could hear her voice, but it wasn't coming out of her. Every syllable originated inside my own head.

 

     “Telepathy,” I concluded aloud.

 

     Her smile curved further upward and widened, but still didn't open, “Correct. Laven.”

 

I felt a clear danger from this woman, but no malice. My heart rate accelerated as this tremendous force bore down on me. This isn't a degree of force I wasn't used to, but it felt so utterly alien that it threw me off. My whole body began to heat up, sweat began to soak my fancy suit and I was beginning to feel lightheaded. My palms were slick and wet now and would not find themselves out of place grabbing hold of this woman by the hips which were likewise slick with her oozing liquified mana. She would certainly appreciate my large manly hands seizing her large breasts while you seal my erotic moans with a kiss.

 

     “Argh!” I yelled as I dug my fingernails into my scalp with the sudden onset of pain.

 

Minte wrapped herself around my arm and pulled hard, then wrapped herself around me completely in a full embrace to bring me back down to reality. I winced further while reopening my eyes and glaring at the woman who had now stopped a mere four meters away from the two of us. Her pink and purple skin had flushed a deeper shade of red on her cheeks. Her eyes were glazed over while she cupped her cheeks with her hands and sighed deeply.

 

     “Magnificent~I did not go lightly on you either and from only this distance!”

 

     “What the hell was that?” I seethed through clenched teeth.

 

My thoughts had been scrambled. I could feel my brain was still reeling. There could be no mistaking the cause. As easily as she could speak inside my own head, the woman had used my own voice inside my head in attempt to control me. Now I knew exactly why I had sensed such acute danger. That's a blatant attempt at mind control. No, it is more frightening than that. A clear attempt to make me believe as though they were my own thoughts and I would naturally accept and act upon them.

 

     “Some innocent fun, Laven,” her voice echoed once more inside my mind. “I simply had to see for myself if my suspicions were true... Lo and behold, the man whose hands grasp the void is resistant to my flaying.”

 

     “Innocent fun? It feels like you hammered a nail through my skull! And what the hell did you do to Lavinia?”

 

     “I can kiss it better if you want,” her voice rang out as she licked her lips suggestively and a pair of tentacles dangling beside her face undulated expectantly. “As for her, I merely altered her perceptions and erased a few short term memories.”

 

I broke away from her intense gaze for a moment and surveyed the room once more. The party was continuing on as if nothing had changed. The couple from earlier were missing—and I had an idea why—but nothing had changed. An entire crowd of people were carrying on normally while leaving a very conspicuous open space in the middle of the room with the three of us.

 

     “Alright, change of topic. Who the hell are you?” I asked.

 

     “Laven?” Minte pleaded with me while tugging at my arm.

 

She was looking up at me with eyes full of worry. A concern since she never wore an expression on her face at all.

 

     “My apologies, Ms. Reaper. I did not intend to so rudely leave you out of the conversation.”

 

Minte's eyes, all of them, tore their gaze off at me and glared at the interloper. I heard it as well, so I suppose she needs to be mindful of those who can hear her voice. The soft and concerned expression of Minte twisted into one of malice. Such a glare had caused many before to wither at the mere exposure to it, but the woman did not so much as flinch.

 

     “Mortal men, such as yourself, do not possess the mental faculties to hear nor speak my name. Not without proper adjustments. In the meantime, you may call me Iris.”

 

     “Well, Iris, I'll pass on that. Yet that only answers part of my question. Who and what the hell are you and what do you want?”

 

     “So many questions, but trust me when I saw you do not want them all answered. For your own sake.”

 

I could feel that cold chill running sweat down my spine again at the intonations she chose with those words. They were certainly a sincere warning. Her mention of erasing memories in particular had me especially worried. I didn't have that many memories to erase and I certainly did not want to surrender any of them.

 

     “I, Iris, am not a member of the Ebon Wing. Rest assured.”

 

Why would that be assuring?

 

     “You should rest assured because I have no ulterior motives.”

 

She might be able to read minds too.

