Author’s Note: This Geek Pride Day story takes place in a world very similar to our own. Many things will seem familiar while others are different in subtle or outrageous ways. This is by design and no cause for concern. Just enjoy the ride. If you’re in a playful mood, feel free to keep an eye out for fifteen songs I’ve hidden in the story. Can you find them all?
Thanks go out to my lady love, for the usual ass-kicking and allowing me to use some of her characters. Even more thanks to bikoukumori, for a fantastic editing job and planting the seed for the succubus brothel. And of course big thanks to my valiant guinea pigs- … I mean beta readers, for whipping this story into shape. My pain is your gain.
This story contains scenes of explicit violence and gore. All participants in sexual activities are adults.
* * * *
Torches lined the curving stairwell leading into the monastery’s dungeon. Laura made her way down the weathered steps, uneven with centuries of use. She walked slowly. The last thing I need now is a sprained ankle, not this close to my graduation, she thought. Three revolutions around the stairwell’s core and she had reached her destination. A long, arched corridor led away into darkness, with only a small oil lamp next to a door to the right offering a smidge of illumination. She took the lamp and opened the door. Inside, she lit a three-armed candelabra. There wasn’t much to see apart from a low stool and a chest holding the equipment she would need for today’s ceremony.
The last one, Laura promised herself. Ten years of trying to find my place and what did that get me? More bruises than I can remember and still no divine inspiration. She threw open the lid of the chest and withdrew its contents. A set of training armor and a bastard sword in its scabbard, both smelling of freshly cured leather. Laura pulled a hand’s width of blade free and scowled.
Dull. Of course. No one needs to get hurt.
She donned the stiff leathers and attached the scabbard to her belt then she reclaimed the small lamp and left the room. Everything in Briou was done with purpose, even leaving most of the dungeons bereft of light. It was the Order’s mission to drive the darkness away and, even in its most mundane tasks, this mission was upheld. Using a wick, Laura lit a series of lamps along the corridor’s left side until she reached its end. She deposited the lamp in an alcove and turned to face the tall double doors leading ahead.
The stone doors rumbled inwards without her even touching them. Beyond, a large domed hall awaited. A singular shaft of daylight lanced down from the ceiling above, illuminating a sandy circle thirty feet across. The rest of the room was shrouded in shadows but she could hear whispers and shallow breathing echoing off the high walls. A lone figure waited in the circle, a tall female dark elf, wearing a similar set of combat leathers and casually hefting a twin to her own sword. Icy white hair was tied back in a firm braid and a friendly smile played around her lips as Laura came closer.
The dark elf offered a slight bow. “No one said guest instructors are forbidden from assessing a candidate’s prowess. The headmaster approved so you’ll have to suffer me on your big day.”
Laura drew her weapon. “Alright then. Prepare for an ass-kicking of epic proportions then.” She raised her blade and cautiously advanced.
“At last!” Arach slowly circled Laura, well out of her blade’s reach. “Today will be the day Frau Stürmer will punish me for all the bruises I inflicted!”
Laura chuckled. “I hope you’ll grant me at least one clean victory. God knows I have tried to beat you, despite all your dirty tricks.”
“No one will grant you anything, neither here nor in the world outside,” Arach said, easily keeping Laura at arm’s length. “If you want your victory, you’ll have to earn it.” The dark elf changed her grip and offered a beckoning gesture.
From painful experience, Laura knew full well what would happen if she lunged at the smiling dark elf. And on cue, the moment she dashed ahead, Arach dropped one of those blasted orbs of darkness onto the arena, snuffing out Laura’s vision.
She heard Arach come closer, the soft crunch of her boots giving her away.
Laura reacted with blistering speed, her sword intercepting her opponent’s blade at the same time as she did a small side step to evade any off-hand or kick attacks Arach might launch her way. The blades rang against each other. Laura could smell the dark lavender scent Arach used to anoint her body with. She was very close by. Laura changed the grip on her sword to a one-handed one and swung her fist at gut level, grinning viciously as she made contact with her instructor’s armor. Now fully aware where Arach was, she followed up with a quick kick against her instructor’s inner calf, followed by a pommel strike from above which Arach narrowly avoided.
There was hasty movement and the scent was gone too. Laura retreated until she could see again, all the while guarding with her blade. There was a slow clap from the other side of the perfect, round globe of darkness.
“Not bad at all,” Arach said. “Apart from the fact you’re holding back. I should be on my knees, puking my guts out, not doing a little jig for the audience’s enjoyment.”
“I got your attention and your shapely ass out of that darkness,” Laura said. “Your vomit on my leathers wasn’t part of the plan.” Instead of circling around the globe, she dashed right through it, to where she had heard the dark elf’s smooth alto voice. To her own amazement, she caught Arach off-guard — the dark elf had expected her to circle the globe, as she had done so many times before.
Her sword weaved a curtain of steel in front as she battered Arach back, step by step. The duel would end if one of them yielded or left the ring for whatever reason. Her attack pressured Arach straight back to the edge of the circle.
Panting and covered in a light sweat, Arach dug her heels in. She shook out her left wrist and a gleaming dagger appeared in her hand which she used to parry Laura’s incoming attack. A brutal headbutt stopped Laura’s advance in its tracks.
Blinking away tears, Laura retreated two steps. “You and your dirty tricks!” she spat, nodding at the dagger.
“As if the monsters out there will ever offer you a fair fight,” Arach calmly explained. “From now on, the time for dull blades is over.”
“No one told the Quartermaster. Mine’s dull.”
“If you want a sharp blade, you’ll have to earn it.” Arach flourished with hers. “All you have to do is take mine.”
“Maybe I will. Or I could simply batter you into submission with my dull length of steel,” Laura said, launching into a quick series of two-handed slashes and stabs. Arach was forced back onto the defensive, much too busy parrying Laura’s vicious attacks with both of her weapons. Still, Laura failed to land that one decisive strike which would shatter Arach’s seemingly impenetrable defense.
If brute strength won’t work, maybe some fancy footwork will, Laura thought, carving her foot in a sharp angle forward and kicking up a wall of sand. Arach had no choice but to avert her gaze or risk eyes full of sand. A moment later, Laura was through. She swatted Arach’s sword aside with her blade and followed up with a hard wrench on that pesky dagger’s cross guard. To her own surprise, Laura ended up with the weapon
“Oh, the Paladin’s daughter has teeth,” Arach laughed, jumping into the air. Again calling on her dark elven heritage, she levitated upwards and lashed out with her boot, missing Laura’s face by a hair.
“Must be my witch mother’s blood talking then,” Laura snarled, dropping both weapons and grabbing the dark elf’s foot, now at eye level. One hand around the booted ankle, she brutally twisted the foot, hoping to break whatever spell was holding Arach a good six feet off the ground. A pained grunt from above was warning enough. Twisting at the hip, Laura slammed Arach into the sand. Not waiting if the move had stunned her victim, Laura pounced, pinning Arach’s arms to the sand with her knees. Draping her forearm across the writhing dark elf’s neck, she exerted enough pressure to get her point across.
“Yield!” she ordered. A small shake of the head – and a knee to her back — was all the answer she needed. Laura gritted her teeth and pushed down harder, locking in the choke. Arach’s gaze was locked with hers until she fell unconscious. Laura immediately lifted her arm and checked Arach’s vitals.
She’ll be okay… I hope.
“The fight has concluded. Winner: Laura Stürmer!” a hollow, ghostly voice announced. There was a soft murmuring, a hint of applause. A shadowy figure wrapped in a monk’s robe entered the circle and gestured imperiously. Laura slid off the unconscious instructor. The robed figure knelt down next to Arach and touched her forehead with a silver cross, chanting softly. With a gasp, Arach sat up, clutching her throat.
“Ow,” she rasped.
“Are you okay?” Laura asked, relief filling her voice. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“Being choked never is much fun, not even in bed,” Arach croaked. “Still, as far as fight finishes went, you got me good.” Taking the monk’s hand, she got to her feet.
“Nonsense. You let me win,” Laura insisted. “I can’t believe you had no counter to a simple bodyslam and choke combo.”
Arach coughed. “I had no idea you’d slam me out of my Levitate spell. Everything went to Hell after that. You beat me and I have the splitting headache to show for it.” She closed the distance and hugged Laura emphatically. “Congratulations. The Order of Martinius welcomes you.”
Laura hugged her back. “Thank you, I guess.”
The dark elf took a step back and pulled a silver necklace from a belt pouch. A slender cross dangled from it, the edges picked out in blue. “Let me be the one to bestow the Order’s badge of office upon you.”
Laura took the necklace from her, somehow expecting the item to crumble to dust upon touching it. But nothing like that happened. It was a simple silver cross, imbued with a wisp of holy magic to turn away low-level undead even in the hands of a non-cleric. She donned the necklace and met Arach’s gaze.
“I will do everything in my power to honor the Order and the trust it placed in me.” Laura said with much more conviction than she felt.
* * * *
“You did what?” Victoria asked.
Laura stopped toweling her wet hair and giggled. “I tore her out of her Levitation spell, bodyslammed her into the sand and finished her off with a choke. I can’t believe you missed that.”
Vicky scoffed. “It’s not like I did it on purpose! I had my own graduation to attend to. Sorry I missed the epic thrashing you gave our lovely combat instructor.”
Like Arach, Victoria was a dark elf, although where Arach was all long limbs and taut muscles, Vicky was soft, smooth coal-black skin and curves. She and Laura had been roommates for the past two years and best friends not long after. Freshly bathed, Laura found Vicky lounging on her bed, silvery robes loosely draped around her shoulders. A silver necklace dangled between Victoria’s breasts. A slender sword amulet declared her a priestess of the Moon Maiden.
“That’s impossible,” the dark elf snorted. “Levitating and tossing dark orbs is to us dark elves what walking and breathing is to you humans. Watch.” She closed her eyes and, still on her back, hovered upwards. Her robe rustled off her shapely body, leaving Victoria grinning and naked on her back in mid air as she caressed over her breasts and towards her shaven mound. “I could get myself off and not fall down. Wanna see?”
Laura shook her head, laughing. “I’m not making this up. Let me show you.”
“Hmmm, yes, touch me,” Vicky purred, curling a leg inwards. “Right there.”
Laura closed the distance and grabbed Vicky by the ankle and wrist. She pulled and levered but the grinning dark elf didn’t budge. At her wit’s end, Laura bent over her roommate and planted a kiss onto Vicky’s lips. Squealing happily, the dark elf snaked an arm around Laura’s naked shoulders and pulled her down onto the mattress, kissing her back hungrily.
“See? Now you went down,” Laura gasped when they broke their kiss. Vicky’s fingers caressed the inside of her thighs.
“Because I wanted to, not because you broke my concentration or anything,” Vicky said softly.
Laura threw up her hands. “So she did let me win? Gods be damned, how will I ever be my own person when all I get is special treatment from everyone?” She crumpled onto the edge of the bed, sighing.
Vicky sat up and draped an arm around Laura’s shoulders. “You did choke her and the Arbiter said the match was decided, didn’t he?”
“So why beat yourself up over this? You’ve got your cross,” Vicky’s free hand caressed up between Laura’s firm breasts, causing the holy symbol of the Order to tinkle against her finely inlaid fingernail, “and a very horny dark elf to celebrate with.” She placed two fingers under Laura’s chin and claimed a gentle kiss.
“Because I feel like they gave me a pass because of my whole fucking ancestry,” Laura complained. “Generations of monster hunters are staring down my back and I feel everyone down to Decima Tempesta Magica wrinkling their noses at how easy I have it, despite not a single spark of magic in my blood.”
Victoria shook her head, sighing softly. “If you call spending every single waking moment either in the armory, the sparring chambers or the infirmary ‘easy’ then we both have wildly varying ideas on what ‘easy’ is. Girl, all I had to do to finish my graduation was cast three healing spells and banish a combat circle full of skeletons. You, sweet boobs, just went full throttle with one of the best sword swingers in the whole Order and won.”
“Speaking of which, how did it go for you?” Laura asked, her own distress forgotten for a moment.
Vicky leaned sideways and grabbed something from her nightstand, a small box containing a silver signet ring on blue velvet. “Ta-dah!” she said. “Since I already have a holy symbol, I asked if I could get a ring instead. The Arbiter was more than happy to oblige.”
“That’s fantastic!” Laura threw her arms around Vicky’s neck and kissed her on the lips. Moaning softly, Vicky replied in kind. Both girls sank onto the bed, their hands roaming over their bodies while their kisses grew ever wilder.
Vicky kissed her way down Laura’s body, flicking first one then the other nipple with her tongue. Lower she went, zeroing in on Laura’s shaved pelvis. Laura pulled in a leg to allow Vicky easy access but at that exact moment her cell phone rang, making an ungodly racket on the marble top of her nightstand.
“Seriously? Now?” Vicky complained, falling back onto her mattress.
Laura picked up her phone and checked the display. “Shit,” she muttered. “It’s Mr. Aulin.”
“The headmaster?” Vicky raised a snowy eyebrow. “You’d better take it then. Damn, just when things got going…”
Laura tapped the screen and took the call. A cool, male voice was on the other end.
“Laura. See me in my office at the earliest convenience please.” The line clicked shut.
Vicky draped her crumpled robe around her shoulders. “I guess that was important?”
“You know him,” Laura sighed. “‘At your earliest convenience.’ He probably wants to scold me for nearly killing Arach.”
“Ugh. So much for our victory celebration. You know what? You go talk to Mr. Reginald, I’ll have a look around in the Common Room, see if anyone can spare some soft drinks or gummy goblins for when you come back. And once we’re high on sugar and caffeine, we’ll finish what we just started, even if it’s the last thing I do on this earth.”
Despite her mood, Laura laughed. “It’s nigh impossible to stay pissed around you for long.” She fished a change of clothes from her wardrobe and struggled into it. “I don’t know how you managed to stay around me so long.”
Vicky rolled onto her back and pulled up a leg, invitingly caressing herself. “That’s easy. Even if your hero’s blood hasn’t manifested in spell casting ability or crazy holy powers, you have the goddamn best tongue in this place. I bet even a succubus can learn a thing or two from you, honey lips.”
“Shut the fuck up,” Laura sputtered. “I never thought I’d ever go down on a girl. But who didn’t let up until I tried?”
“I did!” Vicky exclaimed. “Do you regret your widened horizon?” She stopped playing with herself and looked rather sober all of a sudden.
Laura tightened her belt and bent down to place another gentle kiss onto Vicky’s lips. “No. If there’s one thing I haven’t second-guessed during all of my time in Briou, it’s ending up in bed with you. After my eighteenth birthday party no less. I hardly knew you!”
“Which made it all the sweeter. Strangers in the night, exchanging… hm…”
Laura slipped into a pair of running shoes. “I’ll be back soon, okay?”
“I damn well hope so!”
* * * *
The monastery was housed in an ancient castle, with most of the upper-floor rooms occupied by students. Below the main entrance, on the ground floor, were the main faculty offices, dark, windowless rooms only illuminated by torches and strange glowing balls of magic.
I mean, we’re in the twenty-first century, why not simply use discreet electrical lights? No, it has to be done in accordance with Order tradition, especially in this tiny French backwater village!
Tradition was a big part of the Order of Martinius and nowhere was it more obvious than in the approach to the headmaster’s office. The whole corridor was filled with portraits of Briou alumni, some little bigger than a stamp, others near life-size. Every single one was a masterpiece though, capturing even tiny details like the faint scar under the left eye of Camilla Stürmer she allegedly got during her first brawl with her soon-to-be husband when his signet ring clipped her cheek bone. Laura sighed and left the portrait of her raven-haired mother behind. Whenever she saw it, she wondered what her mother had done to get slapped by a goddamn paladin!
Gathering her courage, Laura knocked at Reginald Aulin’s door.
She entered the dimly lit office, half expecting to catch a whiff of spilled blood. But, as always, the room was immaculate, despite belonging to a vampire.
Reginald Aulin was a tall, slender man seemingly in his late thirties. He had long, auburn hair he wore in a loose ponytail, along with clothing which made him look like a cross between a renaissance fop and something out of a vampire fangirl’s wet dreams, complete with ruffled shirt and a rapier always in reach.
She still couldn’t comprehend how a vampire had managed to become headmaster of a school for monster hunters. There were wild rumors involving everything from ancient binding spells to blackmail which were passed down from senior student to neophyte or — in Laura’s case — from her parents. There were only two people who knew the truth: Reginald himself and Mother Rachel, the current head of the Order. The only thing Laura knew for certain was that Headmaster Aulin took his job very seriously and that no one had ever seen him feast on one of the students. In fact, he was like an old lioness, fiercely protective of anyone under his roof.
Still, there were some hints of modern times in the vampire’s office, right in the open. A high end tablet PC rested atop a stack of binders to Reginald’s right and two telephones stood on a side desk.
Laura offered a small bow. “You wanted to see me, sir?” With students from around the globe, everybody in Briou spoke English, alongside their own native tongues. During the evenings, when lessons were over, the Common Rooms were abuzz with students talking Elven, German, Orc, French or Dwarven. Some of the Mages in her year had begun to use Latin as a kind of secret language which Laura found hilarious.
“I’m sorry if I cut your victory celebration short.” Reginald offered a tight-lipped smile. “No need to blush. I’ve been doing this job for the better part of a century, I know what my wards are up to in their spare time.”
“Uhm, yes, sir. So, what is this about? Did the Arbiter-”
Headmaster Aulin shook his head. “According to the Arbiter, the duel was fought and won squarely. Is there anything you’d like to report? Just be aware that an investigation might take some time and I’m sure you’d rather be elsewhere during the holidays.”
Laura bit her lip. “If you put it like that… no. It was an honor to fight Lady Arach for my graduation. She gave me a good thrashing.”
“Funny,” Reginald said, the tips of his fangs poking over his lower lip. “Arach said pretty much the same thing.” He took a deep breath — the first since Laura had entered his office — and reached for his tablet. “The main reason for your presence is this — someone posted a request for you.”
“I don’t quite understand, sir. Why me? I haven’t even received my graduation papers yet.”
“You already wear your cross which makes you as eligible for a request as every other Order member. In fact, this one came in a few days ago. Have a look.” He tapped the screen a couple of times and held out the device.
Hesitantly, Laura took it and read the email conversation on the screen. A certain Jenna Tallfeather had written to Reginald, asking him for a short list of candidates for a new chapter house. He had sent back only one file. Hers.
“You sent her my file even though I didn’t pass then?”
The headmaster chuckled, a low, dangerous sound more akin to a growl than an expression of humor. “She asked for a versatile, agile and powerful monster hunter, which fits your skill set nicely.”
“Sir, with all due respect — I’m nothing special. Anything my class mates can do, I have to work doubly as hard for. I have no magic-”
“Enough!” Reginald’s sharp bark stopped her harder than a slap across the face would.
“If Jenna had asked for someone with magic, I would have recommended someone with magic. She specifically asked for a fighter, a tracker, someone whose mind was as sharp as their blade.” He opened a binder. “You have graduated with top marks in all relevant areas, heck, you even outlasted both a Dwarf and a Half-Orc during the Field Trials.”
Laura snorted. “Please. If Thorin and Marox hadn’t partied so hard in the Flaming City, they would have left me in the dust during the planar excursion.”
Reginald scoffed softly. “Well, I’ll add a note citing ‘crippling humility’ to your psych exam and leave it at that. Anyway, when can you be off?”
“You heard me. Jenna wants to meet you on the double. Yesterday even.”
“Ugh. I didn’t even have time to pack my bags. Or say goodbye to the others.”
“All right then. You have until tomorrow morning, eleven o’clock. Use your time wisely.” He opened a binder and checked the documents within. The audience was over.
Headmaster Aulin raised his gaze, surprise flickering in his eyes. “Yes?”
“What about Vicky? Can she come too?”
The vampire gently shook his head. “I’m aware the two of you have grown rather fond of each other. Sadly, Miss Hralvin has her own marching orders. She will return to London, to replace her pregnant mother at the Whitechapel chapter house. Even if I could convince the higher-ups to let Victoria go with you, I’m afraid Miss Tallfeather already has a cleric on staff.” He offered a rare, warm smile. “You’d better get going then. Say goodbye as if you really mean it.”
* * * *
Laura didn’t get much sleep that night. Most of the afternoon and early evening was spent celebrating the graduation of her class. Eventually she and Vicky managed to slip away from the roaring party in the Common Room, ending up entwined in Vicky’s bed until they were too exhausted to keep making love to each other.
Deathly tired due to lack of sleep, Laura entered the headmaster’s office the next morning.
“Ah, right on time despite a night of debauchery. Good morning, Laura.” The vampire rose from behind his desk, picking up a leather-bound folder.
Laura’s cell vibrated in her back pocket. She chose to ignore it for the moment.
“I guess I’m here to receive my graduation papers?” she asked, trying to stifle a yawn.
“Indeed.” He handed her the folder. “Congratulations from me as well. The Order welcomes you.” He turned to his desk and produced a robust purse. “Here are your temporary visa and other papers. You will have to make your way from Boston to Greenbury by bus. I’m certain an Order-trained young lady like you should have no problems to secure the ticket locally. I’ve had a look at an online booking service and it seems they leave only once a day, around 7 AM. You might have to spend a night in Boston to catch a bus, depending on when you leave today.”
Laura took the purse and inspected it critically.
“That sounds rather roundabout as far as transport goes. Why not have me teleported right to Greenbury? I’m sure one of the sorcery teachers could-”
The headmaster shook his head. “Sorry. According to the archives, teleportation magic is rather hazardous in and around Greenbury. I’m afraid you’ll have to travel the conventional way, at least for the last leg of the journey.”
Laura sighed. “Hooray. By the time I’m over there, I’ll truly be a zombie.”
Reginald offered a fierce grin. “Inside the purse you’ll also find an Order debit card with a few thousand dollars on it so you can keep zombification at bay with plenty of caffeine.”
“What about my equipment?”
“Please leave your Flame Tongue and Hell Spitter with the Quartermaster. We’ll use the Order contacts to move them to Boston and from there to Greenbury but it might take a few weeks. After all, I have to organize a whole class’s worth of gear to shuffle all over. In the meantime Miss Tallfeather will most certainly have some equipment for you to use. She said she has a very capable Artificer.”
“Okay then,” Laura said. “Anything else?”
“Yes. One more thing: Good luck and may Martinius smile upon you.”
She left the office and pulled her phone free. Laura’s heart sank when she read the message on her display.
I’m not much for long, teary good byes. I hope you’ll remember me fondly whenever you touch yourself and I’m looking forward to our inevitable reunion once you’ve climbed the ranks to where they have no choice but to allow you to be independent. Until then I’ll be dreaming of you, sweet boobs.
Laura blinked sudden tears away. She knew that Vicky could be brutally pragmatic at times but leaving without a last chance to say good bye? Gnashing her teeth against the stinging ball of pain in her guts, she climbed back up the stairs to the room she had shared with the feisty dark elf, only to find it empty save for her hastily packed bag. The beds were made, fresh linens replaced the crumpled sheets they had slept in. Nothing of Vicky remained, not even a whiff of her favorite cave moss scent. Suddenly, Laura couldn’t be gone fast enough.
* * * *
With her bag over one shoulder, Laura trotted back down towards the faculty offices, wondering why Vicky had chosen to ghost her like that. Thus far, the dark elf had been open, welcoming and honest, the polar opposite to herself. Laura knew she brooded too much, no thanks to the burden of her lineage and the need to prove herself over and over again. Between nightlong whispered talks and the other things the dark elf had taught her, Vicky had helped Laura to loosen up.
And now she just up and vanished? I wouldn’t have cried, Laura thought.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you’re looking for a fight,” a kind voice said behind her. She turned around.
Coming down the corridor, white robes surrounding his majestic seven-foot frame was Mr. Coronaius, the monastery’s main sorcery teacher. A fierce dragon head, covered in golden scales, sat atop a long, flexible neck. Large wings, their leathery insides the color of café au lait, towered even higher. A long, spiked tail rustled over the carpet behind him as he came closer on three-toed, clawed feet. Despite his fearsome appearance, his voice was soft and gentle. Laura saw concern in his ruby-like eyes.
“Fight? Not really. If I had my way, I’d huddle in a corner and bawl my eyes out. My girlfriend just dropped me like a bad habit.”
“And yet, here you are, stalking the corridor like a vengeful tiefling looking for trouble,” Coronaius said, twirling a long, beardlike frond around a claw. “Do you hope to find her here?”
Laura sighed. “No, I’m afraid she’s already back in London. I’ll have to spam her mailbox if I hope to learn what had ridden her to vanish like that.” She shook her head like a wet, especially irritated wolf. “May I ask a favor, sir?”
Coronaius rubbed his scaly hands together. “You want me to help reunite the two of you? One teleport to London, coming right-” His voice trailed off when he saw Laura’s hand come up, waving his offer away.
“No, I’m not here for that. I mean, I’m here to find someone to teleport me somewhere but I need to be in Boston, not London.” Another sigh. “I have to go to a place called Greenbury in the USA but the headmaster told me-”
“That Greenbury? Yes, I’m afraid our stern leader is, as always, correct. Infuriating, really.”
“What, not being able to teleport there?”
Coronaius chuckled mildly. “No, him always being right. Never play Bridge against that man, I tell you.” The half-dragon blinked, forcing his mind back to the problem at hand. “You are aware what a nexus is, I suppose?”
Laura flicked her holy symbol with a finger. “I wouldn’t wear this if I didn’t know. A nexus is a place where the barrier between worlds is especially fragile which leads to all kinds of magical fluctuation.” She exhaled slowly. “Greenbury is close to Boston. Isn’t there already a chapter house?”
“There is but, as with all our chapters, the Boston branch is chronically understaffed and overwhelmed, especially with the current feud between the Blood Court in New York and the local vampires. It only makes sense for Mother Rachel to expand.” He extended an arm. “Congratulations are in order, I presume? You got assigned to the Greenbury chapter?”
“I didn’t ask for it,” Laura said. “I had hoped to go to London with Vicky but the higher-ups had other plans.” She took his claw, marveling at the softness of the scales in Coronaius’ palm.
“Every branch of the Order would be honored to have a Stürmer among them,” Coronaius said, patting the back of her hand. “It is a testament to your abilities that you are sent where the need is most dire.”
Coronaius made an elaborate gesture with his hand. Laura felt something like a light breeze tickle every hair on her body, a sensation she had experienced a few times before whenever her mother had cast one of her more powerful spells. A heartbeat later, the world moved sideways and gone was the tranquil corridor, replaced by an almost deserted red-and-white tiled plaza in front of Boston’s South Station Bus Terminal. The sky took on the first pinkish hues as the sun peeked over the eastern horizon.
