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Mother of Monsters Ch 05

Page history last edited by Sea Foam 2 years, 9 months ago

     Why did they keep waking me up? Over and over and over again I was awoken, simply to stare into the darkness of the cell or the darker eyes of the snake. It was enough to drive a sane man mad.. It would be better to sleep eternally. My punishment today was the serpent; after a click from the recently installed door a familiar set of scales slithered into view before stopping. I couldn’t even be bothered to focus. “Heeeeero,” the snake crowed. “I have a special surprise for you today.” What, another bite before parading me around the compound like a lover? Brutal rape again? Whatever. “At least look at me when I speak.” Too much effort; as assistance the snake lifted be by the throat and shook until my eyes rested near her. “Better. Now then, say hello to your first daughter!” The echidna lifted something wrapped in a blanket. A baby? It almost could have passed as human were it not for the horns wrapping around its head. “This one is something new. We’re calling her a lilim. It has a nice ring, no?” The snake waited for some kind of response, then frowned when it became clear she wouldn’t get one. “She needs a name, too. Nettle says we mustn’t let you know her true name, but for her taken name… Love. A fitting name for our first child, right?” The snake’s sneer had come back during that little thought, but it faded to a scowl when I failed to react again. “Hey, do something. You should spit and hiss, not sit there like a corpse.” Nothing. “This will not do. How should I cheer you up this time, hmm? Do you have any cousins whose heads I can put on a pike? Fine, be that way. Laying with you these days is like coiling around a dead fish anyway.” Without further ceremony she dropped me to the ground and slithered away.

 

Why bother being angry? Soon enough she would wither away and die, just as I was doing now.

______________________________________________________________________________

 

    Banging hammers, sawing nails. The sounds of creation. On the surface it looked like a fresh beginning, a town rising from the depths of the forest. If you paid attention though, something much less welcoming was happening. Here at least the humans could be counted on to work properly and give sound advice because they’d be living in the end result of their labor but elsewhere shoddy workmanship and crafted misguidance abounded—at the very least I knew they were teaching us battle tactics incorrectly but I decided to ignore that for the time being.  It was bad enough that they would’ve gotten themselves slaughtered had the need for their continued existence not become readily apparent. Just the thought that a need for semen would become a saving grace for these and thousands more to come set my gut into knots.

“What troubles you, succubus?” A voice near my waist asked.

“You can call me Nettle, you know.”

“I asked what was wrong.”

I'd been holding my belly again. That was a habit I couldn't afford to get into. “Oh, just a little upset stomach. Nothing of import.”

“Hmph.”

 

    “The Goat,” the baphomet we refused to call by name was less than thrilled by my response; she likely would have been happier had I told her I was dying. Who could blame her after being coerced into her position and made to be something she never wanted? Still, it hurt and I could've used an ally rather than more enemies. Those red eyes studied me before turning back to the work around us.

“They should be wearing clothes.”

There was an idea; the Goat and I were fully clothed and the Great Mother had a cloak she wore on occasion, but aside from that every mamono was naked as the day there were born.

“It is getting cold. Most of them have lost quite a bit of fur and they seem more sensitive besides.”

“Let them freeze,” the Goat said, raising a finger, “I was more worried about making things like that stop happening.”

I looked where she was pointing to see an orc tearing the rags off of a human worker.

“Hey, stop that!” I yelled. “You know rape isn’t allowed during working hours! How do you expect us to get anything done if you come rutting whenever you feel like it! Shoo!” The girl attempted to protest, then shrank under my gaze and ran away.

“T-thank you,” the worker stammered, not daring to look at me. They weren’t getting beaten down that hard already, were they?

“No need for thanks. Go get yourself another shirt, there should be more in the storage.”

The man nodded and was off. I turned to find that my companion hadn’t moved, opting to watch me from a distance instead. Very well, then.

 

    We continued our tour of the camp, ensuring everything was laid out as planned and no one was sabotaging things too badly. All was in order and I was about to propose returning to the cave when I was stopped.

“Walk with me, succubus. I have a proposition.”

 

     There was a classic setup for a trap. My gut reaction was to refuse immediately but going with her was a sign of a trust; were I to build a relationship with this girl lots of those would be needed. The Goat herself was refusing any semen so despite the bounty of slaves allotted for the purpose she had little spirit energy and couldn't get any weaker without collapsing, she’d nary be a threat. As for allies, she had none—she hadn’t tried to make any. Was this worth a risk, then?

“Very well, but why not talk inside?”

“If I see any more of that cave or its fucking inhabitants I may go mad. Come.”

 

     I was lead down what was once a game trail but now something resembling a proper path near the river.

“So,” I began once we were well away from any listeners, “you have something big to tell me? Something equally expensive?”

“Obviously, but this is worth it. So, by now we know that none of the monsters—”

“Mamono.” The Goat barely spared me a glance before continuing

“By now we know none of the monsters can birth males of their kind anymore, or if they do the frequency is too low to be worth mentioning.”

“But there are no issues mating with human males it seems, yes.”

“The question is how to get enough males to keep the monster population stable. Raiding won't work long term and if we let things sit we may have too few in a generation or two.” The girl paused, nibbling her lip. I let us walk in silence until she was ready to continue. “I developed a solution. A breeding program. Ideal numbers, ratios to maintain, even a social structure; I covered everything. At the moment it is rather rough, but workable.” That… that would be huge. I could maybe handle structuring interactions but population growth and the like was beyond me so it wasn’t as if I would have come up something comparable on my own.

“I see. Can I assume any modifications will be extra?”

“Naturally. I want one thousand points for it.”

“A thousand—she wouldn’t even be able to touch him for ages!” The Goat smirked. Of course that had been her goal, the point system we devised that stopped the Great Mother from doing as many terrible things to Pillar was the only reason we had her cooperation at all. Still... “That would be far too many.”

“What? This is something that will form the backbone of your war efforts from now on! A thousand is a bargain!”

“True, but the Great Mother has me keeping a ledger of how your points are used and earned, you know. She puzzled out that bit of bureaucracy without any instruction.”

“So?”

“So if she sees me give you a lump sum that big you can bet that line is getting removed. I can offer you one hundred.”

“Are you joking?! This is an idea that will actually make what you wish to do sustainable! A hundred is nothing!”

“You may recall that this is still the most I’ve ever offered you and more than enough to block quite a bit of unpleasantry. You would be wise to accept and haggle for your refinements instead.

“If the problem is documentation then just fake it!”

“The Great Mother’s weakness is naivete, not stupidity. You should listen to me, girl.”

 

     The truth of the matter was that even I didn’t like how low that number was. I was prepared to let her work me up to two hundred but I had a role to play so flat out offering that would have been too much. We continued on in silence while the tiny girl next to me chewed a knuckle. Somehow aside from that gesture she managed to keep her posture quiet and only scowled a little.

“I accept. I can bring you the papers later tonight and then you will give me my hundred and twenty points.” Not nearly ambitious enough child, but very well.

“Will decoding them be that fast?”

“Decoding? No, I just need to organize, maybe make a table of contents.”

Speaking of naivete, this one had much to learn as well; were I less honest it would have been easy to confiscate everything for free though that would prove counterproductive in the long run.

“Done and done. Was there anything else?”

“No. I suppose we should go back now.”

“No need for that yet. Have you ever been to the top of this hill? The view is exquisite.”

 

     The vista was indeed impressive, but so was the climb. I normally flew to the top so I hadn't realized how steep the slope was or how unsure the deep leaves made the footing. I almost slipped a few times, and while The Goat should have been better at this than I she was weak and still not used to her hooves so she was having an even worse time. One slip was more than she could recover from; her hoof slid and she pitched onto her side with a yelp. Without her feet under her more ground gave way and the girl went tumbling down the hill. She narrowly avoided hitting any trees, but when she landed back on the trail I still expected the worst.

 

     I expanded my wings and fluttered down to where the Goat’s landslide ended. The girl herself rolled onto her chest and moaned when I landed.

“Fuck! Gods, that hurt!”

“Sorry, I hadn’t realized that would be so challenging a climb.”

“Hard? That was a piss easy climb, only these blasted hooves make everything a pain in my flat ass.” With those words the girl struggled to those hooves then yelped and fell forward.

“Whoa!” I exclaimed, barely managing to catch her. “What happened?”

“Let go.”

“But you just—”

“Let go!” Before she even finished speaking the Goat shoved me. I staggered back a step and she went down again, this time on her back. “Ow...”

