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Chapter 56

Page history last edited by Anonymoose 5 years, 10 months ago

Hidden from the sun and from the good people of the city was this sordid hideaway, a refuge for criminals. The alley has been long forgotten, the connections to the streets had been walled off long ago and the windows overlooking it were shuttered ages ago. Moldy old crates and empty rotting barrels littered both sides of the only path from the stop to an imposing steel door. It was the only thing around that looked less than a decade ago. A missing layer of grime and dust gave the evidence of its recent use.

 

I breathed deeply to center myself, but not so deeply as the poor clerk standing in front of the door. I watched from the right of the door frame as beads of sweet were collecting on his forehead and his raspy breaths wheezed. On the left side, opposite of me, Chris was waiting in position, watching the clerk carefully and with disdain. Far off into the distance, around a bend in the alley, I saw Susan's tail wag while she was waiting around the corner watching the only entrance into the alley. Behind the clerk, with just a small enough frame to disappear behind him, was Rose with the tip of her longsword poking ever so gently into the man's back.

 

I gave a thumbs up to Susan in the distance and then a nod to Rose who jabbed the point into the man's back and prodded him forward. The clerk didn't need much cajoling; he was shaking, but he raised his fist and knocked on the heavy steel door five times in a row, the timing was peculiar, but no doubt had a purpose to it.

 

     “Yeah yeah!” A muffled voice called out from behind the door.

 

I heard the sound of sliding metal and a faint torch light shine from the other side of the door. A small sliding view port at eye level no doubt.

 

     “What is it? I ain't got notice about anyone coming about now.”

 

A lack of any reaction from him meant that Rose's crazy idea to hide behind him was working. My heart beat slowed down, but only slightly.

 

     “F-from” The man stuttered and Rose jabbed him in the back again, causing him to jump. “From Micklemerry Farm, Jon.” The clerk said.

 

He was still shaking pretty badly and I'm not sure if jabbing him in the back was going to help. Anything would have to do to though. Anything to get him from looking suspicious and alerting the man on the other side of the door.

 

     “Pat, what in the bloody hells are you talking about? Micklemerry what?”

 

     “Micklemerry Farm where the cows have yet to come home.” 'Pat' hissed through his teeth.

 

     “Cows what?” 'Jon' said soundly utterly confused on the other side. “If this is about you havin' to take the double shift up front, you were the one who said, 'double or nothing' on the last hand. So deal with it.”

 

     “Cows have yet to come home!” Pat was nearly yelling now.

 

A jab of Rose's sword into his back made him quiet down real quick. I was starting to doubt this was some secret 'open sesame'. I nearly sprang into action, but my eyes glanced over at Chris who was already gazing at me, waiting for my attention. She gave a smile and a nod, as though I was supposed to understand what that meant. I relaxed and slid back into position.

 

     Chris covered her mouth with one of her wings, “I said cows you fat stupid oaf!”

 

I barely recognized the voice that came out slightly muffled. It wasn't her usual deep bellowing voice she soliloquized with, it was much deeper. Perhaps even indistinguishable from the clerk's if it was muffled thoroughly enough because of that thick steel door.

 

     “What in the hells did you say to me?” The 'fat stupid oaf' yelled from the other side.

 

The view port slammed shut with a clank and when the clerk tried to shout out, I could hear the guy's muffled swearing on the other side and Rose was on the ball and clasped her claw over our prisoner's face. She held his jaw shut with brute force and muffled his screams in her palm, he probably wouldn't hear friend over his own cursing. I could hear the sounds of locks coming undone and I watched as the blood drained from the clerk's face. There was an odd mixture of terror and exasperation on his face and by the time it wore off and he came back to his senses, it was far too late.

 

The door opened inwards ever so slightly, the clerk tried to yell something, more like curse and swear, but Chris was faster than the man on the other side and as soon as the locks were out-of-place, she swung around from the side and slid her right foot in the crack. When the door tried to suddenly swing back shut, it got caught on her foot and even the door's weight couldn't dent the thickness of those scales. With her powerful forearms, Chris pushed against the door. The poor bastard on the other side didn't stand a chance. I could hear him scream as the steel door swung back the other way and sent him sprawling across the floor.

 

Rose prodded the clerk onward and into the hideout while I gave a wave to Susan off in the distance who then quickly made her way over. When I entered, I saw Chris' right talon wrapped around the neck rather pudgy and ugly looking gentleman sprawled on the floor.

 

     “Where is he?” Chris growled in a deep voice at the man.

 

     “What? Who?” The man asked, rather justifiability terrified, for clarification.

 

     “Who What? That isn't a name I've ever heard before!” Chris hissed back at the man pinned to the ground.

 

     “Chris, don't bully the goons. They probably aren't paid enough as is.” I said. “Just tie them up and lock the door behind us.”

 

While the two criminals were struggling on the ground I looked around and saw a row of crossbows lined up on the wall beside the door in addition to another slot in the door which had been invisible from the outside. One that could be pulled back and open a firing port at hip level. A nasty surprise for sure for anyone that wasn't supposed to be here. The decor was otherwise utilitarian, but it certainly wasn't ill kept. Everything was clean. This place had been renovated rather painstakingly or the outside was kept looking as shoddy as it was for camouflage.

 

     “This entrance is not nearly ancient enough to house any meaningful enchantments,” Susan said while tracing her paws over its surface.”

 

     “Can you get us at least an hour?”

 

     “With sufficient brute force or capabilities in disenchantment, it will fail instantly.”

 

     “And if they don't? An hour?”

 

     “Perhaps.” Susan said sighing as her claws tracing the steel and leaving behind luminescent white glyphs.

 

Reinforcements were a bigger worry for me than guaranteeing our escape, but I was still troubled that it had to come to this. We would be entering the lion's den in a couple of minutes and we've spent the last half-day banging pots and pans outside its lair and just now we've escalated to stomping on its tail to get its attention. There are things I fear more than another crime boss though. It's depressing to think this is perhaps the least suicidal of all the options we have on the table.

 

While Susan was making the finishing touches on the seal for the door, Rose was finishing up trying the wrists and ankles of the two goons together and leaving them laying on the floor. They squirmed and protested and the fat oaf finally looked up and took a good look at me for the first time as I stared back down at him.

