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Thread: Moonsight Underground

  1. #21
    闇色の六王権 The Dark Six Twelveseal's Avatar
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    Chapter 16: Heart...

    He shook himself, moved to follow the woman, but…

    "Col!" A voice stopped him. He turned to see Rhian rounding the tent, and by the time he looked back, she was already gone. "Are you alright!?"

    "I'm…I'm fine. Did you see…"

    "What's happening over there? It’s hard to miss! We need to get you out of here before it expands any more." She took his hand, dragging at full speed him away from the tent… and the direction the stranger had taken. She pulled him further and further away from Teagan’s tent, not giving him the chance to talk, passing by the sleds, now partially emptied of their contents and still crawling with workers, past the backs of stalls and more wagons like Nye’s, albeit smaller. The Market seemed unnaturally empty compared to how it had been, a testament to how far the orgy was spreading.

    Finally she came to a stop, leaving him panting, and sat down at a simple table… the very one they’d eaten at before heading to the smith’s shop in the first place. He leaned on the worn wood before finally catching his breath and sitting. He’d yet to fully recover from the draining the Kobold had given him.

    Once he sat, he removed his glasses and put his face in his hands, pressing them into his eyes as if to blot out the things he’d done and seen.

    “So uhhhhh… what happened back there? Last I saw, she was starting to give birth, and we had a crowd.”

    “I wish I knew… gods, I wish I knew.

    “Alright… can you give me an idea, at least?” He sighed.

    “As far as I can tell, Teagan fucked a, errr… no… That’s not where I need to start. Basically, while we were having fun, so to speak, we seemed to have picked up an audience.”

    “Yeah, they were kind of hard to miss… Been there a while, too.”

    “Fuck.”

    “I mean, that happens around here. Someone probably came to get work done, saw what was going on, told some friends or just started shlicking right there, and word spread.”

    Gods that’s embarrassing.”

    “I mean, around here? Not really. Nobody really gives a shit.” You say that, but I do, and at least one other person does. Though she’s probably batshit fucking insane. He sighed, shaking his head before rubbing his temples. He stared at her, at the blob of vaguely human-shaped color she’d become, before finally putting his glasses back on. He sighed once more, cleared his throat, and continued.

    “When we got Teagan out, she basically just went full on into labor right there. I mean, Griffith and I carried her out together, sorry. The crowd outside made a circle around us. Ringed us in, so the only way we could have taken out was back through the tent. And they basically just started masturbating and fucking as she was giving birth.”

    “Ah, yeah. They were pretty much already doing that when Neh and I broke through. She took off to get Nye at the sleds. Willing to bet she hid after that; she doesn’t like big groups of people like that. Scares her. I went to go find a midwife.”

    “A pudgy green Goblin, right?”

    “Yeah, a Greenskin. Part of the same group that the triplets’ mother comes from.”

    “That officially what they’re called here, or…” Because unless that’s a local term or some new subspecies…

    “Nah. The other Gobs just call ‘em that sometimes.” He rolled his eyes. Of course. Because that’s not how the term “Blue” started, I’m sure. They’re actually called Saplins… “So what happened after that?”

    “We managed to set Teagan down, but the crowd just kept getting worse and worse. Nye, Káne, and Yúla all showed up, but they just got caught up in it themselves. It was like… like they were all…”

    “It happens. I told you, that kind of thing snowballs.”

    “I mean, even Griffith started masturbating, and she was serving as the support for Teagan!”

    “Ahhhh… well, huh… ummm… that’s not good.”

    “No. No, it was not. And once the cum started flying, I had to get out of there. I had to leave them.”

    “Yeah, or you’d…”

    “But not before I saw what she gave birth to, Rhian. It came fast.I saw it.” She looked at him in confusion. At the look of distress on his face.

    “I mean, even newborn Kobolds are ugly, so…”

    “This was no Kobold.

    “Huh?”

    “This… this was…”

    It was aTulpa.” He jumped in his seat, slamming his thighs against the table with a yelp before plopping back down in it. Fuck that hurt!

    Oh gods what the fuck!?!”

    TeeHeeHee.”

    “Why!? Why!?! Why would you do that!? I’ve seen enough shit right now, okay!?” He turned to yell at the trio standing right behind him. He’d had no warning whatsoever. Rhian hadn’t seen them, meaning they’d either teleported, or been invisible. Between that… that thing coming out of Teagan and that damn crazy woman running around here, I don’t need more of this shit!

    Ah! Ummm…We’re sorry about that. We didn’t mean to make you do that. We just thought it’d be a little funny and ease the mood some…”

    “Look, I… It’s been a kind of stressful day, okay? Can you just… not do that thing you’re doing where you talk over each other? Look, I’ll even give you noodle balls. I saved some for you.”

    “Ehhhhh!?He really did!? Did you really!? Woohoo! Oh wait, right.”

    “Oops, our bad.”
    “Terribly sorry.”
    “Won’t happen again.”
    “Not for a while, at least.”
    “Teehee…”

    He groaned as he fished the cold food out of his bag and unwrapped the cloth he’d folded them in. Tiny blue hands grabbed at it, but he portioned them out evenly.

    “Heheheh”
    “We got…”
    “Your balls.” He just stared at them as they devoured the treats. Rhian just looked at him, a knowing twinkle in her eyes. He turned back to her.

    “Rhian, she gave birth to a giant maggot.”

    “Uhhh… a what?

    “It was a big, fat, wriggling mag-

    “Like we said…”
    “It was a Tulpa. You’re a psychic…”
    “So you should know what that is.”

    He turned back to stare at the trio, all signs of food having completely vanished. “I… no?” The sisters looked at each other, then looked back at him, and responded as one.

    Ehhhhhhh!?

    He just raised his hands in confusion.

    “How do you…”
    “Not know what…”
    “A Tulpa is?”

    “I mean, I don’t know what the fuck a Tulpa is either. Clue us in, girls.” They looked at each other again as Rhian piped in, determination on their faces and… played a round of rock-paper-scissors. Two papers, one rock.

    “Hehehe…”

    “You’re up, Lap.”
    “Awwww… oh well!” It seemed the losing Blue was up for exposition. The girl turned to him, her blue hair streaked with what he’d thought was white at first, but was actually pale blonde. Her long ears were pierced half a dozen times each, studs and golden rings dangling. Her lower lip had a ring as well, each nostril pierced with small, glittering studs of their own. Her tongue as well, showing clearly as she spoke.

    “Lapis, I take it?”

    “Yup yup. Sorry I’m not as loud as my sisters.”

    “You’re loud enough…”
    In bed!” The pierced Goblin shrugged and rolled her eyes at the jibe.

    “A Tulpa is a type of not-quite-Monster. Monsters and Humans can make them. They get called different things depending on how they’re made and by who. A Psionicist makes one, it’s an Astral Construct. Arcane users call them Eidolons or Summons. Occult practitioners sometimes call them Tulpas, Spirits, or Personas. It’s a fake living thing that exists to do something.”

    “Wait… no, I’ve heard about this. I’ve just never heard that term before.”

    “Ah! Good! We were thinking you’d only been half-trained or something, but you’ve clearly got His Eyes upon you, so that can’t be right…” Oh great, cult things. Ignoring that for now.

    “So… someone put one of these in Teagan? But why?”

    “Mana.”

    “Huh?”

    “It was stealing her Mana and transferring it to somewhere else. Probably whoever made it. We were able to take a look at it before it went kaput.”

    “Ka… it died?”

    “Almost immediately. It’s not like it was really alive to begin with, though. It was just a lump of Mana, like a Spell. Once it ran out of its own power, it popped right out and dissipated. The Kobold’ll be fine, too, just tired for a while. Seems like she really enjoyed it. Probably felt great. Hey, got any more of those noodle balls?” That’s good to hear, at least. That she'll be fine. Not… not the other part. He knew Monsters were sturdy, especially when it came to sexual things, but even so, seeing that thing come sliding out of Teagan had left him worried for her wellbeing. He desperately tried to ignore the Blue’s opinion on the sensation of the Kobold’s experience, though.

    “Uhhh… no. Rhian?”

    “Sure. Here.” She tossed Lapis one from her own Sister Stash at his gesture.

    “Hey!”
    “No fair!”
    “Why does she…”
    “Get an extra?”

    “Because she’s being helpful”

    “Tch!”
    “Maaaaaaaan…”
    “Teeheehee… You know, though, it’s surprising you didn’t know that about Tulpas. You’ve got Psychic Magic, and an Aptitude for Pyrokinesis, too. We can tell that much just digging around in your head.”

    “Please don’t do that.”

    “It’s not like…”
    “You make it easy…”
    “On us.”

    “I am trained in that regard, at least.”

    “We noticed. But we guess no one’s really taught you how to use your abilities? Like, really focused on them?” He sighed at Lapis’s line of questioning.

    “No, unfortunately not. There was no one suitable in my hometown, and after leaving, no one who stayed around long enough to teach me.”

    “We can…”
    “Give you lessons…”
    “If you want.”

    “...”

    “You know…”
    “What the price is…”
    “Already. We saw…”
    “That you saw…”
    “Our promise.

    “Fuck.”

    “We’d like that.”

    “No, I mean no. Look, I already have…”

    “We know. We saw. Four stones… and four more waiting.” Something tugged at the corners of his mind, like a memory, but it was too ephemeral to grasp.

    “Uhhh… You lost me.” Rhian was the only one present who seemed out of the loop. Thinking about it, he realized she was out of the loop, somewhat. He sighed in frustration.

    “What’s wrong?” He looked back to Rhian.

    “They’re saying I need to…” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “They’re saying I need to go pick up some more wishes.

    “Some more… oh. Including theirs?”

    “But…”
    “Of…”
    “Course.”

    “Hah! Guess we need to get you a Holy Water bath, huh?” He looked at Rhian as if she were insane.

    “Why me? Why?”

    “We…”
    “Don’t know…”
    Yet.”

    “Look, I don’t want to have some kind of giant legion of women like your dad does. I haven’t even touched Neh or Lisya, and I’ve got another one that’s probably a marriage proposal waiting, too. If I add yours, that’s another three by itself. And you’re telling me to pick up what’s probably at least another three partners besides that! I’d be content with one! One lover!" Three sharp-toothed smiles turned up at him, reminding him that they were, in days of old, predators of Man.

    “You know one already, though.”
    “You…”
    “Put it in…”
    “Yourself, teeheehee…”

    “I haven’t put it in anyone but Rhi- oh, you mean the… oh. Griffith.”

    The trio nodded at him, making him squeeze his eyes shut. He could feel a headache coming on. “Look, I have nothing against her, but please, be reasonable. I’m content with one partner. I have more than that already. More is out of the question.”

    “The way…
    “You handle these…”
    “It’s like you’re…”
    “Married to them…”
    “Already…

    “You know.” … They actually have a point. It’s not like I’m thinking of trying to drive these women away in favor of Rhian. I don’t think I could do it without hurting them. And that, he realized, was something that he didn’t care to do. I’m… I’m actually stuck with all of them, aren’t I? I mean, I’m not. Not technically. I could reject them. But… I don’t know if I could actually bring myself to do that. Especially knowing it’d also hurt Rhian. At least if I rejected Neh. I don’t know about Lisya, but… He found himself not wanting to actually hurt any of the three, physically or emotionally. I just kind of accepted them all…

    “You might be right about that.”

    “Eh?”
    “Ehh?”
    “Ehhhhh? You admitted it!?!” Why are the mind readers surprised by this? Did they think I was just being contrarian to them? They nodded.

    “Wait, seriously?” Rhian turned to look at him in shock.

    “I hadn’t realized it until they said it, but… yes. Even though I haven’t touched Neh or Lisya, I can’t honestly say I want to turn them away right now. I don’t think I can handle your combined sex drives, and I don’t want to end up having my values become like that,” he gestured back towards the direction of the orgy that was almost certainly still taking place in front of Teagan’s tent, “But I also know that pushing any of you away would be extremely painful for whoever… and I’m apparently the sort of soft-hearted fool who can’t bring himself to do that.”

    “So… you’re not going to… say no? I mean, like, get rid of us?” He rolled his eyes. You should know better by now, Rhian.

    “I was already willing to accept you regardless. It’d take something pretty extreme for me to try something like that with you, Rhian. Neh and Lisya are…” He sighed. “I don’t have the same kind of attachment to them that I do with you. There’s no intimacy there.”

    “Not yet anyway.”

    “Yes. I don’t expect that to last, but with us all together all the time, I don’t know how those relationships might form. With you, at least, I can say I’ve spent some time in private talking. We’ve done things together, just the two of us. Even if it’s not much, those things are a unique bond between us. And just us. With the others… there’s nothing. Lisya shadowed me and helped me before, but at the time I wasn’t sure if she was a threat or an ally. I didn’t know what or where she was, and we had no direct interactions at all. And Neh… I’ve only ever been around Neh when you were also there, so it’s hard to separate her from you in that regard.”

    “I uhhh… I think I got what you’re saying there.”

    “Sorry, I’m not always the best at choosing my words.” She chuckled.

    “You think on your feet pretty well, though.”

    “I’m actually barely thinking at all about this. I’m just letting how I feel roll out.”

    “... Alright, that’s fair… ummm, so… what else happened?”

    “What do you mean… oh. Right. Ugh, where was I?”

    “Teagan popped out this Tulpa thing.”

    “Oh ugh, right. It was a maggot. Or looked like one, anyway.”

    “Yeah, you said that.”

    “Once that thing came out, the orgy got worse. I didn’t see Tasarë or Orva, but Káne and Yúla showed up. And yes, they joined. And yes, she was in Elf form and he was still that massive fox.”

    “That’s…
    “Fucking…
    “Hot!”

    “...” Rhian… don’t make that face…

    “Rhian… no.

    “Whaaaaaat!?”

    “No. Anyway, Nye managed to make it there, too, so Neh came through. Not sure what happened to her after that.”

    “Oh she’s still…”
    “Over there…”
    “Watching. She likes to do that.” He blinked slowly at them. So she’s a voyeur?

    “But not join, I take it?”

    “Nah. Too many people.”

    “How does she even deal with you?”

    “Our minds…”
    “Are linked…”
    “So we're…”
    “Like…”
    “One person. Most of the time, anyway. We were originally one in the womb, but we eventually split off before we were born, so we’re like pieces of the same whole.” Lapis finished the explanation, but it just felt insane to him.

    “We get that, you know. If we get far enough apart, our connection fades. Or if one of us tries to block out the others, that happens too.”

    “Did you just read my mind?”

    “Yup.”

    “Please don’t do that.”

    “No can do.” He pinched the bridge of his nose again.

    “By the way, we can tell you think we’re cute and like our butts.” It’s true, but… The trio chuckled in unison.

    “... No, seriously. Stop.” The triplets stuck their tongues out at him, also in unison.

    “So what happened next?” He sighed again, the topic whiplash wearing on him.

    “I backed into the tent again, nearly fell, and headed out the back.”

    “Which is where I found you.”

    “Yes… but not before I met someone I’m fairly certain is insane.”

    “You mean…”
    “Other than…”
    “Us?” They tittered again. He just rolled his eyes.

    “At least you recognize it. But yes. A dark-skinned woman a little taller than you, Rhian. Long, straight, black hair, with red eyes. Looked like she was a Sandsinger or Moonchaser, but she might have been a Wayfinder or Suncrown.” All three were ethnicities uncommon to the region. Not unheard of by any means, but the warm brown of skin kissed by the desert sun wasn’t something most people in Cymry saw everyday. “She had a broken sword and shield with her.”

    “Huh. Odd to see someone like that this far to the northwest. Broken sword and shield…” He nodded at Rhian’s analysis. “What made her seem crazy, though?”

    “She wanted me to kill everyone there.”

    “...”
    “...”
    “...”

    “...”

    Four sets of eyes stared at him, probing, trying to read him.

    “Are you… like… serious? Like…”

    “She seemed to hate Monsters, and to know that I can manipulate fire. She kept going on about how disgusting and impure Monsters are, and wanting them to burn. Praised Beasts while calling Monsters unnatural. I assumed she was a religious fanatic, but when I tried to ask her about it… she seemed to hate gods and religion as well.” Three blue, furrowed brows looked at him, while Rhian shook her head in confusion.

    “Okay, that’s a new one. I’ve known a few of those zealous “kill ‘em all,” types over the years, but they’re pretty much all religious wackjobs. Someone who actively hates both Monsters and gods isn’t something I’ve seen before. Anything else?”

    “Yeah. Two things.”

    “Okay, those are?”

    “I think she’s the person who put the Tulpa in Teagan somehow.”

    “Huh?”

    “She said Teagan had fucked a fly and gave birth to a maggot. But from where she was, I don’t think she could have seen what was actually going on. She’s not quite as tall as I am, and I couldn’t see the Tulpa from where I was at the time, so she shouldn’t have known it was a maggot… and there’s a lot of things that have maggot-like larvae besides flies. She was weirdly specific.”

    “So if she didn’t do it, she at least knew who or what did.”

    “Right.”

    “So what’s the other thing?”

    “Remember the Story Hall? The flies?”

    “Yeah, hard to forget that. Why?”

    “None of the Beasts in there attacked us, but that cloud of flies did.”

    “Yeah, and?”

    “You remember how the flies seemed almost like they were playing a song?”

    “... So that wasn’t just my imagination.”

    “No. Definitely not.”

    “Okay, so what about it?”

    “She was humming that last tune they played before they attacked us.”

    “...”

    “She also implied she knew how I taste.

    “Meaning she was draining your Mana through Teagan!”

    “Yes, well, maybe… but also, from that swarm of flies.”

    “... The maggots.”

    “So you’re saying she’s some kind of…”

    “I think she’s a Werefly. The kind of flies that lay eggs in people like that can’t bite the way those did.”

    “A… you’re kidding. A Werefly? Do you have any idea how lame that sounds?”

    “Well… yes. It sounds absurd. But after hearing what Káne had to say about Therianthropes, it’s about the only thing that fits; she has a human form, seems to be able to control Beasts of the same type, and seems to be able to take the form of a swarm of flies.And she seems to be able to get around the ruins… quick.Though the fact that she could control both regular flies and mosquitoes is disturbing as well. I guess, in the end, they’re all part of the fly family…

    “What makes you say that?”

