■ My submissions
■ Partner’s submissions
The basement of the tavern was more plush than Una had been expecting. She arrived early, cautious as ever, and given the pass phrase to the bartender who’d showed her to room – three chairs, two on one side of a large wooden desk, facing another. Instead of large shelves of wine and barrels, the room was lined with bookshelves filled with oddities. Una had spent a few minutes examining them, fingers wrapping around the strap of the satchel she carried.
Her quarry was inside: four pendants, all won through blood and sweat and tears. The last demon she’d slain for her efforts had left three deep cuts over her shoulder and down her chest, peaking from beneath the shirt and leather corset she wore. Three clean black lines, denoting the colour of her blood beneath her pale skin; the same colour as the eyes that had moved over the skulls and vials, statues and urns on the shelves. Books in languages she didn’t recognise.
Whoever had hired her clearly didn’t deal in the goods she was usually sent to recover.
After a short while, Una had taken to lounging in one of the two chairs, twirling a strand of crimson hair between her fingers. It was natural, and marked another strange thing about her; sleek and shiny and curled, as red as dried blood. The same colour as her father’s, who she’d only met once in her life.
The last remarkable point of her appearance was the spiked, barbed tail that wound its way over the arm of the chair and twitched like a cat’s while she waited for her employer to show. There had been promise of a payout, greater than any she’d ever received, after one final task – given the four quests she’d just embarked on, she wasn’t expecting a walk in the park. But at least she was getting paid.
Alex’s boots were caked with the weight of dried mud, and blackened blood was smeared across the thighs of his padded leggings. His right arm was in a sling, and his left carried the weight of thin armor plates slung over his shoulder, tightly wound and encased within a fisherman’s net. The plates made a rhythmic click, clack, click sound as he walked, forfeiting any chance of stealth as he trudged towards the Inn and Din tavern, but he wasn’t in any current danger. A blue, button-down shirt with various tear marks announced his survival of the last real danger he had encountered.
The rambunctious tavern was alive for the early night, with a drunk piano player pounding out clumsy tunes as a crowd danced and cheered around him. A shadowy pair of figures towards the back wall were playing darts, and a few other cloaked mysteries sat silently at the long bar table. After a brief scan of the goings-on, Alex sat himself at the bar seat closest to the entrance, placing his armored haul down on the floor beside him with a clattering thunk.
The bartender eventually approached the new arrival with an expectant look on his face, but was dismissed with the wave of a hand.
“Drink first,” Alex explained. “Then I’ll go.”
The bartender nodded his understanding (who was he to argue?) and reached for the usual bottles from the shelves behind him. It was obvious that Alex was a regular. He was already late for the arranged meeting, but he figured his employer could endure his tardiness a little longer. He was, after all, in possession of a seemingly timeless bounty, far beyond priceless. But sadly, time wasn’t an accepted currency in the vast world of Iscaroth.
When the bartender presented Alex with his drink, he’d find a large gold coin accompanying the anticipated pieces of silver.
“Reserve a room for the demon woman and I,” the arm-slung warrior requested.
“Yessir,” the bartender acknowledged. “What size bed would ye be likin’ for the pair of–“
“Beds,” Alex corrected. “Plural. Any size is fine.”
The bartender nodded before taking the money on the table, wrote a note in his log book, and moved to serve the call of another customer.
Shortly before his drink was finished, a group of brutes pushed through the tavern’s batwing doors. They were of various heights and races, but each shared the same dubious intentions. Their collective scan of the room seemed to size everyone up, and even the piano player stopped briefly in a bout of alarm before tending to another song request.
Normally, Alex wouldn’t have given two yoks about the arrival of the soon-to-be troublemakers, but he sensed an all-too-familiar energy swirling around them… demonic energy. His cool, olive green eyes kept a close eye as they moved towards the back of the tavern, past the piano’s audience and towards the dining area.
Eventually, their intentions settled upon a lone woman at a table, sipping a cup of tea. The brutes crowded her with strategic placement to prevent an easy escape.