The annoyance struggling to rise within me was quelled when I saw the girl’s pained expression as she rubbed her ankle.

“Did you break it?”

“Only a sprain.”

 

     That wouldn’t do. Small as she was I still wouldn’t be able to carry her and we had a ways to go back to the caverns. My magics were specialized in charm and combat so I wouldn’t be much good to heal her. The wounded herself no doubt knew exactly how to take care of the issue, but she was in no condition to use any magic at all. That left the least convenient method outside of her limping back with a makeshift brace.

“Wait here then, I can go fetch a healer.”

“No need.”

“There is a need. Do you expect to walk back like—” I stopped mid-sentence when a glowing light issued forth from her fingertip and her hand flicked with the practiced motion of a spell being cast.Was she serious?! Both of our frowns deepened as she brought her completed sigil near her leg to let it do its work.

 

     The expression on her face, that cherubic window to her soul did not ease. No, as soon as she was done the child’s held breath hissed out between her teeth and she doubled over clutching her throat. She moaned between gasps, her breaths coming in spasms. So many emotions welled up within me, watching this girl on the ground in pain. Sorrow, helplessness, pity… and anger. Her situation was already terrible, yet she insisted on doing things like that to make it worse. It was more than I could contain.

“Do you know what they call it when someone with no spirit energy insists on burning more to cast spells they don’t even need to use?! Hubris! Do you enjoy writhing on the ground like a worm, you contemptuous fool?! This is what you wr—”

“WHAT ELSE HAVE I LEFT?!” The body was weak, but the Goat’s spirit remained unbroken. She glared at me as she struggled to regain her trembling legs. “You take away the man I love, my friends, my freedom, even my body and now you tell me to abandon pride?! I refuse! Shit off and die, you cyanotic whore!”

 

    I froze, taken aback by the outburst. I should have realized what she must be going through, and yet… funny how empathy could become a blade. I pondered, the goat stalked back to the path she blazed on her back. She started climbing it again. She was actually—

“Oh, you must be joking! By the gods, Goat, what are you doing?!”

“Stay out of my way.” The poor headstrong girl teetered several more steps towards the top as I considered what to do next. Pride, huh? In her current state dragging her back to the caverns would be comparatively simple, but then she’d fight me the entire way and I’d have driven another wedge between us. The better solution, then, would be to do the opposite. I sighed, then caught up with the poor thing trying to ascend.

“Get a move on,” I said, stopping another fall with a hand on her shoulder. The reaction was about what I expected; she glared at me.

“I fail to recall asking you for help.”

“Help? You just called me a cyanotic whore. I want to get to the top of this thing too and you are on the only good path up slowing me down. Now stop grumbling and get walking.” As soon as she caught on we’d have ourselves a compromise. A sudden softening of her expression told me we did. Of course, this situation still wouldn’t do without some muttering so the Goat and I both murmured under our breaths. “I mean honestly, you could have at least called me a sapphire whore or a cerulean whore. I’m not dead, you know.”

“Keep touching me and see how long that lasts.”

 

    Thusly we reached the summit. I was all but dragging the goat by the time we actually did, but she was still technically on her own two legs. That changed shortly; more than sitting down her legs collapsed under her once she found a decent spot. That had been so much harder than it needed to be, but had I softened her up? She’d certainly be more tractable when she was too exhausted to fight as much.

 

    A breeze picked up as I found a spot next to the Goat to sit. Both of us relaxed under the sound of the leaves rustling, letting the air dry our sweat. The girl unstoppered a skin and drank deeply. Water wouldn’t do anything for the unquenchable thirst a spirit energy deficiency caused and even she must have known, but the temptation to drink something was irresistible. The gesture turned less innocent when I noticed the color of the remnants on her lips.

“Water would do more for your thirst than wine, I would think.” She ignored me and closed her eyes, taking her breaths in steady measurement for several minutes. Meditation? Well, it wouldn’t hurt. What was surprising was that she had the focus to do so at all.

 

    The girl really was a marvel. Those red eyes, a sure mark of a girl with a spirit energy deficiency were something she had been walking around with for weeks. I had been reduced to such a state once, that point where everything that makes one intelligent goes silent and base instinct takes control, that condition where the body demands to be given what it needs and fights to take it. It was torturous. First, a surge of strength as the body burned the last of its spirit energy reserves in a spurt of strength needed to take a man or fall flat trying, then a total loss of energy and reason when only the remnants were left. Throughout it all there was a thirst only a man’s liquid could quench, the physical driver of madness that permeated all. For a succubus reaching that point was nature’s torture, the best incentive not to go too long without taking a man’s seed. If for whatever reason one hadn’t taken any before they would be driven to after for certain. This Goat, though, simply bulled through it with willpower because the only man that would do wasn’t one she could have. What would the best word for that be? Loyal? Steadfast? Admirable? Nay, stupid. Ignoring her new needs would accomplish nothing.

 

     After a time she opened her eyes again, seeming more at peace with herself and I dared to speak.

“Does meditating always work so well to calm you?”

The Goat glanced at me before returning her gaze to the scenery. “Usually.”

“I’m glad you have something that works to quell your urges so. You must be careful though, even with force of will such as that you are one lapse of focus away from doing something you might regret.” Silence. Well, if she wasn’t going to stop me I might as well continue. I could be persuasive, after all. “I think it would be best to scratch that itch rather than ignoring it as you are. If you find yourself averse to the pleasure slaves then I can help you find someone willing. Even with your body I think you’ll find men’s preferences are diverse enough to—”

“You should have a tower here. The woods are difficult to see through but you still have sight of a few important vantages.”

I sighed, as clearly I was being blocked out again. “Two points. Pretend you fail to hear me if you will, but do consider my words. You run yourself into the ground when you should be taking care of yourself. Do it for his sake if not for your own.”

“What would you know?”

“I know that when you commit enough evil the only path left is to follow through, to make it all worthwhile. Letting yourself fall to pieces is the same as running away.” I expected a snappy comeback or some other form of nastiness, but instead the girl just looked at me through slitted eyes. That’s right, think deep on that. We aren’t enemies, you and I.

“I think this is a good time to leave.” And right when we were having a moment, too. Oh well.

“Fine, but I hope you had no plans for walking down.” Silence. That rest hadn’t done much to recover her strength but she knew it. That was workable. “Stand still for me. Good girl.” Having finally worked some magic and gotten this mule to be more cooperative my first act was to pick it up by the armpits and hug it close to my chest. That done all I had to do was find the steepest part of the hill and—

“Wait, what are you doing?”

“Hup!”

Jump down.

 

     Though I may have lacked the strength to lift the Goat, falling with her was another story. The slope was heavily wooded but steep; more than actually flying not hitting a tree was what I had to worry about. It took a few maneuvers that would’ve made a wyvern woozy, but after a frighteningly short descent a few final flaps of my wings stopped us short of crashing and we skidded to a halt.

“Now that was flying, eh?” I laughed as I put the girl in my arms down.

“Promise me you will never do that again.”

“Come now, I see you smiling. Keep trying not to laugh.”

 

    We left in high spirits. A combination of alcohol and malnourishment required me to find a walking stick for my little guest halfway through the return trip, but we made due. The setting sun had stopped the construction so only a few straggling humans and mamono watched us pass. The rest would be inside either seeking out food or pleasures of the flesh. The rest, that was, save one lamia with a cloth bundle in her arms slithering in circles outside the cave entrance. That wasn’t a good sign; I never saw that kind of nervous energy out of the Great Mother. She called out to us as we neared.

“Nettle, Goat, there you are. You took your time on that walk.”

“I needed a chance to stretch my wings,” I answered before the Goat could say something unbecoming.

“I see. Well, now that you’ve returned I have a proposition.”

“Does it end in you offing yourself?” The Goat asked before I could cut in, “If not, I have no desire to hear it.” the girl made to move past the Great Mother, but the snake raised a length of tail in her path.

“Oh? And here I thought you would want to see Pillar again.”

 

    There was a hook impossible to ignore. Still, if ever there was on offer too good to be true this was it. I found my breath caught in my throat while the same thought no doubt ran through the goat’s mind. The girl’s head swivelled slowly toward the snake before she spoke, her voice devoid of all emotion.

“Say that again.”

“I said I will let you see Pillar again.”

“Lead on, then.”

“However, before I show you to him, I’ll have to take a few points. All of them should do.”

