==Prologue : The Steel Walkers ==
The long convoy was progressing at walking pace on the road, as the trolleys could not go faster without letting the persons on foot behind. It was particularly important in this forest, since it marked the beginning of monster's territory. The last man following just didn't care, as he was too focused on his own thoughts.
The responsible who hired them was insistent on it : they were going in a region where monsters where roaming freely, and San Ilia refused to send guards to accompany them in, he quoted "A region were human males volontarily gave themselves to copulate with those abomination of monsters". For most residents of San Ilia, it was basically going as close to hell as they could without having to fear the loss of their goddess's blessings.
For him and his friends, however, it was just another job escorting a group of bigots while reassuring them that they had nothing to fear. Neither monster nor bandits would dare to attack such a large group in the first place, and even then, they would have to face the Steel Walkers.
Finally, Seres got sick of the silence and started to trot to catch back the middle wagon to at least be able to talk with one of his friend.
A man in his early fifties who grew up in Remina, he always was familiar was monsters, as the first thing he saw with his human parents was the Kitsune who acted as a midwife to deliver him. He spent his youth surrounded by monsters who often tried (and sometime managed) to have their way with him. While his parents were not happy with the situation, they did not put the blame on the monsters, but rather decided that the best way for him to live without the fear of being assaulted was to train him as early as they could. After a few years of training, he decided to leave Remina and Hellgondo to explore the world.
He remembered his last conversation between him and his father, the day he left.
"Dad, if monsters are that dangerous, why did we keep living with them ?'
His father sighed with a smile, before starting to explain.
"-Well, you see, monsters are powerful, but they need us to survive. Some of them like it, some of them don't. Those ones, they want to cohabit, to coexist with us. This land is inhospitable for humans, and they welcome us, they help us here." He came closer to his soon "Also, I never told you, but when she delivered you, your mother would have died if this kitsune did not use some of her magic to help her".
An heavy silence fell.
"-It's a shame that we never got to know her name, but while she looked scary, she was kind hearted, and we live with their mischief to thank her for that night. They're not all like that of course, they're like humans. And here, they are good humans.
-I see, thanks dad, I'll come back when I will have the time.
-Don't bother son, be happy, we trained you so that you could chose the way you live, we will not impede you now, don't bother with us".
Serus then proceeded to climb on top on one of the Garuda where several people and monsters were discussing and reassuring each other about the flight.
He'll come back. He promised. Even now as his short hair started to whiten, he would come back to Remina. At least to pay respect to his parents.
"Hey, big guy, you're alright ?"
Serus suddenly realized he was more than halfway through the convoy when a voice called him. He spent several seconds looking around before spotting the giggling expression of a short tanned long haired woman who was wallowed on the seat.
"-I'm alright, Kaela, I was starting to get bored, and I decided I could as well come see someone and have a little chat with someone.
-And leave the rearguard of the caravan unwatched ?
-Kaerdron will know if someone come near the caravan. Anyway, nothing new on your side ?"
Kaela sighed before repositionning herself.
"-Still boring as ever, and on your side ?
-Well, I have to listen to those unending debates about the benevolence of their goddess, and if I start listening to them, I may end up hitting one or two with their congener.
-Stay positive. We get farther from their biggest town, and we get paid."
Kaela softly laughed. She knew enough to know about Serus to know that anything which came out of his mouth when he talked about Ilias's follower was not to be said near childrens.
Keala sighed again as she wallowed again on the cart's seat looking for the sky. and started to let her mind wander off. Anything was more interesting than listening to those boring discussions.
She never understood how people could devote their live to something so boring and so useless as debating during hours what an always away being would or would not approve. During her youth in a small town south of Sabasa, there always was something to do : Help her father working in his garden, playing a prank on her brother, learn the family's work in alchemy, use random potions on guards which ended in them acting in a funny way and her parents being called by the mayor to punish her...
She still found this life boring however, and wanted to have more fun. Even if her parents and the town accepted the prankster, she wanted more adrenaline than the sloppy chase the guards gave when they tried to catch her. It came to her in the form of a very big, very annoyed sandworm girl who decided to attack the town nearly 5 years ago, the day she reached her 17th birthday.
After having seen the guards barely able to stand against her, Kaela decided to give it a try. She understood that since the guards could only attack the sandworm girl's lower, tougher body, she had to attack her upper part. To do so Kaela lured her near a building, and jumped on her with a sword she "borrowed" from a guard". After attacking the monster for a a few minutes, the latter decided to retreat, not before making Kaela fall from her. Luckily, her fall was cushionned by some mud. her parents and a healer rushed to her, and were shocked to find her smiling, repeating the same three words.
"That. Was. AWESOOOOOOOME !"
A few days later, she had a conversation with her parents and the mayor. They agreed to give her a map, some food and some money to travel and "annoy other people". The world was big, she was sure she could find more fun people elsewhere.
Once out of her reverie, Kaela repositionned herself again. She swore under her breath, and got off the cart, and strode forward while looking at the convoy. After a few wagons, she found what she was looking for.
