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Book 2, Chapter 1

"The Outsiders."

 

The call of the hunt, that ancient hymn that any warrior worth their salt, knew all too well. Its melody, like a lullaby, lulling even their tempered hearts. It was this cradlesong that beckoned the Mer, spurring forth her voyages into the unknown. The life of an adventurer, seldom as charming as those with romanticized perspectives often fancied. The gelatinous nobles, even the ignorant commoners panted for glory, yet persisted within the piety of ignorance. While calloused through professions, their hands knew not the warmth of blood nor the taint caked onto the very soul of any mature traveler. The cost for experiencing this lonesome road was simple, everything. One's safety, security, sanity, and even concepts like familial bonds or friendship were offered on the altar of adventure.

 

One such stanza inspired all toward that tiny, unassuming hamlet tucked within the bosom of the Skeletal highway—an expanse of land unsullied by the mire of politics laboring as neutral ground for both world powers. There, within a bone tavern, those of weary minds and feet sought refuge. The structural barricade thwarted both the beast and the elements, while the aroma of self-intoxication was wafted about liberally. The faint crackling of a fire, the bounty of food and wine, toiling in a futile endeavor to abate the truth. That every soul, albeit fleetingly or perpetually were just outside the breadth of salvation. The patrons, supping away at their booze, as one by one, they succumbed and were lost to that song. Externally, all seemed well, yet behind the curtain, something nefarious prowled and conspired. 

 

Tahira traversed that serpentine dirt path, riding on the back of her faithful beetle mount. Those armored legs grazed against the tall grass as the firmaments began to wane from day to evening. Her keen ears were picking up on the clamor of chirping insects while the fragrance of the sea from the local port tantalized her sense of olfaction. The gate to the town kept open, as sentries remained stationed throughout. The flickering of artificial crystal light readied to perforate the blanket of darkness. As the marketplace began to close its doors, each of the denizens meandered home at a leisure pace to retire for the day. All seemed well, which struck the slayer of vermin as odd, given she was contracted to investigate what horror was tormenting this settlement. Those teal eyes, peering across the waters, as a fog seemed to approach from the horizon.

 

The idle looks from others, warranting none of her attention or time, as Tahira continued her trek toward the local Tavern. The roads were immaculate, not a sign of garbage, leading the observant women to contemplate that these people didn't have many dealings in the way of outsiders. Her shambling steed, cumbersomely moving about, before abruptly desisting its stride in front of a column of stone. Tahira, sliding off the thorax, using a nearby rope to fasten her only friend for the time being. This wanderer had no plans to rest within. Instead, she yearned for nourishment and supplies, for she was far too neurotic that a thief might endeavor to make off with her companion. 

 

Tahira, ascending the rigidity steps before turning the handle and pushing the door open. An audible creak reverberated, riding the natural acoustics as the warmth and other sensations confined within inundated this sojourner's senses—those sandals, stepping beyond the threshold before securing the barrier behind her. The seven-foot Elf gaited onward, her blackened garb and skirt flowing faultless with that approach. That katana, ornate in its construction, persisted by her side as Tahira kept one hand on the hilt at all times. That bar counter, worn from use, served as a fair enough perch. The hunter placed her left hand on the surface. At the same time, those fingers drummed against the top as if anticipating to be accosted.

"Hello?"

 

Her voice fell on deafened ears, as the owner of this establishment just chuckled and engaged with other patrons. Tahira, looking about, noticed how drinks and food were handed out without any concern for obtaining coin first. Could it be she arrived during some sort of celebration? Or maybe, this community was so close-knit that they trusted one another? Possible, but for now, she'd remained patient, giving this man a few moments to notice her.

Lamentably, it wasn't the owner of this tavern that noticed her first. Rather, that of fellow travelers. The samurai internally groaned, almost forgetting the insatiable need men possessed to declare sovereignty over any lady they so fancied—this wearisome ritual, as old as time but assuredly expected, although not on this scale.  A baderkerkhan and puerskar took note of her presence, dispersing the anxiety. The bard, no doubt was a manwhore who grew accustomed to easy prey.  His tenacity, like his breath, illustrated itself as intolerable. 

He'd find sooner fortune sliding his diminutive nether appendage between those strings, and rubbing it raw, then to swindle his way betwixt her thighs and yet somehow come out on top triumphantly. While the Gnoll, that squalid mutt, appeared to lack the brain cells essential to recognize rejection. That the one man whose recognition she wanted to solicit, albeit for differing intentions, spurned her calls. It appeared Tahira had two options, languishing within their insipid competition for dominance. Or, untether their heads, the top or the bottom one, either would satisfy. While she inwardly vexed, on the outside, this disciplined warrior remained stalwart. Those beguiling eyes of blue and green, vaulting from one buffoon to the next. 

That was until Chatanan (puerskar) conferred her a way out, while a gamble if nothing else, it might invigorate her spirit. Thankfully, the Jackal, who seemed mirthful, depicted the inferior sex in a positive light.

 

"One second boys..."

 

 Tahira, having now tentatively harangued the two horny lads, she'd turn around and gait across the bar counter. Standing next to Chatana, that gloved hand would gently rest on her shoulder as the tall Elf bent downward. Her mound of flesh dangling, facing the men, as those sapphire and emerald orbs endeavored to seize her concentration.  This third option, while a farce, was amusing if nothing else.

 

"Love, how is the family? I'm sorry for being gone so long. Life on the road isn't always what it's cracked up to be. I am exhilarated you got my letter. Let us try not to encourage the boys too much. You know I have eyes only for you..."

 

However, a part of the samurai pondered if she should have gone with the second route? Cleaning that blood from her blade might be a chore, but at least it would have quelled their carnal intentions. If nothing else, at least the other bored patrons might be amused by this whole charade. Of course, whether any of them had the sagacity to see through this fabrication had yet unveiled itself. If they did, feasibly, they had enough prudence to restrain their gums from flapping.

 

"Go ahead bard, Play my love here, and all these patrons a song?"

 

She grinned, hoping this question chafed the fetid and degenerate example of a Varenkun.

The stage had been set. Thankfully, the starlet Chatana who at first seemed mildly bewildered quickly became amused by the deception Tahira had woven. The wanderer felt moderately guilty for burdening this woman with that imposition. However, such trifling internal squabbling would be quelled by the spectacle of that grin. Her proposition was not only entertained but reciprocated by the feline. Any indication of gaiety would, nonetheless, be forborne from external expressions. That soft to behold face revealing an unimpressed scowl as it appeared her little "actress" relished the spotlight. Hamming up that farce as her tongue composed quite the fiction. 

Tahira's personal space, now invaded, as this siren discharged that warm breath over her pallid skin. This exterminator found herself wholly outside of her theatre, not being one to fritter when it came to amorous pursuits. The Mer leaned into that hand somewhat instinctively, as those yellow eyes seemed to take their time appreciating her aesthetic hallmarks. The elf queried in taciturnity, contemplating what bewitchery this bedeviling enchantress had cast on her. The body, ordinarily frigid, radiated a warmth and stimuli this sojourner had yet to experience. Tahira sighed, being outmaneuvered. The elicitation for an embrace demanded to be met. Less the others have reasoning to dispute her falsification. 

The outlandish elf coasted those arms above the shoulders before interlacing the fingers behind Chatana's nape. At the same time, while the troubadour performed his droll song, Tahira would tug this stranger into a heartfelt hug. That birthmark and cheek, squeezing against the side of the feline's face, as the samurai bowed considerably given the fact this woman remained perched. Her aroma, ridiculing those nostrils, was a reminder that while she excelled within the fray and hunt. This mer would never be able to hold a candle against the radiance of her feminine and alluring grace.

 

"Thanks for playing along, sorry for the trouble..." 

The lips nearly touched against the ear. An intimate moment had budded from this play. Tahira assumed whatever she sensed was just another layer of camouflage meant to peddle their little narrative further. That childish song, its vociferation that rode across the tavern's acoustics. Had advantageously presented itself as the ideal noise pollution to drown out whatever it was, this elf murmured into Chatana's ear. That hold being loosened, as brazenly Tahira dragged a nearby stool as its legs skidded across the spongey floor. She had become entangled within that netting of lies. She plopped her tush onto the furniture before overlapping those powerful and long legs.

The bard had completed his little act, as some of those that had assembled lauded the simpleton. But, outwardly, Tahira refused to exhibit even an iota of appreciation. Unlike her "lover," who appeared to curdle over that composition, the elf enjoyed it. Being one for the road, she had evolved many attributes crucial to her survival, humor, being foremost. Unlike her mother, Tahira wasn't of highborn palate or sensibilities. Instead, she felt compelled to trek down a very meat and potatoes lifestyle. Those teal eyes veered toward the beauty, taking in Chatana's features as she had no quandary signifying that disdain. 

"And yet, his song managed to take your eyes off of me? Don't worry, if the dog gets too close, I think my sword has enough reach to keep him away." 

The Lizardman, Gnoll, and even Chatana's actions, to name a few, that should have drawn attention were met with initially nothing. That was until suddenly, the clamor of the other patron's conversations desisted. The locals turned to face the travelers. Their bodies began to sway back and forth while those eyes gawked into space. 

"If the bards song bothered you that much, for a price I can kick him out?" 