Ah, there it was. The girl had almost 100 amassed and the Great Mother was picking up her pace to make the Goat burn through them faster. To say losing all of them would hurt would be an understatement, the girl had to drag her soul through bloody mud to earn every single one of those.

“You bitch! What kind of deal is that?!” The goat threw aside the staff as she spoke and raised her hands to her sides, palms down and fingers splayed—the stance of a battle caster. The Great Mother responded in kind, freeing up one hand not holding the baby and baring her fangs.

“If you ever wish to die I welcome your challenge any time, but threaten my child and I’ll rend you limb from limb and ensure not even your soul remains!”

“That will be enough from both of you!” I shouted, stepping between the two with my arms spread before things got any worse. I pointed at the Goat before continuing. “You should know empty threats are meaningless. If you cast any more spells you’re liable to collapse. And you, Great Mother, does that exchange truly sound reasonable to you?” With me between the two of them the atmosphere relaxed slightly and the echidna traded her bloodthirsty expression for a smirk.

“Of course. If she gets to do what she wishes for the most gain, should I not be allowed the same? Neither of you had better dare ask me to decrease the price.”

“Lay with a spear and die!” The goat shouted.

“Enough, girl! Have you no tact at all? The decision is yours, but I think you should spoil yourself a bit. You will earn more points soon enough.”

 

     I had to hope the girl was clever enough to catch my meaning; since we hadn’t technically exchanged anything yet she would have another 120 points later tonight even if she went along with this. Several moments passed while she struggled to come to a decision. Eventually the Goat lowered her arms and sighed.

“I accept.” There was another crisis averted.

“Glad to see you still have some sense left without taking a man.”

“The only one taking men is you.”

“Stop,” I interrupted.

“Hmph. Nettle, look after Love for a while will you?”

“Of course.” She handed me her bundle and I was greeted by a toothless smile. This one was still pleasant—or at least she would be for the next two years. The baby dealt with, the Great Mother moved her tail out of the way and motioned for the Goat to follow. I stood at the entrance while the two headed inside, discussing their terms.

“For that price I expect us to be alone.”

“Fine, but I will see everything you do.”

“Watching through the bars? Are you as barbaric as you are loose?”

“I have magic, woman. And no touching, either.”

“Listen, you—”

“Do you wish to see what would happen if I bit you again?”

 

     Their voices faded as they headed deeper within and I found myself alone aside from Love. I looked at the baby and bounced her in my arms.

“I sincerely hope you and your mother are nothing alike when you grow older.” She blew a bubble.

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

     Why would they not simply let me sleep? It seemed an eternity I had been left there, unable to drift away on my own after having spent so long without awakening. The snake had even dropped me in a position conducive to slumber, yet still none would come. Was this another form of the snake’s torture? It mattered not, there was nothing here left to torment.

 

    For the second time that day—unless it was a different day now—the cell door creaked open. My view rested only on the floor, but the scales that slithered into it hardly came as a surprise.

“Hero.” The serpent’s voice was less mocking now, and the thought of her being serious about something new was almost enough to stoke a spark of foreboding within me. “I have another surprise for you today; I hope for your sake it excites you more than the last. You look pathetic.”

 

    Then she was gone again and I was alone, yet the door remained open. An invitation to escape? That was hardly a surprise. Still I did not move; I no longer cared. Whispering came from the corridor beyond my cell followed by one last hiss from the snake, and then there was nothing.

 

     A pair of cloven feet clicked into the room before the door closed behind them. There was a brief flash of pink light, then their owner approached slowly, as if they were scared to be seen or that I would bolt upon noticing them. They came close enough that the arms attached could have reached down and touched me and still they edged closer. After tittering about for a moment the legs finally knelt. The scent of washed fur filled my nostrils, alongside a musky, distinctly womanly scent no man could forget. Was I to be raped by something different this time? It didn’t seem so; the touch that came was shaky yet lacking the urgency of lust-crazed monster entirely. Stranger still the inhuman paws that caressed my cheek were small, almost childlike. Those tiny fingers slid over my face like they belonged to a lover I’d not seen in months. All very odd, but the shock came when those hands finally lifted my chin so I could see the face behind them and their owner spoke in a quaking voice.

“Pillar?”

 

    Whenever I had occasion to visit a noble’s estate it was a common thing to see a gallery depicting several paintings of the same person—often a child—made at different times. It was interesting to look through those and see the babe, the teen, the young adult in the face of the person as they were now. Never before, however, had I needed to find the face of an adult in a child as they were now like walking those galleries backwards. Until now. The realization dawned on me slowly as I picked out those familiar but oddly softened features I knew so well. My eyes bulged and I brought myself to my elbow to get a closer look. I’d probably not spoken in weeks, but I opened my dry mouth and forced out one word.

“W… Waltz?”

 

    Aye, I recognized the cut of her chin, even if it had been softened by youth, those eyes even if they were red instead of brown. This was Waltz. This was Waltz the way she’d looked as a child. But why? Words struggled to form as I tried to make sense of what was before me. For her part there was no surprise, just tears and… something else.

 

    Waltz leapt at me, wrapping her diminutive arms around me in tears.

“Pillar! Pillar!” At a loss, I found myself reciprocating the hug. Waltz was supposed to be dead. I was happy she wasn’t, but my joy was tempered by shock. What was this?

“Dearest, what—”

Before I could finish speaking she jumped again, stretching her neck until her lips met mine. That was a surprise; her tongue invading my mouth after was a shock. I recoiled, but Waltz stayed with me, her lips glued to mine as I collapsed onto my back. I managed to pry her mouth away, but she took this new position as a chance to mount me and soon her legs were wrapped around my waist.

“STOP!” My fiancee straightened, face flushed but looking ashamed. “By the gods, I am overjoyed to see you, but... what is this?”

“This? Ah. This is… I thought dying was the worst defeat I could suffer, but I was wrong.”

“I do not—” Waltz said nothing, instead she guided my hand to a pair of welts on her neck. I prodded the puckered welts not comprehending until a recollection from an eternity ago came to me.

 

“Infertile bitch!” the serpent had cried before ripping Waltz’s barrier asunder.

 

     How many times before had I relived this memory? Just a little too far away as the snake batted aside my love’s arms and sank those terrible fangs deep into her neck, sending an irrepressible venom pumping through her veins. That was the day Waltz had died for me. No one had survived an echidna’s bite before, how could I even hold out hope? Things were different now, however, and I had to wonder which venom was the worse.

 

    Waltz spoke again, snapping my attention back to the present. Her words were clear, but her voice was oddly breathy.

“I thought I was going to die at first, then it started feeling really good and everything went fuzzy. When I came to…” Yes, there was no describing the hardship Waltz must have gone through. Mine were significant, but hers? “Pillar? Will you still take me like this?”

“What?”

“I have a girl’s body yet a woman’s needs. I may not have big tits or a plump ass anymore but, but this body is really sturdy! You could fuck me however you want and I wouldn’t complain! Gods, you would not believe how many times I’ve imagined you picking me up, pinning me against a wall and ramming your cock—”

“Waltz!”

 

    This was vulgar. Not only was this my fiance speaking like a whore after a tip, she was a child. Disgust compounded disgust and I found myself unable to keep a straight face. Waltz, despite her lust picked up on my feelings and sat back looking hurt.

“Why are you staring at me like that? Does the way I look repulse you? Are you going to turn your back on me now? When I need you most?”

“I—”

“Do you even know what I’ve done for you?! I’ve stained these hands red all to keep even worse things from happening to you! I threw away the last of my humanity for you, and all I wanted was your love! Do I not still have that?!”

“Stained… Waltz, are you helping her?”

“ANSWER ME!” Waltz screamed, leaping to her feet. “So what if I’ve killed to keep myself useful?! So what if I’ve taught the bitch some trifling magic?! I would do all of it a thousand times over for you! Can you not see? That is the depth of my devotion! I love you!”

Devotion? Did she not realize what she was doing? As my fiancee stood looking at me, panting after the strength of her own anger. For myself I found my feet, fists clenched at my side. My next words were scarcely a whisper, so intense was my shock.“You would devote yourself to me at the cost of the rest of humanity?”

“Would? I have! All these months I have done horrible things to earn points like this is some sort of child’s game, and without those you would be nothing more than a pile of mangled bones at the bottom of a river! You should thank me!”

“I would rather die than help that bitch with anything!”

