Tisma Vlahos hadn’t really expected much from her return home. It was nice to see her kin again, but there wasn’t any sort of pressing need for it, just a casual get together. Hell, she’d had other things on her mind on the way over, what with her personally receiving an “early edition” of the newspaper sent from a friend at the Hotu Herald, which was all a very roundabout way of saying Queen Molgari wanted her to know a massive, countrywide criminal conspiracy was just uncovered.
And all that probably meant Tiz was going to be hired on to handle any corrupt assholes who decided they’d rather go down fighting than just get arrested. That, or track down folks who fled arrest, though there would probably be other adventurers, specialized trackers or something, hired for that type of job.
Point was, Tiz wasn’t expecting much, so learning Polly brought home a druid with her was more than a little baffling. Especially when she learned that the druid was also being escorted by a paladin of light from the Order Centola, who she really couldn’t say she was fond of.
Out of all the orders of Zemava, the Centolas were probably the best known through the whole continent, on account of the massive “adventurer’s guild” they sponsored, funded, and supplied, but that didn’t mean this “Misha” gal would necessarily be as much a jackass as the mercenaries under her order’s flag.
Then Tiz heard from a confused Myrto that “Misha” introduced herself as “Michael” and suddenly she felt a whole lot more worried, particularly since she arrived just before dinner time so there wasn’t any opportunity to corner whoever the hell it was acting friendly with her family.
But then she actually saw the odd redhead stumbling through conversations and trying her best to be polite, and it became fairly hard to reconcile the idea in her head of the arrogant, self-righteous cardinal that tried to kill one of her best friends twice over, and the awkward gal in front of her asking about religion, who looked surprisingly small in those oversized overalls.
So…Tiz decided to give her a chance.
After making sure the angel got to the guest house, Tiz turned around to head back to her family, only to be stopped by the druid, who was standing right behind her.
“…You’re a surprisin’ly quiet one, huh?”
“I can be. Sometimes it’s better to sit back and watch things happen.”
“Heh. Yeah, I get your meanin’.” Tiz huffed, grinning down at the short elf. “Sorry for not introducin’ myself earlier. I’m Tisma. And you’d be?”
“Anaya Greenfall, enjoying your hospitality.” Anaya curtsied with a smile, all cute and proper. And huh, that surname sounded familiar.
“Nice to meet you. Would you be related to Sylsa Greenfall, by any chance?”
“Oh, you know Syl? Yeah, she’s my grandniece.”
“Huh. You don’t seem that old.”
“Right. Well, uh…so, just to check, you know you are travelin’ with an angel, right?”
“Indeed I do. They’ve been interesting to travel with, though I’m not sure how much I should actually share…”
“Well now you’re makin’ me curious.”
Anaya’s smile turned teasing. “Well, if one of the great heroes of the Light Lands wants to know more about my journey, who am I to say no? Though, I do have one request.”
“Can I get an autograph?”
Tisma blinked. “Oh, uh, sure? Do you have-”
She blinked again as a notebook was probably presented to her by the beaming elf. “I figured a tour like this would be a good time to start up a little collection! After all, it’s not every day you meet people like heroes and royalty–Ah, I missed my chance to get one from Queen Molgari, damn it…”
“Ha! Consider that a reason to come on by again then.” Signing notebooks wasn’t unknown to Tiz–people tended to get all awestruck when she did things like smash a sandwyrm’s head into paste–so she wrote her name with a nice cursive flourish for the eager druid, before handing it to her. “Here you go. Hey, while you’re up, wanna grab some wine?”
“Oh? My my, a noble hero offering a holy woman alcohol? What is the world coming to~?”
Tiz snorted. “I’ll let you know when I figure that out.”
“Perhaps I can help while we drink and talk, hm?”
“Heh. Maybe you can.” So both of them grabbed some wine and got to talking. All of Tiz’s niblings were heading to bed, sent by their parents and such, so there was no real reason not to indulge a bit with the kids out of the way. “So, hope this isn’t too forward, but how’s it been between you and the cardinal there?”
