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Chapter 110

Page history last edited by Anonymoose 1 month, 2 weeks ago

On any other day, under almost any other circumstances, I could revel in the beauty of nature surrounding me. Old growth forests unmolested by the ages and infused, enchanted, with the raw pulsating energy of the arcane. The fauna radiated with life in all its splendour. Yet the serenity of this picturesque forest is shattered wherever I go. Local wildlife flees and birds take flight in light of the shrieking howls of a predator.

 

     “Aaaaurgh! How do they stand it?” Ba'el cried out and I winged at piercing my eardrums like nails on a chalkboard.

 

She dropped down onto a nearby stump, continued complaining about the pain and kicked off a pair of high heels in order to nurse her ailing soles.

 

My exasperation was palpable and my indignation thick as pea soup, “You spent all of yesterday telling me—at great length mind you—what a brilliant plan these disguises were part of... Now you decide to throw a fit every couple of hours?”

 

If anyone had a right to stop and complain this often, it would be me. Ba'el's trifles came in at an unfathomably distant second place to my own. Her fits were becoming annoyingly more frequent as our journey went on too. She'd sooner let me suffer her own lack of foresight than admit she had made a fatal flaw in judgment.

 

Ba'el had assumed a temporary new form, like myself. Unlike myself, however, she had a say on what that would be. It's a variation of her alter-ego Isabelle with a few minor cosmetic alterations. Instead of the drab monastery robes she wore a scandalously revealing cocktail dress. Not something someone who looks so young ought to wear in polite company... I wish we were on our way to meet polite company.

 

I had witnessed who she was trying to masquerade as before when Minte and I had met that agent from Ebon Wing. It hadn't been too productive, but I'd make the best of it now. What she managed to pull off was a very convincing duplication of something called a 'Dark Mage'. She had done a pretty good job from just my description. The uniform is the most important part, because these mages are indistinguishable from a regular human. If you were only using your five senses alone, like a normal person. What sold the disguise to those with more than five senses is the radiation of 'corrupted' mana. Not something I could vouch for, or explain if I had to save my life. I took her word on it that she knew exactly what she's doing.

 

Call me petty, but I had also insisted at length the exact details of the dress and in particular the footwear. I had to eke out minor victories where I could.

 

     “Oh yeah, smart guy? How about I seal a cursed pair of 5 inchers to your feet? Let's see how you feel when I whip you around the woods for the day. Did they have to be stilettos? What in all the Hells were they thinking!” Ba'el protested and threw her head back while going back to massaging her feet.

 

     “Forgotten how it feels to be flat footed?” I chided.

 

     “Well excuse me, Miss. Laven, but little girls locked away in orphanages don't strut around in high heels!”

 

     “I thought I told you to cut that out,” I said pointing a talon threateningly at Ba'el.

 

I grimaced as my hand came into view. A disguise had been thrust onto me for this rescue mission. I've tried keeping my eyes up and forward to forget it.

 

More than just a mere illusion; the little devil had hit me with an even more powerful polymorph spell. It cannot alter you at your core, but it's not something like an illusion that simply bends light in impossible ways. The sound of my voice squeaks too high if I am not careful and it kept unnerving me. It made me aware how deep and thorough the spell had been. That then forced me to reflect on the rest. What little I could see over my own chest. This spell is thankfully temporary, but that's no large comfort right now. Not only had it given me the form of woman, but a monster too. Removed from my own nature twice over. A chimera, to be specific, and that made matters trice worse. I'm stuck in the form of an unholy amalgamation of three beasts into one. A lion, goat and dragon... For tradition's sake, I'm sure. Vague memories of some RPG midboss and Iliad came to mind. I had to keep my eye open for feathered horses.

 

Ba'el's polymorph had given me an arm—from the bicep down—like that of a lion and one like a dragon. A pair of lion's ears on top of my head which made my whole skull feel odd. They twitched and turned to every novel sound without my consent. The goat one-third manifested in my legs, complete with hoofs and wooly thigh highs. To say nothing of the pair of great big pair of curved horns atop my head which kept getting caught on tree branches and wrenching my neck. Behind me a couple of dragon wings grew out of my lower back. The phantom pain sensation as I kept banging them into things whenever I turned around drove me mad. All that paled in comparison, however, to the ego eroding pendulous breasts I had to look down at and heft around. A close second place were these hips and jiggling heart-shaped ass which messed with my gait. I tried not to think about my dick being AWOL, but that certainly took the cake above all else. All in all, I didn't take Ba'el complaining about having to hike through the woods with heels on particularly well.

 

Ba'el smirked, but winced in pain soon after and went back to nursing her fallen arches. The brief respite had me falling back into musing about my predicament. Having to brush these long locks of hair out from in front of my face reminded me of another thing on that long list.

 

     “You really ought to have allowed Chris to braid it when she offered. I think it would have looked real cute,” she sneered with faux compliments.

 

Chris must have sensed my being on the verge of a mental break down and tried to soothe me in different ways. Had I been stuck with only Ba'el that first day and night I might have gone insane without her. Still, there's no way I was going to let her play with my hair. No matter how much she pouted.

 

     “Not in a million years.”

 

     “Whatever. Suit yourself,” she rolled her eyes dismissively.

 

Chris had used the opportunity—more like abused it—to regale me with many a tale. A step up, do not get me wrong, from her being consumed with lust because of poisoned aphrodisiac darts. Every story had a similar theme. A Chimera's origin, more often than not, is some mad wizard or alchemist with designs on playing god. Things always go wrong, the monster grows more powerful than its master and it has to be sealed away. Failing that, the beast breaks free then terrorizes the world till some brave hero puts it down.

 

Which is not an easy task, supposedly. Super strong, capable of flight, breathing fire and even casting magic spells... I could do none of those things. Which is probably the root cause for Ba'el's frustration. Maybe flying around, like I could only do in my dreams, might have made this whole ordeal a fair price of admission, but I could never be permitted to have such luck.