“You can only say that because you yet live!” No. Were I to look down from whatever heaven I ended up in I wouldn’t feel the slightest pang of regret if my death meant hampering the snake. I couldn’t bring myself to put that sentiment into words though, so I glared in silence. At last the depth of the situation seemed to reach the goat and she deflated. Tears welled up in her eyes as she looked at me. “Oh gods. It all turned against me. I really do have nothing now. But... this is fine; even if I no longer have your heart you have mine. I will not… you will not have to see me like this again, but know I will not abandon you.”

 

     Barely managing to look away from me she turned and made to run. It was a position I had seen many times before, a final plea from a woman to a man to stop her. If I failed to do that now...

“Wait!” I lunged out and caught her wrist before Waltz could finish her first step.

“Let go!” She struggled to escape my grip, but holding fast was as easy as it would have been were I restraining a starving child. When it became clear she could not escape her movements slowed until she was standing still, arm extended to its fullest at her side. “Wait for what, Pillar?”

“For any of this to make sense!” I screamed, dropping to my knees and pulling her towards me. She didn’t struggle when I spun her back to me and wrapped my arms around her belly. “I just… need time to think.”

“Then think if you must,” she began. Holding my arms around her stomach as I was I could feel her panting once again. The pure need in her voice was also striking. “But if you will not answer my feelings now then at least comfort me.”

“What do you m—” The girl sank to her knees and leaned forward such that her hips pressed against mine. “I mean comfort me like a man. I’ve been holding back for so long now. I know I look unappealing, but they say all monsters feel incredible now so if you close your eyes and I stay quiet maybe you can still enjoy it? I’m already wet, you won’t have to touch me any more than that, I swear.” Even listening to her go on like this was painful, yet I could not bring myself to stop her as the lusty whine grew in her voice. Worse, she seemed to be grinding against my manhood. “Or if that will not work I can try my mouth or hands or—or if you even spill your seed on the ground I can lick it up! Please just cum for me, whatever you do!”

 

Everything about this was absolutely surreal. This was the kind of situation one’s body was forced to remain in but the mind fled. For that reason I found myself squeezing my eyes shut and thinking back to a time that seemed so long ago.  

 

The five of us were at an inn a few towns away from our fateful encounter. Though we knew an important task awaited us the mood had yet to grow serious. Summer was fading quickly yet the heat lingered that day. Worse yet it was humid; even the shade was no respite despite sunset’s approach. Having grown tired of sweating on the inn’s porch I headed back to the room I shared with Ironclad upstairs.

 

Ascending the stairs a strange sound caught my attention: slurping and giggling. There wasn’t anything new about that, but it was odd to hear those during the middle of the day. I took another step up. That put my ears above the staircase and I got a better idea of the distance. The sound wasn’t muffled enough to be coming from a closed door, and there was only one that sounded about the right distance away. Wait. That was Waltz’s room! I silenced my footsteps and crept the rest of the way up. As my foot touched the landing, that sound came again, this time accompanied by a man’s voice I knew well. Ironclad, that son of a bitch!

 

I’d foregone my armor given the circumstances, but I still had my sword and my knuckles went white around the hilt. The things I would do to that bastard for daring to do such things to my—to Waltz! But nay, shameless, party breaking pervert or not he was still my comrade; senseless bloodshed just wouldn’t do, no matter how sickening the thought of something so pure being defiled by someone so crude was. I would use my fists. That would be so much more satisfying anyway. Hands clenched, mouth open and lungs full of air I rounded the corner into the room.

 

A blast of cold air to the face stopped me from bellowing the things I wanted to say about Ironclad and his mother, giving me pause enough to survey the room before I stormed into it. Waltz was there, as expected, but sitting normally at the edge of the bed with her back to me. Ironclad was sitting backwards in a chair turned ¾ away from me at the foot of the bed with all of his important bits several feet away from Waltz. Confused, I retreated until only my head stuck out past the door and watched on.

 

Both she and Ironclad had one of the frozen juice bars on a stick popular among the locals. Ironclad’s was red, presumably cherry while Waltz’s was white, most likely lemon.

“Oh, these are good,” Waltz giggled before placing the stick in the back of her mouth and sliding it back out with a loud slurp.

“See? And to think you refused to believe me when I told you licking it that way would make it taste better. Stirs the smell up, you see.”

“That makes sense, but this is rather unrefined.”

“Ah, and that is why you should only eat these around people you like.”

“I suppose. But what other tricks do you know?”

The metal behemoth brought his hand to his chin, feigning thought before snapping.

“Oh! Try running your tongue in circles around the tip, the flavor is divine! Don’t swallow either, there is one more thing.”

 

Without even a touch of hesitation she complied, brushing her hair back before starting. I could barely see what she was doing from my vantage, but what I did catch set my pants to tightening. For someone who had never used her tongue in such a way it looked surprisingly agile.

Ironclad interrupted as it became clear she was having trouble holding the collected fluids in her mouth. “That should do it. Now look at me and go ‘ahhhh,’ then swallow.”

“Ahhhhhhh. Oops, I spilled some.” Down, boy!

“Let me get that for you.”

 

    My knowledge of female anatomy told me there was only one or two places that spill could have landed. There was no way on this planet I was going to let Ironclad touch either of them.

“Good afternoon, you two!” I exclaimed, striding into the room. Ironclad jumped in his seat and spun to face me while Waltz turned more slowly.

“Good afternoon, Pillar,” the mage smiled.

“Hey there pal,” came Ironclad’s reply. “Uh, how much of that did you hear?”

“How much of what?” I kept a straight face as I strode past both of them and threw open the room’s shutters. As inconspicuously as possible with everyone staring at me I took a peek at the ground below us. Nothing to break and no one standing there, either. Perfect. “Say Ironclad, have you been to the town’s armorer yet? I hear the man is fantastic.”

“Is he now? I have yet to hear of him.”

“Something of a local secret. His shop is right over there.”

“Over where?”

“There. Look, my finger is pointing right at it.”

“Would you give me directions?” The behemoth was understandably skittish given the situation, but there was no way I would be allowing that today.

“You think I know the streets of this town? Quit being so standoffish and come see. It has the bright red awning, you can just see it from here.”

 

Ironclad approached cautiously, but with a bit more goading I got him to lean out of the window, at which point I grabbed the bottom of his chestplate and heaved. He was a heavy whoreson but my legs were used to worse and before he had a chance to react a shiny blur of armor and asshole was flying out of the window.

“Oof! Gods, Pillar, what was that?! I just polished this!”

“I heard everything, you son of a bitch! You know the poor girl knows no better!”

“I can explain—”

“You can not! Get out of my sight, and if I catch you in this room again expect me to do something you might actually feel!”

Ironclad made a rude gesture and I glared at his back as he stalked away.

“He had that coming, huh?” A voice asked from above. My surprise almost sent me tumbling into the abyss as well. Just barely managing to catch myself on the frame I twisted to look up. Really there was no cause for surprise; it was our rogue, hanging from the roof by his toes.

“Barrel, what in the name of the gods are you doing up there?”

“Sharpening my knives.”

“Aye? And outside of a maiden’s room?”

“So it would seem.”

“Upside down?”

“I prefer to think it is the world that has turned on its head.”

I really wished Barrel wasn’t so useful so I could stop dealing with him.

“By the way, exactly how much of that did you—”

“More than you. And before you duck inside to find something to throw at me I should point out that there will be nothing here to hit by the time you do.”

 

I had no words. All I could do was sigh and shut the shutters, hoping the arrogant bastard got bored soon. As expected Waltz was still staring at me wide-eyed when I turned to her.

“Pillar! What was that? He could have gotten hurt!”

“You know we would need a higher window than this to hurt that lummox.”

“Well, his armor must be scratched at least. That was very unkind of you!”

“I hope it has dents and rattles when he walks now. More importantly, do you want to know why I just threw him out of the window?”

“You should know I will be very cross if your reason is bad.”

“Well, you see…”

 

        I whispered the significance of a woman licking a phallic object into her ear. By the time I was done she was flushed back to said ear and whatever magic had been cooling the room suddenly died.

“Why, that—that—”

“Tricky son of a bitch?”

“No, certainly not that!”

“Rat bastard?”

“Maybe not that either!”

“Metal meathead?”

“That will do!”

“I find myself surprised no one has taught you how to curse yet.”

“At any rate I think I am quite done with this,” she said, tossing the treat into a bin. “I was enjoying that, too.”

“Then why not think of dinner? I hear there is a place just down the road that does something amazing with flower—please spare me that look, this is nothing strange. You can eat it with a fork, I promise.”

“Then… I should like to try it.”