Tahira jested, to no avail as their mouths slowly began to open. That mist from the sea snaked across the town. Then, Tahira overheard an inner voice susurrate into her ears, that same rustling that had been noted back at the college. Those eyes were gawking at her toes as only the elf felt what could only be described as an accelerated heartbeat under her feet. If one looked out the windows, one would see the guards were also afflicted. Starting from the homes closest to the docks, gradually spanning outward, the denizens dragged their feet traveling toward the sea. Those local patrons most relative to the door would soon follow, all the while muttering gibberish.

 

The earth leaped, causing those ill-prepared to be tossed an inch or two into the air, as the taverns glass and plates crashed and shattered against the floor. The sound of wildlife silenced as that fog thickened. A looming sense of isolation inundating Tahira's mind, that jolt forced her to bounce on that stool. Quickly she rose to those feet, frantically looking around. Those eyes were narrowing, as the right hand shot posthaste toward the hilt of her sheathed katana. The hairs on the back of her neck were standing upright as a shiver coursed down that spine. 

Initially in silence, she inspected the others, expecting them to exhibit the same behavior as the residents. Befuddlement dawned, as it seemed they expressed no signs of being in that trance-like state. 

"Is everyone ok?"

Whatever was going on, Tahira was almost positive that bickering amongst themselves would only further exasperate their woes. This Ysstmar, within his tribe, may have been a big fish. But here, the mer held reservations pertaining toward his actual merit to the party. Despite this rationale, the elf would refrain from interjecting into this cock measuring contest, lest her meddling only further fans that already kindling fire.

Those expressive orbs followed the reptilian as he stomped across the scene to handle whatever was transpiring on his own. This only further deflated his value as an asset, for during a crisis, wandering alone was seldom an intelligent tactic. Those feline-like pupils dilated as goosebumps darted across that porcelain canvas. The sounds outside appeared to muffle as a lone bead of sweat crawled down her cheek—this feeling, inexplicably alien yet familiar. Frantically, her brain scoured in some fruitless endeavor to intellectualize what it was she was experiencing. The shadow behind her, to the others, would persist unchanged. If only Tahira were so fortunate. 

That head moved to look over her shoulder. She was feeling pressure, almost as if someone was pressing their fingers and exerting their weight against her body. What she observed left a sheer expression of terror upon her countenance. The flow of time ceased its currents as the shadowy man overtowered the elf by three feet bent downward. Its face, devoid of any characteristics, seemed to swirl about maddeningly as that shade that comprised its personage drew close toward her pointed ear. 

"CLOSE THE DOOR! CLOSE THE DOOR! CLOSE THE DOOR!" 

That line repeated, even as she returned to their world just as the Ysstmar descended onto the earth. That gut, which had thus far authenticated itself to be a worthy arbiter, told the samurai to trust this passenger. Whatever that thing was, albeit real or a figment of her imagination. Spoke out of concern, though, she doubted very much it was altruistic. The body, springing into action, darted full speed across the scene. Tahira, pondering if she should strive to reach for and save the saurian, however, the voice bellowed out once more. 

"LEAVE HIM, DEAD ALREADY!" 

This thing, it could read her thoughts? How? No, the time for such unnecessary inquiries would have to wait. For now, she needed to secure that hatch and promptly! The hand, clenching the handle, before the last thing the Ysstmar would hear was the door slamming shut. That crash, rebounding against the walls, as Tahira was unmistakably panicking, pushed her total weight against the door. There, within the fog, a song filled the lizard's mind. All the while, that otherwordly haze encircled his body. It rushed itself inside of any orifice as his mind had instantly been claimed—the proud Ysstmar, now another shambling body, dragging those feet cumbersomely toward the sea, before eventually becoming swallowed from sight by the ever-thickening fog. 

"Stay back! That fog, it's wrong! Turn off the lights, keep silent." 

The Qareen, that parasite chortled, amused that they had already lost one ally. 

"I WONDER, HOW WILL YOU TELL THEM YOU RECEIVED THIS INFORMATION? DON'T ACT SO SURPRISED, LITTLE ELF! HAVE YOU ALREADY FORGOTTEN ALL ABOUT ME? OR DID YOUR MOTHER POISON THAT MIND SO MUCH SO THAT YOU REFUSE TO ADMIT THE TRUTH?"

 It began to click, though. This revelation did little to disperse her concern. For, as much as she detested to admit it, this being was correct in its assessment. 

"I see. I doubt you will show yourself freely? And, without the reveal, they are unlikely to trust me further. So be it, I may not know what you are. However, I know that you sounded desperate to warn me. And, I doubt it was from the goodness of your heart. Show yourself, or I will open this door. Without trust, we are all dead anyway..." 

The Djinn tilted its body, swaggering back and forth as it rummaged through her cranium. The entity cackling, sensing no deception, appreciating the hardihood of this creature. It was then that seemingly from nowhere, the ever-shifting outline of a man materialized. The cloud of darkness wiggled as if struggling to keep hold of its current design. Those remaining patrons couldn't be positive if it faced their way or not, due to an absence of any observable traits. 

"NO TIME. NO SCREAM. I AM NOT YOUR ENEMY. IF YOU CONTEST THIS, ASK YOURSELF THIS QUESTION. IF I WANTED YOU ALL DEAD, WHY WOULD I STIR FROM MY SLUMBER TO SAVE YOUR WORTHLESS HIDES?" 

Tahira sank to the ground, laying on her back as she panted heavily. Those perky mounds swelled and collapsed as she looked up at the ceiling, deliberating what sort of hodgepodge they somehow stumbled into this day? Well, if nothing else, this being would likely frighten off Chatana. Usually a lone wolf, the mer questioned in muteness why she cared? Maybe, just maybe, notwithstanding all her posturing and unruly antics. Deep down inside, she cherished the way those sunflower's eyes took in her form? No, that couldn't be it; it must have been the adrenaline from all this turmoil? No matter, any such idle thoughts were whisked away as the Qareen loomed its face above hers. Tahira, broadcasting the thing a deadpan stare it's way before spitting. Only to have it fall due to gravity, landing on her cheek

 

"Shit..." A lesson learned...

To say Tahira was beside herself would be the understatement of a lifetime. At least she could wipe that smug look off her mother's face. For most of her early years, Faaria frequently criticized her "Friends" existence. But, grant it, such succor seemed irrelevant, given the current peril accosting them. Those magically infused eyes stared up at the ceiling as Argun (Gnoll) approached, dangling a cloth while donating a hand. Unfortunately, this elf was anything if not headstrong. Her unyielding nature spurned that gesture. Instead, she rose of her own accord.

Those legs spread outward in a split as the right sleeve grazed against the saliva tarnishing her birthmark. The hands then settled themselves on the ground, harking to the others' "insightful" recommendations. Was this lot so handily defeated? Sure, they were in a dubious position. However, weren't they thrilled concerning the prospect of establishing their mettle? Whatever hunted within that haze would find her anything but easy prey—those plump lips were arcing into a smirk, inspecting the dark-skinned feline as she revealed weakness. 

"Where did that sass from earlier go? Don't tell me a little fog snuffed out that commendable spunk?" 

A guileless challenge, as that autocratic spire of a woman, sniggered. Her palms hoisted the body up as those formerly split legs pulled inward, showcasing her limberness, now standing upright, snubbing the being stalking her every movement. Those hands spanked against the rear, dusting off the dirt from the ground. Her mind was working overtime, tuning out the extraneous information the others seemed keen to shriek as Tahira delved into a deep-felt state of introspection. So much so that even the bard's crude sexualization of her modest beauty went unheeded. The plan for a giant fan, far too fatuous to warrant a rejoinder. Apart of her wanted to toss the bard outside to study how this predator behaved.

While perhaps morally questionable, being a hunter by vocation, Tahira recognized the benefit of information. Without seeking to confront the true enemy, they would be likely to perish. Something inside awoken, a new sense tinged as those blue topaz orbs erred about only to behold Chatana's arcane display.

 "Better, keep that spirit alive. I fear we might need it." 

The thought of ascending wasn't the dumbest idea. Nevertheless, that did risk needless exposure to that infernal film. It was time, each had the opportunity to speak, and Tahira partially listened. Curiously, she pondered if such respect would be reciprocated? Stepping by Chatana, Tahira placed that gloved hand on her shoulder, smiling, before expelling a glower at each of the occupants of this room.

"You're all blinded. It is evident none of you have ever hunted a day in your lives. I bet that most of your hands are uncalloused, a collection of milk drinkers who have never had their worth evaluated? No matter, welcome to the domain of the living. I promise, by the end, whoever remains, will forever be changed. Your vision is clouded, more so than the fog that has you quivering in your boots. You each foolishly weave plans yet, have fallen victim to its spell. I hunt because I know my prey. Ask yourself, why is it waiting? Indeed, it could rush in and attempt to ensnare us all? It's investigating us. We should study back. Or, we can risk all of our lives on a gamble, that even if it works, doesn't mean we might be so fortunate next time around." 

Tahira, turning her back toward the others, as those pearly fangs with exposed from sheer excitement. So invigorating. Finally, some game that stalked back.

"Let's gauge this threat, my darling. Do you mind throwing a snake outside, or perhaps commanding what is wiggling about to slither beyond these walls? Let us see how it reacts to bait?" 

 

The Qareen chuckled, clearly amused by this peculiar and unfortunate gaggle of mortals? But, if Chatana refused, Tahira had a more radical victim in mind.