Laura blinked in surprise then palmed her face. “So much for clever travel planning. We’re way too early.” She checked her phone. Thankfully, the Order’s data plan seemed to work just fine internationally. A moment later she looked up to Coronaius. “It’s barely past five in the morning. Now what?”
The golden half-dragon coughed in embarrassment. “Sometimes I forget things like time zones exist. When is your departure? If it’s not too far off, I could keep you company.”
Laura consulted her phone again, pulling up the transport provider’s booking page. “Says here… oh. Seven AM. Looks like the time zones are in our favor after all. I can kill two hours on my own, make a quick phone call or two over coffee and what fares for breakfast food over here.” She grinned. “I’m going to miss the lavish Briou breakfast with crossaints every morning though.”
“Good fortune to you then,” Coronaius said, bowing his long neck. “Do send an email once in a while, let an old dragon know how you’re doing.”
“Of course. It will probably be a few months until I stop instinctively checking the school servers for news so I might as well send a few lifesigns. Give my regards to Mr. Aulin and the rest of the faculty. Also, if you see Tessa, wish her and the soccer team all the best from me.”
“Will do.” Coronaius repeated his spell and disappeared. No flashy special effects, no strange tinkling noises. One moment, there was a seven-foot tall golden half dragon, the next only the rush of air filling a sudden void.
Laura shouldered her bag and looked around. The only open restaurant she saw close by was a McDonald’s next to the bus terminal. Yeah, Laura thought, grinning to herself, why not start my first day in America with burgers and fries to go along with my coffee?
* * * *
After booking her ticket, Laura tried to get Vicky’s attention but it was all for naught. The dark elf was serious about ghosting her — none of Laura’s calls went through. Instead of breaking down and leaving a tear-filled message on Vicky’s voicemail, she instead composed a long email asking for the dark elf’s reasoning. When did I become so clingy? Laura thought bitterly. No, she corrected herself. I’m not clingy! I just need to know why my girlfriend of two years vanished like that. Vicky always told me how much she cared for me. Is this the way to treat a loved one? Demanding a bit of closure is not being clingy. Why, Vicky?
The initial hit of shock and sadness had given way to confusion and a slow, simmering pit of anger. Laura hated being helpless, having to relinquish the initiative. There was no telling when Vicky would respond to her message — if she ever bothered to respond at all. She can’t be seriously throwing the last two years away! Laura made a fist. Her nails, even clipped sensibly short as they were, nearly broke the skin. Steaming in my own juices won’t get this resolved and staring at the screen will only drive me nuts. I need to do something else.
She called her parents and took a deep breath to steady her nerves.
Her mother took the call after the second ring.
“Hey sweetie, what’s up?” Camilla Stürmer sounded wide awake and lively.
Of course, Laura thought. It’s around noon in Germany.
“Hey. Sorry I didn’t call right after the Graduation like I promised,” she began.
“Nah, don’t worry. If anyone knows how wild the Briou parties can get then it’s your Dad and me.” Camilla coughed softly. “After all, that’s how you came to be. So, how did it go?”
“Naturally. How was your ceremony?”
“They decided that Arach would be the perfect test of my abilities. I somehow managed to snap her out of a Levitate and finished with a choke. Or Arach simply decided she had enough and let me win.”
There was a disapproving “tsk, tsk” from the other end of the connection. “Laura, no one in Briou lets anyone just win. The training is as grueling as it is to make sure new Order recruits are equipped with all the tools to survive their first year in the field. Giving someone a pass would mean Reginald letting unprepared students graduate. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t want their deaths on his conscience.”
“Still, Vicky says its impossible to disrupt a Dark Elf’s magic. She even showed me.” Laura’s lips twisted in a rueful smile.
Camilla laughed. “Impossible? Sweetie, I know at least three ways to deal with a pesky Dark Elf’s innate abilities.”
“Enlighten me then, oh mighty witch!”
“Why don’t we talk about that over dinner? When will you be home?”
Laura cleared her throat. “I… I got assigned to an Order chapter already. I honestly have no idea when they’ll let me have some away time.”
“Already? That’s impressive. So I take it you’ll be working with Elaine and Cassiel out of London?”
Laura sighed dejectedly. “No. Vicky decided to vanish before I could even say ‘tschüss’ and kiss her good-bye. Do you know a certain Jenna Tallfeather? I’m about to join her chapter house in Greenbury, Massachusetts.”
“Jenna? Of course! We used to call her ‘Big Mama Bear’ but only behind her back. She’s a werebear and a druidess. Always very serious. Her and I got into a nasty brawl but I can’t, for the life of me, remember what about.”
“Let me guess — you tried to talk her into some naughty fertility rite?” Laura suggested helpfully.
“Or I tried to poach her friend at the time before I met your Dad. All I do remember is a horrid rainy day and the both of us wrestling in the Inner Courtyard, right through Miss Sanchez’ herbal plot. Ol’ Deathstares wasn’t amused and had us muck out the stables for the rest of the term.” Camilla hesitated. “Vicky broke up with you?” Her voice was full of concern and warmth.
Another big sigh from Laura. “I wouldn’t exactly call it ‘breaking up.’ There were no hard words involved. If anything, last night was-” She bit her lip, trying to keep the tears from spilling. “Anyway, the last I saw from her was a text on my phone full of ‘I don’t want tears’ and ‘see you laters’ and since then, I can’t reach her.” She hated how her throat just kept clamping shut, turning her words into almost-sobs.
“Oh pumpkin,” Camilla cooed. “Maybe it’s Vicky who’s afraid of breaking down in front of you. Give her a few days, maybe she’ll call you back.”
“I’ll try,” Laura whispered, fishing for one of the unused McDonald’s napkins she had next to her tray. At least I’m sitting with my back to the counter, she thought grimly, dabbing at her eyes. “Still hurts like a motherfucker, being ghosted like that, especially after all the things we did.”
“Where are you now? I can be there in a snap.”
“Mom, I’m twenty. I don’t need a hug. Or your patented heartache cocoa.” A smile tried her lips and failed miserably. “Besides, I’m in Boston. My bus leaves in an hour and a half.”
“If you don’t want this assignment, give me a moment and I’ll talk to Rachel about it. We can get you something closer to home.”
“No!” Laura snapped. “Mom, I really, really love you and Dad but I don’t want any kind of special treatment. Do you have any idea how hard Briou was, always being a ‘Stürmer’ first and Laura second?”
“You sound a lot like your father right now,” Camilla said, chuckling. “Fine, fine. No stern talk to Her Eminence then. Will you be alright?”
“No idea. I’m much too tired and overwhelmed to be scared. Ask me in a week or so.”
“Will do. Don’t forget that I can always teleport to your side.”
Laura gently shook her head. “No, Mom. Not in Greenbury. It’s a nexus. That’s why Mr. Coronaius only got me as far as Boston.”
“Crap. Just don’t do anything foolish then, okay?”
“I’ll try, Mom. But like Arach tends to say-”
“‘The line between heroism and foolishness is drawn in blood,'” Camilla finished. “Stay far away from that line please. I prefer my daughter in one piece if possible.”
“Will do. And now I need to grab another cup of coffee. Talk to you and Dad later, okay? And for the love of God, Mom — don’t try to fix me and Vicky on your own. Please.”
“I’ve learned my lesson the last time. No witchy meddling, promise.” There was indistinct muttering on the other end. “Your father — as always — takes your side and threatens me with a Mark Of Justice should I try to meddle. Pfft. See me move a finger the next time you’re up to your neck in trouble,” Camilla huffed in mock indignation.
“Love you, Mom. Hug Dad for me, okay?”
“I’ll have to ask the stars about that but if he’s nice, I’ll let him try… In a year or so!” Camilla cackled madly then ended the call.
Laura blinked away a few errand tears and finished her cup of coffee. Then she scolded herself for not following up on how to beat a Dark Elf’s innate abilities. She made a mental note to ask the more experienced Order members she would soon meet and fetched another cup. She still had about ninety minutes to kill.
* * * *
Trees, nothing but trees as far as the eyes could see. Laura had always heard that things were bigger in the US but seeing the almost infinite Massachusetts forests drove home the point like nothing else she had seen in the last four hours. The trees towered high above the road and some branches almost reached for the bus’s window.
Public transport was an entirely different affair from what she was used to in France. The bus she was on only left once a day and crossed into Conneticut before looping back to its destination in Greenbury after an almost four-hour drive. No comparison to the four times the small bus connecting Briou to the outside world came into the village or the dense net of busses and trams she was used to in her home town of Cologne.
Another glance at the window. Her reflection showed a pale young woman looking back at her with large blue eyes. Her heart-shaped face was framed by a short bob of almost black hair. Before she had met Vicky, Laura had worn her hair extremely short so no one could use it as leverage in a fight. She suggested I should try emphasizing my feminine side so I let it grow. Laura sighed. It’s cute but impractical. Need to trim it soon. Every time she thought of Vicky, it stung less.
Laura also sported some impressive shadows around her eyes from lack of sleep. Despite a whole lot of coffee, the time difference was playing havoc with her body. She fought a yawn.
Outside, the wall of trees seemed to thin somewhat. Laura spotted sunlight glinting off water. She remembered reading something about a Black Lake being near Greenbury.
Time to make myself known, she thought, disconnecting her phone from the charger. She resisted the urge to see if Vicky had finally responded to the long mail she had composed over her breakfast in Boston and scrolled through a copy of the conversation between Headmaster Aulin and Jenna Tallfeather until she found the contact info she was looking for. She copied everything into her address book and dialed the chapter house’s number.
“Black Lake Chapel, Doug speaking.” The voice was deep, booming and definitely male. Her phone’s speaker struggled to capture the impressive low end.
“Um, hello. This is Laura Stürmer. I was hoping to speak to Jenna Tallfeather.”
“Ah, our newest recruit. Mama Bear is out for groceries at the moment. Care to give me a message for her?”
“Well, I’m on my way and should be in Greenbury in about twenty minutes. How do I get-”
“Say no more. I’ll pick you up at the terminal. Who am I looking for?”
“The lithe young woman who kinda looks like a zombie, with the big bag over her shoulder.”
“Gotcha. I’m the big dude with tusks. See you in twenty-ish.” The connection closed.
Lucky for him all Briou graduates are able to see Shadows, Laura thought. Although in her case, that revelation had come much earlier, when she was eight. There was that tiny old woman living next door Laura knew only as “Apple Auntie” because she loved to spoil the young girl with juicy green apples.
That fateful day, some bullies had ambushed Auntie right in front of Laura’s house while she was playing in the garden. When Laura heard the old woman crying for help, she didn’t hesitate and intervened, grabbing her wooden practice sword as she went. The bullies laughed as she vaulted over the low hedgerow, screaming at the top of her lungs as her Dad had taught her. One tried to shove her away — until she landed a precision hit on his fingers. In true bully fashion, that shithead screamed like a little girl for his buddies to kick Laura’s ass but their unprotected knees and grabbing hands were easy targets for stinging slaps of her weapon. By the time things threatened to turn ugly, her Dad was on the scene and none of the hoodlums wanted a piece of six-foot-five, three-hundred pound Matthias Stürmer who calmly asked if the bullies wanted to wait with him for the police. Of course they ran like the cowards they were.
Laura remembered reaching for the old woman’s hand — and something she had almost forgotten stirred in the depths of her memories. Apple Auntie’s eyes looking past her, to where Dad was. Only when she caught some unseen approval did she allow Laura to pull her upright. And Laura squealed in surprise as she saw Apple Auntie for what she truly was. Granted, she still was an old woman but not a human old woman. Her skin was as green as the apples she lavished on Laura and her ears were large, floppy and triangular, giving her skull the shape of a football. Long wisps of white hair went down her bent spine and her hands had only four fingers, each one tipped with a tiny black claw. Her eyes were full of gratitude and pride.
And later that night I heard how Dad talked to Headmaster Aulin over the phone, telling him that I would come to Briou once I turned ten. I wasn’t quite sure if it was a reward or punishment for helping Apple Auntie that day, Laura thought. I’m still not sure but it’s too late to moan about that.
In Briou she learned that most humans were incapable of seeing Shadows for what they were until a Shadow willingly touched them for more than a second. Something about aligning metaphysical wavelengths, the teachers in Briou had said. Even so, most people simply refused to see Shadows for what they really were, because as a whole, humanity had been conditioned that monsters, goblins and elves simply didn’t exist. Those who could see things for what they really were had been decried as lunatics or witches which caused many to simply keep their mouths shut for fear of persecution or ridicule.
One thing Laura had learned in Briou in regards to the world at large and magic in particular — there seldom were cut-and-dry answers, easy black-and-whites to sort your world around. Everything was a confusing mess of grays, maybe’s and potential.
Which brings me back to my own lack of magic, Laura thought. I mean, Mom is one hell of a spell-slinger and Dad is blessed by some higher power. Following the laws of genetics, I should have inherited at least a fraction of their power. She had been tested several times during her stay at Briou, with the same negative result every time. Carlos, one of the few other humans in her year and by now an accomplished assassin, had more magical aptitude than her!
“Hey, are you asleep back there?” the bus driver called. Laura returned her reclining seat to upright and looked around. She was the only one left in the bus.
“I’m awake. Are we there yet?” she asked back, putting as much cheer into her voice as possible. The driver chuckled and turned his focus back to the road. Laura grabbed her bag and relocated to the front of the bus.
Outside, she saw the outskirts of a small town pass by, with the towering forest an ever-present backdrop. The crumbling remains of large lumber yards gave way to warehouses and shuttered business fronts. Eventually, the bus turned off the main road and came to a stop under a concrete awning. The terminal to the left of the bus looked only marginally more in use than the rest of the neighborhood. A solitary figure, a hunk of a man close to seven feet tall, waited in front of it.
“Greenbury, Massachusetts,” the driver announced unnecessarily. “End of the line. Thanks for using Piper’s Bus Tours.”
“The pleasure was all mine,” Laura said, leaving the vehicle. She took a deep breath. It was surprisingly warm, easily 27° Celsius, and the scent of the city tickled her nostrils. A hint of warm asphalt, exhaust fumes and something else, something… old mixed in the dusty air.
She shouldered her bag and headed for the mountain of a man who was holding a hastily scrawled note over his head. Doug was bald save for a thick coppery braid hanging down to mid-back. He wore frayed jeans and a leather vest over a colorful, skull-adorned white T-shirt. His skin was almost tan in color, the sunlight purging most of the green tint from it. His tusks were on full display as he offered a huge grin. The note read “Frau Stürmer!”
She chuckled. “Laura is fine. Are you Doug?”
“Yup.” He looked around and boomed a little less: “Paladin in the name of Mercy!” Doug tapped his chest. A wing-like wreath of light was briefly visible, brighter even than sunlight.
Laura raised an eyebrow. “What do you do? Hit sinners very gently?”
Doug roared with laughter. “I may be forbidden from starting a fight but, by Mercy’s shapely bosom, I end fights once and for all, especially when helpless folk are at stake.” He looked around. “Let’s get you home. We can talk on the way. Fewer ears around.”
“Fine with me.” She followed Doug as he made his way around the bus terminal. The towering half-orc headed straight for a silver-and-blue Pontiac Trans Sport minivan which had seen better days. The side panels showed an impressive collection of dents and the sprayed-on blue crosses had almost completely rubbed off.
“Someone hasn’t taken good care of their vehicle,” Laura muttered while Doug fumbled with the keys.
“‘S not mine,” the half-orc grumbled. “Jenna brought it with her from New York. I figured you’d be bringing a bit more stuff than just that one bag, hence the van and not my bike.”
“I’m a Pally, on a steel horse I ride?” Laura sing-songed as she opened the rear door. She threw her bag on the bench seat before climbing in behind it.
Doug folded almost double as he took the driver’s seat. “Joke all you want. I’ll take a Harley over a meat warhorse any day of the week.” He put on his seat belt and started the car. “Much less maintenance.”
They drove in amicable silence. Laura looked out of the passenger side window. The drive through downtown Greenbury wasn’t much more uplifting than what she had seen from the bus. There were old art-deco buildings, their imposing facades faded and cracked, next to early-Eighties concrete-and-steel office blocks. They seemed haphazardly placed, almost as if struggling for dominance. In the end, numerous boarded-up windows and deserted storefronts united those disparate buildings into a strangely uniform vista of failed ambition.
After a few blocks of the same depressing view Laura turned to Doug. “Say, how many people live in Greenbury?” she asked.
“A couple thousand. Maybe ten thousand? Haven’t seen anything resembling a current census since I came here from L.A.”
“The town looks much bigger than that though,” she said.
Doug nodded. “When the lumber business folded, many got out while they could I guess. Well, and then there’s the city’s reputation.”
“Which I haven’t heard about yet. I mean, since the Order is setting up a new branch, there has to be something for us to do but I only got the short version when they sent me here.”
“Which short version?” Doug shot her a quizzical glance.
Laura spotted two men digging through a dumpster while a third was roasting something over a barrel. Laura hoped it was a big rat. Shivering, she returned her attention to Doug. “‘Congratulations for graduating, here’s your first assignment.'”
“Oh, that’s short indeed. Well, Greenbury has the longest list of missing people in all of the US. We’re talking ‘vanish without a trace’ levels of disappearances. And then there’s Black Lake.”
“What about it? I saw glimpses on my way here. Looks ominous.”
“It is ominous. When I came here, Jenna and I had a look. Something’s in there and it made my holy symbol scorch a toasty little crater into my chest.”
“Lovely. As if the sahuagin near Briou weren’t enough scaly terrors from the deep. If I never see one fish-man flashing his dick at me again, it will be too soon,” Laura growled.
“You’re shitting me. Fish-men have no dicks,” Doug said.
“Let me settle in and I’ll show you,” Laura said, tapping her jacket where she had her phone stashed away.
“You have photos?”
“Every spring the sahaugin came up from the lake near the castle to abduct a few virgins for their procreation rituals. Our job as academy students was to protect the locals,” Laura said. “Sadly, I had to leave my trophies behind. No room in my bag for a couple meters of hand-cured lengths of sahuagin leather. But I have pictures.”
I just need to move the ones with Vicky into a private folder. A wistful smile tugged on her lips as she remembered how Vicky had volunteered as bait for the horny fish-men, prancing up and down the shoreline in the nude. The battle was fierce, despite the whole class giving it their all. They nearly lost Marox to a poisoned spear and Carlos nearly drowned, harpooned off-shore by a sahuagin sniper.
She exhaled slowly before the inevitable memories of the victory celebration, of naked Vicky and the sunset beach, could tear at her heartstrings. “Anything else I should know about? Monsters in the woods?”
Doug chuckled. “Nothing an Order initiate can’t handle, I guess. Just stay clear of the Asylum until we have a better idea of what’s going on there.”
“Asylum? This place sounds more and more like something straight out of either Lovecraft or King.”
“Yeah, Asylum. Or rather ‘former Asylum.’ The place got shuttered in the late Seventies when the stories of patient mistreatment and dubious operating procedures became too frequent to be hushed up. No one coughed up the funds to level the place yet.”
“Now it’s a haven for creatures of the night?”
“Our local contact talked more about squatters, addicts, the homeless and other displaced souls but, until we’ve checked it out, I’d rather not assume anything.”
They had arrived in a residential area. Tall trees did their best to obscure the old houses from view but the radiant sunlight only amplified the ever present signs of neglect and decay. Laura saw flaking paint, broken windows, cars rusting on cinder blocks, the occasional door flapping in the wind. Some houses were still occupied and in better repair than the deserted ones yet it was those lived-in houses which stood out like sore thumbs surrounded by their decrepit brethren.
“I hope the chapter house is in better shape,” she muttered. “This looks dreadful.”
“It is, believe me. We even have warm water and electricity around the clock.”
“Speaking of ‘we.’ Who will I be working with, besides you of course?”
“You’re gonna like them, I guess,” Doug said. “Maria Lechner is our sorceress. Got her diploma from some place in Vienna.”
“Die Schwarze Akademie? So she’s a Necromancer?”
Doug shook his head. “Jenna wouldn’t be stupid enough to pair a Necro with a Paladin. Maria does a lot with weapons, armor and tech. What’s the word? Artificer. First thing she did for me was help with my armor.” He clicked his talon-like fingernails against some kind of collar he wore. “Then there’s Eric Deveraux. He’s our healer. Poor kid had half his face bitten off by a ghoul.”
“Ghouls? Ugh. Did he…?”
“Catch Ghoul Fever? You bet. Left some damn ugly scars too. I wouldn’t mention them if I were you.”
The minivan turned onto another road. The treeline was much closer now while the houses stood further apart. Most striking thing of all was an old chapel, the tower barely taller than the next closest house and the nave not much bigger than Headmaster Aulin’s office.
“I’ll be gentle. You said ‘kid.’ How old is our healer then?”
“Just turned eighteen. Makes him the youngest of our ragtag band.”
Laura whistled softly. There was little reason to doubt Doug’s words. As a Paladin, lying was frowned upon. So, if this Eric was both that young and skilled enough to end up on Jenna’s radar, he had to be something pretty special. Or carrying a giant chip on his shoulder. She grinned at her reflection. Whatever the case, things promised to become very interesting rather soon.
Doug stopped the car one door down from the chapel, in front of a wide, two-story building. The front was freshly painted, the white used almost painful in the sunlight. Someone had mowed the lawn recently and tended to the trees close by. Everything around the house looked new and fresh and healthy, even the small cemetery next to the chapel had fresh flowers on some of the graves.
“Cozy,” Laura remarked, looking at the sign next to the chapel. “Oh, you answered the phone saying I called the Black Lake Chapel. Is that our cover?”
Doug locked the van. “Yup. Not very convincing, especially considering our priest, but it’s the only thing we have right now. Not that the neighbors are particularly inquisitive.” He opened the front door and the mouth-watering aroma of grilled steak greeted them. Laura’s stomach roared like a famished werewolf. The promise of hot, tasty food lifted her spirits and turned her thoughts away from Vicky. She inhaled hungrily and looked around. Beyond the front door was a small entrance hall. A staircase snaked up and to the left while two corridors went to either side on ground level.
“I’m back!” Doug bellowed. “And I brought company!” He nudged Laura. “Gimme your bag, I’ll take it upstairs while you say hello.”
“Sure. Thank you.” She handed it off to him and Doug took the stairs two at a time.
A tall, tanned woman with a thick braid of amazing, jet-black hair stepped out of a door in the left-hand corridor. “So, you’re Camilla’s girl, huh?” Her eyes were of a bright orange, the slightest hint of her strangeness. “I see the resemblance. How’s your mother doing these days? As crazy as ever?” She joined Laura in the entrance hall and extended a hand, the barest hint of a welcoming smile tugging at her lips.
Laura shook it. “A pleasure to meet you. I’m Laura.” She offered a grin. “Nice to meet you, Mother Jenna.”
The werebear rolled her eyes. “Ugh, please. Save the titles for the paperwork. Jenna will be fine. Just don’t call me ‘Mama Bear’ if you value your face. I’m a werebear, not a mascot for baby wipes, for Chrissakes!”
“No problem. How come Doug still has his?” Laura asked innocently.
“I’m not supposed to rip my second-in-command to pieces in the gym, that’s why,” Jenna growled. She was easily a head taller than Laura and swabbed in loose-fitting clothes. “But believe me, I’m this close!” Jenna raised her hand. Her index finger and thumb were just a hair apart.
Laura shot her a friendly smile. “And I have no silver on me to defend myself,” she joked.
“I’m a natural, girl. I can hulk out whenever.” Jenna grinned back, exposing a hint of canines. “So, you hungry?”
Laura’s stomach answered with an affirmative growl. Jenna showed her a bathroom, to freshen up. While she was in there, Laura heard Doug coming down the stairs, saying something to the druid. Once done, the werebear led Laura through a large dining hall with room for at least a dozen people, out through a back door and onto an ivy-shrouded back porch where a table was set up, laden with bowls and plates. The smell of freshly grilled steaks and roasted bread was mouth-watering. Beyond the porch was a garden, a curious mixture of cultivated plots and wildly growing plants. As she watched, she saw two cats chase each other up a tree.
Jenna took her seat next to Doug. Within moments, they were bickering. Laura ignored them for the moment and focused on her new chapter mates.
Eric was easy enough to spot. He was a lanky young man, with tanned skin and a mop of honey blonde dreads going everywhere. A colorful bandana kept them out of his face and nearly managed to divert her attention from the ghastly set of scars going from his nose over his right eye to where his ear should have been. His lips curled into a friendly smile. “Heya. I hope my ugly mug doesn’t ruin your appetite. You’re Laura, right?”
“Indeed. Laura Stürmer, scion of the notorious dynasty of the same name. You have grown nicely since I last saw you,” the last member of the chapter, Maria, said. She was a pale, willowy whip of a woman, with auburn tresses tumbling down her back in a cascade of free-flowing locks. She wore mostly black, the only dash of color a crimson tie around her neck. Silver stitching snaked down the arms of her blouse, seemingly shifting under Laura’s gaze. One moment, the silvery thread appeared like some kind of angular runes, the next it resembled nothing more like trace lines on a circuit board. She blinked and looked up. Maria’s eyes were golden.
“Do we know each other?” Laura asked, taking a seat opposite Maria. Jenna pushed a plate her way, laden with steak, potatoes and vegetables.
“We brushed past each other during your first year in Briou,” Maria said, a fleeting smile on her lips. “You were much too busy to notice me — or the other graduates. Well, you following the family tradition was kind of a big deal. The Headmaster didn’t shut up about you, even holding a small speech that he’d personally bleed anyone dry who would think about bullying you.”
Laura nearly choked on her first bite of steak. “He did what?”
“Not to be a dickhead but what’s so special about you anyway?” Eric asked, pointing with the blunt end of his fork. “I mean, you’re cute enough, but…”
“Don’t ask me,” Laura said. “I’m no Paladin like my father or a Witch like mom. No magic to call my own, no divine patron, nada.” She locked gazes with Maria. “Believe me, the instructors in Briou didn’t exactly offer any special treatment. Arach especially loved knocking me about.”
“Your bloodline has been a part of the Order from its humble beginnings,” Maria said. “It’s immaterial how it manifests but the blood of heroes runs through your veins.”
“Not special my ass,” Jenna laughed. “Just to put things into perspective — Laura has some of the best marksmanship and sword fighting marks I have seen in about a decade of graduates.”
“And I worked my shapely ass off to earn every single one of them,” Laura grumbled. “My hands still stink of cordite thanks to all the hours I spent at the range while others had fun making music or having sex.” She speared at a chunk of potato with her fork.
“Speaking of gear,” Maria said. “If you could see me in my workshop after lunch, I’ll provide your equipment.”
“Which is where?” Laura asked.
“Downstairs,” Jenna said. “Gym, range, sparring chambers and the locker room are down there too.”