    “Besides her being able to somehow avoid being spotted by you and get out of my sight when I turned to look at you calling me? Nye made it sound like whatever happened to Teagan happened at the start of their route and they had to make accommodations for her.”

    “He’s right…”

    “She was already pretty big…”

    “By the time we left the Market Square.”

    “So what you’re saying is… she did that to Teagan, what, today?

    “She did say it’d happened this morning. I don’t really know what the schedule is for the caravan, or where it goes, but…”

    “It’s a two day loop…”
    “From the Market Square out to the Low Docks…”
    “And back again.”
    “We start by trading at the Square and then…”
    “We stop under Adref Baedd, where we trade goods for food…” That’s… Boar Home? It must be…
    “Then here, near the Cistern, where we mostly sell…”
    “Then we stop at Moira’s farm, where we sell magic stuff and bodies for more food and magic…”
    “Then we rest at the Docks, restocking on foreign goods…” They have foreign trade!? Wait, that’s what she meant by docks?! It’s literally a way out by boat!?
    “The Weresharks handle the offloading and loading…” Weresharks? He remembered the statute he’d seen near where the Werebats had dropped in on them.
    “Then we come up at Delvar Dur, for quality gear…” That’s… mixed dialect Dwarvish… Digger’s Shield, I think? Miner’s Shield?
    “And then to Tyrau Clwydo, where it’s mostly selling again…” Roost Towers… so is that the Harpies?
    “Before we finally come back to the Market Square to rest and restock again.”

    “Wait, hold up. Weresharks now?”

    The sisters looked at each other, played another round of rock-paper-scissors, and found a new explainer-in-chief. This time it was the one sporting tattoos, her face marked with some kind of flowing script that was disconcerting to look at, her dark blue hair streaked with arcs of vivid, lime green. He could see lettering on other parts of her skin, making him wonder just how much of her was inked. “Laswli?” She nodded.

    “Call me Laz. And yeah, Weresharks. They’re a warrior tribe that lives under the ruins, in the waterways an' out to the coast. Get along with the Selkies pretty well, considering. Nice enough, but a bit violent when it comes to competition and hunting. They love to fight with each other, so they’re all scarred up. Not sure what their deal is, but they kill Beasts down there and sell the materials, catch fish, and salvage relics from some of the damaged parts of the ruins. They trade with the Selkies, and help get shipments to the Werelizards, Weretoads, and Wererabbits down there. They have their own territory, but basically no one else wants it, so they don’t really fight with anyone. Most people never realize they’re there, but you see ‘em on business elsewhere in the ruins sometimes. They’re hard to miss, even in Human form… and all of ‘em are Human in human form; they’re big, muscular, and scarred up. And they like to use spears and harpoons, too. That’s another good tell.”

    “I can imagine. Most people wouldn’t want polearms in a place with narrow, twisting tunnels like this.”

    “Mhmm. Already considered it?”

    “It was a factor in opting for a longer sword on my most recent purchase over taking a spear.” She nodded again.

    “Reasonable. They like 'em cause they're good underwater and the flooded tunnels are relatively clear. Or so I heard. Anyway, we get what you were sayin'. The fly-girl laid an egg in her cooch sometime before we left the Market Square this morning. Prob'ly would'a come out sooner an' smaller, but she kept chuggin' Mana Potions all fuckin' day."

    "Makes sense, if all it does is drain Mana. Did you know you sound kind of like your father?"
    "Eh. Accent gets thicker tha' longer we ain't linked. Sharin' our brains like tha' kinda "averages us out," so ta speak. Heh. Get it?"

    "... Puns." She grinned at him. "But yes, thank you."

    "Yer welcome. Now… got another of those noodle balls for me?" He rolled his eyes and handed her one from Rhian’s stash.

    "Fuck yes, free food!"

    "Oy, screw the game, next explanation's mine!" It seemed Malachit wasn't pleased at missing out on snacks. Rhian snickered at the pouting ringleader.

    "So Col… what's the plan?" He shrugged, feeling a bit better after his earlier misadventure.

    "I guess we'll just have to wait. I need to see Nye, but he's over there," he waved in the general direction of Teagan’s tent. Ahhhh, shit, I just realized we left all of the gear in there…

    "Ooo, yeah. Da'll be at that a while."
    "Father's appetite is rather large."
    "At least when he's got options, teehee."

    "Lovely."

    "So what, are we just stuck waiting?"

    "Pretty much. We still need to see him about master’s arrangements and that map, and he might know more about what happened to Teagan." Among other things… like a trick for Holy Water, or information about Psychic Aptitudes that doesn't involve gaining more sex partners. He sighed, looking at the Blue sisters.

    I’d ask them, but… One, I don’t really trust them, and two, I know what they’d want in return for giving me lessons. They turned to look at him, smiling.

    Fuck. Their smiles widened.

    Stop that. Their smiles took on an impish quality that spelled trouble.

    He flashed them a mental image of the woman from behind the tent… followed by one of that unholy spider from the side tunnels as it was bearing down on him.

    The last image finally made them recoil.

    “What…”
    “The…”
    “Fuck!?!”

    “It was a rough trip back to Rhian’s place.”

    “Huh? I mean, it was, but why are you bringing that up?”

    “Don’t worry about it.”

    “That’s… weird.”

    “You’re…”
    “An…”
    “Ass.” It was his turn to smile.

    “Stay out of my head then.”

    “Oh. Shit. They’re doing that crap again, aren’t they?” He just nodded at Rhian’s question. His stomach, however, spoke for him. It seemed all of the “donations” he’d given to Teagan had caught up with him. All of the excitement afterwards had helped him forget his appetite, but his body was happy to tell him he needed to replace the Mana he’d pumped into the girl’s guts.

    “I guess… I’m eating again.”

    “Ooooh! Buy…”
    “Us…”
    “Some!”
    ………
    ……



    “Huh, so you…”
    “Really were a…”
    “Virgin last time.”

    At some point after they’d settled in with more food, Neh had sauntered up. The girl looked more relaxed than usual… or at least more than she had been, her unusual gait having a bit of of bounce to it that made him wonder just what she’d done while she was watching the show. Or maybe how much. It didn’t take him long at all to notice she was also hauling the equipment they’d left in Teagan’s tent. Huh. She was more thoughtful than he’d realized.

    Regardless, she’d come back just in time for more food, settling down beside Rhian this time.

    “As I said.” They’d picked up more food from the stalls and settled in to eat it, accompanied by more conversation. As expected, it'd taken a lewd turn.

    "So that means…"
    "You’re probably…"
    "Not that good." He shrugged

    "Probably."

    "He gets me off, though." The sisters snorted in response.

    "That’s…"
    "Not…"
    "Hard."

    "Same to you."

    "We're Monsters…"
    "That’s just…"
    "How we are."
    "But we meant, like…"
    "You don't know how to…"
    "Use your abilities in bed, either." He quirked an eyebrow at the girls and thought back to how he'd emulated Rhian. The three sisters looked at each other, and then as one…

    "Interesting. Interesting. Interesting.But not what we meant. Alright girls, my turn. We were actually talking about your magic and Aptitude, your martial training. It takes a bit of practice, but it's incredibly useful even between lovers. You just have to change the "weapon" you're using, so to speak."
    "There’s more to it…"
    "Than just that, Mal."
    "He's Human, so…"
    "It won't come natural-like."
    "... You make a valid point. Hmmm…" The two eating sisters seemed as if they were fine with leaving it at that, but Malachit clearly wasn't content.

    "Y-you could… show… him…" It was Neh’s suggestion, but it only took a moment for his head to snap from her to Rhian, his glare waging war on the Werebat's shit-eating grin.

    "Do it."

    "Hells no!"

    "I'll only do the tip…"

    "Get away from me!" He rapidly tried to pull himself out from under the table and away from the cock-hungry Goblin, but Mal had already vanished under it. He could feel her hands on his thighs as he tried to stand…

    And as his pants and armor began unbuckling and unlacing of their own accord. He must have worn his confusion on his face; Lapis tittered as Laswli smirked and pointed at her temple. Mal's little fists were latched onto the cloth covering his inner thighs, dragging his pants down as he tried to back up and out. And his braies with them. The cave air greeted his restive cock as it always had; cool and cordial.

    "Ugh! It smells like dog breath down here!" He felt Mal's complaint as much as he heard it, her warm breath dancing with the cool air on his tip. Meanwhile, her sisters laughed even louder. Between bites of Mal's noodles. They’d both taken the opportunity to steal her meal.

    "Was sheany good?Eheheh…Teeheehee…"

    He glared at them, sighed in resignation, and stopped fighting the hungry Blue between his legs. "Glad to see you're finally coming around. Now if you don't mind, I'm going to clean this thing up for you, as you clearly did not since letting a bitch lick it." He could hear the humor in her voice. He just shook his head and waited for her magical ministrations to wash off Teagan’s dried slobber.

    And so he nearly jumped when a pair of soft lips closed on his left nut. He could feel Mal's sharp teeth resting on tender skin as her plump lips and soft tongue worked his sack and balls. From left to right, gently sucking, licking, slurping. He could see only her dark blue hair, her pale blue ears, but he could feel everything. Could hear her little gasps for breath between mouthfuls, the wet slurps as her moist flesh probed his wrinkles and creases, feel her sucking in breath and skin and scent.

    His weary cock stirred, the faintest twitch. But that invitation didn't go unnoticed as those juicy lips and small tongue welcomed his head inside. He groaned slightly as she sucked and licked, peeled back foreskin and worked his soft dick from tip to base and back again. Yet for all of her attentiveness, it truly felt more like she was cleaning him than anything else. There was no pumping or pistoning, no fierce sucking, no tiny hands gripping the head or the shaft. Just a strange grooming from a strange girl.

    "Hmph." He sighed and rolled his eyes. What’s wrong now, tiny?

    "Tiny, huh?" He pinched the bridge of his nose. Still with this… "I'll have you know I'm the largest…"

    "Of the three of you, yes. Though I've seen taller Goblins down here, you have the largest… assets."

    "Of course!" He suspected the only reason her sisters didn't chime in involved mouths and food. “I worked hard for them, you know.” He rolled his eyes. “Now that it doesn’t smell like dog down here, I can finally get to work.”

    “You mean you weren’t already?”

    “Hardly. You wouldn’t still be soft if I was.”

    “Huh. I would think if that was the case, you’d have just used magic to clean me.”

    “It would have been quicker and more convenient, yes. But that was more fun. Now, for the real lesson to begin. Try to pay attention and I’ll open your eyes.” He could hear her sisters chuckling as he looked down at the blue face between his legs. Those deep eyes looked up at him, a wicked smile on her face, and she opened wide once more, her tongue reaching out…

    The second it touched his tip, his whole shaft shot upright, the wind knocked from him as some tremendous force coursed from the tip of that soft, pink muscle, through his cock, and straight into his core. He couldn’t explain it, but he instantly felt his balls tighten. He felt as if he’d been shoved, realizing only belatedly that he was actually staring up at the cave roof from the floor. Were it not for the others on the bench, he’d likely have dragged it over when he’d fallen.

    She… she hit me with something!?!
    ‘Correct.’

    What!?!

    He looked up just in time to see her sitting where he’d been, looking down at him.

    ‘I did. And will continue to.’

    There was no warning beyond a sudden ringing in his ears, but he felt it immediately in his nethers. His hips bucked of their own accord as an intense wave of pleasure washed over him. It felt as if she were sucking on him, but she wasn’t. She was just sitting there, smirking at him, as jolt after jolt of pleasure rocked him. Strange heat, as if she were pouring fire into his abdomen, threatened to consume him. His cock stood straight as a spear, twitching, streaming precum, spasming over and over as the tide of her mind washed over and enveloped his shaft. He wanted to scream, but all he could do was groan in pleasure as his balls rose. He began to shake, gasping, as she finally got off the bench, leaned over him, and put the very tip of his head in her mouth. He bucked again, instinct trying to force it into her, but she managed to keep it from going deeper… and hit him again with whatever mental power she wielded.
    He erupted, semen pumping past her plump lips and filling her azure cheeks. Pulse after pulse, she simply took it in. There was no sucking whatsoever, only a warm and waiting mouth, welcoming his seed home.

    He lay there panting, winded from the intensity of what had just happened to him. Meanwhile, she sat back down, slowly swallowing the load he’d dumped past her hungry lips.

    “Mmmmm. You have an excellent flavor.” She waited until she’d swallowed it all to speak, no remnant of his orgasm to be found.

    "What… what just…"

    "You go about sex like a virgin; nothing but fingers and mouths and cocks and holes, yes? That is how animals mate. No sophistication. No humanity. No Monstrosity. We know many things more than that…" She stared down at him, wide hips made wider in sitting, her feet slowly kicking back and forth as she leaned towards him. Her full cleavage swelled with each breath, straining against the tight, dark leather she wore as armor.

    It was fully intentional and they both knew it.

    "All's fair in love and war, so they say." Her sisters giggled once more. "That's true of lust as well. The techniques we wield in the bedroom are the same as those we wield on the battlefield. One just needs to know how to soften them, to change the weapon, to stimulate rather than harm. You know how to hold back, don't you?"

    He lay there, panting still, but tried to nod.

    "It is much the same. Instead of seeking to destroy the flesh, we will our Mana to protect our partners from harm, and instead turn pain and destruction into pleasure."

    "... is that even…"

    "You experienced it, did you not?" He could only lie there, looking at her. He couldn’t guess how much Mana she’d drained from him with that. More than he’d likely recovered from his meal. And it had taken only a fraction of the time actual sex did. She’d spent more time cleaning him than she had bringing him to climax.

    “A cunning Thief such as Rhian should be more than able to figure out your weak points and stimulate them in just the right way, no different from how she’d slide a blade into a Beast. Neh’s eye can melt flesh, but it can also dissolve one’s resistance, bring pleasure to all that she can see. You need only think of how to use your abilities to please and will your Mana to soften it further… though with your talents, you could always just mimic me. Couldn’t you?”

    He closed his eyes and sighed. “Probably.”

    “Oh? You’re uncertain?”

    “Somewhat.”

    “Then we should practice some…”

    No.” For once, the Blue seemed taken aback. He could only assume it was his tone. Or maybe…

    “You truly don’t want to.”

    “No. I don’t. No offense to you, but I’m tired. Physically and mentally. It’s been a long day. A long several days, and while the sex is nice, I’m new to it. I’m not used to all of this see-sawing between life-and-death battles and chases, long treks in the dark, and bouts of just… just near-random fucking. I’ve had three different partners now since coming here, including you, and another two waiting in line. Maybe more. I honestly just… I need some time to sit and rest and think for a while. Some time to work through what I want to do now.”

    “You’ve already done so, haven’t you?”

    “Not enough!” Her eyes widened in surprise. “Not enough… Look… do you understand why I’m here?”

    “Your master’s studies. Or so father said.”

    “Yes, but that’s not why I’m here. Not anymore. That ended when the expedition was destroyed.”

    “You’re also here for your master’s sake.”

    “Yes. Something that I can’t do anything about without information your father has. But there’s more.” Her brow furrowed in concentration, and for the first time he truly noticed her probing his thoughts, all of three of them… a faint sense of pressure, nudging him to think of what they wanted to know.

    Instead, he emptied his mind, giving them nothing.

    All three jolted in surprise, startled. So that’s what I need to watch out for. Mal grimaced in frustration, but the other two grinned and returned to their meals.

    “I’m here because I want to know more about this place. I am here because of Rhian. But I don’t know how long I’ll be here, and I don’t know what I’ll do if master is revived and we disagree on what to do. I need to figure that out and I need to decide just how much the knowledge in this place is really worth to me. I want to know, but I also know I’m outmatched by the dangers here, and the culture is… not what I’m used to.” He finally stood up, putting his clothes back in order. He towered over the Blue, who stood in his seat in an attempt to compensate.

    He simply put his hands under her arms and lifted her out of his spot, setting her down on the floor.

    She gaped at him in shock, his mind now closed to her and beyond her predictions. She blushed an odd purple as her sisters burst out laughing. He sat back down and renewed his assault on his now-cold food, her blowjob refreshing his appetite.

    “You… you…”

    “You made me hungrier. I’m going to finish this, even if it kills me.” Or my stomach will. A part of him wished that the production of Mana in men wasn’t tied to the consumption of food and rest, so that these draining sessions he was being subjected to didn’t leave him exhausted and ravenous afterwards. The rest of him realized that reaching that point meant he’d have lost himself to the Taint of their Mana. He popped another noodle ball in his mouth and wondered if he should pick up one of those meat skewers. Money didn’t seem to be an issue at the moment, and they smelled delicious…

    “Why?”

    “Why what?” Yes. Meat skewer it is. “Hey Rhian, could you go get me one… no, two of those meat skewers?”

    “The ones with the veggies on them, or just the meat?”

    “The former, please.”

    “Gotcha.”

    “Why?”

    “I’m still hungry.”

    “No. Why are you so determined not to sleep with us?”

    “I like Rhian and I’d be satisfied with her.” He saw her stiffen at that as she walked to the food stall, her hips gaining just a bit more sway to them. “But I have other obligations because of my own actions that I’m sure will be more than I can handle. I don’t need more, especially when I don’t owe you anything.”

    “But you do. Who just taught you about using your abilities in new ways?”

    “You were paid for that in semen… something that I understand is very valuable here. Especially mine.” Her face contorted in frustration with him, a small growl escaping her throat. “Why are you so obsessed with having sex with me?”

    “Ah…”

    “Any particular reason?”

    “...”
    “...”
    “...”

    All three sisters froze for a moment, looking at him with shock, with trepidation.

    “We WeWe…

    They paused once more, before continuing, apprehensive in a way that caught him off guard.

    “He gave us eyes that we might see. Eyes within our minds. Eyes from the blessed waters.We saw you in them,in dreams, in visions, but wedon’t know why. We saw him in shadow, watching over us,the blessed King, Witness of Heaven. But he said nothing. He onlywatched. We saw something terrible coming. A disaster.A cataclysm.Death.Doom.Despair. Something that should be righteous, but wasn’t.Something mad andbroken that woulddestroy us all in darkness. Not like now.Not like before.You,your fire, your love gave us shelter. Protected us.Held it back. We don’t know why. Or how.We can’t tell what it was. Just that it was wrong and you were right. You were for us. We haveseen…”

    It took him a moment to parse what exactly they’d said, but the words tugged at some vestige of a memory. Something dark. Something chasing him, like a Beast. Like too many Beasts had, recently.