 

     “No, my dear Laven. I cannot. You are wearing your thoughts on your face... Oh, how you tease me so with every little tell of yours... If it will further assuage you fears, I am here to help you. I want to be of help.”

 

For the sake of remaining diplomatic I humored her and asked what I thought she wanted to hear, “In exchange for what, Iris?”

 

     “Oh ho~Do not temp me so. I may take whatever you can offer... But no, I shall aid you here and now because I desire to.”

 

     “We just met, why would you think I'd trust the likes of you? You tried to use mind control on me a minute ago.”

 

     “Because I know you will accept, Laven... You are a gracious enough soul that you will not turn down the help I, a sincere ally of yours, can offer.”

 

     “Really? After you pulled this stunt of yours?” I said waving my hand over the ensorcelled masses around us. “You are responsible this too, aren't you?”

 

     “A mere parlor trick. I have not altered them in any significant way. I have merely applied a filter to their perceptions. They cannot hear us, see us, or sense us. They will likewise subconsciously avoid us. I did it so we could have some privacy. Had I known the Ebon Wing would send one of their agents I would have made it so Lavinia would not have accosted you as well. Yet I see, however, that you brought company of your own. How unfortunate,” she said while turning that smug expression upside down at Minte.

 

Is this what Hyria had seen coming around the bend? Maybe. She had told me to worry about the shenanigans of the Ebon Wing, however, and not this third party. And I still do not know who this third party is.

 

     “If you are not working with the Ebon Wing, then who are you working for?” I asked.

 

     “Allies of the Monster Lord, but not servants. We are afforded a greater deal of freedom and to entertain our own whimsy. We share something in common though, Laven. Neither of us truly belong here. Isn't that right?”

 

Now I was really worried.

 

     “It is important to have things in common, wouldn't you say?”

 

She could only be suggesting one thing. This woman is not of this world either. If that's the case, then perhaps my circumstances are not so unheard of. Her appearance, and the aura she gives off, is certainly alien enough. Perhaps a more literal and more familiar meaning of the word alien. Taking those tentacles into account, the implications were building up rather fast and leading to a conclusion I was all too fearful of drawing.

 

     “Those fools in the Ebon Wing and Violet Circle pay you no mind, but I know better. And believe me, I don't intend to share why they should. Your magnetic personality, your circumstances, the complete disregard for the most basic principles that hold this world together... Oh~It makes my skin tingle and my heart throb! This is what she meant, wasn't it? Ah~I understand now. I could only imagine it, but to feel it changes everything!”

 

She writhed back and forth rhythmically while hugging herself. It's a display which was incredibly dorky at best, and incredibly off-putting at worst. More the latter than the first.

 

     “Sorry, but I'm going to decline,” I declared.

 

Her body came to a stop and she slowly reopened her eyes. There was a bit of innocence to them as they fluttered with disbelief a few times.

 

     “What was that?” Her unsure voice rang out inside my skull.

 

     “I'm not sure how you thought this was going to go, or why, but I'm not buying what you are selling.”

 

I said it, but my knees were still on the verge of shaking. A display of weakness, no matter how minor, simply could not happen and I remained mindful of that and put my everything into putting up my best poker face.

 

     “Fu~fu~fu~” she laughed, and laughed out load through her actual mouth this time.

 

Hearing it from a distance and with her crude vocal cords is unsettling after having gotten used to hearing her voice in my head. Although her eyes belayed a hint of confusion, the smug expression on her face had not dissipated at all. I quickly realized why. All around Minte and the other party guests had stopped what they were doing and turned their heads toward us in perfect synch. Hundreds of eyes, soulless, like puppets, was too much of an oppressive force to bear.

 

Iris raised her hand with middle finger and thumb ready to make a snap in less than a second's notice. I heard the snikt beside me as Minte's arm blades swung into position. Proceeding it was the sickening rip of the beautiful fabric of her dress. She took up a battle position between Iris and I. Her mantid abdomen's wings buzzing and fluttering at the ready as she crouched down and prepared herself to lunge. With her speed, the distance between Iris and her would certainly be closed in the blink of an eye.