“It’s like a damn supervillain lair,” Eric said, grinning amicably. “The one thing missing is a super computer.”
“How long did you say you’ve been running this place?” Laura asked.
“Two weeks,” Jenna said around a mouthful of food. “Without Maria, we’d still be digging extra cellars by now.”
“Hey, don’t heap too much praise on my narrow shoulders. Without the GobCo guys and your platinum credit card, all my magic would have done squat.”
“There’s a GobCo in town?” Laura’s eyes lit up. “And I worried about not getting my favorite snacks any more.”
Eric raised a hand. “Uhh, ladies? What’s a GobCo? And what’s so special about it?”
Laura scoffed. “You’re an Order member and don’t know what a GobCo is?”
Eric scowled, a move made much more fearsome by his scars. “Yeah, I’m an Order man – for all of six months. I can barely believe I can actually work miracles. So please, enlighten me.”
“It’s basically a superstore chain run by goblins,” Maria patiently explained. “Hence the name. GobCo is short for Goblin Conglomerate or Corporation, depending on who you ask.”
“Goblins.” Eric tried not to snicker.
“Yes,” Doug grumbled. “My mischievous, also green-skinned relatives. I may have forgotten almost everything when I stumbled across the Barrier but the pesky football skulls are rather ubiquitous everywhere, even here.”
“And when one enterprising Order member back in the 1880s realized that they were in fact ubiquitous and able to procure almost everything on short notice, she suggested they turn their skills to good use,” Maria explained.
“I still don’t get it. A goblin supermarket? What are they selling? Eye of Newt and Wing Of Bat?” Eric asked.
“Today? Everything from snacks to spell components to high tech,” Laura said, grinning. “I’m pretty sure they are the primary telecom supplier for most of the Order.”
“And let’s not forget their delivery service,” Maria said. “Anything from any other GobCo store can be here within twenty-four hours. Amazon, eat your bloody heart out.” She giggled playfully. “Oh, which reminds me, Eric. I got your phone ready. It’s properly encrypted and I took the liberty of installing the usual suite of Order apps — journal, prayer book, monster database et cetera.”
“Uh… cool, I guess?” Eric said.
“Do you need mine as well?” Laura asked.
“Just let me have a look at it when you’re in the workshop. I’ll decide then.”
Laura poured herself a glass of water and took a long sip. “I hope you’re not planning any big sightseeing tours today. I’m totally beat. Time zones are a bitch.”
“We actually didn’t expect you for some more days,” Jenna said. “I’m amazed you’re this early to begin with. How did you get here this fast?”
Laura told about her meeting with Headmaster Aulin after her Graduation and how she ended up in Boston at five in the morning.
“Next time,” Jenna said sternly, “just call me directly. I would have jumped in the car and fetched you myself. Taking the bus was the long, long way around.” The werebear smiled fondly. “Take all the time you need to catch your breath. How about a little sniffing out tomorrow morning?”
“Sniffing out?” Laura asked, looking from face to face at the table.
Eric rubbed his shoulder, Maria smiled at her and Doug grinned expansively. He said: “What M- Jenna wants is a little one-on-one time in the ring.”
“Sure, I’ll be happy to oblige, after eight hours of sleep or so.” Laura hid a yawn behind her palm.
* * * *
“Pick one,” Maria said, “There’s plenty of rooms left.”
The upper hallway had eight doors, four of which were wide open. Laura took her bag from the landing and picked the first door to the left. A spacious room waited beyond, the far wall one large, tri-panel window overlooking the garden and the dense forest beyond. The bed, a sturdy four-poster made from dark wood and brass decoration, was big enough for two. A wide desk was built into a row of cabinets, a widescreen monitor hinting at some kind of computer or at least entertainment system hidden nearby. Both an armor stand and a weapons rack were in arm’s reach from the door. Two chairs and a round table were nestled into the space surrounded by the windows. A narrow side door led somewhere else. Laura gestured towards it. “Bathroom?”
Maria nodded. “Indeed. Adjacent rooms have to share. Lucky you has no neighbor yet so enjoy it while you can.”
Laura dropped her bag onto the bed. She pulled a change of clothes from it then fished for her toiletry bag. Many of the jars and tubes within had the eye-watering yellow, orange and green of GobCo’s house brand on them. “Oh, believe me, I will. I hope you don’t mind the ten minutes it will take.”
“I could wash your back,” Maria offered, a playful smile on her lips. “Unless you want me to call Doug, that is. He barely let you out of his sight over lunch.”
Laura burst out laughing. “Thanks for both offers but I think I’ll pass for now. Even if my girlfriend hadn’t just broken up with me, I’m way too tired for any mutual exploration.” She looked Maria over. The slender half-elf nearly came up to her height but was maybe two-thirds of her weight. Her blouse’s angular cut accentuated her shoulders but did a pretty decent job of hiding her breasts while the tight pair of slacks Maria wore outlined her narrow waist and the gentle curve of her butt.
“Well, just call if your back needs some scrubbing,” Maria said. “Once you’re done, see me below.” She blew Laura a kiss and sashayed off.
Laura shook her head and closed the door to her room. I’ll never get used to how generous Shadows are with their affection, she thought while undressing.
Between her non-human classmates and even some strangers she had met when back home in Cologne for the holidays, the Shadows were quick to make the first move. Madame Robert, the teacher for Shadow psychology and monster lore, was quick to remind them that Shadows were people too and being invisible to most humans caused some of them to become somewhat desperate when it came to dating.
Over the past two decades, the stance in Briou had changed from ‘no sex allowed at all’ to ‘be responsible, here’s how birth control works.’ Still, between gender segregation at night and a strictly enforced curfew, the dating game remained an adventure — unless you happened to end up with your roommate.
Laura inspected the bathroom. Like everything else in the chapter house, it was both brand new and exuded an old-world charm she didn’t quite expect. There were both a bathtub and a shower stall, lots of white enamel and brass inlays wherever the eye went. A toiled and bidet and two sinks with enough towel racks to serve half a soccer team. Whoever had designed this bathroom expected both tenants to get along pretty well.
Her phone rang. Laura parked her toiletries on a chest of drawers and dashed back into her bedroom.
There was embarrassed silence on the other end, then, finally, Victoria spoke. “Hey.”
Laura’s heart nearly skipped a beat. “You’ve got fucking nerves,” she began. “What the hell were you thinking!?” Her voice rang off the windows.
Vicky exhaled slowly. “I think I deserved the verbal slap you just gave me, huh?”
“If I could, I’d crawl through the connection and spank you silly, you stupid pointy-eared idiot!” Laura hissed. “Why?”
“I… I thought it would be better if you’d be mad at me instead of sad and lonely,” Vicky muttered. “Where are you? What are you doing?”
“Well, I’m mad at you for pissing off like that. And I’m sad because I thought I mean enough to you that you’d let me kiss you goodbye. Stupid romantic shit like that,” Laura fumed. “Why call now?”
There was a soft sob at the other end. “I miss you, sweet boobs. A lot. I mean, how long…?”
Laura checked the display and did some mental gymnastics. “Don’t tell me you’re in bed, naked, touching yourself and being all mushy-gushy for me right now. Eight hours or so.”
There was a soft moan on the other end. “You know me too well, El.” Soft rustling of fabric. “Also, your mom called me and gave me a tongue lashing I’ll probably never forget.”
Laura moaned. “I told her not to get involved.” She crashed onto the bed. “If you have to know, I’m in the midst of a particularly Lovecraftian province nest in Massachusetts, naked on my bed. And, for your information, a very cute half-elven sorceress wanted into my pants.”
“Oh.” Vicky sounded much less horny all of a sudden. “How did it go?”
Laura grinned deviously. “By all rights I should tell you about how she seduced me under the shower and how her nimble fingers drove me to heights you never could before we ended up in my fantastic four-poster bed, eating each other out until I fell unconscious.” She listened. “Are you seriously fucking yourself now?”
“Hmmm, tell me mo-… what?” The soft, sopping sounds stopped abruptly.
“You’re impossible! I haven’t even said I’d forgive you, you coal-skinned slut!” Laura snarled, trying to keep a straight face. Relief washed over her in waves, despite the knot of anger in her insides. “Also, I said ‘by all rights’ and all that. I sent her away. I’m fighting an ungodly amount of teleport lag on top of the lack of sleep you are responsible for. The last thing on my mind is sex, seriously.”
More rustling of fabric then Victoria’s voice came again, much more coherent and sober. “How can I apologize?”
Laura sighed. “I don’t know. I’d love to kick your ass six days to Sunday in the sparring circle but considering how difficult teleportation to and from Greenbury is… you’ve just earned yourself a stay of execution, until I manage to slip this joint for a week or two.”
“What are we going to do in the meantime then?” Vicky asked. “Long-distance relationships suck, even with video calls. You do have internet, don’t you?”
“You know we have more between us than just sex, don’t you?” Laura asked, walking over to the desk and flipping open doors at random. She soon found a serious-looking desktop PC stashed away in one of the cabinets, with mouse and keyboard hidden in a drawer under the desk top. “If you’d been just a sexy piece of ass and there had been nothing but-”
“The sex, you moron. If there had been nothing but sex between us, I think I would have taken your sudden radio silence much better. But the girl who was all about being open, being honest and being my shoulder to cry on just ghosting me, that hurt like a Sewer Horror’s tentacle across my face.”
“I think I understand.” Vicky was quiet for a time. “I’m truly sorry. I panicked.” Another pause. “You know, for all my posturing…”
“I was your first real girlfriend, huh?”
“I’d never have guessed. Not after what you did with Thorin and Marox in the Flaming City.”
“Admit it, you got a huge kick out of watching me being spitroasted by those two. I told you, you should have taken the Djinn waiter who was giving you those scorching looks up to our room as well.”
“I was drunk enough to enjoy your antics, yes. But I don’t think I could just fuck around, even with your blessing.”
Vicky laughed softly. “Then you haven’t found the right temptation yet. Just to be extra-clear — I expect you to get all the steamy sex you need while over there. No guilty conscience. Fuck your overthinking, German brain out. I dare you. And when we meet next time, I want all the dirty details.”
“I know you’ll do whatever the heck you want anyway,” Laura said. “I only want one promise from you: Never, ever, ghost me again. Please. I could go celibate in a heartbeat, as long as I know my best friend is there for me when I need her.”
“You’ll never go celibate!” Vicky protested. “You love the horizontal tango way too much.”
“Watch me,” Laura threatened. “Or maybe I’ll forsake the feminine wiles completely and have myself a tasty half-orc for a change. There’s that hunk of a paladin working with me. I bet he’s hung like a horse and itching for some delicious me.”
“Like I said, go hog wild. Just let me know how it went, okay?” Vicky turned sober again. “And by my honor as second daughter of House Hralvin, I shall promise my phone will forever be in arm’s reach, even if a Roper is fucking every single one of my orifices.”
“You are so nasty sometimes!” Laura wiped tears of laughter from her eyes. “It’s only been eight hours without you, but I’ve missed you so much.”
“Me too,” Vicky whispered. “And please, could you tell your mom to not cast that frigidity curse on me?”
* * * *
Eric had been right. The moment Laura passed the concealed door leading into the chapter house’s lower basement, the surroundings reminded her of something seen in a Bond villain lair, or something hidden under the X-Mansion. The walls were paneled with dark marble, each panel decorated with a tall brushed steel rectangle, ready to accept trophies or other decorations. The light panels above produced a curious hue, somewhere between pure white and something approximating daylight. There was no shadow anywhere, only her reflections in the pristine marble slates. Doors were made out of metal and every single one was emblazoned with the Order’s blue-tinged silver cross. Hand-sized OLED screens next to each door announced each room’s function.
The door to the Armory hissed open as Laura approached. The room beyond was a curious cross between workshop, storage area and, of all things, an operating theater, with a central, brightly illuminated workbench. Maria waited behind a counter, her formal clothing exchanged for a low-necked T-shirt and comfortable pants. She had tied her mane into a simple ponytail.
“You look better,” she observed, offering Laura a warm smile and a peek down her front as she leaned on the counter. She wore no bra.
“A long, hot shower can work wonders,” Laura said, joining the half-elf at the counter. “As does a long heart-to-heart with my once-again girlfriend.”
“And here I was, hoping I could staple your mangled heart back together with some exotic gear and decades of experience between the sheets,” Maria joked.
“I’ll happily take the gear,” Laura purred, leaning closer.
“And?” Maria murmured, coming closer as well until their noses almost touched.
Laura bridged the last inch or so and breathed a gentle kiss onto Maria’s lips. “Victoria Hralvin says hi,” she said softly. “And consider this a down payment for later, once we know each other a little better.”
“Hmmm,” Maria said, pulling herself upright again. “That was a nice bit of Briou diplomacy. I agree to your terms.”
“I had the best teacher,” Laura said. She didn’t expect Maria’s lips to taste like cherries. “Down to brass tacks then. I need gear and I need answers.”
Maria pursed her lips in a cute pout. “So it’s true what they say about humans. Always business, no pleasure. And I’m trying so hard to be sociable,” the half-elf complained.
“Don’t try to pretend you’re not fifty percent human yourself,” Laura said, wagging a finger at her.
“I spent most of my early years among my elven mother’s kin then I ended up in Briou. We both know it’s the last place to learn proper human behavior. I had to wait until Die Schwarze Akademie to get in touch with my human side.” Maria shrugged. “Two can play at being professionals. So, what’s first? Gear or answers?”
“Answers.” Laura quickly explained how her graduation match with Arach had ended. “Vicky says it’s impossible to interrupt a dark elf’s power, my mom laughs at the thought. Who is right?”
“Both,” Maria said, grinning. “Under normal circumstances, it is very hard to break a dark elf’s concentration. Nothing short of sleep or unconsciousness would do. But-!” She raised a hand to ward off Laura’s interjection. “That only applies to non-magical interruptions. The moment magic, or especially anti-magic, is involved, we are looking at a much more complex set of possibilities.”
“I have no magic,” Laura said. “All my aptitude tests came back blank. My classmate Carlos can use wands! And he’s not even a sorcerer!”
“You had the mandatory Magic 101, I presume?” Maria fished a narrow box out from under the counter.
“Yeah. Total waste of my time. I mean, I can now read a bit of Draconic and know my pentagrams from my banishing sigils, but-”
“Here, take this,” Maria said, holding the box open. Inside was a polished wand made from a pale wood.
Laura picked up the item. It tingled between her fingers as she turned it this way and that. “The runes say ‘Light.’ What-”
“Use it. You know how.”
“You really want to waste our time, huh? Is that your idea of punishing me for not showering together?”
“Please, indulge me. And no, I would never be that petty. We barely met and I can wait a few weeks, months or years until you allow me to seduce you.”
Laura sighed. “Okay then. I am a sorcerer. The wand works for me. I am a sorcerer.” She held the wand at arm’s length and repeated the words over and over again. According to Mr. Coronaius, using magical items as a non-sorcerer required a lot of willpower, tricking the item into working with the wielder instead of against them. Laura gnashed her teeth. By now, the wand trembled between her fingers.
“Enough. Relax please,” Maria said, touching her shoulder.
Laura opened her eyes. There was no globe of daylight hovering in front of her, despite beads of sweat on her forehead and a fierce cramp in her wrist. She dropped the wand on the counter and shook out her hand. “Told you.”
Maria picked up the wand and made a gesture with her free hand. Her eyes took on a strange, otherworldly glow as she inspected the item. “Hm.”
“Hm what? That’s not really helping,” Laura grumbled.
“Hm like in ‘Hm, this is interesting.’ The wand was freshly made and should be fully charged.” Maria looked up, the strange glow dissipating. “I see no changes, neither in the amount of charges or the type of enchantment stored.”
Laura shrugged. “That’s how it’s always been for me. The only magical items which work for me are those carrying permanent enchants and potions. I feel kinda stupid not being able to even coax some light from a wand, considering my parents.”
“That’s odd indeed. Camilla was very impressive when I met her a few years ago, during her stint as a guest teacher at the Akademie. And your father is a Paladin?”
“Fully anointed Knight Hospitalier. Throws Holy Smites left and right when wading into battle. Or used his Lay On Hands to fix every little bruise I got when I learned how to ride a bike.” Laura smiled fondly.
“You love your parents.”
“It’s… difficult. My mother can be horribly irritating at times, always so detached and precise when doing even the most simple things. And my father is way too energetic even for me. We butted heads a lot, all three of us.” Maria shook her head. “Back to the matter at hand. Besides managing to slam Arach out of her Levitation, can you remember any other strange interactions with magic items or spells? Be as precise as you can, every little detail might be a clue to your condition.”
“It’s a condition now?” Laura sighed. “I’m not sure… oh, wait. I do remember something. Last year we had our big planar excursion.”
“Oh, fun times. I remember mine all too well. My team and I got the short straw and spent two weeks in Limbo. We had to take turns imagining solid ground beneath our feet or tumble through the Void Of Potentials for all eternity. Not my idea of fun.”
Laura giggled. “And I thought we had it rough. I was teamed up with Vicky-”
“Uh-huh, her. Also with us were Marox, a huge half-orc barbarian from Russia and Thorin, a dwarven mage from Sweden. We drew The Flaming City from the hat. At that time I thought someone had rigged the lottery because there’s an Order outpost in the City but our two weeks there were… taxing.”
“If I remember correctly, The Flaming City is infamous for its night life, isn’t it?” Maria’s grin turned naughty.
“Things did get out of hand on occasion. But Sharazel, the local Order contact, heaped so many quests on us, we barely had time to let our hair down. One such quest was the eradication of some Fire Elementals who were terrorizing a brass smelter on the edge of town. I was fighting off three of the buggers when a fourth threw a Fireball at me from behind. Instead of toasting me, I only lost a few singed hairs. Vicky said the elemental missed because he was entranced by my cute ass but I’m pretty sure that was her hormones talking.”
“Interesting. You didn’t even react consciously?”
“I didn’t even notice the attack until the Fireball blew up around me, ironically healing those elementals close by.”
“How do you deal with tests of your abilities in general?”
Laura shrugged. “I prepare so much beforehand, the test itself usually is just a formality.”
“And when the aptitude tests came around? Did you feel nervous?”
“No, not at all. Dejected, down in the dumps. While all around me my classmates made pebbles spin or glow stones light up, I could only sit, sweat and marvel as my test objects remained dormant.” Laura suddenly yawned. “Sorry.”
“No, no. I should be sorry for keeping you up this long.” Maria said. “I’ll ask around the Akademie. Maybe someone in the fringe fields of magic theory has heard about a case like yours. You can’t be unique in all of creation. The place is chock full of Earth’s most innovative magic users. And a centuries-old library.”
“And a secret cabal of necromancers.” Laura added dryly. “I hope you’re not into undead. That would totally ruin your chances with me.”
“If there was a secret cabal of rot-mongers, outsiders wouldn’t know about it. If anything, Die Schwarze Akademie is absurdly protective of its secrets.” Maria rubbed her hands. “What’s your stance on sorcerers or magic users in general?”
“Arach’s advice in regards to spell-slingers was ‘A headshot a day keeps Fireballs away.’ I kinda like that approach.”
“Yikes. Remind me to never get on your bad side. Fine. We’ll talk more once I have done some research into latent magical abilities. Until then, how about I show you what kind of gear I made?”
“By all means. I don’t know how much longer I can keep standing. Didn’t get much sleep last night and then there’s the little issue with being five hours past my original time.” Laura fought a yawn and lost.
“Okay, let’s make it quick then.” She fetched a palm-sized box from a shelf behind her and placed it on the counter. “Your armor.”
Laura inspected the box. “Let me guess. Chain mail bikini.”
“Oh, I’d love to see you wear one,” Maria purred, shaking her head. “Folding composite armor. High protection, almost no negative impact on your agility. Try it on. For me, please?”
“How can I withstand those beautiful puppy dog eyes of yours?” Laura said, opening the box. Inside was a slender metal bracer.
“Puppy dog? I have to protest. My eyes are cat-like, if you have to saddle me with animal analogies!” Maria sputtered while Laura examined the bracelet. It was made from some alloy, polished to a mirror sheen and adorned with a simple, yet elegant engraving not unlike some interwoven hexagonal scales.
“Stop bitching and tell me the command word, please.”
“Fine, fine. It’s ‘clypeus.'”
“No, ‘clypeus,’ to make sure you won’t utter anything similar by mistake. ‘Armis,’ although the correct word for ‘armor,’ sounds much too similar to ‘arms.’ I’ve had enough trouble with my Alexa recently and magic items are even more finicky when it comes to activation phrases. Thus I picked the Latin word for ‘shield’ instead of ‘armor.’ Less chance of an accidental misfire.”
“I… never thought about that,” Laura admitted, sliding the bracer onto her wrist. “Do I need to be naked or wear special padding underneath to activate this thing?”
“No, it’s all built in. Just say the word and be amazed. Oh, and it helps if you keep your arms slightly off to the side,” Maria cautioned.
“Here goes. Clypeus!”
The bracer vibrated around Laura’s wrist. Then, small scales seemed to sprout from it. They multiplied a hundredfold in the blink of an eye, racing up her arm and down her fingers. A moment later, they settled on her shoulders. Like a dull gray tide, they poured down her breasts and back but instead of clattering to the floor, they snaked down her body in ever-elongating tendrils, seeking each other and fusing into one unbroken sheath of softly hissing metal. The whole process took less than five seconds. A moment later, parts of the armor around her forearms, chest, thighs and calves seemed to ripple and flow, turning into solid, curved metal plates offering extra protection. Laura took a few tentative steps, amazed at how light and evenly distributed the armor felt. There was no undue rattling; whatever construction and padding was used, there was only a gentle rustle whenever Laura moved.
“There are two distinct disadvantages to your Folding Armor,” Maria said behind her. “First, there’s no helmet included yet. It would require some lengthy fine tuning of the enchantment to get your head measurements properly implemented. Despite my best efforts, nobody in Briou wanted to part with your medical record. Also, no built-in boots. I haven’t found a way to slip a sole between your feet and the ground yet aside from adding both a levitation spell and about twenty more seconds to the whole transformation. Makes it all way too unwieldy. My advice? There’s a Dwarven shoemaker on Dickens Road who makes fantastic custom footwear. He should be able to make combat boots to go with your armor.”
Laura snickered. “Well, as a bonding exercise, us girls should do a little shopping anyway. Let’s mix business and pleasure. Clypeus!”
Her armor disintegrated and collapsed back on itself, leaving her feeling unnaturally light for a moment.
“A third, obvious issue,” Maria added. “The moment you’re hit with a Disjunction Stone or Dispel Magic, you’re down to the clothes on your back.”
“I’m fairly certain that’s not going to happen that often. I’ll take the risk over having to wear twenty-five pounds of chain mail everywhere I go.”
“Just so you are aware.” Maria crossed the room and pulled two items from wall mounts. The first one was a bastard sword in a simple but well-made scabbard, the grip wound with silver wire and the pommel ending in the Order’s blue-tinged cross. The second was a thigh holster with a handgun grip jutting from it.
“Alright, here you are,” Maria said, placing both on the counter.
Laura picked up the handgun and drew it from it’s holster. “That’s no Hell Spitter,” she said, mild disappointment in her voice.
“Duh.” Maria threw up her hands. “The Order may have pretty much carte blanche in Europe as far as weapons go but somehow most of the cleverly placed loopholes got left behind when the Founding Fathers buggered off across the ocean. So we need to dance around local law enforcement. I know it’s not a Hell Spitter. People around here get nervous when someone runs around with what amounts to a drum-fed combat shotgun crossbred with a grenade launcher. I tried to come up with a worthy replacement.”
Laura turned the gun this way and that. It was well built, she had to admit. The finish was stainless steel, the grip felt as if it had been made just for her and everything just oozed masterwork construction. “Looks like a Colt 1911 derivative to me. A very well built one.” She dropped the magazine. “Seven shots? And no tingle in my fingers. It’s not enchanted?”
“Don’t be so disappointed and look closer. I shamelessly stole the feature list off a Kimber Custom. You have night sights, an adjustable trigger, a beveled magazine well for easier reloading and, most important of all, I changed the caliber to 10mm for a bit more punch. And if lucky seven rounds isn’t enough, I do have a few ten shot mags on hand. They do mess with concealed carry though.”
“This’ll have to do until my Hell Spitter arrives. Thank you.” Laura said, attaching the holster to her belt. “What kind of ammo do you have?”
“A few essentials. Silver, cold-forged iron and multi-purpose hollow point. Give me enough advance warning and I can load them up with silver nitrate, garlic and wood slivers or grave dust, whatever you need.”
“That will do. I’ll miss my rubber bullets and Holy Water grenades though.”
“Can’t win them all. I could whip up a few throwables though. Oh, and before I forget – you’ll have to visit our local contact at the GPD to get your paperwork finalized before you’re allowed to take the gun outside,” Maria cautioned her.
“We have a contact with the cops?”
“Yup, and a cute one at that. She knew who we were the moment she saw Jenna’s bus.”
“That’s a first. Most people need a long explanation about the Order and why we exist, who Zakharius was and all that.”
“Not Kelly. She wasn’t too thorough with the details but her grandmother must have met some Order folks before she fled Europe during the War.”
“How much does this Kelly know?”
“Not much. I’m pretty sure she can’t see Doug or me for what we really are yet.” Maria sighed. “And she’s not into girls. Couldn’t stop drooling about our Pally.”
“At least she’s sympathetic to our cause. Right?”
“Thus far, yes. I got my FID card no problem and you should too. Just mention the Inquisitorial Appendix of 1692 and how you need your weapons for your church work.”
“And that’s enough? No questions about why a young volunteer needs a blade and handgun?”
“There will be sighing and eye rolling but by now they’ve done it four times already, once more shouldn’t be an issue.”
“Fantastic.” Laura picked up the sword and drew it. The blade was of the finest workmanship, nicely tapered and with a beautiful edge. She made a few test swipes. The weapon seemed to anticipate each of her moves with unnatural eagerness and was very agile and nimble.
“Not bad,” Laura said, sheathing the weapon again. “What’s the enchantment?”
“I’m afraid it’s just a general enhancement. You know, sharper, better, quicker. Impossible to break. Like a Moon Maiden pattern, but better.”
“I know, I know, it’s not a Flame Tongue,” Maria said. “But look at it this way — you don’t have to worry about elemental immunities with it.”
“I’m not complaining,” Laura said, adding the scabbard to her other hip. “You could enchant it further, given enough time.”
“And the right materials of course,” Maria said, smiling fondly. “Permanent spells like these eat up reagents like ghouls-… No, better not finish that thought.”
Laura chuckled. “No, better no ghoul jokes around here.” She pulled her phone from its pocket and slid it across the counter. “PIN is 2002-20-02. I would appreciate it if you didn’t go into my private folder.”
