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Chapter 4-14

Page history last edited by some editor 9 years, 11 months ago Saved with comment

A pair of black boots crushes the debris of the forest underneath as their master glides onward. Each step he takes is slow and deliberate, the previous step no less savored than the one after that. In the still breeze his heavy robes rustle with each giddy step he takes, each one almost a skip. Beneath his one good eye lies a wide grin, now petrified, which gives the grown man an expression that would be more at home on a cruel child tearing the wings off a fly.

 

But unlike a child, the man has no innocence. Countless lives have met their end on the other side of that wicked and twisted smile. Like an upside down crescent moon, the twilight moments of each little fly's life. It's not gleeful pride from duty being fulfilled, it is worn while an experience is being relished. An experience that would crush the hearts of normal men, laden their souls with anguish, guilt and remorse. But for Inquisitor Zerin, it was all a pleasure most sublime. Nothing could compare to bringing judgment to those that he sees in opposition to his lord. The lord God of the heaven above and all below it: The Almighty.

 

His one good eye, brown, but reflected black; protruded from a sea of red lines that crisscrossed his eye. Sleepless nights, or profound madness? The answer to that question is beyond all those who witness it and even to the man himself.

 

Staying by his side, step by step, is a woman who towers over him. Her form is all but hidden behind the bulk of her armor. The nuances of her curves and the gender they display all hidden from sight. A golden gleam from luscious blonde hair escapes from underneath the her helm and drapes over her shoulders. That gleam was no less so than the oily lacquer covering her giant sword that she slung over her shoulder. Unlike the twisted smile of her master, her lips which were revealed with the bottom third of her face that her visor did not conceal, were stoic. The fullness of those lips, the thin jawbones, chin and the wispy feminine voice were the only things that revealed the knight was a woman at all. Instead of a thing, a moving suit of armor.

 

From the other corners of the clearing their other allies closed in, their forms far more monstrous.

 

Another woman with long blonde hair melts out from the underbrush, her skin a pale white with pale blue eyes. Her body looks inhumanly light and she stands as tall as any other woman. But unlike other women, her ears were pointed and long, like knifes. Elven ears. Ears that hang horizontally from her head ten centimeters apiece. Even though her body is light, her curves are womanly and seductive and wrapped underneath barely enough clothing to cover it. A brown scarf wraps snugly around her neck and covers the lower part of her face. A dark green leather tunic that hugs her closely like a corset with her cleavage shamelessly on display. A pale green cloak is wrapped around her shoulders and does its best to hide it all away, but it can't camouflage a pair of long slender legs, each slipped within two very high brown leather boots that reached up to her thighs.

 

Held steadily within her hands is a mighty looking compound longbow; a bow hewed from an ancient yew tree. Safely stowed away at her waist is a quiver filled to the brim with arrows. One she held between her delicate fingers shows they were each tipped with an intricate and deadly looking steel head. Despite her body, which looked as though it could snap in a gentle breeze, the wood and string of her bow bends and holds more power in it than a man four times her size could ever hope to muster. The spirit within that very wood was old when the empire was young and it is her willing ally. It bends to her whims, no less than her arms and legs.

 

Melting into the clearing, literally, is another girl opposite to the elf. She is formless, her body a red jelly in a shape mocking a human woman. She is translucent, light shines through her, but there are no organs within the slimy mass. Although she appears to walk, her legs are mere decoration. The arms, head and torso could easily return to nothing and just as readily take the same shape again. The slime girl glides forward on a pool of her own jelly where feet should be; she moves like an amoeba from the microscopic world. Her form is altogether a formality. Arms and legs that move much like a normal humans' would but stretch and bend unlike any human. There are no bones to break or muscles to tear. The womanly curves of her body, the shape of her hips, the plumpness and heft within her breasts, the beautiful face formed from the formless undulations of the rest of her body are all a facsimile.

 

Her 'face', the form the jelly took, was droopy and lazy. It is like an old tired housewife's, but it showed no such age or wear. Unnatural biology made her face pliable and therefore could be made to be unnaturally gorgeous. Yet that face with the lazy smile was also permanent. It was perhaps the only thing she could not change. Even as the body slithered and warped, that face of hers would never change. It was always the first thing to reappear after her form collapsed back into a pile of wet gelatin that then took the form of a woman. And no matter how she twisted herself, she always returned to that form with those curves and face. It is much like a curse, she had absolute control over her body, but she cannot deny who she is for any longer than a few seconds at a time.

 

The last of the three approached from behind. From the shadows of the forest canopy above she dropped down and landed as silently and gracefully as a cat. All four limbs ended with paws, like a cat. From the base of her spine, swished a furry tail, a cat's. Sitting atop her head were feline ears, the girl's eyes yellow with thin black slits and teeth, pointed and carnivorous. The fur that covered her arms and legs from the elbows and knees down was orange and striped white, like a tomcat. A short crop cut of orange hair adorned her head from where her furry ears emerged. They are of the same color twitched with every sound they heard. The tail that swished behind her did so unconsciously and make her balance absolute.