“Well howdy, missus,” came the grumbled greeting of a tall, ox-like beast with wide eyes and broad arms, draped in alligator skins. “Whut’re yeh doin’ all alone here in–“
“Leave me be,” the woman curtly advised. She was a visual firebrand, with her leather armor, short hair and piercing gaze, but the mixture of fear in her voice was obvious to Alex.
“Aww, c’mooooon,” the ox-thing continued without hesitation. “Ye have them lonely eyes, see? Ah bet I could take yen upstairs and–“
The woman abruptly jumped to her feet and met the ox-thing eye-to-eye with a bend of her neck, but a large hand from behind seized her shoulder and forced her back in her seat.
“Sit back down,” an armored, boar-like creature insisted. “We’re just tryin’ to have a little–“
“She said to leave her alone,” Alex interrupted with his sword drawn toward the ox-beast. The four pairs of eyes were immediately drawn to the one-armed warrior who somehow sneaked up on them, and they collectively snorted their displeasures.
“Yeh know this lady?” the ox-beast asked.
“No,” Alex replied.
The four brutes titled their heads alongside an unspoken question: Then why risk your life?
“Yeh think yeh can handle the lot of us? With that broken arm of yours?” The question from the boar-thing was a genuine one, holding no mockery whatsoever.
The pair of stern green eyes passed their wordless answer. Try me.
There was a moment’s standoff before the initial move was made. A twin-like pair of snarling, bipedal ermines took their swipes, which were easily dodged with a swift lunge between them. The ox-thing was already bearing down like a sledgehammer upon Alex with its clamped hands, and the impact on the tavern floor erupted a barrage of wooden planks and splintered shards. When the dust eventually settled, there was no body to be seen, spurring the ox-thing into a frenzied search around the tavern.
By the time it looked up towards the rafters, it was too late. Alex was dangling with his one good arm, blade in teeth, his legs cocked back before landing a fierce blow against the ox-beast’s temple. It staggered back against the nearby tavern wall before a sword was impaled through its shoulder before there was any chance to regroup. The beast roared in agony as Alex leaned in close to his mark and spoke through gritted teeth.
“If I ever see you in this place again,” he warned through wafts of hot breath, “I will sever each of your heads. Understood?”
The ox-beast nodded as it gurgled and wheezed, pinned helplessly against the wall behind it. Its three companions had already fled through the tavern door from whence they entered, leaving it alone to endure the brunt of Alex’s wrath. Without hesitation, he yanked his sword out of the flesh from which it was lodged, prompting another bellow from the ox-beast. It took a few moments to collect its bearings before stumbling away, hand pressed against the wound in its shoulder, snarling its dismay.
The short-haired woman offered a brief nod to her defender. Alex politely returned the gesture. No thank you needed, were the words spoken through his gaze.
After the skirmish concluded, the arm-slung warrior returned to his seat and beckoned the bartender with a wave. He arrived with a visibly hesitant swallow down his throat and waited for instructions. Alex took a breath before reciting the appropriate words.
Inn and Din, Wallow in Sin Where the Air is Thin.
The gaunt bartender in blue overalls then led Alex to the room where Una and his benefactor were most certainly waiting.
The familiar pulse of lust rose and fell within Alex when he was reunited with Una. It was a reflex he had tempered to a barely noticeable hesitation, though the look in his eyes must have betrayed his impassive front on some level.
Una would recognize the olive green gaze, wavy black hair, and soft ochre skin of her tentative partner as he dropped his armored load near the room’s doorframe. A faded scar traveled from his temple and across his right cheek, and the bridge of his nose forked into a pair of bladed eyebrows. Despite his weathered visage, maidens had occasionally shown interest in the battle-worn hellhunter, though as of yet none had fancied him beyond a casual roll in the hay.
There was also a cloaked individual whose face hidden in shadow, obviously the benefactor. The air in the book-filled hideaway was heavy with impatience.