“That’s both an interesting date and way too easy to crack,” Maria said. “Your birthday?”
Laura shook her head. “The day my parents were wed. I was a bit earlier than that.”
Maria checked the phone. “No need to dig through your pictures. You’re running G-OS 6.66 with the most current Order plug-ins.” She handed the phone back. “If you want more advice — change your PIN.”
“Yeah, I might do that.” Laura said around another yawn. “Anything else? My bed is calling me.”
“Well, before you go…” Maria ducked underneath the counter and rummaged in a few boxes. When she surfaced, she had a belt in her hands from which several items and pouches dangled. Laura saw a GobCo branded set of lockpicks next to a small metal hip flask with the Order cross stamped in, along with a few capsule-like containers she couldn’t make heads or tails of.
“I’m working on a standardized tool belt for the Order,” Maria explained. “Has most of the essentials any Order member might need, including a few easy-to-create magical items, like permanent Light pebbles.”
“Aren’t they more expensive than a simple flashlight?”
“Flashlights use batteries. Batteries cost money. If treated properly, one of my pebbles lasts for centuries and can be passed down from teacher to pupil. In the end, I’d be saving the order a lot of money.”
“Not bad, not bad,” Laura said. “What’s the catch?”
“There’s one issue with the belt I haven’t been able to fix,” Maria said, placing it on the counter, “It’s incompatible with my Folding Armor.”
“Incompatible how?” Laura asked.
“When you wear it before you activate the armor, it’s inside the armor like everything else you’re wearing at the time. I’ve tried and tried but the Folding enchantment has yet to recognize items to wear above the armor.”
“If all else fails, how about manually donning the belt once the armor is in place?” Laura suggested.
“But… that’s impractical,” Maria sputtered. “Anyway, you want one?”
“I’ll take the Healing potion and a crowbar. If you can source me a long coat, I think we should be golden.”
“You know it’s June. In Massachusetts. On really hot days, we have almost 30° Celsius outside. No one runs around in long trenchcoats in that kind of weather.”
“Well, shorts, flip-flops, a sword and fully loaded tool belt won’t raise eyebrows either, will they?” Laura chuckled amicably. “Until we find a better solution, how about tossing all of the utility items into a backpack? Putting it down and replacing it just takes a moment, folding armor or not. As long as I can grab my healing potion in a pinch, everything else is a bonus.”
“Fine, fine, have your potion then.” Maria unclipped the hip flask and handed it to Laura, along with a few boxes of ammo and spare magazines. “That probably means ‘good night’ for now, doesn’t it?”
Laura collected her gear, fighting another yawn. “Not just probably, Maria darling. Good night. And again, thank you.”
* * * *
Despite being deathly tired, sleep refused to claim Laura. The unfamiliar sounds of the chapter house and her own turbulent thoughts and emotions kept her awake.
She had trained for over a decade to be a flexible, adaptable and strong-willed fighter, neither afraid of man, Shadow or mythical critter. But now, in the twilight of her new bedroom, inhaling the scent of an unfamiliar detergent and required to embrace so many new people, rest didn’t come.
Jenna and Doug were like an old couple, despite their short time together. She was the fiercely protective alpha of the pack while he tolerated her posturing with a chuckle and a nudge of his elbow. He also somehow reminded her of home, of her father. Maybe both being paladins and radiating some soothing aura.
Maria was… interesting. There was no denying she was much too smart for her own good but behind the aloof half-elven facade was a likable young woman desperately seeking her place in the world.
Eric was the hardest to understand thus far. His face could scare people senseless but he seemed to be a good guy at heart. I need to learn about his background, what makes him tick. The last thing I need is my healer losing his shit in a tight spot, Laura thought. He and I need to have a long talk. I have to be able to blindly trust the person who’s keeping me alive.
After tossing and turning for a few more moments, Laura reached for the nightstand and picked up her phone. Vicky had sent a few nudes of herself, lovingly self-censored with Rolling Stone tongues on her breasts and pussy. A big ‘wish you were here’ slogan wound along her outstretched leg, with a little arrow after ‘here’ pointing between Vicky’s thighs.
Softly giggling, Laura checked the time. Even a nighttime bird like Vicky would be fast asleep by now. I’d love to talk to her but waking her would be horribly selfish. Laura lowered her phone and sighed. Now what? She paged through her Netflix library but there was nothing which caught her eye. She flicked through her image folders, trying to conjure up fond memories of Briou. To her surprise, most of her pics were shot in the last two years, when she had crawled out of her shell somewhat. Much less surprising was how often Vicky was in the shot. The eight years beforehand mostly showed stills of the Armory and the deterioration of her training gear.
Inspiration struck eventually. I did have a surefire way to calm down, before Vicky and I fell asleep in each other’s arms, Laura thought, opening her phone’s app folder. She pulled up an e-reader, fed it “The History of The Order Of Martinius” and activated the text-to-speech function. A convincing imitation of Coronaius’ soothing tones began to read the long, meandering story of her ancestors.
“In the year 474, in the dying days of the Roman Empire, deranged nobles summoned an entity from another realm. They intended to bring forth a pleasure demon, to elevate their orgies to a whole new level of debauchery. What they got instead was much, much worse. The fallen angel Zakharius swept in. His arrival tore a gaping hole into the boundary between worlds and in his wake came all kinds of visitors, some benign, but most possessed of a vicious nature. All the chaos, worldly and otherworldly, hastened the demise of the beleaguered Roman Empire. Led by a humble priest named Martinius, a few valiant souls tried to stop the inevitable and with divine assistance, they even managed to banish the fallen angel back into his hellish prison where he rots to this day. The titanic forces unleashed in the ritual to overpower Zakharius tore massive gashes into our world’s magical field and led to a drought of mystical energy which can still be felt today.
By the time Zakharius was dealt with though, it was too late. The Germanic warlord Odoacar had deposed Emperor Romulus Augustulus and humanity tumbled into a dark age. In the shadows, the followers of Martinius swore to guard humanity against the darkness, with or without outside assistance.”
Laura was asleep before the narrator even finished the preface.
* * * *
Waylan Tucker sat at his desk, a triptych of monitors bathing him in pale light. The left-hand one showed a patchwork of news channels, the right-hand one a smattering of social media apps and mail feeds while the middle one, the large one, was taken up by a real-time stock exchange graph.
Waylan was multitasking, juggling his Japanese portfolio with one hand while he barked angry retorts into his mike, trying to make one of his contacts stop being so fucking polite and sell his assets at a sensible price. No matter how much he cajoled and postured, the Jap on the other end remained calm, collected and — most infuriating at all — sensible, offering to sell but at a price Waylan found horribly insulting.
“Fuck it, you piece of-”
Waylan stopped mid-insult. Something had derailed his train of thought. He blinked, releasing his mouse. No, there was no imminent catastrophe on the news, neither had there been a golden opportunity suddenly materializing on the center screen.
He dropped the headset and looked around. The office was as he remembered it — expensive, low furniture and a singular, discreet monitor showing off his NFTs, while small, unobtrusive lights provided minimal illumination.
Soft, feminine laughter reached his ear. A whiff of perfume, somewhere between anti-freeze and pink bubblegum, tickled his nostrils
Waylan looked around once more. “Hello?” he asked. He should be alone in the building, maybe save for security on the ground floor. He was absolutely certain Candy had left after he was done pumping her ass full of about a week’s worth of pent-up sperm. There had been a hint of daylight still when he had ushered her into the elevator, groping her pussy as she stumbled into the cabin. Thank God for hookers, he thought. The thought of his wife, looking like a curvy, androgynous float after a decade of plastic surgery, turned his stomach.
The laughter came again, now much closer. And from behind.
Waylan spun around in his chair. Nothing but the sparsely lit skyline of downtown Greenbury beyond the window. One couldn’t even call it a skyline — the blackness of the night swallowed the silhouettes of the mostly unlit buildings and the longer he stared, the more the few lit windows reminded him of fireflies, with their erratic movement.
He jumped out of his chair and whirled around. The voice had been close enough that he could feel her breath on his neck!
There was no one there! Unless ‘she’ sat right on his desk!
He swung around with his chair. The screens almost blinded him.
“What fuckery is this?” Waylan snarled. His hand went for the top drawer and pulled forth his gold-plated Smith&Wesson Type 66 revolver. With his free hand, he slapped the panic button hidden under the desktop. The doors locked, the shutters came down and the lights brightened until there was no shadow left in the room.
Waylan was alone, his wide-eyed mirror image on every window, his white hair disheveled, the gun shaking in a two-handed Weaver death grip.
He slowly spun around. If there was someone else in the room with him, he should see them reflected in the windows.
And suddenly she was there. A clawed arm lanced forward, swatting the gun from numb fingers. The second arm caught him by the throat, cutting off his air supply and any call for help he might’ve made. His feet frantically kicked the air but he might have tried to hit a shapeless mist. She simply carried him to the closest couch and slammed him onto it like a sheaf of paper.
“Hello Waylan,” she whispered. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
Her claw around his throat denied him any retort. Unperturbed, she slowly straddled him, settling down atop his crotch. She rolled her hips invitingly. “I really, really missed you,” she whispered, finally releasing his neck.
Waylan screamed and bucked under her like a possessed bronco but he was old and weak, unable to dislodge his unwelcome guest. His fists bounced off her arms and chest with all the impact of wet tissues. Smiling horribly, she bent down and held his thrashing head with both hands.
The old man stopped fighting, his eyes about to pop from his skull, his mouth spouting spit and gibbering pleas for mercy in equal measure. She leaned in and pressed her mouth to his. There wasn’t much life left but she took it anyway.
* * * *
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Laura groaned, rolling onto an elbow to face the door. “I’m awake.”
The door creaked open and Doug poked his huge head in. “I was about to ask Eric for a Raise The Dead spell. Jenna is sitting on a mountain of waffles and pancakes and even my appetite is kinda sated.”
Laura fell into the cushions. “What time is it?”
Doug chuckled. “Around breakfast o’clock. Don’t worry if you didn’t make the 5:30 AM. roll call. You’re not in Briou anymore and there have been no major demon sightings. Yet. Tea or coffee?”
Laura sat up and pulled the thin sheet she had used to cover herself with up to her breasts. She’d almost forgotten she only wore a flimsy pair of panties. “Au lait if possible but I don’t really care. I’ll be down in a bit, okay?”
“Sure.” Doug cleared his throat. “Before Jenna gets her paws on you, how about we do a short patrol, see the sights, meet the locals and all that?” He tried to whisper but his voice rumbled through her stomach up to her ears.
“Is that some code for a bit of alone time with the new girl?” Laura asked, mock suspicion in her voice. “Seriously though — if I can pick between fighting a werebear and riding around on your Harley, the choice is easy.”
“It would be cool if you could make the suggestion,” Doug offered. “Makes it look less like I’m trying to spare you the initiation rite, ya’know?”
“I’ll think about it. Now shoo before they get any funky ideas downstairs.”
“Oh, I didn’t want to imply-”
Laura tossed her pillow. Doug evaded it by ducking behind the door and closing it.
Grinning, she reclaimed her makeshift missile and hit the bathroom. Five minutes later, she was freshened up, dressed and ready to take Greenbury by the horns.
Breakfast was served on the back porch as well. Over night, the pet population seemed to have exploded. There were now three cats and two raccoons amicably sitting around a trio of feed bowls. Birds chirped in the trees overhead.
Besides Doug, Jenna was the only one left at the table, wearing running shorts and a sleeveless shirt. She looked horribly fit and awake.
“Ah, the new recruit arrives. Sleep well?”
Laura stretched, enjoying the sun on her skin. “If Doug hadn’t threatened to break my door down, I’d still be snoozing,” she said, claiming an empty mug. Her gaze found Doug. “Where’s my coffee?”
“I advised him not to prepare it in advance. The last thing you want is a wasp down your throat,” Jenna said mildly.
Laura poured herself some coffee, added some cream and a spoonful of sugar, then she looked over the breakfast on offer. “Waffles, pancakes, toast, ham and eggs — who’s supposed to eat all this?”
“Me,” Jenna said cheerfully. “Believe me, doing my ten-mile run gets me hungry. Also, I thought you’d like a spread of what’s good in my kitchen. This is your first American breakfast, right?”
Laura chuckled. “Sorry to be a spoilsport but my true first American breakfast was McD’s idea of burgers and fries plus coffee at five AM yesterday.”
“My condolences,” Jenna said, placing thick layers of bacon between her pancakes before gleefully diving in.
One of the cats tried to steal some bacon but Doug intercepted it, gently steering the playful shorthair off the table. “Don’t burn your tongue,” the paladin rumbled. The cat complained but joined its companions back at the feeding bowls.
“Which ones are yours?” Laura asked, picking a bit of everything.
“All of them,” Jenna said simply. “They know they’re safe here. Word gets around. We have a rotating cast of visitors and they’re all well behaved so far. Also, I make sure to give them their shots. Once things have quieted down a bit, I plan on putting my veterinary skills on offer to supplement the drizzle of funds Aachen sends us.”
“What about that ‘platinum credit card’ Maria mentioned?” Laura asked.
“Even Mother Rachel’s generosity has limits. Most of the cash went into renovating the house and building the ‘hidden’ facilities. We have a tidy reserve to cover the running costs for some time but sooner than later we need ways to supplement our income like every other branch.”
“And you’ve got a veterinarian degree?”
Jenna grinned, baring her teeth. Her canines were larger than normal. Not quite vampire fang material but impressive nonetheless. “Who needs fancy papers when I can cast healing spells?”
“True.” Laura said, attacking her breakfast. “These are delicious,” she said, poking her waffles with her fork. “Horribly sweet though. A few weeks of this and I’ll look like a doughnut myself.”
“You probably won’t,” Doug said. “Not with Jenna’s workout schedule. She seems to forget that not everyone here is blessed with a freaking grizzly bear’s endurance. Or stomach.”
“I just want to remind you that my workout has given you a pretty sweet six pack,” Jenna purred, landing a smacking back hand against Doug’s stomach. The half-orc didn’t even flinch. “Besides, even a Paladin requires tight discipline and constant training to stay sharp.”
“Speaking of which,” Laura said. “Do you guys do local patrols?”
Jenna chuckled. “Vigilance at all times, Laura. Even if I grab some snacks from GobCo, I keep my eyes peeled for things which might require the Order’s attention. Besides, it’s much too late for you to start training today. Call me old-fashioned but I still get up every morning at five-thirty and do the old Briou routine. Cleansing of the body, cleansing of the mind and then a bit of exercise before the day starts. I can’t force you to do anything but I’d like to encourage you to join me.”
“Fine with me. I was shocked to see bright daylight when Doug woke me and expected Miss Sanchez to drag me to class in my undies.”
“I’ll cut you some slack for the next few days until you’ve got your bearings,” Jenna said, smiling warmly. “Ol’ Deathstares still the terror of the night?”
“You bet. She always claims to be nothing more than a former vampire thrall but I’m convinced that woman is the devil incarnate,” Laura said softly. “She even managed to find Carlos when he tried to use his Shadow Walk to sneak into his girlfriend’s dorm room.”
Jenna laughed. “First, you can speak up. I’m pretty certain Miss Sanchez can’t hear you across the damn Atlantic. I hope. As for her uncanny knack for finding students? Reginald-… I mean Headmaster Aulin probably had a permanent Detect Magic charm made for her. She even found Sélunia Hralvin, naked and hovering outside the boy’s dorm. She thought she could hide from Miss Sanchez by diving out of the window. In January. I tell you, she had icicles going down her thighs when Ol’Deathstares dragged her back inside.”
Doug chuckled. “Sounds like a really wild place you’ve been to,” he said.
“You haven’t been to Briou for your training.” Laura said, refilling her coffee.
Doug shook his head. “That’s right. Fell through the Barrier when I was a kid and ended up in Wyoming. Nearly got run over by a car. The driver was kind enough to take pity on me, despite him nearly losing his mind when he found out what I really was. Dad was sharp as a tack though and he found the Order eventually. The L.A. branch trained me to be a paladin. Well, they explained the weird glowy stuff I could do with my hands and taught me how to fight,” he corrected himself. “I’ll show you around if you still want to do that patrol.”
“I’d love to!” Laura said, digging into her pancakes. “By the way, where are Eric and Maria?”
“Down in the dungeon, sparring,” Jenna said. “I hope.”
“Maria didn’t strike me as someone who’d do anything halfheartedly,” Laura said. “And I think she’s not into boys.”
“Oh, I know,” Jenna chuckled. “For a half-elf, she rather unsubtly tried to get into my pants. I was referring more to Eric. He thinks he can skip training and play video games instead. One would think having his face eaten off by a pack of ghouls would instill a sense of duty and the will to avoid another near-death experience.”
“Give the kid some rest, Jen,” Doug said. “Having to pay off a Life Debt to the Order isn’t something a guy his age should have to deal with.”
Laura perked up. “A Life Debt?”
“The cleric who patched him up, Mama Louise, died from the strain. I’m not sure what kind of Voodoo spell she used to bring him back from the brink. All I know is that he’s now blessed with the powers of a veteran cleric and he’s goofing off in front of his Xbox instead of learning how to defend himself to prevent the same shit from happening again!” Dark fur had sprouted on Jenna’s arms and was pouring down from her neck over her breasts.
“Hey, down girl,” Doug rumbled, patting Jenna’s back. “No need to rip his throat out, yeah?”
“Don’t try to calm me down,” Jenna snarled. There was a spine-curdling sound of teeth elongating. Her body was in flux, the shape unsteady and indistinct, somewhere between her already tall human form and something much bigger.
“Goddamn it,” Doug growled. He lashed out and slapped Jenna across the face.
As suddenly as the transformation had begun, it stopped. Jenna shook herself as if doused with a bucket of ice water. “Ow,” she said, rubbing her cheek.
“I thought natural werebeasts could control their change,” Laura said carefully. And Arach would spank my ass blood red for leaving my weapons in my room, she thought.
“That’s usually the case, yes,” Jenna said softly, breathing deeply in between words. “I’m kinda stressed at the moment, you know? I never wanted this kind of responsibility thrust upon me.”
“You’re doing a great job,” Doug said. “I’d probably mess up half the things you do between getting up and eating lunch.”
“Still, if I could, I’d kick Mother Rachel’s ass from here to Alaska for making me a chapter head,” Jenna growled. “See ya later.” She downed the rest of her coffee and trotted back inside.
“Will she be alright?” Laura asked. “And more importantly, will Eric and- oh, hey, good morning!” She waved as Maria and Eric, both sweat-drenched but grinning, came onto the back porch. “You just missed Jenna.”
“Uh, yeah, no thanks,” Eric muttered. “She just flitted past. Did somebody die or something?”
“I think she was about to check if you’re still training,” Doug said. “Going by your smell, you were. Seriously, hit the showers already.”
“Of course we were,” Maria said. “Eric and I made a pact. I’ll stop beating his ass in Call Of Duty the moment he’s able to beat me on the mat.”
“And today I managed a straight three-in-five!” Eric whooped, pumping his fist. “Bare-handed, training swords and staves!”
Maria blew Laura a kiss then turned to leave. “Well, I’ll take a shower. Afterwards, Eric, you may beat me in CoD. Once. And tomorrow, we’ll start all over again.”
“Whaaat?” Eric raced to catch up with Maria. “I thought once would be enough?”
The half-elf’s laughter pearled into the garden.
“The more I see of her, the more I like her,” Laura murmured, draining her mug. She fixed Doug with a feisty smile. “All right. Let me gear up then I’m all yours.”
* * * *
“That’s… a Harley?” Laura asked, staring in wonder at the two-wheeled monster in front of her. It had more sheet metal on its chassis than some city compacts! A large cowl with a curved windscreen covered the handlebars and the rear wheel disappeared between large, chrome-trimmed saddlebags and an upper trunk behind the pillion seat. It was painted white, with golden wings adorning the tank and saddlebags. A blonde, bare-breasted goddess smiled at her from the front cowl.
“It sure is,” Doug said, opening the upper trunk. “My 1994 Electra-Glide. That thing is older than I am.” He handed Laura a helmet and an ear piece before putting on his own. “Considering how much time I spent going from chapter to chapter, I needed a pair of wheels which didn’t kill me on long highway trips. Gimme your sword.”
“Where are you going to stash it? The saddlebags look roomy but not bastard sword roomy.”
Doug flipped open one compartment and reached inside. He retrieved a large kite shield. “Saddlebags of Holding. A gift from an ex of mine. Big enough for her two-handed battleaxe. Or both our arsenals combined.” He let the shield drop back and placed both his and Laura’s swords into it.
“Interesting paint job.” Laura donned the ear piece followed by the helmet.
“Most people won’t see anything but another sexy biker livery,” Doug said, helping her onto the pillion seat. “Every mile I drive is another prayer to Mother Mercy. Alright, let’s get rollin’.”
The half-orc swung his leg over the saddle and fired up the bike. The machine growled like some hellish beast. Much like its owner most of its ‘voice’ could be felt rather than heard.
“Can you hear me?” Doug asked, his voice coming through the ear piece.
“Yes. I was wondering what the earbud was for.”
“Intercom.” Doug kicked the stand back and turned up the gas. The engine climbed up half an octave and the vibrations going through Laura’s thighs intensified. “The bike may be close to thirty years old but why not add a little bit of modern tech to make it even better? I chucked the radio and replaced it with a decent satnav and while I was at it, I screwed in the bluetooth intercom. Aren’t you glad I did?”
They rolled off Black Lake Road and headed downtown.
“How come you roamed so much? My parents told me once you’re part of a chapter, you stay with it until you retire or die.”
Doug laughed. “There are far fewer Order branches in the US when compared to Europe and our specialist roster is more limited. We have a lot of clerics, druids, rogues and fighters but spell-slingers and paladins are rare. So we get shuffled around to suit the situation.”
“Oh. I didn’t know that,” Laura said. “Where are we going?”
“Before we do anything else, let’s swing by the GPD and have your weapons registered. Massachusetts doesn’t kid around when it comes to slapping harsh fines and jail time on anyone caught without their FID or — Mercy help you — using unregistered weapons.”
“And here I was, thinking that most of the US still was like the Old West. All the guns, all the time.”
“You’d be surprised. Gun laws are always quite the hot topic and the days of lugging assault rifles and heavy machine guns around with impunity are long past. At least they didn’t nix the Inquisitorial Appendix to state law yet.”
“Maria said something about that last night, how I should mention it when registering my weapons.”
“After the witch trials in Salem certain exceptions to state law were put in place to make the apprehension and elimination of witches easier for people of the faith. In effect, it tells the cops to keep it cool when they see us bringing swords to a gunfight.”
“So we do have loopholes over here too,” Laura rejoiced. “Fantastic.”
“It’s not nearly as generous as the leeway you guys have over in Europe, with Rome covering your backs. We simply won’t get punished for carrying illegal weapons. Let’s avoid unnecessary killing sprees, you hear?” Doug slowed down in front of Greenbury’s police station. Two patrol cruisers were parked in front of it.
“I’d never do that!” Laura protested, sliding off the bike.
“I’m just messing with you,” Doug said, amicably patting her shoulder.
Laura pulled her sword from the bike’s saddlebag and removed the gun from its holster, swaddling the weapons in her jacket. Followed by Doug, she entered the station. The desk sergeant looked up. “Can I help you?”
“Hi. I’d like to register my weapons. Who do I speak to?”
The sergeant, a jovial man in his fifties, looked from Laura to Doug and rolled his eyes. “You again? I told you last time — you need to call ahead to check the formalities! Registering guns – and especially swords — is no walk in service!”
“Hey to you too,” Doug rumbled. “Is Detective Goldbaum in?”
The sergeant sighed. “Yeah, she is. Give me a moment.” He picked up the phone. “Hey detective, there’s that biker from last week. Uh-huh, that guy. Has a girl with him who wants to register her weapons. I’m pretty sure she’s carrying a broadsword or the like. I’ve told them but they don’t look like they’re going to come back later.”
He listened for the answer then replaced the handset. “She’ll be right over.”
A few moments later, a tall, athletic blonde woman left an office across the hall and joined them at the front desk. She shook Doug’s hand before doing the same with Laura. “Hi. I’m Detective Kelly Goldbaum. Follow me, I’m in a bit of a hurry. Let’s get this farce over with.”
“You don’t sound too thrilled,” Laura said. “Laura Stürmer, by the way. Nice to meet you.”
They followed Detective Goldbaum into a small, crowded office. She closed the door behind them and sighed. “Okay, let’s hear it then. What do you have and why do you need to carry it?”
Laura placed her sheathed sword on the desk, followed by her gun. “In accordance to the Inquisitorial Appendix of 1692, I need to be able to carry both the gun and this sword while working as a church volunteer at Black Lake Chapel.”
The detective crumpled into a chair behind her desk and woke up her computer. “Slow down, slow down. Let’s get your personal data first. Name?”
“March 15th, 2001. The Ides of March,” Laura said, grinning weakly.
“Are you a Massachusetts citizen?”
“No. I’m German. But I do have a working visa.” She pulled her wallet from her back pocket and flipped it open. “I also have all required paperwork in order.”
“Let me see that,” Detective Goldbaum said, leaning across the desk. She took it and inspected the stack of cards and certificates tucked into it. “A European Firearms Pass, alongside French and German gun ownership papers?” She rolled her eyes. “You’re the third in two weeks flashing these ‘Briou Academy’ training certificates at me. I’ve called the captain and he called the higher-ups in the State Office and they told me I have to accept these as legit.” She exhaled slowly. “This Order of Martinius of yours has to be some damn special sect within the church, to be allowed this much special treatment,” she complained. “What is it you do exactly?”
“You asked me the same question and didn’t like the answer,” Doug said, grinning.
“Can you blame me? Maybe this time there will be less madness and something a bit more sensible.” Kelly attacked her keyboard and filled out some electronic form, her otherwise cute face distorted into a sour mask of displeasure.
“The Order protects humanity from the darkness and what lurks within,” Laura said with conviction. “We fight what most can’t even imagine.”
Kelly shook her head. “Still the same gibberish.” She flipped Laura’s wallet shut and handed it back. “I’ll tell you what I told your co-workers: You will get your licenses in accordance to that blasted Appendix but if I catch you knee-deep in the blood of the citizens I’m sworn to protect, I’ll bring down the full force of the law and then some, are we clear?”
Kelly hit the Enter key on her computer as if she had a very special grudge to settle with it then she produced a digital camera. “Give me your best smile,” she grumbled. Laura decided that professionalism was the better approach here and offered a neutral, stern expression as Kelly took the shot. The detective worked her mouse and a moment later, a printer under her desk fired up. She fed the slip of paper into a laminating machine.