 

A cat girl who was dressed like a thief. She wore a bandoleer across her flat chest brimming with long and dangerous looking daggers. All of them specially made for throwing, and her paws hid sharp curved claws within them as well. Like the other girls before her, the leather armor hugged her curves and skin, and her face, just as beautiful if not rough, gave a rowdy boyish appearance. But she shares a jovial expression with her master. A cruelty that can only belong to a cat which is almost alone in nature for taking delight in tormenting its prey.

 

The five unfortunate targets of their wrath were surrounded. Two of them were incapacitated, one was immobile and only the other two were preparing to fight. Rose the Salamander and Christophaclies the wyvern stood back to back; Rose's sword was drawn and the wyvern's sharp talons were at the ready. But the flame crowning the salamander's scaly tail sputtered and the one of the wyverns wings was clipped. However, not a trace of cowardice showed on their faces, nor had taken root in their hearts.

 

Shoshanah, the Anubis Priestess, sat kneeling on the ground betwixt the two incapacitated persons. Her shoulder was gravely wounded, but stable. But all her powers were being used to maintain a powerful ritual. A very delicate ritual. It melded two hearts, in this case, it took the heart of her pharaoh and cast it deep into the unknown depth's of his would be assassin. It was there she was sure they would find their salvation, but as Inquisitor Zerin approaches, it might be their undoing. The assassin’s blade presses up against his face. With a single push, the mantis' scythe would plunge into his head, and kill him instantly.

 

Zerin's approach finally halted, but with a wave of his hand, his four henchmen slowly circled inwards.

 

     “I knew if I followed her, she would eventually lead me here,” He said.

 

     “We ain't got time for you, Zerin,” Rose shouted. “You can take a number though. We got all day.”

 

     “Sadly, I am not here for a battle, Thorn Knight,” Zerin said snidly. “But these wretched are.”

 

He spoke waving his hand over each of the four girls in turn. Not a single one took offense or even notice. They themselves believed his words were true.

 

     “Four versus two, tsk. “The wyvern said, clicking her tongue. “Hardly a fair fight.”

 

     “Yer right.” Rose said, grinning. “He should've brought more.”

 

     “An army's worth more.” Christophaclies responded, grinning just as much.

 

     “I got back right corner.”

 

     “Front right then.”

 

They both nodded and slowly pulled away from one another's backs and circled away to face off with the intruders.

 

     “Susie!” Rose shouted out, "You take care of the- Oh hells.”

 

It dawned upon her too late, but it was a harsh truth that would have to catch up with her eventually. Shoshanah was sapped of all her strength. It took all her powers just to maintain the spell keeping the assassin in her slumber. The knight passed on the Anubis right. She ignored the Anubis completely and blocked the path to her husband on her left. To her right the slime oozed forward. Christophaclies was no better off. The elf had an arrow notched and ready, and the cat crept closer on all fours. Neither could she fly and swoop in with her wing as it was. Either way, she would expose her back to the enemy. Worse, it would give the archer a clear shot of Shoshanah, the mantis and her master.

 

The six warriors faced off and entered into a standoff. Meanwhile, Zerin continued his march onward. He walked amongst the Anubis, Laven and the mantis unhindered. He ignored Shoshanah and Laven for the time being and squat down next to the assassin and inspected the battered face of the mantis closely.

 

     “Such a waste,” He said, obviously feigning lamentation.

 

Zerin reached out and brushed his hand through the mantis' shoulder length hair, yet she did not move. He brushed it aside and revealed the side of her head; bereft of human ears. There was only skull, white skin, hair roots.

 

     “Such a waste,” He repeated. “For such a pretty face, to be twisted like this.”

 

His hand slowly continued onward to the girl's jawline, but he then suddenly seized the mantis girl by the chin and forcefully turned her head to face him. Zerin's face was full of disgust as he studied it.

 

     “Abominable. Disgusting. Absolutely disgusting,” He spat.

 

The mantis did not stir, her sleeping face didn't even twitch, but Shoshanah did. She winced in pain as a terrible migraine wracked her brain. It didn't go unnoticed. Zerin watched the Anubis' reaction and then let the mantis' face go, so that it could fall back. He stood back up, walked around the mantis and stood over the priestess. Her pain subsided, but she was still breathing heavily and sweating.

 

     “A most curious spell,” Zerin menaced. “Not a paralysis spell.”

 

He looked back toward the mantis and then back toward her.

 

     “Not a sleep spell either.”

 

He looked over to Laven, his face almost twisting into a rage when he did so.

 

     “But why 'him' as well?”

 

     “Back off creep!” Rose raged and almost bull rushed toward him.

 

But she had to stop when the armored woman blocked her path and the slime behind her crept even closer while she was distracted.

 

Zerin sneered in Rose's direction and slowly looked back down at Shoshanah.

 

     “Most. Curious. I have studied well, but never before have I a spell such as this before. Perhaps it is much like the one you used to cheat 'his' death with?”

 

He sneered as he said that, but then just shrugged. His mood switching on the fly once again.

 

     “No matter. It suits fine.”

 

     “Leave this place posthaste,” Shoshanah said, pained.

 

     “No. I don't think I will,” He said without having to think. “But this spell is your doing alone, isn't it?”