 

     “Who the hell do you think you are? You're gonna regret thi-”

 

Rose's sword slammed down into the wood, right in front of the man's face. He went rigid with fright as Rose squat down to give the guy a dirty look.

 

     “Y-you don't realize who you're messing with.” His friend spoke up in his defense.

 

I stepped forward and squat down next to Rose and looked the two of them in the eyes.

 

     “We wanted to do this the proper way, but your friends made it difficult. Now we come here and you make it just as difficult. I want to talk to your boss and I'm not going to accept a 'no' or a 'maybe later'.”

 

     “You ain't got nothing on us! Boss has got all the right papers and connections. He'll get you hanged for this!”

 

     “The Lion will eat you alive!” His friend spoke up in confidence.

 

     “The lion is... busy...” The oaf said pensively.

 

     “Busy?” His eyes widened with what I suspected was fright. “He's busy. You definitely can't go in.”

 

     “Ah!” Rose yelped. “The Lion, now I remember. Xavier. Xavier Telmenk.”

 

I pinched the bridge of my nose in exasperation.

 

     “Rose, we just had to break down their front door and NOW you remember who we're supposed to be asking for?”

 

She knocked her fist against the side of her head and gave me a razz of her tongue in response. It wasn't all that unexpected. I'm not sure if I feel worse about how it turned out, or that I'm not surprised it turned out this way.

 

     “Wha-? How the hell does she know-” The oaf tried to say, surprised.

 

     “Shuddap!” The clerk yelled interrupting him.

 

The secret behind Lion's moniker was out, but I suppose I couldn't blame him for trying to prevent his friend from confirming it for us.

 

     “How in the hells does she- Hold on... Wait, you don't think she's actually...”

 

     “-The Thorn Knight?” The oaf said ominously.

 

     “The others then- Then he is-”

 

     “That's right.” I said with a wicked grin as they laid their eyes on me. “This isn't a routine visit from your 'friends'. I got a deal to make with your boss, and if you want to keep this non violent, just warn me about any other surprises.”

 

     “The Lion ain't got time for-”

 

     “Shut up shut up shut up! The Lion WILL know whatever ya say.”

 

I sighed and stood up, “Alright then, let's go. Time isn't on our side.”

 

     “Hey! Even if you are them, you really don't know who you're messing with. Jus-”

 

A talon slammed into the ground beside the man's head, it was Chris' and she gave a very poignant and short warning.

 

     “Master Laven has boundless kindness, but limited patience.”

 

Her tone took a sudden shift as she waved her arms about in a very peculiar and purposeful manner.

 

     “We fear not any enemy of only this world! Lions with toils, and men with flatterers. We bring the former, not the later. Justice descends and evil will only survive this day should it prove itself an ally in these dire times of need, for a greater evil to us both wanders the lands above!”

 

The two men stared at Chris with blank expressions on their faces. I think they even forgot about how close their heads were given the eggshell treatment by Chris' foot just a moment ago. Not that I blame them, but it really was time to carry on.

 

     “The seal is complete.” Susan said as she turned and walked away from what looked like a piece of art.

 

It was a wildly intricate mural of curves, lines and pictograms, all drawn in an ethereal white glow. It appeared as though her claw never once left the surface. For something that was only working at a fraction of its supposed strength, it certainly didn't look like it. Perhaps she was just being modest, but I'll take her word for it. We'd have to get our work done fast or get ourselves a pardon for our forceful methods quickly.

 

We left the two goons by the door as we strode down the hallway and down the stairs deeper beneath the city. One story and then two, I believe wherever this hideout lies, it is well below the cellars and basements of the city. The old wooden walls gave way to stone and bedrock, but the way was lit with fresh burning torches the whole way, so there was no mistaking that this wasn't the right way.

 

     “Rose, you said his name was Telmenk? Xavier Telmenk?”

 

     “That's right.” She nodded. “We never met though, that's just who my friend told me she talked into getting me up north.”

 

     “You've never actually told me who your friend is, haven’t you?”

 

     “I haven't?”

 

     “No, but I'm going to need it now.”

 

     “Tomiko Ginkaki, why?”

 

     “Because I'm going to have to strike a deal and it needs to be a deal he can't refuse.”

 

Rose titled her head in confusion, but before she could ask anything more, Chris who had taken point came to a stop and before us was another steel door. It wasn't the imposing and thick steel door from before, but it didn't appear to have any view ports. It didn't even have a door handle, not one that I could spot. It seemed like a door that could only be opened from the inside. Not a problem if there was always someone inside.

 

     “No stone-plate or other mechanism for gaining entry.” Susan said when she caught in after holding the rear of our formation.

 

Her instincts for this type of thing seemed almost genetic, hell it might very well be. That meant we only had one option.

 

     “Chris. Could you knock for us?”

 

     “Yes sir!” She said standing at attention.

 

She breathed in a deep breath, closed her eyes and centered herself. When she opened her eyes, she slowly raised her forearm, but just as suddenly kicked out her leg. Her talon slammed into the door and with a massive crack and rending of steel the door was blown clear off its hinges with just a grunt of effort on her part.

 

Rose stood back, arms crossed and oohing and awing while Susan and I had the color in our faces drain away and go pale.

 

     “Chris... I was being serious when I said knock-”

 

While I was trying to explain myself Chris and Rose rushed the room after the surprise breach, ignoring me completely.

 

     “-I wasn't being coy. I didn't mean knock the whole door off...”

 

     “Lets.... Let us follow, Laven.” Susan said, putting a paw on my shoulder in sympathy.

 

I'd cry later, right now I decided to follow Susan's advise. I took a deep breath and walked through the new hole in the wall and entered the hideout. I wasn't met with the dingy and seedy looking underground laid that I expected. Besides the pieces of stone, piles of dust and rubble and the twisted and sundered floor laying the floor some five meters away, the whole room looked more like a lobby for a five star hotel.

 

There was candle light instead of torch light and the marble white pained walls gave the room a certain lively glow to it. Expensive looking rugs and cloth draped all around of various and intricate colors and patterns gave it a warm feeling as well. There was even a functional fountain in the very centre of the room along accompanied by no shortage of greenery. Tropical and exotic plants that would never stand a chance on the outside above us during winter. There was even what looked like a bar in the corner. It was the very spitting image of a Los Vegas casino lobby.

