Conversations Between Outsiders, Ch. 3 - Heart-to-Heart in a Frozen Wasteland And Epilogue - Empty Words and Fiery Indictments in the Thawing Woods

By billtremendous

 In the fall, just some time ago, the meadow had still been in full bloom. Thousands of white petaled meadow flowers would have acted as the blanket for the ground, mixing with millions of blades of healthy emerald grass. Now, with the arrival of winter, the land was suffocated by a cover of snow, crushing the flowers until they withered and died. It wasn’t long after, that the snow would serve as a mattress for even greater death, an overcast sky serving as a top cover.

 The armies of the kingdoms of man fought hard, but there was only so much that could be done against an army of infernal pikemen, and the tide of the walking dead. The forces of man had been sent back in a complete rout. It was every man for himself as opportunistic demons and those under their service sought to sacrifice and devour those unfortunate enough to be caught. The only salvaging quality of such a massacre was the crippling of the demonic host, which stemmed its advance into the land of man.

 The battlefield itself was littered with blood and destroyed war machines. Bodies of the mortal and diabolic were in the process either being raised to fight again (or devoured, depending on what got to it first) or dissipating into nothingness, their aether retreating to the abyss from whence they came. It was a veritable land of death, where only foolish but wily scavengers, or ferocious predators still roamed. The two appellations, however, were not mutually exclusive from one another.

 She slinked quietly through the battlefield, carefully but fearlessly darting between the shadows of the various wreckages scattered around the field. While the few remaining ghouls or the imps wouldn’t be of any consequence to one of her stature, she’d still prefer to not have to deal with their dribble if they saw her. Always “Who do you serve” this, “What do you need here” that. Not to mention that the last thing she wanted to deal with was announcing her presence to their leader, Thalbolga, a wretched fat lump of a demon.

 The man she was looking for, the prince, still had to be around here somewhere. His honor guard had to have died to a man for a reason, they’d never have left his side in battle for any reason, not even against suicidal odds. But she’d already checked the body pile, he wasn’t amongst them, and she’d already looked over the congregation of the raised dead. It meant he was either still alive, or…

 She pushed the thought from her head. She didn’t want to have to consider the possibility that the fool could be dead, or that Thalbolga had ignored the missive she’d sent. If that meathead Thalbolga had captured him, she’d have a hell of a time getting him out without giving her demonic influence away.

 Groaning in frustration, she perched herself atop the remains of a diabolic trebuchet, its ghastly crew having long abandoned it. She needed to calm herself down, to think on the situation. If he made it out, she’d hear about where he was later, but sitting still for so long waiting for news did not fill her with confidence. The High Lord would want to hear something productive…

 The roar of galloping hooves and bouncing wagon wheels broke the demoness, Miriel, from her rumination. It was a covered, mortal wagon, made of wood and being dragged by two draft horses of mundane origin through the field at a moderate trot. It’d be easy enough to dismiss it as a runaway wagon, but there clearly had to be someone driving the thing forward.

 What BUFFOON would be foolish enough to still be here when the battlefield so clearly belonged to the dead and the damned?!

 But maybe such a buffoon had more wits about him than she was giving him credit for…

 Miriel crept down the tower and quickly moved to get ahead of the wagon’s path. Along the way she worked on a suitable guise she could adopt to get close. An injured soldier would work, she’d seen enough of their armor to adopt an accurate recreation of it as well. There was the matter of a face to adopt, she could just take the face of any random man she’d seen before, and it could work. A broad chinned man with broad shoulders and short cut blonde hair would do fine. Just generic enough to not raise suspicion. Oh, but there was the matter of helmet! If she just showed up without a helmet…well, she could just hand wave it away as it got knocked off in the fighting. A head wound, however superficial yet visible, should sell it.

 Yes, she would be a soldier that got separated from his unit in the rout. That would work! And of course, she could wave off any trouble answering questions due to the head wound.

 She was ready!

 From behind a wreckage, she dashed out into the way of a wagon, waving her arms in faux desperation. “Ay!” She called out, taking on the Southern, Empire drawl. “Ay ‘old up! Wait up!” The wagon driver, clearly surprised by her sudden appearance, swerved to avoid trampling her beneath his horses’ hoofs. She was ready to chase after the wagon, prepared to force the man to stop with constant yelling and hollering, attention he clearly would not want. No such course of action was needed, thankfully, as the driver brought the wagon around and back towards her. The wagon driver stopped a short distance away from her and held the reins to the horses across his lap, occasionally tugging on them to keep the horses in line. The driver wore a shiny suit armor of the Theocracy, and wore a helmet with a chain coif that acted as a veil, concealing his face but leaving his eyes exposed; clearly gear of quality. The driver’s gaze was steely and almost unnerving, as if he were judging every move that she made.

 If he was a man of the church, then squeezing him for information was going to be more trouble than she initially anticipated. But with such armor, he also stood the best chance of getting the answers she needed…

 “You seem far from your regiment.” The driver spoke, his accent not one that Miriel could immediately recognize. It wasn’t Empire, and certainly not as refined a cadence as a Theocrat. She’d heard it before…but where?

 “Ach,” Miriel responded, needing to keep the disguise. “We were in a full ‘un rout, I tripped over a few things and wound up getting left behind. Been searchin’ fer a way to go between avoiding demons and the walkin’ dead.”

 “Lose your helmet?”

 “Yeah, damn, pitch fork wieldin’ devil knocked it off. Would’ve got me good if it weren’t fer it. Hey, mind if I hop on? Seem’s you’ve got your bearings about ye.” The wagon driver stared at her for a second, and cocked his head as he looked off elsewhere. Did he buy it? Was he about to tell her off?

 “No, no problem at all.” The driver answered. “Get in the back and I’ll get us going.” Miriel purposefully widened her eyes as if to show excitement at her supposed chance at salvation.

 “Ach, perfect! Gods bless ye.” She could see it play out already. She’d climb in the back, and the driver might give another glace to her before pushing the horses forward. From there, she could either jump him there, or she could wait for a quiet moment, either night fall or as soon when they left the battlefield. She’d make sure to get behind him, pinning him down with her tail acting as a knife’s edge for a deterrent. Then she could interrogate him at her leisure and figure out what he knew. He’d probably put up a fight, if she got sloppy somewhere, but provided he didn’t have any tricks up his sleeve and didn’t know better, she could just go for the long hunt.

 What she didn’t expect, however, was to board the wagon with the driver already inside, aiming a loaded crossbow at her.

 “W-wot’s this then?” She incredulously cried. “The hell’re ye thinking?!”

 “Cut the crap,” The driver gruffly retorted. “What kind of soldier would bother sticking around this shithole? Certainly you could be sneaking about, but that’d make you very damn lucky. Too lucky. Only way you’re still around and breathing is if you’re a demon yourself.”

 “Wha-” Miriel was taken aback. Who did he think he was to be accusing someone of something HE was guilty of?! “What do ye mean?! The same thing could go fer you! How do I know YOU ain’t a demon?!”

 “Because,” the driver paused, as if trying to find his words. “Because I’m the one holding you at crossbow point. I don’t have to explain shit.” The man’s vocabulary was gruff, much gruffer than anyone in the Theocracy, especially a soldier as decorated as he seemed. Where WAS that accent from? “Either way, I didn’t pick you up out of the goodness of my heart. If you are a soldier, drop your weapon and get out. And if you ain’t a soldier then I guess it narrows down who you are.”

 “Then, then if ye think I am a demon, wot makes ye think you’d win against me?! IF, I were a demon!” The driver shrugged. His gaze didn’t give any hints of worry.

 “I get by. If you ain’t got nothing to drop, get lost. Less you feel you can still talk your way out of this. You’re more than welcome to try.” The arrogance of this man! That he thinks he can dictate what she should or could do! That he has control over this situation?!

 “If, if ye don’t let me on, I’ll scream. That way we both got a problem.” The driver moved his finger to the crossbow’s trigger.

 “Go ahead. See what happens.” Why, the nerve! Miriel visibly let her façade of the desperate, injured soldier drop. Quietly, she let her tail regrow from the small of her back and crept it out and along the fabric cover on the outside of the wagon.

 “How DARE you,” She growled, making eye contact with the man. “You think you can just talk down to anyone you please? You aren’t in control here, human. If you beg for mercy and prostrate yourself before me, I might consider making your death quick for insulting one such as I.”

 “No, I don’t think I will, actually.”