 

Zerin stepped forward and placed his hand on the scythe and tried to gently push it away from Laven. It refused to budge. He then put all his weight into it, but it still refused to move. Shoshnah, who was knelt behind him, hacked, coughed and whined as another migraine throttled her brain. He quickly pulled away this time and the pain the Anubis was suffering abated. She breathed heavily, painfully, but she stabilized and the spell was still unbroken.

 

     “Good. It appears she will not get in my way,” He hissed.

 

Shoshanah heaved and could not threaten him again, but he turned around and faced her regardless.

 

     “With all four of you predisposed, I'll take my time and savor my vengeance.”

 

She could only watch as the demented smile slowly crept back across Zerin's face.

 

***

 

An endless wooden expanse. That was all my eyes could see. The walls surrounding me which had been moving at breakneck speeds, as though I was traveling through a star field past light-speed, just as suddenly stopped. I suppose it didn't matter how many light-years away they were by now,  it was my heavens right now as far as I was concerned.

 

I had finally found someone else in this terrible place. At least someone who looked like they had a soul. She then went right ahead and screamed. In her terror, space and time bent just to push me away. Whoever she is, she has power over this place. That meant there was only one conclusion: This was her world and if that was true... She's the assassin I'm looking for. Even if she doesn't look like that assassin I'm looking for. I can't explain what just happened any other way and deny that fragile looking girl was the one who was so doggedly pursuing my death. It was a huge disconnect, but I had to face that fact. We seemed to have gotten off on the wrong foot too. As far as a stranger entering your house uninvited goes, I think this is a bit of an excessive punishment to be giving out so liberally. The whole banishing me to a world without limits and where a carpenter is apparently God. There really is nothing but planks of wood off into infinity and the ground I stand upon.

 

And a carpenter god? Who would ever buy into that?

 

My situation went from possibly positive to a possibly soul crushing. I had stumbled into what could any moment cause my mind to enter a existential crisis. All of it in the blink of an eye. I had to admit that was pretty impressive. If I had to walk forward for however long it took to get back to where I started... Back in that little room... I'd go mad long before then. Forget about a couple days, it very well could take months, years... millions of years. But that was the wrong way to approach it. This was inside someone's heart. Time, space and the laws governing both didn't appear to hold water here. If I could break them in the same way, I could hop, skip and jump back to where I was.

 

And then she could send me back just as easily. Both scenarios represent infinity in the exact same way. I would be doing either forever. The look of sheer terror in that girl's eyes when she saw me... It happened reflexively. Instinctually. I'm sure it would happen again and again, forever.

 

     “Ugh, what a mess,” I said, aloud.

 

I snapped to attention.

 

     “A mess...?” I said once again.

 

My voice.

 

     “...Mess.”

 

That wasn't my voice. It was gruffer, like a frog had been shoved down my throat. The pitch and everything was all wrong too. It was a voice belonging to someone else entirely.

 

I looked down at myself, an idea that hadn't occurred to me since my world had grown to infinity and I was so small and insignificant compared to it. If had looked, I thought to myself, the realization from that new perspective would drive my insane on the spot. But if I wasn't myself right now...

 

I noticed right away that I couldn't quite see my feet. I could only see the tips of my toes over a bulge from my waist. When I felt it, it was bloated, fatty. A gut. I haven't put on a pound of fat since I woke up in my ruined apartment weeks ago. Rather, I'd claim I've trimmed down and toned up some. My overall shape is different as well, the length of my arms and legs too. Short and stuffy. My fingers were ugly and pudgy. Mine were miles longer and slender in comparison. If I could remember my mother, she probably would have complained I should have learned to play the piano. Maybe I can. I just haven't had the chance yet... No, focus Laven, focus. This body was someone else's and so was the voice. It wasn't an obese man's, but it was rather heavy set man.

 

It made me feel ill. Not just nauseous, but a feeling of disgust that sunk into my very bones. It made me very...

 

Angry.

 

     “Is this your idea of a joke, huh?” I yelled off into infinity.

 

This wasn't me.

 

     “If you think you can lock me away here like... This... You've got another thing coming!”

 

I breathed heavily, my shoulders weighed down by the extra weight I was carrying around. It felt unnatural. I didn't dare try to see what I looked like. I had my suspicions and I didn't want my curiosity to get the better of me. More than the truth, I didn't want to throw up. I'd rather not let infinity and a puddle of bile from someone else's dirty body keep my company till the end of time.

 

My sudden transformation was the last straw my addled brain needed to accept my current circumstance. There was no way anything here was natural. This world was not run by any set of laws. Rather, it was ruled arbitrarily. By the wants and desires, conscious and subconscious, of a young woman. If that was so, then I was free to do things that were otherwise impossible.

 

And things otherwise suicidal.

 

The voice irritated me, that's all I could think of. A profound feeling of hatred boiled the blood in my veins and so I dug this body's short stubby fingers and the poorly manicured nails into the skin of its throat. It was painful, but I convinced myself it wasn't my pain... At least I tried to. In the back of my brain. From the amygdala, a bestial and primal fear arose. It was a fear of pain, of death. I beat it down and ignored it. I took deep breaths and wheezed as I crunched the throat in hands that were not mine, but under my control.