She looked at a small, slender man, whose head was hanging low. It almost looked like he was sleeping, if it was not for the black headband covered with runes covering his eyes. Before she could ask any question, he started to talk.
"-No Kaela, we're not about to be attacked.
-We're in the middle of a heavily monster populated forest, and you are telling me there is no one ?"
Kaerdron sighed and stretched before removing the headband from his eyes, revealing perfectly banal brown eyes. After massaging his eyes for a few seconds, he resumed.
"-I didn't say that, there are a lot of monsters around, mostly alraunes and centaurs, but they're curious at most. It doesn't look like any of them is going to come out of the forest to attack.
-Do you think if I tell a few of those blind idiot that I saw a divine beam of light in the forest, someone will go check it out and get attacked ?
-Well, A, I think they're not that idiot, and B, we'll only get half paid if one person is missing or complain about getting raped. You could still ask Ellyi if you want, but I'm pretty sure her answer will remain.
-Nah, I won't bother.
-In that case, take back your position and ask Serus to do the same. It's useless, but we have to reassure people.
Right after his partner left, Kaerdron put back the runic headband on his eyes and focused on scanning the convoy. He could feel and see Kaela going back to Serus, and then Serus going back to his place. His focus of thoughts soon found himself on his most important souvenir.
His training at Grangold.
Kaerdron could not remember the first 10 years of his life, and no longer saw any point in trying. What use it had to him, after all ? He remembered his parents were killed by monsters, his father sucked dry and his mother killed on the spot. He remembered everything he was taught during his training at Grangold's magical academy, and most important, the words uttered by the mage who led him in the building.
"You have a lot of magic potential for the gift of double sight. Here we will teach you how to master it, how to use it against those monsters which destroyed you family."
He spent the 10 next years of his life learning, studying and analyzing the possible use of magic and how to use what they called the double sight. After years of intense training under harsh instructors, he finally mastered this gift : When focused, he could easily and fastly assess the power level, the abilities, and the mood of beings in the vincinity. He could also use it to (hardly) scan a far away area to spot any particular threat. His teachers told him he could use this to search for monsters, but at this point, he became more sensitive about magic flows, and he felt something was... wrong.
One evening, as he was working in the library, he heard another explosion from the laboratory working on sealing magic. Noticing that no one came out like usual, he decided to carefully check what was happening. He saw the responsible mage discussing with a strange woman. When he focused his sight on her, he noticed she was nothing like monsters or humans, the pure light could be called divine, angelic. He also noticed that woman was also carrying with her the aura of several, weird monsters, some of them reminding him of that one night. His next night was sleepless, and after a long time analyzing the pros and the cons, he decided to flee, stealing on his way out a prototype of magic sword he worked on with several other magis.
This curious sword's blade was hollow, and you could pass your hand through. However, it never broke once, even when they hit rock with it. While Kaerdron felt slightly guilty about leaving with it like a thief, he kept thinking that telling the archmage what he saw would only create more questions. Since then, he kept travelling, hoping one day to truly find out what happened those two nights.
In his focused state, Kaerdron suddenly saw a strange signal a few hundred meters away. The moment he focused on it however, there was only a trail. A mix of darkness, wind and seduction magic that could only come from the passage of a succubus, and a poweful one. Pushing his analysis further, he saw she was coming from the south, and going in the direction of Grand Noah. The aura she left informed him she probably did not care about the convoy, and was therefore not a problem.
-No, just a powerful succubus on the periphery going in the direction of Grand Noah.
-And you say this is not a problem ?"
His headband still placed over his eyes, Kaerdron turned into his interlocutor's direction and answered, smiling :
-Set, if you want me to try to magically tug her and tell her that you are looking for a little love, I'm pretty sure I could get something."
The man called Set turned and leaved sighing, his long, brown ponytail nearly endind in front of his face. They would never stop teasing him for his life, wouldn't they ? Still, he sould warn his chief about this.
As far as he remembered, he always heard about the benevolence of Ilias during his growth into the religious town of San Ilia. His parents were humble, pious believers, who always lived following the teachings of the goddess. His mother was helping to maintain the castle's great library, and his father was a merchant's handyman. They were not rich, but they always were happy.
On the day of his 8th birthday, his father's employer invited them both for a travel to Ilias's village to see the temple. On their way, they reached port Natalia, where Set had his first surprise.
He did not know any human town accepted monsters. He was shocked to see mermaids going around, talking with humans, and both parties living with each other as if it was the most natural thing in the world. As he was about to cry in panic, a mermaid approached him, smiled gently, and before she could ask what was wrong, he ran away.
One night, during the crossing of the sea,when his father was asleep, the merchant explained him
"-You see, boy, not every monster will attack, rape and kill a man on sight like you hear those priests saying. Some of them just want to live with humans, like humans. And like humans, they have needs, and may want to honestly trade something with you.
-But Ilias say we must not live with them !
-Well, Ill-ass can say what she want, but I definitely prefer to do trade with some good monsters than with some bad humans."
Seeing the boy looking even more confused, the merchant continued.
"You know, sometime even what you consider to be the truth during most of your life can turn out to be wrong".