 

Meanwhile, that wyvern soared high above us. Way higher than our opposition could. An advantage borne of being adapted to high mountainous terrain up north, so Chris said. All those harpies who had pursued us and were likely still hunting for us wouldn't be able to get within a mile of her. That does, however, still leave Ba'el and I vulnerable. All of this appeared to be the last thing on this demon goat's mind however.

 

     “Two days, Laven. I wish I were back in the void!” Ba'el shouted out while continuing to stab her thumbs into the underside of her delicate and tiny soles. “At least my feet didn't have to be ground into the dust with each step.”

 

     “And you said this—” I said whilst pointing all over myself—“was only supposed to last a single day! Don't think you can get any sympathy out of me. No matter how much you complain.”

 

     “A turn of phrase,” Ba'el said dismissively and tumbled her hand. “A little stroke of genius on my part, thank you very much. My little pet theory is pretty much confirmed.”

 

     “Oh boy, here she goes again,” I sighed and rolled my eyes.

 

     “Magic is a funny business like that. Since you cannot supply the transformation with your own mana, and it would keep depleting my own, I bent a few rules. Not too hard when you bend quite a few on your own just by standing there.”

 

Ba'el fished the 'fit-in-your palm' sized holy symbol out from her bag by a rope I had tied around it, for her.

 

     “It works by drawing mana from the air to sustain its enchantment. Basic artificer stuff. Since it's focus is attuned to Miss No-Fun-Allowed, it ought to stick around for as long as that mutt does. A few tweaks here and there, overflow the circle a bit, and presto! While the mana slowly erodes out of the polymorph, the ankh acts as irrigation and channels more in from the environment. What would last as a party favor now lasts the whole weekend!”

 

     “Ba'el!” I ground my teeth.

 

     “I already told you polymorph had got its limits, geez, relax! Just because that form doesn't actually have a womb doesn't mean you have to act like it's bleeding every bloody minute... If monster girls even had periods. I will always give the credit to the Monster Lord for that one. Genius. Pure bloody ingenious. Do you know how many human women decide to turncoat for that little boon alone?” Ba'el leaned back in pensively while feigning ignorance of my growing fury. “It will also serve as the key. Susan can cut the flow and you'll be back to your old self again. Spell successfully—and safely—dispelled. You were the one who so desperately wanted to rescue your friends, well, now they are both the same goal. I must say I certainly outdid myself on this one.”

 

That smug look on her face, thinking she's so smart and got one up on me, it makes me want to pop one right on her little button nose. But I held myself back.

 

     “And failing that?”

 

     “If the magic powering it keeps getting mana fed into it from the environment—” she began doing the math in her head. “Factoring in that Susan remains in the land of the living—with your natural resistance to magic—our proximity to this supposed leyline you hint at... Can't quite put a number on that, but estimating it... Carry the two and divide... A few days... Maybe... No, wait, forgot the zero... Weeks... Not more than a year... A few months?”

 

     “I think I need to sit down now too,” I said feeling a little faint and unsteady on my feet, or I suppose I should say hooves.

 

     “If you weren't such an anomaly this would be a lot easier... But since this works I am wholly confident on the nature of your condition. Heh heh, you can praise me for however long, but it wont be enough for this little tidbit... You ain't magic resistant, or immune. No, it's much more interesting than that~”

 

     “The exact opposite,” I droned out in a monotonous voice, because I've heard this at least a dozen times in the past couple days and gotten sick of it.

 

     “Complete lack of magic resistance! Like wind howling on the open seas, but no sail to catch it. That explains the little incident of getting hit with a ray of disintegration and it only poked a hole in your chest the exact size of the beam. What ought to have erased you entirely had nothing to latch onto and erase! But we can overcome that handicap through a right application of foci, some life-force from the source, and presto, unconventional enchantment!”

 

I am not and never was part of this world. All its strange rules and conditions did not properly apply to me. Ba'el's pet theory also explained why I had been able to grab and utilize that void crystal back at the spire of Babel. A void crystal is simply that, a void. It's a vacuum which draws all mana, and by extension magic, into itself. Not unlike being inside a tin can in space. Once you breech the seal, the finite air rushes out to fill the infinite void. But if you held onto that crystal for too long, it would suck out so much mana that in order to feed it, the next thing would be your own life-force. That crystal was so devoid of anything it could consume an ancient magic seal of incomprehensible power and origin. Suffice to say that means death in short order... But I had no mana to feed it to begin with, so two equal pressures with no need for one vessel to fill the other.

 

And given that the only way for Susan to apply to necessary healing magic in order to fix the fist sized hole going straight through my chest was... It's a lot to think about and not much for either of us to work with until Shoshanah hears about it. She'll come to some revelation about it for certain.

 

     “Anyways!” Ba'el said while jumping back onto her feet.

 

She's only doing that now because I sat down too and started to get comfortable, this cunt.

 

     “We're almost at the outskirts of their little secret club, so we can only hope they intercept us quick and usher us in.”

 

     “And we assume they don't drag us there in chains and make us prisoners like the rest?”

 

     “Oh, ye of little faith,” she said and clicked her tongue. “We are not violating any sacred rites. We're coming in through the front door. This an appeal for sanctuary not sneaking in through the back. We need only get our little sob story straight and act the part out accordingly. They'll take us in as honored guests.”

 

     “Right,” I groaned skeptically.

 

     “Like you came up with any better idea,” she hissed angrily before going back to being chipper and upbeat. “Let's go over it again... I, the wondrous Bella, did fashion a chimera, but ran afoul of the Imperial Court of Mages and the Church. Now the two of us are seeking sanctuary beyond their reach.”

 

     “That's not the story Chris came up with!”

 

     “Mine is better,” Ba'el said trying to posture herself in a grandiose matter.

 

     “I trust Chris to come up with more believable stories than you!” I said rising back up to my feethooves—and towering over the girl. “You found me stowed away inside a crystal ball and freed me. Then I, dazed and confused after centuries of seclusion—”

 

     “Oh, so the great and mighty Bella just stumbled onto a sealed abomination, accidentally released her, and then the two of them have to ran away with tails between their legs? Where is the drama in that?”

 

     “You didn't like it only because it doesn't make you a damn celebrity! When they start asking how you created a chimera—a long lost art that even you admitted it was—what are you going to say then, huh?”