 Ha! Directly into her trap! Focusing her power, she projected her willpower against the man, utilizing their eye contact as a bridge between them. “Then you will KNEEL before me.” The driver…

 …merely cocked his head in curiosity. He didn’t even break eye contact.

 “Did you just try to charm me?” The driver asked. Miriel fought back the urge to retreat from the defiant answer. Who was this man? Some strange, new kind of elite soldier of the Theocracy? Impossible, he was too crude for such a position. “You wouldn’t be the first to try that trick on me. It’s almost cute that that seems to be the catchall response to person problems for you people.” Cute? CUTE?!

 “You arrogant, theocratic dog!” Miriel furiously roared. If he wouldn’t be forced to kneel magically, then she would force him to kneel physically. She drew her tail back before thrusting its spear-like tip through the fabric and towards the driver, who was caught off guard by implement. Frustratingly, the tail was deflected by the man’s armor, hitting at an awkward angle and skewing harmlessly off. The man’s armor was clearly of quality, maybe even magical. It wouldn’t matter, if she dealt with it up close; with his hands full he was bound to be at a disadvantage. With a snarl, she charged forward bearing quickly shifting talons to attempt to gut the driver. Instead of stepping backwards, however, the driver instead charged forward, ramming his shoulder into Miriel’s chest, forcing her back with his weight. She was rapidly running out of options.

 She needed to run; she lost the element of surprise. Miriel brought her tail about again, hoping to either whip at the man’s exposed eyes or to distract him enough to make her escape. With a grunt, the man slapped away the tip as it tried to whip around for another strike, giving him the time he needed to aim and fire the crossbow. Miriel cried out as the bolt worked its way into her thigh, a searing pain spreading from the impact site through the rest of her leg. She dropped to her knee, her leg suddenly unable to support her weight. “How, DARE YOU!” She cried out in frustration. Before she could shout anything else, the man’s boot planted itself firmly into her face, smashing her nose in and forcing her out of the wagon.

 She fell into a heap outside, the impact sending a shock up her back and pulverizing her back. The driver was quick to follow her out, standing at the precipice of the wagon as Miriel gathered her wits. “Good try,” The driver commented, “but you should’ve walked when you had the chance.” The driver jumped down from the wagon and began walking to where Miriel lay sprawled on the ground. She tried to crawl away, but the man quickly stepped on the middle her outstretched tail, stopping her escape and sending a shock of pain running up to the base of her spine. The driver drew a sword from a scabbard on his waist, clearly preparing to deliver the coup de grace to her prone form.

 “Damn it, NO!” Miriel, desperate for an escape, quickly worked her tail back out of the wagon and freed itself from the fabric, before thrusting it directly at the man’s head. She saw the man’s eyes shift to his side, before he deftly turned and, with one deft swing, cleft the head of her tail off. She cried out, as the shock of the injury reached the rest of her body, only to have the driver put a boot down on her chest, pinning her and knocking her breath from her chest. She had decisively lost.

 She had nothing left. What could she even do? Screaming for attention would assuredly result in her death, and even if she survived it would bring embarrassment and humiliation that she would never live down. Then again, having someone rescue her was still better than spending an eternity back in the abyss.

 “You…” she snarled, at a loss for words. Even when the captain was bearing down on her she had something she could try and guilt him with. “You think that what you’re doing is for the greater good? You think killing me will make anything better? It won’t. There are many others just waiting to take my place.” The man shrugged

 “Maybe. I don’t really care either way.” Nothing to work with! What about that armor…a man of the Theocracy would surely care about godliness.

 “Oh, you don’t care, do you? You must be making the church and your Goddess very proud with that line of thinking.”

 “You could have walked away, you idiot. You could have walked away or talked, and I wouldn’t have cared less. It wasn’t my choice to get brought to this place, and it certainly wasn’t my choice to get drafted against my will either. I don’t give a shit that I was brought here for some, grander purpose, and never will. I’m content to carve out my own path in the world, one way or another.”

Wait a minute, brought here? If he meant this battlefield he’d only say getting drafted. Not to mention that there’s no way he’d fit in anywhere in the Theocracy! They’re drilled about duty since birth! No soldier would be complaining about being brought here if that were the case!

 But wait, that accent, that manner of speaking, it’s more like he doesn’t fit…anywhere. And carving his own path? She’s heard that before.

 No, it couldn’t be! Fate couldn’t be so cheeky as to let it happen again!

 “Either way, doesn’t matter now. I’m not going to let myself be known as someone to treat like a dog. Dealt with it with debt, dealt with it with the damn church,” The driver raised his sword, ready to swing it downwards, “no more.” Miriel had no other option, she just had to try!

 “…Lawrence?”

 The driver paused, holding his sword aloft. His eyes gave it away, he was in shock, but there was still a glint of suspicion about him. Was it truly? Nervously, Miriel did away with her disguise and returned to her true, womanly form. The disguise didn’t matter at this point; her true form might bear greater fruit.

 Her heart nearly skipped a beat when the driver, in a softer tone, softly asked, “…Miri?” Lawrence, realizing his folly, quickly got off her chest and dropped to a knee at her side. Closer now, she could see his mana more clearly through his eyes, the window to his soul. His mana was just as dull and small as ever.

“God, Miri, I’m so sorry!” He blustered out. “I didn’t know it was you! If you had just even talked for a bit I could’ve figured it out! God, what, what the hell do I even do with this…” He waved his hands about her person, in a clear panic of what to do.

He was genuinely concerned! It’d be adorable, if he hadn’t also just put a crossbow bolt in her. “God, Miri! What the hell are you even doing here? I thought you were a social predator!” Miri could only look back at him in shock at such a question.

“What am I doing here?! What are YOU doing here?” Miriel retorted. “I thought you had a bar to run! Don’t tell me they decided to draft a noncitizen in the Empire, and in THEOCRACY armor no less!”

“Look it’s a lot more complicated than, Graagh!” Lawrence looked about the area, wisely keeping watch for anything that might be seeing him. “Miri, I can’t stay here for long, I need to keep moving. How do I help fix you? I’m not an expert on demon physicality so you’re going to need to help me help you.” Great, now he supposes he can just fix her!

“Ergh, there’s nothing you can do to fix this Lawrence.” Miriel growled. “Besides that, I don’t,” Mirel tried to stand up on her own, determined to prove Lawrence wrong, “I don’t need ANYONE’S he- AH!” Miriel fell back down in a heap, her leg unable to support her. Even lying still, the pain throughout her leg was intense and pervasive, no matter how she kept it.

“Miri, drop the pride. You can’t even stand.”

“I’m fine! I’ll just find some, some desperate peasant to drain and I’ll be back to normal!”

“Yeah?” Lawrence questioned, putting away his sword. “And how long will you be dragging yourself through the snow to do that? Or will you be flying along on strength you probably don’t have?”

“I’ve strength enough. I wouldn’t be where I am if I just dropped dead at the stiffest sign of resistance, Lawrence.”

“Really? Is that why you refuse to regrow that tail of yours?” Lawrence picked up the detached tip of her tail, already dissipating away into nothingness like flakes of burning parchment (much like her lie). Damn him! He was as perceptive and wily as ever, catching her out like that. “Look, come here. I think I learned to do this right…” Without any consideration to her pride, Lawrence carefully scooped his hands beneath the demoness’ back and knees.

“Hey!” Miriel chided, “What do you think you’re doing?!”

“I’m taking you with me till I find something to help you out.”

“Over my dead body!” Lawrence, obviously not caring, began to stand up, lifting her body with him. “How dare you! Drop me this instant or so help me I will tear your throat out with my bare hands!”

“I bet you will.”

“I mean it! Why you’re making me so infuriated I could just!” Miriel kicked her legs out, trying to express her anger, but only succeeded in agitating her leg wound again. She hissed in pain as she instinctually scrunched her body closed.

“That’s what I thought.” Lawrence scoffed. As much as she hated to admit it, he was right. Though the wounds wouldn’t be enough to sign a death warrant, it still left her vulnerable to anything opportunistic enough to end her or, even worse, steal her essence for themselves. As it stood, she was at his mercy as much as anyone else’s.

Worse still was the humiliation. It was like a, a gapping hole in her chest. But wait, he’d gotten the better of her before. She knew what it felt like. She would feel more of it in her face, like a sour note from an instrument. She didn’t feel any of that here, none of the sourness, none of burning either. She just felt…hollow, with only a slight tightness in the cheeks. She was embarrassed, yet, strangely, didn’t care either.