An unfortunate fate chained these incarcerated souls. Their motivations, history and, faces all seemed irrelevant. Long gone were the quotidian indulgences they reveled in, the excess flab of the land but a distant memory. Time fugaciously slipped by, yet without the visibility of the heavens, its exact flow appeared unknowable. The atmosphere oddly still, while outside the sanctuary afforded by those erect walls, the foreboding haze gradually thinned. Complacency, the greatest bane to what is permanence, might endeavor to take root within their hearts. Having tasted the Darwinian tussle, Tahira knew better than to sulk within safety. Her senses whetted, far too developed to fall victim to such a juvenile tactic.

 

While the others deliberated, the mer leaned against the boney wall, placing that knife ear against the surface. That cradlesong, Tahira had heard it before, albeit its precise origins eluded her comprehension. Most might be fixated solely on what tickled their hearing, but what stood out substantially more wasn't the clamor. No, instead, what was absent. The ambiance we often take for granted. The sea, the cry of a fowl, even the whistling of the wind. Couple this revelation with that air and how its temperature resisted rise or fall, prompted the hunter to ramble down a somber trail of thought. Things were not as they appeared. This much was irrefutable- nonetheless, a quandary without a solution could only verify itself as vapid.

Her mind was toiling as the astute investigator began to concoct a myriad of plausibilities. However, no matter the extent of her acumen, the insipid mire of nescience refused to abate. The fire, it still crackled, of course! She could employ that flame to test her theory. Nonchalantly, the towering mer traversed the scene, sustaining her constant impassivity. That orangish glow emanated outward, its light refracting from the walls only to be eclipsed by the now bent form of the elf—Tahira, stretching her hand, keeping it close to the pyre, as something otherworldly transpired. Once more, it wasn't what befell her senses. It was what was missing from the expected result that authenticated itself as harrowing.

 

Those eyes of teal, vaulting across the room while those cat-like pupils tapered. Everything was a clue, each piece of information, even if ostensibly valueless, might yield much-needed erudition. Cooly, she rose upright before sashaying athwart this cozy tavern. Reaching the other side, she desisted her momentum, running those phalanges across the wallpaper before flaking off loose bits. Interestingly, the leather covering seemed new when she had entered initially, yet, now it appeared to be deteriorating. The child and the bard were gone, prompting the elf to reevaluate if their need to splinter off was sensible?

Those hands, resting across her broad hips. Her immaculate brows were raising while confusion dwelled on her visage. Tahira's concern waned, the dots connecting. While anything but a satisfactory answer, her little examination did yield some fruit. The dilemma persisted, should she unveil her verdicts to this lot? Was it wise to risk agitating their already enervated minds? Of course, she would. Whether they were ready or not, the reality of their situation wasn't contingent on their whimsical thoughts. But first, she needed to abide a bit longer, see how Chatana would comply.

 

Tahira had already identified her as competent, granted, it seemed to come juxtaposed with some measure of stubbornness. While a fault, she'd be a hypocrite to assign judgment to a trait she too allegedly shared. The Qareen, that odious spirit, latched onto her shadow, had vexed the mind as it trickled adumbrations. As much as Tahira detested admitting, her deductive skills were a byproduct of Faaria's stern tutelage. This swarthy passenger, frolicking within her cranial, deriding that her need for rationalization needn't apply in this domain. The seed would be ejected from her cognizance, for Tahira was far too headstrong to tolerate such a venomous thought. To the elf, everything could be defined. That perceived randomness, or paranormal events, were denominated as such due to the dearth of one's sagacity. While conceivably forlorn, the dismissal of the "unquantifiable" had thus far guided her faithfully in this life. This arrogance invigorated the Djinn inside as it scoffed, surreptitiously respecting her resolve.

Thankfully, she needn't fret over the risk of another ill-placed song from the languid bard, ergo while a fraction of her exasperation evanesced. This clarity, albeit brief, would be used as an opportune moment to facilitate the group's ever-dwindling morale.

 

"You had time to be of some use. You instead squandered it. It is as you have said, you are out of your depth, more so than I. Though, by coincidence, you might have bumbled into something."

 

The Mer strode to the closed door, peeking through the frosted glass, as that gaze veered to the skies The moon, its haunting spectral glow, had not budged an inch since they arrived. Interesting, perhaps if he remained this lucky, Djosser (Jackal/Baderkerkhan) might be of use after all. It all made sense; everything was coming together beautifully. This epiphany wouldn't strike her drumming heart with repletion; instead, this resolution only birthed more inquests. Whether the party knew it or not, they had accumulated yet another piece of the puzzle within the kitchen—while piffling, the ramification of that inexplicably stale bread couldn't be discounted, but this fragment remained outside of Tahira's purview. Even with what had been assembled, it could all be relatively innocuous. She needed one final test, albeit realizing what required to be experimented on flooded the mer with unbridled angst.

 

"Do me a favor if that bard plays his instrument again. Break the harp, or kill him. His insisted need to be the center of attention is likely a liability."

Chatana's challenge, that demure remark, took the elf by astonishment as she closely observed the femme fatale. The way she assuredly marched forward, any likeness of uncertainty long since evaporated from her attitude, as the door rasped just enough to permit the serpent enough gap. Those eyes, shamefully admiring her back, before shaking her head and walking behind the lady. That hand, pressing against the barricade as their bodies touched, working as one to ensure the jaw of the establishment remained shut.

 

"My theory is simple."

 

Her breath, pressing against the feline ear, their little game of cat and mouse only emboldening with time. But, sadly, Tahira had no inclination concerning the alarm she held toward her personage.

 

"The fire rendered no warmth. The moon hasn't moved. The air is stale and unfaltering in its temperature. And, the once fresh leather covering these walls has somehow become brittle to the touch. Even the expected wildlife noise and the sea seem stricken with muteness. I hypothesize that time and space, perhaps even the laws of nature we take for granted, hold no power here. In short, we are no longer in that tavern. Perhaps...an imitation or mirror image?" 

While outlandish, she need only wait for this reptile to provide further testimony to reinforce her bizarre assertion. The head tilted, looming over the smaller female, as the chin prankishly relaxed on the top of the scalp—her mane, relatively soft, as those magically tinged foci fixated out the window. The pet remained inert, following the beseechments of its mistress. That fog appeared to suspend midair. The melody ceased, as the air-cooled so much so that their breath leapt from their lips. A wintry gale whipped across the town, the haze somehow not impacted by the torrent.

 

"It took notice, lets see how you behave."

 

Chatana might feel the pounding of Tahira's heart, adrenaline kicking in, as goosebumps darted across that pastel canvas. That uncanny sensation, as if being watched, loomed aloft the Mer, an experience she hoped was hers alone. A javelin flung from within the mist, whatever launched it obscured by the buildings and film. The projectile cut through the air, its aim true, meeting the mark, eventually impaling the snake's head. An explosion reverberated, as the foundations didn't tremble, an observation many might miss. The door, giving way as Tahira clutched the dark-skinned siren, using her own body to cushion the fall. That glass throughout ruptured, sending shards across the floor as a thick cloud of grains intermingled with the preexisting screen.

 

"DO YOU NOW BELIEVE?"

What was the Qareen saying? Believe what? Ignorant, that only she could hear his echo.

 

"Are you ok my lo..."

 

The words ripped from her tongue, the lingua muscle unable to move, as paralyzation had begun to take hold. It was then, there, within the veil which hindered their vision. That many forms besieged the inn. Their bodies were unclear to make out, only the vaguest of outlines and the soft shimmering of various, alternating hues. These lanky forms, moving erratically, their movements hard to perceive as their jittery convulsions defied analysis.

 

"Up stairs! Now!"

 

The creatures ceased their approach, encircling the building, swaying side to side, as their light continued to swell. The walls seemed to grow as the room elongated. They could run, but no ground would be gained, scream, but no noise would escape their mouths. The world shook, as the very inn folded around itself, eventually, only darkness. They were cast adrift. When everyone came to, they would discover themselves within a poorly illuminated replica of emerald city, covered in blackened roots with pulsating sacs of flesh. The mist still somehow survived as figures darted across the darkness.

"Row, row, row my boat. Gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream. Won't you play with us?"

 

That voice was everywhere, accompanied by the giggling of children. It wouldn't take long for them to realize everything was off. The road cracked, buildings floating in the air with segments of land connected by debris. The welkin, devoid of any light, as those roots seemed to excrete an oily substance across the environment. If they walked toward the edge of that road and looked down, they would see orbiting planets and stars, and beyond that, an infinite void. Tahira, letting go of the feline, as the elf seemed to be having a seizure, foaming from the mouth

Chapter 2

"Row,row,row your boat."

 

There, within the sanctum of her mind, the tribulations beyond this prison seemed but a hoarse whisper. Wafting within a bed of darkness, Tahira pondered if this was what death felt like? Notwithstanding the lives she had ended, the injuries sustained, and the mental trauma tucked deep from snooping eyes. The elf had always queried what it was like to confront true oblivion, to come face to face with the consequences of her labors—death, a ruthless mistress whose clutches none could elude. Here, within the stream that is her thoughts, the life she had been bestowed flitted before those teal eyes. Feyre, that guiding star, is this what her mother languished under during that execution? Alone, cut off from any bonds?