“Hmmmm?” Anaya raised an eyebrow at Tiz, her wineskin at her mouth as she drank, before she set it down with a satisfied sigh. “Ahh, I see how it is~ You want to ply me with drink to loosen my lips, hm? Well, I can tell you right now that I’m perfectly willing to say Misha’s been a sweetheart so far. A little strange, a little intense, but nice overall.”
“…That’s uh…an interestin’ way to describe them. They haven’t given you trouble?”
“I wouldn’t say that, but a little trouble’s not a problem. They did root out some sort of conspiracy through their intensity, so I’m not going to say it’s a complete negative.” She huffed in amusement, swirling the wineskin around in her hand. “If I had my way back then, we probably would’ve been relaxing by the poolside, completely missing a brewing disaster.”
“Now hold on, you couldn’t’ve known anythin’ like that could’ve happened. Don’t go blamin’ yourself for anythin’.”
“Mm, it’s not really blaming, just admitting a possibility, I think. Anyways, Misha has been nice so far. A little obvious with their crush, but I’m not expecting anything from it.”
Tiz blinked. “…Crush? On you?”
“Hm? Oh, right, you just met them today.” That was technically true. Tiz hadn’t really met the angel that antagonized her friends back when that was going on. “Yes, Misha seems to be attracted to me. The blushes and little looks make it pretty obvious, but like I said, I don’t really expect anything. It’s like…picture a princess kept in a castle all her life suddenly meeting a free spirited adventurer. She might assume she’s in love with them, swept off her feet and into their strong arms, all that, but infatuation isn’t love. As she sees more of the world, gets more experiences, she’ll start to realize the dashing hero is an ordinary person with their own flaws, problems, and weird habits.
“Perfect doesn’t exist, and the first crush won’t always last. Take it from a woman in her three hundreds, infatuation doesn’t always become romantic love. Sometimes something platonic can work out better. Otherwise, you wind up with someone proposing the instant they meet who they think is the right person.”
“…” Tiz took a slow drink from her own wineskin, wondering if she should throw Jules overboard here, because yeah…And then there was Seth, that weirdo dragon who was still sending her letters…admittedly nice ones, but still. “I know at least two men lacking in a lot of impulse control that’d probably disagree with you.” Though there was Cyrus… “And one who has even less impulse control but would probably agree with you.”
“Pff-Well, it sounds like there’s certainly some stories there. Why don’t we move away from the topic of my guide and more towards those, hm?”
Tiz considered pushing the matter. It felt like there was more to all of this, something going on that she didn’t quite know yet…but it was a nice night, and Misha didn’t seem too bad…Fuck, she was getting soft. But, hey, she’d probably make a lasting friend if she let things go. Sides, she shouldn’t go spilling a secret like that without heeding the consequences. Especially with how she was pretty sure Polly still had all those little plush dolls of the cardinals she got when she was tiny.
She was willing to bet her sister even still slept with those dolls back at her monastery…and now the need to keep a secret was warring with her natural desire to embarrass her sister…eh, no need to make things too complicated, just yet. “Alright, let me preface this by sayin’ I’m sure you’ve got some knowledge of what happened with my friend Jules and the current Demon Lord.”
“Yes? The sudden romance between hero and vi-Wait, is he one of the people with poor impulse control that would disagree with me?”
“Got it in one. Alright, now, I heard this partially second hand, but it all started on a field over in Naloriva–”
All in all, it was a nice night. Tiz could afford to let things go for now.
Besides, whatever the angel was up to, Tiz could just send out some warning to her friends to keep their eyes out. As for the rest of it, she was honestly more concerned with what that leviathan was doing in her home country. It was rare to see one of their type so far inland, and even rarer to see them anywhere other than the southeast oceans by the Sun Lands, where they usually stirred up shit for ships that passed too near whatever they counted as their territory. Sure, there were still plenty tales of leviathans drifting around up in the cold, northern seas, but the “deeplanders” all sailors knew about stuck to their own area, in their own home country of some type, all while causing shit for “trespassers” that sailed their ships too close. They were xenophobic, but they weren’t–or at least shouldn’t be–active invaders.
Maybe, just maybe, this could be a single problem, just one northern gal coming down to run her own scam and getting caught by bad luck. But something in Tisma’s instincts screamed at her that that wasn’t the case. That there was something bigger going on, something more organized.