“Sorry I’m late,” Alex offered with a rather unapologetic tone. “I was held up.” He then tossed a bag onto the wooden desk, where a metallic pendant would peek out and unabashedly announce its authenticity.
“All eight pendants are here,” Alex confirmed while folding his good arm across his chest. “What’s next?”
“Alex,” Una greeted. She watched as he slung his pendants on the table, heard the clink of the quarry inside as it bumped against her own satchel sat neatly on the desk. Eyebrows raised, she ran her eyes over him with a small smile. “Was that you I heard causing trouble upstairs, as usual?” she asked, her tongue and lips curling around her accent, all soft and musical syllables.
“I was just regaling our benefactor with tales of my exploits, though it seems you’ve come out rather worse for wear,” Una said, turning her gaze to the shadowed figure. “How’s the arm?”
“It bends,” Alex remarked with a brief glance at his sling. With pain, was the implicit, unspoken rider. There was an effort to shrug his shoulder, but a sharp sting nipped his attempt at levity in the bud.
He left Una’s comment regarding his skirmish alone and instead began to dwell his mind upon what lay ahead. The truth was that he was indeed worse for wear, and a glance upon Una’s own gouges suggested she was somewhere near the same level of exhaustion. A cleric would help speed their recoveries along, but they were expensive… not to mention elusive, due to their collective exodus from the borderlands after the Thankosan revolution. The odds seemed to stack themselves by the day, but he and Una had made this far, despite—
“At any rate,” Alex said aloud, interrupting his own runaway train of thought. “Everything is here for us to make our final move. Once the final beast is slain, we will be promptly compensated, yes?” To Alex, it felt good to say the words aloud, since he had already spent most of his advance towards the simple necessity of staying alive.
He wouldn’t wait for the mystery man’s answer before walking past the seated Una with an accidental brush against her restless tail, towards the table of treasures. He snatched a pendant into his hand and studied it quietly before lifting his eyes back towards the cloaked wonder.
“Tell us more about this Christ of Demons,” Alex said with a curious curl of a smile.
Sarcastic, straight to the point, and subtle as ever – Alex was exactly as Una had remembered. His comment about his bending arm had her lips twisting into a smile, the small scar that stretched from the left corner to just below her eye pinching with the movement. The half-demon usually preferred more tactful methods, but she did admire his somewhat brutal efficiency. Especially as he enquired about payment.
Her dark eyes slid from him to their benefactor at the question.
“Why, of course. You’ve been worth your fee thus far, and provided you continue to impress my client, you shall be rewarded as swift as we are able – once the final task is complete, of course.” The voice that slithered from beneath the hood was distinctly male, but not precisely human. Something in the elongated vowels and the drag of the soft consonants lingered in Una’s mind as she watched him with a shrewd gaze.
Alex passing her, and brushing her tail which twitched with the touch, had her attention drawn back to him. Assessing his gait, his expression – was the arm the worst of his injuries? Or a pretty distraction for something more damaging? It was impossible for her to gauge, making her consider other methods of assessing his current physical state.
“The Christ of Demons will prove a far more formidable foe than those you’ve just faced. His influence has leaked into these lands for far longer than my client ever wished to permit – suffice to say his removal will provide far more benefits to you both than just money.” The shadowed figure extended a cloaked arm, blackened nails belonging to slender, pale fingers peaking from beneath the dark robe. Directing Alex to the other seat. “You will need to prepare well; supplies, of course, will be compensated. But his domicile will have challenges extending beyond the physical. I would advise you both to insure that you are at the peak of physical and mental wellness before entering his home.”
Once the other adventurer was seated, the cloaked figure would produce a scroll from within the folds of his robe, and extend it between them. It’s appearance had Una sitting forward a little.
“A map of the Northern Territories, with the Demon Lord’s castle defined for ease of location,” the figure said. “A journal will be delivered here tomorrow morning, detailing as much information as is available about the castle itself. The defences are… unique, to say the least. I would wager unlike anything either of you have experienced before.”
