Chapter 38 – Knights & Knaves

“Today’s been weirdly peaceful,” Noriko noted, up atop the motor carriage with Michael as they continued trundling down the roads of Luceneva, Charlie’s wheels rattling over the currently cobblestone paths.

Michael turned away from their vigil of the admittedly clear fields, glancing at her. “Hm?”

“We’ve just run into way fewer monsters today than yesterday. Like, two field giants, that swarm of jelloons, then that, eugh, slime ranch we accidentally set off–”

“I thought you never wanted to speak of that again?”

“Sh, this gal’s making a point. And her point is, it’s too quiet. Something’s going to happen.”

“Of course something is, especially now that you said it. Like some type of attack from…a giant shrubbie, or something.”

“Like a shrubbant?”

“That’s what they’re called?”

“This gal thinks so. Shrubbie’s the basic, shrubbets spit seeds, shrubbocks spit rocks–”

“We haven’t run into that type yet. Logical progression says they would come before the ‘shrubbant’.”

“Eh, not necessarily. Besides, shrubbocks stand out more because of their red leaves, so we’d notice–Oh, we’re stopping.”

They were. Charlie was slowing to a stop. “Anaya? What’s–Oh gods damn it all.”

Noriko gasped dramatically. “Mishi, you swore!”

And they ignored her entirely, not just because that was a stupid reflex and clearly a problem of being surrounded with far too many foul-mouthed types, but because there were two blasted knights standing in the road now. At a fork in the road, no less.

They looked like more rotund versions of the other demonic knights encountered thus far–plumed helms and capes included–with distinctly rounder yet no less bulky figures that vaguely reminded Michael of Gutter. As for colors, the one on the left was yellow while the one on the right was blue and the pair both held halberds and shields. The yellow knight seemed to be left-handed, in addition, based on how he was holding his weapon.  

“GREETINGS TRAVELERS!” announced the yellow one in a cheerful, booming voice.

“It’s nice to meet you,” the blue one greeted, sounding much more subdued. 

Meanwhile, Anaya poked her head out of the car again. “Okay, looks like there’s one for each of you.”

“…can you just ram them with the motor carriage?”

“I’m not hurting Charlie!”

Grumbling to themself, Michael began to aim at the knights, only for the yellow one to drop his halberd and raise his hand.

“H-HOLD, THIS IS NOT A BATTLE OF BRAWN, BUT A BATTLE OF WITS!” 

“To pass, you must succeed,” the blue one echoed in a softer tone. 

“Oooo, what kind of riddle?” Noriko asked, looking over Michael’s shoulder. 

“THANK YOU FOR ASKING! IF YOU WISH TO PASS, YOU MUST DISCOVER THE TRUTH. ONE PATH IS A TRAP, THE OTHER THE WAY FORWARD. ONE OF US SPEAKS THE TRUTH, THE OTHER LIES! YOU MAY ASK US-“

“You’re the truth speaker, the other is the liar,” Michael interrupted. 

“-ONE QUE-… E-Excuse me?”

Noriko blinked. “Eh? How do you already have the answer?” 

“Simple. If this is a riddle, then it only works if the yellow one is telling the truth because he’s explaining everything. And if he’s a liar then there’s no riddle, in which case we can just keep driving.” Michael gave the pair of knights an unimpressed look. “You’re supposed to have a third one explain the rules.”

“Th-That doesn’t factor into anything!” the yellow knight insisted, “One path is still trapped, so you can’t just pass forward! Knowing which one of us is telling the truth doesn’t matter!”

“Can’t we just ask you which path is trapped?” Noriko asked, “If you’re the truth teller, you have to tell us.”

“…That counts for your question, no more questions.”

“Shouldn’t we each get a question?” Anaya spoke up, “There’s three of us, so it’s only fair.”

“Sure. That counts for your question, no more questions from you.”

“Oh. You’re kind of an asshole, huh?”

The knight folded his arms over his chest. “I have no obligation to answer that.”

“Fine.” Michael hopped off the car and strode forward, walking up to the blue knight of the pair, who regarded them curiously. “May I throw you?”

“Eh? No.”

“Great. You’re the liar, so that means yes.” And Michael promptly grabbed the knight by the top of his breastplate and pitched him straight down the right hand path. The angel, their companions, and the other knight watched as the blue knight soared through the air, then crashed to the ground with a “splash” of stone and soil as a gigantic landshark erupted from the path and swallowed him whole, before receding down into the dirt. “There. That proves it.”

“…You realize lying doesn’t mean saying the exact opposite of what you mean, right?” The yellow one glanced down at them. “There’s lying by omission and using the truth to further a–”

Michael punched the second knight in the chest, sending him hurtling across the nearby field in a crunch of metal, before they glanced back at their group. “Problem solved.”

“…” Noriko and Anaya glanced at each other before Noriko gave them a thumb’s up. “Sounds good to me. Maybe we should check the other path too though?

“Why? I proved the right hand path was the trapped one.”

“Just being cautious. Better safe than sorry, right?”

Michael huffed. “We’re already safe.” They walked onto the left hand path, continuing down a ways before turning back. “See? The path’s entirely–”

Anaya sighed as Michael abruptly dropped into a pit that suddenly opened up underneath the angel. “Welp. Nori, don’t laugh.”

“Snrk-aw, c’mon Naya, it’s kinda funny.”

About a second later, Michael flew out of the pit, the annoyed scowl on their face not really hiding an obviously embarrassed blush. “Not a word–”

“HA! FOOL!” The yellow knight proclaimed, pointing dramatically at them, which may have been more effective if he wasn’t scuffed with grass stains and had his helmet dented in. “I WAS THE LIAR ALL ALONG! BOTH PATHS WERE TRAPPED!!”

“THAT’S NOT A LIE THOUGH! YOU’RE JUST TELLING THE TRUTH NOW!”