So just what in the hell could the deeplanders be up to in the Light Lands?
Borzla Duolmez mar Maemde, herald of the Endeepened Prophet, let out something halfway between a whine and a groan as she trudged after her fellow herald, who was supposed to be acting as a host and refuge to her. Not dragging her along on some stupid mission set up by someone who most definitely shouldn’t have even the slightest bit of authority over Borzla, and yet, here she was.
“Gods below, would you stop groaning?!” said host complained, earning another, more defiant, groan from Borzla, “Ugh, you’re seriously making me regret hosting you with all this whining.”
“I’m not whining, I’m groaning, and besides, I have a right to whine!” Borzla claimed as she shot a glare at her benefactor’s back, “I worked–”
“For two years on your big fancy hotel, yes yes, I remember, and now it’s in a lake and no one gives a shit.”
“…You’re the worst.”
“So you say to this wonderful madam who’s allowed you to mope and languish on her couch for days despite your miserable failures,” Kozloi shot back, still not looking. Not that Borzla really expected her too, but it was a little frustrating, being ignored.
Borzla’s fellow leviathan was certainly looking rougher than she was used to seeing. The Kozloi she knew–Kozloi Banguani mar Zyafol–was elegant, praised and admired for her exotic coloration and sleek, slender figure. Orange was a rare color for leviathans, and the shade coupled with her natural, speckled ivory skin had made her look like a living sun beneath the waves.
Now, she was, well, actually pretty built.
Sure, Kozloi had always been strong, but now her natural height seemed imposing in a very different way, aided by a rougher cast to her freckled face and narrow eyes, which shone a jade green through the lights of the street lamps. Her orange hair–shifted from her tendrils–was done up in a high ponytail with a yellow bow, and she wore a steel chestplate over a black shirt, lined with red, and black pants, covered by guards at the shins. Her sandals clacked against the ground, announcing her presence as surely as the round bell chiming from the cutlass at her hip. Add in the iron mask of a demon’s face hanging at her opposite side, and she looked like a proper ronin, which was good because that’s what she was going for.
Well, she would, if it weren’t for the badge affixed to her chestplate, signifying the noble she “belonged” to. It seemed that in the time since the two had last met, Kozloi had made quite the name for herself in this shallow land.
“I was recovering from my injuries, something you would have noticed if you actually stuck around.”
“You say that as if I don’t have a mission I’m accomplishing. Unless you expect me to fail like you?”
“Hey, it’s not my fault an angel wandered in! I was doing my job perfectly well, to the point that they didn’t even know what was going on until-” Borzla’s breath hitched as she flinched back, nearly stumbling in her own stupid sandals as a gash suddenly appeared in the street in front of her. Only the slight glint of steel as Kozloi calmly put away her cutlass gave any sign to what just happened.
“And yet you failed.” With an eerie smile, Kozloi finally looked over at her. Her pupils had narrowed back into their natural slits as she tilted her head, as though examining a foolish fish swimming too close. “By all means, I should have sent a message to the prophet about what occurred.”
“After all, you did such a wonderful job! Not only did you manage to get several officials within both Sollamava and Divica arrested, doubt against the Faith of Light has been quite thoroughly seeded. After all, if even the holiest of paladins can fall, who can be trusted?” Leaning in close, Borzla nearly fell over as Kozloi loomed over her. “Of course, if I’m bothered in the event I do send that letter, who knows what I may write.”
“…Y-You don’t have to go that far. You know the prophet might…if she thinks I really screwed up–”
Then the smile dropped into an annoyed scowl as Kozloi rolled her eyes and turned to keep walking. “Would you stop being craven for one second? Gods below, you’re ridiculous! Just because your mission didn’t go perfectly, you believe her holiness would even waste the effort of, what, giving you lashes?”
“Gh…i-it would be worse than that! Way worse!” Borzla shuddered to imagine. The Endeepened Prophet, hallowed be Her name, was the voice of the Lost Titan, the most holy being in all the world’s oceans, and to disappoint her was to incur the wrath of those deepest and darkest. Who often had very sharp teeth… “Th-The point is, I can’t just go back like this!”