 

Ba'el crossed her arms and looked away with cheeks puffed up in a pout, “Oh yeah? And what are you going to say? If you hadn't noticed yet you are trying way too hard to sound butch. Compensating fiercely due to the sound of your polymorphed voice. You don't speak girly at all and your voice is too low. That's gonna be a dead giveaway that something fishy is going on! So unless you wanna gird your loins, and act like you are actually missing a pair, I will do the talking and the story goes the way I want to!”

 

     “Coming from the one who can't walk straight in heels without a limp.”

 

     “I said watch it!” Ba'el's eyes burned with fire as she growled at me.

 

     “Hey, since you've been complaining non-stop about high heels... Do you know what heels are for in the first place?” I asked with a grin.

 

Ba'el continued staring daggers at me, letting one long and slow breath out through her nose.

 

     “I know what you're up to. Trying to make me mad, so you can claim you won the argument, I'm not going to—”

 

I finished before she could meditate on that wisdom any longer, “It's to change your posture, so you naturally stick your chest out more. Something you needed help for sure.”

 

     “That's it,” She menaced and pointed angrily at me before exploding outright. “You're dead! I'll tie those tits of yours into a Gordian knot, you little shit!” Ba'el exploded with anger and marched forward with fingers clenching menacingly.

 

She did not get far. Something had slipped both our minds, but Ba'el got the sharp edge of that mistake. Once she got too close a loud hiss roared out, followed by a chomp and a creaking and cracking of a scalp. Lunging out from behind me came the tail. My tail. A snake creature, but more of a dragon's dead on the end of it. Its fangs chomping into the left and right side of the girl's skull. Both of us froze, the passage of time marked only by the trickle of blood flowing down from Ba'el's brow down across her cheek.

 

     “AAAAAH! Get it off! Get it off me!” She began to flail about.

 

     “Stop moving, you're freaking it out more!”

 

     “It? That's your fucking tail, Laven! Get it off! Ow ow ow ow, it's biting harder, hurry!”

 

     “I don't control it, the thing has a mind of its own! Stop thrashing about.”

 

I grabbed hold of it with one hand—paw—while trying to pry its mouth open with my armored dragon-like hand. Of course I had to feel it acutely when strangling the thing, which felt like giving my own arm an Indian burn. In spite of all the screaming, yelling and cursing, the poor thing eventually slackened its jaw enough for me to yank it loose. Ba'el spoke Infernal under her breath while she sat between my legs while I helped wrap a fresh bandage around her head.

 

     “Shut up, I don't wanna hear it,” she crossed her arms and pouted.

 

I let loose a long sigh because I hadn't even said anything, yet. But I did need to be a bit more mindful of this strange biology. It wasn't nearly as hard as I thought to work with my fingers, or whatever their proper name would be. I guess that solved that little mystery which has been silently eating away at the back of my mind all these months now. As for the snake tail behind me, the thing seemed content to undulate back and forth as if in a trance. It stuck its forked tongue out every so often to taste the air. She's peaceful now, but no doubt on alert and ready to bite anything threatening that got close.

 

     “At least it isn't poisonous,” I said while tying the bandage to secure it to Ba'el's head.

 

     “Yeah, lucky me,” Ba'el replied deadpan as she put that pointed hat back on top of her head. “The same reason it isn't is the same reason those wings are completely useless, so that's no consolation.”

 

     “You are welcome?” I shrugged. “You'd think its poison would be lethal.”

 

     “Think for a moment, Laven. Not a chimera, but a chimera girl. That poison would cause paralysis at worst. Maybe arousal to the point of priapism too,” she said cupping her chin and stroking it as she began to sink deep into thought.

 

     “Anyways!” I shouted to move things along.

 

For good measure I shoved the pointed wizard's hat back down and far enough it muffled her screams and curses of protest.

 

     “Once we cross this creek further south we'll be in their territory proper. I don't imagine we'll have to go far before we encounter a patrol.”

 

     “Well thank the gods for that, huh?” she exclaimed while pulling the hat back up from her face with palpable sarcasm.

 

With that last mess done away with, the two of us had to prepare ourselves mentally for the deception ahead. What would be most difficult, and where things could go very wrong, is the start of our grand rescue plan: getting these rogue monster girls to take us in as refugees. They're no doubt on alert after Chris gave one of their patrols a good roughing up when she rescued me. Over a week ago they captured Rose, Susan and Minte. We are taking a chance that they'd believe we're in danger and need protecting from outside nefarious forces and not escort us straight into the dungeon instead.

 

It took us another hour of bushwhacking our way through the old growth forest till we reached said creek. It took another forty-five minutes walking downstream till we reached an area of shallows which was safe enough to cross.

 

     “If you'd let me ride on your shoulders we could have crossed ten minutes behind us, “Ba'el groaned.

 

     “Not going to happen,” I replied. “That water would be up to my shoulders most of the way. Probably above my head!”

 

     “Your tits are full of fat, they're buoyant and well insulated from the cold,” she shrugged her shoulders while flashing a wicked grin.

 

I snarled and bit my tongue. Anything I'd say would only invite more quips. I made my way across first. All those nature documentaries about goats and their excellent balance were not staged. Even the slippery algae covered rocks were no match. I waded across the thirty odd foot stretch from the bank of the creek to the other. Halfway through, as the cold water soaked into my shorts and the biting cold stung. I clenched my fists and bared with it using every ounce of willpower I could muster. It made ignoring what had been lost and put in its place through the polymorph impossible.

 

Eventually the waters were shallow enough downstream that it was safe to cross. Even then I still had to carry the little snob over it on my shoulders... As if they needed any more weight to lug around. It's easier than getting into another ten minute argument over it. The sooner we were in enemy territory, the quicker she'd get into character and shut the hell up.

 

After shaking myself dry like some sort of dog, and wringing the water out of this annoyingly long hair, I shot an angry glare in Ba'el's direction. She flashed me a mischievous grin all the while as she sat there on a tree trunk, dry as a bone, kicking her feet gaily. With no time to be playing games, the two of us left it at that. Her comeuppance would have to wait for another time, so she basked in the glow, while she could. Every step forward we took from now on was further into enemy territory. This is the northern border of their territory and we'd run into a patrol before too long.