 

Rose and Chris had run only a little ways ahead and taken up defensive stances, facing off against what appeared to be the security detail that were scattered about the room. Each one of them was armed, but they seemed to be just as overwhelmed and caught off guard as we were. What caught me off guard the most, however, was at the far side of the room, about thirty meters away, was an elevated platform with a semicircle of stairs seven steps high. It was a pile of cushions and blankets with a plush wall behind it. Submerged in all those pillows was a man, with his company.

 

I had a certain mental image when those goons said Lion and I wasn't let down. The man didn't appear to be that tall, but he looked like he was build like a professional weight lifter. I may be only slightly taller, but he has to weight one and a half times as much as I do. At least he could have passed for a professional, he was far too hairy. A literal forest on his chest that was not something you see on the cover of a magazine. He had a wild unkempt beard and equally unkempt head of orange-blonde hair tied up in a short pony tail. Fierce brown eyes glared at us trough that mane like hair that left me wondering if he grew it out like that just because people called him lion, or they called him lion because he looked like that.

 

I've seen my fair share of unique characters during my time here, but what put Susan and I on our heels was his company; five, no, six other men, all wearing only towels around theirs waists and each one of them a pretty boy. They were all a little too close and intimate to pass off for an innocent slumber party.

 

     “Oh ho?” Came a gruff and playful laugh from The Lion.

 

Everyone else save Rose, Chris and the Lion were not calm in the least. From every direction I heard swords being pulled from their sheaths and bow strings being drawn taut. That only caused Rose and Chris to shift into a more aggressive stance which caused the tension on the other side to rise.

 

     “Hold it!” The Lion roared,

 

Shivers went down each and everyone of his mens' spines and they stood down. With only a towel around his waist, he emerged from his 'harem bed' and stood at the edge of the stairs, looming and looking down at the four of us.

 

     “That is you, is it not? Rosette The Thorn Knight.”

 

     “Heh. Yeah, that's right.” Rose snickered.

 

That name drop alone caused the shivers down each man's spine. It was quite the sight to see, about a dozen men at the same time take a step backwards against their wills before regaining their courage to hold steady as was their duty.

 

     “A royal wyvern in addition to a priestess of the sands at that...” He said as his eyes studied Chris and Susan.

 

Susan seemed pretty worried earlier about being mistaken for some beast girl, as some sort of werewolf. Something that those less familiar with monsters would accuse any girl with wolf like features, but this Lion seemed to know better and more. He was spot on about Susan being not only a priestess, but recognized the type of clothes she wears bear a striking resemblance to a certain ancient kingdom. He was even able to tell Chris wasn't just any wyvern, but one raised to serve the royal house of Domdracveria. The wyverns are and old story that isn't told much anymore, so knowing about them to such a degree is also quite odd.

 

     At last his eyes focused on me, “And that must mean you are Mr. Laven. Am I mistaken?”

 

     I wasn't about to let the pressure he was pushing on me cause me to back down, so I replied with a posed look, “No. That's right.”

 

     “And what, pray tell, would lead the 'King of Nothing' to my humble abode?”

 

It has been some time since I last heard that said to me. But I decided to answer his question as simply and to the point as possible.

 

     “Business.”

 

Xavier eyes widened then his face twisted into a wide grin. Like a lion whose dominance had been challenged after the longest time. Eager to fight, a mixture of euphoria for the occasion to stretch his claws with the exhilaration of a cat's curiosity.

 

He turned to his 'friends' and ordered them to leave. They hardly looked like the fighting type and the tension in the room had their nerves frazzled. It showed plain as day on their faces. He then turned to his guards and goons scattered around the room and ordered them to stand down. They seemed to do so a little slowly, as though they weren't sure they were hearing their boss correctly. They kept their hands moving though, no one seemed ready to disobey a direct order. As crazy as it sounded to them. I don't blame them, three monsters and a man just burst into their hideout like a SWAT team on a sting operation.

 

     “Well then, Mr. Laven. Our circumstances, as odd as they are, implore me to invite you to my chambers. We seem to have much to discuss.” Xavier declared.

 

The lion walked down the steps and held out his arm which was soon draped in a robe for him to cover himself. Which I was glad, I wasn't really looking forward to that towel which was barely hanging on falling off. I breathed a sigh of relief not for just that, but also because this smuggler, this criminal, seemed to be an odd character who didn't seem rather concerned intruders had smashed their way into his home.

 

Rose and Chris finally let go of their defensive stances and took a step forward.

 

     “HOLD IT!” The lion roared once again, even louder than before.

 

Rose and Chris both came to a complete stop. Their eyes widened in brief shock, but quickly regained their composure. After all, the lion's voice was indeed powerful, but as far as physical capabilities went, he was no match for either one of them, that I was sure of.

 

     “I said I would talk to Mr. Laven.... That means alone.”

 

Those words which were spoken softly hit the room harder than his roars. Like a thunderclap, but silent, that left everyone deaf and unable to speak. The air was electric and I felt frozen in time, as if the first person to move would be like high ground to the storm raging above us all. I saw Chris and Rose's tails contort at odd angles, as though it conveyed their feelings without their consent. Snarled and twisted with complicated emotions. I even heard Susan gulp beside me and her tail had retreated between her legs. Now wasn't the time for cowardice. The expression on Xavier's face was challenging me.

 

     “Laven?” Susan said, her voice bleeding concern.

 

     “I'm sticking to the plan.”

 

Rose and Chris turned around and had the same expressions on their faces. I wasn't going to back down now.

 

     “This time, I'm not 'unarmed'.” I gave them the best cocksure smile I could muster, “Trust me.”

 

This wasn't going to be a repeat of the Greased Goose. I've learned my lesson and this time I know I can stand on my own. I'm not afraid of facing the lion in his den, alone. So I took a step forward as Xavier made his way down the stairs and we met face to face. He was as big as he looked from far away, but I was still able to match his stare with my own without looking up to him. I squared my shoulders and puffed out my chest to make myself feel and appear as large as I could.