“Where I come from, most police officers are quite happy to have an Order member around once… mysterious deaths occur,” Laura said, trying to fill the tense silence. “Don’t tell me this place only has the usual muggings, armed robberies and marital disputes.”
“Don’t try to be clever,” the detective growled. “I’m not at liberty to discuss ongoing cases with you. Unless you magic some official paperwork into existence requiring my cooperation, your license is all you will get from me.” She pulled the finished license from the machine and handed the still warm plastic sheath to Laura. “And now you have to excuse me, I should have been at a crime scene ten minutes ago.”
* * * *
“I’ve seen dragons with less temper than her,” Laura said, stuffing her weapons license into her wallet. “And I can’t believe she hasn’t seen one supernatural corpse yet — especially given this place’s reputation.”
“Cut her some slack. It takes some time for the truly stubborn to see the world as it really is. On the flip side, she probably won’t lose her shit the moment she sees the truly weird and mysterious.” He waited until Laura had claimed her seat then slid onto the saddle. “Now, where do you want to go?”
“Show me some sights. And then I’d like to replenish my snack supply. Maria mentioned there’s a GobCo in town.”
“Roger that,” Doug said, firing up the Harley again. “Sights and snacks. I can do that.” He turned onto Howard Road. “My gut says you’d want to look into mysterious deaths in the area.” He slowed down and pointed to the right. “That’s the Greenbury Examiner building. Has a fantastic library going back to the town’s founding in 1762. For all the dirty headlines. That’s the place to go.”
“Might come in useful. Is it the only library in town?”
Doug accelerated the bike. “Are you kidding? There’s two more I know about — one’s the Municipal library and the other one belongs to Kelly Goldbaum’s grandma. Also, there are way too many dusty curio shops and small galleries for a town this size. Speaking of which, there’s one.” Doug pointed to the left.
Laura’s gaze followed his gloved finger. As they cruised past “Winter’s Gallery,” she saw a picture of a woman in the window. She was naked from the waist up, her purple evening gown and coppery tresses pooled around her atop a white grand piano. She looked frighteningly life-like, about to sit up and gather her garb around her flushed chest. The onlookers around her were drawn with mixed expressions, some openly ogled her, others were utterly disgusted by the lewd display.
Laura shook her head. “That was… weird,” she muttered. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say the woman moved.”
“The shop’s owner asked Maria to see if the picture was haunted,” Doug said. “Her tests came back inconclusive. The only thing we know for sure is that it’s a genuine Redburn.”
“Never heard about him,” Laura admitted. “I kinda zoned out when it came to art education. What’s that, to the right?”
“That’s the Basement Club, the only thing which passes for a nightclub in these parts. Only opens on the weekends and only hosts goth nights. Rumors say some vampire noble from Boston runs this joint, to supplement his blood quota.”
“Any plans to shut down the operation?”
“Not yet. Once we’ve settled in for real, we might poke around. Do you have anything black to wear?”
Laura laughed softly. “Only my tactical cat suit for night ops. You won’t catch me donning a flimsy black dress anytime soon.”
“A shame. I bet it would look kinda fetching on you. Wait… you have a cat suit?”
“Yup. It’s right next to my chain mail bikini,” Laura said, grinning wickedly.
Doug chuckled and turned a corner. The orange-and-green shop branding of GobCo, complete with a grinning floppy-eared mascot, was hard to miss. It seemed to shine brighter than the other shops along the same road — those which hadn’t been locked up behind rusted shutters or rotting plywood. Doug stopped in front of the main entrance and sniffed. “Ugh, something reeks.” He got off the bike.
Laura followed suit. “Maybe something in the sewers. I hope we don’t plan to go down there anytime soon. It would take months to wash the stench away.”
“Unless we have good cause, I’m pretty sure Jenna won’t send us into the shit and piss and whatever might lurk down there.” He made a warding gesture against his chest. With renewed purpose, Doug walked towards the shop and the doors hissed open.
Inside, soft music played. Save for a few kids hogging the Playstation demo kiosk and two employees in their red uniforms, the large shop was deserted. Big monitors in the back advertised several name-brand products, from shampoo to junk food to telecom services.
A female goblin with a long, inky-black ponytail intercepted Doug and Laura. “Hey, welcome to GobCo. I’m Jessie. Can I help you?” She offered a wide grin.
Laura picked a green basket. “Thank you. We know our way around.”
“Okie dokie. Just holler if you need anything.”
Doug sniffed. “Say, do you have a problem with your plumbing?”
Jessie turned an alarmed shade of light green. “No, why?”
“It… smells rather ripe in here,” the half-orc murmured so only Jessie and Laura could hear him.
“Funny you’d say that. I don’t smell anything,” Jessie sputtered. “But I’m going to double-check the restrooms. Mr. Gobson will have my head if I missed something.” She dashed off.
“I don’t smell anything either,” Laura said, inhaling.
“Curse my sharpened senses,” Doug said. “I mean, I can smell if any of you girls is aroused from ten feet away.”
“That’s… kinda personal,” Laura stammered, blushing.
“Relax. I won’t tell anyone that riding my bike got you all hot and bothered. You’re by no means the first girl to feel that way,” Doug said. He walked up an aisle, checking the cheap digital cameras and navigation systems on display.
Laura took another aisle and picked a smattering of her favorite snacks off the shelves. “I didn’t know they made regional stuff,” she said. “All we had in Briou was paprika and ready salted flavor crisps. I’ve got to try the Nacho Goblins!”
She stopped in mid-stride. “I think I caught a whiff too.”
“Let’s check in with the manager, ask him how his dumpsters are doing,” Doug said, serious all of a sudden. “This way.” He pointed to a small dispensary in the rear of the shop.
A door opened and an older goblin stepped out, bald save for two lush gray tufts behind his frayed ears. “Mr. Martin! I was just about to call the chapel. I think… I think there are men outside wanting to kill me. Or all of us!” He sounded close to a panic, his voice high and reedy.
“Mr. Gobson. Calm down please,” Doug said.
The half orc touched his holy symbol. A barely perceptible golden sheen emanated from it, washing over the shop owner and Laura.
She suddenly felt much more relaxed. My hand itches for my blade though and my gut is seldom wrong, she thought.
“What makes you think you’re in danger?” Doug asked. The goblin shot Laura a concerned look. “Oh, she’s with me,” the paladin said, placing a huge paw on her shoulder. “Laura, meet Hank Gobson. Mr. Gobson, our newest recruit, Laura Stürmer.”
“Hi there,” Laura said. “What’s got you so spooked?”
“There are a lot of weird people in the back alley. Come, have a look.” He flipped up a part of the counter and waved them through. Doug and Laura followed him into a back office where two rows of monitors showed images from the shop’s interior and exterior. Laura immediately spotted the one showing the back alley — the dozen or so seedy people were hard to miss. Many of them carried bags, there were two trolleys which had seen better days and many carried some manner of improvised weapons, mostly clubs, but Laura also spotted some tools like crowbars or shovels. A handful of bums argued over bits and pieces they had yanked from the dumpsters. Their stances and facial expressions suggested that arguments would soon give way to violence.
The memory of the previous day’s drive through downtown stirred. Men digging through a dumpster in broad daylight and roasting some of their findings right on the spot.
The smell was much stronger now. Laura sniffed. It seemed to come from the small hallway connecting the office to the rear exit.
“This looks like a lot of trouble,” she shivered. “Maybe we should give the cops a call, to break up this gathering.”
“I’ve already tried,” Mr. Gobson said. “Their reply was ‘unless they break some laws, we’re unable to help.'” The goblin looked none too happy. “And when I told them to scram, they threatened me!”
“What did they say?” Laura asked.
“‘Just you wait, we’ll come and have a nibble on your green ass,'” the goblin quoted. “That was the point where I locked the back door and was about to call for your help.”
“I think we should have a talk to these fine people out there,” Doug said. “After we get our gear.” He flashed a reassuring grin. “We’ll take care of your hobo problem, Mr. Gobson. Let’s go, Laura.”
“Talk first, slash later?”
“Mother Mercy has few tenets for me to follow. ‘Don’t start fights’ and ‘protect others from harm’ are applicable here,” Doug said, briskly walking back to the entrance. “I can’t of course force you to do anything, but-”
“No problem. I know how to de-escalate. ‘Let violence be your final option’ and all that. Doesn’t hurt to be prepared though,” she said, heading for the bike. She pulled open the saddlebag and claimed her sword.
“Just so you know, the whole situation stinks to the high heavens and I don’t mean that figuratively. You know what that means, don’tcha?” Doug fastened his shield to his left arm then drew a short, wide sword.
“Off the top of my head, I know at least three monsters with a nasty stench. Sewer Horrors, ghouls and-…” She stopped herself. “Please be wrong, Doug.”
“It’s high noon and I didn’t see any tentacles jutting from nearby manholes,” Doug growled, dropping his biker helmet on the saddle and touching the collar around his neck. “Cuidame!” he growled. The collar sprouted metal plates which rippled into existence around his body and head, encasing the half-orc in a finely crafted suit of plated armor. Laura followed his example and activated her armor as well. Encased in protective metal, they turned the corner and headed for the back alley.
Only a handful of cars passed them by as they jogged past GobCo. No one seemed to bat an eye at the two armored figures.
“Please no,” Laura muttered, crossing herself. “You know what the stench means, right?”
“I could be wrong and it still might be an issue with Gobson’s plumbing.” He stopped near the mouth of the back alley. A breeze kicked up, blowing dust their way. With it came a stench so horrible, Laura nearly tripped over her own feet. It was like bad halitosis mixed with grave rot, seasoned with an extra helping of sewage for good measure. Doug coughed next to her. “Nope,” the half-orc paladin growled, loud enough to draw everyone’s attention. “This sure stinks like a herd of roach thralls.”
In an eerily synchronized manner, heads turned and eyes narrowed. Even those brawling over the trash stopped their squabbling, picking up tools and weapons.
“And we didn’t bring any blunt weapons.” Laura gasped, trying to breathe in as little as possible. “Are we still trying to parley?”
An almost seven-foot half-orc, armor-plated, casually hefting a large shield and sword accompanied by a slender woman encased in scale armor, nervously fingering the hilt of her own blade sent the wrong message. They barely made it into the mouth of the alley before the first rock came flying. Doug raised his shield, deflecting it with practiced ease. The rock was followed by other projectiles which squelched wetly as they impacted the hardened steel. Laura hoped they were just rotting fruit.
Still, the half-orc refused to raise his weapon. “What’s the reason for this gathering?” he boomed over the escalating staccato of projectiles aiming for a gap in his defense.
“We need to feed,” someone croaked. “This place has the best trash! We feed here!”
“Feed! Feed!” came a chorus of barely human shrieks. The stench was almost unbearable now, a sickening aura emanating from the people in the alley.
A particularly well-thrown rock skipped over the lip of Doug’s shield and hit his helmet, pinging off to the side. He shook his head. “This is my last warning. Disperse please.” His tone belied the polite choice of words.
One particularly burly man stepped forward, casually hefting a lump of concrete on an iron rod. “I have better idea,” he said in broken English. “How about we kill you and eat what’s left?” Without waiting for an answer, he charged Laura, swinging his bludgeon at head height. Doug intercepted him. The hulk casually swatted at him with the concrete mallet, the impact on Doug’s shield nearly took him off his feet as the stinking hulk charged past.
Laura was ready for him, sword in hand. She nimbly stepped to the side and followed up with a low slice to the back of his knees. Her blade bounced off something hard and unyielding instead of slicing his tendons and felling him. The others came pouring out of the alley as well, a hissing, yelling tide of rags and improvised murder weapons.
“Meat! Meeeeeeat!” they shrieked.
The hulk had stopped his charge and turned to face Laura, a sick, leering grin on his shaggy-bearded face. “Big knife not good,” he slurred.
“Alright, we tried to be civil,” Doug muttered. “But enough is enough. In the name of Mercy, I banish thee!” His sword flared up as if the blade was made of lit magnesium. The mob recoiled from the glaring light — but only for a moment. Three, four bums launched themselves at Doug, reaching for his shield or his weapon. He countered with quick, precise stabs past his shield. Laura heard strange, ticking sounds as the wide tip met some unseen resistance. The enchantment did work though and the wounds burned as if treated with white phosphorous. The attackers stumbled back, their shrieks inhuman utterances of pain as they swatted at their scorching wounds.
Laura dodged another pass of the bludgeon-swinging brute, this time going for his hands. Instead of dodging, he blocked her attack with his forearm. Her blade cut deep near the wrist before glancing along some hard substance and exiting near the elbow, taking most of the sleeve and flesh underneath with it. Instead of a shower of blood and a scream of pain, the hulking brute only snorted and shook out his arm. The rest of the skin peeled away like a badly fitted sleeve, leaving a ridged, green-and-brownish limb topped by a two-pincered claw.
Around them, the creatures who had been touched by Doug’s blade were ripping at their wounds, enlarging them. Everywhere she looked, she saw insectoid features appear — mandibles, carapace plates, extra claws. The noises were ear-shattering, bereft of any kind of humanity. Along with the shrieks, there were sickening, wet tearing noises.
“I’ll never leave home without a warhammer again,” Laura snapped, going for her opponent’s eyes. The massive brute blocked her stab with his chitin-covered forearm, harmlessly diverting the blade.
“Good point,” Doug barked, ramming his shield under an attacker’s jaw. There was the horrible crunch of pulverized chitin and a shrill, pained shriek. “I knew this town had problems but why roach thralls?”
“When there’s trash, there’s roach thralls,” Laura quoted a passage from the Order’s Monster Manual. “And unless we’re culling them right here, right now, they will keep on breeding until The Walking Dead is a funny little fairy tale in comparison!” She evaded another lunge from her opponent by the skin of her teeth. “Fuck it,” she snarled, pulling her gun with the left hand. The towering roach thrall stopped dead in its tracks as she pointed her glinting weapon at it. Without hesitation, she pulled the trigger. The bullet went right between his eyes and exited his skull cavity in a shower of greenish-brown chitin fragments, brain matter and sickly yellowish ichor.
“Oh boy,” Doug muttered, clobbering one of his attackers with the pommel of his sword. The roach thrall, now without its human sheath, stumbled back a step, its cranial dome cracked and oozing yellow. But still it hissed and shrieked, flailing with its four clawed arms. Doug toppled it with a quick back hand of his shield and followed up with a brutal stab through the thing’s maw. The move cost him though — two more roach thralls jumped onto his back and tore at the overlapping plates covering his neck and shoulders. One punched straight through the chain mesh protecting Doug’s arm and yanked, opening a fiercely bleeding gash.
Laura rushed to Doug’s side, sheathing her blade as she ran. Grabbing one of the thralls by the back of his rotting parka, she tried to tear him off Doug. To her absolute horror, the parka was much tougher than the thing’s skin! The thrall’s sheath parted with a disgusting wet tear. Laura stumbled away with what amounted to a fully grown man’s skin dangling from her hand. Suppressing the urge to vomit, she tossed the decaying skin-sheath aside and grabbed again, this time catching the thrall by a flailing arm. She brutally twisted the limb, breaking chitin and tearing tendons in the process. The thrall fell off Doug’s back. Laura dragged him to the ground and finished him off with a bullet to the head.
The half-orc rolled forwards, shoulder-tossing the second thrall off him. Before the creature could get to its feet, he smashed the pointed lower edge of his shield down, almost decapitating the insectoid horror, leaving it writhing and clawing at its shattered throat. He picked up the improvised sledgehammer the dead brute had dropped. The lump of concrete shone with heavenly light in his hands. Roaring, Doug advanced into the midst of the pack and lashed out, dropping two roach thralls with a wide swing.
Laura felled another one with a carefully aimed shot, sending the six-limbed terror sprawling.
The mob retreated deeper into the alley.
“Now what?” Doug wondered, inspecting his torn-open arm. He touched his chest with his right hand and an aura of light washed over him, closing his wounds.
The roach thralls were backing away, inching backwards at first, then turning on their heels and fleeing as fast as they could. Some lost their sheaths as they stumbled and ran, skittering up the sides of buildings on all six limbs, others shambled into the back alleys still looking more or less human.
In the sudden silence, Laura heard the wail of sirens coming closer.
“Now that’s going to be a fun discussion,” she muttered, poking one of the discarded sheaths with her foot.
* * * *
Detective Goldbaum sank into the floor-mounted chair opposite Laura’s in the interrogation room. Since she had seen her only a few hours earlier, the young woman seemed to have aged about ten years. Her partner, Detective Lee, leaned against the tiled wall, his muscular black arms crossed over his chest. He looked like a veteran pro wrestler, with shoulders almost as wide as Doug’s. His temples grayed and his eyes, though friendly, belied a bone-deep weariness.
“Fancy seeing you again so soon,” Detective Goldbaum sighed. “Remember what I told you before?”
“The bit about you bringing the hammer down if you should catch me with the blood of Greenbury’s citizen on my weapon? Clear as mud,” Laura said. “Look, Detective-”
Another sigh. “The corpses we found make no sense!” She spread a handful of pictures across the table showing the greenish-brown cadavers of the dead roach thralls.
“They don’t? I don’t know but I tend to trust my eyes. What do yours tell you?” Laura asked politely.
Goldbaum struggled to keep her voice calm. “We… we have a heap of what looks like human-sized cockroaches down in the morgue and what appear to be…” Her voice trailed off.
Laura saw a host of emotions on Goldbaum’s face — weariness, confusion, disbelief, then righteous anger.
“If you wanted to play a prank, that’s a fuckton of effort you’ve put into it.” Goldbaum barked. “I hope you’re still laughing when you’re behind bars.” She looked up at her partner. “Did the coroner find out what the… skin sacks are made out of?”
“Like I said, trust your own senses. They usually don’t lie,” Laura gently said. “The… sheaths are what remains of a roach thrall’s human host.”
Detective Goldbaum consulted her clipboard. “Tox says you’re sober. You don’t strike me as insane either. What the fuck is a roach thrall?” Another look at her partner who simply shrugged. His face said ‘I’ve seen enough shit I can’t explain but I’m this close to retirement and will not rock the boat if I don’t have to.’
“First, I’m not making this up. Roach thralls have been documented since at least the Middle Ages.”
“Where?” Detective Goldbaum snapped. She yanked her phone from a pocket and tapped the screen before sliding it across the table. Google came up empty.
“In the Order’s Monster Manual, for example. You have my phone, look it up. Or do you want me to tell you?” Laura asked. The next few minutes might decide if and how we work with them. She took a deep breath. “The adult form is a six-limbed, carapace-clad insectoid of five to six feet in height and around a hundred fifty pounds in weight. Your eyes didn’t deceive you. What’s on your slabs in the morgue are, in fact, giant cockroaches.”
“That’s impo-” Kelly began. When she met Laura’s steady, unflinching gaze, she bit her tongue. “It should be impossible. No cockroaches grow that big!”
“The evidence is right in front of your eyes. Or rather in a chilled room in your morgue. The parasite is usually spread through ingestion of contaminated food or impure drinking water. It settles in the host’s stomach and grows, eating its way through the host body until it reaches and devours the brain.”
“That sounds… disgusting,” Detective Lee muttered, crossing himself. “Doesn’t it hurt?”
“According to witness accounts, not one bit. The parasite secretes biochemical compounds which play havoc with the host’s nervous system. Instead of unbearable agony, they’re stoned out of their mind most of the time, until it’s too late.”
“And then?” Kelly asked in horrified fascination, like someone listening to a particularly ghastly horror story.
“The parasite tries its best to keep the ‘sheath’ intact for as long as possible since they have no way of regenerating it by themselves. Eventually, the skin-sheath will decay or tear up from mounting injuries. Once that happens, the parasite will try and find a mate and spread its seed far and wide, usually contaminating known fresh water sources or likely gathering spots for the desperate.”
“Okay, okay-” Kelly raised a warding hand. “Let’s for one minute assume you’re not telling me a dumpster load of bullshit. How do I recognize a… roach thrall in its human form?”
“There are certain indicators,” Laura said. “I hate to propagate stereotypes but the most likely hosts for them are the poor and the homeless, people who can’t choose what they eat or drink. There was one especially dire outbreak in a Paraguay prison a few years ago. They had to basically burn it down to the ground and rebuild it. It was covered up as a prison riot, but-”
“The indicators?” Kelly pressed on.
“Oh, right. Sadly, a bad stench isn’t a sure-fire sign you’re dealing with a roach thrall. The easiest non-magical way to check is trying to get a blood sample.”
“Did you check the fight scene pictures?” Laura asked. “Despite the carnage, there was no blood. No human blood at any rate. We did spill a lot of ichor though. The simple prick will prove several things. First, it won’t heal easily, if at all. Like I said, once the roach thrall has matured, it is basically wearing dead skin with a minimal layer of flesh underneath. Second, no blood. Third, if you’re feeling particularly sadistic and jab the needle in deep, you should feel the carapace underneath. It’s hard enough to withstand even most sword blows. If you’re dealing with a roach thrall, they won’t notice the pain of the poke. And finally, the least appetizing way — have the person in question give a fecal sample. Even an immature roach thrall will have infertile eggs galore in their stool, giving it a rice-like, sprinkled with white look and texture.”
Detective Lee cleared his throat. “Either that was the best theatrical performance I’ve ever been to…”
“I don’t like this one bit,” the blonde detective said. “You’re not making this up?”
“By my honor as a member of the Order, no. This is far too serious to joke about. You should order a double helping of Hazmat suits and flame throwers before checking on this town’s homeless population. If they become desperate enough — and today they were pretty close — they have no qualms about attacking people to supplement their diet.”
“You have to be shitting me,” Goldbaum moaned. “First the… mummies and now this? Zion, do me a favor and slap me.”
“No can do, Kelly.” The towering man behind her placed a hand on her shoulder and squeezed instead. Goldbaum groaned.
“Mummies?” Laura asked. “Listen, since we technically didn’t break any laws, there is no reason for you to keep us in custody.”
“Didn’t break any laws my ass,” Lee growled. “We have a pile of corpses and at least six pieces of what looks like human skin-”
Goldbaum raised her hand. “Why did you fight them?”
“Kelly-” Lee began.
“Shush. Let her talk.”
“The GobCo store manager felt threatened by the dozen or so homeless people hanging out in his back alley. If you review the camera footage, you will agree they didn’t exactly behave like nice neighbors. So, initially we wanted to ask what they were doing there but when they began to attack us, we acted in self-defense.” Laura exhaled slowly. “I hope the store’s cameras caught us trying to be diplomatic. Doug nearly took a rock to his eye for his trouble. And when we found out that our swords did fuck all to their armor, I decided to escalate.” She offered a thin-lipped smile. “I’m no expert on Massachusetts self-defense laws but I posit the following question: Are roach thralls human beings?”
Goldbaum and Lee exchanged looks. “They look like giant cockroaches to me,” Lee said. “And I’m not nearly drunk enough to say otherwise.”
“This whole day makes me itch for something mind-numbing as well,” Goldbaum muttered. “Fine. I’ll file the papers and have them go up the chain. Don’t leave town until we say so, okay?”
“I just got here,” Laura said cheerfully. “So, what’s this about ‘mummies?’ Did someone raid a museum?”
“Should we really involve-” Lee asked.
Goldbaum stood up. “Keep her company for a moment, I need to get the file.” In the doorway, she turned around, offering a dreadful smile. “Worst case scenario? We get another earful of bull. Unless you have an idea what happened to two of Greenbury’s richest assholes, I’m willing to listen to our new friends here.”
She closed the door behind her.
“Listen,” Laura said urgently. “I am not bullshitting you.”
Lee sighed. “That’s the thing, girl. Before we pulled you from your cell, we had a long talk with that biker friend of yours.”
“You’re probably not supposed to tell me what he told you.”
“See me care,” Lee grumbled. “Thing is, he said many of the same things. You didn’t rehearse that?”
“When? I’ve been here all of-” Laura checked her watch, “less than twenty-four hours. My girlfriend told me I’m not good enough of an actress to even fake an orgasm. How do you think we rehearsed that whole act in less than a day?” A fleeting smile crossed her face as Lee averted his gaze. The old man actually blushed!
The door opened and Detective Goldbaum returned with a new folder. “Here, have a look,” she said, offering it to Laura. “And tell me what you think is in the pictures.”
Laura flipped open the folder. The photographs inside showed a corpse spread out on what looked like a very upmarket leather couch, the suit wrinkled and torn in places. The skin was a thin, parchment-like screen, pulled dangerously taut over the skull. Wisps of icy white hair framed it like a broken halo.
“He looks a couple of centuries old,” Laura observed. “May I ask who the gentleman is — or was?”
“I wouldn’t call him a ‘gentleman,'” Goldbaum snarled. “That is Waylan Tucker, one of the few businessmen stubborn enough to make Greenbury his home. His chief of security found him like this in the morning when they cracked open the panic room.”
Laura paged through the folder and read the preliminary findings. “‘No visible trauma, no discernible fluids left in the body, victim seems to be mummified.'” She exhaled slowly. “Any idea how long he’s been dead?”
“According to his PA, he was fit as a fiddle by the time she left him yesterday at five p.m.,” Goldbaum said.
“According to the security chief on duty at that time, he was fit enough to entertain a known hooker,” Lee growled.
“And before you ask, yes, prostitution is illegal in Massachusetts,” Goldbaum added. “But if you happen to donate copiously to the police’s retirement funds, people tend to look the other way.” She gnashed her teeth as if the simple fact Tucker had been able to get away with it was a personal affront. “He’s not the only mummy we found.”
Laura paged further through the folder, finding another mummified body, this time in a bathtub. Without clothes, the corpse looked even more gruesome, the body a parchment-wrapped skeleton with barely any distinguishing features. From the strange angle the corpse’s neck sat, she assumed that the impact of the raised lip of the bathtub had — if not outright killed him — contributed significantly to his death.
“And who’s this?” Laura asked.
“Stephen Whitting, another one of Greenbury’s esteemed upper crust.” Goldbaum’s face distorted into a grimace. “He was in the midst of a messy divorce along with a couple of lawsuits for everything from embezzlement to insurance fraud.”
“He died when?”
“Four days ago. His lover found him like that. The guy was barely coherent when he called us.”
“Can’t blame him. Finding a dead loved one is never a good time, especially not if the poor soul had to go like this,” Laura said, tapping the photo.
“Any idea who did it? And how?” Lee asked.
“Do you still believe I’m kidding about the roach thralls?” Laura asked. “Because the possible culprits are even more… interesting.”
* * * *
Later that evening, the whole Order cell sat around the dinner table. The plates had been polished off and copies of the ‘mummy case,’ as Detective Goldbaum had called it, were on the table.