    “We… we have…”
    “Looked. Prayed…”
    “And yet we…”
    “Don’t know…”
    “Why you, but…”
    “You feel…”
    Right rightright.
    “We think we…”
    “Need you and you…”
    “Need us.”

    “You… should listen… to them.” He turned to look at the one-eyed girl sharing the bench with him, the void where Rhian had sat doing nothing to hide her wiry frame as it hunched over her food. Her massive, half-lidded eye was looking at him despite her forward facing. “There is truth in… His gifts. He sees… he is the Lord… of Eyes. The King Above.” He found himself staring at Neh’s eye as she spoke, and for once she turned it directly on him. It felt as if she weren’t just looking at him, though, but at something beyond. “Give us Eyes that we might See, and watch over us always from on high.”

    Her words sent a chill down his spine, but somewhere in the back of his mind, a voice seemed to say that it was fine.

    “I see you girls are doing the culty thing again.” Rhian returned, four skewers in hand, and plopped herself down on the bench beside him, resuming her place between Neh and himself. He was grateful for the interruption, though he couldn’t help but feel confused and a bit unnerved still. Rhian, meanwhile, dug into one of the extra skewers she’d picked up, handing the other off to Neh… who started pulling chunks of meat and vegetables off it with her tongue. It’s almost like a tentacle…

    “We’re telling…”
    “The truth…”
    “About our dreams, though.”
    “We don’t understand…”
    “But we know…”
    “It’s you.” Mal thrust a finger at him, her other hand resting on a full hip. “So we’re not going to give up.”
    “Do…”
    “You…”
    Understand?” He sighed and took a bite from the newest dish. It tasted as good as it smelled, and while he couldn’t place the meat or the marinade, the onions, mushrooms, and sweet pepper complemented it well. In truth, he’d been more interested in the vegetables than the meat; the peppers were an unusual treat normally reserved for the wealthy. They were a New World food brought back by expeditions from Hispania and Antillia, a relative of a common plant in the Old World that often had… side-effects, when consumed. It was the second time he’d found such an exotic food here and it was starting to pique his curiosity. Regardless, that line of thought would have to wait. He chewed the mouthful and swallowed before responding.

    “I understand. I intend to continue rejecting you though.”

    “Why!?”

    “I don’t believe in this “fated” mess and I already have enough women to worry about. If you need my protection from something, and I can actually help, then that’s fine. But I’m not going to add you to my bed’s waiting list just because you had a funny dream about me.” Though… Nah, it’s nothing. The Blue growled at him, but finally threw her hands up in frustration and returned to her seat opposite him, arms crossed in annoyance.

    And finally looked at her now empty plate, her eyes widening in shock and a new wave of anger as her sisters grinned at her.

    “Treason!”
    “Hah! Teeheehee!”
    “My food!”
    “You got fed a mouthful of cum! You didn’t need the noodles, too.”

    “But… agh! Why did I disconnect!?” Her sisters laughed at her again. I figured she hadn’t noticed. She would have said something, otherwise. It was only the second time he’d met them, but he was already starting to get a feel for how they acted. Well, I can’t say I didn’t expect it.

    “Here.” The food-deprived Mal looked away from her gloating sisters and up at him from over the table.

    And at the second skewer he was handing her.

    “Take it.” Her eyes veritably sparkled at the sight of the kebab floating in front of her. To his surprise, though, her sisters didn’t protest. Instead, they smiled and gently nudged her with their elbows as a faint, purple blush tinged her cheeks.

    Was this a mistake? He suddenly felt worried, but it was too late to take back what he’d offered. He’d asked Rhian to get it with this in mind anyway. As if to confirm it was beyond rescinding, a pair of small, grasping hands reached up and snatched away the savory treat.

    She finished eating it long before he’d finished his own, fidgeting in her seat all the while. It was starting to make him feel more than a little uncomfortable. Or rather, concerned.

    "I saw them eating your food. Don't read too much into it." The warning didn't seem to dampen the girl’s mood.

    “Well you look happy.” Rhian smiled, but she wasn’t looking at the triplets. She was looking at him. He raised an eyebrow at her, but she only grinned at him harder.

    “Really now?”

    “Mhmm.”

    “Hmmm… I suppose it is hard to be mad after…” He didn't bother to finish his sentence. No sense encouraging those three. “Besides, it's not that I hate you three. I just have my hands full.” He turned back to the trio in front of him as he spoke.

    “Right.”
    “We get that.”
    “We're still not giving up.” The girls tittered once more, leaving him to sigh. I suppose this will have to do for now. It's not like I can force them to leave me alone. Besides, they're Neh’s friends, which forces me to accept them at least a little… He recognized that the status quo being established was going to end up very temporary. Especially if the triplets got serious about raping him. After what Malachit had just done to him, on her own no less, he was pretty sure they could lay him out mentally and just have their way with him if they really wanted to.

    Less than four feet tall, but they punch way above their size.

    There was no way he was going to keep them out of his pants forever. It wasn't a matter of if, but when. He'd need to change how he viewed them and that inevitability. And what to do about it. I don’t want to think about this.

    He sighed before looking to the triplets once more. “So… do you think your father's done yet?”

    “Nope.”
    “Nah.”
    “Not even close.”
    “When Da's in the mood, ‘e'll be at it fer hours.”
    “Teeheehee. Laz is right. He'll put us behind schedule.”
    “Not that it's any great loss. It gives us plenty of time to chat.” Lovely. I suppose I could try to find out more about this place from them. Or I could look over our gear and see what Teagan made… Or both, if he's really going to take that long. Both is good.

    “Hey, Neh?” The thin girl startled, peering around Rhian. “Can I have a look at things Teagan made?” I won’t be able to get a good look at our armor, but I can at least go over the other things.

    “Are you suuuuuure we shouldn’t go that rest area first, Rations?” Rhian waggled her eyebrows at him, to which he rolled his eyes. The sisters began to giggle, making him suspect they’d read Rhian’s mind.

    “Obviously, some of it will have to wait until later.”

    “Looking forward to it.” Neh looked on in confusion at the exchange, unaware of what had happened the last time they’d needed to examine the Kobold’s handiwork.

    “Don’t worry about the armor for now, Neh. Just the other stuff. I’ll check that later.”

    “O-okay…” The spindly girl opened one of the bags he’d commissioned and began pulling objects out of it; his black, wavy sword. Rhian’s own new swords, the purple-hued brooches, the sharp grapnel. She’d carried her own shield, as he’d been carrying his sling. All of it, save the Nothic’s shield, formed a dangerous-looking pile on the table in short order. The triplets poked and prodded at it, but had little interest in most of the equipment beyond simple curiosity.

    “So this…”
    “Is what…”
    “She made.” He simply nodded, turning the majority of his attention to the weapons and tools. The trio made a slightly annoyed sound between them, but didn’t interrupt him as he arranged things. However, it wasn’t long before he broke the silence on his own.

    “So on our way here, we had an opportunity to discuss some things with the Werefoxes on the surface. They had some interesting things to say about this city and its history. I was wondering if you could elaborate?”

    “Ehhh…”
    “Ummm…”
    “About what?”

    “Oh, things like a king named Vereticus and some kind of cursed water that turns you into a werebeast.” Of course, I heard about that latter part elsewhere. The trio looked at each in shock, but rapidly stumbled over themselves.

    “D-don’t…”
    “Say…”
    “His…”
    “Name!”

    However, even Neh joined them on this one, surprising him. “He is our prophet. His name is sacred! To say it without his permission is to anger him and draw his eyes to you.”
    “Ya donnae want that. Nae. Speak it only when yer allowed.”
    “Yup! Gotta get permission from the higher-ups to say it. Even then, you can’t just blab it.”

    “I see… So I take it he is the King Below, or Beneath, rather?” The four of them all nodded. “So he was, what, the king of the country in its prime?”

    “Nae just in its prime.”
    “He’s always been the king.”
    “He’s still the king.” Wait…

    “Hold on… So you’re saying that even though he’s, what, sealed away… for over a thousand years… he’s still the ruler of the city?”

    “Yup yup.”
    “This Domain is his.”
    “He cannae die, so…” Wait… Káne said something along those lines. Not just that he’s sealed, but that he’s a “Lord of Demons,” a Demon Lord. So long as he’s sealed, but not dead, another Demon Lord can’t seize control of the Domain. Meaning, in a literal sense, he’s still the ruler of the land. But if he’s sealed, then he shouldn’t be able to influence it, either…

    I bet this is why…

    “Hey, there… wouldn’t happen to be a Dungeon in the city, would there?”

    “None that we know of.”
    “No such records exist.”
    “Nope. Nada.”

    I bet it was sealed with him. This many Monsters in one place… there’s no way there wouldn’t be at least one Dungeon. The whole city is like one, but it’s clearly not got the magical properties that go with it. It’s all actual artificial construction, nothing produced by the Ley Lines. As they talked and chatted, he continued to look over the items, piece by piece, making mental notes of what he was finding. He didn’t care to expose his findings to the trio. At least not right now.

    “Huh. So then… if this guy’s your prophet… how do you get prophecies and such from him? Or guidance, I guess.” This is making me think of the Werebats a bit.

    “Through his Tears. The blessed waters that flow from his wisdom grant us his visions! We drink, that we may See.” Lapis seemed eerily serious about the topic. “Those of us with the best understanding, the best memories, can remember what we see and learn from them.” Alright, so basically what you’re saying is you’re all getting high and then treating your hallucinations like divine revelations. This makes me feel somewhat better about disregarding them.

    “So uhhhh… where exactly do these visions come from, then? The King Beneath, or…”
    “Nuh-uh. They come from the King Above, the Witness of Heaven. Anwybyddu Brenin…” Overlook King? It’s used as a name, but it sounds like a title. “He watches over us, bathes us in the light of sacred Nibiru, and uses the Tears of the King to show us what they both see.” So the King Above is the patron of the King Beneath, the God to his Prophet.

    “Anwybyddu Brenin has watched over this land since long before this city was built. It was from his seed that the sacred tree grew. He continues to watch over us all, still. It was He is the ancestor of many who dwell here.” Mal had taken over the explanation by this point.

    “I-including… me…” Wait, what? Ah, she’s smiling. The look on Neh’s face was one of pride. Meanwhile, he could tell Rhian was getting unnerved by all of this. Some of it she’d clearly heard before. Others, especially this latest revelation, was new.

    “It is he who blesses the minds and eyes of those who dwell here… including you. Your eyes… your mind… your power were called here. They belong here.” He felt a chill run down his spine. He might not believe in fate, but the meddlings of the Gods were things he did believe in. And if this thing, this King Above, really was a God, it was quite possible they weren’t wrong. That he was being manipulated by something well beyond mortal ken.

    “If ya’d like to ken more, ye should talk to the High Priestess. Her temple’s nae far from here… just down and a wee bit south. She lives at a root of the Sacred Tree.”

    “The tree that was destroyed by the Werelizards?” They looked at him in surprise.

    “Aye, tho’ we bear nae grudge o’er it. Nae does the King Above. They ‘ave the King Beneath’s blessin’s, after all. ‘Is gift. As do ye, Rhian.”

    “We are…”
    “All of us…”
    Truly…
    “B-blessed.” That Neh joined in this time set his hair on end. The nature of this conversation had made it harder to concentrate on his attempts to identify their gear than he’d expected. He wasn’t making any progress.

    “So uhhhh… what exactly does your cu- err… What does your faith do, per se?”

    “Ach, well, we mostly jes’ sit around an’ talk about our visions, look fer pieces of tha Sacred Tree, watch the comin’s and goin’s in tha city n’ share what we seen, tha’ sort o’ thin’. S’not really much.” The others nodded. Neh loves gossip, huh? Sounds like the cult acts almost like a spy network.

    “Yup yup! We also mark places sacred to our faith with holy symbols and scriptures!” So the graffiti…

    “And once a month, when Nibiru is full, or when the Eye of Heaven appears, we hold prayer services and bask in the sight of the Lord. We show ourselves to him. Our true selves.” So that’s what… No, I suppose this really does make it clear what sort of God the King Above is. There’s probably a lot more Aberrations down below than just Nothics… it also explains why Káne and Lisya are so opposed to them, even though they seem mostly benign as far as small religions go.

    Their God isn’t from this world in the first place.

    He looked up, as if he could see the ruddy light of Nibiru far above. It’s common knowledge that there are things on that moon that have no place on Gaea. The Alaveela spoke of it often, their unusual powers giving many of them memories of past lives. Their connection with the Church had only given credence to their beliefs; that they were the reincarnations of a people from another world. That they had come here as refugees during a previous Age, fleeing Gods alien even to them… and that those Gods had chased them here, bringing the crimson moon with them. The Gods of Gaea and the Men of that Age had fended off the invasion that followed, but hadn’t been able to drive the red moon away. That moon, Nibiru, had a strange influence on Monsters that enthralled and seemed to empower many of them, even if it seemed to make them somewhat mad. It wasn’t unusual for them to revere it. Especially Aberrations, who were said to trace their origins to the invasion that had come from it. Aberrations and those with Psionic abilities, also influenced by Nibiru's effects on the mind, often felt a strong connection to that moon.

    They’re worshiping a God that once tried to conquer the world.

    He found himself rubbing the bridge of his nose again. Those kinds of religions usually weren’t especially dangerous, except that they normally wanted people to become some kind of Monster, and they had a habit of driving their members varying degrees of insane or attracting those who already were. Unless of course you tried to oust the cult. Then they could become a hellish problem, since it could be hard to tell who exactly was a member and who wasn’t at times. That this one operated so openly made it clear no one was trying to do that here… and they didn’t seem too determined to recruit, either. However, they were worshiping something that was fundamentally at odds with the natural order of the world and which had been an enemy of the Gods in antiquity. It was no wonder the Werelizards were opposed to it. Followers of the Green Faith were devoted to maintaining the natural balance of the world, to living in harmony with it. However, the Gods of Nibiru were by their very nature alien. They had no place in that order and disrupted it just by existing.

    So that's what's going on here. This place, the land itself, was connected to Nibiru somehow. It was eventually settled, but the ruler was a worshiper of a God from Nibiru when most of the rest of his citizens weren't. There was a rebellion, an attempted coup, but it went bad and the King consolidated power… and apparently became a Therianthropic Demon Lord in the process. He then turned and enslaved the surviving rebels and slowly started expanding his territory until some Hero, working with the enslaved dissidents, managed to overthrow and seal the Demon Lord… who is apparently immortal and still alive over a thousand years later. Káne said he mandated his worship… which means the cult is actually the state religion. It was never rooted out. They’re still worshiping him and his God. And this Sacred Tree they’re talking about is probably some divine artifact or relic from that same God that the King was using somehow.

    Lovely.

    And I'm engaged to one of the cultists, with three more trying to join her and one of the rebels… He leaned back and pressed his hands to his face, hoping the cold metal of his gauntlets could wash away the situation.

    “Something wrong?” He couldn’t see her, face covered as it was, but he heard Rhian just fine.

    “Yes, but there's nothing I can really do about it.” At least it doesn't seem like there are open hostilities going on between the two groups. Not like with the Orcs… He sighed. Nye knows more about this than he let on. There's no way he doesn't. Not with family like this. Not with trading partners like he has. But why not be forthcoming about it?

    “Anyway, thank you for explaining a bit about your religion's practices. It was… enlightening.” Not that I really know anything about their actual beliefs or goals, if they have any. These kinds of things are usually big on expansion, gaining converts or political influence, but they haven't yet tried with me, so it’s probably not that. Weird though, since they seem to think I'm blessed by their God for my abilities. Not that I know who it is, anyway. Nibiru deities aren't something I know much about. Whatever it is, it seems like it's associated with eyes and Divination… and Psionics. No way I can discount the connection it might have with the Beasts around here.

    “Oy, you fuckin’ left me over there!”

    He was so absorbed in his thoughts that he didn’t notice the High Orc approach until she was already climbing onto the bench beside him. Disheveled and covered in a range of fluids that made him instantly recoil into Rhian’s side, the flush-faced, tired-looking woman simply rested her head against the table and sighed. “Not that I could move, but still… Girl pushed out a thing, now didn’t she?”

    “Ah…” Of course… she’d have had a front row seat as well.

    “Fuckin’ huge maggot. Gods…” The triplets looked at her and chuckled. “Gross as fuck…”

    “On that we can agree. And sorry about leaving you behind there. I wasn’t running from that. I was just trying to avoid, well… the kind of stuff you’re covered in.”She looked down at herself, her face taking on a mix of disgust and irritation. “Ugh, this is too much of a good thing. And yeah, I get it. Yer the kind of prize that gets taken quick ‘round here. Stayin’ Human ain’t gonna be easy fer ya.” She sighed. “Need to get cleaned up, but fuck if I feel like it. Damn well couldn’t move with that girl on me. The crowd just used me fer target practice, I fuckin’ swear.” Oh. Ewwwwwwww…

    Apparently, being pissed was enough to negate whatever arousal she might have felt. “This… this is why I gotta discipline my troops. Or it just ends up like this.”

    “... Wait. Has this kind of thing happened to you… before?” She looked mortified, but nodded. “More’n I’d care ta admit. Especially with new recruits… fresh meat’s always… ugh. Fuck, my ass is stickin’ to the damn seat. But yeah, youngsters’r nothin’ but horny, so they just end up going at it the second ya start to discipline ‘em. Gettin’ bossed around riles ‘em up, jes like they get off ta bein’ in control. And once they start, it gets messy.” That’s a lot worse than I would have expected…

    “Anyway, once that Macha girl got the Kobold up and outta there, I could finally leave… except by then I was surrounded and just covered in this… this. Couldn't leave ‘til they started clearin’ out.”

    “Ah, wait, so… they’re done over there?”

    “Yeah, mostly. Still a few plowin’ fields, but most were leavin’ by the time I finally managed ta get out. It’s prolly safe for ya, so long as ya don’t slip in any… puddles. Did ya leave yer stuff over there?” Griffith clearly had grabbed her own.