 

I dug those fingers into the skin. Underneath the skin. I felt the shivers of pain wrack my mind. A wet feeling of blood oozed over the hands, and my breathing became heavy and labored. I could feel the cartilige of the larynx brush across the top of the fingers. I didn't stop. I closed his eyes and grabbed hold of his skin and yanked them apart.

 

Not only did I hear the sound of skin ripping, but I heard a crack of glass breaking. When I threw the head backward and looked up, I saw a faultline in the infinite ceiling of wood above me spread. With one more burst of courage I put all my strength into stretching those arms as wide apart as possible. The ceiling above me shattered in two. The whole world broke in half, even under my feet. That infinite world broke into pieces, it had shrunk to a billionth of its former size. It returned to the same room it was before. In both my hands were two halves of what appeared to be something like a human suit. I heaved, feeling the sting of agonizing phantom pain, but I was myself again. I dropped the two halves of the imposter to the floor beside me, and as the pain subsided, I looked down and saw the same girl who was still curled in the corner. She was less terrified now and more confused. Two parts terrified, three parts bewildered.

 

I took a step foward and left the shedding behind, but the girl flinched, so I stopped. I held out my hand and reached out for her.

 

     “Now... This would be the first time we've met? Isn't it?” I said gently. “The name's Laven. I'm not here to hurt you. I am here to help you.”

 

She remained still as a frightened deer in headlights, but her eyes studied me cautiously. I did my best to appear as nonthreatening as I could; but, in the end, I could only hope she'd calm down. Perhaps I was the first new face she had seen in a long long time. If she thought the enemy of her enemy was her friend, me tearing him in half had to be more than an adequate olive branch. That too might be too much to ask because she just witnessed someone rip off their skin to reveal another man underneath.

 

But the girl didn't say a word. The first words came from behind as the door swung open.

 

     “Alright everyone, up and at 'em!” A girl's sing song voice rang.

 

I turned around and saw the same girl walking briskly toward me, but without acknowledging me. She walked right past me and as I turned to watch her. I noticed she had vanished from the corner of the room. Of the four beds, three of them now had children sleeping soundly, or trying to, within them. When the young woman grabbed hold of the curtains by the window and threw them open, bright morning sunlight flooded the room and those who been sleeping moaned in protest.

 

     “Sis!” A young boy complained as he tried to cover his head with his blanket.

 

     “Tommie, you said you'd help father in the shop at dinner last night.” The sister said.

 

She then grabbed hold of the blanket and pulled it off the bed, along with the boy who hit the floor with a grunt. His hair was fair blonde and buzzcut. His face was covered in grease stains that refused to wash out and he looked no older than eight or nine years of age. There was definitely a slight resemblance in the shape of his eyes and his sister's. Another boy, only a couple years older, fished for a pair of eyeglasses that looked a size too small off a stand next to his bed. He didn't complain at all and looked like the opposite of his brother whom he also resembled. He hair was long though, past his shoulders and pitch black. Lastly, a very young girl who didn't look older than five stretched and yawned as she rose from her bed. Her hair was also black and matted. It was braided, as though she thought it would have been a shame to undue them before she went to bed. She didn't look very similar to her sister and brothers though. Perhaps she took after the other parent? She looked more gaunt and a little too slim compared to the others who appeared rather normal. It might be pessimistic, but realistic, of me to claim she would have slim hopes of matching her older sister's looks when she grows up.

 

     “Morning, sis.” She said with the sweetest voice I had heard in a long time.

 

     “Good morning Pepper.” The sister said, picking up the girl and holding her to her chest.

 

The little girl giggled and woke up fully as the two danced and spun about the room.

 

     “Come on now,” She said. “Father already went to the baker's. It's time for breakfast. And Jerald, hurry up, you'll be late for class.”

 

It looked like any regular morning routine. I stood in the middle of the room trying to take it all in, but everything was changing so fast I could barely keep up. I was still myself when I looked down, but it was now I who had no color. The young boy named Jerald stumbled groggily from his bed and walked right through me as he went to fetch his clothes from the lone dresser under the window. It appeared I was a ghost privy to watching another world. A world that appeared to be only memories. But there was a feeling like a fishhook tugging at my brain. It is as if something or someone was trying to pull me away. Maybe I wasn't meant to be here?

 

From spooky city, to humble abode, to infinity and now memories. This all felt very much like a dream. Everything was fluid and nothing was coherent. One scene flowed into the next and they all mingled and mixed with each other freely. But try as she might, I wont back away now. There is something I need to see here. If I stay I believe I will discover the truth behind the madness of this world. I needed to know that, or else my head would be the pièce de résistance on a shish kabob.

 

While I stood there pondering, the children had already poured out from the room and were heading down the stairs. The only one who remained in the room was the elder sister. She dutifully made the beds of her siblings, humming happily to herself all the while. I watched her closely and noticed the uncanny resemblance. Shortish brown hair, indigo colored eyes, a small bridged nose and slim almond eyes. Her eyes looked much wider though, brimming with light as they glistened. But there was no extra insectoid eyes, antenna, arm scythes or extra lower abdomen coming from her spine. She was human. Her skin was blemished and some of her features were ever so slightly different. A two hour Hollywood makeup session and a quick Photoshop edit later and she'd look just as radiant as the mantis girl. She'd only be lacking the killer instinct. Instead, she was singing. I was still having a hard time accepting what I was seeing. The two things were so wildly opposed.