“…You could at least help walk me to the wagon.” She deflected, searching for her pride. Lawrence gave a chuckle at the request.

“That’d be unbecoming of a lady, and of me to let her hobble like that, not to mention having to climb up too. I’ll let you choose your seat if it makes you feel any better.” With a huff, Miriel let the topic drop, feeling as though she was plummeting herself down the pit of being coddled. Pits knew that she hated having to pose as a princess on that one occasion, pretending to be so helpless…

Lawrence, keeping his word, eventually managed to hoist the demoness up and into the cart, giving her a better view of the interior without having to worry about being shot (again.) The inside was barren, with the exception of a chest, a random stool, a blanket on the ground of wagon, and many, many faded bloodstains on the wood. “What a mess. Strange. Could have sworn you gave me grief for draining a village.” Miriel pointed out, hoping for some form of amusement to distract her from the searing pain in her leg.

“First of all, that was in regard to succubi. Second, I found it like this.”

“Just as empty?”

“…Ok there was like ONE guy hiding in here. He wasn’t going to make it anyways; it was a dead wagon or something. Just pick a place to sit.” Well, a change in attitude. Whatever happened certainly hardened Lawrence up. Happy she had at least gotten one up on her fellow outsider, Miriel set about picking out which place to sit. The blanket, the cleanest thing in the wagon, seemed to offer the best space for her leg. She moved to set herself down on it before Lawrence stopped her.

“Ok,” Lawrence interrupted, stopping her. “Maybe not THAT option. That’s all the merchandise I’m going to try and sell.”

“What? Merchandise?” Lawrence took a moment to help her sit down on the chair, much to her chagrin, not even giving her the choice of where to sit (though she’d be lying if sitting didn’t feel better than standing.) He then moved over to the blanket to unveil what he was collecting. Beneath the sheet was a collection of weapons: various morning stars, maces, swords, and blades all in various of repair.

“I’m working on getting capital to start a trade wagon or something like that. Hopefully, I can manage to carve out a niche to at least have a decent time in this world. Was also hoping to find my army’s old encampment for something but I… kinda got lost. They kind of rushed me out before I could finish learning navigation. Also, no map so double whammy there.”

“But why? I thought you had an entire bar! You weren’t dumb enough to go against my advice were you?”

“What the- of course not! I don’t have it because of the, fucking-” Lawrence winced just before he could explain why he lost the bar. “Look. I have to get this thing moving to get out of here before things get too dark. I don’t know how well you demon types hear, but I’m also going to need you to stay quiet in case we run into anything. Fair?” Another fair point. Miriel nodded, the best option to get things moving without jumping to another topic. With a nod in response, Lawrence trudged to the front of the wagon and sat in the driver’s seat, before whipping the horses forward.

Though the drive was bumpy, Miriel forced herself to suffer in silence in the back of the wagon as Lawrence kept the wagon moving. She was simultaneously grateful for his assistance yet also furious that she’d been reduced to this.

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 Hours passed, and through the back of the wagon Miriel could see the journey she made with her more-than-responsible savior. The bumpiness of that wretched, white and red battlefield eventually gave away to a smooth road, which Lawrence immediately lead the horses onto. Soon, the rolling mounds of wreckage gave way to idyllic, if suspiciously quiet forests. If nothing else, Miriel was at least thankful for the relatively smoother road, at least compared to the field.

 It was strange, sitting and waiting like this. She’d always preferred to keep herself busy between various little projects; infiltrating various social occasions, keeping a tab on certain major social affairs, bouncing between various different engagements to keep a social web going wherever it was she visited. But sitting here in the wagon, waiting to either arrive somewhere or to get fixed, with Lawrence wordlessly sitting up on the driver’s seat it just felt so…surreal. She wasn’t working towards anything, she didn’t even have a destination or plan for what to do. Oh wait, there was still that matter with the prince.

 “Lawrence,” Miriel asked, breaking the ice and hoping that they were far away enough from the battlefield to talk, “whatever is it that you intend to do with those weapons?” She couldn’t delve into the prince matter immediately, she had to work into it.

 “Those things? Honestly no clue. I was thinking of refurbishing them somehow and then selling them off. War panic is a hell of a thing for trafficking weapons.”

 “Really now? That’s your plan? You’re going to be a scavenger and weapon merchant?”

 “Well, it’ll serve as capital to get me going.”

“That’s it then? Aren’t you…at all concerned about certain infernal invasions and the like? I imagine you’d have some stake in humanity’s survival and all that.”

“Oh please Miri,” Lawrence answered, “I’ve said it already but I could care less what happens, on a national scale anyways. Even then you say that as if they haven’t been able to keep them at bay before I got here for however long it’s been.” He was right there, she had to give him credit. For as long as she could remember, things between man, the infernal, and the undead have always been at an impasse at best, and a destructive draw for all involved at worst.

“True, but it’s always with heavy casualties-”

“And despite that they manage to rebuild just in time for the next wave to cross. I’ve done my research on the matter, and I’ve concluded that I really don’t care. Not that there’s much I can do anyways. If they can hold things for the last thousand years, then they can hold it for another sixty or however long it takes me to croak of old age. End of story.” Ever a free spirit, it seemed. Before she had the opportunity to pop the question about the prince, Lawrence suddenly hushed his voice down, muttering under his breath. “Wait, there’s someone ahead, he looks- wait, no way. No fucking way. It can’t be.” Lawrence brought the wagon to an abrupt halt, nearly throwing Miriel out of her seat.

“What? What?” Miriel whispered back.

“Follow my lead. HEY! FATHER!” Lawrence suddenly shouted out. From outside of the wagon there was a voice, an older one, one bearing a Theocratic refinement to it.

“Ah, Oh! Good son Lawrence! My word, bless the Goddess for this fortuitous reunion! How ever did you manage to escape the slaughter?”

“I could ask the same for you,” Lawrence deflected. Must have not wanted to talk about it. “I assume it has to do with that HOLY VIRTUE of yours huh?”

“Yes…? I’ve no clue why you said that aloud but yes, my prayers kept me safe from those devils. Is something the matter?”

“Just making sure your strengths are still all well and good! Tis good to know how strong you are against the infernal, good Father!” Ah, there it was.

“I must say Lawrence, you seem to be in an awful jovial mood! Why, it used to be that you’d visibly darken whenever I talked to you but you’re absolutely beaming!”

“Ach, well, I used to. That sordid business is nothing compared to what I’ve experienced in that bloodbath though. Why I dare say that my faith has been sparked anew in the duty that I’ve been selected for!” The father, tried to give another praise to that, but Lawrence was quick to speak over him. “Father! You ought to climb in the back, I’m moving away from this horrid place to regroup with whatever yet remains elsewhere.”

“Yes, yes, of course! The road will be more easily traveled upon wagon, let us go forth!”

Dastardly Lawrence, very dastardly. Content to let her prey come to her directly, Miriel tenderly (as tenderly as she could, with consideration to her leg) moved herself closer towards the back end of the wagon. If Lawrence’s warning held any water, then that priest would be able to repel her and she’d never be able to get close enough to drain him. She didn’t have the strength to freely shift forms with her wounds, so a disguise was automatically out of the question. But if she took him by surprise by grabbing him as he boarded the back and tore out his throat before he could start reciting lines from that book of his…

Yes, this could work. Lawrence had managed to plan the perfect ambush for an easy meal. If she did this right, she could devour the priest and dump out of the wagon within seconds. Positioned behind the fabric, she was prepared to hoist up her upcoming victim to their death.

“Yes hop right on board Father!” Lawrence encouraged the priest. “I tell you we’ll be back home before you know it and waitwhyAREYOUCLIMBINGUPHERE?!” Curses! Even now Miriel could hear the struggle up at the driver’s seat of someone trying to climb up onto the driver’s seat.

“Why, I want to sit up in front with you, good son Lawrence!” The priest replied. “It’s only right as your spiritual trainer that I be by your side on this journey.” The priest, an older looking man with greying hair, sat by Lawrence in the driver’s seat, and in short order, looked into the back. The absolute, worst-case scenario. “By the Goddess! Lawrence!” The old priest started shaking Lawrence by the shoulder.

“Gah, what, what?” Lawrence asked. He looked into the back, facing Miriel and his face quickly dropped to shock, worry, and surprise. “Wha- Oh! Je- uh Goddess! When’d she get there?!” Damn it Lawrence! You opportunist! With no other option Miriel attempted to throw herself to the front of the wagon, anything to try to strike at the priest before he could present that cursed icon of his! No luck, her leg quickly gave out and she fell to the floor of the wagon, and her tail was still thoroughly defanged, and useless as ever.