 

     “Provide these girls with whatever comforts they desire. Their safety is to be guaranteed.” Xavier commanded and then said very gravely with a low rumble in his voice. “Is that clear?”

 

There was only nods from all around. I then followed the lion as he beckoned me onward further into his lair. Through another hallway that felt longer than necessary and up another long flight of stairs. I followed Xavier as he turned right into a spacious room. It was no less opulent than the last, but he had vanished already when I enter behind him. I could see a candle light from behind a screen and the silhouette behind it revealed to me where he had gone to. When he emerged, the lion had traded his towel and robe for more modest evening clothes, suitable for an informal dinner.

 

     “Come, Mr. Laven, sit with me.” He said while waving his hand over a table; two fine pieces of glass stemware held tightly between his fingers.

 

There was a bottle in his other hand, a green wine bottle. It had no label and a blue liquid inside gave it an overall turquoise color. It was unlike any other wine I was familiar with. The furniture did not depart from the theme of wealth and luxury and I sat myself on the high back chair waiting on other end of the circular café sized table.

 

Perhaps he sensed my curiosity, because he soon explained himself as he uncorked the bottle with a pop and smelled the fragrance which wafted out.

 

     “1257. A fine year for the young miss. Among my personal favorites.”

 

     “You know that without the label?” I asked skeptically.

 

     “I consider myself a connoisseur, Mr. Laven. Perhaps not an expert, but I know my own collection like the back of my hand.”

 

When someone mentions the word smuggler, my thoughts go first to drug and fenced goods. The fact that technicolour wine would be on that list of illegal items seems a little surreal to me. I watched as Xavier deftly poured two glasses half full then pushed mine toward my half of the table. I held it aloft between my fingers and seeing him waiting to toast I raised mine as well.

 

     “For... business.” He said.

 

I purposefully waited to start my first sip long after his own glass reached his lips. I took in its aroma, but I was not greeted with any lingering bitterness. No obvious poisons, at the very least. Instead smelled something incredibly sweet. I could still sense the faint aurora of alcohol, but it was overpowered by the smell of honey and fresh fruit. It tasted very much like it smelled and I was surprised at how cool it felt in my mouth and in the back of my throat.

 

     “Well?” Xavier asked, his eyes betraying his excitement to hear my opinion.

 

     “Chill. Very chilled. I thought you'd have to drink fresh glacial runoff to get that kind of cold. Except the bottle and the glass don't have a trace of frost.”

 

     “That is not surprising,” He said with a smile. “After all, slime wine is among the best refreshments this world has to offer us.”

 

I came to a complete stop. Did he just say: 'slime'? That wasn't a word you often wanted to hear connected to what you were drinking. The pleasant chill still sliding down my throat churned into a completely different sensation because of it. I gave another dry swallow to chase after it and placed the glass back down on the table. Fighting to keep my mouth straight and my eyebrows leveled.

 

     “Your first glass?” He said, reading me with ease.

 

     “You wouldn't be wrong, saying that.”

 

     “Emi, that's her name,” Xavier began explaining. “At least what her husband ended up calling her. Slime wine, of course, is specially fermented slime portions. Prepared and treated exactly the same way vine fruit is. It is a rare delicacy. Quite expensive, but you can tell from the taste that it is worth every coin. It is hard to barter for the portions after all. Sometimes also very dangerous... depending on the girl.”

 

     “Depending on the girl?” I asked, my lip turning up a little now.

 

     “Slimes, Mr. Laven. They are in a constant state of growth, but they can only hold together to a certain point before any excess growth splits off from the main body. Without its own core, it's nothing more than jelly. I've heard a man can live off the nutrition of it alone and they are more than happy to let the man do so. You need not worry yourself.”

 

Taking that all in, this was the body... the excess of.... a monster. Fermented and bottled as wine... But it really didn't taste that bad at all. No, it tasted good, way too good for its own good.

 

     “So you've made a fortune off this?”

 

     “Several fortunes, Mr. Laven.”

 

     “Several? You said it was dangerous. Wouldn't that be pushing your luck?”

 

     “Dangerous? For many, yes. But not for people like myself.”

 

Xavier's cryptic game of cat and mouse was leaving me in the dust yet again. I kept silent and maintained eye contact. I could only hope he'd continue talking instead of test just how far my lack of knowledge went. That would put me at a great disadvantage later.

 

     “I take it you've had less than favorable encounters with monster-kind?”

 

     “Orcs, Amazons and Succubi, Mr. Telmenk.”

 

     “Oh my.” The lion said raising an eyebrow before returning to his professional smile. “And please, you can call me Xavier.”

 

     “I would offer my condolences, Mr. Laven, or should I simply call you...?”

 

No, that isn't my last name. But sharing that my memories are a mess at best and nonexistent at worst wasn't going to help my cause right now.

 

     “Laven will do, thank you.”

 

     “As I was saying, Laven, I can't say I've ever had your problem.”

 

I raised my eyebrow skeptically at the lion. I had a hard time believing what he was implying.

 

     “It is true. Monsters show me no interest in me, or people like me.”

 

     “Barrel chested and hairy?” I joked.

 

     “Ha ha ha ha!” he laughed heartily and thankfully not angered. “No. Because of my nature.”

 

I sat back in my chair and slumped my shoulders when the revelation hit me at last.

 

     “Homosexual?”

 

     “Correct.” He said taking another sip from his glass. “Monsters are driven large in part by their instincts, but those instincts have never led them in my direction. Even should I find myself stuck in the thickest, densest miasma of demonic energy of the most perverse demon realm.”

 

     “Are you saying your immune?”

 

     “Immune? No. Even after walking through such a place I'll need more than a couple wanks to calm myself down. But even the hungriest monster would look over the likes of me.”

 

I was having a hard time believing what I was hearing, but he sounded sincere to me.

 

     “So I decided to use that to my advantage. And here I sit. With more wealth than a poor boy from a poor village could have dreamed of! If I had been born a century ago, I would have never had the chance. Especially with.... baser pleasures.”

 

     “What are you getting at, Xavier?”

 

     The lion decided to change the subject, “What was the first thought through your head when I invited you up here?” He asked very seriously.

 

I took a moment to study the expression on his face. It looked just as serious as the tone of his voice just was. And I answered seriously as well.