 

I followed the older sister down the stairs when she finally finished and watched over the family as they ate together at the table. There was one new arrival, a man, perhaps in his late thirties. He had a great bushy brown colored mustache under his nose but not a hair on top of his head. He was also stringy as though his limbs were like twigs and a monocle that appeared fixed to his right eye. His blue eyes seemed very gentle as was his smile as he played with the youngest sister sitting next to him at the table. I think I found who she resembles most. That must mean the others take after... someone who wasn't present.

 

     “Father?” The elder sister asked. “Will you be in the shop all day today too?”

 

     “Yes,” He said in a gruff voice unbecoming of his stringy physique, but gentle and kind. “I just got the special order leather for Count Wellin's order. I'll need to finish his boots before the summer hunt begins. Leather arrived pretty late, so I'll have to work some hard days to get 'em done on time.”

 

     “You said I could help!” Tommie shouted out with bread still in his mouth.

 

     “I said you could watch. I'll be cutting the leather today. You can help me pound it out tomorrow though.”

 

The boy looked a little disappointed, but he smiled a little at the prospect of being allowed to hit something later. He got an earful from his older sister though, berating him for talking with his mouth full once again. It didn't quite get rid of his good mood though.

 

     “And Jerald. The school master hasn't been upset at you lately?”

 

     “No father. I'm third in the class now for rune recitals. We'll be moving onto mathematical formula this week and-”

 

     “Papa!” The youngest sister cried out.

 

     “Pep? Oh, a tooth! That's good luck.”

 

A baby tooth was lodged into the bread she was eating and there was a little blood that the father wiped away with a handkerchief. The girl didn't cry though, she was tougher than she looked. Jerald looked back down at his bread a little depressed he was interrupted, but he shied away and didn't try to bring up his classes again.

 

     “I can keep watch of Pep in the shop for a bit, so you can go shopping for lunch and dinner.” The father said, looking toward the eldest sister while still wiping the traces of blood from the little girl's chin.

 

     “Sure papa!” She replied with a smile.

 

     “Thank you, Minte.”

 

So after evading death for nearly an entire day, I finally learn her name. If they were truly the same person. After breakfast was finished, the family disperses. Tommie, Pep and the father go off into the cobbler's workshop while Jerald and Minte head out the front door and then off in separate directions, bidding one another one last farewell.

 

I was apprehensive in leaving the house after last time; what with all the killer ghouls and the giant killer insect running amok, but when I stepped outside it was into the bustling cobblestone streets of a medieval town. There were clear blue skies above and various scents from the marketplace all around. I was still monochrome, and I passed through people and things like a ghost, so it was easy to keep up with the girl, but it was still an unsettling feeling to do so. I watched as she visited all the different shops and all the people had kind words and smiles for her which she returned in kind. Boys and men around her age approached her with their chests puffed out, but she only had the same greetings and smiles for them as she carried on. Even when they were insistent, they ended up fighting among themselves and she blissfully slipped away ignorant of their wolf like behavior.

 

With a basket in her hands that grew heavier and heavier as she skipped around the center of town, her brown dress fluttering at her knees as she did, I was overcome with a profound sense of peace. I followed dutifully, even with the hook still trying to pull me away. There was no stopping me now though; I was going to follow wherever this led to the end. When the sun was finally at the highest point in the sky and Minte's basket was filled with fruit, vegetables, eggs, bread, meat and sewing materials, she skipped her way home. She pushed aside the front door and saw Tommie and Pep playing at the table instead of in the workshop.

 

     “Tommie? Aren't you helping father?”

 

     “Smould stopped by. Father shooed us out.” He pouted.

 

Minte's cheerful smile pursed and became serious.

 

     “Is he still here?” Minte asked.

 

     “Yeah. That's why we're still out here.”

 

She didn't seem bothered by the snarly comeback at all. Minte placed the basket on the table and walked toward the door leading to the workshop. The two other children look at each other, then got up to follow her. When she noticed, she had a chastising expression on her face.

 

     “Go wait upstairs.”

 

     “Hey?” Tommie replied indignantly. “If you're gonna spy I wanna-”

 

     “Go to bed Tommie. Or I'll tell father about the stray cat you keep feeding out back with your scraps.”

 

His mouth hung agape, “You wouldn't."

 

     “Sis...” Pep pouted, looking almost ready to cry from watching her sister's dire expression.

 

She squat down to her eye level and spoke to her gently, showing her signature smile again.

 

     “Wait upstairs, Pep. We'll do some embroidery later. I got some really good thread from a deal today. Okay?”

 

The little girl thought for a couple seconds while she watched her sister's face, but she soon glowed and nodded her head. Tommie reluctantly took the younger sister by the hand, and they went upstairs together. When they finally vanished from sight, Minte went to the door leading to the workshop and stealthily opened it just a bit so that the sound of a conversation might slip through.

 

     “-Please Mister Smould, there's been plenty of orders, but the leather hasn't been coming in.”