Una felt a familiar chill run down her spine: something new. Something strange and unusual, a puzzle begging to be solved. The money was what had drawn her to this task, but it was the promise of adventure that had sealed the deal. And so far, this figure and his master had provided far beyond what she had been expecting.
The pendant kept silent as Alex’s good hand fondled it absentmindedly, as a fevered fledgling might fondle his first breast. He sat intently while his eyes were affixed on the cloaked mystery thing and his… its?… ominous briefing. His spiritual senses had sharpened over the course of his battles, and he felt something there… not demonic, but perhaps something even worse…. no, not worse. Something beyond.
Once offered with the scroll, Alex twirled the pendant’s chain around his forearm, the metallic stone tautly pressed against his wrist as he accepted it. He gave it a cursory glance before passing it to Una for her own inspections. The outlook seemed precarious, as it always did, but he had faced long odds before, with his die or get paid attitude carrying him much farther than a flimsy creed should.
A visit to the local shaman might prove beneficial, though their blessings and wares frequently amounted to little more than snake oil… but there had been pecks of useful insight, and a small vial of what was advertised to be Wonder Juice once supplied him with a burst of energy to swing his sword true, when he was near the proverbial end of his rope. In the absence of a cleric, it might be he and Una’s only option to pad their cuts and bruises. His stubborn arm was another matter to be considered with a less exhausted mind.
His removal will provide far more benefits to you both than just money… the words hung precariously in Alex’s mind, begging to be scrutinized. In actuality, Alex really hadn’t considered the widespread ramifications of his admittedly financially-driven crusade. He had simply been too focused on the endgame, too busy to look at the big picture. His sporadic bouts of objectivity had almost convinced him that the demon lords were less intent on malice and more intent on indulgence. Keep the common folk feeding, fighting, snorting, and fornicating, he had heard one candid politician say. There were celebrations after word had spread of his triumphs, but the plateau of mankind’s morality held steady, and in fact seemed to compensate for the felled demons. We can be evil, with or without the reigns of demon lords, rose the apparent sentiment of the masses.
“We’ll stay here tonight,” Alex announced to the cloaked something-or-other with a glance towards Una. “Study this more closely as we await your journal. Discuss strategies and options, and conduct an honest analysis of our current physical states. We’ll run an errand or two in the early morning and meet here when the tavern opens, as the sun frees itself from the horizon. How does that suit you, mystery man?”
Una caught the scroll between two fingers, unrolling the crackling paper as she listened to the figure speak. It was a standard map, nothing fancy; the Demon Lord’s home highlighted as he’d described. Right in the middle of The Forest of Dornath.
The end of her tail curled as she stared at it memories from long ago dancing through her mind. An old scar along her thigh gave a foreboding tingle. She made mental notes of exactly what kinds of weapons and poisons and wards she would need to bring, as she rolled the map up and balanced it on her leg.
Her dark eyes flicked to Alex as he spoke again, letting the cloak figure’s words settle in her mind. Her partner was more talkative, it seemed, and she was happy to sit back and listen. To analyse and think through the information.
“We’ll stay here tonight.”
Her lips quirked, eyebrows raising in silent question. Will we now?
“I’m afraid I will be leaving town after this meeting has reached its conclusion,” the figure replied, hands retreating back beneath its shadowed sleeves. “The journal will be delivered to the bar – just give the phrase and it will be handed to you.”
The thing stood, a smile on the lips visible beneath the hood. “Should you be successful, our paths shan’t cross again. Your payment shall be delivered when you’re finished. Leave any expenses with the bar when you collect the journal.”
Una spared another glance at Alex before standing, taking the scroll to place in her satchel on the desk. It seemed the meeting was over.
“If that’s all, I think it would be best we get a head start on preparations,” she said, voice smooth and polite as she spoke. She turned to Alex as she scooped his medallions back into his bag and passed them to him, ignoring the way the metal seemed to heat against her skin. “Unless you’ve further questions?”