“I HAVE NO OBLIGATION TO FOLLOW THE RIDDLE NOW THAT IT’S OVER! BWAHAHA!” And he promptly vanished in a flash of smoke.

“Gh-! That absolute–!”

“You did kinda ruin the riddle,” Noriko chided, completely unreasonably as Michael glared at her.

“The riddle didn’t even count! He was lying about it!”

“Um, hey, real quick,” Anaya spoke up, “If both paths are fakes, then…where does this road lead?”

Michael paused, then scowled deeply and drifted down to the road before grabbing a cobblestone and lifting it, earning a squeal from the road toad they’d just found. “Uuugh, light above, of course…”

And that squeal got all the rest of the gathered road toads, forming the false road, to promptly start scattering, hopping off into the distance as Noriko grimaced and Anaya laughed, half-amused, half-exasperated. “Welp! Guess this path’s a bust. Huh, I wonder how far back they planned this? Also, Misha!”

“What?”

“Make a note! Road toads aren’t bothered by Charlie!”

“Mm. Noriko, make the note,” Michael said, before tossing the toad to Noriko. Who yelped and fumbled it completely, letting it drop to the ground where it quickly scampered off. “…Why?”

“Eugh–Th-This gal doesn’t like toads! She’s not a fan!”

“You’re a ninja.”

“What does that have to do with anything?! She never liked toads during training either! Or slugs! Snakes are kinda fine, mostly, but not the other two!”

“Don’t you have a snake tail now?” Anaya asked.

“This gal said she didn’t mind snakes as much! She just said that!”

“So you’d be fine with being part snake, but not part slug or toad?”

Judging by her visible shudder, she would not. “Let’s stop talking about this…and also figure out where we’re supposed to go now because the road’s gone.”

Michael frowned, glancing down at the now very obvious lack of actual road. Sure, there was a dirt path left by the road toads, but they were definitely far off the main road now. “We’ll have to turn back. And here I thought finding a cobblestone road meant we were getting closer to civilization…”

“Seems like that’s what the knights were banking on,” Anaya noted, “By the way, should we do something about the landshark?”

Letting out an irritated sigh, Michael walked over to the other trapped path. 

“Give me a moment.” 


“Here, I defeated this.” Michael said, dragging the landshark behind them as they walked into an adventurer guild. The Drummarch Adventurers’ Guild, to be specific, a rather large building in a decently-sized town that didn’t take too long to get to.

“O-Oh, congratulations on your hard work! May I see the request you took?” the bespectacled receptionist–a light-skinned woman with brown hair–behind the front desk asked, looking at the deceased monster, itself resembling a bull shark but with craggy yellow scales and a rocky fin that was digging a groove into the wood floor, drawing the eyes of the local adventurers hanging around.

“What? I didn’t take any. It was in the path we were taking so I defeated it.”

“Ah…” The receptionist adjusted her glasses, seeming sheepish. “Well my apologies, but unless you were given a mission to defeat a landshark, we cannot give you a reward.” 

“Aw, what? So we dragged this thing all the way for nothing?” Noriko asked, popping up from behind Michael. 

“I dragged it.” 

“Details.” 

“My apologies, you two are from Gorokiva and Zemava, yes?” At their nods, she continued. “Well, I’m not certain how things are handled in those countries, but unless there’s a blanket order on certain species of monsters, we cannot pay you for anything you bring in. Otherwise people looking for a quick coin would simply spend all their time in a dungeon defeating monsters there and then bringing them here.” 

“That makes sense. Though that aside we do have something else to bring up.” Anaya said as she gestured at the landshark. “The main reason we brought this here is how we encountered it. Specifically a demonic entity trapped the road we were taking, and while we cannot be certain, there is a chance other roads nearby may also be trapped.”

“Oh my, that does sound like an issue. Ah, one moment.” The receptionist hopped down from…So the receptionist was a halfling, which Michael hadn’t noticed, and she was standing on a stool behind the desk, which she’d just hopped down from. A second later, she was back up and smoothing down a report. “Just to check, do any of you know if this encounter may have anything to do with the reports of an archdemon unleashing a zombie horde over in Rikfield?”

“She’s a demon prince, not an archdemon,” Michael corrected, earning a startled stare from the halfling.

“Oh. Oh dear, that isn’t good at all, hm, we might need to put out a warning then, maybe even mark it as a Hero-level threat…” 

“Meaning?”

“Hm? Oh, yes, of course, you wouldn’t know, being foreign. It’s a simple classification system devised by the White Fur Guilds, we have pamphlets available if you would like.” She extended her hand with one such pamphlet–which Noriko immediately took–showing a chart marking “monster threat levels” with a little white deer declaring “know the dangers” in a speech bubble. “‘Rat’ is the lowest and refers to vermin like fleyes and slimes, then ‘wolf’, ‘tiger’, ‘yeti’, and ‘giant’ for each level of threat after that. ‘Hero’ just means we think the threat is above the level of even veteran adventurers and should be left to those destined hero types, you know the kind.”

“I’m aware of them.” Hm. Not especially helpful then. Though… “You mentioned blanket orders could be given?”

“By the nation’s monarch or a local lord of a given fief, yes.”

Ah, can’t make a request to hunt leviathans then. Actually, would that even be possible? They’re a sapient race, not monsters… “Those blanket orders couldn’t be used against a sapient species, could they?”

The receptionist stared at them with some visible alarm. “…That would be eidocide, miss. Aside from the moral implications and the potential damnation from the gods, the International Adventurers’ Guild Charter states that no guild can be party to the act of hunting a sapient people based on species or ethnicity, lest the Oathbinder of Antenoka strike us down.”

“The what? No, never mind. Good…whatever that is. Decision.”

“I think it’s a proviso,” Anaya offered.