 

The stream behind us was a natural boundary, but the difference between the forest on each side is staggering. Pushing past the first rows of trees clinging to the creek bed it quickly gave way to old growth. Untouched by man, and even nature, for centuries. It gave the area its own mystique. The greenery is clearly mystical. It reminded me of the pulsing and humming of energies surrounding those ruins. Grooves in the bark of the rare tree glowed faintly. Not unlike those etchings into the stone monuments and dilapidated buildings from before. There were even eerie little orbs of light flittering about. They became more dense and plentiful the further we strayed into the forest beyond the creek. Convocations of these lights made them appear alive as if they were schools of fish gliding along the currents in the ocean. This is a domain ruled by magic and not of nature.

 

     “I see what you were talking about now,” Ba'el said as she took in the sights, mouth agape. “The mana here is palpable.”

 

You could be forgiven for mistaking the little orbs of greenish hue lights moving about for fireflies. An impregnable canopy above us blotted out the sun, but our surroundings were as bright as day. When I reached out with my dragon's claw, the lights proved ephemeral and shattered silently into a million dust particles of light which soon after vanished into thin air.

 

Ba'el took a deep refreshing breath, eyes closed, and smiled blissfully, “Like soaking in hot-springs. We'll not have to worry about a shortage of mana here. No sirree. Which is good, because my biggest fear was a miscalculation on my part and that disguise of yours slips mid mission. Now that would be embarrassing.”

 

     “Not as comforting as you make it out to be,” I said while noting the temporary tingling sensation left in my hand after the ball of mana disintegrated on contact. “Because if I understand you right, the polymorph wont end if there's enough mana...”

 

     “Good observation. That's why you'd better hurry and find Susan,” she said with a smirk. “We can turn around, continue on our way toward the Free Ports and the spell will starve and end on its own... Or if this screws up, you could end up in a cell and be stuck like this. So long as you remain here it can go on for, oh I don't know, theoretically forever?”

 

I gulped hard and turned my attention toward the task at hand. It would not take long until dusk arrived, so the two of us shut up for once and picked up the pace. Whilst wandering ever further into the enchanted woods, as fey touched wildlife watched us cautiously from the shadows, the long awaited and dreaded words were shouted.

 

     “Halt!”

 

We stopped dead in our tracks and raised our hands into the air. Hopefully that would be a good enough sign of surrender this time around. Seconds went by agonizingly slow as we waited for our captors to materialize. The first to emerge came from above. A harpy, an amalgamation of woman and bird. Complete with brown feathered wings were there ought to be arms and birds legs below the knee. Metamorphosed into long talons not unlike that of a hawk. Her eyes reminded me of a bird of prey too. A pair of long elven like ears protruded from the sides of her head which was topped with wind tousled chin length hair. Her killer eyes capped it all off to sell the image. As sharp as the extra pair of long daggers tied onto her feet, like some Tijuana fighting rooster

 

A poor attempt at scale mail bound her chest. A skirt of stubbed leather scraps dangled and danced around her hips. More sexually charged than offering protection, enticing due to what it almost fails to conceal. I've come to accept it's always the latter with these people, these monsters. I myself was being forcefully subjected to it as well. Difference being that only I felt shame over it.

 

From the three other cardinal directions another trio of girls emerged from behind the thick foliage. A horse with the body of a woman where the neck and head ought to be. With a horse's ears sticking out of her head too... I suppose the proper word here would be centauride. With comparatively plebeian brown linen robes covering her torso, the copper haired woman menaced with a long iron tipped lance. It didn't suit the size of the dainty woman, but the rest of her mass with the horse half would likely make swinging and thrusting it a simple matter.

 

Another came from the centauride's right. She appeared to be some manner of beastman. Not all that different from the werewolf who accosted me last time, but something was off. Maybe it's the butch haircut with the sides closer shaved than the top along with a slightly muscular frame and browned skin. Upon second thought, the pattern in her hair and along the inhuman bestial limbs were spotted and not unlike that of a hyena instead of a wolf. A short-sword hung at her hips and it was likely there only for show, because her claws looked intimidating enough. Some strategic scale mail armor here and there clung to for the barest of protection, the standard fare for all these women. She walked toward with shoulders back and chin up high. No doubt the leader of this little patrol if that cock-of-the-walk attitude meant anything at all.

 

Flying in from the last angle, and swooping over to hover over the beastwoman's left shoulder, appeared something rather small and cute. She couldn't be much taller than a foot and floated through the air with childlike glee which tussled her and unkempt lime colored hair. Her body clothed in nothing more than puffs of cotton. In her tiny fairy hands was but a simple twig.

 

     “You are trespassing, girls,” the hyena growled.

 

Hearing girl in plural cut me very deep.

 

     “We want to claim sanctuary,” Ba'el declared without skipping a beat.

 

A bit of tension seemed to deflate out the situation, but the other monster girls still kept their weapons ready.

 

     “Oh!” the little puff squealed as she hovered on the breeze and danced to and fro before us. “New friends?”

 

     “Get back, Nerida,” their leader sighed and pinched the little fairy's head between her claws and dragged her back into formation.

 

She made a show of it by flailing her arms and legs about, but it didn't appear the little thing was in any real pain.

 

     “The timing don't sit right with me,” the centauride drawled while jabbing the air with her spear just a couple inches from our backs.

 

     “We're on high alert,” the harpy said in a voice with a melodic yet sonorous voice.

 

     “Calm down,” the hyena woman barked then leaned in to exert the full pressure of her presence on the two of us. “What's your business here? I ain't seen your face around here before and I certainly never seen any gal who looks like that before neither.”

 

Her eyes were digging into me as if to tear me apart piece by piece. Ba'el maintained her composure, cleared her throat and began negotiations.

 

     “Like I said, we've come to claim the right of sanctuary. My name is Belle, and this here is Livonia.”