Set did not know what to think, until he reached Ilias's temple. There, he saw a nun who was also travelling who created even more doubts about it.
"-Ah, but Ilias doesn't hate monster you see, while her commands forbid humans to give what they want to monsters, it's not because she want monsters to die. It's because she consider them both her childrens, and fear that mixing them would create troubles.
-But monsters hate Ilias !
-Not everyone of them does, some of them love her as much, even more than humans do."
Even when he came back to San Ilia, Set was confused. But he knew one thing, he had to keep believing in Ilias's love, he had to share her love. As such, he joined San Ilia's guards to share his vision with his fellows. If Ilias loved monsters and even monsters loved her, it was because she was the goddess of creation, after all.
He finally reached the head cart where his chief was. Upon seeing her, he bowed and started to talk.
"Mistress, we have a problem."
She moved a strand of dark hair of her face, and replied.
"-What is it ?
-Kaerdron spotted a powerful succubus going straight for Grand Noah. We should warn them."
Ellyi sighed before getting off the cart to get on Set's level. It did not had the desired effect since she was nearly a head taller than him. She started talking, with an exhausted voice :
"First, succubi can fly fast, she probably already reached Grand Noah, and may already be further. Second, they are used to live with monsters, they even fight together in a coliseum, and the champion is a succubus. It could even be her."
She breathed, and placed her hand on Set's shoulder before resuming, smiling softly.
"-And third and last, chill up ! I know you're still quite new to the Steel Walkers, you joined us slightly more than a month ago while the others have been working with me for more than 4 years, but you still act like you just arrived. I told you, there's no need to be that formal. I'm not even as much the chief as the speakperson of the group when it comes to finding work and important decisions. In fight, it would more likely be Seres,
Set hanged his head low, and scratched his neck awkwardly.
"-I see, I'm sorry to have disturbed you.
-No need to be sorry, you mean well. You should get back to your post, people like this feeling of security of having a guard to protect them closely."
Ellyi watched Set walk back to Kaerdron. She got back on her seat, and fell asleep.
She grew up into a small village south west of the Noah region, not far from Grangold. She lived with her mother for most of her life, as her father disappeared when she was young. They lived a difficult life, and her mother was always busy to trade to provide the basic necessities for the village's inhabitants. As such, she often felt lonely. Each night, when she went to sleep...
Darkness. It was all she could see. Even at that time, she felt like this darkness was alive, but that it would not hurt her. It was fortunate, as she did not now how she ended here. She felt an unbearable pain, which was strange, since she did not have a body.
Wait, wasn't she supposed to have a body ?
Before she could answer, she felt something come from the darkness. Loneliness, questionment, curiosity, joy, reflexion, and ultimately, a certain malice.
Since she did not have a body, she didn't have to fear the darkness, did she ?
But then,why did she feel pain ?
Ellyi felt something touching her. A hand. She felt it like it was small and huge at the same time, she felt the pain going away under it. But before she could thank her benefactor, the hand stirred her, and hit her, throwing her away at an incredible speed before...
She woke up sweating, crying in her bed. Her mother rushed to comfort the young girl.
The next day, her mother talked to her. She would always remember their conversation.
"I'm worried about you, you often wake up in the middle of the night, panicking and shouting like you're falling from a cliff.
-It's just a nightmare...
-The same nightmare, again ?
Her voice was barely an audible whisper. Her mother sighed, and resumed.
"You know it's just a nightmare, it just feels real because you give it too much attention. If something troubles you and you can't do anything about it, just forget about it. Treat it like it doesn't exist. In most cases, it will solve by itself. Do what you can. Train for what you can be able to do, and ignore the rest".
Even then, when she was only 12, she recognized those words as important. Since the biggest threat she could take care of were monsters, she would train to keep them away from the village, all while helping her mother trading with various merchants for basic necessity wares. Maybe she would become a good enough merchant to get people to help her after all.
However, when she came close to her 24th birthday, her mother left the village ,only leaving a strange metalic disk with a note reading "for you". In a first time, she decided to keep helping the villagers with their daily life, but after a few weeks, the village was attacked by a group of bandits who claimed to be associated with the infamous order Ilias Kreuz. In the midst of the battle, she ended up killing several bandits and scaring away the rest, yet she could not save every villagers, and most of the village ended up destroyed. The remaining people decided to move to Grand Noah, as she hoped she could use her fighting and bartering skills to help them settle easily. One night, she ended in a tavern to drown her despair, and ended up at a table who included three other persons.
They discussed all night. They had a lot in common.
All wanted a new life.
All wanted to travel.
All wanted to help others.
All felt alone in this world.
And all looked for a shoulder to rest on.
Ellyi finally woke up on her cart's seat, and after a few seconds, groaned, massaged her head toroughly during a few minutes, and slowly breathed out. There was nothing worse than waking from a nightmare to find yourself in another nightmare. You then start questionning if you are really awake. Maybe she could go back to Besi, her village if they had time.
The environment had changed during her nap. It was late in the afternoon, the convoy was now crossing a green plain, with only a few hills, trees and rock piles breakin the monotonous sight. There was still no signs of the village the convoy was supposed to reach in a few hours.