    “Neh went back and got it for us.” The High Orc gave the one-eyed girl a respectful nod. “Dependable. I like it.” Neh, for her part, blushed.

    “Anyway, we should probably go try to find Nye then.”

    “Right. Ya got yer own troubles ta see to. Once I rest fer a bit, I gotta finish up my own business an’ get outta here. I still gotta talk to the Elf’s mother, and my tribe needs me besides, so fer now this is g’bye. Maybe I’ll visit ya, though. Ya seem like a nice lot.”
    ………
    ……


    “Da, put on yer pants. Yer willy’s swingin’ free.”

    “Ah wid bit ah seem tae hae misplaced thaim.” As Lazwli had observed, they’d found Nye sitting on the steps of his wagon, sans pants or anything passing for an undergarment. Or shoes, for that matter. “Claddagh’s lookin’ fer thaim o’er there. Shuid hae thaim afore tae lang. Hooo…” He leaned back against the wagon door and took a sip of what was, most likely, another Mana Potion. “Ahhh, hits th' plook, it does.” He took a few deep breaths, relaxing, before rolling his shoulders with an audible pop.

    “Ah jalouse if ye lot ur 'ere, it'll be aboot business ower than buzz. Gies a bawherr tae recover…” Keeping track of his accent is…

    “Da…”
    “Mair was in there…”
    “Wasn’t she?”

    “Och aye, that she wis. That she wis.” The Goblin had a very satisfied look on his face. Tired, but satisfied. “Hooo…” Nye cleared his throat, took another deep pull of his drink, and cleared it again. “Sorry, I will huv tae clean up me speech a bit.”

    “You get like that when you’re tired, don’t you?” It’s really hard to understand.

    “Aye. ‘tis a bad habit o’ mine. Da’s accent wis even thicker, if ye kin believe. Got it from ‘im. Ma wis a local gal.” He sighed again. “Anyway, tae start off, I sent word tae yer Guild. We wilnae hear back for a few days, bit thay ken whit happened 'n' nae tae look for ye or send oot a recovery Party. That ye wur set upon by Beasts en route 'n' thare ur na ither survivors, 'n' that ye'r recovering in a safe place for now. Donnae ken if they’ll believe it, but tis somethin’, at least.”

    “Thank you.” That was likely a literal life saver.

    “Donnae wirry about it. As for yer map, Macha'll bring it by in a few. She's git it, bit she wis wi' th' smith aye. Ah... Likelie shouldn't hae dane it wi' that yin…” It took him a moment to parse what exactly Nye had just said.

    “You… shouldn’t have “done it” with Macha, or… the smith?”

    “Och, the smith. I’d not sleep with Macha if I donnae have tae. Girl’s got nae interest in me, thank the Gods.” He felt like his eyes were about to pop out of his skull.

    “Wait, so you fucked Teagan right after that?” Even Rhian was surprised.

    “Oh aye. Twas hot, twas. Girl’s git grip, even efter that. And asides, she was beggin’ for it. Aye, wit? Wit’s with the faces?” No one seemed particularly amused besides Nye himself. “I like wee puppies!” Rhian just rolled her eyes and looked at him, as if to say ‘I told you so.’ His daughters seemed more annoyed with him bedding someone new. Meanwhile… I can’t believe he’d do that to a girl who just… gave birth, I guess? I mean… He shook his head, not even sure how to take this. You know what… I’m just going to overlook this. This is not my issue. It’s not my problem. This is entirely on them and I want no part of it. He looked away from the half-naked Goblin, off towards the site of the orgy… only to see a plump Saplin with a crude parcel sauntering in their direction. Clad in the same tribal colors as Nye, favoring browns, and wearing an array of bone jewelry and deer-skull visor, she stood out among the more common, human-like Humblins in the area. She was also very clearly the Goblin who’d answered the summons for a midwife.

    “Your pants and shoes, father. Try not to lose them next time.” She handed him the package, which turned out to be his pants folded around his shoes. The girl’s figure rivaled those of the triplets. If anything, she might be fatter. However, she was also slightly shorter, making her appear slightly more plump by comparison.

    “Aye, thank ye lass.” The green Goblin simply rolled her eyes and turned to him as her father started dressing himself. “You must be the Man in need of a map.”

    “That I am. Claddagh, I take it?”

    “Macha. Here…” She opened a small scroll case from behind her back and pulled out a sheet of tattered old paper, long-since yellowed. “My sister is useless for anything that doesn’t involve swords or snowballs. She’s probably still looking for father’s pants… assuming she hasn’t forgotten already.” She turned to her father, still pulling on pants legs. “And you don’t forget that we’re behind schedule after all that. I’m off to see to the Elementals, but we’re going to need to leave soon. We can’t until we know which route we’re taking.”

    “Och aye, ye'r as ill as yer mither whiles, dae ye ken that, lassie?” The Saplin just smiled at him and walked off. The Humblin waited until his daughter was out of likely earshot before he started complaining. “Ah wis hoping tae jook that. Tis how come ah sent Claddagh. Girl's at least a guid 'n' merry soul, even if she's git nae attention span.” He sighed, finally managing to sort out his pants and slide into his low boots. “Och weel, at least ye'v git yer map noo. As fer th' deal wi' th' Lich…” He stopped to finish his drink, cleared his throat once more, and took a few breaths.

    “She’ll have it, then. Yer deal, that is.”

    “Wha… Really!?” He found himself hugging the little man in spite of himself, hauling the Goblin up into the air. “YES!”

    “Och aye! Aye! Lemme doon, ye big oof! I’ve nae mair in me tae give ye!” He dropped him instantly, though at least he landed on his feet.“Hooo… dinnae do that again. Ye may get an old man’s hawps up, ye might.” I forgot he’s like that. Hugging a Monster is not a good idea. Nope.

    “Listen laddie, she wants tae negotiate in body. Ye kin mak' yer ain wey, bit she suggested we let ye travel wi' us, 'n', lik' as nae, ah'ament opposed tae it noo. If whit a've heard o' ye is true, we cuid uise yer hulp tae mak' up lost time. Macha’s richt. We need tae mak' up time, 'n' that means taking a shortcut thro' th' vast. Bit thir's Beasts in thare, 'n' we cuid uise ilka mae bow 'n' blade we kin git. We'll tak' ye thare, quicker than fowk gaithers oan foot, bit ye'll need tae hulp guard th' caravan. That, or ye kin mak' yer ain wey.”

    He just stood there for a moment, trying to make out what Nye had just said. “Uhhhh…”

    “He said Moira wants to see you in person.”
    “Yup! And that we can take you so you don’t have to walk!”
    “But yer gonna have to pull yer own weight. We’re takin’ a shortcut, but there’s Beasts.”
    “You’ll need to help defend the caravan.”
    “Otherwise, we might kick you out, teehee…”
    “Not that we would do that to ye, but Da might charge ye if ya don’t.”

    “Och, am ah sae pernicketie tae ken that yi''ll need tae be changin thi words fur him?” Rhian just laughed at him, clearly understanding everything he’d said.

    “Yeah Da, ye kinda are when you’re tired.”
    “Got get some rest, dad.”
    “We got this!” And with that, the triplets hurried their father into his wagon, leaving them to finish negotiations. I didn’t get a chance to ask him about why he was keeping the situation here a secret, but I suppose it can wait.

    “So…”
    “Are…”
    “You?”

    He looked to Rhian and Neh, both of whom had come along for a trip to the market… and that was all. Rhian just shrugged. “Fine by me. I got nowhere to be. How about you, Neh?”
    “I-it’s… alright. I… don’t mind.” He nodded at them.

    “Alright then. We’ll take you up on his offer. What do we need to do?”



    - - - Updated - - -

    This will be it for a while, as we're now caught up with what I've written. Chapter 17 is still a WiP. Please wait patiently for further entries. In the meantime, I'm thinking of adding an opinion poll at the top to get an idea on how you folks like or dislike the work so far. Haven't determined if I will yet or not, but considering it.
    Asha Records
    Fuyuki - Winter Cleaning
    My Shameful Fics and the Wiki to go with them. Oh, and some fossil I found.
    [16:43] <Twelveseal> Phallus in wonderland sounds like some bad loli-rape KC fanfic
    [16:43] <@Sei> THAT'S what i wanna see




  2. #22
    闇色の六王権 The Dark Six Twelveseal's Avatar
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    Apologies for the wait on this chapter, and its content. I don't think it's particularly good. The initial directions I'd planned to go with it wound up feeling unnatural and so it meandered places I didn't expect it to in pursuit of something that felt more... real, I suppose. Now it feels like it's all over the place to me, even though there's some important things in it, which annoys me further. Hopefully you all will enjoy it, at least. It proved much more challenging to write than I'd anticipated. Hopefully the next one will be an easier and more straightforward task.




    Chapter 17: Of...

    It seemed that “what they needed to do” mostly consisted of helping pack up the supplies, wares, tents, and shops of the caravan members into their own wagons. Something they barely needed to do; the Monsters went about their business with a practiced efficiency that belied his previous observations about their compromising libido. However, he was no stranger to making and breaking camp. He may not have known the specifics, but he knew the principles and could copy enough to help rather than hinder.

    He mostly found himself working with Rhian and Neh after the triplets had gone off to handle their own duties. They were assigned with helping Teagan, who was still out-of-sorts from her ordeal… and drifting in a hazy afterglow beyond that. That she was up and moving at all after birthing that thing amazed him. The resilience of Monsters was something he'd not truly understood until seeing it for himself. She looked as if nothing had happened to her at all, save for a slightly awkward gait. He was hesitant to ask her about the person who'd implanted the Tulpa in her in light of Nye's comments about her… needs, following the experience. He didn’t care to excite the girl again. He'd avoided the topic as much as he could, but it'd still come up in discussion.

    Her only complaint seemed to have been that she couldn't keep the thing she'd pushed out. Apparently, Monsters usually found the experience of giving birth orgasmic rather than tortuous. As it was, she seemed eager to actually be pregnant soon, making him wonder about Nye's contributions and their viability. I mean, what even happens when different Monster species breed? I know with humans, the result is usually either a Monster or something like a Dhampir, Tiefling, or Hagspawn, but… How does that even work between Monsters? Does it even work?

    The more I find out about Monsters, the more questions I have. It's… kind of refreshing, actually. Sometimes disturbing and disgusting, but at least it's engaging.

    They'd worked fairly quickly, chatter to a minimum. There was a sense of urgency about the caravan. Not of fear, but a seriousness, a deliberate intensity that was infectious. Macha had explained to them what was going to happen and what was expected of them.

    First, they'd help get the caravan ready to go, making sure all the supplies were stowed, all the wagons closed and hitched to the train. Macha and Nye would do their own checks before they left. The trio would be assigned to a wagon, which they were expected to guard during travel. She assured them that there weren't many trouble spots along the route, save for one big one known as “the Vast.” Macha herself would handle the majority of their security indirectly by communing with the Elementals that maintained the city, entrusting them with the task of defending and concealing it as well as moving it. However, they weren't almighty. Every extra defender was welcome.

    Second, once they were actually on the move, they were to rest. Most of the route was safe. They would need to be ready when it wasn't. “I don't care if you chat, read, eat, sleep, or even fuck, but when the warning comes, you'd better, too.”

    Third, when they heard the warning, they were expected to be at a designated station within, or atop, their wagon. Physical defenders were usually atop, relying on ropes built into the roofs to keep them from falling off. Those that relied on magic or ranged weapons were usually stationed inside as well as on the roofs, fighting from the closed wagons’ windows. The least skilled usually found themselves on that task. However, as soon as Macha had heard about the properties of his gauntlets and the way he fought… he’d been relegated to the rooftops to support the archers. As had Neh. And Rhian, whose flight was something the caravan was normally lacking in. Not many Harpies actually travelled with the caravan, and none could see well in the dark. They were expected to work together with the rest of the defensive team, and so had been introduced to more Goblins and Kobolds than he was likely to remember. Even with notes.

    Assuming they lived through the experience, they could rest easy after the Vast, with only a couple of smaller, less dangerous Beast nests along the way that they weren't expecting trouble from. Macha would remain inside the whole time, communing with, and communicating through, the Elementals. She, and a couple of students covering for her in case of a catastrophe and to give her breaks, were what would keep them moving and in contact with each other. She'd warned them that if they fell off and got left behind, they'd have to find their own way. The train would move fast, comparable to a tireless horse galloping, and that they couldn't turn the train except in a few large chambers. There was no going back for those left behind.

    Many of those side tunnels and chambers were uncharted territory. No one knew what was out there anymore, they'd been abandoned for so long. Even the Vast route itself hadn't been used in months. Food, water, wards, all unknown. It was a death sentence for all intents and purposes. and purposes.

    In other words, hold on for dear life.
    ………
    ……


    Soon enough they’d finished and moved on from Teagan’s wagon, helping those who seemed to have the most trouble after her. Harpies in need of hands. Goblins and Kobolds that could use a little extra height or leverage. At the same time, they bid farewell to the Werefoxes, who’d lingered along with the Orcs in order to serve as escorts through their territory. Once the latter group had finished up their business, Griffith, Káne, Yúla, Tasarë, and Orva waved them off. But not before suggesting they might, at some point, visit Rhian. In particular, Káne seemed committed to the idea of helping Rhian learn more about being a Werebeast… and Griffith was keen on spending more time with Neh.

    “You’re with us in the front.” Macha insisted. “Everyone else knows what to expect. You’re new… and strong, if the rumors around the market are true. If we run into trouble ahead, I want you there to deal with it and it’s a lot easier to move with the wind than against it.” She watched as the last wagons in the train rolled into place under her students’ directions. It’s the damn sex carts.

    Sure enough, six of the small, disgusting things had formed the tail of the winding caravan. The carriage-like structures were the smallest wagons in the whole thing. Most of the rest were large enough to store the tools and fixtures of various shops while also serving as mobile living quarters for the proprietors. Supplies and goods were either stored inside or in unoccupied wagons linked to the train. Everything inside was lashed in place with heavy ropes and anchored, the whole affair designed for a rough ride. It made him wonder just how bad things could get, after seeing the insides of some of these things. They’d been designed to take a hit, reinforced more like a troop transport or a ship at sea than a common wagon.

    “Head to the big one at the head. I’ll meet you there after my checks. You can keep Claddagh and dad company in the meantime. At least until it’s his turn to look things over.” And with that, she walked off to start her examination.

    “Not sure how I feel about this.” Really not sure.

    “Same. I’ve explored a lot of the side tunnels and stuff… but only in this little corner of the complex. I’ve never even heard of this “Vast” thing, and only about half of the stops they make. I’m… not really sure how we’re going to get back, either, except maybe to ride with them again. I can’t exactly fly us all out of Moira’s…”

    “I-it’s… fine. I… know some… ways.” They both turned to look at Neh, who wilted under the sudden attention. “I-I explored… before there were… Beasts.” Ah… right. If she’s as old as she says… she’d have been in her forties when they first began to appear. I don’t really know how she ages, but, if she’s a young adult now… maybe she rambled when she was a teenager or something? “If… if we fall… or get lost… I can… lead.” That’s good to know, at least. So long as we don’t end up prey for Beasts. I guess if that’s the case, I’d best go into this as if I was going to end up lost out there and then pray for the best. I guess this means the first thing I need to do when I get to the wagon is actually take a look at our gear again. I couldn’t make out much of anything with that conversation going on last time.

    “I guess that's it, huh?” He looked over at Rhian. “We just climb on in and enjoy the ride.”

    “You don't sound very enthusiastic about this.”

    “I mean… I'm about to be cooped up with my man, my girlfriend, my ex, and some of his kids on a road I've never taken. And that's not counting the Beasts along the way.”

    “I… see what you mean.”

    “Right?”

    “Yeah, sorry. My mind was in other places…” She gave him a wry smile. “I hadn't really thought about what this would mean for you.”

    “I could tell. Don't get me wrong, I'm not against this. If I was in your situation, I'd be just as distracted. I'm just not thrilled is all…” She sighed. “Though… I guess I should just think of it as an adventure with friends. Like the old days.” Her smile slowly shifted slightly, but he could tell she still wasn't feeling great about the situation. Even Neh seemed to be trying to comfort her, a gangly hand resting reassuringly on the Werebat's shoulder. “It… it will be… alright. We're… here.” Rhian sighed again. “Thanks. C'mon. Might as well get this over with.” He found himself following her lead towards the long wagon that served as Nye's quarters.
    ………
    ……


    Apparently, Nye's quarters doubled as his office. The long wagon was crammed with old ledges, receipt books, and reams of manifests. It was surprisingly familiar; he'd often found himself dealing with such things during his time with Ardyn. It also featured a number of desks and tables that could be folded against the walls, narrow bunks beneath, a partition that concealed more bedding and a simple latrine, and a wide array of cupboards, cubbies, and closets, as well as overhead storage in the form of rope rigging. The thing had doors on all sides, including a hatch to the roof and a sealed trapdoor, and sliding doors at either end. The smell of wood and paper pervaded it… and the smell of old sex. Even though it was visually clean, the smell of all the things that had been done in it had set into the wood and cloth.

    This was, excluding the mass of documentation, fairly typical of the other wagons as well. They had features specific to their owners and their trades, but mostly they were roughly the same.

    Nye himself had been dozing in the back, tangled up in Mair's longer limbs. His wife was nearly twice his height, making him seem like a child in her arms despite knowing full well the opposite was closer to true.. She gently twisted her fingers through his hair as he slept, a loving expression on her face as she looked down at the Goblin resting against her. When they’d opened the door, she’d merely given them a beatific smile, a slight wave, and a finger pressed to her lips for quiet before turning her attention back to her husband. For all that the image seemed pure, he couldn’t ignorethe fact that Nye was also her father. He recoiled mentally, even as he pushed on into the wagon.

    It seemed that whatever giggling legion inhabited the vehicle in the market was normally spread throughout the caravan. Whether they were clerks of some sort, processors of Beast materials waiting for work, or simply staff looking to sate their lusts with the wagon's owner, he could only guess. Possibly some combination thereof. Probably some combination thereof.

    No one spoke, instead waiting in awkward silence for someone, anyone, to alleviate the situation. However, the minutes dragged on, leaving them to continue studying the inside of the wagon or the display of taboo affection going on in the back.