“That then.” After a moment of silence, they raised the shark again. “Can I get rid of this here, yes or no?”

“Oh, um, you might be able to sell it at the market? Though would it go to the butcher’s or the fisher’s…?” she wondered, frowning in thought, before she shook it off, “That aside, to confirm, you’re not a licensed adventurer?”

“No.”

“Ah, then I’m sorry, but I do need you to turn over your weaponry.” What.

“What?”

The halfling seemed apologetic. “According to the Civilian Armament Decree, only those officially licensed by guilds or nobility may carry items defined as lethal weapons under the decree. This includes swords, maces, polearms, non-hunting bows, non-woodcutting axes–”

“Hold on, how do you even define some of those?” Anaya asked, “What counts for a ‘non-woodcutting axe’?”

“Any axe intended for warfare or executions, though throwing-hatchets are also restricted. Of course, you can bypass such issues by licensing at your local Lumber Guild–”

“Ah, hold on again, how many guilds are there? And do we need licenses from all of them?”

“Oh no, not at all, you just need a standard adventurer’s license, as offered by any local adventurers’ guild! Such as ours! It’s only a small fee too, about ten silver per person.” Ah. This is a scam.

Michael raised a hand, conjured a spear of solid flame, and laid it on top of the desk where it started to smoulder against the wood. “I am a paladin. I conjure my weaponry. I do not require a license.”

“Actually, you do.” What. “Thank you for being so open and honest though. I think we could probably knock two silver off of your licensing fee, considering how rare it is for conjurers to admit that they have such abilities. Most people try to be sneaky with it, which really does cause trouble for the Mages’ Guild.”

“That’s a thing?”

“Indeed! Though technically it has been subsumed by the greater ‘Adventurers’ Guild’ brand, much like most Fighters’ and Thieves’ Guilds. Though we are supposed to refer to them as ‘Stealth Specialists’ rather than ‘Thieves’ these days.”

Michael felt their eye starting to twitch.

“Here you go!” Which wasn’t helped by Noriko’s cheery declaration as she held out her own license. “Official to Gorokiva, but should count for international travel, right?”

“Oh yes, of course–Ah. Issued by the Sapphire Serpents, I see…”

“Why do you have that?” Michael muttered as the receptionist scrutinized the license.

“Why wouldn’t this gal? Anyways, is it good?”

“Mm, technically, yes, though since you are registered under the Blue Scales, we’re going to have to include a slight fine of ten gold to operate in our territory.”

“Woah, hey, that went up a full value!” Noriko protested, before pausing and glancing at Michael, “Ten gold is one hundred silver.”

“Right. And silver is the standard currency?”

“Yup. Anyway, that’s robbery!”

The receptionist shrugged. “Well it’s that or we ask you to turn over every weapon you have on you.”

“Can’t this gal just get a license with you!?” 

“You would need to terminate your contract with the Blue Scales first, which would come with its own fee, which would have the added cost of terminating a license from a different nation, which would, of course, fall upon you.” 

“Starting to think you were right about guilds, Mishi…” 

“I’m always right.” 

Anaya raised a hand, drawing attention back towards her. “I’m sorry but isn’t there something else we can do? We weren’t aware of these laws and only wanted to inform the guild about what we found.” 

“Ignorance of the law is not a permissible defense,” the receptionist answered. Not incorrectly, since laws were important, but also these laws were stupid and they were annoying Michael. “Unless you have a license or permission from a person of nobility, we cannot allow you to walk around with dangerous weapons. But, as I said, with a small fee of ten gold, and eighteen silver, counting the offered discount, as well as an exam for you two–” She gestured to Anaya and Michael. “–we can have your licenses ready in approximately five days’ time, provided no outstanding incidents occur.” 

“Wait, why do we have to wait five days? And why do we have to take an exam?”

“Well the exam is to measure your level of skill, as we cannot just hand out a license to everyone who can take out a shrubbant. That being said, as it is late in the day we cannot offer an exam today, and tomorrow we don’t have anyone available who can provide the exam. While we do have one for the day after, they must properly examine the results, and then we can send for your license, provided you pass that is.” Clapping her hands together, she smiled. “We can issue a temporary license after you pass the exam, but that only works in the area around the town.”

“…”

“Oh, and just for reference, while I’m sure you’ll be able to pass the physical and practical portions of the exam, I would recommend studying for the written portion. Aside from testing knowledge that would help adventurers out on the field, part of the exam involves your knowledge of the laws of the land, so that you don’t end up breaking them and cast us in a bad light.”

“We’re just touring,” Michael cut in.

“And? You still need to obey the laws of our lands, and that includes signing up for a premium license. Well, if you want, but it does give you legal ability to use weapons above a certain classification–”

“Okay but this gal’s a princess, so can we skip that part?” Noriko asked.

“Firstly, do you have proof of your royal status?” The receptionist watched as Noriko fished around inside her clothes for a moment before the human handed a printed seal over to the halfling, who took out a magnifying glass and started studying it. “Hmm, hmm…yes, I suppose this does look legitimate, though I’ll have to cross-reference this seal.

She then reached beneath the desk, brought up a large book that made an audible *thump* when she set it down, and started flipping through it. “Let’s see, royal seals, royal seals, not ducal…mh hm hm, ah, Akaboshi, Ishibashi, Tsubakimoto…ah, Imperial Seal, there we are, that does check out!” 

She handed the seal back, smiling as Noriko let out a relieved sigh. “Great! Can we get going then?”

“Oh, no, sorry, you have to be Lucenevan royalty to count for an exemption. The Gororan Imperial Family hasn’t paid for the exemption so you still need to go through the standard process.” The receptionist paused, tapping her chin in thought as Noriko gaped. “In fact, you might not be eligible for that exemption to begin with, since it’s meant to be a ‘royal’ exemption, and you would technically be imperialty rather than royalty.”