“Why not? Sure, your nonsense plan of letting monsters loose on the Zemavans and driving them into war with the Sollamavans didn’t work exactly as expected, but your extensive record keeping did still work in our favor. The shallowfolk are now scrambling to root out the corruption they see, and caught fish struggle all the harder. A fish with silver scales often hides razor spines and all that.”
“Uuugh, but that’s not what I wanted! Even if this disrupts things, it’s not going to push the two nations into an all out war like carefully revealing the conspiracies to both sides would!”
“Oh, so that’s how it was going to work? Not bad, though clearly not well-planned enough. You left too many variables out in the world who knew of your base, and you see how that turned out.”
“L-Like you’re any better! You’re living an entire double life here!”
“Yes, and I’m being smart about it. The shallowfolk of this land hold romantic ideals, praising the wanderer, the adventurer, the hero who sets things right along their travels. Anyone can become a legend through sufficient deeds, and those who do earn the backing of those in power. Do you think a pirate becomes a privateer without having her name known? My ‘double life’ has garnered me both fame and infamy and both feed into one another. A bright light casts a deep shadow, but putting all your shadows in one place is a fantastic way to absolutely ruin yourself when someone inevitably brings a brighter light and unveils them all.
“By putting yourself on a pedestal, you guaranteed the first person to kick at its foundation would knock you down. The noble lady before you, on the other hand, has taken a great deal of time and effort in putting up her own support, so there is no one point of failure that could bring my plans crashing down. One pedestal can carry a treasure, but two pillars will hold a house.”
“You say that, but your plan seems riskier than mine.”
“It does carry some risk, yes, but one must always plan for risk, as well as for unexpected factors.” A rumbling sounded out nearby, stopping the disguised leviathans in their tracks as Kozloi gripped her cutlass. “Especially if said factors can be beneficial~.”
And as the ground before the leviathan burst apart as an earth snake rushed toward her, Borzla found herself ducking down with a panicked yelp, dodging the head of the monster as Kozloi wiped her cutlass clean.
“So tell me, Borzla, as someone who had run a rather successful business before, how do you feel about becoming a merchant again?”
“…eh?” Borzla blinked, glancing behind herself to look at the severed snake head lying in the street, then back at Kozloi, who was drawing a smaller blade from out of her sleeve and walking to the headless corpse of the enormous brown serpent, leaking black and violet blood against the bricks. “Uh…wait, you want me to take over the curse shop?”
“I do, but don’t call it that. Go for something more mystical, like the ‘curious shop of miracles and oddities’,” Kozloi instructed as she started to cut open the snake, its corpse settling on top of the solid street it had been slithering through only seconds ago, “Remember, we want to sound mysterious, or at least you should. Really, we should work on your dialect somewhat so you can understand the more formal nuances of thundertongue.”
“…is that what they call it?” she asked, finally standing from her perfectly reasonable crouch.
“The noble Gororan are quite attuned to the element of lightning and regard it as a key part of their faith, though you should take note of all the other gods they tend to keep. As to your position, you should commonly refer to yourself as ‘this humble merchant’, understand? You want to keep your profession clear, speak in a humble tone, you are a merchant selling a product, not a proud overseer of an operation.”
“Hmph. I’ve worked with clients before, I can be humble-”
“You’ve worked as a courtesan at most, and I doubt you could keep from showing that pride of yours for very long, particularly with so many lustful souls dancing to your rhythm. Your position has changed, so you need to adapt.”
“I can adapt! I’m perfectly adaptable!”
“So the humble merchant whines to the noble samurai. Just keep your position in mind and be subtle.” Kozloi stood, wiped her knife with a cloth, and walked to an increasingly nervous Borzla, who stumbled back as her fellow herald loomed over her, then yelped when she pinched her cheek and tugged.
“Nhhah auw ow ow ow-!”
“Remember, little fish, this magnanimous warrior is giving your pitiable self a chance,” Kozloi continued, smiling again, “She is being generous. So if the little fish tries to hop above her pond, tries to catch attention and adulation once more, then the little fish should remember all her fears of the deep, dark ocean, and the displeasure she wishes to escape.