 

     “See?” came Iris' voice through my head once again. “So dangerous. Ready for battle in an instant. Docile and reserved at first glance, but one second later prepared to take a life in the next... And you are afraid of me instead... I am hurt. Truly I am... But I understand. I do not hate you for it. I love you far too much to be mad at you.”

 

     “I know Minte. More than anyone else ever could,” I replied. “And don't throw words around like love so willy-nilly.”

 

     “Oh, but I do mean it, Laven. With all my heart. You've become great friends with those who have made worse first impressions than I have... And you should not be so quick to judge and be so sure of what little you know... For the past few minutes this girl has been all a fluster trying to figure out the most efficient way to kill me.”

 

     “Ah!” Minte squeaked as her body seized up.

 

Those eyes of hers never shoot open real wide like that. Not ever. It lasted only for a moment before she shifted into another offensive stance, but it was likely to hide that she had been stunned momentarily by Iris' words. Minte grit her teeth and continued to stare the alien women down.

 

     “Ah~ha~so you were trained well... But you have allowed yourself to become soft. If you were hoping to keep your thoughts hidden from me—it is far too late for that.”

 

     “No,” Minte whimpered as her offensive stance shifted a third time into a defensive one with arms raised to guard her head.

 

Iris' didn't have to move a single finger to do any damage. Her words, never spoken, appeared to cut as deeply as a knife, but more precise.

 

     “You have never seen the likes of me before, have you?” Iris voice pressed further. “Where is my heart? What artery can be severed, what tendon or joint can be cut, bent and broken to neutralize me most efficiently? I regret to inform you that this physical form does not conform itself to your understanding of biology. At least beyond your collective sense of aesthetics in terms of female beauty... And perhaps human female fertility... But that is another matter altogether. We, Laven, shall save that for another time.”

 

     “Stop,” Minte begged as she slid down onto her knees.

 

     “Minte!” I cried out to her, ignoring Iris' suggestive advances.

 

But Iris did not relent.

 

     “But it isn't just me. As you watched Laven speak with Lavinia, you were prepared. If you needed to end her life in an instant, you were ready to act when necessary. One errant somatic movement, one concealed syllable of a spell, a single moment her attention lapsed, you were prepared. And not her. But everyone. Everyone you can hear, see, smell, feel. All consuming. A mind dedicated to murder.”

 

     “No!” Minte yelled.

 

I can't recall the last time her voice had raised to such a decibel. Her voice is actually cracking. She then slumped over completely on her knees. All the eyes of the party attendees were on her. Their hands raised in unison with fingers pointing accusingly.

 

     “And I do mean E-V-E-R-Y-O-N-E.”

 

That's when I realized everyone in the room was pointing at me. Minte screamed out in horror as she cradled her head in her arms. I watched as her body, slumped to the floor, keeled over and curled into a fetal position.

 

     “Enough!” I bellowed.

 

Spittle flew from my mouth and my breathing heaved as I was on the verge of hyperventilating from my frayed nerves. My hands wouldn't stop shaking, but I didn't care about small details like that now.

 

     “That's enough!” I said as I forced my legs which felt like jello to stand over Minte's frail and small body with my arms outstretched.

 

     “Do you see now, Laven, dear? I am no greater threat than Ms. Reaper here. In fact, I pose a nigh infinitely less risk. I am positive we could get along swimmingly, if only we had more time. Alas, I have further time to play.”

 

Iris snapped her fingers and it reverberated off the walls of the ballroom louder than it ever should have. And with that, the other guests turned their heads away and continued on with their partying as if nothing had happened. With strings cut they carried on as if everything that had happened occurred within a single blink of their eyes. The orchestra continued to play, the dancing commenced and the raiding of the catering continued.

 

     “Kiki-Lee, if you would be so kind,” Iris said aloud for once.