“That–There’s a difference???”

“Oh yes, I can show you if you want, I just need to find the legal status book–”

“What if we just leave?” Michael interrupted.

“Well you’ll either need to allow your weapons to be confiscated or put such dangerous items in a secure storage for transportation, unlockable for a fee at any legitimate White Fur Guild Hall.”

“…What if we just leave?”

“Oh, you mean fully leaving without paying? We’ll set a bounty. In fact, one moment.” She ducked down again, then returned with a camera, promptly taking a picture of all three of them, then three more of each individually. “There we are. Thank you for your courtesy.”

Realistically speaking, there weren’t any bounty hunters that could possibly pose a threat to Michael–They paused as Anaya poked them in the side. “What?”

“No becoming a criminal.”

“I wouldn’t! Ever!” Wait, no. “Aside from that one time. Look, just–” They dropped some diamonds on the desk. “–have these.”

“Oh, hm. Well, diamonds aren’t exactly valid forms of payment–”

“WHY NOT!?”

“Miss, please don’t yell, you’re disturbing the other adventurers.”

“I am a c–a paladin of Zemava, not an adventurer! I just want to leave. Take the diamonds and let us leave.

“Oh you can leave at any time, we’ll just–”

“Without bounties! That shouldn’t need to be said!”

“There’s no need to be testy, Miss. And, just to check, would you happen to be a Paladin of the Order Centola?”

“If I answer yes, do I get to leave faster?”

“Well you do seem like the type, what with the aggression and the red hair–” I’m going to burn this building to the ground. “–so you might also be applicable for previously mentioned fees–”

Michael’s hands erupted with flame on reflex, earning a raised eyebrow from the receptionist, who wasn’t even pretending to be sorry by that point.

“Mm, definitely a Centola then. Do avoid violence in our establishment, please, or I will have to ask security to remove you from the premises.” 

“Security?” Noriko asked, sounding curious as Anaya started rubbing circles in Michael’s back, trying to calm them down.

The receptionist clapped her hands and a pair of very, very large men in tight white jerkins and metal wolf masks popped up from behind the desk. “Prospective adventurers, this is Boris and Konstantin. They’ll be dealing with you if you cause any problems in our establishment.”

“Woah. Big guys.” Noriko definitely should not have sounded admiring when she said that. “Where were you even hiding…all that?”

“Noriko, don’t ogle the goliaths,” Michael muttered, before noticing Anaya was staring too. “…Anaya.”

“…Huh? Oh, uh, yeah, don’t stare, it’s rude.”

“Now then, I believe we should get back to the process, and my first question in regards to that is, simply, how many more diamonds do you happen to be carrying?” It was then that Michael decided not only was this receptionist clearly a demon of greed in disguise–even if attempting to check just showed them an unfortunately mortal soul–but that the entire Adventuring Guild system was a blight on society.

Unfortunately, it was a blight with legal backing, so their stupid excursion took another hour to get through. “Noriko, please tell me you’re bringing those pamphlets to burn.”

“What? No, these are neat. Even if they are full of stupid legal stuff, it’s fun to see how they classify monsters,” the human argued, already in the middle of reading some type of guidebook.

“You had to buy that.”

“With your money, yes, so it was a good investment for this gal.”

“Heh, think you could enjoy your investment later?” Anaya asked, her arms full of a stack of papers, “I’ll have to fill these out by the time we reach the next town with a White Fur guild hall or they’ll break my knees. Well, knee…hm, actually, think I could get them to just break the wooden one? It’d be more convenient.”

“They’re not going to break your knees,” Michael retorted, pushing their way back through the guild hall’s front doors, landshark still in hand.

“Nope nope, says right here, in the fine text, ‘in the event of a failure to deliver the proper documents, the White Fur Adventurers’ Guild reserves the right to–’”

“GREETINGS AGAIN, OUR FAIR FOES!” Light above, why have you forsaken me?

Michael tried not to sigh at the sight of the yellow knight pointing at them in front of the town’s fountain, though they did frown at the sight of the blue one. “Why are you here!? You were eaten by this!” 

They hoisted the landshark for emphasis, earning an audible “ew” from the yellow knight. “Eesh, you kept that? Weirdo.”

“I got better,” the blue knight responded, ignoring their partner’s reply, though he did turn to watch as Michael beaned said partner in the head with the shark carcass in question, sending the knight crashing into the fountain. “Oh, dang. You okay, Pine?”

The yellow knight–Pine, apparently–responded with an immediate thumb’s up beneath the shark carcass, though he did seem to have some difficulty getting it off of him.

“Okay, Pine’s good. Ah, so, I guess I’m doing the thing now. Alright.” The blue knight clapped his hands. “Hi there. I’m Coco, my partner’s Pine, we’re demons possessing a pair of death knights, we work for her highness, Lady Thrillseeker, and we’re here to play a game with you ladies.” He glanced back at his partner. “Was that good?”

“A bit wordy, but good spirit!”

“Yay, nice. Okay, so–” The soft-voiced knight turned to meet Michael’s fist as it crashed into his face, though the angel blinked in some surprise to see the knight’s helmeted head to go flying completely off his shoulders, sailing across the town square and smacking into a cabbage cart, much the proprietor’s audible alarm. “Hm. Well that was rude.”

“Oh, okay, that didn’t happen last time,” Noriko muttered as Michael backed up slightly, not out of apprehension, but some confusion. It didn’t help when a pair of arms extended out from the interior of the chest plate and gripped the sides of the neck hole as a demon began to push its way up from inside. Its features squished and distorted in ways no creature with bones could as some type of wolf-headed fiend shoved its way up and out of the empty armor.