Then the smile dropped again into another scowl. “Or, in the common vernacular, I am giving you an opportunity, Borzi. You get to run my shop, and do my business in spreading minute chaos across this shallow country. If you dare fuck it up for me, you won’t have to worry at all about what the Prophet might do to you. Do I make myself clear?”
“C-C-Chryshtal! I-I-Ish fh-fhine!” Kozloi let go and Borzla winced, rubbing at her sore cheek. “Nhh…th-that wasn’t necessary…”
“Wasn’t it? Now you’ll remember the lesson. Here.”
Borzla blinked at the knife being held out to her. “…uh…is this a test?”
“Of what? Do you think I should be worried about you holding a knife?” The sheer disdain in Kozloi’s voice at the idea of Borzla even possibly being a threat to her was…honestly kinda hurtful, in a weird way. “I suppose it could be a test of your stomach, if anything.”
“…” She looked at the knife. Then she looked at the snake’s corpse. “…oh. Oh no no, no way, what??”
“Monster organs sell well. They also make for decent ambience if you put them in jars.”
“…Can’t I just take the head?”
“No, that’s my trophy. I need it for the bounty.”
“…hhhh…ah…what about the, uh…you know? Couldn’t it do this?”
“I could, if you’d like~.”
Borzla just barely held in the shriek that wanted to burst out of her mouth as she whirled to the demon suddenly standing behind her who she was damn sure hadn’t been there a second ago! Or at least she really hoped it hadn’t been…
“Hello Cithdrun,” Kozloi greeted, unbothered by the sight of the demon in the black suit and platinum helm. It stood taller than both leviathans, but since they were both deliberately shorter at the moment, that didn’t actually mean much. Though, since plenty of devils could shapeshift, that didn’t really mean much either.
“My greetings, fair client. Are my further services required on this lovely night?”
Cithdrun turned to look at Borzla, who flinched as she realized she’d spoken. “But of course. Did you think these streets were naturally barren? My client preferred her business tonight to be done without undue witness because of her new companion.” The demon’s face was fully covered, but Borzla could still feel its smile. “Speaking of, I look forward to working with you, my new colleague.”
“…y-yeah, hi.” Borzla cleared her throat, then gave a short bow. “M-My greeting to you, oh devil of the Fourth Hell, honored subordinate of Lady Mordant, Goddess of Debt and Vengeance, daughter of Wealth and Ruin. I, a humble herald of the Deep, hope that our partnership shall bring us both good fortune.”
“My, how cute~ You didn’t tell me ‘Borzi’ would be this adorable,” Cithdrun purred.
“I didn’t expect it either. This certainly is a cuter side to you,” Kozloi agreed as Borzla blushed, trying to keep down a scowl. “Well, at least now I know you can be properly humble. Cith, here.”
She handed the knife to the devil–which earned a slight flinch of Borzla, if just because there was something inherently scary about a devil with a knife–then gestured towards the snake’s carcass. “Show Borzi how to harvest a monster’s organs properly. She’s squeamish.”
“W-Wait, I still have to do that??”
“You never convinced me otherwise. Just follow Cith’s lead, and maybe you won’t ruin everything again.”
And with that, Kozloi headed right past Borzla without letting her get in a word of protest, and even outright shoulder-checking her out of the way. Borzla wasn’t going to stand for that, of course, she was going to say something…but then Kozloi easily hoisted the huge snake head up and onto her shoulder and the words just sort of died in her throat.
“Well you heard the boss, junior.” Borzla jerked forward as a gloved hand suddenly slapped her back. “We have a job to do. Don’t worry though, I’m very good to my juniors~ I’ll even help you clean up after you get spattered with blood~ Oh, though don’t worry, I’m positive none of it will be yours. Tonight, at least~”
“…” Not for the first time, Borzla cursed the day that absolute idiot of an angel wandered into her hotel. No one could get that lucky, no one should be able to be that lucky, and a large part of her was convinced the angel was outright lying when they said they had no idea what was happening at the Salamander.
So as Borzla had to begin the deeply unpleasant task of harvesting monster parts, all under the watchful “eyes” of her new “senior”, she couldn’t help but wonder just what the hell that moron was up to.