    What finally broke the silence was the wagon door swinging open to admit a wiry Blue he didn’t recognize. Comparable in height to the triplets, but with far shorter ears, more like the normal points of most other Goblins but pierced through with numerous hoops that jingled as she moved. Her hair was a distinctly pale, icy blue, and her sky-blue body adorned with dark tribal patterns and ominous eye and skull symbols where it was visible through her leather armor. The Bastard Sword slung over her shoulder also gave her an ominous air, especially since the weapon was clearly meant to be wielded by someone of his height and not a Goblin. However, her most striking feature was her eyes, which sparkled like a cut gemstone. A pink cut gemstone. I thought Blues were completely blue… “Hooooooooooooooy!!!” She was immediately shushed by Mair, but despite the girl’s noisy entrance, the sleeping Nye didn’t stir in the slightest. What is he, a soldier? “Oop! Sorry ‘bout that.” She lowered her tone, but her energy remained. It just became focused on them instead. Or rather, him. “Hi Neh, hi Rhian! Long time no see. Love the new duds! Glad to see ya finally graduated from that rag, girl!” Neh blushed, though whether it was because of the attention or the fact that she was still wearing said rag under her armor, he couldn’t guess.

    Actually, no, he could. It was probably the former.

    “And you must be the Human! Nice to meet ya!” She moved as if to greet him…

    And suddenly he found himself staring down the tip of that sword.

    He didn’t flinch, not because of a lack of fear or surprise, but because the girl had moved so quickly he hadn’t been able to. He froze, staring down the weapon at the smiling girl on the other end, wielding it as if it were a Greatsword. He wasn’t sure what was more remarkable; that she could do that, that she would want to do that, or that she’d been able to do that inside the cramped wagon.

    “Hooo, not bad, not bad. Most people lose it when I do that. Ya got promise!” Mair shushed her again, even though Nye continued to softly snore in her lap, oblivious.

    “Is uh… is there…”He couldn’t help but stare at the blade, the perspective making it seem shorter than it was. It was close enough he could smell the iron tang of it as it pointed right between his eyes.

    “Nah, it’s fine! You pass. I didn’t wanna work with some guy that’s just going to panic the sec things get hairy. Name’s Claddagh, by the way. You can call me that, or Claddie, or Addie, or blue midget. I don’t really care… So long as you put up a good fight, it’s all good!” This… is Macha’s sister? She’s an entirely different… actually, you know what…

    “So you’re Macha’s sister?”

    “Oh yeaaaaaah. If you’ve met the pudgy Greenskin already, this’ll be great. Let me guess… “Are ya really sisters?” Somethin’ like that?” He looked over at Rhian and Neh, who just smiled at him, clearly enjoying watching him squirm with the weird girl and who seemed pleased to see said girl, respectively.
    “Well… yes?” She smiled and slapped him on the thigh with more force than he would have realized that small body could contain. “That we are! Mair’s my sister, too! Well… half-sister, anyway.” The redheaded Hobgoblin simply smiled and nodded slightly, barely moving. “Lot of us are halfsies. Sometimes we come out pink, sometimes we come out green, sometimes we come out blue, or even gray. Fuck if we know why. Don’t really matter, anyway; we’re all family. If not by blood, then by choice. Which is why I don’t want no coward defendin’ us. Everyone here’s family or friend and I don’t intend ta lose any of ‘em. Understand?” He nodded. “Understood.”

    “Good!” The tiny swordswoman sheathed her blade with a motion that seemed impossible for her size, returning it to her back with a strange flourish. How… does she move like that in here?! “So anyway, just make yourselves at home. Grab a seat. The green sow’s doin’ her checks, but I’ve already done mine, so now we just chill and wait. When she comes back, she’ll wake up dad and he’ll do his and we’ll go. “So… she told me she wanted you up top, four-eyes. You might want to rethink that coat of yours up there. Gets windy. Don’t want you blowin’ away on us.”

    “Appreciated, but I need it for proper coverage. I can fasten the tails down, though, so it should be alright.” She stared at his armor around his legs, at the straps and buckles affixed to it. “Hmmm… alright. But keep that thing closed. You’re not going to want the drag, and I don’t want those things coming free and getting in everyone else’s way. Dad says it’s about like ridin’ a running horse without the sway. Whatever that means.”

    “Fair. I’ll keep it closed.” It’s better protection that way, anyway. I guess this girl is some kind of security chief for the caravan. “Also, ya got a fancy pigsticker over there, but it looks new. Don’t be swingin’ that thing around up there. Stick with shit ya know, not our fancy new toys. There’s gonna be other people up there and we don’t need any accidents.” She’s pragmatic enough to be a security chief, at least. “I will. I need to see what it even does first, anyway.”

    “Hooo, that new, huh? Well, you’ll have plenty a’ time to look it over, if ya can. Anyway, ya might as well find a place to sit or nap like dad over there. It’ll be us and Macha in this one. Ah! And Macha’s pets. Ya don’t have anything against wolves, do ya? Wolves? He looked at her in confusion.

    “Jiggle-tits is useless without her pets on these trips. Girl knows some powerful magic, but won’t use much of it except for healin’. She usually rides around on this wolf like it’s some kinda pony and uses these flying fire-snake-rock-things to fight. It’s why she’s fat.” The lean girl beat a leather-clad fist against her flat chest. Rhian chuckled at the display.

    “Never change, Claddagh.” The Werebat clearly liked this one.

    “Got no plans to, bats. Like I give a shit about playin’ politics. Give me a good fight or a good adventure and that’s all I need. I’ll leave all that other crap to my sisters.” That’s right. They base their status on size… and she’s both short and thin. Though what’s there feels like it’s all muscle. For someone who belongs to a species known for Psionics, she’s awfully… physical.

    “I see my sister is being her usual, underachieving self.” He’d not noticed the approach of plump Saplin, but she stood in the doorway. And, as Claddagh had predicted, she had a large wolf with her. The animal seemed to have little interest in them beyond a cursory sniff. “You know you’d have more success in finding a partner if you had more meat on your bones.” The Blue simply rolled her eyes. “And what’s your excuse.”

    “I have a more important role to fill for our tribe than to simply push out babies left and right.” She seemed unperturbed by Claddagh’s words. However, he found them both confusing. These two didn’t behave like Monsters as he understood them. “You at least have an interest in such things. And yet you won’t do what needs to be done to attract a man.”

    “Maybe I just don’t like the men we got?” It was the Saplin’s turn to roll her eyes. “You know full well that you aren’t going to have a choice on such things. That we got a human at all down here is a miracle fit for your God, and he’s clearly already taken. You might as well settle for some Monster instead of putting your faith in those drug-addled dreams of yours.” This seemed to strike a nerve with the Blue, her face purpling in anger. “Listen here you fat sack of green shit! You don’t know a damn thi-”

    “Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” Mair shushed them once more, this time actually bothering to make a sound herself. He’d somehow expected the sound to be accented as well, against all reason.

    “Keep it doon, he's sleepin’!”

    “He doesn’t need to be, sister. It’s time for him to do his part.” Mair looked down at Nye in disappointment, then back at Macha in annoyance. “He asked us to wake him when it was time.” That quieted the brewing protest, however. She might be the leader of the tribe in name, but she’s just a figurehead, isn’t she? It’s really Nye… but clearly Macha holds power, too. The power dynamics of the Goblins were proving to be more complex than he’d assumed.

    Mair gently roused her husband, caressing him awake and gently pushing the drowsy Goblin to his feet. He looked at the crowd in his tent through bleary eyes before slowly stumbling down the steps and out, grumbling something unintelligible as Mair followed behind him.

    “He’ll wake up soon enough. The walk will do him good.” Macha watched her father leave with an even expression.

    “A few more’d do you good.” However, that expression soured when Claddagh chimed in.

    “Must you always provoke me?” The Blue simply smiled at her.

    “Love ya, sis.” Macha sighed by way of reply.

    “Anyway, as for you three… for the time being we’ll be here. Father will manage the first hour. I’ll handle us through the Vast, and he’ll take over again for the rest of the way through to the farm. Father’s capable enough at communicating with the spirits, but lacking when it comes to the finer control required in emergency situations… and those triplets are entirely too chaotic to be trusted with this sort of situation. You’ll be tasked with protecting this wagon; the most powerful Earth Elemental is bound to it, giving it the most pull in the line. If this wagon stops, the rest will follow. Slowly, but they’ll follow. So long as there’s rock and soil beneath, we’ll not have to worry about paths. However, we’ll need to watch out for falling debris and assaults from all directions once we reach the Vast.”

    “Like… what exactly is the Vast. I get it’s some kind of big chamber, but what’s the deal with it exactly?” Rhian brought up one of the questions he’d meant to ask.

    “It’s a fuck-huge chamber crammed full of Beasts.” It was Claddagh who answered, but clearly her sister didn’t see the response as sufficient. “More precisely, it’s a massive underground lake that was drained in a battle over a thousand years ago.” Over a thousand…

    “So… was this the battle between the local Demon Lord and a Hero?” Macha looked at him in surprise, but nodded. “The very same. It was once a great reservoir for the city that fed the King’s… tree, as well as the people. Its roots still permeate the place, like arches of stone. The wards failed there to an extent long ago, making it easy to cultivate food there. It had a community all its own, but when its defenses faltered completely over a year ago, that group either perished or fled to other areas. Many now live on the surface in the Wereboar’s territory. We’ve avoided the route ever since. We only take it when something’s gone especially wrong.”

    “It doesn’t seem like an orgy was that much of a setback.”

    “It wasn’t. We’ve had other problems along the route. More Beasts than usual, and in places that were previously safe. Not to mention the extra care we were taking with that smith. We’re actually several hours behind. The Vast is a huge chamber, but it’s also fairly easy to reach Moira’s territory through it; the Vast itself was a settlement she patronized for centuries. The route is short and fast, if exposed. It’s a winding path that follows the cavern’s wall well above the old shelf that used to be the water’s edge. It twists and turns, but it’s still much shorter than the one we’d need to follow to get there otherwise.” Hmmm…

    “You look like you have a question.”

    “Ah, well… yes. If you don’t mind my asking… how exactly did a battle drain this lake?” She looked a bit surprised at the question.

    “If you think it was some grand sorcery, I’m afraid I must disappoint you. According to the spirits, the Hero who faced the Old King managed to deceive him in battle and stole the Core of the Dungeon. He somehow used the power of the Core on the lake to wash the Old King into the depths and then permanently closed the entrance from the outside. No one knows what he did with the Core afterwards, but the Dungeon and its Master have been sealed away ever since.”

    “So there was a Dungeon!!!” Everyone jumped at his sudden exclamation, looking at him in surprise at the outburst. “I… sorry. It was just a theory of mine.” Claddagh laughed at him openly. “Yes, there was, or rather is a Dungeon here. However, it’s no longer physically possible to reach the entrance without being able to breathe underwater. The area is also home to a powerful Beast King that makes approaching it effectively impossible. Despite the interests of some.” Macha pointedly looked at her sister, who merely smirked. “Hey, if anybody’s gonna fix the shit around here, it’d be the King, right?” Macha simply shook her head. “It doesn’t matter, regardless. Without the Core there’s no way to open the Dungeon. And no one’s seen that particular key since the Hero took it.”

    Key, huh…

    “I… might know where it is…” As soon as the words left his mouth, both Claddagh and Neh were on him, causing Rhian to step back. Even Macha was shocked at how quickly they’d moved. “Heyo, what!?! The triplets said you had Eyes! What’d you see!?” Neh had latched onto his arm, staring him full in the face with that massive eye of hers.

    “Ah! Uhhh… When… when we were traveling on the surface… one of the Werefoxes mentioned that someone named Malicon had a key that could…” Before he could finish Claddagh had stepped back, disappointment clear on her face. Neh seemed confused at the reaction, but Macha was openly laughing, the motion setting her large breasts bouncing. Claddagh, noticing Neh’s confusion, kept her response simple.

    “The cards, Neh. He’s talking about Malicon’s cards.” At which point Neh joined her in disappointment.

    “Cards?” It was Macha who answered once again. “Malicon is the leader of the Werefoxes, distant kin of the Old King through his father’s line. It wouldn’t be too unbelievable for her to have an artifact such as the Dungeon Core. As a follower of the Green Faith, she’d not be exposing that truth, however. The Old King attempted to compel the city’s population to worship him, and his God, over their own religions. Far more likely, however, is that it’s simply her prized treasure. Admittedly, it is, or rather they are, extremely valuable. However, they’re of no use to anyone here.” He looked at her in confusion, as did Rhian.

    “She has some artifacts, cards, said to have belonged to the Grand Summoner.” His jaw dropped. “Unfortunately, no one here happens to know how to use them, so…”

    “I mean, are they really…”

    “If they aren’t they’re impressive forgeries. They contain a bit of divine power, and any damage done to them repairs itself. They’re also written in languages no one here knows how to read… and their art is nothing like anything I’ve ever seen.” He put his hand against his head as he leaned against the wall, the wood grain coarse on his supporting hand. Even Rhian seemed dumbfounded, though Neh just looked annoyed.

    “Then… what she was saying is that… she has an artifact that can create Demiplanes?”

    “Likely more than one. She was involved in my initiation and education into the faith, and while she does have some power in that regard, she’s a strange Elf who’d rather sit around at a low table and read than spend her time in nature. She’s quite proud of those cards, however, and will happily show them off, even though they’re nothing more than an heirloom. If you spend any degree of time with her, she’ll end up showing them to you. Or some of them, at least. Particularly if she’s drunk. I’ve personally seen five of the artifacts; cards with a strange purple orb with an eye on it, a divine-looking silvery crystal on a turquoise background, and three elaborate landscapes. One was a towering forest made of jagged metal trees, another with some sort of road made of branches on one side and jagged cliffs on the other, and another that showed some sort of dark, misty ruins with fires burning at their bases. If she has any more, I can’t say. If the legends are true and those are artifacts of the Grand Summoner, then she likely has the means to make Demiplanes… if she knew how to use them. However, as no one does, they’re simply a novelty she parades around when she wants to impress someone.” Even so… something like that has tremendous value from a scholarly perspective. Even just five such artifacts could be worth a lifetime of study. I can’t even imagine how much dedicated summoners would pay for even one… He found himself sitting on one of the beds set against a wall, completely unaware of how he got there.

    People have died for less than five of those. That’s enough to start a war over. Even knowing nothing about them and what they do, in the hands of someone who can actually read Wayfarer languages… the right languages, those things hold effortless power comparable to the greatest mages to ever live!

    Rhian seemed just as shocked, her eyes darting to and fro. He could almost see the calculations running through her head. He felt a headache coming on as it was.

    “Rhian, do you… know anything about those things?”

    “Only a little. We… we never had one in the old Guild. Never saw one. But… they’re priceless. From what Dafydd said of them, the ones that have orbs on them generate infinite Mana over time.” His eyes bulged.

    “The ones with landscapes usually create a Demiplane with really strong Ley Lines that you can draw on instead of your own Mana.”

    “The ones with Men and Monsters on them usually call the creature itself, or something close to it. And it’s loyal to whoever called it. The objects work the same way, usually, but he said that apparently some of them are more like spells than anything else. He said there are rules to it, but only dedicated scholars know what they are, and that if we find something like that we should probably leave it alone, just in case. Some of them require sacrifices.

    “I… see.” It still didn’t feel real. To think that something like that was hiding in a place like this… No, I suppose this would be exactly where something like that would be. Divine artifacts of a legendary hero, hidden away in some ancient, Monster-filled, Beast-infested ruin. He almost laughed. It’s the sort of thing that keeps Adventurers always looking for the next ruin and relic.

    “As I said, most likely what you heard of was that, and not the Dungeon’s Core. Inconvenient as it is for some of us, Malicon would rather the Dungeon stay sealed than allow the Old King to be free from it. If she had such a thing, she’d not tell anyone of it. In some ways, I suppose what she does possess is worth more anyway.” Macha reiterated her point. “There’s no point dwelling on them, however.”

    “Ya can say that again. And ya had my hopes up, four-eyes. Don’t do that to a girl.”

    “What about Moira, though? She’s a Lich, right? Surely she knows how to use them, at least?”

    “Nah. She can’t. Not that she doesn’t want those cards, but they’re something for her to study, not something she can use. The moldy bitch’d trade for ‘em, sure. But she can’t do anything with them, either.” The Blue seemed confident in her judgment. However, he wasn’t so certain.

    “How can you tell, though?” After all, if it’s just your guess…

    “She’d be a lot pushier if she could. Worse comes to worst, she might even take them by force.” He looked at Claddagh in surprise before he checked himself. I don’t really know anything about this Undead woman. For all I know, she could be a complete psychopath.

    “My sister is often wrong, but in this she is not. Moira is content to keep to her own… but when she wants something, little will stop her. Her workers may seem harmless, but a legion of the Undead is never truly such. If she truly had a use for Malicon’s treasures, she’d likely move against the foxes.”

    “I… feel like I should be asking you about Moira now.”

    “Same. I’ve seen her before, but never really interacted with her.”

    “Hooo, if you saw her, that’s already more than most. The ‘shroom-head doesn’t get out much. Mostly just stays cooped up in that garden of hers. Makes a scene whenever she leaves.”

    “So I noticed. Hard to miss that big hat and the weird cloak… or the palanquin being carried by zombies.” What?

    “So, uhhhh… can you maybe… give me an idea about what she’s like, since I’m going to be meeting her?” The two sisters looked at each other before Claddagh gestured to Macha. “You take this one. I’m gonna get comfy for now.” The Saplin rolled her eyes and ran a hand through the fur of her wolf before finally sitting as well. The Blue, meanwhile, took a seat further in the back.

    “Moira is… old. She’s probably the single oldest resident of the city, besides the Old King himself. No one’s sure precisely how long she’s been here or where she came from. She’s been a fixture of the city for countless generations, always working her farm, always claiming the dead where she can get them, and experimenting with her magic, herbs, and mushrooms. She was here before the dragon was… and killed him when he became a nuisance to her. Albeit not through any direct confrontation.”

    “Yeah, infected him with some kind of killer fungus.” Claddagh chimed in from the back, but Macha nodded her agreement. “Supposedly. She’s a soft-spoken woman. Calm, collected, and calculating. She makes decisions based on her own benefit. She’s usually very rational, though she can be extreme when she feels that her work is threatened. She’s dangerous, but not malicious, and everything I’ve heard of the dragon suggests his death was a benefit to us all. So long as you remember that her research is her first priority and act in accordance, you have no reason to be concerned.”