 

The twilight seemed unending in its reach as that feeble soul ebbed and flowed throughout the void. Eventually, from nothing, a faint shimmer came into view. Her head, why was it pounding so vehemently? A thought soon to be commandeered, as from the veil of blackness, something sprang into view. Tahira, now on her knees, lurking within some unknown installation. Those imbued orbs tinged by the arcane veered across her newfangled surroundings. Her breast dangled, the chest rapidly expanding and shrinking, as the mere act of breathing presented itself as arduous. Those feline pupils, broadening, taking in the inadequate lighting, only to then witness a child curled into the corner. Her hair, ashen in color, much like her own, before those foci slid over at a painting. Those illustrations were crude, the work of the little girl no doubt.

This child was frail, her sobbing and acceptance of death nearly enough to turn Tahira's innards outward. Progressively, hesitant about what to make of this all. The disconcerted maiden rose to those feet. That neck was stiff, sore, as those gloved digits rubbed against the nape. While muddied, the series of events still lingered in the back of her mind. Whatever this place was; however she arrived, one thing seemed plausible. This prison was another fabrication from their most "hospitable" of hosts. Those things that besieged the tavern were likely the culprit, and this illusion, some ill-begotten stratagem to study her. How could Tahira be so confident? Easy, it is what she would have done. And a predator is just that, no matter its form or origin.

 

She was strutting forward, the disturbance of her stride bounding off the walls, almost as if delayed. Those fangs, grinding against one another while the elf formed a fist as she approached that picture. Did they want a show? Far be it from her to deprive them of this entertainment. Tahira, sending that fist forward, punching into the canvas inspirited by her temper. The paper didn't rip; instead, from the knuckles to the wrist, her hand somehow managed to slip through—befuddlement reaching an all-time peak as she squinted and futilely endeavored to rip that extremity free. Panic struck her as the sensation of something wet crept up her arm from underneath her armor. Soon, in horror, she observed a blackened fluid running across her body before slinking up the neck.

Grunting ferociously, swiveling her head, the elf noticed the child rising, gazing at her from the shadows with teal eyes. Its expression was blank as the discomforting sound of bone snapping teased those knife ears. This little girl, lifting the hand, pointing a finger her way before, from its gaped lips, a song billowed forth.

 

"Row, row, row your boat. Gentle down the stream. merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream."

 

The song repeated, that alien slime ascending to her face, as the choir became a booming amalgamation. Voices, languages beyond recognition, it was as if an unknowable amount of souls were joining the child in her little chant. The light flickered, the walls splintered, while the ceiling began to fall around Tahira. She was cold, so cold, as that thick substance hung around the edges of her eyes. Tahira opened her mouth to scream, yet; no sound escaped as that grime sped down her throat, holding the jaw wide open. That unknown fluid, coating her eye, the eyelids unable to blink or seal shut, as nothing but a swarthy haze usurped her vision.

"Not one of them, not one of us. New toy, let us play. Let us in, the voices; they will keep you company. Alone, no more; all you need to do is float with us. Link with us, let us be friends, please..." Chatana and the others, their voices ringing through the chaos, as a maelstrom of shadows girded the ensnared prey. That dark passenger, the Qareen, bursting through the deluge of auditory stimuli resounding within that mind.

 

"WAKE UP! WAKE UP! WAKE UP! WAKE UP!"

 

The others, hovering around her, while the gnoll who had violated the Mer seemed to be perishing. Those eyes, shooting open, the body paralyzed at first, while those muscles appeared unable to move as the convulsions desisted. The turbulence, for all its vigor, didn't hold a candle to the kindling wrath she felt. Finally, able to move, Tahira rose to her feet. She was pausing as she finally laid eyes on her home, Emerald city, albeit in a state of dilapidation. A hefty sigh, skipping outward from those lips as Tahira's knees wobbled. Her tongue had an unusual taste adhering to it, almost as if she had licked a wet mongrel. Compared to whatever she just beheld, this seemed to be a trivial concern. It was then, she looked on the dark-skinned feline, asphyxiating the gnoll, his corpse limp, veins ruptured, as a surge of inquest circulated through that cranium of hers.

Assuming Chatana had suffered from derangement or that the illusion she survived somehow duped this gullible lot. The elf vaulted into action, seizing the feline's wrist so that the emptied husk of the beastkin slumped to the floor. Using her weight, she pinned Chatana to the wall, placing that left forearm across the throat before leaning close so that their lips practically touched. Those eyes of fathomless teal and emerald, gazing into her sunflower ponds while their bodies pressed against one another. Strange, she didn't see delirium within those gorgeous lanterns of hers? Her hold was relaxing, as for a moment, Tahira couldn't avert her gaze feeling something never before experienced blossoming within her heart.

 

"What happened here?"

 

That initial thought, anything but an unexpected line of inquisition, given what she had roused up to see. The dog breath due to the Arguns oral invasion wafting against the feline's nose, before finally, after a minute, she let her go, still refusing to break eye contact. Her expression of confusion didn't originate from the passing of the hound or this precarious situation.

 

"Listen, we have to work together. Once we get out of this predicament, then you can rip and tear each other's throats all you want. Whatever we are experiencing is endeavoring to shake our resolve. Ask yourselves something? Why did it pull us from that tavern to here? If I were them, I would favor familiar hunting grounds. Please make no mistake; we are game now. And whatever they are, I don't see them being picky about who exactly they choose to torment next..."

Those luscious lips were smacking, trying vainly to get rid of that unpleasant aftertaste.

 

"Anyone else have an odd taste in their mouth?"

Those eyes of sunflower, the way they gazed back at the mer sparked a momentary pause. This lady, she was different, a hunter whose ferocity was only matched by her sensuous glamour. Amongst this field of fetid death, the scythe had spared her this lonesome rose. And though her thorns might prick the skin, Tahira found such a gamble to be deserving of such hazard. That blood that was dribbling from those fearsome talons goaded those vibrant orbs to tarry. Such life-giving serum wasted, and given their inability to gauge time, the elf deliberated if she should have just a taste. The others' words were briefly muffled as the hankering to gorge established itself as irresistible. That fabric offered would have to wait as the sustenance-deprived lady took hold of that extended wrist. Those eyes were exhibiting a similar lascivious want, the cravings sanctioning a brief lapse in her judgment.

 

This disease that haunted her throughout the sum of her existence was soon to be laid out on full display. Chatana's pointer claw slipped between those luscious lips as that wet oral muscle lapped the appendage clean. That heated blood evoked a primal urge, a compulsion that had titillated the flesh in ways best left unmentioned. Oh, how the elf desired nothing more than to kiss the predator, pulling her close and passing the meal back and forth. The generosity of her game shouldn't go to waste, and who better to frolic within the glow of this timeless contest than Chatana? Sadly, despite her outward appearances, the mer had grown accustomed to rejection. Grant it, Tahira could not keep such ardent aims from flickering within that gateway to her soul.

The grooves of that lingua kept gliding across the skin. The vampire continued to revere the huntress. Until every finger within that hand had been cleaned or till she pulled back. The trivial thoughts of the others not even registering until, eventually, she reacquired control. Stepping back, with the cloth in hand, the temptress smirked as vigor once more coursed throughout her voluptuary figure.

 

"I think this vantage point should do nicely."

 

Was she flirting? Yes, although, Tahira's adventures into such a theatre could be characterized as inept at best. Clearing her throat, she pivoted, facing the others, leaving herself exposed as a sign of trust to the feline. Those eyes, glaring at the Jackal, as she contemplated to herself.

 

"My name is Tahira; however, such pleasantries will not aid us. What is done is done; if losing one was foolish, then pushing another away, particularly one of use, is equal folly.  Some of you are green. Yet, the baptism of tribulations cares little for such matters. I do not expect any of you to be a master in the craft of death. The bard unquestionably lacks much in that department; nevertheless, I feel Chad(Bard/Varnekun.) at least knows his place. Which, of course, leads me to Djosser."

 

That cloth Chatana handed, wrapped around the neck, one of the few gifts she had ever received in her life, let alone one from such a regal rose that flourished amongst the sullied malignant growths strewn throughout this stage.

"This place is as much Emerald City as you are a competent man. In short, it has some bits, but it is lacking something vital. Yes, it is true; I am saying you have no dick." Tahira glanced about, taking in this fractured parody of her home.

 

"My suggestion? Quit being a parrot, develop some balls, learn your place. Alternatively, you could do us all a service and throw yourself over the ledge where Chad pissed. "Thematically foreign," who talks that way? I don't know where you studied, but I would sincerely consider getting your coin back. And, if that Gnoll was truly more of a fighter than you, imagine what ways I could twist and bend your body like a pretzel. Chatana was sweet; she gave the violater a quick death. I, however, am notably more self-indulgent."

 

The man had been reprimanded enough; with any luck, he'd shrivel back into her shadow and out of sight. But, even that would be a grace, for Tahira doubted he belonged anywhere near a seasoned inquisitor. The mind recalling that room with the little girl. How was it those things sent her to two different spaces so speedily? It was then; she had a eureka moment. They haven't been transported anywhere that light followed by the paralyzation and darkness; it all made sense.

"Chatana, I have a theory, but first, I wish to strike a deal. Then, if my absurd hypothesis verifies itself as accurate, I want to hunt with you by my side a bit longer. Though, a kiss for good luck couldn't hurt either. Either way, if I am wrong, considering current company, we are likely dead anyway. And if we do somehow survive, and I am not wholly accurate in my deductions, then I'll prance about in a maid outfit screaming milady if it amuses you."