“Phew, that was tricky. Armor’s tricky,” the demon commented, adjusting his tie. Aside from the lack of helmet, the white-furred fiend was dressed near-identically to the demonic attendants Seeker had been flanked by. Albeit with a brown undershirt instead of orange or purple. And also he might not be a fiend, but more an imp? At least, he looked to be about dwarvish-sized–so between 4 to 5ft tall–making him a few inches shorter than Noriko–

Michael paused, then frowned at Noriko, who’d elbowed them. “Why?”

“This gal had a feeling about what you were thinking and she didn’t like it.”

“Hmph.” That aside, would he count for a fiend or an imp? Imps are more goblin sized, so maybe three feet, but he looks taller than that. Definitely shorter than the average human, but is height even a qualifier? Fiends are animal-headed demons–Or is that just specifically the goat-headed ones? Gabriel or Raphael would probably know better, but they weren’t there, so Michael was left wondering.

“Oh? Are we abandoning the armor?” said Pine, before his own helmet went flying, seemingly punched off as the second demon began to climb out of the suit of armor. Well, less climbed, and more like sprung out, before leaping fully out of the fountain with a handspring that brought him right down beside Coco. “Woo! Alright, that wasn’t too bad–Ah, dang, got my suit wet.”

Much like his companion, Pine was dressed in a black suit–that he was trying to shake free of water–albeit one with a black undershirt that stood out against the yellow fur of the cheetah-headed demon. A dog and a cat. Hm.

“They’re adorable!” Pausing in their examination, Michael turned to look at Anaya, whose eyes were far too sparkly as she tried to hold in a very bright and giddy smile. 

“…Anaya, they’re demons sent to kill us.” 

“But they’re so dapper looking!” She looks like she’s going to leap at them…

Noriko sighed. “This gal agrees but there’s a time and a place.”

“Thank you for the compliment, but we technically aren’t here to kill you!” Pine announced.

“Our boss would be quite angered if we took that honor from her,” Coco added. 

“Well, good thing I have no such reservations with you two,” Michael said, conjuring a spear of flame to put down the pair–

“Hey! You still don’t have permission to use that!”

Light. Please. Stop. The angel sighed and looked over their shoulder, a scowl immediately creeping up their face as they saw the receptionist at the guild hall’s door, flanked by her two goliath guards.

“…There are two demons threatening this town.” 

“Technically we’re only threatening you!” Pine said.

“Though that doesn’t mean the town will be unscathed,” Coco added.

“Be that as it may, you still don’t have your paperwork filled out,” the receptionist stated. And Michael felt a part of them just…no, no, they wouldn’t give in. The Cardinal of Fortitude was not going to lose to some stupid mortal rulings! “As such, the Drummarch Adventurers’ Guild, subsidiary of the White Furs, will be handling this matter.”

What.” Or these truly stupid mortals would decide to get involved, sure, why not?! 

The urge to just leave was growing stronger by the minute, not helped in the slightest as more of those stupid adventurers started gathering outside the guild hall like they were going to join in too. I should intervene. I’m an angel, and they’re mortals going up against demons. I should intervene here, no matter what type of nonsensical laws attempt to get in my–

And then a large hand patted them on the head before one of the goliaths gave them a thumbs up. “Do not worry, little lady! You have nothing to fear while we are here!”

“……..I see.” They nodded, and promptly walked over to a nearby bench to sit down, earning an amused huff from Anaya as she walked over to join them and a giggle from Noriko.

“Little lady~”

“You would be the littlest lady.” Unfortunately, it seemed Noriko was too bolstered, because she just poked them in the side instead of pouting. Not that she really could pout.

“No, that would be Geraldine over there,” Anaya said, pointing to the receptionist.

“You know her?”

“No, I just read her name tag.” She did indeed have one of those. Huh.

“Er, our fair foe? You’re supposed to be, you know, playing along?” Pine called out, “Don’t you want to save the day?”

“The adventurers are here for that, and so long as none of them are killed, I have no reason to rip your heads from your bodies,” Michael stated.

“Really now? So as long as we two do not lethally harm these fools, you will be willing to play along afterwards?”

Michael shrugged. At this point the adventurers had made it clear they weren’t to intervene, so why not? “Sure, fine.”

“Excellent!” The demon clapped his hands together before facing the gathered adventurers, who’d taken the time to get into various positions around the square with the twin goliaths leading, one holding an axe while the other had a hammer. “Then, if you interlopers would like to get things over with, hm?”

“If you insist, little demon,” rumbled the goliath that pat Michael earlier, striding forward with a confident swagger, axe in hand, “I will send you back home to Hell quick and–”

Then Pine’s hand slammed into his abdomen and the goliath went flying straight through the walls of the guild hall. From the sound of it, he actually got some distance.

“BORYA!” the other goliath yelled–Oh, that one was Boris, so this is Konstantin–before he charged, bringing his hammer up–Then pausing as he realized it’d been caught in Coco’s grip. Because Coco was now larger than him, long and lanky with massive, clawed hands and an elongated snout with six eyes stretching unpleasantly across his warped face. “Oh…this was a poor decision–”

The distorted demon agreed, judging by how its second hand gripped Konstantin by the head and slammed him bodily into the ground.

“Want some trail mix?” Bonnie offered, drawing Michael’s attention away as the other adventurers yelled and exclaimed and did all kinds of things. 

“Trail mix?”

“Yeah, dried foods you have on the trail.” She shook the small, wooden container for emphasis, showing the various nuts and such inside. “You’ve seen it before, right? This gal’s definitely snacked a few times.”

Probably. Michael was more focused on other matters, like attempting to raise their score in their competition. “Hm. Alright, if you’re offering.”

“Oh, that reminds me, I bought some candies in the last town we were in,” Anaya mentioned, fishing the candies in question out of her pack, “Let’s see…hey Misha, which would you prefer, lemon or cherry?”

“Tomato, obviously,” Noriko teased, poking at Michael’s shirt and earning a huff from the angel.

“I don’t like tomatoes that much.”