After a few minutes, Ellyi heard several rushed footsteps, and saw the remaining members of the Steel Walkers joining her. Set finally spoke :
"-We have a real problem this time.
-Centaurs. Eight, right after the next hill, and they're probably in the middle of the road."
Ellyi made a gesture to the caravan to keep going. It was useless to wait as long as they did not see the threat directly.
==Chapter 1 : Welcome to Noah ==
Once the group reached the top of the hill, they could fully confirm the problem : There was indeed a group of centaurs on the road a few hundred meters away, looking the way the caravan was coming, and they were armed. Ellyi could hear timid whispers in her back, and the caravan naturally stopped. She could imagine the panicking and even terrified looks of the people behind her. Kaela finally split the group's silence, announcing :
"Oooh, looks like this trip is finally going to be interesting.
-Kaerdron, they're only five, where are the three others ?
-Eeeeh, I can't see them now, but I would bet my pay they will come back right at the convoy when we're bogged down fighting those five.
-Do you really think they're here to fight ? Set asked while facing the rest of the group.
-Well, they're several, armored, and look a little organized, Kaerdron answered. It's not your average horny monster only looking around for a man to squeeze."
The group fell silent again, and Ellyi signaled the cart's driver to keep going down the valley. Serus whispered to the other members of the group.
"Guess we have to split up then. I'll go in front with Ellyi and Kaerdron. Set, ready your bow and stay on the last cart, keep your eyes open for any possible other groups. Kaela, protect him, unless instructed otherwise."
The other members of the group nodded, and prepared for what looked like an unavoidable fight. The tension aboard the convoy was increasing as they approached the pack of centaurs. They finally stopped when they were only 20 meters in front of the group. Still sitting on the cart, Ellyi put on her best smile, the one used for merchandising, before starting to talk.
"Greetings, we're travelers getting back to our village of San Noah after having visited and traded with the beautiful city of San Ilia."
The centaurs stood silent, before the one in the middle moved a little forward. Her face was concealed under a helmet, and she carried a spear in her hand. She then started to talk :
"I am Aena of the Centaur Village. We are looking for strong men to prevent the extinction of our specie. We ask all those who thinks themselves powerful enough to be our mate to come forward."
Whispers rose from the others carts, yet no one dared to move forward. After a few minutes, Ellyi resumed her talking still smiling.
"I see, we're sorry, but most of us aren't warriors, and the others are too old to be good partners."
Serus kept smiling, but cringed internally. As much as he did not wanted to be one of those centaur's mate, he would make Ellyi regret those words.
The centaur's chieftain stood silent for a few minutes. She then raised the spear she was holding, before announcing in a strong, even voice.
"In that case, bring us twenty mans if you want to pass us without trouble !
-I fear we may not accept your request", Ellyi answered, reaching for the small disk in her pocket.
The next second, Kaerdron and Serus came from each side of the convoy charging at the centaurs shouting a powerful war cry.
The centaurs were surprised for a second, and before they were able to react, one of them took a powerful horizontal swing from Serus's war hammer. The victim fell back and rolled a few time before barely getting up. Kaerdron started trading blows with another who was holding a large swords, and managed to cut her arms several times before one of the others came to rescue her ally.
Seeing her partners occupy the two other humans, Aena charged at the woman who was now standing on the cart, holding a small disk. However, before she could reach her, she felt something violently hit her helmet, stunning her and almost making it fall. As she was recovering from the blow, she saw the woman got off the cart and was slowly walking away from her, her back turned. Only then she could see what her opponent was holding.
The disk Ellyi was using now had its periphery covered with small, curved blades, giving it a diameter close to a meter. She was holding the curious weapon by one of the blade, but Aena could not see any blood coming from the hand used to hold the weapon.
Shouting another war cry, the centaur chieftain charged at Ellyi, who then turned back and used her momentum to throw her weapon horizontally with more strength. The centaur managed to barely dodge it, her behind grazed by the disk's blades. Seeing her throw being useless, Ellyi swore under her breath and rolled to dodge the centaur's spear.
Set shouted while pointing at three centaurs charging the rear part of the caravan. He readied his bow : A strong, solid hunting bow made from a unique branch coming from an if, rumored to be blessed by Ilias. His first shot ended slightly over one of the centaur's rear. He readied another arrow, while considering the distance between them and the centaurs. With the distance between them, he could still shot three times. His next shot ended up straight in one of the centaur's chest, cutting her immediately in her charge as she fell, the momentum causing her to roll. The other two started charging faster. He shot another arrow which passed close to one of the centaur's head to land in her rear, but it only slowed her down. The last one was now on him, and used the power of her charge to knock the car, making Set fall from his spot. He tumbled several time and lied, stunned on the ground, seeing the centaur's silhouette come closer. He could see her grinning, before almost singing :
"Guess who will have fun toniiiight ?
-Not the bad PONYYYYYY !"