 

     “I was shocked at first, but not worried.”

 

     “Oh ho?”

 

     “Xavier, am I your type?” I asked with a raised eyebrow.

 

     I could feel his gaze as he looked me up and down and into my eyes, but eventually he shrugged his shoulders and simply said, “No.” With the smile returning to his face he continued, “Guys like you are too serious. Too sour. No fun at all.”

 

     “That's what I thought.”

 

     “An odd thought at that. A century ago I'd be on the other end of thrown stones. 'Against the Almighty's grand design' they'd claim. 'Blasphemy. Sodomy', they'd scream. The scriptures of the Almighty say that union is to be man and woman and that they should multiply. Anything else, is an abomination.”

 

I feel as though I've heard this before.

 

     “But look at me now! People like me are worth more than their weight in gold!” He said and laughed heartily. “How many men do you know who can walk into demon realm or up to any monster and not get captured? Food and goods from monsters, I've collected a lot. Anyone else could offer themselves up in return, but sometimes they don't feel like afterwards. Sometimes she doesn't want to let go. I wont judge that kind of life, but I'm a merchant at heart. I don't have the kind of stamina, not like you, Laven.”

 

A jab? Or a compliment?

 

     “I couldn't ever dream of tying myself down like that. Being drained dry for a few scraps of slime portions. But it's the dream for someone and I'm more than willing to make coin off of it.”

 

     “I'm sure there's more feeling behind it than that,” I said.

 

     “From experience, Laven?”

 

     “An old friend of mine, Donald Ceerly.”

 

     “Ceerly? I absolutely LOVE his work. I have a number of his patterns. How unexpected that you would know such an artist.”

 

     “Knew.” I said gravely. “The last time I met him, he was on his death bed and that was about a month ago. He's long gone by now.”

 

Xavier's smile was wiped from his face and he sunk back into his chair and took more of a swig than a sip from his glass.

 

     He tried to smile weakly and joke, “I guess that makes what I have worth even more?”

 

Xavier wasn't satisfied with his jovial attempt to let the news roll of his back and it only made him more depressed on top of feeling shamed. We sat in a moment of silence for the old man.

 

     “How did that happen? I pray death found him kindly.” He finally asked, taking one last swig from his glass and then refilled it

 

     “He simply started breaking down,” I said. “If I had to give a number.... Two weeks tops after I last saw him. He could still move, slowly, but I could tell he was pushing himself.”

 

     “Moving?”

 

     “We made a deal. He was going to stick his neck out for me. Do one last favor for someone before going away. He wanted to be with his wife for the last moments of his life.”

 

     “An odd request...”

 

     “With his other wife,” I said, stressing the word.

 

Xavier's face looked blank for a moment then it dawned upon him, almost overwhelming him.

 

     “That would explain the quality of his silks,” He said matter-of-factly. Xavier then let out a short chuckle, “Well then, I guess I have to apologize for my rudeness just now. That leaves me some food for thought. I would have sworn differently. That old codger had fooled everyone all these years...”

 

     “I don't know if his situation was the norm, or something special and the hysteria I see from people every day is the right way to go, but even after all the trouble I've been through with monsters... That scene touched me.”

 

     “Hysteria is a powerful thing, Laven. Not even I'm immune to whimsies of the masses. For good reasons I'm afraid.”

 

     “You're telling me this after you proudly declare that you're invincible?”

 

     “Far from it, Laven. No doubt you've seen the power monsters can have on the minds of men. Whether it doesn't work on me, or they simply choose not to use it on me, scholars debate that in their libraries and universities. They have been, do and probably always will... Maybe a century ago when the monsters were running wild, no different from how they were a thousand years ago, minus the butchery, they simply didn't care and did what they wanted with whatever man they caught or struck their fancy. Were any of those men like me? Taken against their will, with their heads like mine? We wont know. Like I said, there were only stones waiting for someone who didn't keep that locked up. These are better times, the monsters have calmed, I can travel the world freely. Collecting wares and a fortune. I could be a diplomat, an ambassador to the demon realms. I could raise a sword and have an impenetrable shield to their charms... but that doesn't mean everyone is invincible.”

 

I kept quiet and waited for Xavier to continue, taking another sip from my glass long after my first.

 

     “There are three kinds of monsters. Have you heard of that before?”

 

     I placed my glass down and answered, “Monsters that have always existed, or suddenly appear. Monsters who are born between a man and monster... And the last one... When someone is turned into a monster.”

 

     “Correct. If a man were ever to lose touch with that it means to be a man. To no longer see himself as one. To desire to be with another man, from the bottom of his heart or a thought, a voice buried deep in his mind... along with those other two... Should his body be tainted with demonic energy or filled to the brim with it... Should that happen. Even he will turn into a monster.”

 

     “I've traveled quite a bit and not once have I seen a monster like-”

 

     “I said nothing about male monsters, Laven.”

 

I felt a chill go down my spine.

 

     “It's rare and I have not seen it happen. But I've seen what comes of it long after it is already far too late. It's not just appearances. I've seen their daughters for myself. Not adopted. Their daughters. Born from them and conceived in their bellies. And it doesn't just happen to men like myself either, although it does happen more often... To men like myself.” He was getting very solemn, but he just as suddenly grinned wildly and sang, “But you don't have to worry about that! Not with company you keep. Ha ha ha!”

 

Xavier said thumping his hairy chest. 'And neither do I!' he said roaring with laughter. With the other arm he raised his glass in the other for another toast. I sighed out all the tension at once and obliged him. I'd have to mull over that later, but it was about time to get down to business.

 

     “I had only one request from Ceerly when I did that favor for him. And I regret to say because I failed on my part. I need that same favor from you.”

 

Xavier kept quiet and implored me to continue with his eyes.

 

     “I need you to use your connections and channels to smuggle the girls and myself to the Free Ports. Together. Immediately.”

 

The jovial expression on Xavier s face slowly melted away until all that was left was The Lion. Fun time was over. This was his business face.

 

     “And why would I risk jeopardizing my business, my logistics to, sorry to say, an outsider like you? You've already failed once haven't you?”