“It seems to be nearing that time anyway. Shall we?”

 

I offered my elbow alongside the invitation and the mage, for some reason transfixed by the sight of it, reddened again.

“Waltz?”

“D-dinner. Right. Walking with l-l-linked arms.” Though I had to admit having her turn me down would be disappointing, if she kept up like that I would feel like I was forcing her. I dropped my arm and shrugged. “If it bothers you there is no need—”

“No! I mean, I’m not bothered! I was just surprised.”

Before I could tell her that she didn’t need to push herself she’d already wrapped her arm around the crook of mine. She refused to meet my eyes, but that part of her was cute too. “Well? Lead on, then,” she said, puffing out her chest.

“Aye.” Even trying to keep the smile off of my face was pointless.

 

     That was how I remembered Waltz. That was how she was supposed to be. Meek and shy, the blushing bride to be, not like this.

“Pillar, it hurts,” she groaned.

Her words shook me from my thoughts. I loosened my grip and made to pull away, but those freakish paws caught my arms. “Not your hands. I was a fool for expecting your acceptance so easily, but please consider me too. Holding back after so long with you so close is torture.”

 

    Slowly, surely, a resolution formed in my mind. This could not stand. I knew what had to be done, but I could not bear to do it. I indulged myself in the one thing I yet desired and wrapped my arms around Waltz, my right arm clutching her left shoulder and my right arm cupping her chin.

“Pillar,” the girl whined, petulant, “must I beg? If you want to cuddle we can do it af—”

“I love you.”

“What?” Waltz’s body slackened in my arms, suddenly all traces of that lust were gone.

“I love you. I love you so much.” So then why did I know I had to...  

“Yes, I love you too.” Both of those now fuzzy hands lifted up to clutch my arm crossing her chest. It was a tender moment, the kind of lover’s embrace we never had the chance for before.

 

     It hurt. Why now? Why like this? Fate was cruel. The truth was, her love was more than I deserved. That same love for me entailed a fate more than the world deserved. It could not stand and she should not be like this.

“I will never stop loving you,” I swore. I meant it from the bottom of my heart. “That’s why... that’s why, I…”

“Pillar?” Something hot flowed down my cheeks, soaking into the mage’s hair. “Are you cry—”

 

     I yanked my arms apart with all my might. There came a sickening crunch as the bones in her neck slid past each other then she fell limp. It had been quick and painless, probably even a surprise. I’d done that much, and now? I could do no more. I moved Waltz’s head back to a more natural position and wept. I wept for her, I wept for me, I wept for the world that lost her. Under it all though, I wept for my weakness. Mine had not been the only option, not even the best, but it was the only one I could choose. I lacked the strength to protect my fellow man without losing what I cherished most. I pulled my love’s corpse closer and I wailed.

 

Time spent in that sort of anguish is interminable, each second a day, each minute a month. Still, I knew it could not have been long before the snake flung open the cell door.

“Goat! I told you no touching!” She bellowed as she slithered into the room. “Whatever you thought you were pulling with that little magic trick you will pay for it!” On reflex I twisted away from the snake as she reached down to grasp my love. “Oh? Well at least someone is feeling better. But I have no time for you now, out of the way.” The snake reached down again, this time grabbing my ankle as I tried to squirm away without loosing my grip on Waltz. Knowing what was coming next I drew the power of the earth into me and made my body heavy, but that just meant the snake had to twist to fling me into a wall.

 

    I hit the stone back first, slamming the back of my unarmored head against the side of the cave.

“Guh!”

I bounced away from the wall and Waltz, light as she now was, rolled away from me when I landed. The world swam as I groped to find my love again, but the snake grabbed her wrist before I could and yanked her up.

“And you, bitch, I hope you know—Goat? Hey?”

 

She’d finally noticed, huh? Took the whore long enough. The snake gave Waltz a shake, as if doing so might wake her. All it did was highlight the grotesque angle her neck hung at. My captor gasped and lifted Waltz’s chest to her ear.

 

     Listening for a heartbeat? She was dead. I made sure myself, I felt her growing cold in my hands and YOU MADE ME DO IT! My dizziness faded, and as it did I found my feet. As I lurched upright that crushing sadness that consumed me earlier was replaced by something else: rage. Why do you look so confused, serpent? You know what death looks like, you’ve seen the despair on the faces of helpless victims. You don’t have the right to be hurt by losing someone! Waltz wasn’t even your friend! You used and abused her just like you did me, and now that she’s dead… what?

 

The memory of every injustice I had suffered flashed through my mind. Imagined scenes of what Waltz must have gone through came next, and those were worse still. Next were visions of what would happen to the world if this cunt was allowed to run rampant, and those were the worst of all. A thousand injustices and a million evils piled high on the backs of every man, shovelled there by one. Fucking. Snake.

 

I would kill her. Kill her, kill her, kill her, kill her, KILL HER!

 

    Before me the snake was muttering to herself, eyes pinched tight as she listened for any

sign of life from the corpse she held to her ear. A prayer, perhaps? No god would hear the likes of her. I took no pains to be quiet, yet still my bare feet were silent as I strode towards her. One step, two steps, three. Close enough to touch her. My fists were already curled, tightly formed by hate and cemented with rage. One more step. I cocked my right fist and gingerly placed a hand around Waltz’s waist. One last gusting breath, then I drew the power of the earth into my body and swung.

 

    The bitch’s eyes snapped open just in time to catch my fist smashing into her face. Several times my bodyweight slammed into her skull. Four knuckles rode the snake’s face to the full extension of my arm and rocked the massive beast on its tail. It was a blow to shatter teeth and crack skulls. The echidna dropped, but even as she fell I knew she wouldn’t stay down long.

 

    The strike was actually a sloppy one; I should have pulled back as soon as I made contact but truly the attack was as much a push as a punch. With my other arm around Waltz my follow through yanked her corpse towards me even as my fist pushed the whore holding her away. My love’s body fell limp into my grasp and I cradled her gently and I carried her to a corner while the snake lay on the ground moaning. Waltz’s childlike form seemed to take up no space at all even when I set her down in repose. I had no time to waste, but even through the flames of my rage I knew this would be the last time I got to see her. With one shaking finger I brushed back a lock of hair and gazed upon her.

 

    This was how I would remember her. Beautiful and peaceful. Pure. All traces of that beastly need were gone now. She looked far too young but still, were it not for the horns I could look upon that face and remember the good times before everything had gone wrong. But everything had gone wrong, hadn’t it? There was no turning away from that, much as I wanted to turn things back or at least stay in this moment.

 

    My gaze lingered as I stood and turned to face my foe once more. Mother, Tusk, Ironclad, Barrel, Emerald, I failed you. I am sorry. Waltz, I won’t ask that you forgive me, but I know you can understand. And Father? You were right. I failed you as well and I cannot take that back, but I can fix this. I will fix it for all of you!

 

    Blood dripped down my fingers, but none of it was mine. The snake must have lowered her barrier to listen for Waltz’s heartbeat, that was a boon I couldn’t expect again. It mattered not; where her barrier was whole I would break it, and where her body was whole… I would break that too.

 

     In front of me the snake swayed to a hunched standing position, wiping the stream of blood pouring from her nose. I charged her head on, cocking my fist and twisting into another haymaker. The echidna took it full on the chin and barely moved with the hit. Her head strained against my fist, her blasted barrier preventing any damage. Slowly she pushed, forcing my arm back until she could look me in the eye.

“PILLLLAAAAARRRRRRR!” She bellowed, grasping my wrist. Before she could speak her next words I let loose with my other. The echidna caught it in her palm, arm shaking under the force I continued to push behind it. “ARE YOU FUCKING INSANE?!”

   

     Both arms grappled, I drew my head back and swung it forward. Again I was blocked by that invisible field, but the attack granted me a moment of surprise I used to plant my foot into her gut and shoved. With that I managed to yank myself free of her hands and leapt back, landing in a low stance. As the snake recovered I surged towards her again, letting loose a kick towards her ribs. Again I failed to make contact, but I could swear I felt something give. Another strike might just do it. I let my foot rebound and chambered another punch, aiming for the same spot. I loosed it but caught a flash of light out of the corner of my eye as my knuckles sped towards that weak point. Before I could connect a wall of force blew me off my feet and into a side wall, pinning me there. It felt as if the weight of the world was pushing me down, but I’d landed with my feet against the wall and my arms out. I had leverage.