Before she could react, the centaur felt someone jump on her rear, which was irritating enough, but she then felt several slash on her back. She kicked out several time to get rid of her assailant, but did not manage to get her off her back. It was only when the other centaur tried to attack her that Kaela finally jumped from her unfortunate mount, and rolled close to Set to protect him while facing the two centaurs, grinning.
Kaerdron kept blocking attack after attack from the two assailants, while trying to keep looking for any sign of distraction to attack. Those came quite frequently, as the centaurs were also worried by the other fight, and the giant mace sometime swung way to close to them. As one of them tried to back away to help her other ally, Kaerdron took the opportunity to launch a piercing attack straight to the side of the withdrawing one. His victim winced in pain as a gash appeared on her side. Serus could probably hold them both without any problem.
Aena smiled as she finally managed to corner that annoying and now defenseless woman close to a cart. As she rose her spear to give the finishing blow, she heard a whistling coming from behind. Turning around, she saw the bladed disc flying ,coming in her direction. She swatted it away with her spear, however, the disc's trajectory did not change in the way she expected, and ended up separating the tip of her spear before coming back in the hand of its owner. As she was still looking as the useless truncated pole of wood, stunned, her opponent got up, an almost predatory smile creeping up on her lips.
"Not what you expected ? Maybe you should reconsider your priorities."
Looking in the direction of her allies, and then in the other group who came to flank the convoy, Aena snarled before deciding to shout an order of full retreat. After a few seconds, the centaurs disengaged and left with their wounded, none of the mercenaries giving chase.
Ellyi slowly breathed out, and looked around her to see her companions coming her way. Set was limping, supported by Kaela, and Kaerdron was showing a few cuts over his arms, but none seemed seriously wounded. Serus took the fallen tip of the spear in his hand, and after examining during a few seconds with Kaerdron, he pensively declared :
"Mediocre quality iron, those monsters are not supplied by good blacksmiths, and certainly not by the Monster Lord ones.
-Well, it was not your usual random encounter, said Kaerdron. They fled west, maybe if I try tracking them, I can find where they come from.
-Forget it, let's keep those people safe until we reach the village, the faster the better.
-Yeah, it's already starting to get boring."
They got back to their respective position in the convoy before it started moving again. They still needed a few hours before they would reach San Noah.
The rest of the travel was an uneventful one before they finally started seeing their destination, the village of San Noah. It was a large hamlet counting a few hundred inhabitants atop of a cliff, only accessible through one narrow path. San Noah was referred to with various titles, ranging from "Ilias's last sanctuary before hell" to "The northernmost place in Noah where cowards, bigots and virgins accept to live". It was one of the only "pure humans" in the Noah region, and its position guaranteed safety against monsters, save for the occasional harpy who would be repelled by the village's militia.
"Well, time for a break"
Once the caravan was stopped inside the hamlet, Serus looked around, hoping this place would at least include something like an inn. He saw that Ellyi was negotiating with the caravan's leader, while Kaerdron was helping Kaela and Set with the still terrified people on the cart. He noticed that the latter was still limping from his fall. He started walking slowly toward the tavern, before being joined by threes of his companions.
"Shouldn't we assist Ellyi in her dealing ? started Set.
-Nah, said we didn't need to wait for her. Hey, this place at least has an inn, do you think they have red beer ?
-Hey, easy, Kaela, we're in an anti-monster village, most habitants actively worship Ilias, you will still have to sit near bigots, replied softly Kaerdron."
Kaela pouted while her partners softly laughed. Even Set sometimes thought his fellow believers were wet blanket when it came to the way of leading one's life.
As to prove Kaerdron's point, the first thing that greeted them when they entered the tavern was a large statue of Ilias at the center of the place. The building was almost full, and every weapons were placed in a way to get sure they were pointing away from the statue. Not commenting, they made their way to a table which could include a 5th person before commanding beers. Once served, Serus started talking : "I just noticed, during our little fight, no one tried to act against the centaurs.
-Well, maybe they were too terrified, maybe they're used at having guards protecting them."
Kaerdron slouched on his chair, stretching. "Besides, I prefer when they stay behind and don't end up getting in the way."
Serus silently nodded, looking blankly, before Set replied.
"They just tried to avoid the centaurs, as they made their intentions quite clear."
He took a sip from his drink. After a few minutes, Ellyi finally came in and made her way to their table.
"One thousand gold for the trip, tonight expenses taken care of, and an additional two hundred for escorting a merchant and his wares to Grand Noah tomorrow.
-Wait, we already start again tomorrow ?" questioned Kaela, before gulping down the content of her mug.
"Well, since the sun is setting and we intended to go to Grand Noah anyway, we can as well do a little money in the process. Unless you do want to spend even more time here, my dear ?"
Kaela pouted. She emptied another mug of beer before commanding more. Set repositioned himself on his chair before asking to Ellyi :
"And once in Grand Noah ?
-Free time for everyone, just remembers about passing by the headquarters every three days in case there would be a potential job.
-Heyy, heyy, I know, shince you've never been to Grand Noah before, I'll bring you to the colisheum and there we could fight and..."
Kaela's speech was getting heavy, before Ellyi interrupted her hurriedly.