“Then why do you keep wearing those shirts, hm?”

“Because Anaya bought them for me. You should use gifts, it’s only right–”

“You sure~? Or is it just because Anaya bought it for you~?”

Michael frowned at the insinuation–and ignored how their face warmed slightly–as Anaya giggled. “Well sorry to say, I didn’t bring any tomato candies with me, those are back with Charlie.”

“Wait, those are real?”

“Well, they’re technically cherry tomatoes, but yeah.” Sliding over a bit, Anaya let an adventurer fly through where she’d been, before moving back over. 

“Hm, well as I said, I don’t like tomatoes, and I’ll take the lemons. Also, Noriko, if you gave me a gift, I’d use it.” 

“Really now? This gal seems to clearly remember you not wanting any of the plushies she got for you two.” 

“…Hm. I suppose you’re right. I was not a fan of the…faces the toys had.” 

“…the same one on your shirt?” 

Micahel paused, glancing at the red tomato printed across the chest of their green shirt. Which did, indeed, have a pair of staring eyes, much like the plushies. “I don’t have to stare at the face if it’s on a shirt I’m wearing.” 

“Hmph,” Noriko huffed, not accepting their reasonable explanation, “Well this gal hopes you’re ready, because she’s gonna get you a gift, and you better wear it, or else!”

“Fine, challenge accepted.”

“Gift giving isn’t a challenge!”

“Gift giving is the ultimate challenge,” Anaya commented.

“Fine! Gift receiving isn’t! It’s not like this gal’s gonna get you anything that bad–Wait, unless she could use this to get you into a bikini…” Noriko trailed off at Michael’s unamused stare. “…you didn’t hear that part!”

They were about to retort when Pine’s voice rang out. “Yoo hoo, fair foe and fellows! You have a promise to keep!” 

Michael looked over at the demon, idly noting the adventurers scattered across the town square in groaning or unconscious heaps, before pushing up from the bench and heading over to the pair, both of whom looked at least a bit scuffed from their encounter. So they could give at least some credit to the adventurers, maybe. 

“I didn’t promise anything, but I’ll abide by the terms of our agreement now and play whatever stupid game you came up with. If a CERTAIN SOMEONE IS OKAY WITH THAT?” they announced, looking back at Geraldine the receptionist.

The halfling slowly looked over her devastated forces, from the massive hole in the wall left by one of her bodyguards to the unfortunate randos left wherever they fell across the cobblestone, before slowly nodding. “The Drummarch Adventurers’ Guild is willing to consider expediting your application.”

“To consider?!

She shrugged. “Guild bylaws state–“

Michael elected to ignore the ridiculous halfling in favor of turning to the ridiculous demons–…who had set up a table in the time they were faced away.

“Step right up, step right up! Come on over to test your sight!” Pine declared, gesturing to the small table in front of him with five upturned bowls laid across it. Nothing to set them apart, aside from being simple ceramics. The demon lifted one, showing a marble underneath it. “See the marble? Follow the marble! Pick which bowl contains our prize and win the game!”

“…This is what you were so determined to have me do?”

“Of course!”

Michael pinched the bridge of their nose, feeling a headache coming on. Not helped by the groaning adventurers nearby. Distantly, they could hear Anaya asking Geraldine if she had permission to heal the adventurers in question, in a tone that implied she was going to do so anyway even if the halfling denied her. The halfling, for once, was smart enough to let her. “…fine. Fine! A shell game, sure.”

“Thimblerig if you want to be fancy, m’am!”

Michael stared at the cat-faced demon, somewhat hoping he’d stop being stupid if they just glared hard enough. No luck. “Why are there five instead of three?”

“More of a challenge, m’am!” He pronounced it almost like “mum”. What happened to ‘foe’? “That, and we had to reuse some assets that you didn’t wind up going for!”

“‘Reuse some’–No, never mind. Why didn’t you start with this?”

“Well you did begin with violence, what with the shark tossing and punching poor Coco’s head–well, helmet–straight off his shoulders.”

“It was pretty rude,” Coco opined, his suit torn from his earlier bulking up.

“To be fair to Mishi, you two are demons,” Noriko added as she walked on up, “And you tried to get them eaten by that shark.”

“Semantics!” Pine waved a hand dismissively. “It’s all in the past, we’re all friends here, and I even appreciate you returning our shark, even if it is less alive than previously, but it’s all fine, entirely fine!” A wide smile creeped up his face, baring sharpened teeth in a giddy grin. “Because we are going to play our game~! So, if you wouldn’t mind, shall we begin?”

“Fine.”

“Yeah, alright, let’s do it.”

The demon continued smiling at Michael and Noriko as his body began to stretch, his torso elongating upward as his head stretched to accommodate a pair of extra eyes–so two on the left and two on the right, total, and side by side no less–before a second pair of arms folded out from his back. “Then we’re agreed! Keep your eye on the prize now~!”

And his four hands promptly went down to the “shells”, shifting them all around each other over and over again until the ceramic seemed to blur. Michael tried to track the movements with their eyes, but they felt they’d already lost track of which bowl the marble even started under…

Then it stopped, and a decision had to be made.

“That one,” Michael stated, pointing at the shell second from the left.

“Then that is your choice.” Pine’s smile went wide as he popped the shell up–then Michael ducked a scythe swung for their head before jumping back as the red-and-black jester swinging the blade twisted around and drove it into the ground.

The pair of bells dangling from the lanky demon’s fool’s cap jingled as it looked up, its face a white theater mask portraying a furious face with ruby eyes narrowed in a glare and a scarlet mouth twisted down in a frown. It leaped from the table, using the scythe as a pole vault when Michael drove a flaming spear straight through its chest, piercing through whatever heart it had and causing it to burst into crimson confetti.

“What was that!?” Michael demanded, glaring at the remaining pair of demons.