 

Those things, they were intrigued by her, and she was confident they attempted to claim her like they did the Ysstmar. Which meant one of two things, somehow, she was different, or the saurian was even more feeble-minded than previously presumed. The stomach growling as a final statement, advertising just how much she craved more of that blood

A waste of sperm and egg, this contentious thought adequately surmised the pitiful worm of a man before her. Djosser, his senselessness beyond measure, managed to fester within his hubris. Things were indeed gloomy, and this egotistical child and his tantrums only toiled as a wedge. A dilemma presented itself, one this seasoned hunter knew all too well. The pack was only as effective as its most vulnerable pup, and this cumbersome cur would only weigh them down—his appeal, hollow, carrying with it nothing of substance. The flapping of the gums moreover cemented him as a liability in her sagacious eyes. The jackal could not recognize the test she had devised for him. If the hermit had ventured to rip out his tongue, she would have endeavored to stop him as the gesture alone would have gratified her demands. Alternatively, if the lout bowed the knee, capitulated, and extended an apology as an olm of good faith. Tahira would have been inclined to overlook that preceding transgression.

 

The exterminator was a fool, falling victim to the juvenile want of believing in the virtue within the hearts of man. A lesson old as time woefully omitted, that you can't teach an aged hound new tricks. Internally, the flawed logic he espoused couldn't stand under the scrutiny of its weight. Did this unkempt traveler believe that intentions alone budded forth results? Perhaps this indeed was his best; if so, it mattered little. There was no disputing the pitiless reality that his failures were just that, failures. Being a woman of science, Tahira deduced the philosophical quandary concerning the dubious merit of his struggles held little water. She cared for one thing, results and the reality carried by the ripples of his actions. It was through this standard that a verdict had been reached, one none too favorable.

Those feet, shuffling closer, as their eyes remained locked. The empty socket within the hilt aimed true- lifted ever so slightly so that it pointed toward the jackal's neck. The temerity of this pup reaching a pinnacle, as the rash buffoon disgorged a deluge of jeering. That bile, anything but palatable, limiting her course of actions down a singular path. "The big bad wolf, supposed alpha?" Ironic, it was him who demanded to adhere to her shadow- to solicit refuge behind the wolf's claws and jaws. No, she wasn't his bitch, nor could Djosser fathom the true profundities of his plight. He may have thought he was trapped here with those things, but the truth was quite the opposite.

 

Both him and those "Outsiders" were locked in a cage with her. Tahira had grown weary of it all, bequeathing Djosser with the greatest spurn possible, silence. The sting of nothingness, even if outside his purview, would have to suffice. That face, stoic as ever, as the eyes continued to reflect that same gelid temperament. Being an inquisitor, Tahira had been honed into quite the vessel to exact the state's morally questionable demands. They often required the shutting out of emotions and the donning of a mask. While perhaps an effigy, there was little refuting that necessity of such masquerades within her vocation. Maybe the man would assume the mantel of victory? Or, fancy himself so rational and beyond rebuke that such intrepidity evoked befoulment? Admittedly, both appeared to be within his character.

The predator sojourned within 8 ft of her prey, just exceeding the reach of any known blade. The man turned his back, haughtily strutting just a bit forward, preparing to offer a solemn nod to the young girl. However, Tahira had something different in mind. From within the vacant hole, her chi sped, dimly lighting the runes etched throughout in silence. From within that abode, the blade as resilient as steel sprung out at unparalleled speed—the signature weapon, extending up to 15ft in a second as she leaned forward, thrusting. Her refined leg work, coupled with how she wielded that monstrous blade resembled that of a spear.

 

The tip, aimed true, racing toward the back of his neck where the cranium met the nape stopping its elongation if it should impact. Giving his proximity, ignorance, and overconfidence, the samurai doubted the man would have time to elude the "claw." If this should establish itself as accurate, the only thing he would feel was a sharp prick, followed by numbness from the neck down. That the spinal cord would be severed, untethering and thus bereaving his body of essential functions. If he did manage to slink away, she would reposition herself, assuming a neutral defensive posture. Either way, he wouldn't die, as Tahira intended to leave him in this hellscape, shitting his trousers, staring into the darkness of the heavens, until they came for him, or the elements claimed his soul. Each moment a reminder, penance for the day he undermined her authority. A fate, as promised, worse than death.

The blade had met its mark, puncturing its fang past the skin as that all-important spinal cord tore due to its jagged end. Tahira was nothing if not faithful to her word and efficient at her craft. Djosser, he had reaped his just desserts, as the body went limp. That vessel, once under his command, now solely a prison for his soul. The domain of darkness, the calls within the fog, the only things that would keep him company. Death would indeed be a commiseration, one she had determined him undeserving of tasting. Those eyes, more frigid than any polar wind, manifested not a mite of clemency. That hoarse murmur of the blade being sheathed crept throughout this unearthly expanse—those children, hushing as if satisfied concerning what ensued.

 

Though, whether or not this was true established itself as unknowable. His pitiable wailings and pleas extracted no visceral rejoinder. Death, the consumption of life by that blade, was merely a routine. The wills behind the curtain, having rummaged through her skull, had once more joined in song. Unbeknownst to the others, the verses that followed were an open badinage steered to the party. However, rather than proffer them satisfaction, Tahira defanged them via joining their quaint choir.

Her voice was melodious, flouting her rigid demeanor. Tahira was tutored by Faaria, a bard in her own right, though, this imaginative side she scarcely revealed. Her rejection of their ploy angering those children as they appeared behind the bard by thirty or so feet. Their eyes, flashing as their forms were in constant flux. The voices were escaping their now dislodged jaws, like that of a sea of tormented shades.

 

The throat was bulging as they masticated before disgorging forth leeches floating on top of a blackened puddle. That plashing reached their ears as Tahira turned to face the challenges. Her eyes narrowed, marching forward, as she once more withdrew her only friend. That nodachi grasped resolutely, as it was now time to test her hypothesis.

 

"I'll be back."

 

Tahira, turned to her side, running toward the edge as she leaped off the road. Her body, free-falling, as that familiar sensation of weightlessness took hold. She was plummeting past the celestial bodies as what could only be described as a spiral came into view. The current, flogging her about, funneling the puny, unfortunate soul deep into its pits. This stage was all a lie, an invention designed to crumble down their mental resolve. Have their prey misuse their energy, only to be subjugated once exhaustion took root. Those eyes were closing while she dissolved from their tiny prison

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Chapter 3

"Moonlight so pale."

 

Tahira, wheezing, those eyes opening wide, seeing a cephalopod who so deftly caressed her face. That sword, sprouting forward, as Zelena jumped to the side, barely evading being skewered.

The mer, filled with indignation, cut and shredded her way free from those roots and webbings. Blood spewed forth, smearing across her body before finally, she dropped to her knees. The head slowly raised, refusing to address this stranger. Whatever she was, the creature didn't resemble her enemy. The others, notwithstanding their contempt, were salvageable. Once more, she valued her integrity above all else, cutting them free one by one. Ria first, followed by the bard, then Chatana, catching them lest they hit the floor. Each sequentially plucked from that illusion, achieving consciousness within the tavern. The feline held within her left arm as Tahira kept her senses alert, meticulously scanning a familiar surrounding.

 

"You, tentacle girl. We are leaving. There are others; those at sea are not entirely lost. So, take the others, and leave this town. I may not know who or what you are. But, nevertheless, if you were one of them, I speculate you wouldn't have permitted me to release those bonds. Warn the others, and, if I fail to emerge. Know that I have fulfilled my duties."  Tahira, letting go of Chatana, rose to her feet while she gaited toward the threshold.

 

"Ria, one day, you will see that the good is often mingled with the ugly. And that as disgusting as it might seem, sacrifices must be made. Hopefully, this will show you, that I too am equally expendable. For it's the realm that matters, not us. I know not what will happen if I succeed. I advise you flee, lest you are swallowed up along with me if the worse should befall this town."

The others' words of defiance gave way to a pause, Tahira thoroughly taken a bit back by their readiness to join her pack. Where she was going might dwarf what they've thus far endured. The lion's den is a tribulation meant to authenticate one's mettle; it wasn't an arena for those lacking courage. Their intrepidity, character, and place within the natural world's hierarchy were likely to be questioned—Chatana's inquest, repeating within her mind, as those teal eyes glanced upon her face. It seemed her words had agitated them all, though the bard's impromptu valor was anything but sincere. That declaration that Ria was somehow Tahira's offspring induced an expression of annoyance across her harsh visage. This tool of the state, ignoring most of what the minstrel had to say, found him to be as harmless as he was vapid.

That emerald extraterrestrial spoke out loud, unveiling her misplaced indignation. Those mannerisms, the way she articulated her words, reminded the elf of her egotistical mother. This familiarity sowed seeds of distrust, which, for now, would be interred until after they somehow escaped this spectral haze. As this tendriled entity assuredly designated herself as one of Mirage's lineage, her mental state called into question as it seemed improbable. Tahira didn't appreciate this woman; that tumult expanded as this creature began to lecture the Mer. What did this freak know of her? What gave this haughty abomination the right to sling such virulence her way? This disposition made all the worse, as the undertow of uncertainty eliminated the prospect of so freely dismissing her.