 

I couldn't help but cup my face with my claw with the name she decided to pull out of her ass. Not hat I could ever fully explain why. Meanwhile, the four girls took turns looking at one another for a few moments. Their silence concerned me more and more with each passing second. The little fairy among them spoke out first.

 

     “Those who wish to eat, work, we don't give fruit out for free.”

 

     “Sanctuary, not berries, you airhead!” the hyena woman flicked the puff ball and sent her careening off into the distance with a little squeal.

 

     “What are the rules for this again?” The harpy groaned and cradled her head in her wings as if the answer should have come immediately.

 

     “Don't matter if they don't deserve it,” said the horse woman behind us, still prodding the tip of her spear less than an inch from our backs. “They're trespassing and we were told to be on the lookout.”

 

     “On the lookout for troublemakers and raiders,” their leader said, trying to reign in her overeager or flustered comrades. “Unless you want to be the one to sign off on the report to her that you turned away new arrivals in need.”

 

Silence reigned once more, but the tension only got heavier and more oppressive. Thoughts of discipline for handling this situation poorly appeared to glint in the eyes of each of the girls now surrounding us.

 

     “Argie's orb!” the little puffball, Nerida, exclaimed with glee.

 

     “Yes, right, the scryer's orb!” the harpy seconded the motion.

 

     “You want to drain a charge for this too, Danny?” the centauride sighed and rolled her eyes at the hawk harpy. “I say we escort em back to the river and shove em off!”

 

I felt the tip of her spear press lightly against my bare back. Shivers went up my spine as the cold steel rocked my nerves. It took all my composure to keep perfectly still.

 

     “Lay off it, Noreen, the book worm made and gave these things out for just such an occasion.”

 

     “You pay to have someone recharge it then. It wont come out of my stipend!”

 

     “Shut up, the both of you!” the hyena girl bellowed while reaching deep into a bag tied around her waist. “Before I take it out of both your pay.”

 

Ba'el, who had appeared to be waiting in earnest to execute her whole spiel went stiff as board. Her eyes tracking the ruby red sphere held in the other woman's paw. All four of them huddled together in front of us and then descended into a loud argument among themselves on what to do next.

 

     “Shit,” she whispered quietly out of the corner of her mouth. “We're in trouble.”

 

     “What now?” I whispered back.

 

     “That thing detects lies,” she replied.

 

     “It can what?” I nearly shouted out loud, but got a quick and painful elbow to the thigh to keep quiet.

 

     “Don't stop looking ahead, idiot!” Ba'el hissed. “Dunderheads like these shouldn't be carrying around artifacts with magic of this level... It senses surface level emotions and discerns falsehoods.”

 

     “A magic polygraph...” I said with my heart sinking.

 

That's going to complicate matters. Things were quickly going south and the plan might soon outright jump the rail. We were running out of time as it appeared the three of them were wearing down their more abrasive member. They'd likely employ this orb and begin the interrogation.

 

     “Fine then, Griz, you just go ahead with that,” the horse lady threw up her arms and relented.

 

     “Right then... miss?”

 

     “Ah, ahem, right... Bella,” Ba'el bumbled and began to sweat.

 

     “Do you mind telling us why you are here?” the hyena, Griz, began.

 

     “Well—”

 

A piercing wail came from the orb as it lit up immediately and began flashing like an ambulance siren.

 

     “Ahahaha, you broke it, you broke it!” the little puffball rolled about in the air laughing herself silly.

 

     “I did not break it!” Griz flushed red herself and began roughly shaking the orb till it went silent once more. “It just needs to be reset.”

 

     “You'd better hope so, or Argie will wring you out for it... Again,” the harpy grimaced while nursing her ailing ears.

 

I let out a long breath as my heart began to beat once more. With just one word out of her mouth, the thing went haywire. Ba'el lied as naturally as a fish drank water. This kind of outcome is to be expected. Now the goat began to sweat so much that magic makeup could start running at any moment.

 

     “Now, let's try this again,” the hyena growled as she struggled to finally get the orb back under control. “Why are you here and what is your business?”

 

Ba'el opened her mouth and then closed it again. Her lips flapped helplessly in-between fake coughing fits and readjusting her dress. The four looked on with rapt attention which quickly became mutual suspicion. With each passing second our little charade came closer to crashing down around our ears. It was now or never, I thought to myself, the ball is in my side of the court.

 

     “We are being pursued,” I said while straightening my back and speaking with authority.

 

I stole a glance away from our captors eyes and toward the red orb. A faint red light, its default glow, pulsed calmly. Ba'el sucked a fast deep breath between her teeth in both surprise and dread. My own nerves bundled up into my stomach like a whole migration of butterflies. A blush of bright pink no doubt splayed across my face, because the voice which came out from between my plumper lips about made me cringe myself to death. I dared to let go and allow my vocal cords, as they were, to do the talking for me. The bubblegum sweet and feminine voice made me want to die with every word I spoke.

 

     “Belle rescued me from capture,” I spoke awkwardly, choosing my words with exceptional care.

 

Neither of those two simple statements set that stone off. That told me everything I needed to know and I could press on with more confidence.

 

     “I was taken by Typhon,” I said with no reaction from the orb.

 

That one word alone caused a palpable shift in the attitude of the four women. Their eyes went from suspicion, to fear, anger and then finally pity. I grew more confident while Ba'el wretched her neck in disbelief. Her eyes darting back and forth between me, the orb and girls now eating out of the palm of my hand—claw—paw—whatever.

 

     “They planned to use me as a weapon against the Church. I had awoken in this strange place and was lost. Am lost. It is not safe for me and I need somewhere to gather myself... Belle here rescued me and brought me this far.” I bowed my head parallel to the ground and pleaded, “Please, I need your help.”

 

Once again the orb remained neutral. Only a faint glowing of some candle-flame deep within its core gave any hint the artifact was still functioning.

 

     “Noreen,” the hyena spoke straight and serious.

 

     “Yes?” the centauride replied.

 

     “Go ahead and call this in: Code Black. Tell them Father is on the prowl.”

 

     “Yes mam!” the horse woman stood at attention, grabbed her lance and went galloping off into the woods.