    “Well, unless ya didn’t get anything against poisons and diseases, anyway.” I… had not considered diseases.

    “Ummm… diseases?

    “Fungal infections. Moira’s farm is a menagerie of fungus, some of which are dangerous to contact… including their spores. Some are poisonous, but others can infest the living as a form of disease. These she keeps mostly near her borders as a means of deterring intruders and thieves.”

    “And Beasts. Not that it works all that great sometimes.”

    “Unfortunately. Her territory has many large chambers. Such areas are more likely to experience a failure of the wards, though no one’s quite sure why. As such, she has something of a Beast problem on the outskirts of her lands. You’d do well to remember that when you go to meet her. You’d also do well to remain on the pathways. Certainly near her borders.” He nodded. In the end, she’s a mage. One of the ones that locks themselves up in their lab all day. I’ve met that sort before. I guess I’m going to need to prepare some anti-fungal draughts before we go there. I think I have the materials for that in my kit. If not… I can’t really buy anything from these people while we’re moving, can I? I’ll just have to hope, then.

    “I know this may seem like a strange question, but… just how rough will this ride be?”

    “Well now, that depends on ya girls over there, now doesn’t it?” He tried to stare down Claddagh’s raunchy smile. Failed. It only got worse. “No, seriously.”

    “That depends largely on father. He has no direct connection to the elements, but he does possess not-insignificant, if unpolished, Psionic talents.”

    “Not that he believes us when we tell him.”

    ”Unfortunately. Father is rather certain he’s inherited none of his forebear’s gifts. He has, in fact, and they’re usually more than enough to direct the spirits driving the train, but sometimes result in turbulence when there's miscommunication. Are you intending to do something that needs stability?” He nodded at Macha.

    “I think I have what I need to prepare some antifungal potions, but it’s delicate. Too much disruption could ruin the batch.” I’m going to have to Quickforge them, too. Something like that normally takes weeks to prepare.

    “I see… I can assist father for part of his first shift then. Let me know when you’ve finished them. However, I’d also like for you to spend some time on the roof before we reach the Vast. I don’t want you getting pulled off by the wind, so you’ll need to get used to the experience.”

    “Claddagh mentioned that. Is it really that bad?”

    “Father says it’s comparable to a galloping horse.” So it wasn’t just Claddagh. Not that he’d been given any reason to doubt the Blue. “With both of us working together with the spirits, we should be able to maintain an even ride. However, I’ll need to prepare for the Vast, so be quick about your alchemy.” He nodded at her and began pulling his alchemy kit from his pack, setting up on one of the folding desks built into the wagon’s walls.

    “Ya know, Macha probably could’a just cooked something like that up for ya.” He looked at the Blue, but not in surprise. From what he understood of their conversation, Macha was likely some kind of Druid or Shaman… possibly both, despite those being two different traditions. However…

    “There’s no sense in taking away from her magic when she might need it for more important things.” The Saplin nodded her approval. “Hah! I like that.” Claddagh, meanwhile, was more vocal. “Not a bad catch, bats.”

    “Did you ever doubt me?” Rhian swayed her hips at the Blue, bringing more laughter. Meanwhile, Neh simply seemed to fade deeper into the background, as if unsure of what to do. He couldn’t blame her, really, as Rhian moved deeper into the wagon, and into further conversation with her friend. Despite clearly being part of the same cult, it seemed like Neh wasn’t as close with Claddagh as the Werebat was. Instead, she began to focus her attention more on him and the work he was doing. Best get what I can done before we start moving at all. He focused his mind on the figure of his mother and her ways in the lab. She’d always been the best Alchemist he knew, so borrowing a bit of her talent was the natural choice. Let’s see… brass, myrrh… He began choosing his reagents. Distilled alcohol, quartz powder, alum, soda, herbal oil, some of my Holy Water… It was a makeshift recipe, of sorts. Base materials combined with additional catalysts to improve the results. In the end, it was more a matter of unleashing metaphysical properties in the materials themselves. Ceration would be the process. He mixed the Holy Water and alcohol with the soda into a mostly-liquid slurry, adding the alum crystals, myrrh resin, powdered quartz, and brass filings to his crucible. At least I don’t have to worry about a flame source. He forced some of his Mana into the clay vessel and its ingredients and rested it on its frame above a wool pad. I don’t really have enough base materials to produce the quantity I want, but with those additional catalysts, I think I can extend the effects.

    At some point as he’d begun to work, Neh had leaned in to observe. Macha also displayed some curiosity, but in a more subdued manner. At least until he’d begun heating the crucible. “Hey! Don’t burn the wagon down!”

    “It’s fine. So long as I’m not distracted, I can control the heat well enough.” He’d generated a tiny ball of flame beneath the crucible in lieu of more traditional heating mechanisms. There’s a reason I keep that cotton pad in my kit. He looked at the liquid mixture he’d need to add to the mix. The point is to soften the materials into something usable, to unleash their properties. The heat does most of the work, but… He added the oils, which ignited on the softening brass filings with a faintly flowery, woody scent. From there it would be a matter of adding the other liquids over time and infusing it with his Mana. “This is why I wanted to know how rough the ride would be.”

    “So I gathered! Still…” Macha seemed unconvinced, but Claddagh didn’t share her concern.

    “Ey, leave him be. Looks like he’s got it under control.” To an extent. I’d much prefer to have a good pair of leather gloves over these gauntlets for this kind of work. They protect from steam well enough, but there’s less sensation to them. At least their grip is good… He slowly dribbled the mixture of alcohol and Holy Water into the crucible. It evaporated instantly with a ferocious hiss. Hmmm… should add some powdered toadstool here… At least, that’s what he felt like his mother would do. Alchemy itself was often counterintuitive. He sprinkled a bit into the crucible, which rapidly ignited in the heat. Now, lower the temperature… and increase the liquid. He poured the fluids more quickly into the mixture and applied Mana, the molten brass beginning to fully dissolve. Once it’s done, I’ll need to scrape it out and mix it with more alcohol. The powder that would remain would have the properties he needed. Or should, at least, but it’d need a proper medium and it’d need to be apportioned out. He'd mix it with warmed honey and drip it slowly into a mold he’d chill with magic. Lozenges are better for long-term Potions, especially for a group of users.

    His concentration almost faltered when the wagon door swung open.

    “Och, who’s cookin’ in me wagon?” I guess his accent really does improve with rest. Huh.

    “C-Col is… making… alchemy…” It surprised him that it was Neh that spoke up, but her attention remained focused on him rather than Nye as the Goblin and his daughter-wife climbed in. “Huh. Guess you’re puttin’ it to good use then, kid.” He nodded. “Hopefully.”

    “Jes’ don’t burn me house down.” What, do you actually live in this thing? As your home? He knew there were nomadic peoples that did that. The Lorefinders and Wayfinders were famous for that sort of life on the road. It was a bit surprising that Nye’s Goblins engaged in it. Though it’s probably not the whole tribe, from what I’ve seen of them.

    “Have you finished your checks, father?”

    “Aye. Everythin’s in its proper place. We’ll be headin’ out in a jiffy then.”

    “Hey Nye! Is it true you’ve got psychic powers?” I’d actually wanted to ask him about that. Rhian had beat him to the punch, though.

    “Och, me girls’re fillin’ yer head with nonsense, I see. Nae. Nae. Me Da, he had as such. But I inherited none o’ that.” Claddagh made a rude noise. “Listen ta him, will ya. He really don’t believe it.” Macha merely shook her head.

    I wonder… I could probably make out whether he does or not, honestly.

    “I’d always figured you for some kind of Bard, but I never heard you sing or play, so…”

    “Och, the only time I sing is when I’m balls-deep in a twat or just as far in me cups.”

    “Och ah kin vouch fur that. Mak's a bonnie noise, he does.” Rhian burst out laughing as Claddagh snorted.

    “Love… ‘twas a joke. A joke.” Nye, however, was not amused.

    “Eh? Bit tis true!” This is more than I cared to know. Rhian’s laughter only intensified, likely as much at the face Nye was undoubtedly making as the strange noise he was currently making. He sounds like he’s gulping for air back there. He resisted the impulse to turn, however. He needed to maintain focus on his work. Well, at least this might not be as bad as Rhian was afraid it would be. Hopefully, anyway.
    ………
    ……


    True to her word Macha helped her father with the initial leg of the journey, giving him plenty of time to complete the number of potions he needed. He could only hope that the results worked properly. Once his crucible had cooled he’d packed the thing back up in his kit and set to work studying their equipment. Barring a few comments from Claddagh about his diligence, he hadn’t faced any interruptions; Rhian had spent most of the time chatting with Claddagh, and Macha’s wolf had minded its own business. Said business appeared to mostly consist of shedding on Nye’s bed. Mair had spent the entire time sitting with her husband and Macha. Must be a tight squeeze up there.

    Neh had been his constant companion through his work, however, her lone eye watching him with an intense curiosity. From his alchemy to his observations on their equipment, he’d been studied. And it was him. She’d definitely paid attention to what he was doing, but he’d realized fairly early on that Neh was watching him as he worked. He couldn’t help but wonder what was going on in that head of hers. Though he suspected it might make him uncomfortable if he knew. For all that she seemed like a decent girl, she was a Monster, and somewhat alien besides. Or very alien, if the commonly claimed origin of Aberrations was correct. He’d had time to consider it, and the bizarre situation, as he’d worked. Once he’d fallen into the rhythm of his labor, his mind was free.

    They say that Aberrations trace their origins to the red moon, Nibiru. That they’re alien beings seeded on Gaea in some ancient, failed war of conquest. Yet if that’s the case, then the aftershocks of that war are clearly playing out here. The Old King and his God, clashing with the native faiths… the ongoing search by his cult for the means to free him… They might not be at each other’s throats, but there’s clearly still a divide at work between those factions. Rhian is indifferent, and I should be as well, but Neh at least seems to want what her faith does… and I have no idea if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I can’t discount all these Beasts with weird eyes on them. It could be a coincidence, or something benign, like the Beasts being influenced by the Mana of the region, but… He couldn’t forget what he’d been told about the Old King’s supposed powers and what that might mean for the Beasts. Is he somehow reaching out from his prison through them? Or are they like that simply because his Mana suffuses the Domain as its Demon Lord? He looked at Neh, at her single, massive eye. She blushed at the attention, hiding behind her rough bangs. I’m missing critical information still, so there’s no point in dwelling on it. He pushed those thoughts from his mind and set the last weapon he’d examined, his own new sword, aside.

    He somewhat dreaded the next step. He’d given the weapons and tools a proper appraisal, but he still needed to analyze the armor. And that meant, as before, removing said armor. That wasn’t a problem for his own coat, but it meant that Rhian and Neh were going to have to take off their own gear. It’s going to end up like last time, except it’s going to be in Nye’s home. Of that, he was certain. And on top of that, it’s going to involve Neh as well. He glanced at the Nothic, the girl waiting patiently to see what his next task would be.

    “Done with it all?” He looked up to see Rhian looming over his seat. He sighed. “With a few exceptions, yes.” She grinned at him, that knowing look that told him she knew exactly what he hadn’t examined yet. “So are you gonna say the line?” His face went carefully neutral. “C’mon. I liked it last time. C’moooooon.” He pinched the bridge of his nose.

    “L-line?” He sighed. “The last time I had to study Teagan’s handiwork, it uhhhh… it wound up leading to us having sex. Rhian and I, that is.” Neh’s eye opened wide, giving him one of the best looks at the eerie orb and its spiraling red-and-white center, the ruddy iris dotted with small, black pupils. That eye… It feels like it’s looking right through me. What is it she’s seeing, I wonder? I don’t even know how this girl feels. It’s not like with Rhian. We… I… knew where she stood. But with Neh… The girl kept her own council. She rarely spoke. She could be cute, in her own way. It wasn’t that he was repulsed by her, physically. It would take some getting used to, sure, but odd as she was, he probably still could. He found himself staring at the girl again, trying to sort out how he felt… and to try to understand how she might feel.

    “Hooo, do I need to leave then? I can spend some time up top, ya know?” Claddagh chuckled, but made no actual move to leave. “Ya know the pupper back here’s not gonna say a word, and Dad won’t, neither. Plenty a’ folk have fucked in this place besides him. Ain’t much difference between any of the wagons and those little ones in the back.”

    AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!

    He surged to his feet, checking his clothing for stains, which sent both Claddagh and Rhian into fits of laughter. Neh simply seemed confused. “We clean these a bit better, at least. Most of us don’t like sleeping in puddles. Most.” She snickered. With that, the Blue rose from her seat and strode to the wagon’s center, hauling on a rope that hung from the ceiling. A set of folding stairs answered that pull, allowing the girl to reach the hatch in the roof. “Don’t wear yourselves out too much, though. I expect ya up here when ya finish.” And with that, she climbed onto the roof, leaving the trio alone as the stairs swung back into place.

    Rhian looked at him expectantly. He knew what she wanted. He wasn’t opposed to it, even if the setting made him uncomfortable. But he couldn’t make sense of what emotions might be playing across Neh’s features. Behind her eye.

    And so he did the only thing he could think of doing. He breathed deep… and looked. Looked with the eyes that had allowed him to mimic others. To see as they saw.

    Show me what you feel, Neh.

    For a brief moment, he felt what it was to be Neh wash over him.

    Fear.
    Uncertainty.
    Anxiety.
    Confusion.
    Sadness.
    Hope.
    Loneliness.
    Bitterness.
    Anger.
    Curiosity.
    Desire.
    Love.

    She was a girl who felt out of place. As if she didn’t quite belong anywhere. Always on the periphery, never fitting in. She was someone who’d learned the values of other cultures besides her own, and had begun to put more weight in them than those she’d been raised to. Her curiosity had shown her other ways. She knew things she shouldn’t and didn’t understand how she did, knowledge that came from a source she couldn’t understand. It scared her almost as much as not knowing. She had lived a life of isolation, wandering in the dark alone. She felt herself repulsive, undesirable, having learned the standards of others beyond her own people. And yet she desperately hoped that someone would want her. Her own feelings of self-imposed rejection and self-loathing fueled her anger, her aggression. It also drove her shyness; she was certain others found her repulsive and so feared and mistrusted their attention. She loved Rhian as a friend and more, and feared losing her. Rhian was her anchor. She loved Lapis, Lazwli, and Malachit as well; friends closer to her heart than her own kin. She was lustful, though it was held in check by her own diffidence and shame. She desperately wanted love. True love. She wanted for there to be some grand design that would turn in her favor, some destiny that would bring her love to her. This… this is who she is.

    She did not love him. He was a stranger to her. A mystery of the outside, of a world that she longed to see. That fascinated her, but her fears staid hand and tongue.

    She loved what he was.

    She wanted to love him.

    He could hear the sentiment echoing in the back of his mind once more.

    You want to love her.

    So why not?

    Because I don’t. He answered that voice. He didn’t love her. She was the friend of the lover he’d chosen.

    But you might.

    But I might.

    Her heart was a fragile thing. It had torn itself to shreds entirely on its own.

    Is it really alright to do this? He couldn’t shake the feeling that moving forward would only be more harmful for her. She was in no state, emotionally, to have a real relationship. As inexperienced as he was, even he understood that much.

    Is anyone ever really ready?

    He had no answer.

    What do you want, Neh?

    He looked at her once more, his eyes peering into her one, and looked. What do you want from me?

    He saw.

    He closed his eyes and sighed.

    It is what it is.

    He stretched out one hand, gently resting it atop her claws. Even so, she startled at the unexpected contact. “Awawawa…?” Her odd murmuring had a questioning tone to it.

    Gods forgive me if this is the wrong choice.

    The voice in the back of his mind seemed to promise they would.

    He sighed mentally, losing his battle. Fine. Have it your way.

    “You know, in order to properly examine all of our equipment, we’ll need to remove it first.”

    Neh’s eye widened in surprise, mouth hanging open. “Hah!” Rhian, however, was jubilant. “Yesssssssssss!” It’s not really that impressive, you know?

    “Hey, he’s pretty smooth sometimes, idn’t he?” What. He and Neh both looked up to see Claddagh poking her head through the hatch, an ear-to-ear grin splitting her face. He felt himself blushing furiously. “It’s great!” Rhian, for whatever reason, really loved that line. Or maybe just his awkwardness. He couldn’t tell if Claddagh was being serious or teasing, though.

    “Anyway, have fun you three.” And with that, the Blue vanished back to the roof, leaving the mood very, very strange.

    “...” That… killed the mood, alright.

    “Snrk!” Very attractive, Rhian. He glared at her, but it only caused her to lose what little composure she had left. She doubled over in laughter. He just sighed and shook his head. “Sorry about that, Neh. I wasn’t expecting her to…”

    “I-It’s… fine. It was… funny.” She was smiling, awkwardly.

    “Claddagh… or that line of his?” He wasn’t going to let that stand. “Hey! You literally asked for it.” She just grinned at him. “And it’s just as dorky now as then.” He forced his face into careful neutrality. “It worked well enough on you.” Something seemed almost to glint in her eye. “Yeah, sure. But I think dorks are cute. Dork.” Really? Come on now.

    “I… I…” Neh paused, mustering up the courage to speak what was on her mind.

    “Agree.” He found himself blushing again, just as he'd gotten it under control, after hearing something like that from another girl.

    Oh.

    Well, I had assumed that was a foregone conclusion… Especially after getting inside her head a bit, but… But actually hearing it spoken is a little different than… He found himself rubbing the back of his head and staring down at the thick rugs that served as the wagon’s carpet, their soft fibers shifting beneath his feet.

    His other hand remained on hers, gauntlet to gauntlet, and found himself wondering what her skin felt like. He looked her in the eye once more.

    “I… wasn’t actually lying about the armor, you know.”

    Pffft. Still can’t believe that, you know?”

    “And what exactly do you expect from a guy who’s only copying people? I can’t just glance at an object and instantly know its quality and all the magical things it does.”

    “So you’re saying it’s not just some lame thing you say to try and get in a girl’s pants?” He rolled his eyes at her. “No, it’s not just something I say to try to get in a girl’s pants.” Wait, what’s that malicious look on your face?