She had experienced enough, the inquisitor rolling those eyes as she kept her blade steady. The bard whose testicles appeared to swell whenever near a woman he deemed deserving of fornication. He advanced beyond the threshold and stood within that mist. Ria, who seemed to be jittery of late, at least didn't delay them with senseless pursuances.

 

"Ria is not my daughter. This rose has blossomed alone." Tahira strutted forward, standing next to the musician before giving him three short pats on the top of his head.

 

"Bonded? You are a cancer bard. But, like cancer, you have grown on me a bit. I advise you to reel back that zeal lest I deem fit to cut this tumor free from my body. Am I clear?"

 

Did she loathe this lecherous child? Not at all; in fact, he reminded her of a jester. Of course, there was nothing worse than a comedian with lousy delivery. So, as long he kept entertaining her and tarried within his little box, the inquisitor would abstain from rending that flapping muscle out from his venereal diseased lips.

 

"Zelena, wasn't it?"

 

She pivoted, glancing toward the gaped maw of the tavern. Those eyes tinged with unfamiliar arcane barreled into those Eldritch polluted ponds.

 

"Do not think yourself as deserving of lording over me. After all, you need us as much as we need you. If you wish to tag along, so be it. But, don't get in our way. And, if you should fancy betraying or using us as pawns, well, there are things worse than this mist. Mirage's child or not, I put my duty above all else. We can proceed to squabble or measure our pseudo cocks. I, however, have a job to do. So, let us do so while on the road?"

Those eyes were deviating to Chatana's face, Tahira's stoic deportment chipping before glancing to the ground away from sunflower eyes before she marched into the fog. Those wits maintained, senses heightened, for even this exterminator knew not what duperies might be prowling within this vapor. Alone or not, she had donned that familiar mask. And while it might disfigure her soul, for the moment, it bequeathed purpose. And that call to arms, no matter its intentions, was at least her road forward, and that had to count for something.

Zelena was exceedingly irate due to this bard's utterances. To think that he fancied himself meritorious of her time, let alone affection? That expression on her face said it all, almost to the point that the tendril abomination had virtually neglected to address the others. Those mesmerizing lanterns, returning to that of the feline, elevating those eyebrows, curious as to why she appeared so enchanted. The cephalopod was recollecting that few of her mentally insufficient kind had beheld such otherwordly beauty. That feeler flicked that raven mane back, puffing her breast outward with dignity as she reveled within such speechless veneration. It was all right; the binding mage needn't express her thoughts, extending her a provocative wink in some endeavor to make the eyeballing mortal feel jittery. All the while, one of her boneless limbs wiggled toward Ria as if shooing away such apprehensions.

 

"Stare any longer, and you might find yourself eternally lost within that glimmer."

 

Those lanterns sparkled once more as that benevolent quip was hurled this dark-skinned rose's way. The predator invited her in, offering Chatana an opportunity to tango with the devil. Of course, her impulses for behaving in such a wanton manner were hardly so serious No, Zelena aspired to irritate that indecent troubadour with the addition of possibly agitating that knife-eared exterminator. Of course, if she were to submit, those aquatic growths might act on sheer instinct. After all, it had been quite a long time since she managed to inflict thralldom. And what was sexuality but a manifestation of feminine power? That head angling so that Tahira might catch a glimpse on those vivid gems: her topaz and jade hue iris oscillating around that ever-shifting pupil.

 

"I'm not bad, I was merely sculpted to appear so. By the end, you will see that even a "monstrosity" like me can house a heart of gold. Well, most of the time."

Zelena theatrically bowed, relocating a hand a tentacle over her muscular abdomen as she bestowed that rude elf proper courtesy. While Tahira might have been a bit abrasive, Zelena was raised to turn the other cheek whenever possible.

 

"But of course, perish the thought of me governing one so independent. Lead the way; I will follow along, looking pretty and pampered. Don't worry, if I wanted to kill you all, I would done so while you were all slumbering in those fleshly pods. While a measure of paranoia is salubrious, too much, and you risk poisoning the well. I will keep to myself and only chime in if I have something noteworthy to add."

 

With the pedantry out the way, that green-skinned siren stood upright, patting Chatana's back with that spongey spinal growth. That tendril, soft and malleable, yet smelling of lavender.

 

"You don't see the roots? I forget how infallible those of your plane's eyes can be. Don't worry. Once we reach the epicenter of this pathogen, I will unveil the world as I see it. As you can imagine, such a procedure is quite exhausting. I might sound egotistical. If so, exonerate me of this malfeasance. Your bard has succeeded in abrading me raw, an achievement not so effortlessly accomplished."

 

She was stepping out within the haze, exposing her apple-shaped rear shielded by that risqué sentient undergarment. Her head swiveled as the bard proceeded to act like a donkey, sad; where were those Outsiders when you needed them the most?

"I laud you ladies for your tolerance. The fact his insides are not liquified and devoured for sustenance is confirmation of your forbearance and character. Word of advice, control your jester. While that jangle might entertain a child, such antics will only evoke an ill omen. With your permission, I'll coil him up nice and snuggly, fill that throat with my feeler to keep him satisfied, and more imperatively, no longer a liability."

 

If the feline hadn't yet wiped that fragrance-enriched solution from her back, she'd feel a minty tingling sensation skittering down her spine. Her sense of smell, taste amplified, the colors of this dreary scenery would intensify. This drug, a charity, an Eldritch serum to thank this woman for her adoration. Having been locked up for approximately a decade, Zelena had yearned for the innocent yet amorous gawking of another. And, next to the bard's display, it was a whiff of crisp air. A reminder that not all mortals are hormone-driven hogs. This benignity concealed a moderately inquisitive pursuit. A study to observe what precise effects this concoction might have on her kind.

The inquisitor was insecure, ascertaining this octopus woman's dalliance to be intimidating. Tahira wasn't one for success when it came to extorting affection. Her expertise lay in three specific fields, killing, drinking, and brooding. In some blatant display to keep Chatana's intrigue, the mer behaved rather licentiously. Stretching out her arm, she endeavored to hold her hand. Thankfully, wearing gloves did limit the intimacy, permitting her to safeguard that virginal status. Truthfully, Tahira had learned courtship from books composed by people who discovered intimacy through even older books. This frequently stoic butcherer, steering those blue orbs Chatana's way, before bequeathing the charmer an inept struggle at formulating a smile. While sincere, few could refute that the samurai wasn't at home in such a fray.

 

"Good, because if there is one thing I have learned on the road. It is that a competent partner is deserving of their weight in gold. When this is done, if you will have me, I wish to share my world with you."

 

That tongue was striking true as the ailing Mer turned to face her, combing that free hand through that volume enriched mane. Those tinged mirrors, peering downwards at those luscious lips, aspiring to taste them, but lacking the marshaled courage to act on such impulses. The atmosphere between them, in Tahira's mind, was electrifying. That tension, her inherent tussle tangible, deliberating in reticence how someone so vertically challenged can hold such magnetism? It was then, while those eyes widened, a faltering reddish glow slipped across her birthmark blotted cheek, that the inquisitor discerned what she had just confessed. The heart drummed, pounding against the bosom, as she drifted those fingers down to the chin. She gently tugged Chatana's head skyward, steadily lowering herself as the thumb crept outward and flicked that lower rim.

"Chad, wait! There is something I must experience before we go."

 

Tahira had sensed her attraction, a reciprocal expression, one that had continued to bloom notwithstanding this infertile pocket space. She couldn't tolerate it anymore. This elf had to know what this temptress tasted like; she had to relish this experience as a way to have something worth fighting over.

 

"Chatana, I need to know. Will you offer me your mouth? Will you embrace these fangs? Will you satisfy this hunger? Will you starve without me? Would you offer your throat to the wolf of the may roses?"

 

That whisper wafted to her catlike ears while an avid whiff taunted her oral barriers. So close, but Tahira dared not go for the kill; no, she recognized this predator as a noble wolf. One she could stalk the fields with to their bones were too brittle with age. If those fangs were to seize that throat, if those claws were to dig into each other's flesh, it would be with her blessing.

Chatana's hand, securing that hold, leaving the mer little opportunity to pull back. Did she accept? Tahira was beside herself; those knees trembled while the heart drummed vehemently. Those teal eyes, powerless to sit still, as a single bead of sweat flowed downward across her porcelain face. The tall Mer inclined herself gawkily and with quivering lips so that the feline needn't stand on those tippy toes. It was unambiguous from her maneuvers that this dark-skinned temptress held more experience within this hunting ground. The wolf of ashen fur, heeding her lead, surrendered herself to the ravenous unknown. So soft, those oral rims, as they engaged in a sensual yet old as time tussle. 

Those eyes, shooting wide open, as a deepened blush expanded across those cheeks. That taste rivaled that of the most aged wine, as that rough oral muscle ventured to infiltrate that oral chamber. Tahira, caught off guard, uncertain what to make of this activity. Instead of resisting, the elf opted to tour this spiral to wheresoever the current might guide them. While brief, this exchange left a deep-felt mark, as sensations never since felt whirled about the body and mind. Voraciously, the samurai found herself hankering for more, not satisfied with that morsel gifted unto her. Nevertheless, the wolf understood the danger of avarice and thusly reeled back such self-indulgent passions. As Chatana said, after they repelled this menace, the two could further explore the essence of this reciprocated interest.