The natural path of things occurred, the priest presented his symbol and spoke a repelling word of power, forcing Miriel to shield herself with her arms from the radiance before her. She crawled backwards, trying to reach the back exit of the wagon as the priest dismounted the driver’s seat and moved into the back with her. “Lawrence! To me! We must exorcise this demon! Now! While she’s weakened!”

“I mean, uh, I- yeah! Absolutely Father! Just let me, get this uh, thing here…” The priest was slowly bearing down on Miriel, who slowly kept crawling backwards.

She really hoped that she wouldn’t have to fall out of the cart for a second time today.

“Goddess protect us,” the priest chanted, “for while we walk amongst the dead, we shall be protected within and witho- URK!” All at once, the radiance was snuffed out, Lawrence had a hand over the priest’s mouth, and another at his back, likely with what had to be a knife. The priest reached up to dislodge whatever was in his back, to no avail as Lawrence slapped his hand away, keeping him restrained. Miriel moved to take advantage of the situation, slowly dragging herself back up to stand as the priest struggled in Lawrence’s grasp. It wasn’t long before she had sank her fangs into the old man’s neck and began to suck the priest’s bright, vibrant soul, which quickly worked its way up from his chest and to Miriel’s maw.

When it finally touched her lips, Miriel felt that same overwhelming sense of euphoria that could only come from a faithful soul. A life such as this was an utter treat that only came rarely. Just from a mere shard of it, Miriel could feel the wound in her leg healing, the crossbow bolt gyrating painlessly in her wound before being forcefully ejected from her body. The pain washed away from her like a wave, eventually working its way to the end of her tail where a brand new tailhead erupted from the stump with a spray of blood; good as new and ready to kill.

As the priest’s soul was drained from him, Lawrence leaned into the old man’s free ear, and growled, “This is for taking my bar, you son of a bitch.” From those last muttered words, it was only seconds later that the priest was dead, devoid of the spirit that pervaded his body. Seconds after that, his body was dumped unceremoniously out the back, and the wagon was once again on its way.

“Feeling better?” Lawrence asked from his driver seat.

“Yes, as best as I’ve ever been.” Miriel responded. Her chest still thumped with the false vestiges of a good life stolen, she’d be fine for quite a while. Only, now there was the dual fury of being forced to endure a bumpy wagon with a crossbow wound…and of that bothersome ordeal with the prince. She moved through the wagon and joined Lawrence in the front seat, forgoing any disguise to better express her up and coming anger at him. “Though I believe I’d feel slightly better if I didn’t have a blasted CROSSBOW BOLT in my leg in the first place!” Lawrence threw his hands up in frustration from the renewed hostility.

“Gee, I’m sorry Miri! I guess I was just SUPPOSED to know that that was you that was trying to sneak up on me, and not some OTHER demonic FUCK that-” Lawrence reeled his excitement back, physically recoiling as he worked to calm himself down. “Miri, it’s obvious to me that we’ve both had somewhat of an eventful day. I’m going to quit talking for now, and focus on trying to find a place to stay for the night before it gets to be freezing out. Hopefully, by the time I find something we can both, just, chill the FUCK out. Because my heart is beating a mile a fucking minute.” He looked over, his frustrated glare meeting her own. “Deal?”

“Deal.” Miriel concurred. Lawrence turned back to the road as the demoness was essentially left to her own thoughts again, arms crossed over one another in a pouty display. He did have a point with being a bit high strung. Escaping from a massacre, let alone getting revenge on someone in such a gruesome way, did tend to have the excitement of getting someone worked up. Maybe she was being too hard on him.

A minute of silence passed between the two, with not a word said.

“…Man kinda crazy I had to kill my dad.” Lawrence idly recounted.

“What?” Miriel replied, taken off guard.

“My dad. Y’know, my father.”

“Your…father.”

“Well. The Father. I mean.” Lawrence looked over to his companion again. “Y’know because he’s the only father I’ve ever known in…this…world I mean.”

“…hm.”

“Yeah, it, sounded funnier in my head.” He turned back to the road, diverting his attention away from the conversational equivalent to dumping a dead rat on the table. “Was just trying to, I dunno, calm down, I guess.” An awkward silence.

“…Was that a joke on the fact that man was a priest?”

“Yeah.”

Neither of them thought to press the topic after that.

******************************************************************************

 “Stupid helmet,” Lawrence grumbled, fiddling with the belt buckles that kept it secured. “Fucking thing’s just stinging my face at this point.” Every time he took a breath the chain would flow in and out, grazing his face with ice cold intensity. With a sigh, he eventually managed to free his head from the helmet’s metallic grasp and threw it backwards into the wagon.

 “Nice stubble.” Miri quipped, still at his side. “Though I can’t tell if you’d do better with a shave or not. The short hair does look good though.”

 “Thanks.” Lawrence replied, feeling the slight sting of sarcasm. “Don’t you feel a draft at all in that get up?” Miri looked down to her get up, that vague outfit of fur and cloth that seemed barely fit to keep one warm in a castle ballroom, let alone a winter landscape.

 “Oh please Lawrence. As a demon I’m simply created different to the likes of you.”

 “Wonderful.” As he looked back to the road, he spotted a building in a small clearing besides the road, an inn or travel house if he ever saw one. Even with the potential shelter ahead of him, he still couldn’t deny the almost scandalous amount of pale, shapely leg in the corner of his vision now that his helmet was off. What’s worse was just how close she was, he could barely move his arm without bumping it into her she was so close. What was she even still doing here? What was her game…

 “Looks like a place to stay up ahead,” Lawrence pointed out, hoping to distract himself from the hole in his chest. He couldn’t fall for it, she was a seductress, plain and simple. He’d be stupid to fall for such a thing. “Don’t suppose you got anything to pay with in case they want money? I’m kinda broke.”

 “We can deal with it as we need to.” Miri responded flatly. In short order, Lawrence maneuvered towards the building before parking it, along with the horses, within a stable. Miri, in the meantime, took to shifting her form to Father Verman, a development that would have been uncanny had Lawrence not immediately moved past her. Opening the door to the tavern, the inside was empty save a few scattered tables and chairs with their own lanterns, a sight familiar to Lawrence from his arrival in this world.

 “Place seems empty.” Lawrence stated to the demoness besides him. “We ought to look around in case there’s another person around. See if we have to pay or…” He paused when he felt the presence just to his side disappear. When he looked, Miri was already gone, with not a single track to show where she went.

 Naturally, Lawrence thought. Without many other options, he drew his sword and took a step into the building. “Hello?” He called out, “Anyone home? If you’re a demon or something, please leave because I’m not going to put up with it tonight!” Stepping further in, he quickly grabbed a spare chair and placed it in front of the door, still worried for any ambushes. There was the first floor, an eatery and bar, and a second floor, lined with several private rooms, all of them empty.

 “Don’t bother looking,” Miri interrupted, barging into the building lacking a disguise, “Found all the patrons, probably the owner too.”

 “Oh?”

 “Yes, sacrificed and gutted in the woods. As demons are want to do.” Ah.

 “Oh, great. Don’t suppose any of your kind’s still…”

 “No, long gone. The bodies were long frozen over.”

 “Good enough.” Changing the focus of his search to drinks, Lawrence made his way to the bar, and from a superficial glance, cursed as its scarce availability. Miri took a seat across from him as he leaned down to take in the selection.

 “Anything good?” Miri asked in a very exasperated tone.

 “Well, there isn’t much. There’s a couple of ales here, lot of it already tapped though, there’s also some random hard spirits here…”

 “Is there any wine?” Miri asked snappily.

 “There’s a bottle here but it’s not Taganair.”

 “Hand me the bottle and a glass.” When Lawrence looked back up to Miri, she was visibly impatient, and moreover frustrated with something. Something that likely had to do with her sudden thirst for alcohol. Seeing no other course for the conversation, Lawrence obliged her request and put the bottle of wine and a mug for her to use. “Thank you.” As he leaned back down to serve himself, Lawrence heard the uncorking of the bottle and a long, drawn out pour of wine within the tankard.

 Lawrence quickly settled on a cask of ale and brought it to the counter along with a mug to use. Quickly filling up, he could only watch as Miri took a, drawn out drink of her wine. Something was obviously eating her up.

 “Something up Miri?” Lawrence consoled, walking back to Miri’s side of the bar. “You seem uncharacteristically out of it. Something happen out there you were dealing with?”