“This leaves basically only two possible solutions,” Laura said, tapping her phone. “Either we’re dealing with some kind of vengeful undead — specters, wraiths or maybe some other unquiet spirit out for vengeance — or your common succubus with a grudge to settle.” She indicated the files. “According to Kelly… I mean Detective Goldbaum, both men knew each other. In fact, they were dorm mates in Harvard, along with a third guy named Jacob Sullivan. She said she’d call once she gets her hands on him.”
“Unless the life leech got to him first,” Eric muttered darkly. “How are we going to tackle this? It’s my first rodeo.”
“Easy,” Maria said, rubbing her hands. “We only need to narrow down the list of possible suspects. That means digging through the victim’s dirty laundry until we find what we’re looking for.”
“Does that mean you’re volunteering for library duty?” Doug asked. “Because I won’t.”
“Sure. With my spells, I should be able to make quick work of the Examiner’s archives and while I’m away, Chelsea will comb the internet for any kind of dirt these guys may have left online.”
“Who’s Chelsea?” Jenna asked, her voice seemingly coming from far off.
“A custom-coded AI prototype I’m testing. Like I said, Alexa is giving me nothing but headaches so I wrote my own this morning. And since I like the whole ‘nonthreatening girly AI’ schtick, I called her Chelsea. Maybe I’ll whip up a cute 3D model of her too, to run our house systems…”
“Thanks but no thanks,” Jenna grumbled. “No tinkering with the smart home. While you deal with the drained ones, I’ll see if I can assist with the cleansing of the roach thralls. There has to be a less invasive way to deal with them than simply burning everything to the ground.”
“A friend of mine had good results with curative magic,” Doug said. “The disease-negating kind.”
“Which makes you a prime candidate to help me with this,” Jenna said. “Which leaves Eric and Laura for a… peculiar task.”
“What are you hinting at?” Laura asked. “Looking around the local graveyards, finding any disturbed grave sites?”
“No, I’ll have a few feathery friends do that.” Jenna took a deep breath. “Don’t get me wrong please. I want the two of you to investigate The House Of Unearthly Delights.”
“Huh?” Eric asked. “What’s that?”
“My question exactly,” Laura added.
“It’s an extradimensional brothel run by succubi. It so happens to have an entrance right here in town. And from what I’ve heard, a lot of local dignitaries go there to get their rocks off.”
“Aren’t we a bit young to frequent such an establishment?” Eric asked, his face somewhere between incredulity and a huge grin. His scars didn’t make it a pleasant expression.
“Since the premises are not on US soil, no one can slap the lust demons with any lawsuits and those in the know treasure their services too much to rat them out,” Maria explained. “It only makes sense to ask Mama Lydia if one of her girls has gone rogue.”
“Besides,” Laura added, “We’re not visiting to avail us of their services.” She locked gazes with Jenna. “I’m in. Where do I have to go?”
“Hold your horses,” Jenna said, smiling. “I admire your enthusiasm but you’ve had enough action for one day. I’ll tell you after breakfast.”
* * * *
Laura sighed, withdrawing her dildo. “Sorry. This doesn’t work for me. One hand on the phone and the other wrangling the toy… It’s not the same.”
“Aww, just as it got good,” Vicky panted, her face radiant in the light shed by her screen. “I never had phone sex before.”
Laura chuckled. “I know, I know. You can get off on basically anything. Didn’t you get detention-”
“When Madame Robert caught me with my hand inside my panties during class? Cut me some slack already — it was sex ed after all and she’s a god-damn succubus!” Vicky sighed. “Don’t look at me like that.”
“Like… you’re looking now, all serious and not horny any more. I feel even more like a slut than usual.” Vicky produced her glistening dildo and licked it. “Not even a little?”
Laura fished for her t-shirt. “Like I said… not doing it for me. I miss your hands, fuck, your whole body intertwined with mine.”
“Aww, that’s sweet. But don’t tell me you don’t watch porn when alone and on holidays.”
Laura grinned. “Actually… no. I tend to keep my hands off myself. Save it all for you.” She giggled. “Besides, I hate doing myself with my phone in my hand. The last thing I need are my juices on the screen.”
“Aaaah, that explains your ferocity between the sheets. A rare insight into Laura Stürmer’s innermost feelings!” A heartfelt laugh. “Ever heard of Cleansing magic?”
Laura scoffed. “Of course, you lovable numbnut. Blessed are those with magic to spend so frivolously, like a certain dark elf.” She stifled a laugh. “Would it kill you to stop playing with yourself for at least five minutes? I didn’t cast any horniness magic on you.”
“No, that comes with my heritage.”
“How does your dad deal with two horny exhibitionists under his roof?”
“Well, he doesn’t see me that often. Ela-… Mother Elaine runs me ragged. Between shopping for the soup kitchen and helping in said kitchen, I haven’t cast a single spell today — or hit anything with my sword.” Vicky offered Laura a scorching glare then sighed theatrically. “Okay, you win. I’ll finish myself once you’re off the air, okay?”
“No cheating. No butt plugs, no clandestine fingering outside the camera’s field of view.”
“Me? Cheat? El, I’m devastated.”
“On your stomach,” Laura demanded, in a rather convincing imitation of Detective Goldbaum’s speech pattern.
“Oh, come on!” Vicky protested. “Who made you deputy?” Still she rolled onto her front. “Now what, constable?”
“If you have to know, we do actually work with the Greenbury PD. Our contact is a Detective Goldbaum. Has a nice butt and a cute face — if she could be bothered to stop scowling for a moment. Now move your phone below your- You are impossible!”
Vicky chuckled. “You know, if I take out the plug, I might come right away.” Her grinning face filled the screen again. “I’ll behave though. Tell me more. Did you get her number?”
“Yup,” Laura said. “The one for her job phone.”
Laura snorted. “I didn’t say I was interested in her.”
“Still you tried to rile me up. Boob size? Fetishes?”
“If I had to guess, not much more than a B-cup. Small and firm. And my God, she’s even more lawful than Doug, our resident paladin!”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Not one bit. If she had her way, Doug and I would be on our way to Cedar Junction for killing a bunch of roach thralls.”
Vicky made a face. “Okay, now my libido has evaporated. Yiiiikes! Did they hurt you?”
“I got lucky and drew my gun on them before they could get too close. One of them landed a nasty hit on Doug but I’m pretty sure he’ll be fine. Lay On Hands and all that.”
“How did it pan out? I mean, you obviously got away since otherwise we wouldn’t have this conversation and stillborn attempt at phone sex…”
“I’d like to give you all the grisly details and especially those concerning our next case but I’m sworn to silence. The only thing I can tell you is that tomorrow-” she checked her phone’s clock, “scratch that, later today I’m going to visit the House of Unearthly Delights. Ring any bells?”
“Actually, yes. I haven’t been there myself — yet! – but from what Mom told me, you can get every dirty little wish of yours granted. The girls there know more about you in a heartbeat than you’ll ever admit to yourself and pleasure you in a way you won’t forget. And the craziest thing? They don’t even charge you for it!”
“Sounds… not like something I’d like to experience,” Laura muttered. “And how is that sustainable?”
Vicky shrugged, setting her breasts a-bounce. “No idea. Mom didn’t stop to chat about the economics of being a lust demon. She did get the messiest tentacle fuck of her life though. Man, her eyes light up brighter than the moon when she talks about it.”
“No tentacles for me,” Laura said. “One horny dark elf is enough to get me through my wildest dreams.” She blew a kiss at the screen.
“May I touch myself again, oh beacon of propriety?” Vicky begged, her eyes large and pleading.
“Here’s a challenge for you,” Laura said. “Since you already have that plug up your butt, I want to see you play yourself, you know, two-handed combat style?”
“And how am I supposed to show you?” Vicky moaned, obviously turned on by the idea.
“That, my lusty priestess, is the challenge. I’m waiting…”
“You can be a godforsaken bitch sometimes!” Vicky complained. Then she snapped her fingers. There was the rustling of sheets as she covered herself. A moment later, Vicky called: “Daaaad!”
A heartbeat later, there was the sound of a door opening. Vicky rattled off something in breathless Dark Elven, which resulted in a good-natured, male laugh. There was a low chant and a moment later, a weird, wet explosion near the foot of her bed.
“Thanks, Dad. You’re the best!” Vicky chirped.
“No problem. Say ‘hi’ to Laura for me,” her father said, closing the door as he left.
“What just happened?” Laura dared to ask. “That sounded… nasty.”
“Nothing to be concerned about,” Vicky said. There was more rustling and a moment later, the camera’s view changed to something at and above the foot of Vicky’s bed. “I had him cast a nice, sticky Web above my bed. Boom, instant phone holder.” She raised her dildo, a orange-and-green GobCo PleasureStick 2000 in a mock salute before invitingly sprawling onto the sheets. “Are you rrrready for the show? We should have a few hours before that web dissipates…”
* * * *
There was an urgent knock at Laura’s door.
“Oh, come on,” she groaned. “Can’t a girl sleep in peace?”
The door opened a crack and Eric poked his head in. “Sorry, Snow White. There’s a goblin lady downstairs waiting to see you. Also, it’s almost breakfast o’clock. Not my problem if you spend your nights chatting with your girlfriend.”
“Wha-… how do you know?” Laura stammered, sitting up. Her dildo clattered from the bed and rolled merrily across the carpet. Only then did she remember she had been sleeping in the nude after her chat with Vicky had turned naughty. She grabbed her cover.
Eric grinned crookedly. “Um… you moaned. Kinda loud. See ya later.” He closed the door, leaving Laura sputtering and blushing. Three minutes later, she skidded to a halt in the chapter house’s entrance hall.
Jessie from GobCo was waiting there, looking at one of the large paintings. It depicted a unicorn muzzling a scantily-clad elf maiden’s palm.
“Good morning,” Laura said. “Sorry to keep you waiting.”
“Oh, it’s cool,” Jessie said, turning away from the painting. “Say, why is it always elves being painted like that? We greenies can be sexy too,” she complained, jabbing her thumb over her shoulder.
“How should I know?” Laura said, shrugging. “What can I do for you? Have the roach thralls come back?”
Jessie shook her head, her ponytail flying. “No. But in all the commotion with the cops taking you in for questioning, you forgot your shopping. Mr. Gobson sends his regards!” She fetched a huge orange basket from next to the entrance. “For making sure we didn’t end up as thrall food.”
“Thank you,” Laura said, hugging the goblin. “I totally forgot about my snacks.”
Jessie beamed. “They’re all in there, along with a few extra helpings and I believe a couple gift cards. I… only need you to sign a receipt. Don’t want my boss to think I took the stuff for myself.” Jessie pulled a neat notepad and a ball pen from her breast pocket and held it out for Laura to sign.
“Why would he think that? You don’t look like the snack-stealing kind to me,” Laura said, filling out the receipt. “Here you go.”
“Mr. Gobson is old-school like that. Always talks about how you can’t trust nobody and all that.” Jessie inspected the form. “Stürmer? Like Horatio Stürmer, the legendary Inquisitor from the novels?”
“I’m afraid he’s an unlicensed, fictional character,” Laura said, grimacing. “And not a flattering one at that. Whoever this Eleanor Greendale is, she put in a lot of effort to slander our family name. She made him an alcoholic, womanizer, and cheater. The only thing he’s good for is finding — and fucking – witches. My parents spent a small fortune trying to slap her with cease and desists. To no avail.”
“So you’ve read a few?”
Laura chuckled. “Well, that was kinda inevitable. They were ubiquitous back at school. Some of my classmates tried to make fun of me that way.” She lowered her voice. “I have to admit, she has a certain talent for outrageous sex scenes but the plots are kinda weak and ‘monster of the day’ like. But don’t tell anyone I said that.”
“My lips are sealed,” Jessie giggled. She tore a slip of paper from the pad and scribbled her number onto it. “I hope you don’t mind,” the goblin muttered, suddenly rather self-conscious. “I mean, if you want to hang out and stuff.”
“I’d be delighted,” Laura said, pocketing the slip. “Vicky… my girlfriend, I mean, she keeps telling me I should see people outside of work for a change.”
“Cool. I can show you around… once I’m off work, that is,” Jessie said, eagerly rubbing her hands. “I’ve got to make a few other deliveries first though.”
“How about we hang out on the weekend? The next few days will be rather crowded, considering I just got here.”
“Besides, Laura and I have to go visit a succubus brothel today,” Eric said, strutting into the entrance hall. Jessie paled as she saw his mangled face.
“Okay then,” the goblin sputtered. “I’m… I’m off!” She turned on her heels and fled.
“Next time, don’t scare the little ones,” Laura said, wagging an admonishing finger at him. “A question I was meaning to ask you, if you don’t mind. Why didn’t you heal your face once you were able to cast curative magic?”
Eric’s scowl turned his face into a hideous visage. “That was literally the first thing I tried. When it didn’t work, I asked everyone — including Baron fucking Samedi himself!”
Laura walked towards the back porch. A loudly purring Maine Coon flopped onto its back at her approach, demanding a belly rub. She bent down and obliged. “Did you get any answers?”
Eric gnashed his teeth. “Yeah, I did. The priests told me that some ghouls inflict what is called vile damage and by the time Mama Louise got her hands on me, it was too late to purge it. And the loa said the scars are there to remind me of the debt I owe her.”
“Sorry if I dragged up bad memories,” Laura said, giving the cat one last tickle before continuing towards her breakfast.
“Memories? Girl, that’s still current fucking events to me,” Eric growled.
“Mind telling me what happened in the first place?” Laura asked, sitting down at the table. Jenna had left plastic covers on the breakfast foods and besides her, Eric and about half a dozen cats and raccoons, the back porch was deserted. She poured herself a cup of coffee.
“Not a problem. I’ve told it a couple times already, once more won’t hurt,” Eric said, flopping down opposite her and filling up a cup of his own. “Besides, since we’ll be working together, you deserve to know a bit of my dirty past.” He pointed a finger at her. “In return, I want to hear some kinky boarding school hijinx.”
Laura chuckled. “You’ll be disappointed.”
“Not from where I’m sitting. Like I said, I heard your moaning all the way to my room last night. When there are moans, there’s sex.”
“Well, I do have a horny dark elf for a girlfriend,” Laura admitted. “Don’t they have same-sex couples where you come from?”
“Only on PornHub,” Eric chuckled. “What, no cute boys in Occulto-High?”
“Oh, a lot,” Laura admitted. “But I was way too busy to play the dating game.”
“Then how come you ended up with that horny dark elf of yours?”
“Stop drooling. We were made roommates and she threw me a little birthday party when I turned eighteen. I had an… episode and her consoling me turned… sideways.” She looked up. “Hey, I wanted to know about your past!”
Eric sipped his coffee. “No, no. You’ve already let slip so many juicy bits, now I want the full scoop. She consoled you. Didn’t it gross you out, being hit on by a girl?”
“Grossed out? No.” Laura fished for a few waffles. “Confused would be more appropriate. No one before tried to touch me like that. I didn’t have many friends, besides my sword and my gun.”
“I have a hard time picturing you as the outsider, the wallflower,” Eric said, his voice much gentler now. “You’re way too cute.”
Laura met his gaze. “Looks have nothing to do with it. My name has.”
“Jenna and Maria said something like that when you arrived,” Eric said. “Still have no idea what that means.”
“My family has been with the Order since the Founding. Heroes of legend, most of them gifted with powerful magic. Not me though. I can’t even get a glow stone to light up for me.”
“And that’s bad?”
A raccoon jumped onto the table and headed straight for the plate filled with pancakes. Laura intercepted the furry thief, glad for the interruption. “You wouldn’t understand,” she said, banishing the chittering furball to the floor. “Enough stalling. What happened to you?”
“It’s a rather short and kinda pathetic story. I wanted to impress a few street thugs so they’d let me join their gang,” Eric said, shrugging. “They said ‘Okay, you spend one night on Saint Roch’s cemetery and you’re in.'”
“And you did it.”
“Sure, why not? How could I know that the fucking graveyard was infested with ghouls? It’s a goddamn tourist attraction!” Eric threw his hands up. “I even brought a gun, to keep the hobos at arm’s length.”
“Something went wrong.”
“Duh.” Eric made a sour face. “I ended up nodding off — and when I came to, the damn ghouls were all over me. I couldn’t move and before I knew it, they were up in my face, with that ugly piece of shit tearing off my ear like it was a bit of chicken!”
“Ghoul paralysis,” Laura dryly observed. “You’re lucky to be alive!”
“That had nothing to do with luck and everything with the N’Orleans branch’s scheduled ghoul culling that same night. Still, didn’t save me from running around like something out of Saw.”
“All things considered, you got off lightly,” Laura said, draining her cup. “How did you end up serving a Life Debt?”
Eric gnashed his teeth again, his face an unreadable, terrifying mask. He eventually calmed down and tried his crooked smile again. “Mama Louise took it upon herself to put my life on a new path,” he said slowly. “She said she was too old for the Order life anyway, so she wanted to make sure her powers would still be available once she was gone. So she did some Voodoo ritual and fused her soul to mine.” He grimaced again. “You think you have it rough, trying to fill your ancestors’ shoes? How about sharing your fucking head with a wise-cracking, eighty-something Voodoo priestess? I haven’t jacked off for the past six months because every time I get the itch, I can hear her making a few suggestions on how to make it more intense!”
Laura nearly dropped her waffle. “Seriously?”
“Do I look like I’m joking?” Eric exhaled slowly. “So, how about you stop moaning about your oh so horrible school life? Could be worse, eh? Shall we talk to some lust demons for shits and giggles?”
* * * *
“How come I’m chauffeuring you around?” Eric asked, kicking the Order bus into gear.
“Hold that thought,” Laura said, tapping her phone’s on-screen keyboard.
–Where exactly is this brothel? She texted to Jenna. And where are you?
–Carpenter Street, behind the old Orpheum cinema. Also, thrall hunting with Doug. Any problems with Eric?
–He’s a peach. Talk to you when we’re back. Stay safe!
“Because I didn’t have the time to get my driver’s license just yet,” Laura said. “I spent every free minute honing my combat skills, reading lore books…”
“And screwing around with your horny dark elf girlfriend,” Eric said. “Where to?”
“Will you give it a fucking rest already? Sheesh,” Laura hissed. “Carpenter Street, behind some old cinema.”
The bandana-wearing cleric tapped the bus’s aftermarket satnav and stepped on the gas.
“So… are you a lesbian then?” Eric asked after a few moments of silence.
Laura skewered him with a gaze. He didn’t flinch.
“Why is this such a big deal for you?” Laura asked, slightly exasperated. “I like having sex with Vicky. Didn’t have the time to fool around with a boy yet.” Deciding that two could play at Inquisition, she asked: “How about you?”
Eric kept his eyes on the road. “Straight as fuck, girl. No cock for me.”
“That came out rather vehemently,” Laura said, a teasing lift in her voice. “Did something happen in that dirty past of yours you’re ashamed of?”
“Nope. And now I can kiss my chances of finding a willing sex partner of any kind good bye anyway,” he said, a bitter note in his voice.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” Laura said, touching his elbow. “True love knows no bounds.”
Eric snorted in disgust. “Don’t try that romantic bullshit with me.”
“Is that Eric speaking or Mama Louise?”
Stopping at a red light, Eric shot her a sidelong glance. “Both, if you have to ask.” A bit milder, he added: “Do you have any idea how weird it is, seeing people with her eyes? She keeps drooling over Doug, for fuck’s sake!”
“He’s handsome, for a half-orc,” Laura admitted. “I bet he’d be fun in bed, with his endurance.”
“Can it already, will you?” Eric growled. “The last person I want to have a boner for is freaking Doug!”
Laura glanced his way. “You kinda have one though,” she said. “Maybe it’s a good thing we’re about to visit a succubus brothel, let off some steam?”
“Shut up.” Eric turned a corner and came to a halt in front of one of the more luxurious buildings in town, the art deco front a lavish explosion of black and gold. Age and neglect had been kinder to it than to most others. The movie posters were somewhat out of date though, proudly announcing Avengers Endgame and a Lord Of The Rings marathon.
“How much trouble do you think we’ll be in?” Eric asked, opening the driver’s side door.
Laura left the bus as well, walking to the car’s rear and opening the hatch to get her sword. “Hopefully none,” she said. “Fighting one succubus is hard enough. More than one… would require more than the two of us.” She opened the weapons locker and pulled a few magazines of cold-forged iron bullets from it. “You can imbue my sword with holy energy?”
“I-… yes.” Eric reached past her and picked up a vicious-looking flanged mace. “Shotgun or no shotgun?” he asked Laura.
“Whatever makes you feel comfortable,” she said. She raised an eyebrow when Eric pulled a double-barreled beast from the locker. A rosary was wound around the stock and silver crosses inlaid into the foregrip.
“That was a Fox Model B once, right?” she asked.
Eric shrugged. “It belonged to Mama Louise and I know how to shoot it thanks to her. Don’t ask me for specifics.” He reached for the ammo box. Laura guided his hand towards the drawer filled with cold-forged iron buckshot.
“Thanks,” he grumbled, stuffing two handfuls of shells into his jacket. “Why these?”
“Because succubi are allergic to cold iron,” she said. “And anything blessed. Madame Robert-”
“Our monster lore teacher at Briou. Madame Robert. She’s a succubus. Somehow she had forsaken the call of the Abyss and became if not a beacon of light, at least not a force of darkness. Anyway, she loves to shock first-years by placing communion wafers onto her forearms to demonstrate the interplay of holy and unholy powers.”
“Doesn’t it hurt?”
“She says ‘no’ because it’s like flash paper. A small poof, a bright flame and a bit of sweet smoke. Looks hella impressive though. Let’s go.” Laura closed the hatch.
They found the entrance in a narrow alley behind the cinema. The plaque next to it was almost invisible thanks to a thick layer of dirt and the door, though sturdy, was absolutely unremarkable. Laura knocked. A moment later, the door creaked inwards. A dimly lit corridor waited beyond, its end shrouded in darkness. Behind her, she heard Eric’s breathing quicken.
“Don’t worry, there are no furious monsters waiting to eat us,” she said.
“I’m not afraid!” he grumbled.
Laura stepped over the threshold. The floor boards underneath creaked softly. Three steps in, there was the by now familiar sensation of the world moving sideways. She blinked and reached for a wall to steady herself. The corridor had changed. Gone was the naked concrete, replaced with a soft velvet padding in dark crimson. Gold trim went along the finely stuccoed ceiling and plush carpet.
She heard Eric gasp behind her. “Are you all right?” she asked, glancing over her shoulder.
The young cleric caught himself on a wall and looked around in wonder. “That… was unpleasant. I thought the world was falling away around me.”
“Congrats. You lost your teleport virginity then,” Laura said, offering a playful grin. “Need a hand?”
“No, I’m fine.” He grabbed his shotgun with renewed determination. “That wasn’t there before,” he said, pointing to a curtain at the far end of the corridor.
“I’m pretty sure the owners placed a Portal across the corridor back in Greenbury. Kinda impressive, considering the place’s reputation.”
“Right. Jenna said something about ‘not being able to teleport there’ when she picked me up in N’Orleans due to some fluctuation thing or other. Right. Gaps in the Barrier.”
“Mama Louise talking?”
“Yeah. She’s trying to — shut up please — make me look good in your company.”
“Considerate but unnecessary. I’d rather have you focused than presentable. Does she ever keep quiet?”
“Mama does take naps on occasion,” Eric grumbled, heading for the curtain. A pleasant, spicy aroma wafted from it. He pulled the curtain aside.
A narrow hall awaited them. The nine-foot tall minotaur guarding the next door made it look two sizes smaller than it actually was. He wore a tailor-made suit and a pair of enormous knuckle dusters dangled from his belt.
“Welcome to the House of Unearthly Delights.” He pointed to his right. “Changing rooms are over there. Before I can let you pass, we need to talk about your arsenal though.”
“Hi. Order of Martinius,” Laura said, pulling her holy symbol from the neck of her shirt. “I’d like to speak to your boss please.”
The minotaur offered her the bovine equivalent of a wide grin. “Of course, of course. I still need to lock your implements of murder away. No one gets past this curtain clothed or armed.”
“Your boss — or one of her girls — may be a suspect in a double murder case,” Eric growled. “How are we to apprehend her if we don’t have our weapons?”
“How about talking it out?” the minotaur replied calmly. “I’m pretty sure there will be no need for violence of any kind.” He lowered his voice until it was a stomach-churning growl. “And if there will be violence, I’m the guy you’ll have to get past.”
“That’s one battle I’d rather not have,” Laura said, unhooking her scabbard. “Not without at least something in .357 Magnum in hand.”
The minotaur tried to suppress a laugh. It almost worked.
“Are you really giving him your weapons?” Eric asked, aghast.
“It’s either that or starting a fight we can’t win,” she said, handing off her sword and gun.
“A wise choice,” the minotaur grumbled, opening a towering safe behind him. He fixed neon-green ‘post it’ stickers to Laura’s gear and handed her a similarly colored latex wristband. “There are colored chips in the lockers. Mark your stall with one when leaving.” He looked at Eric. “So, how about it? You wanna cuddle with your boomstick or one of our luscious ladies?”
“Fine, fine. Just don’t break it or something,” Eric grumbled, handing off the gun followed by his mace. The bouncer tacked pink stickers on them.
“The ammo,” the minotaur suggested, handing out a small square tray. “All of it.”
Eric obliged, counting down eight shells into the tray.
“And don’t forget that boot dagger,” the minotaur added.
“Which boot dagger?” Eric asked innocently.
The bouncer pointed with one of his hoofed feet. “The one on your left ankle. Has a rose pommel. Looks kinda girly, if you ask me.”
Laura suppressed a giggle as Eric struggled with his jeans. With a sour face, the cleric handed off the slender blade. It did look like something a woman would have hidden in her braid.
“Okay then,” the minotaur said, bowing slightly. “Go get changed.”
“Can’t we do this in our street clothes?” Eric asked. “We’re only here to talk!”
“Come on already,” Laura said, gently pulling him along.
“Why are you so eager to get naked? Earlier this morning you tried to hide your boobs from me.”
“Because every moment you spend arguing is a moment wasted,” Laura said, opening the door to the changing rooms. A narrow hallway with curtained cubicles stretched away forever. “Besides, I’m pretty sure they have some kind of robe or something. Sheesh, and I thought I was a prude.” She ducked behind a curtain.
“Nope, you’re the one with the horny dark elf-” Eric interrupted himself. There was the rustling of fabric as he claimed his own cubicle.
Inside was a small locker, a mirror and a hanger from which a sheer pink robe dangled. Golden filigree was stitched into it, turning the roomy sleeves into a semblance of wings. Laura undressed and donned the robe. The fabric caressed her skin lovingly. She shivered slightly at the unexpected sensation. When she looked up, she caught her reflection. The robe left little to the imagination while the golden stitching seemed to emphasize her curves.
It’s more like an appetizing wrap than any protection of modesty, she thought.