 

     Hand outstretched and murder in her eyes the snake slithered towards me, roaring. “She loved you! You were supposed to love her too! So why?!” Because I did! I killed her because I loved her! Because you turned Waltz into that! She died because of you, you scaly fucking whore!

 

    The words leapt from my mouth as a beastial roar; not speech but a raw outpouring of emotions. It was her fault. The thought spurred me to struggle, to fight. I strained. The force pinning me was invisible, like being flattened by a pane of glass. Yet like glass, if pressed it would shatter. Teeth gritted, I pushed against the rock at my back, screaming all the while. Sinews stretched, bones creaked and the force bulged then all at once gave way. I dropped to the ground before the bemused snake and leapt to my feet before she had a chance to recover.

 

    I dashed to her side, latching my fingers around her casting hand and elbow. Body heavy with the power of the earth flowing through me I pulled her down toward me and slammed my knee into her ribs, aiming for that weak spot. I struck again and again, earning a little more give each time. The snake hissed despite none of my strikes actually damaging anything, struggling to hit me with her free arm and wrench the grappled one free at the same time. It was entirely ineffective and resulted in the snake slithering around me in a circle. I smashed blow after blow into that same spot until, like the invisible hand pinning me to the wall earlier that too shattered.

 

     I got in one gratifying blow to her ribs with all of my weight behind it, making the snake bellow in pain. Then she shoved. She was a heavy bitch and I found myself forced to take one step back, then try to take another when my foot hit something. One more nudge sent me sprawling over her coil. I threw out an arm to catch myself but the echidna reversed my grip and dragged the other in towards her. Before I had a chance to do anything else she was on me; her tail wrapped around my legs and squeezed the arm she’d caught against my gut. That left two of her hands free to my one. I wanted to get a hand onto her face to try for her eyes at least, but she had me by the forearm making it impossible to reach. I grunted when she wrapped her fingers in my hair with her other hand and lifted.

 

    What would happen next was obvious, but I was powerless to prevent it. Her entire body twisted when she mashed my head into the ground; my vision flashed white and she did it again, roaring. The rage burning within me lost it’s focus along with my vision. What was I doing? Again.

 

     The world fuzzed over and spun to the point where I didn’t notice myself being lifted. The snake flinging me against the wall came as a shock and further darkening of my vision. It was all I could do to point my head in the direction of my adversary.

“Healer!” The snake screamed as I lay in the corner, barely hanging onto consciousness. Eyelids drooping, my gaze fell to my knuckles. Blood. And not all of it mine. Right, that’s what I was doing. I failed, but I’d proven she bled, and if she bled she could be killed. I would kill her myself, even if it took a thousand years. But not as I was. No, I would need to become a sheathed blade that showed its edge only in battle. Just like father. Just you watch, father, I’ll kill her yet, because she bleeds. She… bleeds…

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

    The sun had already set, yet still I sat atop one of the homes in construction staring at where it had gone, absentmindedly bouncing Love on my knee. What to do, what to do? The Goat and the Great Mother had reached a status quo of sorts previously, but there was no way this development would not upset that. Perhaps I could—

“Nettle, Nettle! Come quick!” I looked down to see Dawn looking up at me, face grinning and tail thrashing ablaze. With a frown I spread my wings and fluttered down, paying especial attention to the landing with a baby in my arms.

“Another surprise, child?” I asked. “Is this going to be one I like?”

“Nope! C’mon!” I managed to suppress a groan but my stomach still started its routine of knots while I jogged after the salamander.

 

    Pillar’s cell. When Dawn came to a stop in front of it I knew something terrible had happened. There were any number of scenarios that could have happened, but the girl was right: I was not going to like any of them.

“Look, it’s a twofer this time!” Oh child, that was nothing to be happy about. Now wasn’t the time to chide her for that though; instead I steeled myself and walked through the cell door.

 

    I entered to find a unicorn stooped over a pair of hooves, hands extended and magic circle glowing bright. The great mother waited beside her, muttering. As I approached the horse straightened, shaking her head at our leader. I caught a flash of rage before the echidna spun and punched a wall at full force, sending a thunderous boom through the room and making the healer shy away. The Great Mother held her position, back to me, fist still against the wall with her shoulders heaving. The attending centaur, eager to be away, crept past me after briefly making eye contact, then made Dawn stop peering around the doorframe and duck behind it as she left.

 

    The situation was obvious. There was no need to check, but still I yearned to. Quietly, respectful of the echidna’s emotions I walked over to the Goat and knelt, brushing a bit of hair back from her forehead. She was already growing cold. No. No no no no! I was just getting through to her! I still needed her and she was so young! I should never have let these two go alone! If I had just—no. What I needed to do was determine specifics. I only barely managed to keep the rage out of my voice as I spoke, but the words came out strangely toneless.

“What did you do?”

“It was him!” The snake roared, still not turning to face me. ‘Him?’

 

     For the first time I took notice of Pillar, laid out against a wall with blood pooling under his head. He seemed to have gotten the worst of it again but… was he smiling?

“No. Waltz was his lover, why would he—”

“Because humans are insane!” The snake yelled, finally turning to face me. Blood dripped from her nose in a thick stream, making her look even more ghastly than her expression already did. She was more than enough to make a child cry and Love did. The snake’s maternal instinct kicked in at once and her expression softened as she reached out to take the bundle from me.

“I’m sorry,”  she cooed. “Was mommy scary? That yelling was not for you, little one.” Gentle words, that was the way. With a little bouncing and whispering the child quieted shortly; she even started laughing after reaching up to pat her own cheeks. With a start I realized the Great Mother was dripping on her; Love was playing with her blood. I rushed over and dabbed at the snake’s face with my handkerchief in between wiping her daughter’s hands on the blanket.

“You need to have yourself seen to,” I intoned.

“This is merely a scratch. But we need another healer…” She trailed off, gazing at where Waltz’s corpse lay on the ground.

“Too far gone, we need a necromancer.”

“Well?”

“Fine.” I turned to Dawn who I knew was still leering at us around the corner. “Go fetch Weaver for us, would you?”

“But…” But she wanted to stay and watch.

“Go.”

“Fiiiiine.”

That handled, I turned back to the Great Mother. “Pillar should be looked at as well.”

The echidna scoffed. “Let him die.” Of course, as soon as the words left her mouth she reconsidered. With a sigh, she looked to the door. “Habit.”

The unicorn clopped back in shortly and went to Pillar without instruction. It would seem she hadn’t gone far as she reentered and set to work quickly.

 

    Habit said nothing as she worked; the room fell silent, the atmosphere heavy. Eventually the echidna turned to me.

“Should I have expected this?”

“I doubt anyone could have seen this coming, Great Mother.”

“I cannot understand, Nettle. Why?”

“We find ourselves asking that question often of late.” That was the wrong thing to say, a painful reminder of a ‘why’ that hit even closer to home. I hastily continued as the snake’s expression darkened. “I have to wonder if this could have gone differently. Perhaps just a bit more kindness—”

“Kindness? Kindness?! Where was the kindness in—” The outburst set Love to crying again and the Great Mother was forced once again to soothe the child.

“We should talk later, ma’am.” She dismissed me with a nod and I left the cell, headed towards the Goat’s quarters. I felt a vulture but there was work to be done yet.

 

    Some time later I sat at a table in my own quarters, my portion of the room lit just brightly enough to read by. The light illuminated the sheaf of Waltz’s papers before me but only seemed to deepen the shadows on the periphery. That was fine, it suited my mood. Across from me the Great Mother occupied a chair, idly sipping a glass of wine after having put Love to bed.

“I fail to understand why you drink this,” she said after another gulp.

“Well you are rather large, we might need to find you something stronger.”

“What does my size have to do with it?”

“Well, it works like venom; bigger animals feel less from the same amount.”

“I’m not drinking poison.”

“You are, actually.”

“Such a human thing to do.” And yet, I could see the curiosity in her.

“I have rum in the cabinet should you like to try some.”

 

     I flipped through several pages of Waltz’s work before the snake finally gave in and went to my liquor shelf. I watched out of the corner of my eye as she reached up, opened the door then hesitated, eyeing the labels. Her hand hovered over each label in turn, lips moving as she sounded out the labels. When she finally put her hand on a bottle it was the right one; she really did learn fast. She took it down and shut the door, only for the hinges to dislodge and send the wood crashing to the floor where her feet would have been had she had any.

“Useless shits,” the echidna muttered, referring to our enslaved workforce.