 “Yes, getting shot in the thigh with a crossbow.”

 “C’mon, you were out there for a reason, and probably trying to clamber onto a wagon for a reason. Beyond the crossbow incident, what happened?”

“Ugh,” Miri scoffed, likely from how obvious she was being. She took hold of the wine bottle and poured herself another refill. “I was looking for someone.”

“Hm, I assume they were someone important.”

“Not really.” Miri sighed, attempting to downplay her goal. “I doubt you’d know him anyways.”

 “Oh come on Miri.” Lawrence sat down at a chair besides her, taking a moment to enjoy his drink. “I thought we knew each other enough to not hide such minor things from one another. Knowing you, you wouldn’t waste your time on some small fry soldier or sergeant. You’re not one to put yourself at risk for nothing, after all.” Miri set down the wine glass and turned her body towards Lawrence, glaring the whole while. She was getting upset that her own game was being used against her.

 “If you keep pushing this, Lawrence, I will gut you and leave you out in the snow while I finish my beverage. And let me remind you that my tail is perfectly fine and that you are less than arm’s length distance from me.” Her tail swayed side to side above her head, adding to her threat. A worrying display, but what may be a harmless one considering she’s wasted her one threat about his throat earlier. Despite his outwardly calm appearance, drilled in from the sights he had seen and the brutality he had endured with training, his mind was a race with thoughts on his companion.

She could have left at any point after draining Verman, she didn’t have to tag along or to be accompanying him like this. What was she after? Couldn’t be seduction, she’d been standoffish this whole time and she wouldn’t need to worry about turning him away from his “duty.” Was she perhaps biding her time, waiting for a precise moment to kill him? Was there something she wanted out of him? But the problem there is, again, the standoffishness, she’d surely know as a manipulator that a honey approach is better than vinegar.

But maybe that was part of her game…she knew the sultry approach wouldn’t work on him, so she’d get directly to the point. Considering how open he’d been in the past, why wouldn’t she? Was there something else to it, some baser desire? No, no he couldn’t let himself fall for something like that. Lawrence pushed the thought from his head. If she were looking for someone specific that was important, he’d have to try and figure things out. He could count the amount of people important enough to be on that battlefield on two hands, way too many to try and guess at.

He’d clearly had to press her somehow to find out more. Then he’d be able to try and piece things together.

 “Fine then, I won’t pry. I imagine you’d enjoy hearing about my problems instead.” She didn’t say anything, and merely turned back to her drink on the bar. That wasn’t a no.

 “Well,” Lawrence leaned back, thinking of how to keep it short and sweet, if only to try and keep the ice broken. Maybe he could utilize his position to get a bit more out of her. “There was the bar thing which, turned up aces, honestly. No suspicion, no indictments, nothing, it was airtight! And if I do say so myself it went pretty well all things considered. Struggled a bit with contacts though, as you can imagine.” He let himself have a chuckle, reminiscing at his own success after Miri’s intervention. “Though…it didn’t last for very long.”

 “That priest, Verman, showed up, spouting a bunch of crap about destiny and chosen one stuff and blah blah blah. I threw him out and didn’t think anything of it. Then, I don’t know how he did it but he then got my bar confiscated from me.” Miri gave him a sidelong glance, clearly the topic had picked up. “Next thing I knew I was being given an ultimatum; either shape up and go out and fight willingly or get clinked up and essentially brainwashed about my duty by a religious freak. I naturally went with the former because I’ve seen cult documentaries and that’d basically be the ego death of me.”

 “So serve,” Miri interjected, “or be forced to serve…” She took another sip of her drink. The way she hung on the words were telling, he’d found a point!

 “Yeah. Didn’t even do a good job shaping me up anyways. Physical training certainly helped but you can only push someone for so long before they break. Ugh, and the constant sermons I had to listen to! I swear I can recite the first paragraph of their book just from trying to drone it out. Anyway, like a month or two after this, that big old demonic push started and I got shipped out. Was basically given a regiment or something, I was apparently a figure head so I don’t really know but even THAT didn’t last long.”

 “Oh? What happened?”

 “Well the battle started, giant phantasmal skull hit us and that was one half gone. Uuuh then some spectral bitch screamed at us and knocked the other half down. Naturally, I said ‘fuck that’ and ran. Found a wagon for transporting the dead away and now I’m here! Basically off the leash and looking forward to running the ranges. Cool story huh?” Lawrence took a drink to give Miri space to respond, as well as to gauge her response. She was invested in the conversation again, her exasperation wasn’t as poignant now, but it was still present. He could see something in her eyes, a look of hope and curiosity.

 “That’s very unfortunate to hear Lawrence. But I assume you didn’t see much of the battlefield?”

 “Not…everything per se, But I DID interact with a lot of people during my time at the war camp. Lots of important, big wigs who do nothing but talk of political affairs!” Lawrence fibbed. A risky maneuver, lying like this, but one that he could take from being honest with her so much.

 “I see. I don’t suppose you happened to be involved with planning how the battle went at all did you?”

 “Oh yeah, of course! Ah, I was actually supposed to…” Should he overstate his role in the battle? “Uh y’know, be at the center of everything. But, that kind of went out the window, along with everybody else in the formation.”

 “So you saw where everybody was on the field, yes?”

 “I think I recognized some banners and what not yes.”

 “Then…” Miri shifted in her seat, either out of discomfort or potential excitement. “Would you happen to know where the prince had gotten to?”

 The prince? Oh, oh dear. Lawrence did know about the prince. “The prince? Why he must be who you’re looking for then.”

 “I need to have a few words with him, to make sure he’s alright.” Miri admitted. So there it was! She was looking for information on someone she was probably working on, either to impersonate, or to seduce. Probably seduce, considering her care for his being.

 “Well, depending on how you look at it, I actually do have news.” Miri’s face instantly lit up with surprise at the response.

“Is he alive?” She leaned in close, as if trying to receive the words more expediently. “Did you see him flee elsewhere? Which direction? Did his guard stay behind to cover his retreat?” Such energy was certainly new for her. A shame he had to dash it back to dust.

“No.” Lawrence softly answered. “He’s…dead. I saw it happen-”

“What happened? Did he get buried under something? Did you see his body? Was it obliterated into nothing?”

“Right after my regiment dropped dead, I turned to run, but I did spy the prince engaging with a big bulbous demon. Big, fat, beige skin, jagged horns out of his head.” As he delivered his report, Miri’s face sank deeper and deeper into despair. “Right, the thing grabbed him by an ankle, hoisted him up to eye level, next thing I see is the prince’s head’s on fire. I can only assume he didn’t survive that stunt.” Miri sat there frozen for a second, obviously trying to process the news, and wasn’t doing well.

“Did…did anyone else see it?” Obviously looking for a reason or excuse to say he DIDN’T in fact die and merely got separated. So much for seduction.

“I can only assume everyone on the field saw it. Oh, and I could hear the thing shouting about how he had killed him so any survivors would definitely know.” What happened next could only be described as a complete breakdown of Miri’s usually cool façade.

Mimicking Lawrence from before, Miri threw her hands into the air, shouting in frustration as she brought them crashing back down onto the bar. “DAMNABLE GLUTTON!” She shouted, her voice cracking in frustration. “I told him, I TOLD HIM to leave him alive failing that, to at LEAST not make a big deal of his death!” Lawrence was taken aback at the outburst. This was…new. He remembered that demons were more passionate, sure, but all those teaching on their mannerisms hadn’t prepared him for this. “He had to have gotten that missive and seen it. He wouldn’t have made such a proclamation if he hadn’t! That fat, bulbous BASTARD! How does he expect anyone to make any progress anywhere if he keeps RUINING IT?!” Miri tried to take a sip from her mug, but once she discovered it was empty, instead took to drinking the wine directly from the bottle.

The outburst here reminded Lawrence of Miri’s problem with succubi and the complications they created. She was annoyed by it sure, but he’d never seen her this angry over something. Something else was at play here, but what? “Sounds like he ruined a bit of a pet project you were working on.” Lawrence observed. He hoped such a minor point would allow her to expand, that is, if she wasn’t too angry for it. She put down the bottle and leaned heavily against the bar, one arm supporting her head as she looked over to Lawrence.