 

     “I am well aware, Nemitz. I also trade in the stuff. I have a keener understanding of how choked the current trade routes are than you.”

 

Inside the workshop along with the father, was a man in gaudy looking clothes that looked befitting of a wealthy merchant. He was an older gentleman and his appearance... although his name was Smould, the name Mr. Potter kept rising from the murky depths of my own head. I had no idea why.

 

     “Clearbrook Falls fell just a month ago. A whole town, walls and all, overrun in under a fortnight. The Duke's knights couldn't even slow them down. The night after that, the priests confirm the place is pulsating with the devil's own nectar. Half the town managed to get away while the others were taken prisoner by monsters. Now trade routes through the east valley are all but done for.”

 

     “I understand Mister Smould. Really I do, but I can't pay the rent if I can't work. I can't work because I don't have the leather. If I just had the leather, I could make a hundred pairs of boots and shoes in no time. I can pay you back soon, I promise.”

 

     “This isn't about short term loans, Nemitz. I'm strapped for funds too. I've lost a lot of contacts, contracts and stored goods already. All I got right now is the land I own and a few recipts for gold in the bank at the capital. But how am I going to get there when Clearbrook is overrun? And then with half of Clearbrook funneling this way, that means the same amount of land for a lot more people. That means the price of rent goes up. Everything is gonna go up. Are you going to put me, your landlord and one of your suppliers out of business? People are all smiles now, but the news just hasn't hit and sunk in yet. When the supply finally runs dry...”

 

     “I understand, but please! I cannot afford it. I need my workshop and I have to look after my family. By myself. My eldest helps, but they... They don't have a...”

 

     “Yes, Mister Nemitz, I am aware of the tragedy about your wife. One of the best seamstresses in all Terenberg. Wonderful mother and loving wife. But the plagues are just part of life; be glad you and your children did not suffer the same fate.”

 

The father looked visibly pained by his words, but he still had to plead his case. He had to beg. This would be the part his children were not meant to see. It wasn't about negotiating anymore.

 

     “Then please understand Mister Smould. I have one order I'm working on for the Count. Special order. A right proper and beautiful pair of hunting boots. A real master piece in the works. I can pay the rent for a month on em. They'll be properly cured, done and delivered in a couple weeks.”

 

     “The rent goes up, Mister Nemitz. This meeting is not a negotiation. It's a warning. Pay up your dues now... Or I'll find other tenants from Clearbrook who still have their wealth and a need for a roof over their heads. Stop wasting your money on that one boy of yours, for starters.”

 

     “Jerald is gifted! It would be a waste to have him work leather, the fields or a shovel. He'll be a right proper scholar and magician one day. You'll see! Just invest a little now, and we'll be in your debt. He'll be in your debt. He's the fastest improving student out of them all!”

 

     “I cannot afford to think ahead right now. I only care about now. And right now, if you put each of them to work instead of coddling them, you could meet the new rent easily!”

 

Minte's father was taken aback. He fell back into his chair as though the life had been sucked from out of him.

 

     “...That ain't what Clara wanted.”

 

     “Neither would she want her children living on the streets. She's gone now and you have to accept you can't shelter them forever. I'm a father too, Mr Nemitz, and my sons are all grown now. I would say I've been through it all and more than you. I have to worry now about what I'm going to leave behind for them. I refuse to leave them with nothing, and worse, debt! Debt I'd accumulate by coddling charity cases like the one you're trying to sell me.” He said accusingly, pointing his fat but strong looking finger at the father.

 

Seeing Minte's father still shell-shocked and virtually unresponsive he walked over to his workbench and ran his finger over the tools, the samples of leather and all unfinished shoes that would remain unfinished without more leather and the like. Then Smould's eyes lit up. An idea had come to him suddenly.

 

     “Nemtiz... You have a daughter of age now, don't you?”

 

     “Minte?” The father slurred slight, coming back to life.

 

     “My third son... He's becoming quite the merchant, just like his father. One day I'm sure he'll be one of the richest men in this town. And believe you me, this town will one day be a city when our grandsons are men...”

 

He turned toward her father, approached him and placed his hands on the arms of his chair while leaning over him. As though he were pinning him to the chair.

 

     “He's still only a single man.”

 

I couldn't see her father's reaction, but I just had to turn my head to look at Minte's. It was not a pleasant one. It was shocked and afraid. The way he was pinning him to the chair, this didn't seem like an offer was being made. This was an ultimatum.

 

     “Only sixteen summers old. A beautiful little thing. For a bride's price... I'll let you own this little place. Not more rent. You'll also never have to worry about little Jerald's tuition ever again. I get my incessant son's whining out of my ear and hopefully grandchildren before I die. How does that sound?” Smould said, with a professional business smile on his face, the kind of smile you put on to hide something that stinks underneath it.

 

I wanted to get off the ride now.

 

***

 

The clang of steel and crackle of fire shook the small clearing and dust clouds kicked into the air masked the chaos of battle. A bright red salamander twirled round and round as she matched blades with the hulking armored woman. She parried her massive sword swings and weaved out of the way of her powerful blows. Rose dodged left then rolled right to avoid the surging mass of red jelly that pursued her, hot on her heels every time the armored woman missed. A large sticky mass that sought to smother her while the knight pulverized the earth around her after every miss. The flame burning on her tail was very weak, and she was breathing heavily, but she still fought with everything she had.