“Hardly a surprise at this point.” You did get what you paid for. “Nevermind that though, come sit down.”

The great mother grumbled but complied, taking the circuitous route she needed to coil around the chair before sitting. After popping the stopper on the bottle she took a whiff. She wrinkled her nose but tipped the bottle back anyway and chugged. It would’ve been enough to make an oni jealous had she not started coughing after.

“That burns!”

“Hmm.”

 

    That girl really was amazing. While the Great Mother and I were panicking and struggling to adapt Waltz was studying and postulating… while panicking and struggling to adapt to her own issues. She’d even been working on showing that the new Dread Beasts were only birthing daughters while the rest of us were still wondering. She should’ve still been having trouble walking around that time, yet it looked like she’d visited most of the girls that had birthed recently herself. Then there were notes in the margins: sometimes brilliant, sometimes heart wrenching. One read ‘Clothes? How many points?’ She hadn’t even asked me on that one, she knew the Great mother would make her pay dearly to buy Pillar a scrap of dignity. With the points from these papers and what she already saved she might well have been able to do it though. If she was alive.

 

“Why did you do it?” I asked. The snake put down the bottle after another swig and regarded me.

“I wanted ‘im to cheer up.” I cocked my eyebrow as I reached for my wine, urging her to continue. “I pushed too far. It was like he was dead, so I thought if I gave him somethin’ to fight fer again…”

“You do care.”

She snorted. “No. I just couldn’t tor… tor… toy with him if he’d given up.” She really didn’t understand herself, did she? Perhaps that was reasonable; I could hardly claim to have any idea what ran through her head myself. “All of ‘em are terrible. Living with anything capable of doing that to someone they love s‘mpossible.” There was a thought process I wanted her to stay away from.

“Now hold on, Great—”

“NO!” She screamed, her face more red than the outburst called for. So she was THAT kind of drunk. “Every single one of ‘em, Nettle! None of us are safe until none’re left! ‘S the only way!”

“Alright, alright. We can talk about this more in the morning. I want to see what I can get out of Pillar, then—”

“Won’t get nothin’, he’s full of shit, the bastard.”

“--Then we can rethink how to approach the future.”  

 

    After a bit more prodding I managed to get the snake’s arm over my shoulder and guide her back to where the slept. Luckily the echidna’s lack of legs made guiding her easier than a bipedal drunk, but keeping her in a straight line was hard. After dropping her off I returned to my own room in an attempt to read more, but I was no longer in the mood. Things had just gone from bad to worse and I had to fix it. Somehow. Oh Nettle, what were you going to do? Finishing my wine would be a start.

 

    I lifted the glass to my lips, but before I could drink a knock came at the door. Of course, after everything else that happened today I could hardly expect a quiet evening.

“Come in.” The door—I was surprised that was still standing—creaked open and Weaver, our vampiric necromancer strode in. Despite the hour she still held an imperial bearing with her wings fluttering behind her. The expression she held, though, made it clear she hadn’t come with good tidings.

“I was told the Great Mother was here.”

“She just left. I suspect she will be indisposed for the rest of the evening, give me your report.”

She nodded. “I… failed. The Goat’s body has been mended as well as we could given the injury, but her soul would not be called back.”

“Well she was just killed by her lover. I wouldn’t want to come back from that either.”

“Indeed. So then?” So then what do we do with her body? Cremate it, bury it, do whatever could be done to end this shame we’d brought on the girl.

“Keep her seen to, we may be able to do something with her yet.” But baphomets were powerful creatures, simply disposing of her wouldn’t be prudent. Sorry, Waltz. The vampire nodded.

“I will see it done.”

 

     I was not done for the night, however. There was more unpleasant news I needed from the vampire regarding the female casters taken from the hero’s city. The males at least were taken care of; my sisters gobbled down their souls the first night.

“Oh, and Weaver, what of the captured mages?” That earned me another scowl.

“Not good. We lost another today, I was unable to call her back either. Why could possibly make them so different from The Goat? She reacted so easily to the Great Mother’s bite, and yet these all seem to linger and die.”

“Could it be her power, perhaps?” Or more likely the slow poison they’d all been given. Even then a mamono’s resistances seemed to make them stronger than usual; I’d had to do some dirty work though I suspected The Goat had also been aiding me.

“Perhaps…” The vampire chewed her finger and I knew what she would say next before she said it. “I need more subjects.”

“In time, mage.” A very long time, hopefully. “Leave me for now.”

 

    She saluted and was gone, leaving me alone once more. If anyone knocked again I would pretend I was too drunk to be of any use until they left me alone. I actually would be soon enough, gods willing.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

    Time passed betwixt interminable sleeps. From the aging of the guards I could tell decades passed, yet I did not relent nor bend with age. I learned to quell my searing rage and release it when it did the most good, leaving a path of destruction in my wake, allowing only enough time between breakout attempts to let the guards grow complacent. Like a sword, I was stronger because I was tempered. Yet also like a sword, I found myself trapped in a sheath more often than I was drawn. It was vexing, yet I learned to control that feeling too. I got plenty of practice.

 

    The snake made sport of biting me and parading me around whatever facility we were at while I was out of my head. There seemed to be more and more of those strange complexes, caves and fortresses in which I would wake up surrounded by new locales, climates, and faces. Her dominion was growing. I was made a liar and a fool, but I was also presented with opportunity. Those places where no one knew me were always my best escape attempts. If I could get out I could arm myself and retaliate, and once I did that… how many ways were there to kill a snake?

 

    I awakened again to unfamiliar air. I only sometimes opened my eyes as soon as I awoke now, but the texture of what flowed through my nose told me I wasn’t in the usual cave. I waited, drinking in what I could with my other senses. A rough wooden bench supported me and adjusting myself as if I was sleeping sent it to bobbing, accompanied by the sound of rattling chains. Ah, I knew this place. An outpost near the front lines of whatever faction still had the power to fight the snake and her spawn. The defenses were sound, but perhaps…

 

“Would you cut that out? It’s not even that clever.” I cracked my eye open to meet the gaze of a kikimora crouching a few feet away. “Atta boy. We’re gonna have to get you better tricks than playing possum.” Well, it wasn’t as if no one else had noticed before but me awakening while my cell was being maintained had never happened before. Odd. Without acknowledging the bird-thing at all I sat up and stretched. The motion reminded me again of the metal bands on my arms, legs and neck once more. Meanwhile, the bird set to scrubbing the floor.

“Good nap, hero?”

“How long?”

“Mmm… couple weeks?”

I frowned. “She left me unmolested for that long?”

“Nope.”

 

     Of course she hadn’t. Logically I knew as much, but being told so was still unsettling. Almost as unsettling as the behavior of this kikimora. I knew this one from a few outings with my “wife.” Harmony, was it? High among the cleaning staff the snake kept she was stern, cold and professional, nothing like the uncouth girl in front of me. I studied her, eyes narrowed as she cleaned the floor. The kikimora stopped scrubbing to regard me herself before turning back to work. She spoke without looking at me.

“Y’know, I came in and half expected to find some husk staring at me and waiting for his next fix. You really should be after all this time. You’re a stubborn bastard, aren’t you?”

“Who are you?” Certainly not Harmony.

“Name’s Tiger. I’m your new best friend.”

“All of my friends were killed by monsters.”

“Then make new ones.”

“You grow tiresome. Explain to me why I should not kill you right now.”

“Well that’s not how you make friends.”

“I will count to five.”

“Christ, my mom used to do that.”

“One.”

“Alright, alright, I’ll drop the smartass approach. Killjoy. Anyway, I need a healthy distraction. I figure—”

 

     Five. In a heartbeat I took stock of the situation. I needed this done fast and quiet. With luck I could drop her, then when the guard finally came in I would have my out. Or she might have keys. If she had been stupid enough to come into the cell while she knew I was awake there was a chance.  I was more than capable of holding my own in single combat and kikimora weren’t particularly strong, the problem was that the bands around my limbs and neck were Magebane enchanted; if I used any Fist magic they would siphon the strength from me like water through a sieve. I would need to use my abilities wisely and perhaps more importantly quietly; I did not want her conscious when or if I chose to draw in the guards. It was doable.