 

Yet another strange arrival materialized, literally, at her command. It fell from the ceiling and emerged from beneath the cracks and grooves in the floor at the same time. It pooled into a purplish and black puddle on the ground before rising to stand upright. Whatever it was, it took the form of a woman. The slime-like creature had along its enigmatic form many mouths and an equal number of yellow eyes. Above that chaotic mass stood the woman. With bluish skin and dark long dark hair. Her eyes were pits of yellow in a sea of black. A uniform, or at least what looked like clothing, adorned her and gave her the look of a serving girl. A maid. A linen headdress crowned her head. Even in her hair there were those eyes. Although she clasped her hands deferentially at across her front, slimy tentacles writhed from the monstrous mass which served as her lower body.

 

     “Yes, Misstress Iris,” the woman spoke, with a curious voice that sounded as if musically synthesized.

 

She bowed to Iris and then turned her attention toward me. An insufferably smug expression adorned her face. Unlike Iris, her body didn't move as if gliding, but more like an amoeba's pseudopodia. Very small bits of her, little specks of ooze, were left behind where she moved, but they were alive and quickly moved to rejoin the whole mass. This Kiki-Lee shuffled to within arm's reach, bowed politely and then produced an object from her being. Not from a pocket, but from within herself.

 

     “If you are my mistress' love, then I too am at your disposal,” she said with that smug expression upon her face and a wink.

 

Caught up in the moment, I reflectively accepted the gift to avoid it falling to the floor. It appeared to be some type of smartphone sized tablet. Obsidian black and made of some material I hadn't the foggiest clue to its make or origin On the surface of this tablet was a red dyed sigil carved into it. The thing would bring Euclid to tears. Its designed appeared to shift depending on how you looked at it. What appeared to be an acute angle tilted away became obtuse when tipped closer. It hurt my brain to look at it.

 

With her job complete she drifted back toward her mistress and took a position waiting behind her. Iris then left me with her final words of the evening.

 

     “Use it at the monolith at a grove five leagues North-West of the tombstone to the Unknown Knight located in what was formally the Shadelands. It is near to the Ancient Oak of Westfrendan. You will know it by looking at it. It shall allow you undetected access to the Ebon Wing's teleportation network to where you need to be... I promise it will work, but only once... Perhaps it will not take you to where you want to be, but that is how inconvenient things like destiny work... I have full confidence you shall find your way to the Free Ports and sanctuary from here... Until next we meet, my dear Laven.”

 

Into the inky darkness the two disappeared. A wall of black void that rushed in from all sides and left nothing but an island of the floor Minte and I stood upon. Well... the floor I stood upon. I pocketed the strange tablet and turned to face Minte. She had pulled herself up off the floor, but was still seated there with her knees tucked into her chest.

 

     “Minte?” I said while reaching out with an open hand.

 

In response she scooted backward to get away from me.

 

     “No. Don't come close,” she said, with eyes puffy and on the verge of tears.

 

That expression on her face was like cold daggers twisting into my heart. Sobering enough to make me forget the weight and horror of what I had witnessed over the past while. I could not relent nor obey. I knelt down and approached again. When I reached out a second time I'm more prepared this time and caught her arm by the wrist when she attempted to push me away. That caused her nothing but distress, but she was not herself and could not muster the strength to shake me off. She looked up with hollow eyes instead.

 

I watched as her eyes, all of them, traced my face, looked to where I had grabbed hold of her, to the arm blade attached to her wrist. Her indigo eyes then went limp and downcast toward the floor.

 

     “I am not afraid,” I declared.

 

Her eyes slowly rose back up from the floor and met with my own. Her forlorn expression had given way to confusion. There wasn't enough strength in her arms to prevent what I had to do next. I tightened the grip on her arm and drew her body closer. I maneuvered her arm so that the chitinous arm blade's edge pressed up against my neck. In the little girl's stupor, she could not react fast enough. If she moved carelessly now my throat would be slit open like a hot knife through butter. I held it there with all my strength. The only way my arm would give is if she pushed forward instead of drew back.

 

     “If what Iris said is true, then I would have died a long time ago.”

 

Minte's mouth, ordinary a straight line, curled slightly into a frown. Her eyes, expressionless, but red and puffy underneath, continued to stare at me as I did into them..