 

On the other side of the clearing, the grounded wyvern dealt with two lithe and agile warriors leaping all about her. She was too slow to pin either down and she strained to put her bulk between them and Laven, kneeling helpless in the distance. She had many minor and superficial cuts and scrapes, a dagger sticking out from her thigh and a couple arrows sticking from her left shoulder. Nothing seemed to slow her down at all. Try as they might, the two girl struggled just to get by her hardy scales and impenetrable skin. They circled cautiously because one errant connection with her tail or talon could end their fight quickly. But therein lied the problem for Christophaclies, she didn't have a hope in moving fast enough to hit either. She could only try to out last them both and they were both well rested while she was already tiring.

 

Defeating either of them would be a bonus for Zerin's henchmen, because their real goal was to keep them busy. Busy while their master toyed with his catch.

 

     “So little time? Or all the time I'll ever need? The anticipation is killing me.” Zerin joked to himself as he circled around Laven, the mantis and Shoshanah. “I've never had the pleasure of killing the same person twice... But 'he' has turned out to be rather detestable, so I think I shan’t want to again.”

 

He retrieved a stick from the forest floor and pressed the tip of it against Laven's forehead and tried to push him backward, but he would not bend. He then pushed from the side, but his still body wouldn't falter. It was as though the two of them had turned to stone, yet the stick left marks and small cuts where trickles of fresh blood came from. He showed no pain or discomfort, but Shoshanah grit her teeth and bared with a crippling migraine.

 

     “As I thought. You must channel this spell for it to hold. How admirable of you to do so even under the most strenuous of circumstances.”

 

Zerin turned his attention away from Laven and toward the Anubis and then viciously kicked out and stomped on her shoulder's open wound. The dirty treads of the boot's sole ground down on the wound and she yelped out, like a struck dog. Yet she hardly budged at all. She kept her back straight and suffered through the pain as he twisted his boot over the wound.

 

     “Admirable for a monstrous bitch like yourself!” He laughed.

 

Zerin didn't laugh for long though. After the initial shock, Shoshanah cries and tears stopped and she glared at the inquisitor with burning red eyes. Seeing how she wasn't suffering, he pulled back his book and stepped back. He clicked his tongue in disappointment.

 

     “You're interfering with powers beyond your understanding.” She growled at the madman.

 

     “Powers?” Zerin lashed out with sarcastic outrage. “Ha! There are only two powers in this world. The Almighty's and the Damned. I understand what I'm seeing right now. It is by his grace alone I find myself here to enact his will. I will see that difference is upheld.”

 

He turned his back to her and toward Laven once more, and she called out to him again.

 

     “Yet you're incomplete while my Pharaoh is greater than before. What a pitiable god yours is. Or perchance, your god is merely cruel?”

 

Zerin stopped in his tracks and turned around very slowly, his face nearly boiling over with rage.

 

     “You stand here now not because of providence but because of fortune. Blind luck... The devil's own luck.” The Anubis sneered.

 

A large clatter interrupted their conversation. A helm flew through the air and landed near the two of them, golden locks of hair flowing out from it. In the distance, Rose stood still at the apex of her sword swing and a headless mass of iron stood stock still on the battlefield. The Helm rolled but eventually lost its head, and it rolled until it hit a hunk of train debris. That is where it came to a stop, it's face buried in the leaves.

 

Before Rose could boast or even move, the slimy red jelly surged up from underneath the leaves and twigs to wrap around her legs. She was taken off guard, but she couldn't plunge her sword anywhere to harm the slime. Everything she cut off just oozed back to the main body and reattached itself. Then the suit of armor eerily moved on its own and raised the sword over its shoulder and swung it across like a baseball bat. Rose's tail tried to explode, but it sputtered instead, the jelly didn't even react to the paltry heat she gave off. The flat of the blade connected with her abdomen and tore the salamander from the floor and the grip of the red slime came loose with a pop. She was sent flying into the trees nearby, cracking the bark on impact. Gravity then peeled her off and dropped her bruised battered and winded on the ground below.

 

     “Awwww~ You held it the wrong way~” The slime cooed.

 

She then slithered across the ground to retrieve the decapitated head and then returned to the body still standing with the sword extended at the end of its swing. When they were joined, the body shook and started to move freely once again.

 

     “Forgive me. I could not see.” She calmly replied.

 

Shoshanah looked on, her eyes wide with fright at the spectacle and concern for Rose. It was Zerin's turn to sneer this time.

 

     “Luck? No. Only keen planning and foresight. Cheating death is not a unique talent to your kind, priestess. I have only one master and that is my God. I bow not even to death. She bows to me and I will not relent, not until my time given to me by my god expires. No matter how brittle my bones become.”

 

He raised his voice and commanded the armored woman.

 

     “Be sinful, Zoe! That crime I absolve you of, only if lay the Thorn Knight to rest!”

 

     “Yes, Master Zerin!” Zoe bellowed out and saluted.