On impulse, she pulled her phone from her jacket and snapped a shot in the mirror, to send to Vicky later. In this interdimensional space, there was no cell coverage. Humming to herself, she stashed her clothes in the locker. Inside, besides the obligatory hangers and shelving, she found a small bowl containing colorful tokens. She picked the one matching her wrist band and left the cubicle. On the left hand side of the frame, she found an indentation and slotted the token into it.
“Eric? You still there?” she asked.
“I am not wearing this,” he croaked.
“Aw, come on. Everybody looks cute in pink.”
“That thing barely covers anything!”
“I think it looks rather hot on me,” Laura said. “Don’t you want to see?”
“What’s gotten into you? Is there some kind of sex magic at work?” Eric asked.
Good question, Laura thought. I feel… at ease. Although I probably shouldn’t.
“Listen. If you’re too scared to show me your pink-clad butt, I’ll go in alone and you can wait out front. But I’d rather go in with a cleric by my side who can bring down a Flame Strike should things go sideways. You can cast a Flame Strike, can’t you?”
“Of course I-… Okay, oh-fucking-kay. You win. But if I catch you laughing, you’ll die first!” Eric pulled the curtain open. Instead of a pink robe, he wore a leaf-shaped loincloth with gold fronds dangling from it.
Laura looked him up and down. He was lean, toned and sported a trio of badly healed gunshot scars on his left shoulder and chest. A top hat wearing skull tattoo adorned his right bicep. Like Laura, he wore a silver necklace with the Order’s blue-tinged cross and he refused to leave his bandana behind.
“What are you lookin’ at?” he grumbled. His hands flexed, almost as if something kept them from protectively cupping his junk — which Laura could easily spot past the leaf.
“Nice ink,” she said, indicating his tattoo.
“Not my idea,” he huffed, crossing his arms over his chest. “When I woke up from my coma, with dead Mama Louise over my body, it was just… there. Like I’d been branded.” He again tried to hide his privates.
“I have no idea why you’re so fidgety,” she calmly announced. “You have nothing to be ashamed of. I bet you made a lot of other boys rather envious in the locker room.” She extended a hand. “Come. Let’s have a chat with the boss lady.”
Eric kept nervously checking their surroundings as they walked back to the minotaur bouncer. The bull-headed giant bowed and pulled open the curtain he was guarding. Beyond was a cavernous hall shrouded in intimate twilight. Sensual music played on unfamiliar instruments caressed their ears, the rolling drum beats inviting them to dance and shake what they had. Exotic fragrances tickled their nostrils, hints of delicious food, aromatic oils and spices. A gentle, warm breeze caused Laura’s robe to flutter around her thighs. The center of the room was made up of veiled spaces, the illumination within just bright enough to see writhing shadows. Bits of hushed conversation, singing or heated moans could be heard.
“Now what?” Eric grumbled. “Do they expect us to holler for help?”
“Oh no, we wouldn’t want such a crude display of impatience.” The voice was a low purr. For a heartbeat, Laura wondered what the owner of such a voice could do to her. Goosebumps raced down her spine and she had to consciously stop herself from caressing her breasts. Eric didn’t fare much better — his loincloth began to tent. This time his spiritual passenger had mercy and he crossed his hands over it.
A succubus emerged from the twilight. A pair of crimson bat wings wrapped around her naked body like a regal gown and a long tail accentuated each of her steps with a graceful curl. Hair the color of midnight spilled over her breasts and down her back, seemingly moving with a will of its own. A thin strand of gold snaked past her right ear. Her lips were curled in a sensual smile but it was her eyes which caught Laura off-guard. There was a lusty sparkle, yes, but something else as well, a wisdom and gentleness she didn’t expect to see anywhere near a lust demon. Something else caught her eye — an unsightly red spot between the demon’s clavicles in a familiar shape — the five-bladed wings of Mercy.
“Welcome,” the succubus said, offering a deep bow. Something golden around her navel caught an errant shaft of light. “I hope you didn’t have to wait long.”
“Not at all,” Laura gasped, acutely aware of how aroused she was. She clasped her wrist. “We were taking in the sights. Could we speak to Lydia please?”
“You already are, Miss Stürmer. Mr. Deveraux. Or may I call you Laura and Eric?” the succubus asked. Her tail made a complicated, serpentine motion.
You may call me anything you like, Laura thought, stopping herself from rolling her hips. Eric looked like someone juggling a live grenade without a target to throw at.
Laura’s insane need suddenly flatlined, leaving her much calmer — and somehow craving more still. Eric audibly gasped for air and exhaled slowly, his loincloth slowly returning to a vertical position.
Lydia cleared her throat. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. What can I help you with?”
“It’s a… delicate situation,” Laura began then stopped. “Aren’t you able to read my thoughts?”
Lydia chuckled amicably. “Yes but it is generally seen as a gross breach of privacy. So, unless you absolutely want me to, let’s stick to words for now.” She stepped between Laura and Eric and touched their shoulders. “This way please.”
“Where are you taking us?” Eric asked, his voice a hoarse whisper. His gaze went from their host to the veiled spaces to their right to some lavishly laid out buffets to their left. Other succubi flitted to and fro, some fetching food and drink from the buffet, others slipping through the sheer curtains.
“Not everyone is having sex,” Laura observed, nodding towards one of the veiled spaces. Two shadows sat upright, facing each other. While she looked, one reached for the table between them.
“Pleasure has many forms,” Lydia said, her hand caressing Laura’s neck. “Some are here for pure lust, the kind of sex born in their wildest dreams. Others desire more cerebral pursuits. Music, art, food or even a board game or two. Ah, an open space.” She left her guests and pulled open a curtain. “This way.”
Beyond was an oasis made from cushions strewn across the floor. A low table played host to a small forest of bottles and glasses, all filled with colorful liquids. Underneath it, a neat stack of towels rested. Lydia sank into the cushions, her bat wings dissipating as she sat down.
“…and you think it’s safe?” Eric muttered.
Laura took his hand and pulled him inside. Behind her, the curtain rustled shut. She sat down across from Lydia. After some hesitation, Eric followed suit, placing his hands in his lap.
The lust demon looked at them expectantly. “So, what brings the Order of Martinius to me? It’s been some time since one of your Order came here.” Her eyes went from Laura to Eric and back.
The young cleric appeared lost in thought. Laura sighed softly. Either he was overwhelmed by Lydia’s presence or he was arguing with Mama Louise. Neither situation was optimal. As the senior Order member, she had to watch out for him — and with the naked succubus caressing her with her eyes, that was no easy task.
“You did catch our names already,” she said, forcing herself to remember proper interview etiquette.
“Yes. I did allow myself the small peek.” Lydia flashed a little smile. “It helps to break the ice if I can address my clients directly. Most seem to lose their tongue for the first dozen or so minutes after arrival. You seem to be rather collected though,” she complimented Laura.
“Barely,” Laura admitted. “I’m grateful you masked your aura for us. Even so, it’s rather hard to think about anything but sex around you.”
“You’ll get used to it in a bit.” Lydia’s eyes lovingly gazed at her. “But if all else fails, we could take care of your needs then talk about the unpleasant things which brought you here afterwards. Nothing like a bit of uninhibited debauchery to clear the mind.”
Laura had to muster all her willpower not to agree to Lydia’s plan. Despite the heated bout of phone sex she had with Vicky the night before, her body yearned for a lover’s touch and the prospect of having to wait months until she could see her dark elven friend again hurt more than she wanted to admit to herself.
She focused on Lydia. The succubus lounged back in her cushions, a long-stemmed glass of some beverage between her graceful fingers. Her whole body was a thinly veiled invitation — slightly spread legs allowed easy glances at her sex and the lust demon’s nipples were erect, begging to be licked. With some difficulty, Laura forced her gaze away from them, to the clearly visible burn mark between the demon’s clavicles.
“Say, what happened to you there?” she asked, her fingers touching her own skin instead of pointing at Lydia. “Did you have a run-in with a Mercy cleric?”
Lydia gently shook her head. “Nothing that dramatic. This is where my holy symbol rests six days a week.”
“Doesn’t that hurt like all hell?” Eric asked breathlessly, his gaze seeking Laura’s. He seemed grateful for anything to divert his attention from Lydia’s body — or his own impressive erection.
“Why would you do that?” Laura asked.
The fires of devotion lit up in Lydia’s eyes. “Three simple reasons. First, when I decided to forsake the ways of the Abyss, I needed a constant reminder not to revert to my evil ways. Second, it is a visible sign to others that I might be more than your average lust demon. And third — I am a bit of a masochist.” A coy smile fluttered across her lips. “In the beginning, the pain was almost unbearable. The symbol would leave the skin beneath blackened and raw. I did persevere though. No idea if any of my actions changed me or my body simply adapted. Now, a few centuries later, it only hurts when I grow really tired.”
“I’ve never heard of a succubus willingly wearing holy symbols. Not even our teacher in Briou does that,” Laura said.
“Ah, dearest Sophia. How is she doing these days?”
“You know her?” Eric wondered.
In the space next to them, a woman’s moans crescendoed as she reached a powerful orgasm.
“Of course. She was sent to the Order as a liaison and, more importantly, a show of good faith. Mr. Aulin was the one to put in a good word for her with your commanders. If a vampire could become an ally of the light, surely a lust demon could too?”
“She teaches monster lore and Shadow psychology. And sex ed,” Laura explained. The shadows one cubicle over moved, with the female voice issuing hushed commands to her lovers. This is not helping, she thought bitterly. Despite her best efforts, her fingers had crept under the flimsy fabric of her robe and were caressing the light fuzz on her labia. With a herculean effort, she placed her hands on her thighs. Eric looked somewhat disappointed. Laura moaned softly as his gaze lit a new rush of arousal in her nethers. She bit her lower lip. “Anyway, enough of that. Can we get down to business now?”
“You may do with me as you like, Laura,” Lydia purred, caressing down her body. “The both of you, if you want.” The succubus’ gaze found Eric’s loincloth which had by now slid to the side, leaving his rock-hard cock out in the open. He was much too occupied devouring Laura and Lydia with his eyes.
“Okay then,” Laura gasped, digging her fingernail into her skin. The pain helped her focus somewhat. “We work for the Order branch in Greenbury, Massachusetts. The cops there have found two corpses drained of all life. They basically look like mummies, with parchment-like skin, no drop of liquid in their bodies. You know what I mean.”
“Of course.” Lydia nodded curtly. “Before I changed my ways, I drained enough unlucky… clients.”
Next to them, Laura heard the unmistakable sounds of someone giving an enthusiastic blowjob. She remembered how Vicky had treated Marox and Thorin in The Flaming City, how hungrily she had gone down on them — and now she wondered how it would compare to licking her girlfriend’s most sensitive spot. She looked to the side and saw two broad-shouldered shadows towering over a curvy female kneeling between them, alternately serving their rampant cocks. She tore her eyes away from the lewd display. “Sorry,” she stammered. “You said?”
“I said, before I changed my ways, I did drain my fair share of unlucky clients,” Lydia patiently repeated. “Also, I can assure you that neither I nor any of my girls have recently been to Greenbury.”
“And how can we trust you?” Eric asked. Laura was amazed he still was so coherent. But there he was, his eyes firmly trained on Lydia’s face and his hands balled to fists on his thigh.
Maybe Mama Louise is holding the reins right now. Laura thought.
“There is little hard proof I can offer you,” Lydia said. “Succubi usually are summoned. We rarely travel on our own, especially out in the Real World. Our Abyssal masters are afraid of our independence and now that I am free to go wherever I please, I’m afraid to run into an overzealous paladin.”
“A cleric can ruin your day just the same,” Eric grumbled, touching his skull tattoo. “Would you mind if I cast truth-finding magic on you?”
“Not one bit,” Lydia purred. “There are no magic-foiling safeguards in place. A girl needs every advantage on her home turf she can get.” She sat up straight, discarding the lusty facade for the moment.
Laura gasped a breath of relief.
The eye sockets in Eric’s tattoo lit up with mystical flames as he chanted in French. His voice sounded different, gone was his forced tough-boy delivery, replaced by a smooth, confident tone employed by someone who has done similar things for quite a long time. He gestured towards Lydia. The succubus was enveloped in a cloud of silvery motes.
“Tell me a lie,” the cleric demanded.
“Sure. I ate six babies last night,” Lydia fired back, her long-fingered hand closing as if she was crushing a tiny skull.
Eric recoiled. “Did it have to be that gruesome?” he complained.
“I’m sorry. It had to be clear and unambiguous enough for your spell to register. Did I lie?”
He shuddered. “Yes. Now, let me ask again. Did you or any of your girls come to Greenbury recently?”
Lydia shook her head. “On my honor. No. Neither I nor any of my girls left this interdimensional space in the past two months or so. Usually, our clients seek us out.”
The noises in the space one over intensified again. Laura had been too fixed on Eric’s display of spellcraft but now the rough breathing and wet slapping of the woman and her two lovers was too loud and rowdy to ignore any more. Her gaze flicked to the curtain. The shadows had formed into one writhing whole and it was impossible to see who was doing what to whom but the sounds conjured all kinds of possibilities.
Why does it get to me like that anyway? Laura thought, angry at her lack of discipline. I mean, I sat on the same bed when Marox and Thorin double-teamed Vicky, caressed her even. Now I almost lose my shit at a few shadows and moans?
A touch to her cheek tore her from her thoughts. Her eyes snapped open. Lydia knelt in front of her, the succubus’ nose almost touching her. “Eric has deemed me sufficiently innocent,” she murmured, her index finger caressing down Laura’s throat. “He’s wondering what to do next though.” Lydia’s finger stopped between Laura’s breasts and the succubus used her palm to topple Laura into the cushions.
She didn’t resist. All she knew was that she needed to be touched. Laura grasped for Lydia’s wrist and placed the succubus’ hand atop her own breast. With her free hand, she made a beckoning gesture in Eric’s direction.
“Oh, how thoughtful,” Lydia purred when Eric’s swaying cock poked her cheek. “Or is he meant for you?” The succubus raised an eyebrow. “Ah, I see how it is,” she purred, giving the glans a long, tender lick. In a feat of remarkable dexterity, Lydia slithered between Laura’s thighs, scissoring her. Then she beckoned Eric closer. The cleric’s eyes flicked from one woman to the other, amazement on his face as Laura reached down and began to finger Lydia’s shockingly wet pussy. The succubus snaked her fingers around Eric’s rod and guided him to her mouth.
“Now, Laura. Watch,” the succubus ordered, closing her lips around Eric’s tip, sucking and slobbering his organ with visible delight. Laura ground herself against Lydia, wanting nothing more than to finally get rid of the insane, constantly building heat in her pussy. She desperately yearned for her dildo — it was the best way to alleviate this kind of need.
There was a wet, nasty pop as Lydia let Eric’s cock spring from her mouth. “Dildo, Laura? Honey, we don’t need dildos here.” Lydia disentangled her legs from Laura’s and stood up. “Here’s something dark elves are infamous for,” the succubus proclaimed. She touched her own forehead and… changed. Her skin took on a coal-black coloration, the hair turned icy-white save for a tell-tale golden streak going past her ear. Her body took on the slender, firm curves of a dark elven priestess, complete with an obsidian spider amulet clicking between her breasts.
One hand pumped Eric’s shaft, keeping him hot and bothered, while the other traveled down the dark elf’s body. Lydia caressed herself.
Laura, with her own fingers busy between her thighs, wondered what the shape-shifted succubus was up to. And then she saw it, a small dark nub sprouting from between her fingertips. It grew and elongated, until it nearly rivaled Eric’s throbbing manhood in length and girth. Eric — to everyone’s surprise — suddenly erupted, coating Lydia’s stomach and breasts with hot, pearly ropes of his seed.
“I think I hit a nerve,” Lydia purred, going to her knees next to Laura. She trapped Eric’s cock between her lips and lovingly slurped every spurt of his cream off him. “That’s your little innermost secret, isn’t it?” Lydia whispered between licks. Eric’s head was flushed with embarrassment but he nonetheless grabbed Lydia by her icy white mane and kept on fucking her mouth.
Laura crawled onto Lydia’s thighs until her head was close to the magically grown erection the succubus had sprouted. While Lydia was busy pleasuring Eric, Laura touched her first cock, marveling at how it seemed to pulse under her fingers. This was different from the eye-wateringly colorful fuck sticks she and Vicky had bought together in Briou’s tiny GobCo.
It’s… alive, Laura thought, caressing the dark-elven rod. Every touch, even some of her heated breathing seemed to cause Lydia to gasp in response.
If my touch can do that… how about this? Surprised at her own daring, Laura closed her lips around Lydia’s tip. The taste wasn’t much different from how an aroused Vicky tasted — and cock between her lips was definitely another thing than suckling Vicky’s engorged clit.
Lydia’s fingers caressed through Laura’s disheveled hair. There were no encouraging words, just a lusty moan in answer to her licks and tentative sucks. A moment later, a second cock brushed her cheek. Drunk on her own lust, Laura switched, causing Eric to groan in pleasure. Lydia’s fingers guided Laura’s to Eric’s balls. Touching them caused the cleric to buck his hips urgently. Laura growled a warning then closed a hand around his base, dictating how much of his impressive length he was allowed to push into her mouth. Lydia dove between Laura’s thighs, displacing her hand and attacking her folds with lips and tongue at first then knowing fingers diving into her tunnel. Groaning in heat, Laura ground herself against Lydia’s face and fingers, riding out an almighty orgasm which showed no signs of stopping. She released Eric’s cock to gasp in a lungful of air, just as he let loose another load of his cream which miraculously missed her face only to land squarely in her hair.
With two fingers still inside her, Lydia’s lips nibbled on Laura’s ear. “How was it?” the succubus-turned-dark elf whispered.
“Insane,” Laura moaned. “I didn’t exactly ask for a threesome, you know?”
“Most people don’t, yet still they happen,” Lydia purred. “Look, Eric is still not done.” She leaned in and closed her lips around the cleric’s cock. Before she knew what she was doing, Laura had pulled Eric’s cock from Lydia’s mouth and kept on licking him.
“Alright, alright, if you don’t want to share, I’ll find my own amusement,” Lydia purred, standing up and offering her own glistening lance to Eric. To Laura’s utmost surprise, he turned his head and allowed the succubus to slowly fuck his mouth.
We really need to have a talk after this, you and I, Laura thought, her fingers going for her sex which felt a bit left out of the action. Her fingers were nice, but…
There was movement above her. She looked up and saw a second succubus join the tangle in the cushions, growing a prodigious member as she grabbed Eric’s bandana’d head. Eric came between Laura’s lips, a bit less vehemently than before. He grabbed the new arrival by her perfect butt cheeks and reeled her in, going for her cock.
Before she could wonder where Lydia had gone, Laura noticed hands on her hips, helping her to get to her knees while still being able to blow Eric.
What are you-
There was the sensation of something hot and wet caressing along her folds. Laura arched her back and spread her legs. That was so much better than her own fingers! A moment later, Lydia parted her labia with her magically grown cock, gently easing it into Laura’s deepest reaches.
Now I know how Vicky must have felt! Laura thought triumphantly, drunk on all the new sensations coursing through her body. Although she didn’t get fucked by a succ-oh my God!
Lydia moved, slowly, deliberately fucking Laura. Each thrust lit up small fireworks behind her eyes. Eric above her was moaning and gurgling, the other succubus not nearly as slow and gentle as Lydia was — but going by his bucking hips and wildly thrusting cock, he seemed to enjoy every single minute of it!
Forming coherent thoughts became more and more difficult as Lydia picked up speed, adding two caressing fingers on Laura’s clit to the already overwhelming stimuli pounding her body. Laura rolled her hips back in time to meet each deep thrust — and suddenly she came, harder than ever before, spitroasted between a horny succubus and a helplessly panting cleric, his chest coated in the second succubus’ cum as it dribbled from his mouth. Laura bucked and writhed and then Lydia speared herself into Laura one last time, flooding her insides with demon cum.
* * * *
“What are you doing?” Eric rasped, his whole body tensing up. Hot water hammered down onto his shoulders, almost scalding him.
Laura pulled him against her breasts, soapy foam squishing between them. She made sure to keep her hands above the waist line. “I’m washing your back,” she announced, squeezing him gently.
He wasn’t that much taller than her and Laura had little trouble looking past his shoulder. He was utterly spent, his once glorious cock now limp and dangling between his thighs.
“Do you mind?” she asked, breaking the hug.
“I don’t need a pity fuck,” he grumbled, grabbing the bottle with liquid soap the succubi had provided.
Laura landed a viciously stinging slap on his butt cheek. “That’s not fair,” she snarled. “I didn’t pity you when I sucked your cock. I wanted it because…”
“Because the succubus fucked with both our heads,” Eric interjected, slapping soap onto his chest. “You’re not even my type.”
“Your cum in my mouth says otherwise. Or was that meant for the futa cock you just sucked? Twice?”
Eric roared in defiance and rammed his fist against the tiles. There was the ugly sound of shattering knuckle bones and he went to his knees, wheezing.
“Yeah, that was stupid,” Laura said, trying to suppress a nasty giggle. She slapped his cheeks. “Hey Mama, your host body needs a Cure Light Wounds.”
The eyes on Eric’s skull tattoo flared up and a gentle green glow enveloped his mangled hand. The running water didn’t manage to drown out the spine-tingling sound of reshaping bone.
Laura turned down the water, from skin-scorching to comfortable, and pulled Eric to his feet. “Listen. I didn’t think I was in the market for a double penetration either. The only thing I used to cram into my cooch was my dildo — up until now.”
“Like I said, the lust demons fucked us — figuratively and literally,” Eric snarled.
“They can only pick up on our own desires. After that field trip to The Burning City, I caught myself wondering how doing two guys would feel. Vicky obviously was into it and now I know why. Being the centerpiece, the catalyst of your lust was… incredible,” Laura said, stopping herself from going for her pussy again.
“Oh my god, you have turned into a true slut, eh?” Eric asked.
“You’re one to complain. You’re already growing a hard-on again,” Laura said. “So… You and cock sucking. If it makes you feel better, I promise on my honor that I will never tell anyone what you’re about to tell me. What happens in the shower, stays in the shower.” She snuggled up to him and played with his growing member.
“What are you doing?” he growled. Despite his complaints, he did not stop Laura.
“Giving you a hand job. I’d like to see how it feels without a succubus prodding me. Do you mind?”
“What about your dark elven girlfriend? Didn’t you just cheat on her?”
Laura chuckled. “If anything, this little episode should make us even, after her threesome in the Flaming City. I have to say, sucking you off was fun.”
“What about my ugly-ass face?” Eric muttered.
“What about it? It’s a part of who you are.” Laura grinned viciously. “When I’m sucking you off, I’m looking elsewhere anyway.” She looked into his eyes. They were a nice doe-brown and could be pretty if there hadn’t been this haunted look in them.
“Ouch.” Eric made a sour face. Then, a moment later, he began to laugh. “You’re a fucking weirdo, anyone told you that?”
Laura smiled. “In case you haven’t noticed — all Order members are weird, in their own special ways.” She went to her knees and trapped Eric’s cock between her lips, giving him a slow, scorching blowjob until he came, only a feeble dribble after his numerous eruptions earlier. Smacking her lips, Laura picked up the soap and stood up. “Come on. Tell me,” she said. “It can’t be that traumatic now, can it?”
“Wait, wait…” Eric stammered, still catching his breath. “What about us? I mean, after the things we just did…?”
“If you’re wondering if we’re boyfriend and girlfriend now… I don’t think so.” Laura admitted.
Eric’s face crashed and burned.
“That doesn’t mean we can’t wash each other’s backs now and then,” Laura said, pressing the soap bottle into his hands. “I bet Doug and Jenna do it all the time.”
“Washing your back? Huh?” There was a long pause then Eric slapped his forehead. “Oh. Wait.”
“Mutual stress relief. Soul soothing. Washing each other’s back. There are numerous ways to put it. According to Vicky, it’s a rather common practice in the Order. I mean, we’re supposed to save each other’s lives, be there when the shit hits the fan and all that. We share the good and the bad. And our bodies on occasion. It’s just sex after all.”
I-… I can’t believe I just said that, Laura realized. I sound like Vicky! She wasn’t sure if that was something to be proud of.
“Mardi Gras,” Eric said eventually, stepping behind her. His hands spread bubbly soap over her shoulders. “I was trawling up and down Bourbon Street, looking for easy pockets to pick, when I saw this hot latina, looked Brazilian to me. Amazing ass in those tiny short-shorts, belly piercing, cat eyes to die for.” He massaged his way down her back, cupping Laura’s butt cheeks. She reached for the tiles and braced herself.
“Said her name was Geralda. Told me she was looking for a good time away from the tourist spots. So I took her under my wing and showed her some sights. We smoked a lot of pot, drank a lot of whiskey, danced in the clubs and eventually ended up in a shitty little motel off the beaten path. Before I knew it, she was giving me head like no one else before.” He soaped up her front. “No offense.”
“None taken,” Laura purred. “I know I need more practice in that particular skill.” She stepped backwards, into him and found him hard again. His cock fit beautifully between her butt cheeks. Content for now, Laura let it rest there and held Eric’s hands on her breasts. “What happened?”
“When I pulled her onto the bed and tore off her panties… well, Geralda must have been Gerald before. But I was way too stoned and way too horny to really care. We sucked and fucked for ages. Days. When… she was done with me, I couldn’t walk straight for a while.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad to me,” Laura said, rolling her hips. “You had a good time.”
“Well apart from the bit where I woke up naked and robbed. That skank took all my shit and left me where I was.” Eric growled. “And if I had told any of my buddies, they so would have torn into me for being a gay cocksucker.”
“Your pipe between my butt cheeks says you’re bi at best,” Laura said. “Chin up. Not many people get to experience sex with a ladyboy, let alone enjoy it.”
“Heh, or a foursome with two horny succubi and a cute little number from Germany,” he said, his lips coming closer.
Laura slipped from his grasp before he could plant a kiss onto her cheek. “I think we’ve wasted enough of their water already,” she suggested. “Thank you.”
“For telling me about your dirty past. For real this time. And everything else we did today. Couldn’t have done it without you.” She skipped out of the shower, pulling a towel around herself as she went.
* * * *
The moment they returned to Greenbury, their phones went berserk. By now, it was dark outside. Laura pulled her phone from her pocket and looked at the screen. She had missed a ton of calls and texts.
“Damn,” Eric said. “One would think the mighty Order could do a few hours without their youngest members. Who calls who?”
“You get back to Jenna, let her know we’re on our way back. I’ll call Kelly… I mean Detective Goldbaum.”
“Sure thing.” Eric took a few steps to the side and worked his phone. Laura did the same, tapping one of Kelly’s messages.