 

     “Because I had to do it to save the man's life. The Inquisition was after him and I got their attention instead. His wife and daughters would have been butchered if I didn't. Besides, this is deal you can't refuse.” I said plainly.

 

     The dander on The Lion kicked up when rumbled, “Choose your words carefully, Mr. Laven. I've had my troubles with the Church, but now you're saying you got the Inquisition's attention?”

 

     “A deal you can't refuse, because you'd be foolish not to. Although I'm a little insulted you'd think I would try to strong arm you into it.”

 

The Lion calmed down a little, realizing he had laid it on a little too thick and slumped back down into his chair.

 

     “Your braver than I thought. There are more of my men in this place than those you've seen.”

 

     “You've already let in two walking flame throwers and someone who could curse every living soul to a fate worse than death into your house. But that's beyond the point. I'm talking business. Business opportunities.”

 

Maybe he was impressed by my audacity, but The Lion faded a little and I caught a wry smile in the corner of his mouth and he raised his glass to his lips.

 

     “Go on,” Was all he said.

 

     “I've come from the North. That you no doubt know if you've heard of me. Which you have before today. There was also a certain place I stayed. Stayed during a rather important event. An event I may have had a big part in how it was resolved. Because of that, I may also have certain favors I could call upon.”

 

     “And that would be...?” Xavier asked, his curiosity piqued.

 

     “After a certain ship sank. Trade is going to backlog. I'm sure you're very worried about this. Trade from the North and anything moving up or down from there is going to come to a grinding halt. There's a lot of demon realms up there, aren't there? Thanks to it being mostly pagan lands. Pagans who are more sympathetic to monsters than the Church of the Almighty. You make your money getting your goods from those monsters and selling them to anybody who is willing. Through whatever channel s you can make. But you have a hard time of that because the Church puts on the pressure to have it outlawed. As much of it as it can get away with that is. What would you say if I claimed what's happening in the north is gonna cause a big shift in the markets? What would you say if I claimed it didn't have to be a loss, but it's just a new ground floor? And finally... What would you say if I claimed I had a connection to a certain royal house and I vouched for a certain merchant that could be trusted to help with that?”

 

     Xavier started to frown as I went on and he only had a few short words, “Nice story. But do you expect me to buy all that?”

 

     “Worried about capital? Because I'm not done yet. I also know someone else.”

 

     “You sure do know a lot of 'people'.” He said half joking, half skeptically.

 

I only needed to say two words and hope for the best: “Tomiko Ginkaki.”

 

The Lion's eyes went wide. I didn't expect that kind of reaction.

 

     “What did you just say?”

 

     “The one who sponsored the Thorn Knight for years. Banked all the money she made over a decade. Used that money to further her own investments. You could say I am on... very intimate... unique and special terms with the Thorn Knight. A lot of money, or big favours are owed to her from Ginkaki. But there's only one way for us to cash in. Those three girls and I get to the Free Ports. Healthy, unharmed and happy... Would we really be outsiders if we were in together on a deal like that?”

 

Xavier glared at me. His eyes were unflinching as they analyzed me and calculations went off inside his head. His frown intensified and I could only glare back at him. Glaring back and trying to keep as straight a face as possible. I tried to keep my composure and not wither and crumble under such a fierce glare.

 

     “HA HA HA HA HA!” The Lion roared out in laughter, almost causing my heart to skip a beat.

 

I almost leapt out of my chair when he also slammed his fist into the table, causing the slime wine bottle to jump up into the air and land back down with a clank. The serious look on his face was banished and he was smiling ear to ear again.

 

     “Laven... You may be sour, but a slice of lemon is always a good addition to any drink. You... have got yourself a deal.”

 

The lion extended his large burly and hairy hand toward me from the other side of the table. I felt a wash of relief that for once everything seemed to work out in my favor for once. I reached over and we wrapped our hands around one another and exchanged a lively handshake. Each of us apparently trying to crush the other man's hand.

 

     “So when is it you wanted to leave?” He asked.

 

     “Tomorrow.” I said.

 

His grip slackened a bit and his smiling face relaxed and dropped in surprise. I titled my head slightly and furrowed my brows. 'You got a problem with that?' was what my expression said.

 

     “Right... Tomorrow it is then...” He said meekly before breaking off the handshake and sitting back down in his chair.

 

He then raised one last toast before we'd break. He would have quite a bit of work ahead of him to get us started.

 

***

 

Hidden from the moon above and from the people of Anthren was a sordid hideaway, a refuge for criminals. An alley long forgotten. A place disconnected from the rest of the world, walled off, the windows overlooking it, shuttered ages ago. Moldy old crates and empty rotting barrels littered both sides of the only path leading from the back of the shop to an imposing steel door. A missing layer of grime and dust gave away hints of its recent use.

 

Walking forward gracefully, quieter than a cat, and naturally blending into the shadows was a lone solitary figure. Cloaked in brown from head to toe with a face hidden away. The grime and the fake decor of the alley did not fool the shadow at all. It knelt down and traced a finger over the many surfaces. Between those fingers the grime rolled and felt and held up to the shadowy cowl where its smell and even taste was judged.

 

Seemingly satisfied, the figure floated over toward the steel door and stood before it. Looking calmly over its frame, its size and its height. A small hand rapped against the hard surface, each one echoing on the other side.

 

Seated and bored on the other side was a pudgy man still tending to rope burns on his wrists and ankles, but the sound of another series of knocks on the door had him jump to attention. The first couple of seconds were a panic, but he soon recovered his calm.

 

Just a false alarm earlier. He thought to himself. Boss said everything was fine. He tried to comfort himself. Just don't mess up this time. He warmed himself. He swallowed hard and stood up, shaking a little before he smacked both his cheeks between his hands and regaining his nerves.

 

     “Pat, if that's you, again, I swear I'm gonna kill ya!”

 

The man stood next to the door and slid open the viewing port and looked out into the darkness. Only a faint moonlight and the torch light behind him illuminated what stood before the door. And what he saw standing there was one lone person. Cloaked in brown and with a face completely hidden. It wasn't Pat.

 

     “Who are you? What do you want?” He bellowed.

 

     A feminine voice answered back, “Where is Laven?”