"Woah, easy there, I don't think Set want to see THAT in his first visit of Grand Noah, all the way more if you're involved."
Kaela crossed her eyes thinking, before slurring :
"Oooh, I shee, it's becaushe you chink I can't put on a good show with thooose... while you on zee ojher hand..."
Ellyi was starting to blush, Serus leaned into Kaerdron's direction, before whispering in his ear.
"How many drink did she have ?
-It's her ninth.
-Well, in that case."
Serus and Kaerdron both rose at the precise moment Kaela started to jump across the table, her hand outstretched toward Ellyi who was trying to make herself as small as possible. Before her hands could reach her targets however, Kaerdron stopped her with a small strike in her front, and Serus grabbed her to put her in a sleeper's hold. All the while, she kept struggling and rambling about how she wanted to feel Ellyi's chest. The tavern fell silent once again, every other customers looking in the table's direction. Ellyi excused herself before going to her room, still red from the incident.
The next morning, the Steel Walkers all found each other outside as the sun was rising. Kaerdron looked at each of his teammates to analyze in which shape they were. Kaela was still massaging her head, suffering from a hangover, Serus looked happy to leave "this village of tight-ass bigots", Set was still puzzled about yesterday's events, and Ellyi was already discussing the road with the merchant. They left the security of the village behind as they started walking down the road to Grand Noah.
The travel was pretty calm, until Set asked a question to Kaerdron while the others were further in front.
"Is the coliseum any good ?"
Kaerdron looked confused for a second before sighing ,realizing where it was already going.
-Well, it's the most important coliseum in the world. Monsters and humans fight alike in the arena, but never to the death, and there are several competitions throughout time. The most important is the queen's cup, in a few months.
-The men who fight are probably quite powerful if they try to take on monsters."
Kaerdron cringed. "No, not really."
Set looked surprised, before his companion resumed. "You see, when a two man fight end, they each go away. When a monster-human fight and the monster win, which is almost always, she goes to the man to have sex with him. In the middle of the coliseum. With everyone watching."
Set breathed several time, before Kaerdron continued. "So, it's basically a rape show. And since it's going to be your next question anyway, I'll tell you about it. Kaela already asked Ellyi several time to participate, saying she could put quite a show with her chest. It's the biggest source of conflict between them."
They kept walking for a few minutes, before Kaerdron declared in a monotonous voice :
"Bandit ambush ahead, four of them, let's warn the others."
A few hours later, the merchant finally sighed, relieved by the sight of Grand Noah's outer walls. When the travelers from San Ilia arrived in San Noah, everyone nearly chanted the exploits of those brave soldiers, who heroically defended numerous fathers and sons against a marauding group of centaurs despite the fact that they were outnumbered. As such, he thought he could hire them for this trip, rather than ask the village's guards who were always moody about going to "a sinhole".
He was glad to have hired them when he got attacked by a few bandits who used the old "tree in the middle of the road" trick to ambush them. Those bandits made two mistakes, first they announced themselves before they attacked, and second, the tree they cut down was in a dryad's territory. The dryad arrived just after they defeated the bandits, but rather than attack her, the strongest of the mercenaries met her and made the cheesiest advance he could ever see in his life. After a few minutes of bargaining, the bandit chieftain was bound by the dryad for " nutrition", and the other ones ran away with their possessions now in the hand of the mercenaries.
At least his wares were still safe and intact.
"What do you mean you failed ?
-The mercenaries that accompanied the caravan were more powerful than expected, we barely got away without losing anyone.
-And you could not get any man ?
-They were prepared for our flanking assault."
Aena looked at her chieftain frown in displeasure. A mysterious informant told them that a barely guarded caravan containing dozens of men inexperienced in fighting was going from San Ilia to the village named San Noah. They were told they were free to do what they want with the men, but they had to join a certain "Black Alice" in her endeavor.
"Their messenger will come soon. We will see what they have to say in their defense. I will not join someone who thinks he can make a fool of me !"
==Chapter 2 : No rest for the walking ==
"Well, end of line. Oh, and welcome to Grand Noah by the way."
Set could barely believe his own eyes at the daily life of Grand Noah was unfolding before his very eyes. He was often described the "monsters and humans living together" and saw it once when he was young, but seeing it happens now... He could barely hear Kaela calling to him.
"Hey, when you're done daydreaming, maybe we'll show you where you could live." Kaela turned around, trying to look for something. "Where's..."
"Serus is the guy leaning on the wall making a five-tailed kitsune blush like she is on fire. I think he was really looking for a little company after a whole month, and since he see you and Ellyi as sisters..."
"Meh, what a fluffy tail chaser, anyway, let's go see Daniel at the headquarter."
Said headquarter was a inn doubling as a tavern called "The Wind Wheel", located near the arena, and who belonged to a man called Daniel. As such, the tavern was always nearly full, as it was known as a place where the famed champion Kyuba could spend her time out of her matches.
The inn part's rooms however fully belonged to the Steel Walkers after Daniel gave them as thanks for saving him from an unspeakable incident which involved "The champion, a dragon and more than five liters of bourbon." It did cut his profit, but he was sure to be safe when they were here.