“That fat bastard ruined it utterly. I was trying to make that do-good prince fall to depravity to show the kingdoms that even the best amongst them can be tempted. Failing that, I was GOING to impersonate him so that I could at least sow chaos from within! Except now I can’t even do that because he just HAD to declare,” she raised up her arms and looked towards the sky, “just HAD to declare to the Goddess and every other god that he had killed the cretin!” She fell back down into a heap, not even interested in her wine as she knocked away the bottle, forcing Lawrence to catch it before it could spill.

She kept talking, but Lawrence wasn’t listening at this point. She could go on as much as she liked, so long as it helped her calm down and get all the frustration out. It gave him another moment to think.

It was certainly an ambitious plan, either causing the prince to fall to demoralize a kingdom or impersonating him to do some damage from the inside. But it didn’t make sense. Was she usually trying to pull these grand schemes? No, if she was so content to advance her kind’s agenda, why would she get frustrated by succubi encroaching on her turf? She’d be helping them avoid the witch hunters if that was the case! And to expect cooperation from another when she’d be doing that, what a hypocrite! As he thought on his conversation with her at Tarrant’s old bar, Lawrence picked up on something, a detail of the conversation he had overlooked in his own despair. A give-away that Miri had either accidently or purposefully given to him. That idea…

But it just had to be manner of speaking! There’s no way she’d give away something so personal!

Unless…

“A bit odd Miri,” Lawrence declared, preparing to paint a portrait of the demoness with the frame given to him. “I didn’t take you for being a team player amongst your kind.” Miri slowly turned to face him, her eyes glaring at him in a terrifying similar manner to when he had learned her name. He had to be careful, going out on thin ice like this.

“Excuse me?” She growled. She raised a hand, and very violently transformed it into a wicked claw, with bird like talons and sharp, deadly looking talons. It was exactly what he was afraid of; he had accidently made it sound like a tease!

He’d taken a dangerous risk, and he could practically hear the ice cracking beneath his feet as he felt her fury being directed at him! In this situation, she was likely ready to kill him at the drop of a hat. While he’d be able to put up a fight, his sword wasn’t drawn, and she could more than easily overwhelm him up close like this. Even dropping the topic would be a dangerous proposition. She’d probably only be encouraged to take his head to make up for the failure in whatever it was she was doing!

Lawrence would have to choose his words with exceptional care and make his claim with an exact choice of words; the only way out was through. He had to take the risk with his guess!

“Don’t take that as an insult or a tease, Miri. It’s, merely an observation I’ve made from talking with you. You seem much more free-spirited than some of your other brethren. Free spirited and prideful. Not knowing better, I’d say you…didn’t have a choice in certain matters.” Lawrence paused, choosing to let the claim hang in the air and to await a reaction. He didn’t get one immediately, Miri’s talon was still poised ready to gut him, her tail aimed directly at his head, as seemed routine for the appendage. But, practically imperceptible to anyone not looking for it, he saw it. The slight release of tension in her hand; relaxation.

He had his portrait.

“Whatever gave you that impression?” She asked in a low tone.

“You strike me as an individualistic type of demon Miri. You prefer to be on your own, and despise working with others, unless they’re helping you with your goals or just entertaining you. Like with me at the town, or the bar, or that old guy, whoever he was. You’re not the kind to do things for some, greater order or whatever, at least not without something to gain from it yourself. It’s why you’ve hidden your true name too, so that no one can ever tell you to do anything, if I’m remembering that brief thing on demonology correctly.” As Lawrence continued, he could see her tensing up again, infuriated at being exposed and systematically unraveled in such a way. The mood of the room was tangibly changing to that of a storm, one that threatened to snuff out his life in its gales. He had to push, push to the very end!

“When those succubi showed up at the town, you tried to get them killed by the witch hunters instead of helping them. While they did attack you, the fact you were trying to kill each other shows me that you were at odds with them, but that’s hardly the most telling part of what you’ve shown me. Back at the bar, you mentioned something to me when I was wallowing in despair at my situation. You mentioned,” Lawrence paused, nervously licking his lips as his confidence paused. What if he was wrong? No, he was at the end. He couldn’t stop here. “You mentioned that you had an idea of what I was going through.” Miri slowly let her claw drop to the bar, and Lawrence could see her eye lids shifting at some inner turmoil within her.

Bingo. Just one more gamble…

“It wasn’t your choice to seek out the prince to corrupt him. Hell, devouring that entire village wasn’t your choice either, was it?” For a tense few seconds, the air inside the room was still. The words hanged motionless in the air as Lawrence finished his oration, not knowing if he would be fighting for his life in the next few moments, facing a harsh repudiation, or just watching Miri walk out the door in offense.

When Miri sighed, lifting herself from the counter and returning her hand back to its normal form, it was as if the entire building sighed, a great exhalation of pent-up energy. “Want to talk about it?” Lawrence questioned.

“…You should have become a witch hunter, Lawrence. Your social insight and deduction skills are wasted on a battlefield. You’re correct. The long and the short of it is that, unlike my many peers, I’m actually noteworthy and as such the High Demon Lord has, on occasion, asked for my services for specific tasks. The village was because he needed attention drawn…elsewhere, apparently. And the latest blunder he’s forced upon me was to either corrupt or impersonate the prince to perform whatever acts I see fit to advance his agenda.”

“Can’t you just refuse his orders? Or is there a thing with hierarchies or something that I’m missing.”

“You have the right of it. The High Lord’s position of influence is wide and powerful. To deny it would be suicide. He didn’t claim that title by being weak, after all.”

“Is there literally any way to circumvent it? Say you’re busy doing something else worthwhile for whatever dumb nation building thing he’s doing?”

“There is, but it’d have to be a solid excuse, and I’d have to actually show something for it.”

“Sounds like you’re between a rock and a hard place. A place you don’t want to be in.”

“Just about.” Like a dying fire, the conversation sputtered out, and the room grew colder as the two strangers returned to their own thoughts. Miri went back to looking over her wine, never quite working up the strength to refill her glass as she seemed to broil with inner thought. Lawrence took an idle sip of his ale, his tongue alight from the flat, hoppy taste. He was at the bottom of his drink, with nothing but his reflection in the booze to accompany him, it seemed.

So she was individualistic, she had what she wanted, at least, what she needed, for information. Why was she still here? What more could she possibly…

No.

No more of this tripe. If Lawrence didn’t know better, he was turning into Miri. Always talking with another motive in mind, always carefully weighing what words to say next. He had to do it to get by training with those damnable Theocrats, he’d done it with Miri to get by…but why even bother with that anymore? The throbbing pit in his chest couldn’t help but agree.

“Miri,” Lawrence started softly, grabbing the wine bottle. “I’m going to speak plainly. I think we’ve both been speaking with more than a hint of suspicion on our minds. Trying to, I don’t know, navigate our little tangled web of speech and desire, crafting a picture of the person before us while carefully trying to hide our own hands.”

“Well…” Miri responded. Her demeanor was that of fatigue and defeat, a sullen face from the outburst.

“I remember you mentioned you liked one of our first conversations where we just…talked. How about we go back to something like that?” Lawrence poured the demoness another serving of wine, using it to keep the mood calm even as the wind began to pick up outside. “No lying, no thinking about what every little given word means, no trying to figure out the other. Let’s just talk. Lord knows how much manipulation we’ve been up to otherwise.” Lawrence finished pouring Miri’s drink, who took a moment to stare at it before taking another sip.

“Your terms are acceptable Lawrence. What do you want to talk about?”

“I…actually don’t know.” Lawrence admitted, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. “That’s the downside of this little deal…Wait, I think I have one. Don’t you ever…get lonely, going as you do?”

“You mean constantly moving about?” Miri asked.

“No, more like, putting on a fake personality for every new person you meet. Don’t you ever occasionally just shoot the shit with others of your kind? Just have a good time chatting about things without putting on a front or something?”

“Ugh, I almost wish. They’re either so far in their own ‘grandness’” she emphasized by cocking her fingers up and down, “that they can’t stop thinking of themselves. Or, they’re so lost in the greater designs of the High Lord that they refer to everything by rank. God, Lawrence,” Miri turned to her newly christened confidant, “Am I losing my touch? You managed to read me so completely I can’t help but think that I’m losing it.”

“I, mean,” Lawrence stuttered, unsure of the new direction Miri presented, “I’d heard that demons were more…passionate about things, and you’re the infiltrator type. I wouldn’t be too shocked if some traits of being a person rubbed off onto you.”

“Oh, Lawrence!” Miri turned away and cradled her head in her hands in frustration. “Don’t say that! You’re just proving my point! I’m losing my edge and that proves it!”