 

     “On that day we first met... You were commanded to kill me... But you didn't. You haven't. And not because there's no one to tell you to, but because YOU decided not to. Do you believe I think less of you because of the way you are? What you are? That day, in your dreams, I saw two sides of you. I don't expect either or to ever go away. Because that's human. You are not a machine... Because to be honest, when I first met Rose, the day after... I had a moment where she was laying helplessly asleep. The thought crossed my mind briefly to kill her then... But I chose not to.”

 

Minte expressionless face shifted into overt confusion and disbelief.

 

     “I haven't told anyone about that. Not even Rose. The first time we met, she attacked me. I thought she was going to kill me. She defeated me, humiliated me, used me... I know why she acted the way she did now... But then... On that night... I thought differently. It would have been easy. As easy as it would be for you now... But I'm not afraid. You can think whatever you want, but I know, whatever you choose, it will be you. Not your training. Not your instincts. Not the Green Reaper. It will be Minte. And I believe in that girl. I trust that girl... And I think that she trusts me too.”

 

With that I released my grip on her wrist. Nothing to stop her from pushing forward or moving away. I heard the snikt once more and the blade folded back against her forearm. I could still feel the biting edge on my neck. Before I could give it a cursory rub to make sure I hadn't nicked myself with it, Minte came barreling into my chest. She knocked me off my knees and onto my behind. Her fingernails clawed at the collar of my jacket while she buried her face into my shoulder. I could feel it getting wet already. Minte tried to muffle herself I could hear her quiet wailing. I reached out and ruffled my hand through her brown hair and between her antenna which eagerly prodded and caressed them.

 

As though that had been all that was necessary, the spell of darkness around us faded away and the two of us had been deposited back to a familiar space. A chessboard on a table, the bed, the dresser and window to the twilight outside. Iris had sent us back home. We were in no rush, however, Minte and I stayed in this embraced for what felt like an hour. Eventually she ran out of tears. I cradled the back of her head and she rested her cheek against my chest. I resolved myself to stay like this for however long she felt it necessary. She finally regained her composure and I could do nothing to keep her there. She slowly slipped out of my grasp. The girl walked over to the window, turned her back to me and tore off her fancy dress with a single motion. Underneath she had worn that skintight black bodysuit and chitinous armor all along.

 

That suited her far better, to be honest.

 

I stood up myself and noticed the soggy blotch of tears and snot on my shoulder. Not that I cared much for these clothes. It served a better purpose this way than how it had been originally intended. Not to mention no one at that party had noticed we were there. It really hadn't served its proper function purpose in the end. I felt a slight pang of guilt since its tailor had gone through so much passion on it, despite my being a philistine about it earlier.

 

     “Laven,” Minte said with her back still turned.

 

I finished straightening out my jacket and looked up in time to see her pirouette, cut-off skirt fluttering all the while, and face me. There is a genuine smile on her face I had only ever seen in her dreams.

 

     “Thank you,” she beamed as tears returned to the corners of her eyes. “I love you.”

 

The way the blue and red moon's light formed a halo behind her head made sure those words would leave a strong and lasting impression. I basked in the beauty of all three while she quickly closed the distance and planted a kiss on my lips. Subtle, quick and meek. It carried with it all her hallmarks. Before I could reach out and catch it she slipped under my arm and trotted her way to the door.

 

     “Our time tonight is over,” she said with her professional monotonous voice and face having returned already. “Until nest time.”

 

On cue, a thunderous plodding came down the hall. Minte had clearly heard it coming long before I ever could. She waited by the door as the bull in the china chop came calling from down the hall before crashing through the door.

 

     “Laven~ Laven~Laven~LAVEN!” Rose's boisterous and infectiously happy bellows came from down the hall.

 

With her long scarlet ponytail barely keeping up behind her, the salamander smouldered particularly hot this evening as she nearly shoulder checked the wooden door off its iron hinges. Then came a snikt as Minte's arm blade snapped into place and she thrust the blade's edge a mere milimeter short of Rose's neck. Both froze in place. Their eyes meet, Rose's stupid smile still plastered on her face while Minte's cold and steely glare met her in return.