"Sup Daniel, how ya doin ?
-Nothing new over here Kaela" He looked over to Set "A new recruit ?
-He accompanied us when we had to travel to Sabasa, and we decided to work together afterwards. Set, meet Daniel, Daniel, meet Set.
-Nice to meet you"
The two men exchanged a firm handshake over the counter.
"Where are the others ?
-Ellyi is busy merchandising some equipment we got from a bandit attack, and last time I saw him, Serus was trying to get it on with a Kitsune.
-Guess you can't keep that one out of a monster for long. Anyway, Set, if you want a free room, you're welcome in the last right down the hall, here is the key."
Once Set left the counter to check the room, Daniel asked away :
"A believer in Ilias, hu ? You really think he'll have it here, in Grand Noah ?
-Seems pretty open to me. Probably not the kind who'll look to have fun with locals, but he seems he can live with them without too much troubles.
-Heh, this kid doesn't know what he's missing."
Kaerdron stifled a laughter. "Anyway, the others should come soon."
Later, as the sun was setting, Ellyi arrived, her head hanging inside her hand, an expression of despair on her face, heavily sighing. "I need a drink. Why travelers who hold beliefs in Ilias can't understand the very concept of civilized monsters and savage humans ?
-He said the bandit who attacked us needed to be rescued from monsters, except he had a panic attack when the royal guards came to invite him to signal this directly to the queen.
-What an idiot."
A few hours later, as the last patrons finally left, the bar fell silent. The atmosphere gradually became heavier before Daniel finally asked :
"What are you going to do for the next few days ?
-I'm going to see a few fights in the arena and do some shoppin', and you ?
-Well, I have to study my spells and train. It's kinda hard to know if you are going in the good direction without someone experimented to tell you.
-You can still go to Gran..." Kaela took a sharp breath as Kaerdron pulled his strange sword from its hilt. "Never mind. And you Ellyi ?
-I will try to relax. You may not like having to deal with Ilias's worshipers, but sometimes, they downright scare me.
-You know, I always found it kinda weird that you could deal with kings that can put you in jail for the rest of your days or monsters that could tear you apart or transform you simply on a whim, and yet you still have difficulties with people simply because they believe in a god-like being of pure light and benevolence.
-Serus would have a word with you about the benevolence part. By the way, where is he ?
-In a kitsune's fluffy tails.
-Ok, I'm going to sleep then."
Daniel and Kaerdron looked at her walking away.
"She is not going any better ?
-I don't really know, she always had sleeping issues from what I could see, but I couldn't tell if it's going any better.
-Mfaybe fshe fjusft nfeed tfo lfearn tfo hafe fun."
Kaela came back, her mouth stuffed with bread and her hands loaded with various food.
"No, still not trying to convince her to fight in the coliseum."
She swallowed loudly.
"Aww, come on, you know you want to see those...
The girl put on a pair of puppy eyes while looking at her partners.
"Go. To. Sleep. Unless you want your main source of free alcoholic beverages to know...
-Fine I'm leaving don't tell him."
Kaela left, soon followed by Kaerdron, leaving Daniel grinning.
Like I don't know what happens when she is drunk with Ellyi."
The next morning, Serus arrived at the headquarter, a huge smile plastered on his face. As he entered the tavern, he could see Ellyi and Kaerdron discussing with a woman. It took him a few minutes to realize that the woman was actually the queen of Grand Noah disguised. He eventually decided to join the conversation, as Ellyi was talking.
"No, the bandits and the monsters we saw on our path from San Noah were not a problem. That's the marauding band of centaurs who attacked us on our way to the village which would be a problem.
-The centaur village would not dare make such a move. There may have been increasing frictions those last years, but it never got more impressive than a few monsters being a little more aggressive in their approach. It's far from the fully organized attack you described me."
The "noblewoman" took her breath before continuing.
"Since you have been confronted directly by the problem, I put you in charge of the problem. Try keeping the issue silent, we don't want to raise the growing hatred and mistrust between monsters and humans. Good luck."
The queen of Grand Noah left her seat, before Kaela and Set joined in.
"We won't have time to rest, I guess ?
-I wouldn't want to use favors, and I don't want the current tension to escalate further." Ellyi took a deep breath. "Anybody know where we could start ?"
Kaerdron began exposing, in his usual monotonous voice." The two best places to find information would be San Noah and hearing Centaur village's chieftain. That way, we will know how heavy the local population is suffering from the attacks, and we will have the word of the centaurs on the matter.
-Isn't there a risk the centaurs keep us if there is really a problem ?
-Hey, we've been chosen for a reason, Said Kaela while patting Set's back, they won't be able to keep us even if they try."
Serus laughed at the scene. "I'm sure those centaurs don't come from the village, their blacksmiths have high standards when they produce equipment.
-Anyway, if it's settled, let's not lose any more time."
A few hours later, they arrived in sight of the Centaur Village after a long research.
"I hope we'll have more information than in San Noah, the whole "always attacked by monsters" speech was getting pretty annoying and useless."