 

It was cold, monotonous and without emotion. Something about it caused the man's heart to beat faster and sink into his stomach. His pores to sweat oozed with sweat, but a chill overtook him. His body forgot to move, but his mind was still working, on account of forcing himself to focus. The reward for berating himself for almost an entire day. It was a boring job, most of the time, it was an easy job, most of the time, but it was the best paying job he ever had. He wasn't going to mess it up by screwing up twice in one day.

 

     “I don't know what you're talking about. This is private property, so buzz off before I call the guards.” He bluffed.

 

     She repeated herself once more, “Where is Laven?”

 

The tone in her voice hadn't changed, but there was a venom to those words that did not sting any less than the first time. His heart sank deeper and his sweat slowly started to drench his shirt.

 

     “Laven you said?” The man said in response.

 

He remembered that name.

 

     “Yeah. Let me go ask if he's here. Just wait right there.”

 

He closed the eye slit and turned around. He laid his eyes on the rack of crossbows. Slowly, on his tip toes he pulled one off the rack. From a pouch at his side he produced a bolt and carefully slid it under the clip of the mechanism ready to fire. This time he wasn't going to take any chances. He only had one job. Guard the door. Don't let anyone in he didn't know or didn't have the right papers. This wasn't someone she knew. It was a lady at that. There's no way any lady had any business here. She was suspicious and didn't have any papers. There wasn't even any special knock he and his friends made up for the door. He remembered what his senior had told him years ago, 'don't take any bull shit, get straight to the violence'.

 

     “Okay! Yeah? Really? Okay!” He called out loudly. “Yeah, I'll just get the door then!”

 

He said for the lady outside to buy himself from time. Now wasn't the time to listen to that little voice in the back of his head telling him not to. He got paid good money to keep this door shut. If that meant he had to do a little something... ugly... then so be it. Better that then having to face the ugly streets again. He was sweating, breathing heavily. He swallowed hard once and then held his breath. He grabbed hold of a latch on the door. A lower latch, at about hip level. He pictured the lady on the other side, where she was, how far she was standing from the door. He held his breath and listened. He could hear a faint breathing on the otherwise when he focused all his senses fueled by every drop of adrenaline in his veins.

 

He held the crossbow with one hand, the other on the latch. Squaring his shoulders and planting his feet, he exhaled slowly and tried to prepare himself. Before his lungs were empty, he quickly opened the latch and pulled the trigger. With a twang the bolt sailed through the small opening and he quickly shut it again. He took another deep breath and went to reach for another bolt... but he stopped. There was a twang, but there wasn't a thwack followed by a crunch, scream or thud.

 

His eyes bounced every which way in his sockets as he tried to calm himself and took another deep breath. When he listened again... He didn't hear any breathing from the outside.

 

Did I miss? He thought to himself, of course he didn't. He couldn't have missed. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. Maybe she left? He tried to comfort himself. Maybe, that would be for the best. I better make sure. He warned himself. He couldn't afford to mess up again. His fat pudgy fingers reached for the latch on the eye slit, he leaned in and pulled it open.

 

There was a thwack. There was a crack. There was something green. There was pain. But it didn't last long and it was suddenly very dark. Then there wasn't anything at all. If there was going to be a thud or a scream like there should have been, the man wasn't around to hear them.

 

Pierced through the eye slit was a blade, green, curved and long. Long enough to stick out from the back of the man's skull. Jutting out from where the man's brain stem was, was the blade. The man's death was near instantaneous. His body slackened, the crossbow in his other hand fell to the floor as his hand went dead. The weight and girth of the man pressed up against the door as the sickening sound of churning grey matter and creaking bones filled the room as the blade was pulled back out through the eye slit.

 

The pudgy man's body started sliding down the door, leaving a trail of blood from his head as he went, but before he reached halfway, sparks flew and the sound of sundering steel echoed in the room. For just the briefest of moments, the edges of sharp green blades sliced through the left and right side of the door. One stroke for each side at the same time. It cleaved through the locks, bolts and hinges. Just as suddenly the door come crashing inwards, falling on top of the man and crushing him underneath. Only the man's legs and arms, which were splayed like a snow angel could be seen.

 

The figure waiting outside was exactly the same as she was when she was waiting before. There was no sign of any weapon on her person. She walked forward and climbed over the steel door like a carpet, crushing the man underneath it further. As she walked by, she dropped something from her clenched right hand. It landed in the man's cold, dead hands. It was a crossbow bolt. Undamaged and unbloodied. What was left bloody, was the floor under the man, where a large pool of fresh warm blood was expanding.

 

The cloaked girl ventured further into the hideout and followed the stairs down. Her face was hidden, but there was no doubt that face displayed no fear. Only a cold, calculated ruthlessness. Devoid of any emotion. Where there should have been a second door, candle light shone through. Not that the door have stopped her for long, but she passed trough the doorway undaunted. Inside there were several other criminals and smugglers gathered, discussing and relaxing. The arrival of the girl nearly caught them off guard completely. Even though she was brazenly walking in the open, she didn't make a single sound. Not even a single foot step. It was only by chance that one lone man would look up from his drink and spot the girl glide through the door.

 

His shouts alerted the entire room and they all jumped to attention immediately. Seat at a table high atop an elevated platform was a large burly man. A man who had been at working signing and checking papers. He shot out a fierce glare at the intruder. But he quickly felt a powerful pressure crash into him from that side of the room. It overwhelmed him and instead of standing up and roaring in rage, he cowered in his chair.

 

     The girl spoke once again coldly and without emotion, “Where is Laven?”

 

Without a word from their boss, the first of the men drew his sword and charged at the intruder. Her face was covered in the cowl, her blind spots were pretty much her entire field of vision, but when the man got close, a subtle snick produced the green blade once again. It swivelled into place from her forearm next to her wrist. It was a curved blade, green and sharp, a blade punctuated by seven serrated teeth. The blade locked into place on the girl's wrist, the curve parallel to her palm, curving inwards toward herself. The top of the blade was blunted, but study and thick. Thick enough, as the man found out, to easily block his sword swing. The end of the curve was a fine point, a sharp point. Sharp enough to shred the steel door and it certainly was enough to slice into the man. After blocking his swing rebounded backward and she twisted her arm around and drew the serrated edge of the blade against the man's chest with one fluid motion. An eruption of blood exploded from his chest.