“Your prize, m’am!” Pine said, still with a smile.

“Or your consequence,” Coco said, “You did sort of lose.”

“Very true! You did indeed pick the wrong shell! So a penalty unto you did befell!”

“Wow you really reached for that rhyme,” Noriko said, unimpressed.

“Well let’s see you try to do better, missy! But before you show us all your own terrible skills at poetry that could in no way come close to mine, would you like to play along too~?”

“Eh, sure, why not?”

“Noriko, a demon attacked me when I did it–”

“Yeah and you killed it easily, so this gal’s feeling confident.”

“Unwarranted confidence! I love it!” Pine declared, before quickly shuffling the remaining shells. Once they were sufficiently shuffled, he stepped back with another grin, gesturing to the assortment. 

“Ooookaaaaay…that one!” Noriko decided, pointing to the first shell on the right.

“Then that is your choice,” the demon intoned again before lifting the shell and letting a second jester–this one dressed in blue and green with its mask painted in an azure expression of sorrow–try to stab down at Noriko with a twin pair of sabers, only to be deflected by her katana.

“Aw, dangit, this gal lost too,” she grumbled, already ducking, dodging, and parrying several swipes and stabs by the upset fool.

Michael considered intervening, but Noriko seemed to be having more fun than actual trouble, so they looked back at the pair of demons. “Fine, we failed your stupid game. Leave now.”

“Not yet you didn’t!” Pine denied, “You have a third member to your party, so another try is quite available!”

“I’m not involving Anaya.”

“What about me?” Blasted elvish hearing… 

Michael glanced back at the approaching druid, who’d already helped about half the defeated adventurers back to their feet. “You don’t need to pick a shell, this game is stupid–”

“Then I pick this one,” she said, poking the middlemost remaining shell, “There, that moves things along, right?”

It did, technically, in that the shell went flying upwards as a third jester-demon popped up from the table, this one orange and yellow with a beaming, joyful face painted in the same shade as sunflowers. Which the jester conjured after a flourish of the wand in its hand, before it crouched to present a bouquet to Anaya.

“Oh, how sweet! Thank you–Aw, Misha!” The elf pouted as Michael quite reasonably took the bouquet from her, investigating it with a keen eye for any potential traps. At least up until it burst into a swarm of bees that tried to sting them. Which was a trap, so hey, the investigation was successful. “Oh. Well that’s rude.”

The joyful jester shrugged, like it wasn’t sure what Anaya expected from a demon. Michael agreed, but they had a bee swarm to deal with and they weren’t about to agree with a demon on principle. “You don’t want to keep these, do you?”

“…hm. Could we use bees on the road…Are they real bees or demon bees?”

Michael checked as the insects–the demonic insects–ineffectually tried to sting them. “They’re demon bees.”

“Ah, probably a bad idea then, we can’t let an invasive species get out into the wild.” 

Michael didn’t entirely know what that meant, but they did know they could easily set themself aflame and burn away every last insect in one go, before launching a spear of flame at the joyful jester. The stupid demon leapt over their head though, landing with a playful flourish and retaliating with a beam of lightning from its stupid wand. Pretty easily deflected though, and Michael lunged in to run the stupid demon through as it started laughing in a distorted voice, a high-pitched cackling that cut off when it bumped into Noriko by mistake and she cut its head straight off before ducking down so Michael could plunge their spear through the head of the blue jester.

“Woo! Nice teamwork!” Noriko declared as the pair of demons burst into yellow and blue confetti. She raised her hand up high, waiting expectantly, so Michael shrugged and gave her a high-five. She brightened up even more, so clearly that was the right decision.

“Your traps have been defeated,” Michael stated, frowning back at the remaining pair. Again.

“Ah ha, but have they?” Pine asked.

“Yes. They have. And all three of us played your stupid game, so leave.”

“Ah ha ha, but…ah…what if I told you…it was best four out of five–”

Michael slapped the remaining shells off of the table.

“…Okay, rude, but! Those count!”

The angel tried their best not to sigh as a fourth demon formed above the table. Of the bunch, it was probably the most out there, being some type of alraune-esque being with a pair of humanoid bodies extending up from a floating lotus blossom. The pair wore theater masks and one was clearly more masculine while the other was more feminine–with purple and pink bodies respectively–though they were either wearing something skintight or simply lacked defining features. 

They were also embracing in a way that definitely was not appropriate to show out in public, caressing one another as music filled the square.

“Where is that coming from…?” Noriko asked as she looked around for the source of the sound.

She wouldn’t get the answer though as the music came to an abrupt halt when the two bodies began to look around. The pair were still hand in hand, but despite their lack of faces, the demon was looking increasingly nervous as it noticed the confetti strewn around the square.

Michael watched the floating demon for a moment before looking back down towards Pine and Coco. “This is your last resort?” 

“…Well-“ And before Pine could continue the final demon abruptly sprouted a pair of long legs then turned and sprinted away, fully running through the town. Why they did that instead of floating, Michael wasn’t sure, but they were a bit impressed at how far the demon managed to get before they speared it with another lance of fire. “Hm. That wasn’t supposed to happen.”

“Again, that was your last resort?”

“They were supposed to be the big penalty prize. If you got them first, the other demons would have also been summoned and strengthened by them.” 

“And you didn’t plan for the possibility that demon could be summoned last?”

“To be fair, we didn’t think you’d be this bad at the game.” 

“To be fairer, they weren’t bad enough to get the worst prize from that start,” Coco added. 

“True, they were pretty mediocre-” There was a crunch as Michael punched Pine in the face, teeth flying free as the demon went soaring into the fountain again.

“Hm. Well, since it seems the game is over, and my co-host is sinking, I present you with your prize,” Coco said, gesturing at the table. 

“Feh, no prize is worth all this–” And upon looking down Michael immediately set the table ablaze.