As they got closer to the village, Serus was the first to notice what was wrong :
"They look pretty busy, and they don't have the make kind of equipment compared to the ones that attacked us.
-Let's be careful, said Ellyi, five humans asking dangerous questions about centaurs in a village full of them can end badly.
-Good new, continued Kaerdron, even from afar it looks like most of them have mates."
A centaur guard noticed the group of intruders. While the location of the Village was not hidden, she was surprised to see a full group of humans including women coming here on their own accord. She warily approached the group of travelers.
"Welcome to Centaur Village, what do you want ?
-We're here on Noah's queen's behalf to inquire about troublemakers who try to sow discord between humans and monsters in her kingdom. We wonder if you had to deal with recent attacks.
-I see, if you will follow me, our chief will want to talk to you."
A few minutes later, as the group was in front of the centaur chieftain, Ellyi repeated her inquiries. The centaur chieftain simply responded :
"We know some monsters launched organized attacks against humans recently, but we don't know anything about them.
-Do you have any idea where they could come from.
-No, like I said, we don't know anything about those centaur attacks." While her tone was still neutral, the air became heavy. Ellyi estimated she better not overstay her welcome.
"I see, in that case, we apologize for the disturbance, and we'll leave to report the situation to the queen."
The mercenaries left the village without troubles. As they were a distance they judged far enough, Kaerdron began talking :
"Ok, I'm pretty sure they're not lying when they they're not behind the attacks. They don't even seem to have an interest attacking aggressively.
-I second that.
-But I am certain they do know more than what they told us. They know those attacks happen and they don't know want to deal with it too.
The others looked at Kaerdron as he emitted his statement.
"Simply put, you told them about troublemakers. Not monsters, even less centaurs, and yet, they directly told they were centaurs.
-Maybe they just got assumptions and issues with people from San Noah, Serus remarked.
-The latters wouldn't dare dealing with monsters in their territory, answered Set. I'm not even sure they know where the village is.
-So, in the most likely case, the attacks come from rogue centaurs that are also hostile to the village, finished Ellyi. What should we do now ?
The group looked around. Going back to San Noah to spend the night would be a possibility, but even Set was not fond off the locals. Grand Noah was way too far before night, and they did not want to try their luck at the centaur's village.
"I guess we'll have to set for a camp there, and we can as well train a little before going to sleep," said Kaela, as she pulled her two short sabers. "Anybody wanna spar ?"
Kaerdron woke up in the middle of the night. Looking around, he noticed his fellows were all asleep, Ellyi's groans informing him she still suffered from her usual nightmares. Getting up, he silently left the camp, and sat away as he started to focus. In his state of "double sight", he could see monsters and even humans from San Noah from afar. Most of them were asleep, and a few nocturnal ones were roaming without any appearing goal. Until...
"Troubles sleeping too, youngus ?
- I got a few things on my mind, with what we'll do next.
-Don't tell me the centaur attacks put that much a burden on your mind.
-I'm just surprised by the fact the situation seemed to have worsened since when we started working in Grand Noah.
-Don't tell me you think we're the one that sow troubles and create enemies."
Serus sat next to Kaerdron, before patting on his shoulder.
"Well, it's not just you who thinks the situation is worsening, but that's not since we started working. It's since the fall of Remina."
Kaerdron looked at his senior, who put on a sad smile has he was counting his usual story.
"It may have been because I was young at the time, but I have the feeling that human and monsters got along better when Remina was still standing. It was not a perfect place of peace, since even if monsters were friendly, they still had a great sex drive that they could not always contain. Living there was nice, if you enjoyed the idea of "surprise fun" when you took a wrong turn in the town."
The younger member of the duo snickered at the expression used, trying to imagine how Set would react to the situation.
"But a few months after I left, when I went back to Gold Port, I learned that Remina was attacked, and everyone there was slaughtered. Some people say the monsters there got sick of the humans, that the Monster Lord gave the order to kill humans. Other said it was an act of retaliation from humans for the rapes. And some fanatics even said it was an act, and I quote "of divine retribution from the goddess against the wicked monsters and the sinners who crossed with them."
Serus looked down, as he kept talking.
"It sounds as stupid as when I heard it.
-You know, even after all those years, you never told me honestly your opinion about it.
-What caused the massacre ? We saw that humans can hardly stand to more powerful monsters, and you're the first to know how powerful monster are on the northernmost continent. And you sound certain that the Monster Lord would not have ordered it.
-She knew monsters need humans, and this is still a matter of fact. I don't see where you're going with this reasoning.
-There's an adage that says "when you eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable it may be, is necessarily the truth."
A silence fell on the pair. After a few minutes, Kaerdron remarked :
"I'm not sure Set would like to hear this one.
-It's not like we'll have too much opportunity to talk about it, we still have to look for this group or rogue monsters. You didn't notice anything with this double sight of your by the way ?
-No, nothing worth noting. Maybe we could try looking more north, they could come from here too. There are several hiding places here, between Plansect village and Undine's spring. Maybe get more information from that village, Yamatai.
-Let's get some sleep then, we'll hit the road pretty hard tomorrow."
==Chapter 3 : Inquiries ==