Staggering rearward, the wolf took a second to compose herself, clearing that throat as that pinkish coloration faded. Tahira felt comfortable finally looking on the others with its absolvement, only to see Chad hoisted off the floor. Those tendrils entangled the bard, his impertinent mannerisms finally getting the best of him. It appeared that Zelena, for all her posturings, lacked the tolerance the other two ladies possessed. While she could have raised her blade, recognizing what she had witnessed and what Chatana had accomplished before a similar offense, the elf would be a hypocrite to intrude. Candidly, this didn't mean the slayer appreciated what was to unfurl; after all, she had come to revel in the Bards quips. Those eyes shunted, gazing out the window, as those knifed ears picked up the snapping of his neck.

Tahira was disconcerted; out of all the dead so far, he seemed the one with the most significant potential. There, beyond the frosted glass, she watched keenly as the blanket of fog seemed to ebb and flow across this ghost town. Something was wrong; that film appeared stationary before. Why was it on the move? Could it be their cacophony had induced the ire of those abominations? That discord, while not thundering to her, could have been a racket worthy enough of inspection? Or, conceivably, the yearning to touch Chatana's lips had squandered that window of opportunity? Within the thickening veil, it was there that the indistinct outline of umbrae could be seen shambling toward the tavern.

"Upstairs! Now! Zelena, help me barricade this door. We will join you shortly! We will use the narrow stairway to funnel them, using the high ground to our advantage!"

Tahira may have been cornered. But there were things as terrifying as a predator with its back pressed against the wall.  Wasting no time, the inquisitor gathered more furniture, stacking it, glimpsing out the window as they inched closer and closer. What started as a few kept growing. Their lanky forms were like a sea of ruination. Each second, that portentous surge depreciated the safety of that gap. There were too many, she had failed her nation, disgraced her blade, and most of all, withered that amorous affair before it could bloom forth its petals.

"I am the wolf of the rose of May! If you are to claim me, so be it! But I will rip and tear my way into your memory! You will rue the day you locked jaws with this hound of the state! If one is to face oblivion, let it be with pride and a pound of flesh in their maw..."

Such fortifications, while laudable, would not protect this lot—that tavern, which had since settled as a cradle of security, now labored as a prison. The windows were blown, the door detached from the hinges, there was little the party could do to thwart the inevitable. A sea of forces gradually approached while the outsiders stood within the background, holding both spears and blades. Those lanky forms of shadows swirled about as writhing masses of tendrils ripped and tore from their bodies. Those souls, netted within that song, had germinated a disease and stood as carriers—their bodies, covered in throbbing tumors of pus, while a blackened film saturated their vessels. Those expressions, perpetually contorted, making it challenging to recognize where their facial features began and ended. An army of infected stood between those officers and their prey. The sheer numbers painting a disheartening reality.

Tahira, peering through the window, was beyond disheartened These things, they were intelligent. Girdling the establishment assured they had no opportunity to retreat, forcing the wounded and morale-shaken strangers to make a final, futile stand. The Outsiders, hoisting their armaments, letting out a booming shriek. Their voices, like that of an ocean, reverberated across this lifeless expanse. Those mutilated corpses, moaning, as those ensnared by this pandemic, let out lamentations. Their calls, comingling into a symphony as they implored for release. Death, while dismal, stood as a preferable alternative. Those eyes, unveiling anguish, as every shift of their bodies struck pain, servants, while cognizant, had self-control entirely commandeered. 

Droplets of ooze, falling to the ground, as vile squishing sounds could be heard entering that tavern. Tahira understood tactics, having been educated in warfare, knew what would follow. Those disdainful beings, standing unwavering in their objectives, watching the soon-to-be battle would unfold. In the formation of the moon's crescent, their distant forms obstructed any route to the beach.  The elf stepped back, glancing up the steps, feeling mournful for those two upstairs.  Zelena assimilated the rabbit's body, considering this as her final meal as she extended a nod.

 

"Well, unless you have an army somewhere, I reckon this is the end of our story?"

While melancholy, Tahira couldn't dispute the gravity of those observations. Smirking, the inquisitor chortled before unsheathing her Nodachi.

 

"No, an Inquisitor is always alone. And if they should die, the state will never publish their demise. I am, on paper, a lone rogue element. There is no glory, no one to versify a song for my final stand. In the end, I am a no one who opposed and abused her jurisdiction. A miscreant within the eyes of the law."

Those forces had arrived, budding forth barbed roots from their rectum, which they used to scale the building—the rapping of their ascent, echoing throughout, while others stood at the window. Those in the back uprooted the tops of their bodies, pulling pulsating sacks of organs behind them, leaving an inky trail. While those feet shook vehemently, growing forth crablike boney growths, as they scuffed about, discharging their veins as if to simulate an organic thicket. The furniture dragging, Zelena using those tentacles in a pitiable struggle to stall the impending fate. She was striving to keep the furniture barricade in place while Tahira kept thrusting her 15ft long blade like a spear, poking through the eyesockets of those shambling husk gathering by the window. No matter how many the elf fell, they kept on marching.

 

The shoulders of those troops crashed against the back door to the kitchen. It resounded outward, an indication that they would ultimately burst through. Upstairs, where Chatana and Ria assembled, they would see what resembled slimy branches skimming up the windows, tapping the glass as the dangling kicking limbs of fetuses flung freely.  

 

"Row, row, row your beat, gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream. Let us in, join us. Trust me; you will know harmony. The dream is a nightmare, and we are its release. Play, play with us."

The song weakened as each of those troops bellowed in torment, pleading for release, sobbing, shouting out the names of their loved ones as those ascending the walls began to meld leisurely into a coating of flesh, fat, and organs. The walls creaked before suddenly, everything stopped...

The deafening silence only made their dire situation all the more unsettling. Death, a hard to explain presence, yet, whenever near, none can refute its foreboding atmosphere. Those shambling bodies, desisting their assault, while their Outsider overlords moved their gaze across that thick mist. Those doomed souls within the tavern, forced to fester within their imminent death. This reprieve, whatever inspired it, appeared to shed little light onto the grim prospect of their future.

Nevertheless, one's demise couldn't be thwarted, only postponed. The sea of deformed corpses, rippling in unison like an ocean, persisting in place while soulless eyes gawked into the fog. It was then that the muteness that seized this hamlet fragmented, conceivably breeding more questions than possible remission. Thuds, starting faint, were spread apart both in timing and space. What initially came across as a few kept swelling, making the source behind such a din unable to be accurately calculated. Tahira, Chatana, Ria, and Zelena were weak and powerless, fools struggling to hold back that inevitable tide. And while their resistance authenticated itself as laudable, it prevailed as futile. 

That commotion rivaled thunder as the earth quaked to the beating of drums. Horns made of mammoth trunks echoed across the expanse, accompanied by the rhythmic bashing of the spear against the bone shield. Banners were first appearing over the film, followed by the vague outlines of an army. A continuous rapping, like that of rain, soon followed. The feelers of a legion of spiders scurried across the terrain. These arachnids were leaping from building to building as they adhered to the walls of those structures. Their Queen, at the front, clicking that split tongue across an ossein mold mandible, orchestrating the precise movements of her children. In a previous memory, she had been here before, albeit the town had developed much in her absence.

Those copper lanterns, reflecting the pale moonlight, as they fixated toward that tavern. Long ago, before she acceded to power, that establishment was an inn. Hannah, she had returned, albeit with tales not suited for such a pure and young soul. The memory of deceit, a vow to see her on what awaited on the other side. Death, seen as an enemy to most, in her eyes, was a friend. And life without end, a meaningless existence, her limbo for preceding transgressions. The enemy, the inspiration for all of her activities, came into view.  Her people were hardy, unaffected by the eyesore of gangrene flesh and such bodily malformations. Could they experience fear? It didn't matter; in the end, they'd be given a chance to.

 

The Chieftain grinned, her revelry in carnage merely a performance. A system of broadcasting morale, for the optics of her people, were unquestionably focused on their Matriarch. Their skeletal boots were marching in unison, in perfect harmony with the clamor of those skinned drums.  As one, they halted, planting the bottoms of their eight-foot shields onto the ground, forming a defensive line. Archers, in the rear, readying their bows while the spiderlings scaled to the rooftops. Forty-foot spears, forming a thicket of death in front of that barricade while the auburn-haired commander gaited back and forth behind her soldiers. The storm had arrived, that dreaded tempest that had toiled as a tenacious nightmare.  The Queen and her brethern cried a poem of their people, visibly displaying their resolve.

"We have a rendezvous with death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
Where salty seas fill the air,
We have a rendezvous with death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be it shall take our hand
And lead us into its dark land
And close our eyes and quench our breath
It may be we shall pass it still.
We have a rendezvous with death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first Jungle-flowers appear.

Elder's know 'twere better to be deep
Pillowed in linen and scented down,
Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear...


We have a rendezvous with death
At midnight in some foggy town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And we to our pledged word am true,
We shall not fail that rendezvous."

The mangled dead, shuffling their feet, tentatively diminishing that chasm of a distance between them and these interlopers. That oils ooze, dripping to the floor, as their lamentations like a symphony rose in volume. Those tendrils, comprised of organs, flailed about, slinging their filth every which way, bestowing a stay of execution onto the tavern's prisoners. The outsiders, turning their stance, changing to face this new challenger, tilting their heads curiously as the shade of their chitin shifted with their movements. They knew something as their confidence waned, letting out a gurgled decree.