    “Gotcha!” Huh?

    “You heard him, Neh!” Heard wha-

    Realization.

    AGAIN!?!

    All he could do was turn before the Nothic took him off his feet.
    ………
    ……


    He could feel his ribs screaming, his shoulders popping audibly as the Nothic, as Neh, trapped him in her vice-like arms and squeezed him tight. Lights danced before his eyes, the world seemed to spin, and he struggled to breath as her inhuman strength compressed flesh and bone into a space it was too large to fit in. She swung him back and forth, spun with him like a child dancing with a doll despite his superior height. Somehow he knew there was no malice in it. Only a wild giddiness. He didn’t even feel lust from her. However, that happy embrace turned his world into pain and pressure, and he could already feel a lightheadedness coming over him from loss of breath and blood to the brain.

    He desperately tried to wriggle free, bones creaking and grinding as he struggled against the girl’s ruthless grip. How one so much shorter than he could wield so much power, could so easily control him bodily, he couldn’t even begin to guess. Trapped in her crushing, tightening embrace, his vision began to flicker. His body screamed at him, but he couldn’t kick free; she’d hauled him bodily into the air as she bent backwards, his feet unable to touch the floor. Somewhere in the back of his mind he realized she was probably taller than she seemed thanks to the weird way she moved and the odd shape of her legs and feet. That she might actually be taller than he was and was just standing fully upright for once.

    Her chest, such as it was, ground into his clothes. However, there was no appreciating such a thing. Every time he breathed out, she hugged him more tightly, cutting off his air further. Speech was beyond him. It had been beyond him from the moment she’d snatched him up. He tapped on her arms as best he could, but she seemed oblivious to the meaning. Nothing he did could get through whatever ecstatic reverie had driven her to grab him.

    Can’t breathe! He was getting well and truly desperate as he kicked and flailed his legs. She clearly wasn’t understanding he wanted her to let him go. To put him down. Arms like steel, like stone, wrapped him in an embrace that his instincts screamed would be fatal if he didn’t do something. Anything.

    I-I…

    I CAN’T DIE HERE!!!

    However, just as he was considering turning his flames on her in a last, desperate bid to break free, a voice of reason rang out.

    “Neh… don't hug him that hard. He'll die.” The pressure suddenly relented and the rug rushed up to greet as his lungs fought against the sudden impact for air with a fierce gasp. He wheezed from the fall rather than grunted. He didn’t have enough breath for the latter.

    “Awawawa!” Rhian just laughed as he lay on the floor, catching his breath and quietly groaning. “Not quite what I’d had in mind when I set that up, but oh well.” He wanted to glare at the Werebat, but was too busy trying to make sure nothing was broken and filling his lungs.

    “I… I’m… sorry… awawawa…” He coughed as he began to lift himself up off the floor. “It’s… it’s fine. I just wasn’t expecting that.” Not that he could have really prepared for it, even if he had. I figured she’d just pounce on me like Rhian had, not… not bear hug me half to death. There'd been no lust that he could feel in it. Only elation. Maybe it’s because we didn’t really build that kind of tension first? Maybe he’d misjudged just how sexual Neh was? But there was what happened in Teagan’s tent… Neh definitely had an appetite for such things. He’d felt it as well as seen it.

    Maybe she’s just holding back? He might have gotten a glimpse of who and what she was, how she felt with his abilities, but perhaps this incident was a reminder that there were limits to such insights. I misjudged her, maybe? She definitely wants a romantic relationship. A sexual relationship. But maybe she’s as apprehensive about starting one with me as I am with her? He couldn’t be sure, but this incident did change his expectations somewhat. Maybe it’s too early? Or that she’s still too concerned about her looks…

    He studied the girl as he pushed himself up off the floor and finally got his feet under him.

    She was still strange to him, visually, so he could kind of understand, even if it bothered him somewhat that she felt that way about herself. His own irritation on the matter didn’t change his level of attraction to her, however. He just wasn’t feeling the same kind of raw magnetism with her that he did with Rhian. He wanted Rhian. She excited him. They excited each other. Neh… Neh didn’t. She didn’t repulse him. She didn’t disgust him. But there just wasn’t that spark. That fire that Rhian, or even the triplets could ignite, as much as he hated to admit it about the cultist sisters. Even the psychotic woman behind Teagan’s tent had been more physically appealing to him.

    Thinking about it made him realize he was trying to force himself to act like he was attracted to her. He wasn’t sure for whose sake; whether hers, Rhian’s, or his own. He couldn’t say. He’d even gone so far as to try tapping into her emotions to stir himself towards her, to feed on her own possible attraction to him. It was something he was only able to understand in hindsight. I wasn’t just trying to see who and what she was and whether she wanted to be intimate with ime… I was trying to excite myself towards her by using her own emotions, her own desires. And I didn’t quite get there. He just didn’t want her, physically. And she hadn’t quite been in the mood, exactly, so there wasn’t much of anything to really feed his own lust with. She didn’t disgust him, despite her own views about herself. She just didn’t arouse him, despite how much Rhian seemed to want them to hit it off and how much he now wanted to make Neh feel better about herself.

    That’s actually depressing. Frustrating. It was a sentiment he’d never imagined he’d have. He genuinely wanted her to be happy with herself, with how she looked. At least after having gotten a taste of her emotions. She was nowhere near as bad as she felt she was. She was cute in a weird way, and while she was scrawny for his tastes, he’d known plenty of women over the years who were similarly thin who’d been able to build happy relationships. They were often mages or skilled at subtlety and stealth. But she still just… wasn’t what he found attractive in a woman. He was starting to realize that Rhian was right about him being an ass-man. Even the triplets had noticed that, pointed it out. I do think they have nice butts… They’re plump.

    And Neh… Neh had basically nothing back there. Or much of anywhere else except maybe her thighs. Those… those he might could get behind. Eventually.

    He sighed and made his way back to one of the narrow, couch-like beds and sat, rubbing his aching shoulders as he leaned against the hard, creaking wood. Its vibrations were almost soothing as they shook his recently compressed muscles. He’d be sporting bruises from that hug of death. At least nothing seemed broken or dislocated.

    “Maybe for now we should just focus on checking the armor and worry about… anything else… later.” Rhian sighed at his words, shrugging. Clearly she’d had her own agenda there. Neh had turned her eye to the floor and her shoulders inward, seeming embarrassed, ashamed… but also a bit relieved. She was hard for him to read, even with his copycat’s insights; the way her face was structured was deceptively alien. He wouldn’t have thought just having a single eye would have that much of an effect, but it was amazing how much it changed how the muscles of the face operated. How much difference it made only having one eye, one brow, and the way it changed what expressions she could and couldn’t make. I wonder… how does that coexist with her brain? With the rest of the internal structures of the face, like sinus cavities. If her eye is shaped like a human’s but scaled up… Is her brain somehow… He realized that going down that train of thought was not productive and did his best to stop it. That way lay madness, he sensed.

    “Look, don’t let it bother you. I… wasn’t expecting that kind of reaction. There was nothing wrong with it, except that you were holding me way too tightly. I couldn’t breathe at all. Rhian kind of rushed things along, but I was honestly expecting this to end up with us… well…”

    “Awawawa…”

    “Uhhh, yeah. Basically. Having sex instead, that is.” She blushed furiously. That much, at least, he could tell. Even if it was more orange than pink. “I’m not opposed to it, just so you know. Us having sex, that is.” Definitely not a sentiment I'd expect among Men, that. She glanced up at him, then back to the rug. “I’m not going to lie to you about your looks…” She flinched and Rhian opened her mouth as if to cut him off, but he merely continued anyway. He had some things that needed to be said. “You look strange to me. It’s hard getting used to. You’re not ugly, though, if you’re worried about it.” And you most definitely are, that much I can tell. “You’re just different.” There’s no sense in lying to her. “I don’t think either of us is quite ready to try moving past that difference with each other. Yet. I thought I was… I thought you were. But… what happened there wasn’t what I imagined would happen.” She stared at him intently, to the point that he could almost feel it… his skin seemed to tingle beneath that gaze, bringing his mind back to the daggers he'd presented her with. He suppressed a shiver. “So was that reaction… Were you maybe just… that glad I was even interested in…” She blushed a darker shade of orange and nodded. He found himself chuckling at her reaction, even though it made his ribs ache.

    This… this is how, isn’t it? This is how she stayed a virgin.

    She just never believed anyone could be attracted to her. Or at least no man could be.

    “This is probably going to sound harsh, but don’t take it as an insult… I think you’re cute, but Rhian’s more my type. I’ve seen plenty of women with your overall body type find partners who were more than happy with their looks so you don’t need to worry about that, but I’m just now really starting to explore my own preferences. I think I’m going to have to get used to you more before I can really get into it. So… if you don’t mind… and I know I’ve probably got no right to ask this after what I just tried to do, but… can we take things a bit slower and get to know each other more before we try moving into intimacy again? Until we’re more comfortable with each other?” The blushing smile she showed him was warm, and though she’d returned her eye to the floor, he didn’t miss the girl’s nod. It put him at ease about the situation… at least a little.

    At first I was just going along with this for Rhian’s sake and out of a sense of obligation for taking her Crystal from the well, but… after feeling what she feels, even for just that moment… I don’t want to leave her alone, either.

    It wasn’t the kind of feeling he had for Rhian. It was almost something like anger, really. Anger at Neh herself. Anger over how she felt about herself. He almost wanted to shout at her; she saw herself as disgusting and ugly and it made him mad for some reason he couldn’t quite fathom. At the same time, he just wanted to hug her, too. To tell her it was fine, that she was fine. He wanted to drag her kicking and screaming out of the dark oubliette in her mind where she dwelled.

    She’s not just shy. She’s depressed. And for some reason that pisses me off. I can’t just throw myself at her in hopes of making Rhian happy. Trying to do that… that was a mistake on my part. I wasn’t being fair to Neh. I wasn’t considering her feelings, her situation. I was just running with what Rhian wanted and trusting that she’d be… what? Easy? Open to whatever? That I could just roll in, make myself available, and she’d immediately go for it. He was starting to realize that his initial impression of Monsters, his stereotype of them, wasn’t as accurate as he’d thought. He’d hit the nail on the head with the Orcs, it seemed, but it was increasingly clear that it wasn’t how every Monster was. Including Neh. Claddagh and Macha seemed to be more examples.

    How exactly did Rhian start sleeping with Neh in the first place? He had a feeling there was a story there, considering how the girl seemed to feel about herself. One he might be able to learn from that could help with their own situation.

    “Anyway, about your armor… We should probably get to it.”

    “Ah…r-right…” Neh began the process of removing the membrane-like suit that wrapped her body. It stretched weirdly as she pulled at it, seeming to split open, only for those splits to seal themselves up as their edges came in contact with one another. How on Gaea does that work? It was eerie to watch, as if the armor was somehow a living thing. He shook his head and turned to the Werebat waiting to his right, trying to get the bizarre image out of his mind.

    “And yours too, Rhian.” He took his own coat off as Rhian shrugged once more and started doffing the leather and metal protection she wore.

    A strange flopping sound drew his attention back to the Nothic, however. She was struggling to pull herself free from the gear she wore. It had no clear opening, and while it seemed to be able to open when she needed it, she couldn't seem to figure out how to actually remove it. It seemed to flow back into place, even when it ripped, snapping back the second her fingers released it. It simply healed any damage dealt to it.

    “Do you… need help with that?” He heard the sharp intake of breath behind him and knew exactly where Rhian’s thoughts had gone. That, however, wasn't his intention. He'd come to the conclusion that such interactions with Neh were comfortably off the table for now.

    “I… I don’t… know?” She couldn’t seem to figure it out. He wasn’t sure he could, either. He’d never seen clothing or armor like this. It made him wonder just what Teagan had seen to be able to figure out how to make such a thing. Where she’d learned the design. After all, one had to actually know how to craft a given item, even when Quickforging. You couldn’t just imagine a thing and turn the materials into the form you wanted with magic without having the knowledge and skill to do it normally.

    Maybe she saw it in a dream?

    He ignored the intrusive thought, even as his mind drifted to the cult’s use of the tainted water for visions. Even if it made sense and he was looking at some kind of alien piece of equipment whose secrets had come from some kind of divine revelation, the strange idea was nothing more than speculation. No sense freaking myself out over this thing. We just need to get it off of her. Let’s see… It seemed to respond to her desires before, so… Maybe she needs to will it off of herself in order to be able to take it off?

    “Hey Neh… I have a question. Kind of a strange one, but if you don’t mind…”

    “Eh? A-alright…”

    “Do you want to take that thing off, or would you rather keep it on?” She stared at him in confusion, her brow dancing weirdly and making him wonder if this was the equivalent of a lone eyebrow being raised. “Your armor seemed to… open, so to speak, when you wanted it to in Teagan’s tent.” She blushed again, reminded of how she’d been on full, erotic display to everyone in the tent. Including him. “Eep!” He had to resist laughing at her. “It’s fine. I enjoyed the show. Thanks for that.” She blushed a darker shade of orange… but seemed pleased at the same time.

    “And where’s my thank you?”

    “Likewise.” Rhian rolled her eyes at him playfully. “Is that all I get?” His groin twitched in response to the look she gave him and what it made clear she wanted as a show of gratitude.

    “...”

    It dawned on him at that moment that he’d missed what should have been an obvious, if somewhat unfair, way to take the step into intimacy with Neh, despite her not really being his type. I could have just started with Rhian first and Neh almost certainly would have joined. Especially if Rhian had been the first to reach out to her. He stood there, mouth agape as the realization hit him.

    “Figured it out, huh?” He nodded, mouth still wide open. It was an easy expression for her to read. “It’s a little late for it, though, after all that. Isn’t it?” He nodded again, finally closing his mouth and resting his head in his hand. Neh, for her part, simply seemed confused by the exchange. “I guess you’ll have to thank us properly later. After you’ve gotten to know each other a little better.” She smirked at him, clearly getting some amusement from the situation, despite also being annoyed with him.

    It’s better this way, anyway. Rhian might be making light of it, but it really is better if we know each other better before we end up fucking. He’d come to that conclusion and he wasn’t going to back away from it just because he’d now seen a way to reach a previous goal. It was wrong to try and treat Neh like that and it’s still wrong. That isn’t going to change.

    “So Neh… do you want to take that off?” He wasn’t going to let his thoughts completely derail their objectives. The look she gave him was one of confusion and agitation, her eye darting to and fro between orange-tinged cheeks. “Ummm… I… don’t… know?” Her breath began to quicken, agitation creeping into her movements, her voice.

    Is she embarrassed? Hmmm… If she were a human, I could understand being… No, that’s the wrong way to think about this.

    “So… why not?”

    “I have to… take everything… off.” She looked down, but he was caught off guard by what she looked at. Her eye was locked squarely on the tattered black cape she’d worn ever since he’d first laid eyes on her… and now wore over her specialized armor. Wait, is it embarrassment, or…

    “Wait, is this about that cape thing you always wear?” Rhian had caught it, too. Neh nodded gently, still staring at the dark cloth as she gently stroked it with one clawed hand. “You know that thing doesn’t cover you at all, Neh. It never has. Hell, you don’t even take it off when we…” He put a hand on Rhian’s shoulder and shook his head. He didn’t need psychic powers to tell this wasn’t about covering herself. At least not the way Rhian understood it. He thought back to the market and the hooded figures he’d seen moving through its lanes and between its tents and wagons.

    “Neh… Do the Nothics have some kind of taboo about being naked?” Her eye darted up to him in confusion, and then back to her clothing. She shook her head. “No…” He didn’t need psychic powers, but it helped.

    “Neh… the other Nothics go naked, except when they’re in public, don’t they?” Her mouth popped open, giving him a glimpse of her unusual teeth, before closing again. She looked at him from behind her ragged bangs for a moment before finally whispering her answer.

    “...yes.”

    “I see.” She kept staring at him in silence, blushing faintly, before Rhian’s elbow to his still-sore ribs got his attention. Her expression was more sour than he’d expected. “You see what, exactly?” It seemed he’d found something out about her friend that she didn’t know yet. He rubbed his tender side gently and sought approval of some sort from Neh before answering her. The Nothic looked away, but said nothing. Hard to make sense of that response, but she didn’t tell me not to, so…

    “Neh… errr… The Nothics, rather, apparently only dress themselves around outsiders. And when they do, they seem to do it to hide how they look.”

    “Yeah, so? Lots of Monsters aren’t big on clothes. What’s the… oh.”

    “Yeah.”

    Oh! But then… it’s not like that thing hides you. Any part of you.” He shook his head. Not quite, Rhian. Neh is ashamed of how she looks, but that’s not it…

    “You don’t want to be like the other Nothics because you know almost everyone else wears clothing.” She nodded. “We don’t care about how you look and you don’t need to hide it from us. That was never the issue. It’s that you don’t think the other Nothics are normal and you don’t want to be like them, right?”

    “Awawawa…” Her orange flush deepened. He took it as confirmation. She doesn’t really care about the fact that it doesn’t cover her properly… at least so long as it’s in place anyway. He thought back to when she’d become trapped in Rhian’s rope ladder. It’s that she’s wearing something at all.

    Wait… does this mean that all of the Nothics have some kind of complex about their appearance? And Neh is actually… better adjusted than they are?

    “Neh, ummm… don’t be insulted by this, but… do the other Nothics consider themselves ugly?”

    “We… we are… We are as the King Above… made us. But beauty to him is not… is not what the people of this world… like.”

    “Wait, hold up. So… So you think everyone around you sees you as ugly… except your god?” She nodded. “That… that is what… we are taught.” Rhian looked as mad as he felt at that moment.

    “And so you have to wear clothes all the time you’re in public to hide…”

    “No Rhian. She doesn’t. She’s not wearing clothes all the time she’s in public. She’s wearing them all the time. Period. You never take that off, do you?” He remembered how agitated she’d seemed when Teagan had measured her. He’d thought it was simple shyness back then, with her clearly wanting to escape the moment that cloth had come off of her, but now… It’s a miracle she parted with it at all. He hadn’t forgotten how much she’d wanted to put that thing back on over her new outfit.