“There’s nothing wrong with referring to yourself as a person Miri. It’s not like it’s a humanity only thing!”

“But it’s always how the Theocracy refers to it to you mortals! Demons and the like are always some…other.” Miri continued on in her tirade about the word person, and Lawrence, shamefully, let his attention drift off in the conversation. Miri was rapidly becoming more vibrant and, however strange it may sound, alive. Her expression was lively, and she actually seemed somewhat jovial, with a genuine smile that actually used the muscles near her eyes. “This is…actually amazing Lawrence.” Miri declared. “I feel so free being able to just talk like this, not having to worry about anything! No stories to maintain, no fronts to keep up, nothing.”

“Mm.” Lawrence hummed, taking another drink of his ale. “Good to hear.” Miri, as if reacting to Lawrence’s energy, quickly calmed down and took a brief moment to take a sip from her drink. For a while, they tended to themselves, enjoying and refilling their drinks as they saw fit while shooting the occasional glance to one another. As if expecting the other to take the next leap.

He wasn’t trying to be dismissive, but he didn’t know what to say anymore. There was still one thought, that worry about Miri’s situation. The only problem was that he didn’t know if he really had the stones to say it. It was a big risk, after all, one his heart probably wouldn’t be able to take.

“Lawrence,” Miri called, placing a hand on his arm, “I was…wondering about something.”

“What would that be?” Lawrence nervously asked.

“I was…thinking back on my little situation…and I think I may have a solution of some kind to it.”

“You mean the excuse thing?” Miri nodded. “Yeah, I was…thinking of something about that myself. What’d you have in mind?”

“Well,” Miri shifted in her seat, nervous about whatever it was she was going to propose. “There’s one exception to having to respond to the High Lord’s demands, and that’s by being in a pact with someone. Because of certain rules involved in the process, if I get into a pact with someone I don’t need to worry about his orders and demands. I think you’re noteworthy enough to qualify for it as well…”

“So, you’re thinking of a pact?”

“Yes, we know each other enough so it shouldn’t be a big deal. I was thinking…” As if trying to finish Miri’s sentence, Lawrence spoke at the same time as her.

“I become your thrall?” Lawrence questioned.

“I’d become your minion-” Miri finished.

“What?!” They both shouted, turning to one another. “I could never-”

Lawrence raised his hand, stopping the mirrored conversation. “I’ll start,” Lawrence stated firmly. “I don’t know the big things about that pact thing, but…I’d be willing to take a risk with it. I don’t know if you’d have to force me to do anything, but I trust you enough not to. Not like I’m going to be doing anything major in the meantime.”

“Lawrence, no.” Miri scolded. “By becoming my thrall you’d be tied to me, in life and death. At least if I were your minion you wouldn’t need to worry about me getting you in trouble. And, likewise, I trust you enough to not to call me like some dog on a leash.”

“Miri,” Lawrence reached out, mirroring Miri by putting his hand on her arm. “I’d…” Lawrence broke his gaze, unable to handle what he was about to say. He almost pondered the consequences of saying something so stupid but pushed it away. He had an agreement to honor. “…I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought of you, on occasion. Wondering about how you’ve been doing, or what you’ve been up to. Worrying about you is almost a past time for me at this point. It’s one of the few things that kept me remotely sane during that boot camp.” Lawrence’s face started to burn up from embarrassment, having admitted to such an intimate thought.

“…I feel the same way.” Miri admitted. She reached over with her other hand and physically dragged Lawrence’s gaze back towards her own. “Ever since that first conversation, I’d been thinking about what to say the next time we met. From, talking about your world, to maybe how things were going…I’ve always been looking forward to an opportunity to talk to you like that again. Just two strangers conversing about whatever we wanted.”

“Hm,” Lawrence chuckled. “Looks like my thing about strangers sticking together stuck, huh?”

“More than either of us know, I think.” Miri responded. For a moment, they just looked to one another, staring deeply into one another’s gaze. Lawrence himself gazing into what seemed like red rubies in Miri’s eyes, and Miri staring at hazel, wooded colored gems in Lawrence’s.

Neither of them knew who initiated it, one or the other leaning forward as the other unconsciously reciprocated their movements. For a moment, their lips touched in quick, experimental peck, before reconnecting once again in a slower movement. The two indulged in one another, freely tasting their beverages of choice in each other’s mouths as they began to wrap each other in a shared embrace. For the briefest moment, it was pure bliss, but one that was quickly dissipating with the rising pulse of excitement and passion. Eventually, they pulled away from one another, each granting the other a moment of reprieve and the opportunity to speak honeyed words.

“Miri,” Lawrence breathlessly started, “As crazy as it sounds, I don’t want us to be strangers to one another anymore.” He cupped Miri’s cheek in his hand, softly feeling her smooth, chilly skin even through a leathered and mailed hand. She held up her own hand, using it to softly grasp Lawrence’s as she looked longingly at him. Yet another face Lawrence hadn’t seen to her.

“Please,” Miri answered, “call me Miriel.”

******************************************************************************

 The atmosphere of the upstairs room was dark, but steamy and intimate, even with the windstorm outside blustering snow all about. Inside there was naught but the heaving chests of two momentary lovers, their breathes coming out as clouds of steamy mist as they fought to reclaim their breath by each other’s side.

 Miriel shifted in her spot in bed, turning to her side from her back as she calmed down from the fling with Lawrence.

 Such an activity wasn’t new to her, seduction was one of the simplest ways to make fools vulnerable. Ordinarily, when someone declared that they wanted to make love with her, she didn’t feel anything; it was a means to an end, after all. Not this time. For the first time, Miriel had felt something deeper than the base satisfaction typical lovemaking brought. It was a burning sensation that felt like gentle, floating sparks, or fiery butterflies in her chest. A lightness she couldn’t explain accompanied with a fierce sense of satisfaction. She brought her hand to her chest, as if trying to reach inside herself to find what the sensation was. Is this what those bards would always sing about, or that those succubi would stir in the hearts of man?

 She shifted her body further, trying to find a comfortable spot in the bed and beneath the covers as she tried to think. Lawrence’s hand reached over from behind, resting gently across her belly. “Miri,” Lawrence whispered, a hint of desperation present, “wait.”

 “Yes?” Miriel responded.

 “I think I might have to call it that favor.” A slight stir of worry writhed in Miriel’s heart.

 “What do you mean?”

 “Miri, I want you to stay for the night. I don’t care if you leave in the morning, but I insist. Please, just…stay with me.”

 “Lawrence…” Miriel softly whispered, attempting to comfort the man.

 “Miri, you have no idea how lonely I’ve been. Ever since I showed up in this world, I haven’t been able to connect to a single person. There were no guys to be able to laugh and be merry with, and no girls who were remotely worth the trouble of pursuing or trying to get sweet with. You’re the only person I’ve been able to make any meaningful connection with. I just…” Lawrence moved in closer, putting his chest to Miriel’s back as her tail maneuvered beneath his body to avoid being crushed, “I just want to spend a little more time with you.”

 Such desperation was usually entertaining to see, but with Lawrence, it stirred something else; that floating feeling again. Miriel gave a soft chuckle as she brought her arm over her shoulder and behind her back to hug Lawrence around his neck. “Lawrence, you should know better than to waste a favor. Especially not after such an embarrassing confession like that~.” She teased. “Didn’t your mother ever warn you about girls like me?”

 “Maybe.” Lawrence responded. “Maybe I just find you too interesting to let go of. Maybe I’m into a woman like you. You’ll stay?”

 “Of course I will, Lawrence. But only if you’ll answer a question of mine about humans.”

 “Shoot.”

 “Lawrence, is this what love feels like? That strange, burning thing that musicians speak about losing to tragedy or another man or something or another?”

 “Perhaps, but those guys are usually losers about that sort of thing anyways. Does it get worse when I do this?” He leaned down and began to plant kisses on the demoness’s nape and shoulder, causing her to squeal from the affection.

 “Stop it~! Honestly Lawrence, this is so embarrassing!”

 “Is it worse? Yes or no?”

 “Yes!” Lawrence withdrew from his assault, obviously happy with the response.

 “Then yes, it is.” He smugly responded.

 “Well, in that case…” Miriel turned around in bed, putting her face to face with her apparent lover. “You can expect me to bother you for a while longer than just tonight, then. I hope you don’t mind mixing me drinks if we ever find the things needed for it~.” The two took each other into another embrace, Miriel having the advantage of wrapping her tail around Lawrence’s body like an infatuated python.