A determined horse’s hooves trotted awkwardly up the dense thicket to the edge of Murtham cliff, finding themselves on the overlook with some effort. There could be seen the wide bowl of Murth Canyon, stretching its rugged magnificence past the horizon. The fading glow of dusk could be seen above its broad cup, with the silhouette of another horseman pressed against the remaining light, waiting still and patient.
“Commander,” came the greeting of Lieutenant Netley towards his expected contact. A moment of observation revealed a fresh facial wound upon his superior in the moonlight, and his sense of dutiful restraint abandoned him.
“Sir, what in god’s name happened to your face?”
There was a pull of breath before he spoke. “An overzealous scout,” the Commander explained, his eyes still affixed towards the fading distance. “He had his chance from his hidey-hole and marked my face, but missed my life.” A moment’s reflection drew out an obvious observation. “They’re out there, and they know we’re here,” came the sobered declaration.
Netley’s head hung a bit before speaking again. “The troops have been prepared,” he said with unmistakably forced confidence. “Armed and ready for your orders.”
The Commander seemed to ignore the report entirely with a gaze from another place, but then words lifted themselves from his lips.
“Netley, what was the joke you told at the bonfire from three night’s prior?”
Netley’s brow furrowed with uncertainty. “Sir… ?” A moment’s thought then settled upon the memory, prompting a slow enunciation.
“In between a harlot’s legs lies the sweetest succor, but a look upon her morning face and you’ll wish you hadn’t fucked’er.”
The Commander smirked at the retelling, then settled back into his somber mood. “That will most certainly our battle against the Njorks,” he mused aloud. “Sweet to fight, with our regrets in death.”
Netley said nothing in response. A few more moments of heavy silence held themselves in the air, before the Commander kicked his horse into motion.
“We charge at dawn,” Alex said solemnly as he passed his Lieutenant.
It was that inner Commander that rose within Alex when he told the cloaked wonder about his… their… plans. The impulse rose less frequently now, but an officer’s habits died hard, especially when there were preparations involved. He had controlled most aspects of his former battalion’s lives… from when they slept, what they ate, where they charged… how they died. And now, he had to be careful. Una certainly exhibited certain categorical aspects of a soldier, but she wasn’t his soldier.
Alex didn’t have to look at Una to see her hesitation. He sensed it, but nevertheless felt no regrets. With the obvious caveat, of course: she could simply reject his order… his suggestion… without fear of reprisal.
Should you be successful, our paths shan’t cross again. Mr. Cloak had said those words before he departed, but they meant little in the mind of Alex. He had long ago settled on the fact that all walls have eyes, and his newfound spiritual mastery kept him keen on the involvement of their benefactor. A presence always lingered around him, during his travels and battles… the presence, it seemed to be… watching with its unrelenting gaze. The book-laden room he and Una were in did not hold itself as an exception. To Alex, Mr. Cloak’s aura persisted like a bad odor.
Alex shook his head at Una’s question before addressing the elephant between them. “I reserved us a room,” he said with a shade of reluctance. “I know our battles have to this point been fought separately, but our journeys merge from this point forward. It would be wise to build a little camaraderie to prepare us for the challenges that lay ahead.”
Alex spoke with a rational air, but his reasoning pulsed from past memories of jokes told across bonfires…
“At the very least, let’s conduct our preparations there,” he added to ease any misgivings. “This room gives me the shudders.”
There was the golden-haired maiden who clenched him tightly as she panted against his ear, but that was so long ago, and the memory’s sensuous comforts had dimmed. Now there was Una, though his mind often rejected her tempting potentialities… but tonight was different. Tonight she was close.
The lusty tide rose again, and an almost uncontrollable urge to reach for his roommate, even with the realization that she might accept his advance, or she might drive a dagger into his heart. Nevertheless, the pine was there, and it would shudder across his limbs towards fidgeting fingertips.
“UuuhhAAAOOWWW,” came the grunt of pain from his lips as he unconsciously shifted in response to his mental whims. Pain had always grounded him, kept his mind sharp and focused. His sharp wince eventually subsided, and he was thankful for the stack of armor masking the excitement below his waist.