 

     “You two, come with us, quick now," Danny the hawk harpy said as she took off into the canopy above.

 

     “New friends, hurry along now, hurry hurry!” the puffball fairy said while orbiting around the two of us like a minuscule satellite.

 

They all bid us follow further into the enchanted woods while they surveyed their surroundings with greater zeal than ever before. We were now being escorted properly to their base of operations.

 

     “You clever bitch,” Ba'el grinned. “How the hell did you pull that off?”

 

     “You said it detects falsehoods.,, Well, nothing I said was strictly false, right?”

 

It's true that I had awoken in a strange place. A whole other world. Chimera were in ancient times kept imprisoned in crystal spheres which bound them. A bit of a stretch to conflate that with waking up in my apartment room dumped in the middle of some alien wilderness. I made it work. Typhon had indeed captured me once, we had run into them another time, so that it wasn't a lie they had their sights set on me. That they wanted to capture me while tricking Rose into doing their dirty work for them instead of bind a chimera to their service is a detail I merely had to leave out. They could fill that in themselves at our convenience. It also wasn't a lie that Ba'el had gone by a similar name and had rescued me from the clutches of The Crone. I only needed to leave out the part that had nothing to do with Typhon.

 

No matter how far we ventured into this forest, the strange sights did not relent. If the light-shows were insufficient, the presence of stones which floated above the ground like room temperature superconductors drove it home that the laws of physics had no sway here any longer. This was a thoroughly magic dominated domain. Only I appeared to be in awe at any of it. These fantastical sights were evidently mundane to our escorts and Ba'el appeared to be more amused by my confoundment from venturing into enchanted woods for the first time in his life.

 

Our escorts kept to themselves, mostly. The further along we got the more relaxed they became. They tried their hand at small talk here and there. Their leader, the hyena woman, became much more jovial and joked around more. I know I had been spot on with the hyena bit because her laugh was dead on target. Despite the barest of niceties, the women remained on high alert as they checked every corner and treated every shadow, nook, cranny and possible hiding spot with suspicion. That was all fine by me, because the less we had to speak the less either of us had a chance to mess it all up and get that orb shrieking at maximum volume over some stupid errant statement.

 

     Ba'el, having gotten a better look at our escorts, briefed me quietly as we followed “The harpy is a prey type, so larger and faster. No chance we'd get away if we decided to dip out now. The fairy, a kesaran pasaran. Manifests as living wind. Blessed by the trees, so not technically a fairy per say. Deceptively powerful elemental magics. Don't let the childlike nature fool you. The centaur who ran off looks local, and not from the eastern steppes, so tamer and more civilized type despite her belligerence... Trust me, the ones across the eastern sea are worse. Lastly, the gnoll. A transplant from the great dry plains of the south western continent. A bunch of clans came over during the last demon lord's invasion and got stranded. Some managed to survive in some capacity it seems. Rough and rowdy. Not in a charming way, like Rose, less honor-bound and cowardly with a nasty tint of cunning brutality. Don't piss her off.”


 

Deeper into the forest we went as Ba'el regaled me. Those birds with strange plumage I first saw a few days before, like temperate birds of paradise, grew in number. That told me we were getting closer to where we were before. We certainly couldn't tell by any landmarks. At least I couldn't tell, maybe Ba'el could sense the flow of mana, because she seemed to be less puzzled and confused about everything than I was.

 

At last the trees gave way and before us lay an open clearing. Cleaving that clearing in two was a deep gash into the earth and erupting it was a tree of massive size. It had to be at least forty or so stories tall and that's just what we can see coming out from the ground. God only knows how far its trunk is driven into the earth. Like a giant wooden stake driven clear into the planet's crust. The old growth oaks beneath it were ants to an elephant.

 

     “Welcome to... What was its name again?” Griz said with gusto before becoming confused.

 

     “It's old elvish. Cinder—something—or—other,” the harpy knit her eyebrows and likewise struggled.

 

     “Sin'do-leen-shaan'dolure, you dummies,” the little puffball fairy said with hands and her hips and perfect pronunciation. “Amber vein and nail of the earth. So the loose translation into Imperial would have it.”

 

     “Yeah, yeah, smart ass,” Griz grimaced between clenched teeth.

 

We were not alone either, but our arrival had not yet attracted attention. All sorts of daily tasks were being performed by a menagerie of different monster gals. Outdoor markets were set up to exchange goods and services. A bustling outdoor cafe serving cold drinks and hot food. A few billows of smoke here and there of some industry, the pounding of hammers, sewing of cloth and cutting of leather. Scaffolding around the colossal tree and an army of masons and carpenters repairing dilapidated structures. A whole town had sprung up in the middle of nowhere all around this ancient oak that radiated power that even I could feel.

 

Just as diverse as their activities were the forms of the women themselves. Mundane and the exotic, but mostly mundane, which I had seen before. Yet, as I suspected, not a single man anywhere in sight. A certain tension seemed to always be present because of that and I could feel it in my gut that if this disguise were to falter, or be seen through, at this very moment that might well be the end of me. Through and through this place was a sorority at low tide awaiting its time... Minus the over abundance of alcohol or male dormitory anywhere in sight.

 

Our escort brought us down from the outskirts and deep within the hustle and bustle. Now it was time for the curious eyes to pry as dozens of eyes locked onto me and whispers were abound. Despite the unorthodox girls here and there I appeared to be a new curio to catalog.

 

     “Their eyes aren't suspicious, or hungry, so relax,” Ba'el whispered.

 

     “Easy for you to say,” I grimaced back. “You really couldn't have pulled off something more domestic? A cat or dog girl, maybe?”

 

     “Easy for you to say,” she mockingly repeated after me. “Maybe next time you should work on cutting out all the background mana that defaulted you to a chimera in the first place. I did what I could with what I had to work with.”

 

     “Our Lady and her sisters found this place a little over a decade ago,” Griz began with her tour guide act. “Home to about one hundred and thirty girls.”

 

     “Some stay the winter and migrate around till next frost. That number of residents fluctuates,” the harpy said, butting in. “Migratory harpies and the like. You understand?”