 

With a scream he fell over backwards. Filled more with anger and want for revenge, the others soon followed after their friend. They converged on her position, but she didn't even make a move. She didn't even raise her arms to protect herself. All she did was snap her other blade into position on her other arm with another snick.

 

She side stepped a lunge from a spear and brought her curved edge down upon in, cleaving it in two with ease. She held out both arms and blocked two different swings from her left and right at once and deflected their momentum so they ran past her, behind her and into each other. The cloaked girl spun around and delivered a round house kick to another attacker, his neck cracking at an angle and his body crumbled to the floor. Another man ran head long at her, but she merely thrust her meter long blades into his chest. The edges of the blades cut upwards toward his shoulders as she lifted him up off the ground then threw him back down where he slid off her blades now drenched in blood.

 

She never looked any of them in the eyes. She didn't even register their existences. They were merely obstacles to her. Her eyes hidden beneath the cowl were fixed on only one person. Xavier, The Lion. She never took a step backward, she only moved forward, at a walk and cutting down anyone that got in her way. The last man who was brave enough to approach lunged in, but soon found his neck pinched between the two blades. His body soon crumpling to the floor, missing its head. The rest of the men backed up horrified. Nothing was stopping her now as she got closer to where The Lion sat.

 

     “Boss!” Shouted one of the men. “Run!” His voice cracked, nearly croaking from the tears he was fighting back.

 

Xavier still had not moved. There was a force holding him there. A blood-lust the likes that he had never felt before focused on him and him alone. He couldn't see the girl's eyes, but his instincts felt them on him. He knew that those were not ordinary blades. They were much too sharp. For a girl of that size... she was much too strong... She was a monster... He knew he stood no chance.

 

     “Boss! Run!” His men cried out to him again.

 

A group of them had gathered up tabled and chairs to make an improvised shield wall before his steps. But he still hesitated for a moment longer. He couldn't bear with the guilty of fleeing, but the bone chilling words that come from her lips finally sank into his frozen wits. She was after Laven. She somehow knew he was here. Someone had to warn him!

 

The Lion threw his fist high up into the air, and slammed it back down on the stone seat beneath him. A weak porous stone painted over to look like the others crumbled and flipped a switch underneath. A one way, one time trap door dropped behind him and onto a smooth ramp which he tumbled backwards on. It was dark, he couldn't even see his own limbs flailing about as he somersaulted backward over and over again. The painful ride did not last long though. He eventually slid to a stop when the ramp level off once again.

 

Xavier desperately reached into his pockets for flint and tinder and sparked them for what little light he could muster. Just enough so he could spot a torch that should be waiting. When he found it he quickly limped into the darkness. Beneath the city, beneath his hidden hallways and catacombs which he used as his home and primary storehouse, was the old underground river of Anthren. It had long been blocked off when land was reclaimed from the lake to expand the city and the limestone caves was now his escape tunnel.

 

He spelunked deeper and deeper into the cave. He'd eventually reach an exit that sat above the tide and wave level of the lake. A pile of debris that had been piled to block off the cave. With a few stones removed from the top and an overgrowth of vegetation covering it, it was well hidden. He limped onward with the only consolation being that the assassin seemed only intent on her target. She'd only kill anyone who got in her path to him and ultimately Laven. The biggest fortune of his life was waiting. He had done the math and it all worked out. The big one, the one that would put him not in the old abandoned sewers but a mansion, maybe even a castle was within reach. All he needed was to use Laven and his plan for that.

 

He had moved as quickly as he could for about half an hour when he finally tired and come to a rest. Scraps of rotten wood were scattered around, probably what used to be scaffolding decades upon decades ago. He was tired, very tired. The Lion found an old metal ring in the wall to hold his torch while he hunched over and heaved. He held out the palm of his right hand on a wall to his right and pushed himself up with his left hand on his knee. The sound of his breathing was quickly drowned out by the wound of cracking bone, rending flesh and scrapping of stone. A pain shot up his arm, into his shoulder and into his brain. His body shook and shuddered and was pinned in place.

 

Xavier looked up slowly to see a green blade stabbed through his right hand and into the stone wall. Standing nearby, was the cloaked figure eyes locked on him with blood intent. He couldn't muster anything at all. Not a scream, not even a whimper.

 

     “Where is Laven?” She repeated herself.

 

     “Words finally managed to escape past his lips, “H-how in the hells did you...?”

 

She pulled her blade from his hand and the Lion for all his impressive size, strength and imposing image collapsed onto the ground. All from a girl only a third his size. His hand was bleeding, it was in pain and growing cold, but another shot of warmth spread through his body, this time from his leg. A sick crunch and tearing with a flash of green and the girl had stabbed one of her blades through the Lion's right leg. It went all the way through, even into the stone underneath. This time he howled in pain.

 

     “Next I will rupture your femoral artery,” She said without emotion. “You will bleed out and die in two minutes. Unless answer me, 'where is Laven'?”

 

The pain was frying all his senses and he couldn't think straight. That was until she twisted her blade ever so slightly so a serrated tooth ground against his femur, scrapping splinters of bone off it and pushing the muscle and flesh aside. He looked up and he saw through the cowl. A pair of indigo colored eyes, dull and without life to them stared down at him. Twitching above those eyes were two thin green appendages, like antenna tasting the air and following his minute motions as he lay on the ground in agony. Looking into them was perhaps the worst decision he could have made. He felt as though his soul was being sucked out from the sheer blood lust and killing intent billowing behind that cowl, like a poisonous miasma choking the life out of him.

 

It was enough to slice though the last string holding his wits together.

 

     “Highway Station C! Station C! The wagon train at dawn!”

 

The foreign object was pulled from his leg and Xavier was free to move once again. When he looked around, the assassin had already left and he was alone, hurt, bleeding in a damp place he thought no one else knew about. Xavier sat there, in agony and in shame. His right hand and arm felt dead, along his leg which felt like lead. He was, but the lion managed to tear a strip of cloth from his shirt and tie it around his thigh. It was the only thing he could do to stop flow of blood. The only thing he could do to was slow down what could kill him and hope for the best.

 

The assassin was on the loose and was now heading in the right direction.

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