 

     My move was simple: I grabbed her arm, pulled her towards me and punched her in the throat. So went the idea, anyway. In reality I hit empty air. The bird ducked and twisted her wrist, breaking my grasp and forming one of her own on my wrist. She stayed in close, stepping sideways and popping up at my side. The bird drew my arm out and swung at it with her own, jamming the joint in the wrong direction but not so hard it dislocated. I yanked the arm free prompting the bird to shuffle back. I adjusted my feet, then lunged forward with a right punch at her solar plexus. Again the bird wasn’t there; sidestepping to my outside she  blocked with both arms, kicked my forward leg out and pulled my wrist sideways before I pulled back the punch. I spun to the ground and the kikimora followed me, collapsing my arm across my chest as she mounted me, weight high on my torso.

“Let’s try this again,” she hissed.

“Aye.”

 

    I’d snuck my feet into the right position, so at once I shot my free arm to her side, twisted and bridged. The monster virtually flew off of me; she wasn’t heavy enough to pin me in that manner by half. She landed on her back just out of reach and scrambled to her feet. Instead of rising I instead dove forward and tried to grab one of those bird legs. She jumped up and then didn’t come down. We both looked at each other confused, then at her talons wrapped around the bars of the cell door.

“I knew that would come in handy,” she gloated to no one in particular. Why did she sound so smug about that?

 

    Now was not the time. I went to all fours, then forced myself to my feet. The kikimora saw me coming and raised her arms to fend me off when I ran in to grapple her. Her feet meant she was difficult to pull down, but also that she couldn’t move well. After a brief tussle I drew the power of the earth inside of me and yanked her down. She slammed down with barely a grunt and I followed, dropping my knee to her chest and wrapping a hand around her slender neck. Wrestling one hand to the ground was child’s play, but that left her with another fist with which to pound my elbow. That was hardly enough to make me let go, but I used precious magic to strengthen myself anyway. All I’d have to do was wait until she passed out and—a flash of orange crossed my vision. I’d forgotten about her lower body entirely, and because of that she’d managed to get a talon wrapped around my throat. The snake would’ve taken long enough for me to react in time given the position, but this one... I let out a startled yell, but all that made it to my lips was a gurgle.

 

    Frantically I pounded at the bird, only stopping once it was clear that wasn’t going to get her off of me. I had to abandon my grip on her throat to use both hands to loosen her grip on mine. It took all of my strength, but I managed to rake her foot off and scuttled back, panting. The bird was faster to her feet, hauling herself upright and drawing something from under her skirt.

 

    The thing she pulled from her dress was all black. It seemed to be composed of three sections: one held in her hand, another attached to the end of that forming the corner of a square with another larger cylinder filled with holes connected to it that seemed to fit between the two. Clearly it was meant to be a weapon, but I had never seen its like before. Likewise the stance she used was wrong. Though the bird was several steps away her feet were solidly set as if she had no need to close the distance and her arms were almost locked, holding the thing level with me, not at all prepared to swing or thrust. Instead, as if preparing to strike the bird merely drew back a lever atop the contraption with her thumb until it clicked. The kikimora’s demeanor was one of a warrior that already had a blade at her enemy’s neck, not one merely poised to strike.

 

     Everything about this situation was odd. The old me would have ignored that and stood to attack again, but not the new me. I settled into a crouch instead, watching.

“Gooooood. Now then, are you ready to be civil?” I merely continued to stare, but the bird took it as a sign of acquiescence. “Like I was saying, I’ve got some friends coming over. Now they’re not exactly going to be welcome guests, so if I can cause some chaos to make getting in easier for them they’re gonna love me for it. I’ve got plans to take care of that myself, but I figure if you’re running around it’ll be better than anything I can cook up alone. You’re not someone that they can just leave to be dealt with later so they’d have to split their forces too.”

“And you ask for nothing in return?” She shrugged.

“Just follow my lead and don’t kill my guys. The mother hen is out so you won’t be getting vengeance, but...” This was still sounding too good to be true.

“And after that?”

“Stick with me and take out what I say to take out. Once we’ve achieved the objective you can leave with us. Stop looking at me like that, this is the chance you always needed and I’m handing it up on a silver platter.”

“Exactly. How do I know I can trust you? ”

“Ah. There’s no way I can prove that.”

“So—”

“So think about this: either everything going through your head right now is wrong and I’m not who you think I am... or you just got your ass kicked by a maid.”

“You did not—” There was an outburst in the making. That was distracting me from the point. I pause and a deep breath stifled it so I could continue with a cooler head. “That hardly seems a strong enough argument.”

“Then look at it the other way around. Why would you not trust me? Who gains anything from this? Anyone that wanted you dead could just kill you in your sleep, God knows you do enough of that. What else? Humiliation? Mental anguish? The echidna’s way more direct than this and from what I hear she doesn’t always even get a rise out of you anymore. Besides, if all this goes awry, then what? You’d end up right back where you started, only marginally angrier. Why not take a risk?”

“Because what you ask me to risk is my life.”

“Sure, because you weren’t doing that before you got caught. If nothing else it’s a chance to die with honor. I won’t ask again, hero.”

 

    Thoughts swirled in my mind while I mulled the proposition. There were many ways I could imagine this turning ugly, the scenarios turning more paranoid the longer I thought, but still everything pointed to the same ending: me in a cell. Unless after all these years the snake decided she wanted me to die I would be harmed, but not irreparably and returned to my same situation were my escape to fail. By not going along nothing changed, but by going along even if nothing ultimately changed I would at least have rid the world of some monsters and that was worthwhile. The possibility of an escape was also appealing since even if this was a trap I might be able to break out of it but it might be best not to hope for too much now.

 

That left the specifics.

 

“When?” I asked, rising. The kikimora—Tiger—sensed my intent and lowered her weapon as I spoke.

“Leave the details to me. You just be ready to go on my signal and don’t say anything about this.”

“I will need a sword.”

“Details, de—”

“Mine is here somewhere. I want it.”

“Fine, I’ll see what I can do.”

“The defenses for this place are formidable as we;;. Are you sure your friends will be able to penetrate them?” That earned me a smirk.

“Yeah, the place has all of the usual approaches covered but for all that they forgot to plan for one thing.”

“That being?”

“Me. Aaaand my friends are pretty kickass too, you’re in good hands. Anyway, help me clean this place up, would ya? We’re running out of time and I wasted too much thrashing you.”

 

     I feared her face might be stuck after that last line; it would be a shame if she had to walk around looking like a smug asshole for the rest of her life. Regardless, I took a brush from her bucket and began scrubbing the floors alongside her. As punishment for making me perform such lowly labor however, I made sure to describe fully what Fireweave looked like and described the appearance of the one I last saw holding her. She at least pretended to listen.

 

    In fairly short order we finished cleaning the cell as she’d been sent to do. She had me bathe myself with a bucket of clean water while she looked away finishing some minor details, and then it was time for her to leave.

“Alright,” she said, “That’ll do it. Now, you’d better get comfortable over there, it’s beddy-bye time again soon.

“Come to think, why am I awake now in the first place?” I asked as I moved to comply.

“Kickass friends. Kept the guards out of the way, too. Well then…” The kikimora reached into a pocket on her dress, seemingly intent on making a hasty exit.

“Wait.” The bird paused and looked back at me.

 

    There was still things I needed to confirm. I wanted to escape more than anything, but I had seen my blade here and I wanted it. I would have it back at the cost of anything save freedom.

“Fireweave, do you remember how I described it?”

“Yeah, yeah, I heard you. It’s the one that says ‘badass motherfucker,’ right?”

“...What? What kind of tasteless—”

“I was kidding! Ruby in the pommel ‘sword by which all other swords are judged,’ salamander’s got it, yada yada yada, I know, alright? I’ll get it if I can.”

 

     That was one reassurance of sorts. Still, this girl’s demeanor, her movements, all of them were wrong. I refused to believe any disguise or replacement could be so close to the original so this had to be the same woman, but she felt like a different person. I’d heard of something like this before, where it was if multiple people lived in the same body, some form of mental disorder. Regardless of the answer I would follow her, but the question begged to be asked.

“Are you mad?

There was that smirk again. She looked me dead in the eye when she replied

“Yup. But where I come from crazy ain’t an insult, it’s a job skill.”

“You…” She waved any further comment away as she opened then shut the cell door on her way out, chuckling all the while.

“Sleep tight princess, we need you rested for your big day.”

 

    As the bird left my sight something squeaked and I found myself attacked by that all too familiar drowsiness. For once, as I succumbed to the spell I found myself content. I had a chance, and I was going to capitalize on it. If there was a trap I would break through and take my leave, and if the offer was genuine I would see my obligations through to the end and then escape. Just you wait, bitch.


TO BE RESUMED

 

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