 

     “What with Moscreed the way it's been... I'm sure you'll understand,” Griz said, slightly apologetic. “The number of adventurer types that have been gathering in the eastern districts has gotten worse over the years.”

 

     “Late summer and early fall are the busiest times,” Danny, the hawk harpy said with a dour mood. “When they send parties out to raid the place. Last fall we had to repel a rather large one and we're still cleaning up the mess.”

 

Their eyes betrayed them as I spied a monument. It was a rather simple thing. Nothing more than a slab of marble driven into the ground. Writing is scrawled along which I could only assume were names. Lives lost no doubt. With all the flowers wreathed around it I could imagine it served no other purpose.

 

Trotting through the din came Noreen, the centaur, returned. Beside her was a horned and winged woman covered here and there with fluorescent tattoos that stood out from the fair white skin. With long black hair with streaks of dark blue reaching down to her chest. Pleasure runes, no doubt. She carried herself exactly as any succubus would. Her spade tipped tail whisked back and forth behind her when she caught sight of Ba'el and I. Her eyes glowed with demonic red, but drooped lazily with squinted brow and baggy and sleepy circles underneath.

 

     “A pleasure to make your acquaintance,” she curtsied, but with nothing else other than some leather straps to make up a harness, she had no hem of a dress to lift. “I am Phillipa, top handmaid to Sister Fiona... These are the two?” She said with far less formality when turning her eyes toward Griz and Danny.

 

     “Yes ma'am,” Griz replied with a salute and a soldier's precision. “Seeking sanctuary and passed Sister Argie—” she flinched when mentioning the name, nearly bit her tongue and corrected herself. “—Aristogomideme!”

 

The succubus, although trying to appear professional, could not hold back a chuckle, “Be glad she isn't here to hear that. Her patience is paper thin and will only excuse the cherub-like among us... That goes for you too,” she said looking back at us while giving that friendly warning.

 

     “Shall I escort them to the dungeon then?” Noreen said leveling her spear's head back in our direction.

 

     “Calm, Noreen, calm,” Phillipa said daintily placing a finger on the steel barb and lowering it back down. “They are guests here. Escort them to the visitor's chambers and I will inform the Sisters. One of them will have time in their schedule to perform a proper interview—”

 

The succubus stopped abruptly mid sentence and her red eyes went wide. The elven ears hanging from her head twitched and wriggled as if triangulating some distant sound. Everyone else other than us appeared to be doing the same thing one after the other.

 

     “Here she comes,” Ba'el looked down at her feet and grinned. “If the girl has one good thing going for her it is impeccable timing.”

 

I was the last one to clue in, because it was only when the bestial roar echoing in from the distance did I clue in. I tore my eyes off everyone else and caught the shifting of a great shadow growing larger and larger on the ground. Spinning around I saw her swooping down from above with the sun behind her. Chris had arrived and sped in far above their radar and shielding herself from their scouts eyes. She is also in her wyvern form, so had assumed a truly monstrous form more along the size of a semi-truck with its eighteen wheeled trailer behind it. No doubt roughly the same mass as well.

 

     “It's Bandit Three!” a woman's cry pierced the malaise.

 

Chris came screaming in at maximum speed and only pulled up when she was a mere ten or so feet off the ground. A great gust of wind roared and blew debris in every which direction as a loud bestial battle cry shook the air. A magnitude louder and I would have sworn she'd let out a sonic boom. She had at least reached a third of that given my estimates.

 

Utter panic broke out as the women of the encampment ran in every direction in a made scramble to take cover. The more martial minded struggled to maintain order and escort the more vulnerable and peaceful minded to shelter. Chris had swung high up into the air and pulled off a vertical roll and came crashing back down for a second pass.

 

“Laven, get ready. She's going to sell this as hard as she can, Ba'el said as she firmly grabbed hold of me.

 

I didn't have the time to utter a response or wisecrack, the wyvern came in for her second strafing run with smoke billowing out from her dragon's maw. Ba'el tackled me to the side as a trail of napalm scorched the earth and lit up a section of the courtyard. It hit right where Ba'el and I had been standing only a second ago. No one else appeared to have been hit as they scrambled out of the way, but many crates filled with all manner of goods went up in a fireball.

 

     “How in the Hells did she—?” Phillipa raved with her face covered in black soot. “Were those reports of a man accurate? There's no way she could take that form unless—”

 

     “Everyone get inside quickly!” Another voice shouted out from the crowd as the panic had now fully set in once the attack had begun.

 

     “I'll try leading her away!” Danny said as she took off into the sky after Chris.

 

The other girls broke formation and started helping those flailing randomly and help them into what appeared to be a cave network underneath where the ground broke and gave way to the massive and ancient tree. That left the two of us with Phillipa who appeared to be getting her wits back.

 

     “That came directly for you two,” the succubus said, and I had a moment of dread she might have seen through it. “Follow me and get out of the line of fire, now!”

 

I let the breath I held go as we scrambled back onto our feet and followed the demon toward the tree. I looked back to see Dolly make her attack run. She was small in comparison it wasn't much of a surprise when Chris batted her away with nothing but her tail. The hawk harpy went careening into the nearby forest and was lost in the foliage. Most likely knocked out cold. Even from this distance I could feel Chris' eyes lock straight onto me. Although she was merely playing it up for show, the killing instinct she gave off felt real enough. She banked wide and came in for a third attack run. This time with her talons glinting in the sunlight and outstretched to clamp down.

 

The three of us ran with everything we had as Chris came barreling down toward us. If she had wanted to, the wyvern would have easily overcome us. Yet she chose to come in just slow enough. I leaped off the earth and down into the hole in the earth. Below my feet, around ten feet down, was wooden scaffolding. I ducked my head down in time, but felt the ground shake as Chris slammed her talons into the hard earth. A little too close for comfort, because I saw a couple stands of my long strands of hair drift by as they were caught up in the talons.