 

     “Your defenses are down,” Minte said.

 

     “Touchy~” Rose replied, incorrectly.

 

Another snikt and Minte's armblade returned into place at her forearm.

 

     “Is that how it's going to be then?” Rose said with an eager and cocky smile on her face.

 

Minte did not reply. She merely walked past Rose still frozen in mid stride, turned to curtsie toward me one last time, and then vanished down the hallway and into the night.

 

     “Hmm~What's got her in such a good mood?” Rose mulled as she rubbed her chin in her claw.

 

     “A long story,” I replied with a shrug.

 

     “Ah! Laven!” Rose snapped back attention and waved two slips of paper which she was holding in her other hand. “I won! I won! I won!”

 

     “Whoa, hold on. It's been a long day and I'm tired. Please, start at the beginning.”

 

     “The palace barracks were holding a friendly duel tournament. Everyone ponied up a valuable and then, after round robin qualifiers, with brackets for the winners after, fought it out. And I won!”

 

She's jumping up and down with excitement. Her overwhelming happiness was indeed infectious and I couldn't help but be pulled into enough to show a wry smile.

 

     “You won what?”

 

     She puffed out her chest hummed triumphantly and pushed the tickets right in my face, “VIP tickets to the grand opening of a restaurant in town. With a legendary head chef recently resurrected. Not for over a thousand years has her secret blend of spices graced our world. The finest wines thought lost, and most importantly, the most succulent venison recipes possibly devised. EVER!”

 

Her eyes were full of stars and her mouth was almost drooling.

 

     “That's great?” I complimented her cautiously.

 

     “Reservations are already backlogged three years. But I won tickets to attend. Tonight! A grand opening feast. All. You. Can. Eat,” she said as she grabbed hold of my collar and pulled me in close.

 

     “Oh, good, you are already dressed! We gotta go now, before all the best seats are taken and the best steaks are picked over.”

 

     “Wait, Rose, please. I just got back from a—”

 

     “You know what will fix that fatigue? An evening job and a belly full of meat! Come on now! Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!”

 

She pulled on my arm, but I managed to hold my ground briefly.

 

     “Wait... What did you bet?”

 

She let go of my sleeve for a moment to nervously laugh and scratch her chin with a claw.

 

     “Rose?”

 

     “Oh, some random, dirty trinket.”

 

     “If those tickets are that valuable, this wasn't just any friendly game. You didn't put up your—”

 

     “Oh no, not that. Not ever!” She said waving her hands to disperse the notion from the very air itself. “...Some underwear,” she muttered.

 

     “Underwear?”

 

     She looked away with a blush on her face, “...Your underwear.”

 

     “Mine!”

 

     “Yes!” She declared with renewed confidence as she turned toward me and thumped her fist across her heart, causing her chest to bounce. “Used. The other girls participating could not resist.”

 

     “Rose!” I yelled while throwing up my arms.

 

     “It was a bit dicey in the round robin. Lost a couple rounds. But I sussed out the game of the competition and turned it around. Cleaned house from the losers bracket right to the finals. Easy peasy,” she said while flashing me a sunshine smile and a thumbs up.

 

     "I—Rose—you,” I kept stumbling and contorting into various shapes as I didn't know how to properly react to what I had heard.

 

     “Now let's go, come on!”

 

This time I didn't have a hope in hell of standing my ground. She pulled me nearly right off my feet as she locked my wrist in her vice grip and pulled me down the hall. She laughed merrily along as I had to apologetically wave at the palace staff and soldiers watching us zoom by.

 

In my pocket I felt the strange alien device bounce around. I pulled it out ever so briefly to confirm that it is real and everything I had seen earlier this evening had happened. I gingerly secured it more safely. I'd forget about it for tonight. Perhaps, or maybe tomorrow, we'd leave behind these happy and peaceful days and continue our journey into dangerous and unknown places. I was secure in the knowledge I wouldn't be going forward alone. For better or for worse.

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