"People of the Verdant Dynasty, today we face an unknown enemy. I see in some of you the doubt that has claimed greater men. However, I promise you this. Just as I was the first to step into this blanket of smog, I will be the last one to leave. And, dead or alive, we will all march home! We have sworn an oath to the citizens of this town. To protect and uphold their way of life. We sacrifice so they don't have to. We failed that oath; however, through this defiance, we can atone. Brothers and sisters! Raise your spirits, for we are Jorgenskull, Lords of our rendezvous!"

Many lives will perish, and, once more, Valerna will have to stare onto those terror-induced expressions lingering on still faces. However, within this torment, the Matron gleaned purpose. Her odyssey, her curse, a burden that would crush a lesser woman. If she is doomed to saunter for an eternity. Why not make those that leave her behind days all the more blissful? The hand raised, circulating her wrist, as horns trumpeted forth commands. The archers, letting loose a volley of death, those arrows ripping through the air, blotting out what little light the moon afforded. Those arrows, impaling through the tides of horrors, pinning some to hardened patches of soil as they thrashed about in agony.

A few tips, holding a bomb that exploded, hurling out a thick cloud of colored smoke. Deep within the recesses of the fog, turtles, armored in webs and stone, with cannons on their backs, stood at the ready—the goatkin, bleating, as they could faintly see the signal. That artillery, being adjusted, while the hooved soldiers carried ammunition of obsidian, sliding it within the opened barrel. Their commander, bleating in their alien dialect, before a series of bursts rocked the armored turtles. They were shielding their ears, leaning to the side, as the force kicked up particles of debris from the ground. Those sheened rocks, black as night, were propelled through the heavens before smashing into the opposing forces away from the tavern. On collision, they ruptured into fragments of glass-like shards, puncturing and bursting those pus-filled tumors as well as shredding their limbs free from the body.

The enemy, charging now, as slowly, their higher evolved commander retreated to the sea. The first wave, pierced by the spears, while the second crashed against the shields. A third follows, gradually pushing the formation back, while those behind perforated their polearms tip deep into putrified flesh. Those tentacles of biomass, wrapping around a few giants necks, force their mouths open. They were slipping between the lips, bulging out the throat, before vomiting a soup of taint into those gullets. The spiders, working to construct a web, carried it to the front line under Valerna's orders.

The fourth wave, now vaulting, as those threads were hoisted above their allied troops, entangling the enemy in mid-air. Their extremities were writhing, letting out shrieks, as the Archnoids pounced from the buildings onto the earth. This netting, falling over those that remained, trapping them. While the giants in the rear placed tubers onto the ground, discharging alchemical rounds of boiling blood and fat into those ensnared. Its vile odor and color, filling the battlefield, cooking those abominations wrapped by her children's mesh. The roof of that tavern, dropping articles of dust, four thuds reverberated within those walls. Those Salticidae, spreading out, launching strings across the chaos, flinging those mutilated foes caught against the walls, shattering their bones.

 

The line faltered as the waves of corpses pushed beyond, using their barbed feelers to rip and tear anything they could reach. Valerna, employing those spider legs, raised one before shredding it clean in half. Its gore, splashing over her voluptuary body, glazing it as she let out a blood-crazed roar. Those that had swallowed their fecal stew, groaning, as their bodies were usurped. Her officers, seeing this, opened fire on them, commanding they kill any that have been exposed. The Chieftan, clicking that split oral muscle, sent her offspring deep into the town. Others may have been blind, but that stench of corruption couldn't elude such seasoned senses. 

Within a windmill stood a cloudy gem, her children rushing and dying by the forces safeguarding it. Valerna's eyes examined the battle, observing her kin intertwined with the horrors as orbs widened. The heart drummed against the ribs while a familiar voice reached across earth and metal to the spider.

"Beyond the existence of time. Do you recall those words, my sister? Life is without meaning. It exists to rot and wilt. Suffering is the only currency of the universe. Why do you permit them to wallow in such anguish? Bend the knee, join me, let us end this cycle once and for all."

A troop skulked behind the inattentive Queen, preparing that organ fused growth as it would soon add her to the army. And just as it reached to break the neck in one violent slap, that darkened crystal was wrapped in webs and banged continuously against the walls and earth until it shattered. Those things fell apart at the seams, leaving behind what could only be described as minced meat. The fog immediately dissolved, as those not wholly tainted awoke by the shore, only to witness the Spiders holding the Jorgenskull banner and the sea of disentangled carcasses. 

Valerna, looked about, observing the aftermath. Her men, their faces, those of civilians controlled by the Outsiders searing themselves onto her mind. Another memory, another chapter within her odyssey.  The Chieftain, marching toward the former inn. Standing over ten feet tall, cloaked in skeletal armor and the organic solutions of the dead. The begrime of strife, even when scoured "clean," could never be washed away.  The furniture shielded the door, being kicked free, as the Matron strode beyond the threshold. Those brown eyes, bounding from one occupant to the next, as her officers massacred any that might be infected while directing the survivors to congregate outside the tavern.

"Outside, now."

That grief-stricken giant added before moving past them, making her way up the spiraling staircase. Entering an unassuming room, she discreetly secured the door behind her. The feet of a chair dragged across the spongey floor before the auburn beauty roosted by the unoccupied bed. Leaning forward, seeing the ghost of an old friend, she waited till her ears picked up on the other's retreat.

Those arcane-tinged eyes of teal could hardly believe what she witnessed. For a moment there, their likelihoods of survival seemed rather bleak, yet, the jungles forces' arrival had kept the hand of death at bay. That stoic elf was offended that her honor as a samurai was called into question by their messiah. The inquisitor let out a resented grunt, those pearl fangs scraping against one another while that carnage unfolded. What a pitiable excuse of an operator. Tahira's blade was tainted not only by yesteryears' sins but incompetency as well. Weakness, for survival, a barter most would make without hesitation. Nevertheless, while the others might accept such a proposition, this lone wolf could only roll her eyes. Chatana hollered with glee. Indeed, salvation came, albeit not by her hands. What Tahira would give to be the source of that felines praise, to know that together they either perished to or flouted insurmountable odds?

But no, that triumph belonged to the spider and her nation of troglodytes. That mind so immersed in indignation that the mer permitted the feline to take her by surprise. That vault and embrace caused the inquisitor to stumble backward while that absurdly long blade dissolved into nothingness. Such affection ushered forth a much-needed perspective. No, it wasn't just about this wolf anymore, now that she had a lion to stalk the hunting grounds with. That scent, her warmth, the drubbing of the heart kindled a faint glow to burn across that pale face. Tahira enveloped her dear Chatana with those hands, keeping her close lest she risks losing sight of this newfangled anchor. A gentle kiss, pressing itself against the cheek, as that tongue dragged upward to the cat-like ear. 

"Chatana, how I long to welcome your claws as they dig deep into my flesh. My lioness, your wolf is here. I will never leave your side again, this much I vow."

Valerna's brutish kick shattered any amorous atmosphere. Those aquamarine orbs fixated too much onto this dark-skinned alpha to even notice the ridiculous figure, at least initially. That command almost inspired a snarl until she saw the giant and her mountain chest. Her beauty and cartoonish body, fitting the descriptions. And while Tahira might be headstrong, even she wasn't so senseless as to challenge nor provoke a queen near her army. The two huntresses, locking fingers, as the love-smitten hound permitted Chatana to take the lead. The aftermath, while unsightly, had become routine. For death, no matter the peddler invariably produced the same product. The seven-foot elf, keeping up with that gait as they strutted side to side. Instinctively, the exterminator leaned into the feline while looking back at the shaken girl. Ria was a virgin and had her cherry popped when it came to warfare in probably one of the worst ways imaginable.

"What do you expect? The Jorgenskulls aren't known for elegance when it comes to war."

She was simpering before striving to lock eyes with Ria. The mer looked toward the hitching post; that face shifted to a grieved expression. Her beetle mount, shredded to pieces, laid out on his back wholly disemboweled.

"Looks like we are walking now. Don't worry. I'll get us another mount soon enough Chatana."

The way she so nonchalantly brushed off such a hefty investment illuminated the fact that this soldier had deep pockets. 

"Ria, you have survived. You can't value anything in this world without first being exposed to actual suffering. While not a lovely truth, you are no little girl. I will not pop your mouth on my teats and cuddle you. Only you can chart your course forward. As my sister always says, you have some strong legs, use them and keep on walking."

Tahira, slipped her hand free, as rather courageously she moved them toward the felines buttocks, giving it an endearing squeeze.​ "I advise sex, nothing like a good tussle in the sheets to alleviate tension..."

A lie, the mer had no experience fornicating, but, mentally, it seemed humorous enough, and levity was a good way at thwarting madness. Without any delay, Tahira slider her hands under the lion's feet, carrying her in a bridal fashion as she walked off toward the horizon, exiting that blasted town.

"Another job completed. Though, I think I found an actual reward for once." Those eyes, looking down into those citrine orbs, smiling. "First inn we find, we're testing those claws..."

 

That road, full of horrors, yet notwithstanding the darkness looming aloft, love and joy always found a way to blaze through the blackened skies. Tahira might have been a dark messenger by trade; this didn't mean she couldn't enjoy some light from time to time...