 “Not at all,” Lawrence responded, “Not at all.”

******************************************************************************

Much time later…


Where the hell is she, she should be done by now.

 “Ser Lawrence, I hope you understand the gravity of these crises that plague humanity.” The witch hunter chided.

 The snow within the remote depths of the forest had finally begun to melt, the emerald grass beneath it rising to sprout new life with the arrival of early spring. Lawrence and Miri had been traveling through the more desolate parts of its interior when the hunter and his retinue caught up with them. The witch hunter’s retinue had taken Miri aside while the hunter himself, Fredrick, spoke with him personally, one-on-one.

 “Yes yes, I know.” Lawrence deflected, hoping to start an argument to buy time. “Thalbolga’s horde was advancing and killed many and blah blah blah. You know that the bastard’s dead, which I played more than a substantial part in doing by hunting him down, right?” That was a half-lie. Thalbolga had found Lawrence and Miri when they finally managed to find the war camp that Lawrence was looking for. He’d managed to catch them out while Lawrence was carrying along a chest of coinage; what was supposed the be the army’s pay. He tried to burn Lawrence to ash, but that magic immunity was a hell of a thing to have. That, and the preternatural ability to chuck a magic sword directly at Thalbolga’s fat dome.

 “That is true…” Fredrick conceded.

“Not to mention that the rest of his horde got all cleaned up by that general who actually knew what the hell he was doing. It’s a nonissue at this point! I’d be shocked if any other demon gets the moxie to try something like that after that little display.”

 “That’s also true,” Fredrick conceded, “but there’s still certain other problems that may arise from liches and the machinations of the High Lord. There’s also certain matters that revolve around you that I and the rest of the Theocracy are worried about.”

 “Oh do go on.” Lawrence encouraged, walking around the cart to check that everything was still in place.

 “There’s the certain matter of your lack of presence with any military unit that was a part of the general’s effort. Having been a part of the campaign for a fair period of time I can say without doubt that morale was drastically low with your disappearance. Having at least the news of your survival would have done wonders with the troops’ confidence in their duty.”

 “But they did it, right?”

 “Yes…but there are other disturbing rumors that I’ve always been hearing.” The witch hunter followed Lawrence as he circled the wagon, idly checking and rechecking the harnesses for the new tarp he had fitted onto the wagon and making sure that the newly created pocket dimension within the wagon itself was still working. “For instance, there was the rumor that you’d been traveling in a wagon, hocking the weapons of the fallen to various peasant villages for coin, as well as scavenging old battlefields for valuables without consideration for the dead.”

 “Mmhm,” Lawrence hummed, thinking back to his time in the winter. It had been dirty work, digging up snow, offing lone and vulnerable undead, but it was also profitable. Any piece of the prince’s elite guard’s armor sold for a fortune with collectors and adventurers.

 “There was also the accusation that the horses on said wagon were not exactly alive…nor dead, for that matter.” Fredrick stopped by the front of the wagon, where the two reanimated draft horses idly stood, completely still with those high-quality cloth covers still covering most of their bodies. After getting ambushed by Thalbolga, Lawrence discovered that the demon had, in fact, killed the horses on the wagon for some sick sport. He had a soft spot for them, and as such forced one of the imps following Thalbolga to revive them in exchange for his life, since he was too slow to join the rest of his pack in fleeing.

 “I don’t know what to say about that,” Lawrence admitted, “I took advantage of some magics that eased some problems with traveling and beast care.”

 “Finally there’s one much more…disturbing rumor.” Fredrik admitted.

 Listening to the knot in his stomach, Lawrence knew that the next rumor was going to be about his and Miri’s little escapades. He was genuinely at a loss for a lie to try and deflect with. Where the hell was Miri, it was just two other people with the Witch Hunter damn it! Maybe she WAS losing her touch.


 “There are rumors that, in your travels and ware peddling, you’ve been traveling with one other acquaintance, who’s description has changed on no less than several occasions.”

While he had his sword, it’d take too long to draw, and there was no telling how fast the hunter was on the draw with that rapier of his.

 “During and after your stays in different towns, you’d often apparently hire retainers to come along with you on your little caravan, who disappear mysteriously before you reach your next destination.”

He had a blackjack up his sleeve, which he could grab quickly, but it was awful small. If he missed he’d have to deal with the hunter drawing his rapier and potentially skewering him. He felt Fredrik approach him from behind, and turned to face him, his face grim. “I wish to hear it from you, what do you know of where these individuals may have gone?” Lawrence shrugged his shoulders.

“We kept getting harassed by remnants of Thalbolga’s army and bandits.” Lawrence denied. “Roads are too dangerous to stay long on so we had to leave them and keep moving.” The witch hunter, predictably, was not fooled.

“Ser Lawrence, were it not for the nature of your presence, I would render judgement on you here and now. The evidence before me and the testimonies surrounding your activities have clearly shown me that you are falling victim to the insidious influence of the infernal powers.” Just as Lawrence thought to attempt to draw his blackjack to strike the hunter across the jaw, Miri, in all her infernal glory, silently dropped behind the hunter from above. She silently approached, carefully placing footfall after footfall in the spots of the ground where the snow had melted to reveal dirt and grass. “I will be taking you back to the Theocracy so that you may be cleansed of your sins and so that you may finish your training as a Warrior of Her Light.”

“Yes yes, I suppose that’s what’s only right huh?” Lawrence half-taunted.

“Sir,” Miri spoke, assuming the gruff voice of one of the hunter’s retinue, the brass covered woman, “we finished our interrogation of Ser Lawrence’s companion.”

“What have you discovered?” The hunter asked, not turning his head from Lawrence.

“She’s clean. As far as we can tell there’s nothing about her.” The hunter’s face, in an entertaining change, shifted to sheer incredulousness at the response.

“What?” The hunter shouted, turning on his heel. “What do you mea-” Lawrence did not hesitate to slide the blackjack from his sleeve and to immediately beam Fredrick across the back of his head. The hunter fell to the ground in a slump, allowing Lawrence to draw a dagger and to finish him off with a stab to the neck.

“Took you long enough.” Lawrence scolded. He leaned down and immediately began to rifle through the hunter’s belongings, hoping to find anything of value to hock later. “Find anything good?” Lawrence asked, assuming the reason for Miri’s delay. The demoness joined him in short order in searching for valuables on the hunter’s body.

“Ah, the usual for his kind. Bunch of charms, some gaudier than others, and silver swords.”

“Full make or coated?”

“Lawrence, please, you should know this by now. Full make.”

“Sweet!” Lawrence cheered, pumping his fist in the air. That was going to fetch a good price at a jeweler’s. “We need to work on our presentation, by the way. Stories were that you, as my acquaintance, had your description change several times.”

“How do you propose I fix it Lawrence?” Miri sighed.

“I don’t know, maybe disguise as the idiots we pick up for a bit. That sort of thing. Also maybe eat less, that’s apparently leaving too big a footprint.”

“But don’t you think a more lingering description would harm our guise?”

“I mean,” Lawrence shrugged, finishing patting down the body, “I’m the only thing remaining constant so it’s pretty much a given that they’ll figure it out. Oh, hey, since I have the thought, how’d the chat with Aelaz go?”

“Ugh, same old same old,” Miri answered, moving to gather the stockpile of goods she’d scavenged from the retinue. “’What are you doing? How are you advancing my reign? How’s that situation with that hero?’ That sort of thing.”

“Did you tell him the Thalbolga thing was incidental?” Lawrence questioned, assisting his companion in organizing things within the wagon’s pocket dimension.

“I did. Also told him that I think I succeeded in drawing you off your path, but I’d need to keep watching to make sure.”

“Did he accept it?”

“He did. So long as he doesn’t demand I corrupt you to do anything more I should be fine for the foreseeable future. Even then there’s still the pact we can mull over if it comes to it.”

“Good to hear.” Chucking the last decorated rosary to the pile of other jewelry in their respective corner of the wagon, Lawrence made his way through the spacious interior. Walking past the wardrobe and bed and assorted crates of goods, he went through the other exit of the pocket dimension and emerged at the front of the wagon. Taking up the reins, the horses were quick to respond and moved without any encouragement. Turning the wagon back to the road, leaving the hunter’s body behind him, he felt Miri mount the wagon beside him.

“Any plans where to go next?” Miri asked, choosing to lean playfully against her companion.

“I was thinking south,” Lawrence answered, a smile taking shape. “I’m good to go anywhere, honestly. Anywhere we want.”


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