 

Chris' battle shriek had everyone else nearby cowering. She made an effort to try digging away at the earth until a trumpet sounded off in the distance. The fear in everyone's eyes melted away, if only a little. The wyvern's presence drifted away as she took off back into the sky. No doubt reinforcements were at hand. Now she'd keep them preoccupied while Ba'el and I got to work... As soon as we could. That part would be tricky.

 

     “We need to get you two to safety,” the succubus said while dusting herself off. “Everyone else head to the third root chamber. I'll go inform the Sisters... You!

 

From the crowd a hunched over girl looked back and forth confused before pointing to herself.

 

     “Yes, Zoegreb, you. Don't act like you can hide.”

 

The girl is deceptively cute. A face perhaps too heavily on the babyish side, but with a pronounced brow. On its way to being neanderthalic. Not traditional cute. More an unorthodox cute. She appeared no different from a human besides that and her immense size. Became she had to easily be eight feet tall by my guess. The ceiling is too low to know for sure. I'm at a loss as to how I could have missed her outside before. A cute mug plastered onto a muscularly feminine frame with the bodytype of a weight lifter. Some fat in the right places, thick around the thighs too. She wasn't built for show, no, she's the kind who hauls around boulders and pull buses down a race track. Her grayish hair had been braided together and coiled into a bun behind her head. With sausage fingers like hers, and a massing spark of intellect in her eyes, I very much doubt she did it herself.

 

     “Yes mam? What?” she spoke a long drawn out droll.

 

     “Escort these two to the sixteenth root chamber. Six. Teen. The one followed by a six. Okay? Stand guard outside the door and answer to no one but any of the Sisters Got it? No one else. Bad people are after them. Keep them safe.”

 

     “O-oh. Okay mam! Zoe help,” the lumbering brute said with a lazy smile on her face. “This way, friends!”

 

My hooves and Ba'els heels scraped along the wooden floorboards as the giant woman gently placed the palms of her massive hands against ours backs and pushed us along.

 

     “Great, just great,” Ba'el groaned between clenched teeth. “An ogre.”

 

     “You don't say,” I said while watching my hooves carve against the wood like a chisel.

 

Her strength was absolutely monstrous. Eventually the ceiling got taller so she could stand fully upright. It would have been cruel to have kept all the ceilings so low.

 

     “As strong as they are stupid," Ba'el grumbled. "Unless they are hungry. Then they are freakishly sharp as a whip till they are full, fat and dumb again.”

 

I stole a glance back and it appeared all the girl's brain cells were focused on remembering where we're supposed to be going. Her head up in the clouds and not paying attention to what Ba'el and I were gossiping down at her hips.

 

     “If they shove us in a broom closet somewhere, with her standing outside it, we're in trouble.”

 

     “I'm thinking! I'm thinking!” Ba'el hissed.

 

A lot of work had been done inside this break in the earth. Boardwalks winding around the trunk of the tree which gave off a faint blue light that illuminated what would otherwise be pitch black darkness. A few torches had been lit every so often to give some semblance of natural sunlight. While the ogre gently pushed us along a few armed and armored monsters came trundling up from the bellows of the cavern, past us and heading up toward the surface. They were hollowing out their defenses and I took some solace in that our plan was coming together in some form or other.

 

     “Um, well, miss Zoegreb?” Ba'el fumbled for words as her stilettos continued to grate against the now limestone floor.

 

     “Friends call me Zoe!” the ogre said with a jovial and bubbly tone.

 

     “Right, Zoe. Friends,” Ba'el said with an awkward smile. “Are we going the right way? Lots of girls with pointy bits are going past us.”

 

     “We take path left... right.... Yes right. That leads to res-resi-home place. Away from cold and iron place.”

 

Ba'el and I stole glances at one another as we pieced together what to infer from that at about the same time. We nodded and Ba'el took the lead. She appeared to have some sort of scheme cooking up inside that twisted head of hers.

 

     “We can't let them fight that scary mean dragon lady all by themselves though!” Ba'el shouted and began to put on a show. “You are among the strongest here. It isn't right that you are down here with us.”

 

     “ Phillipa is Phillipa is Phillipa,” the ogre replied. “She speaks for the Sisters and Zoe owes everything to them. I will not make them angry.”

 

     “But we can fight too, right Livonia?”

 

I wordlessly flapped my lips to ask what the hell are you doing? Ba'el ignored my silent protests and continued on. She leaped forward and spun around to face the ogre. The lumbering giant's patience was near zero, so Ba'el acted quick.

 

     “I am a mighty and powerful sorcerer myself. I can help. I don't want your friends to get hurt on my behalf. We just met!”

 

     “You two new friends. Phillipa say so. Zoe needs to help friends. Can't put new friends in danger.”

 

     “I can end everything with but a single spell!” Ba'el boasted and thumped her flat chest. “If you can get me close enough. No one will get hurt.”

 

     “Belle,” I raised my voice in objection to where I thought this was going.

 

From her fingertips the little devil materialized a glowing orb of light “See? Look at this!”

 

The ogre paused and looked on with interest. Her thick and overly bushy eyebrows furrowed together with some skepticism, but she had backed off from pushing us onward for the moment.

 

     “I don't—No—It's pretty but—” she said as she learned over to get a closer look.

 

     “One potent sleep spell is all we need to end this right away,” Ba'el said with a sinister smile.

 

     “A what—” Zoegreb bumbled as Ba'el blew the orb off her hand.

 

Like a hundred florets off the head of a dandelion, the orb shattered into a swarm of glowing lights that washed over the ogre's face. The effects were nearly instantaneous. Her droopy eyes began to flutter. She tried to hold them wide open a couple of times, but quickly failed. Her knees began to buckle and then all of a sudden she gave out all at once. She collapsed over backwards and the whole hallway of stone shook with her. A few seconds later she was loudly snoring and out like a light.

 

     “Simple minds make for simple work,” Ba'el said so very proud of herself.

 

That left me to carry all the guilt for that.

 

     “Come on, Laven. Let's get the hell out of here before someone else comes across sleeping beauty here.

 

Ba'el took off down the darkened tunnel as fast as her heels would let her. I took a cautious look back a couple times. The ogre didn't show any signs of waking up anytime soon, so I took off a sprint to catch up.

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