“Woah! Careful there Misha!” Anaya exclaimed, frowning up at them, “Why did you set the table on fire?”

“That’s a public hazard!” the halfling receptionist called out, because apparently she was still there.

“You shut up!” Michael called back, before grabbing Anaya’s shoulder and steering her back towards the car, “It’s nothing, we should leave.”

“Hey, so can this gal get those cards–”

“Noriko!” they snapped, scowling back at their friend as she tried to chat with a literal demon.

“What? She’s already got a nice collection, and she did technically win at least one of those.”

“Yeah okay,” Coco replied, casually handing over the four demonic cards, “Stay tuned for the release of the full Knights & Knaves Devil’s Deck, as sponsored by the Woeful Workshop.”

“Sweet! Wait, tuned to what?”

“NORIKO!”

“This gal’s coming! Ah, so, pretty sure this gal should cut your–Oh. Hey Mishi! The demon vanished!”

Michael felt a headache coming on. Only slightly helped by Anaya patting them on the head.

“There there.”

“Mm.” Well, it wasn’t all bad. At least they destroyed the worst of the demonic artifacts before Anaya or Noriko could see it.

Or at least so they assumed until they actually got back to Charlie and found the damn thing in the front seat.

“…”

“…”

“Yeesh, you two could’ve waited–Oh wow.” 

Inside of the motor carriage was a pillow, one about Michael’s height, with an…image of Seeker on the front of it. And, from what Michael could see, there was also one on the back.

“So that’s the same lingerie she was wearing when she showed up for you, right?” Noriko asked as Michael walked straight over to the carriage, opened its door, yanked the pillow out and set it ablaze. Except the stupid thing didn’t burn, so they pitched it into the sky. “Woah, you have a good arm when you’re mad.”

Michael watched the pillow soar off into the distance, turned back to the carriage, and sighed as they saw the pillow was in the front seat again. “Of course…”

“Hm. Well it’s more tasteful than I would’ve expected,” Anaya said, considering the provocative pillow with a discerning eye, “More sensual than daring, though it’s definitely still teasing. Might look better with silks instead of lingerie though, something tastefully draped–”

“Anaya.”

“Just commenting. I’ll move her over to the passenger’s seat–”

“No. This thing is stupid, but there has to be some way to get rid of it.”

After half an hour of examination and attempts to get rid of the terrible pillow, Michael was starting to doubt their own claims.

“So drowning it definitely doesn’t work,” Anaya noted, studying the water-logged pillow as it rapidly dried to normal in the driver’s seat, having reformed there after Michael attempted to soak it–not drown it, it wasn’t alive–in the fountain.

The Cardinal of Fortitude, hands still dripping with water, just glared at the worthless cushion with delusions of grandeur that so deeply vexed them. “I hate this town.”

“Eh, it does have pretty decent snack food,” Noriko said, munching on a hash brown she’d obtained from a local store, “Sides, the paper this gal got said it’s just gonna keep following Mishi, so we might as well shove it in the trunk.”

“…Paper? What paper?” The human presented a small paper to the angel, who felt their frown deepen into a scowl as they read the blasted “user manual” handed to them. The one that stated the accursed pillow was literally cursed to attach itself and follow the winner of whatever inane contest it was offered as a prize in. And not only would the stupid thing follow wherever they went, it was entirely invincible until some escape clause was triggered that the card didn’t explain. “When did you get this?!”

“When Coco handed over this gal’s prizes. She’s pretty sure he just slipped it in with them. Still, it’s probably got something secret to it that could help–”

Michael had already set the card on fire. “…”

“…”

“…let’s just shove the pillow in the trunk.”

And so they did.

“Oh hey, the pillow’s stuffed with pictures too,” Anaya noted, picking one out and studying it curiously, “Okay so these are the more gratuitous ones–”

The pictures didn’t burn either. Michael tried.

Still, at last, they were ready to leave Drummarch. Up until Geraldine the receptionist decided to step out in front of their car.

“…” Michael pinched the bridge of their nose, then hopped down from Charlie’s roof and walked over to the halfling. “What?”

“You still need to complete your exam.”

“What.”

“Circumstances being what they are, I am allowed to expedite your application, but you still need to complete the–”

“Geraldine. A pair of demons defeated your entire guild. I defeated that pair of demons. My every interaction with you has been a courtesy.” They then deliberately performed the cardinal sin of interacting with a halfling and crouched down to be eye level with the absolute irritant. “I highly doubt any bounty hunter you send could harm me. Do so if you desire.”

The halfling’s eyes narrowed. “Do you understand who you’re messing with? The full force of the White Fur Adventurers’ Guild will crash down on–”

“Do it. They’ll break before I do.” They stood. “Now move out of the way.”

The receptionist had more words for them, but by then Michael had climbed into the passenger’s seat of the car and laid back against its surprisingly comfortable cushions, relaxing as they let Anaya decide whether to run down the halfling or not. 

She didn’t, mostly because Geraldine finally moved, fuming in impotent fury as the trio drove away.

“On the one hand, that’s probably going to be a pain later,” Anaya noted, “On the other, good job not losing your temper. That was a lot for a little side trip.”

“It was. No more small town adventures, please. Let’s just drive until we reach the capital.”

“No promises. We do keep running into things–”

“I will–No, I won’t burn the next small town if we have to deal with something annoying again…but I will decide to drop all subtlety and just fly us to Orindaco.”

“Where you’ll draw tons of attention and might get people to think the gods are blessing King Richard’s wedding.”

She was right, but Michael was still annoyed. They grumbled, settling back against the seat with a frown. Hm. Were the seats always this comfortable–? “The pillow’s behind me, isn’t it.”

“Yup.”

It was petty, but Michael did derive some satisfaction in pitching the stupid pillow out of the car, even if it did show up again seconds later.

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