 

Several runes appeared all over the armored woman's shell. They glowed a radiant white until they burned out and one by one. And one by one, the pieces of her hulking armor fell off and clatter into piles on the ground below. Armor around her thighs, her arms, abdomen and chest fell off bit by bit. Soon the heavy suit of armor seemed more like a cage in hindsight. What was left was a sensual and seductive suit of armor and clothing that revealed stockings underneath with just a thin strip of skin before armored briefs around her waist. Her breast plate was just that, hugging her breasts and showing off ample cleavage along with every sensual and feminine curve of her body. She removed from her head a band that had rested on her forehead, knife like ears similar to the elves hung freely from the sides of her head once they were freed. The sclera of her eyes turned from white to black and the blue in her eyes burned bright with ethereal fire.

 

One of the headless knights. A dullahan freed from her shackles by her master. A knight from the other world that deigns the time of death for mortal men. With the extent of her powers, she has decided that it is not her master's time. Shoshanah quickly understood. She didn't have to wait for Zerin's explanation.

 

     “You're a despicable and evil man.” She spat.

 

     Zerin laughed manically, “Ha! I am the Lord, my God's, sword on this world! My mission is his will and he is a vengeful God. A god who sees his garden infested with weeds and pests. Filled to the brim with men who forget it is by his light that creation exists. It is his plan they deviate from, and I am sent here to walk this earth to do my part and put order back into that garden!”

 

He moved his hands like a preacher with a fire in his belly. They were not practiced words, they were spoken from his heart. He believed every word of them.

 

     “This is not a world of just men, Zerin!” Shoshanah retorted.

 

     “There are no monstrosities in God's plan! You are an afterthought, an invader in the order that was perfect for a thousand years! Your kind steal men's souls. You weigh them down with desires of this temporary world. This wretched and imperfect world. A world our ancestors nearly destroyed soon after its creation. But in his infinite mercy, he forgave us. We who did not deserve it. Such is his grace and mercy. He let us steward it under his watchful eye. His world, his greatest creation that we stained with sin! The only thing we mere mortals can create. But men are more than sin. But that is all you are, monster. Sin! Lust! Wrath long before that in the ages of Demon Lords past! Your forms have changed, but not what you are! The deaths you cause now are far crueler. Something that would have been thought impossible when the armies of Demon Lords raped, murdered and pillaged across the world. Now you rob men not of their lives, but of their souls and condemn them to the depths of oblivion. When the Almighty declares their time on this world is over, so are they. They do not pass over to the next world. To the heavens above and in his splendor. His world which is untouched and unmarred by our sin. Why? Because we left our sin behind in this world and refused our soul to be weighed down by it!”

 

     “Your god is mad!” Shoshanah cried out. “There exists no god so petty, so tied to the material world.”

 

     “Your gods are dead. You are abandoned. Forgotten!" Zerin raged, spitting with every word and almost frothing at the mouth. "One day you and the pagans will understand that. But until then, I will not allow heathens like you to corrupt the minds of the innocent. To spread and multiply and throw my lord God's order into chaos!”

 

     “Your vengeance only begets more violence. You sow the very seeds of your own demons!”

 

     “I struggle to realize God's plan. I understand my place in it and that is all.”

 

     “Ignorance is no excuse for any crime. You'll offer remuneration for every transgression you've committed, Zerin. You cloak your heart in righteousness, but I see it for what it truly is. Dark. A cruel man. One who delights in the suffering of others and is incapable of guilt or sympathy. A petty murderer who screams the name of his to justify his worldly pleasures.”

 

Shoshanah barked at Zerin, but she was still kneeling, effectively pinned to the spot. She could not move or lift a paw in resistance. The moment she did, the moment she tried to attack or even defend herself or her precious Pharoah, the spell on the mantis would lift, and he would then immediately be killed not by Zerin, but by the assassin.

 

     “And to justify 'your' actions?” Zerin rebutted, now screaming with his eye flared wide open. “Leaving a wake of chaos behind you? I see through your 'cloak' as well. Prim and proper. Stoic and calculated. You're just a monster in the end. You lust for your mate just like any other beast in heat! Your scion of chaos. An unnatural aberration that must be cleansed and ripped out properly, least it returns like rot. An abominable life I seek to end with my own hands and offer to my lord! A mutation in the grand plan, unburned by even God's purest water for his debauchery and laying with monsters. I will not let even one of the Arc Assassins take that from me!”

 

     “My Pharaoh has a heart of gold. You could muster a million of you and search the depths of each and every heart but for a single grain of gold and you'd never match it. Your hateful God cannot scratch him, because Laven has a heart far lighter than he.”

 

     “Pharaoh? So he is your god king then? Is that how it is? Then let me impart you with one important lesson.”

 

With hands unnaturally fast, Zerin produced a stiletto from his robes and twirled it around effortlessly in his hands. He then threw his arm outward toward Laven. Just as suddenly as he had lashed out, he returned his hand and small sharp blade to his side. He then walked over and squat down beside the Anubis and stared at the unconscious man. From his cheek a trail of blood trickled down. A fine cut into the cheek about six centimeters long and thick enough to cut through half the cheek's flesh. He then spoke three simple words to her: gravely, seriously and maliciously.

 

     “Gods. Don't. Bleed.”

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