    Neh nodded again, still blushing furiously. “It…”

    “It’s you trying to be like everyone else.” She jolted slightly, her eye locking on him once more. “It’s you telling us you’re one of us.” Her mouth worked, but no sound would come out, and ultimately, she fell back to a simple nod. Talking about yourself like this… it’s making you really uncomfortable, isn’t it?

    “Pfffft…” He looked at Rhian. “You know we don’t care about that, right? There’s nothing wrong with you getting naked around us. We’ve fucked, and this guy over here’s planning on it if he ever gets off his ass,” he glared at her, “so you don’t need to worry about that kind of thing with us. We don’t give a shit. Not to mention we’ve both seen it all already. The way you move in that thing puts it all on display.” Neh blushed furiously once more, her skin seeming almost brown, her eye seeming to spin as she stared at the rug beneath her feet. “So here, let’s just get this over with, okay?”

    For the first time since meeting her, he saw Neh tilt her head upwards rather than down, her eye seeming to search the ceiling, or perhaps something beyond, before closing. After a moment her blush faded, her breathing slowed, and she finally nodded her assent.

    She removed her belt first, then the cape, laying them beside where he sat on the bed. It gave him a chance to look more closely at the fabric. A dark twill cloth made of some material he was unfamiliar with, the pattern of the weave made its black, dark blue, and gray colors seem to shift and flow as it settled, giving the impression of a night sky flecked with distant, hazy stars. Though it was old and worn, and there was no magic in it that he could discern, it was clearly well-made and well-cared for despite its tattered hem; it was quite clean despite being nearly constantly worn.

    Neh’s renewed struggles to remove her armor soon drew his attention from the cloth, however. That she’d tried to take it off before while still leaving that cloth on hadn’t helped matters, but it was abundantly clear this… this thing she now wore was not like any normal attire he’d ever seen. It continued to cling to her skin with the tenacity of a living thing, and while she’d calmed herself a moment before she was already growing frustrated with it again.

    Guess it’s time to get involved.

    Rhian had come to the same conclusion as she moved past him and started looking for ways to get a solid grip on the strange armor. This is probably going to have the opposite effect, but…

    “Hey, Neh… relax for a bit and stop pulling on it like that.” Both Neh and Rhian looked at him in confusion. If I’m right, she has to want to take it off. It responds to how her body moves and adapts, and because she’s uncomfortable being naked, it won’t come off easily. So… He removed his own gauntlets and laid them beside her cast-off cloth and belt, cracking his knuckles loudly and shaking his hands out to loosen them. Never done this trying to get someone’s clothes off, but… Master did like it, so… “And turn around, would you?”

    “Eh? Ahhh… ummm… a-alright?” The reluctant, she turned her back to him… albeit not without stealing glances over her shoulder. Rhian, for her part, simply stepped back to watch whatever plan he was hatching. That plan, however, wasn’t really much of one; he settled his hands on the girl’s dense trapezius muscle to either side of her neck and began to knead through the layered leather. It was more awkward than he’d initially thought it would be, not just due to the armor’s unexpected resilience to outside pressure, but also the girl’s own spiky protrusions. The black, claw-like spurs that grew from her back and shoulders, as well as her skull, were deceptively hard and sharp, and while he wasn’t likely to cut himself on one, he could tell they’d easily pierce skin and flesh if he pressed down on their tips. Neh suddenly jolting and almost pulling away at the contact didn’t help, but that initial panic settled into something that could almost pass for relaxed.

    This isn’t going as well as I’d have liked.

    He was fighting the armor more and more as he continued to work his fingers against Neh’s shoulder muscles. The equipment had surprisingly little give for how flexible it seemed, making him wonder if it was some property of the armor to shift with the girl, or just a testament to her raw physical strength that she could move in it so naturally. Even so, he didn’t let up, his fingers popping as he kneaded, rubbed, squeezed, and massaged.

    “You better give me one of those later.” Rhian’s tone told him that she wasn’t just joking. He rolled his eyes, knowing she really would want a shoulder rub later.

    “I’ll add it to my to-do list.” She made a satisfied noise somewhere in her throat and found a seat for herself, lounging as he continued his work on the Nothic.

    Neh just seemed confused with the experience, though she was starting to shuffle in a way that made him think she was trying to help him. As it was, though, he really felt like he was getting nowhere. Come on… It’s almost like I’m trying to squeeze a rock. How on Gaea did Teagan make those hides this sturdy? He’d felt the fox hide, at least, when they’d been moving the raw materials around and it had been supple in his gauntleted hands. It felt soft under his skin, but there was almost no give to it whatsoever. The hide of a slug couldn’t be that resilient, either. Not with how they moved.

    He found himself grunting with frustration and leaning forward, closer to the girl’s spiky body. He could see her ears beginning to take on an orange hue, but there was nothing erotic about it for him in the least. He was actually getting annoyed with the armor himself. I figured if I worked at it like this, she’d start wanting it off so I could rub her shoulders directly, but… I can’t get through it at-

    “Feels… nice.”

    “Huh?” He blinked in confusion, pausing in his efforts. “Wait, you can feel this?”

    “Y-yes?” I assumed the armor was blocking most of the sensation. This is good, though!

    “Neh… did you… want me to try rubbing you directly?”

    “...” Her ears darkened. “...yes.”

    “Alright then… how about we try to lower the top here?” I say that like it’s just going to… ah, it did. The armor seemed to loosen, shifting slightly beneath his fingers. Enough that he could get his fingers between it and Neh’s neck, the suit peeling like a second skin. He’d somehow expected it to be slimy, but instead, it felt almost like removing the rind from a fruit; the armor was surprisingly soft and flexible, with a definite leathery feel, yet was somehow even more stretchy than the raw latex he’d seen harvested from Milkwood trees, albeit in shades of gray and dark mottled brown rather than that substance’s distinct white color.

    The strange suit began to peel, as if it were wet cloth being pulled off her skin. He had no idea how, but it seemed to have opened in the front somehow, splitting apart at the center of her throat. He hadn’t seen a seam anywhere on the thing, and yet he had seen it somehow seal cuts and tears in its own surface, so perhaps he shouldn’t be questioning it at the moment. Once it had come open, Rhian had risen from her seat and started helping him as well as Neh simply sat there and let them disrobe her. Which… even with the strange adherence of the armor inert, was easier said than done; it kept wanting to hang on her spikes, which pierced through its surface. It’s porous somehow, so they just went right through and it closed on them. This stuff just… made way for the things and then tightened around them. Those spikes had slight curves back and down but sometimes protruded at odd angles and had irregular sizes, forcing him to make minute adjustments in how he was shucking her.

    Definitely don’t care to be the big spoon with this girl. It was challenging enough trying not to get stabbed by her upper back, especially once she started wiggling closer to him. At least the spines were only present there and not her lower back as well. Otherwise, he’d be in trouble; she’d begun to slide her flat ass and stubby tail against him. I guess this means she’s getting more comfortable with me touching her. Or maybe just more aroused. The exposed skin slowly coming into view had a definite orange tinge to its normal buttercream shade. She fidgeted slightly as he pried the strange, oddly floppy suit loose. Once free of her skin it felt somehow flabby, pliant. Almost spongy.

    As Rhian helped Neh get her arms free of the bodysuit, he was afforded a close-up view of the Nothic's back and shoulder muscles. Almost human, but not quite, reticulated, banded, yet human-shaped. As if something that wasn't human was imitating the external form but not the internal mechanisms. It was unsettling, but also fascinating to watch as those bands shifted, stretched, compressed, almost like watching a snake work its meal down its gullet and back again, or the movements of a slug or worm. The dense hump of her back, studded with its spikes, moved and shifted with her arms, as if supplying the flowing, spring-like bands with additional muscle mass or storing it as it was no longer needed. Rings of muscle slid up and down her arms beneath the skin, dragging supporting muscles with them, only to clamp onto the underlying skeletal structure. They could just as readily release and withdraw, returning to the structure resting on her upper back. Even without changing her arm positions, her muscles could swell and bulge as if she were flexing. Watching those strange knots move brought to mind the tulpa's undulations, forcing him to fight down a shudder of revulsion. Even so… What does that even feel like? The memory wasn’t enough to quell his curiosity.

    He returned his hands to her now bare shoulders and immediately understood the incongruity he’d experienced. It wasn’t that her armor was soft only when she wasn’t wearing it.

    It was that her muscles themselves felt like they were carved from stone. She froze at his touch, pausing in the work of pulling her legs out of the suit… and yet her strange muscles continued to shift, like rings moving beneath her faintly striated skin. That skin was itself supple and resilient, easily accommodating the strange structure. It’s almost as if… no… it literally is that her musculature can reconfigure itself! This isn’t just flexing, it’s like her body somehow stores muscle mass in that hump and she can just… repurpose it as needed, but the way it feels… Rather than like normal muscles, it felt almost as if hers contained some kind of innate tension to them, some sort of internal pressure pushing outwards that made them feel so… hard. It reminded him of the tubing used in some advanced alchemy labs; flexible, but hard as stone when filled with fluid.

    Are her muscles… hydraulic? But how would that even… no, how…

    He couldn’t understand. Just as her head structure confounded him, her musculature was also incomprehensible. It made him want to explore her body, just to find out how it worked. He continued to squeeze and knead her shoulders awkwardly as she finally managed to wriggle free of the suit, the movements forcing him to shift and shuffle with her. How does she work? How do these structures function? How can her muscles float, detach, and reattach like this? How can they be stored in that hump? Is this because of her abilities as an Aegis, or is it natural to her species? He was starting to get excited, but not in a sexual way.

    This girl had piqued his curiosity.

    “Awawawa…” He wasn’t sure if his attentions bothered her or not, but she was beginning to darken further. Embarrassment, arousal, confusion, he suspected it was a bit of all of it as he started to explore her shoulders, upper back, and arms.

    “Getting into it a bit there, aren’t you?” Rhian’s voice snapped him out of it a bit, her sardonic smile carrying a faint hint of hopeful expectation. He stared back at her. “She’s interesting!” His response seemed to startle both of them.

    “Awawawa!”

    “Uhhh… what?”

    “I mean, you should understand it, too, right? I’m no expert on it, but aren’t Thieves and the like usually taught something about anatomy and how to read peoples’ movements and body structure?”

    “Ah, uhhh, yeah… To better judge the movements of guards and marks, and how to defend ourselves or subdue people if we have to. What about it?”

    “Have you never watched how Neh’s body moves?

    “Mmhmmmm… I mean, uhhh, yeah, I have.” Her reaction told him all he needed to know about when she’d been watching Neh move and what those moves had been. He wasn’t amused.

    “No, I mean the way her body works is just… drastically different from how a human moves. It’s really interesting!”

    “Awawawawawa!”

    “Oh.”

    “Like… she seems to be able to store muscle fibers in this hump on her back and draw them down and attach them when she needs to… and it feels like her muscles are more like tubes than solid masses. It’s almost like she can connect tubes and hoses inside her body in different shapes and then inflate them somehow without having to change the positions of her limbs! It’s… it’s just… interesting!” Rhian gave him a look that spoke volumes of her disinterest. “You know, there are a lot more interesting ways to learn about the intimate details of a woman's body…”

    “Yes… but I can't take notes doing that.” Her eyes widened. “You’re not…”

    “I am. If you don’t mind, of course?”

    “I… I…” Neh was clearly confused, uncertain. He wanted to push her, to pressure her, but her reaction told he was overstepping already. She was clearly uncomfortable, slowly recoiling, drawing into herself, making herself smaller. A cringing, bony girl, not human and yet oh-so-close. It forced him back into that moment, that brush with her mind.

    Ashamed?

    Yes.

    In the beginning, I was just using her to satisfy Rhian, and now… for my own curiosity. I need to change that.

    Do you? The voice in the back of his mind wasn't buying it. It'd be so much simpler if you simply followed those desires. She’s a Monster. Her reluctance would evaporate in short order. You'd hardly need to force her at all.

    But I don’t want to be the kind of person who does that.

    Why not? You're already the type of person who plunders the dead, toys with the hearts of half a dozen girls, and bargains with a Lich for the eternity of a dead man while leaving others to toil as her slaves… Why not indulge your interests? You need only take the next step. Kiss her. Become her lover. You know she wants it. So does Rhian. And afterwards, she'd be more than happy to let you see all of her… ufufufu…

    Because she’s not ready and neither am I. There needs to be more to this… on both of our ends. She’s afraid and I… I don’t see her that way. Not yet.

    And until you see her?

    I'm going to keep my hands to myself and respect her.

    Oh really. We shall see…

    The voice faded back into the darkness of his mind as he slowly eased his hands from Neh’s shoulders and offered her the cloth that pretended to be decent attire on her behalf. Neh looked over her shoulder at his hands for a moment, strange face unreadable, before snatching the cape and throwing it over her chest.

    She immediately began to relax, even without the belt that held it in place. Maybe we should try “clothed” sex first… An intrusive thought, but one worth considering. Relationships are challenging.

    At least finishing his analyses shouldn't be.
    ………
    ……


    Though it took some effort to really understand Neh's armor, especially as he tried to keep himself from studying her, he finally managed to discern what everything actually did. Teagan had simply built upon what was already present when it came to extant gear. His coat had been rendered into a virtual hospital bed for all that it helped him rest and heal from wounds and fatigue, as well as offering yet more protection from harm in the first place. Guess I'll be sleeping in that for the foreseeable future.

    Rhian's armor magically improved her stealth capabilities, could freely transform with her body, gifted her the ability to fly regardless of her form so long as the lighting was poor, and could conjure a swarm of bat Tulpas to serve her with a supply of Mana imbued into it. Mana she could expand upon with her own. It, too, boasted greater protective properties.

    Neh’s armor, however, was as strange as it seemed. It was a mutable thing, able to freely adapt to whatever form she took… by bonding directly to it. It literally became a part of her while she wore it, empowering her ability to warp and mutate her body rather than impeding it. It was like a living thing. Maybe even was a living thing, a symbiote bonded to her. Being around it made him vaguely uncomfortable now… and he couldn’t deny that he was also curious about it now, too. The fact that it was comparable in defensive capabilities to their own gear despite it’s spongy quality didn’t help to assuage that growing interest of his.

    As for their weapons…

    Rhian’s rapiers were vampiric things, capable of draining some of the vitality of those they struck and imparting it to their wielder… and they were such that they’d leave wounds that would refuse to stop bleeding. The things had a bit of the Beast’s poison in them, preventing blood from clotting, and fine serrations along fullers of their narrow blades that were made to tear flesh and scrape bone on the withdraw.
    Neh’Rhys’s shield was most certainly also a weapon. While it was perfectly capable of serving its obvious role of protecting its bearer, it was absolutely made to destroy. Between the spikes, the sharp, serrated edges, and its size, the weapon was a devastating bludgeon designed to tear flesh apart. The whole thing was structured to hit above its weight. It was both Recalling and Resizing, so even if she lost it or adjusted her size, she’d never really be without it. It also had an enchantment he’d never seen that his insight from emulating Teagan told him had everything to do with catching victims in the moving parts of the disc-like shield’s outer edges and… well, shearing things off or just utterly mangling and crushing them. It… wasn’t something he wanted to get involved with.

    The anti-poison brooches weren't as ideal as he'd hoped, but they were still better than nothing. They were capable of preventing a small measure of the necrosis that contact with poison caused to tissues, while also bolstering their wearers’ ability to resist and metabolize the chemicals themselves. He clipped one to his coat, lest he forget later.

    His grapnel wasn’t really made to be a weapon, despite its look. After a careful study, he’d come to the conclusion that the thing could somehow create and retract cord as needed, potentially reeling him to a location so long as he didn’t exceed its weight limit. Even if he did, it wasn’t going to break simply due to its magic, but he’d be climbing it the old fashioned way.

    His sling was quite capable of generating its own bullets now, including those with elemental properties connected to the Elementite he’d had invested in it. Even better, it could fire through water depending on what elements he chose to use, despite the normal impossibility of such a thing. Its properties allowed it to generate force without having to spin it as long as magic wasn’t suppressed in the area.

    Easily the most disturbing thing besides Neh’s living was his sword. Besides being a wickedly sharp weapon, the sidesword was also poisonous and had a number of other qualities derived from its arachnid materials… It could, for example, spawn a swarm of spiders on command. The creatures, like Rhian’s bats, were Tulpas, and like with her armor he could channel his own Mana into the weapon to cause it to shed more. It could also hurl webs in a similar manner. However, it was its poison that especially gave him concern. Its normal blows were imbued with the ability to conjure spider-shaped Tulpas made of venom with each swing, leaving the things on the target to deal their own toxic damage. However, if he struck an especially deep blow, the Mana within the weapon could react with that of the target and spawn a swarm of the toxic creatures in the wound.

    There is something very wrong with that Kobold.

    He genuinely feared using the thing. What if he nicked himself with it? The weapon had been made to be extraordinarily sharp. Even a light cut could go deep, loosing a horde of toxic spiders on him or anyone around him. He’d been plenty ready to follow Claddagh’s orders about what weapons to use. Now that he really knew what this thing did, he was doubly so. He planted the black weapon, blade decorated with shifting spiderwebs that seemed to be inside its ominous surface, firmly in its scabbard.

    Explaining it all had been relatively easy despite his presumption that Neh might not understand him. I really am underestimating her. He couldn’t really place why, though. Maybe her awkwardness?

    I guess that's everything. He looked at the two girls, one lounging, the other staring at her bare feet. Neh hasn't bothered to put her armor back on, but I don’t think it'll be an issue. It’s not like it's a fight after all. Not yet, anyway.

    “Everyone ready to… uhhh…” What do we even call this? Acclimation?

    “Head up?” Rhian sighed, her voice colored with faint frustration. “I guess.” Sorry things didn't turn out like you hoped, but… at least you two had some fun earlier, right? He wasn't about to voice that sentiment.

    “S-sure.” At least she doesn't seem too upset about what happened. I think.

    Still mulling over what had happened, he threw on his coat once more, fastened the tails in place, and reached for the rope that would open their passage up and out.

    Asha Records
    Fuyuki - Winter Cleaning
    My Shameful Fics and the Wiki to go with them. Oh, and some fossil I found.
    [16:43] <Twelveseal> Phallus in wonderland sounds like some bad loli-rape KC fanfic
    [16:43] <@Sei> THAT'S what i wanna see




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