“Goldbaum.” There was the sound of an engine in the background.
“Hey Detective, it’s Laura.”
“I know. I can read.” She sounded grumpy as always. “We found Sullivan.”
“How is he?”
“Dead. Took a bullet to the head.”
“So the life leech didn’t get to him?”
“Life leech. Yeah. Unless it changed its MO from mummifying people to using guns, I’d say ‘no.'” A long, slow breath. “Mr. Sullivan left a tidy little package at the scene of his demise. We have a thick confession letter and — get this — an old video tape.”
“Any idea what’s on it?”
“No. And it will probably be tomorrow until we know. I’m on my way back from Vermont. Sullivan picked his hunting cabin as his final destination. Probably hoped to escape the… life leech. Anything on your end?”
Laura grinned. “I can say with utmost certainty that the lust demons are not involved.”
“Oh? Enlighten me please.”
“Succubi only show up on our side of the Barrier when summoned. As in ‘drawing a summoning sign, offering a sacrifice and uttering their true name.’ From what you’ve given us, none of the victims had any ties to the supernatural. Or did Forensics find any chalk marks or blood-covered trays in their houses?”
“No, not even a horror novel or Poltergeist DVD. Fine. I’ll bring the evidence to the station. Be there tomorrow at nine and we’ll look at it together.”
Laura grinned. “Is that a date, Detective?”
“The fuck you on? It’s, if anything, a business appointment. Don’t. Be. Late.” The connection died.
Laura lowered her phone. “What did Jenna want to talk about?” she asked, heading back to the bus.
“Not much,” Eric said, falling in next to her. “Her feathery surveillance squad did a few passes over every graveyard and ditch in a fifty-mile radius. Nothing out of the ordinary. They did follow a few roach thralls all the way to the old Asylum though. Seems like they have a nest there.”
“Do we have any connections to the Air Force? A nice little carpet bombing should do the trick.” Laura muttered darkly. She slid onto the passenger seat when Eric unlocked the bus.
* * * *
Later that evening, Laura sat in the chapter house’s kitchen, devouring a ham and cheese sandwich while trying to keep an adventurous tiger-striped cat from nibbling on the second one she had in arm’s reach. Between bites, she told Jenna about what little they had learned in the succubus brothel. True to her word, she omitted any mention of Eric’s confession.
“That’s about it in a nutshell,” she concluded. “Lydia, under truth detection magic, said neither she nor any of her girls had been to Greenbury in some time. Then some steamy sex happened and we came back ASAP. We couldn’t have been there longer than two or three hours.”
“I should have figured the interdimensional time difference into things. Your long absence had me worried,” the druid confessed. “Glad to see you and Eric got along so well.”
“I should have asked what your policies are in regards to sex between chapter members,” Laura said, refilling her empty glass with the rest of her Coke.
“It’s simple: As long as it doesn’t impact your working relationship, feel free to do it with whoever you like.” She smiled crookedly. “I’m out of bounds though. No offense but I don’t do girls anymore. Once with your mother was enough.”
“You did what?”
Jenna bared her teeth. “Your mother insisted we make up after I tried to rip her head off for swiping my boyfriend. We got horribly drunk and before I knew it, she was between my legs, going crazy.”
Laura raised a hand. “Stop, stop, no more details. How about seeing people outside the Order?”
“The usual discretion is advised. Order business stays in the chapter house. Why? Did you find another playmate already?”
Laura fixed the werebear with an outraged glare. “You make me feel like a total slut. Sheesh.” She took a bite from her second sandwich. “Granted, there’s this cute goblin I met yesterday but after Lydia, my appetite is kinda sated.” A fiendish grin crept over Laura’s lips. “Just to be on the safe side though: Is there anything between you and Doug I should know about?”
“We’ve known each other for a couple years, bumped into each other during both our time in the New York branch,” Jenna said, a playful twinkle in her eye. “He’s very good at washing my back, if you know what I mean.”
Jenna sighed. “I wish he would finally commit and say I’m his only one but our dear paladin has commitment issues. His list of exes is longer than the list of Gene Simmons’ failed get-rich-quick schemes.”
“One in every harbor?”
“Maybe. I’m more a one-guy-forever girl,” Jenna said. “What about you?”
Laura shrugged. “To be honest, I didn’t have time to fully explore all my options just yet. In Briou, Vicky pulled me out of my shell and showed me how much fun two girls could have with each other. Today, I had my first taste of a man’s — and shapeshifted demon’s — dong.” She grinned. “It was fun. Wild. And definitely different from my dildo.”
“Whoa,” Jenna said, making a warding gesture. “Are you all right sharing such intimate details?”
Laura shot her a fiendish smile. “After you just told me how my mom went down on you? Besides, I trust you, as a fellow Briou graduate, a friend of my mom’s and my boss.”
“Thank you. I don’t get that too often.” Jenna touched Laura’s arm. “So, from curious girl to girl then — which did you like more?”
“Do I have to choose?” Laura asked. “By now, lesbian sex is familiar. Soothing even. But I want to explore the other avenue as well.”
Jenna snorted. “You are your mother’s daughter, no if’s, and’s or but’s about it.”
“I’m not sure if that was meant as a compliment or an insult,” Laura grumbled. She tore a bit of ham off her sandwich and dangled it in the cat’s direction. The tiger-striped furball snatched it with its front claws and dashed off the table, purring loudly. She finished the rest of her meal then looked expectantly at Jenna. “What’s the plan for tomorrow?”
“Pretty much the same as today. Doug and I will plan how best to tackle the Asylum and the roach thralls within while you keep helping Detective Goldbaum.”
“That’s a lot of trust you put on my shoulders,” Laura said.
“Is there a reason why I shouldn’t? So far, you’ve fulfilled all my expectations and then some. I expect everyone to pull their weight, no matter if they’ve been with the Order for one year or one hundred.”
“You might want to cut Eric some slack though. How far along in his training is he?”
“I really can’t say. There are moments where he acts like a vet. But most of the time, he shows a dire lack of initiative or battlefield awareness. It’s infuriating.”
“You are aware he’s possessed by an old Voodoo priestess?”
“Of course. I hoped Mama Louise would have more of an influence on his whole character.” Jenna sighed. “If I had known I would be training a rookie, I would have chosen someone else.”
Maria entered the kitchen, a teapot in one hand and her tablet computer under one arm. “Oh, are we gossiping?” She placed the teapot onto a counter and fired up the electric kettle.
“Not really,” Jenna said. “Just so you know, you’ll be working with Laura unless told otherwise.”
Maria stepped behind Laura and hugged her from behind, breathing a kiss onto her cheek. “I’m all yours,” she purred.
Laura swatted her away. “Did you hear anything from your friends in Austria yet?” she asked.
Maria shook her head. “Sadly, no. Your case seems to be a rather unique one. Those in the know about unusual latent abilities are gathering their sources. Give it a few days. Or weeks. Most of my pen pals are pretty busy, working for the British Mages’ Association on the side or pulling extra duty as Akademie teachers.”
Laura checked her watch. “Okay then. I’m having an appointment with lovely Detective Goldbaum tomorrow morning. That’s one date I don’t want to miss.”
“Aww. And here I was hoping you’d tell me about your trip to the succubus brothel,” Maria said.
“Not today.” Laura breezed past Maria, caressing down her back and stopping just above her firm butt cheek. “You’ll have to read my report like everybody else. Gute Nacht!”
* * * *
At 7:30 AM the next day, Laura’s alarm clock app fired up. She turned around in bed and grabbed the phone, snoozing it. There was one new mail titled “Orion” from Vicky, sent in the wee hours of the morning. It contained a ton of photos, showing her dark elven friend in super-tight short shorts and a minuscule silvery top prancing around on a dancefloor, surrounded by mostly Shadows and a few humans. A few pics down, she was dancing very closely with a big-breasted dwarven lady and a towering orc whose jeans threatened to explode any moment. She scrolled down. The next few pictures showed all three in Vicky’s luxurious bed in a wild, sweaty tangle. Laura’s heart beat faster, all the way up into her throat. She wasn’t quite sure if she was horny or jealous.
Someone knocked at her door.
“It’s open,” she said, sending the phone to stand-by. “And I’m awake already.”
“Good”, Eric said, coming into the room. He wore a pair of boxer shorts adorned with colorful skulls and flowers. “Mornin’.”
“Just the man I needed to see,” Laura purred, swinging her covers wide. “Hop in.”
Eric stopped, his eyes roaming over her panty-clad figure. “I’m flattered… but no.” He wrung his hands. “That’s what I’m here for, actually.”
“Huh?” Laura swung her legs out of bed and looked at him in confusion.
“Yeah… you know, I’ve barely slept last night.” He yawned. “Mama Louise and I had kind of an argument about you. She was more than happy that I’ve finally found someone able to look past my face and all… but I-” his voice faltered. “Could you put on a shirt or something? You’re not helping right now.”
Laura allowed her gaze to roam his body. Despite his effort to be all mature and not act like a horndog, his body betrayed him. Eric’s boxers tented impressively.
“How about you stop behaving like a rueful sinner and sit down next to me? I won’t bite,” Laura said, fetching a sports bra from a wardrobe. “Or force myself on you. I have manners.”
Somewhat covered, she sat down on the bed again, patting the mattress.
Sighing, Eric joined her, an arm’s length between them. “I don’t think I can do this ‘casual sex’ thing you Briou guys are so much into,” he said.
“Your boxers say otherwise,” Laura observed gleefully. “And I wouldn’t mind one bit if you got rid of them and…”
“And that’s exactly why I can’t do it,” Eric said vehemently. “I hardly know you — which isn’t the main issue, I’ve had one-night-stands before — but this offer makes things hella awkward between us already!”
“You know what’s awkward?” Laura asked, exasperated. She grabbed her phone and pulled up Vicky’s email. “This.” She tossed the phone onto the mattress between them, showing an image with Vicky on her back, legs wrapped around the orc’s head and the dwarf woman’s curvy butt on her face.
A little smug grin flickered across Eric’s lips. “Jealous? After what we did yesterday?”
“I… I don’t really know. In the end it’s what we promised each other — having sex and telling each other about it.”
“So, did you…?” Gone was the grin, replaced by a mortified look.
Laura shook her head. “No. I was much too pooped out to send long mails or texts. And now I wake up and find this in my inbox.”
Eric looked around the bed. He found Laura’s dildo on the nightstand and grabbed it, pressing it into her hand. “Unless you know the difference between this and me, we don’t have anything to talk about,” he said. “See you later.” He left her room, pulling the door shut as he went.
Ouch, Laura thought. Am I that horrible?
She let one hand slide between her thighs. Her fingers encountered sensitive flesh and a surprising amount of wetness. Silently cursing Eric, she pulled down her panties and put the orange-and-green pleasure giver to work. Vicky’s pictures helped her reach a quick and messy orgasm and for the first time since she had discovered sex, Laura had a guilty conscience. She vowed to apologize to Eric once an opportunity presented itself.
A long, cold shower later, she jogged onto the back porch. Doug and Maria were having breakfast. Laura breathed a small sigh of relief.
“Hey,” she said, plopping down onto a chair. “Have you seen Eric?”
“Yup,” Doug said. “You just missed him. He went into the basement, said he wanted to punch something.”
“Did you fight?” Maria asked, concern in her cat-like eyes.
Laura bit her lip. She usually preferred not to air her dirty laundry. “Let’s say we had a difference of opinion in regards to washing each other’s back. He thinks I’m treating him like a dildo, which is absolutely not the case! I wouldn’t let him anywhere near me if I didn’t like him!” Before she could stop herself, the words had already taken flight, a hasty, breathless swarm of complaints.
Maria and Doug exchanged looks. The paladin cleared his throat. “Not everyone can separate love and the pleasures of the flesh. There might come a time when you are in the same spot as Eric is now, where you don’t want to share yourself with others besides your main squeeze.”
“I think our cleric has a thousand other things on his plate besides fooling around with cute monster hunters,” Maria added. “Let things cool down between the two of you and focus on working as a team first. Everything else might come naturally.”
Laura sighed. “I didn’t want to make things needlessly awkward between us but, seeing how things are, I will need another partner to accompany me to the GPD.” She filled a coffee mug. “More importantly, I need a chauffeur.”
“No problem,” Maria said. “I’d be delighted to shuttle you around.”
“And I will tell Eric that he should tag along with Jenna and me.” Doug added.
“Won’t he see through it? I mean, even if you cite his healing powers-”
Doug laughed, the happy rumble churning Laura’s stomach. “If we’re really going to strike the Asylum, we’ll need every Cure spell we can get. And Flame Strikes. And Blade Barriers.”
“You’re doing it today?”
“Probably not. First we need to make sure to plug any escape routes the thralls may have dug then there’s trying to figure out the layout…”
“For which I’ve already provided blueprints,” Maria said. “Did you look at them at all?”
“They are almost fifty years old,” Doug said. “The real layout may look totally different, with who knows how many generations of hobos altering the place. Thanks still.” The half-orc stood up and clapped Maria’s shoulder as he went. “I’m gonna look after the kid.”
Laura checked her watch. “Once I’m done with my pancakes, we should be off too. I don’t want to keep the detective waiting.”
* * * *
Kelly Goldbaum looked like she hadn’t slept well. Dark shadows framed her eyes and strands of hair had escaped her ponytail. The smell of coffee and old files saturated the air in her office. Half a dozen folders cluttered her desk.
“Good morning,” Laura said, closing the door behind Maria.
“Good? What’s supposed to be good about this morning?” Goldbaum grumbled. “Not only do I have three corpses to deal with but now an almost forty year old cold case just hopped onto my desk and demands my attention.” She sighed. “The worst of it? I don’t even have a suspect!”
“Where’s your partner?” Laura asked.
“Lee stayed in Vermont, helping our colleagues in Brattleboro deal with the investigation into Sullivan’s suicide.” Goldbaum stacked her folders and cleared some space on the desk. “We have other problems though. One of the pieces of evidence is a video tape but none I’ve ever seen before.” She pointed at a stocky black cartridge with only one visible tape spool. “It’s no VHS. Won’t fit in our old VCR.” She indicated a dusty TV/DVD/VHS combo unit parked on the office’s second desk.
Maria inspected the cartridge. “It’s a Betamax tape.”
“Never seen one before.” She paused. “Who are you again?”
“Maria Lechner, Order of Martinius Quartermaster. We met two weeks ago when you registered my Glock.” Maria patted her hip. “You probably remember my companion — the broad-shouldered ‘biker dude?'”
Goldbaum looked up. “Yeah, he’s a hard one to forget. Wait. Why are you wearing Warcraft cosplay ears?”
“I assure you, these are real.” Maria brushed locks of hair behind her right ear. “Congratulations. It seems you can actually see now.” She pulled her phone from her jacket and manipulated the screen. “Here’s a picture of Doug. See anything different?”
Kelly looked at the picture, her face full of disbelief. “You are absolutely shitting me. He looked like this the whole time?”
Maria nodded. “People are very good at denying what they can’t understand. Despite Doug and me touching you when we shook hands, you still refused to see the lovely green shade of his skin, his tusks — or my ears.”
“So… you are not human?” Detective Goldbaum chewed on every word as if it might explode in her mouth.
“If we want to be anal about it, I am at least fifty percent human. I’m what is generally known as a half-elf. My mother is an elf, my father a human.”
“First giant cockroaches, then a so-called life leech, now I’m chatting with a D&D character. Just fucking great,” Goldbaum moaned. “Did I miss something? Since when are you people living here?”
“Earth has always been a mystical place,” Maria said. “How do you think the legends of dragons, giants and mages like Merlin came to be in the first place? During the fourth century AD, when the Roman Empire was on its way out, some nobles summoned an entity known as Zakharius, a fallen angel. His reign and subsequent banishment changed the world forever, tearing holes in the Barrier between worlds. Now people and… things can move to and from Earth more easily.”
Kelly made a warding gesture. “Stop, stop, stop. That’s waaay too much info. Is it pertinent to the case?”
“Considering it is the foundation of the world you and I live in, I’d say ‘yes,'” Maria said. “And before you ask: People like me are called ‘Shadows’ for a reason — our true nature is invisible to most humans.”
I should probably stop her, Laura thought. Otherwise we’ll be here all day listening to a thorough lecture on mana fluctuation, portals and the post-travel memory loss symptoms most Shadows experience after arriving on Earth.
She placed a hand on Maria’s arm. “Betamax tape?” she supplied, flashing her teammate a friendly smile.
“Oh yeah, that.” Maria frowned. “I think I saw some mothballed VCRs over in the Examiner’s basement archives yesterday. I do have a spell to read electronic media though.”
“Spell?” Kelly asked. “You’re a… wizard?”
“Sorceress,” Maria corrected. “No need to deal with pesky spellbooks. I just-”
Laura cleared her throat. “Not now,” she whispered. “Besides, if you ‘read’ the tape, only you know what’s on it, right?”
“True.” Maria’s face fell. “I’d have to tell you all about it and won’t be of any use in court.”
Detective Goldbaum had already picked up the phone. “Hey George, it’s Kelly. Say, do you have a Betamax player? A working one preferably.” She listened. “Cool. Could you send it over ASAP? Thank you very much. I owe you one.” Another pause. “No, sorry. My schedule is kinda packed right now. Kay. Bye.” She replaced the handset and looked at Maria with newfound appreciation. “You were right. There are a couple stashed away in the Examiner’s basement. My friend has no clue if they still work though.”
“That’s not a problem. I’m pretty good with tech,” Maria said.
“Do you have a spell for that too?” Goldbaum asked, trying not to sound sarcastic. She failed miserably.
Maria raised her hand to her face, thumb and pinky spread away in a telephone handset gesture. With her other hand, she pointed at Goldbaum. A moment later, the detective’s cell phone rang. She pulled it from her pocket and looked at the display. “That’s… impossible,” she muttered.
“Come on, take the call,” Maria urged her.
Goldbaum tapped the screen and raised the phone to her ear. “Yes?”
“Hello to you too,” Maria purred. Her voice came clearly over the tiny speaker in Goldbaum’s phone.
“Stop showing off already,” Laura said. “Give the poor detective some time to digest all the new info.”
“Aww, just as I was having fun,” Maria complained. She lowered her hand and shook it out. The connection died.
“I… I can’t even think about the ramifications of what you just showed me,” Detective Goldbaum said, her voice picking up steam as she went on. “I mean — you are not paying for use of the telecom infrastructure and what about hijacking other people’s cell phones?”
“It’s completely legal,” Maria began. “I have signed a contract with the AMA-”
“What?!” Goldbaum interrupted her.
“- American Magic-User’s Association — which allows me to use spells on US soil. I am licensed to use my magic for non-violent and legal endeavors, also in self-defense.”
“My head hurts,” Goldbaum complained.
Laura squeezed Maria’s butt, causing the sorceress to squeal in surprise. “I see you’re having way too much fun teasing Detective Goldbaum. How about we stop fooling around and see what we can do about the other pieces of evidence. You said something about a confession letter?” she asked Goldbaum.
The detective breathed a huge sigh of relief as they returned to familiar ground. “Yes. Have a look.” She handed two folders to Laura and Maria. “That’s a whole lotta guilt right there.”
Laura looked at the copied page. It was filled with neat handwriting and the residue of fingerprinting powder. The letter read:
I knew this day would come. Despite the pact Waylan, Stephen and I made all those years ago, I have to tell someone so I can face God with a clear conscience. We didn’t want Donna to die. We completely lost our minds and when I went back to look for her, there was nothing left but bones! And then I found my video camera sitting on the shelf where I left it that fateful night and it had captured everything. I wanted to go to the police and let them know but the others demanded I keep quiet because all of us would have gone to jail for what happened to the girl. When I heard that Stephen had died in horrific fashion, I knew what would happen. Old Erika Goldbaum had prophesied that a vengeful spirit would come and demand justice for what we have done.
Laura looked up. “Your Grandmother is involved too?”
Goldbaum sighed. “She earns a bit of cash on the side telling fortunes. Never imagined she’d nail one.”
“Seems like a pretty accurate prediction, all things considered,” Maria said. “Since the succubi are no longer in the picture, it only leaves some form of undead as the culprit.”
“Undead,” the detective growled. “What, like Romero’s zombies?”
“Right family of monsters, wrong species,” Maria said. “Zombies are mindless automatons. We’re looking at something far more advanced, possessed of its own will and probably a host of nasty special powers, of which Life Drain is but one.”
“Days like these make me question my choice of profession. Becoming an attorney doesn’t sound so bad all of a sudden,” Goldbaum moaned.
Laura resumed reading the letter.
While the others have always been solitary, I found a little happiness in my family. I don’t know what Donna’s vengeful spirit will do but if my death can divert her wrath away from my wife, kids and grandkids, so be it. The videotape you will find nearby will tell you the whole story. I am sorry. Instead of saving our own hides, we should have untied Donna. May God have mercy on my soul.
The letter was signed “Jacob Sullivan.”
“Do we know who this ‘Donna’ Mr. Sullivan keeps referring to is?” Laura asked.
Goldbaum nudged one of the folders Laura’s way. “After some digging in the archives, I know.” She gnashed her teeth. “Donna Wilson. Went ‘missing’ in 1983. Somehow, the case never went beyond a casual questioning of the three guys she was always seen with. My gut tells me a lot of money changed hands to keep everything hush-hush.”
“That seems to be an awfully common occurrence here,” Laura observed. “You mentioned Waylan making his hooker issues go away by throwing money at the police.”
“Like father like son,” Goldbaum growled, refilling her coffee mug.
“Do you mind?” Laura asked, taking the folder labeled ‘Donna Wilson.’
“Not at all. I asked the captain if I could bring in the Order as consultants. As far as he’s concerned, we’re in this together now.” She exhaled slowly. “You’ll have to be patient with me though. I don’t think I’ll ever fully accept this supernatural bullshit.”
“As long as you acknowledge its existence, you should be fine,” Maria said, peeking over Laura’s shoulder. “Anything interesting about this Donna girl?” She whistled through her teeth. “Quite the looker.”
“You think?” Laura asked. “She’s a little too much like the stereotypical ‘blonde bombshell’ cheerleader type for my taste. Let’s see. ‘Well liked by everyone, comes from a good home, successful at school, captain of the cheer squad.’ Ha. Knew it.”
“And she must have had some pretty generous parents or boyfriends,” Maria said, still looking at the attached photo. “I’m pretty sure those are diamond earrings.”
“The Wilsons run a bakery on Twain Road. The shop does decent business but I think they couldn’t afford to splurge for diamonds back in the Eighties,” the detective said.
“Says here it was well known that Donna, along with some of her friends, could always be seen around Tucker, Sullivan and Whitting. They probably milked them for all they were worth,” Laura said.
“Question is who milked who,” Maria muttered. “Considering what kind of men the recently deceased were.”
“All my research into our stiffs shows no history of sexual abuse,” Goldbaum said. “If the girls thought they needed to fuck around to afford their lifestyle…” She shrugged, a sour look on her face.
There was a knock at the office door.
“Come!” Kelly snapped.
A cop in uniform poked his head into the office. “Package for you, Detective. Someone from the Examiner dropped it off a moment ago.”
“Fantastic. I can’t wait to get rid of this case,” Goldbaum grumbled. “Mind bringing it in?”
“Not a problem.” The cop vanished, only to return with a boxy item swaddled into a dusty cloth. “Where do you want it?”
Laura indicated some free space on the second desk, next to the TV/DVD/VCR unit. “Here would be fine.”
The uniformed cop put the item on the desk then looked from Maria to Laura. “Whoa, who are you girls?”
“Stop drooling, Dillon,” Goldbaum said. “Don’t you have fingerprints to take or something?”
“Uh, yes, ma’am. Sorry.” He trotted from the office, shooting a longing glance back into the room before closing the door.
Maria carefully unwrapped the Betamax VCR. “Good. We have a power lead. What we don’t have are AV cables. Shouldn’t be much of a problem though.” She opened her shoulder bag and pulled a length of cable from it. The ends were formless black clumps.
“Why would anyone record on Betamax in 1983?” Laura wondered. “I thought VHS was the videotape standard in the Eighties.”
“The first commercially available camcorder was a Sony Betamax unit, unveiled in 1983. Makes sense for spoiled rich boys to have access to such toys,” Maria said, plugging cables into the TV. “As for Betamax actually dying — that happened in 1987 or 88, depending on who you ask. So, back when Donna went missing, Betamax still was relevant.”
“How do you know all this stuff?” Laura asked, fascinated.
Maria held the other end of the cable close to the plugs on the Betamax VCR. Metal prongs sprouted from the formless black clump at the end. With an audible ‘click’, the plugs connected. “I have an unhealthy fascination with obscure and obsolete forms of data storage and of course the history of electronics,” she said. “I wrote one of my theoretical papers on the best media to store digital spellbooks on. At one time, there were even computer backup solutions based on videotapes. They used VHS tapes though.” Maria turned on both the TV and Betamax VCR. There was a horrible grinding noise from the old recorder’s insides.
“Oh my. That didn’t sound healthy.” The auburn-haired sorceress placed both hands on the machine and hummed something. Her eyes turned an electric blue and she stared intently at the device’s top plate.
“What is she doing?” Goldbaum asked Laura.
“If I had to guess, she’s using some kind of Analyze Technology magic to find out what the problem is.”
“I’m not going mad? Her eyes are really glowing like miniature flashlights?”
“Of course,” Maria muttered. “At least thirty years worth of grime and the belts just decided to disintegrate,” she muttered. “Shouldn’t be too bad.” She moved her hands in intricate patterns above the machine. There was the rattle of screws undoing themselves then the top half of the recorder lifted up. Spools, circuit boards and other electronic bits and pieces levitated at varying heights between the chassis and the top half of the shell. Thick clumps of dust, dirt and broken down belts flew out of the machine and collected in a disgusting pile on the sheet the device had been wrapped in.
“This… is pretty cool,” Goldbaum admitted, indicating the exploded VCR with her mug. “No one will believe me if I tell anyone but… cool.”
“Shhh. You don’t want to break her concentration,” Laura whispered. “It might ruin the whole thing.”
A thin sheen of sweat appeared on Maria’s forehead and she bit her lip in a show of fierce concentration. She dug around in her shoulder bag, producing lumps of black plastic which she gingerly inserted into the mass of floating electronic components. They seemed to melt and flow, turning into new belts which snaked around their intended destinations before looping. Maria slowly lowered her hands and balled her fists. The insides of the VCR compacted and, with the staccato rattle of screws clicking back into place, it assembled itself.
Maria braced herself on the edge of the table. “There we go,” she panted. “Should work like new. Maybe the wow and flutter might be a bit off for the first couple hours, until the belts have settled, but it should be good enough to inspect the evidence.” She picked up the tape. “We should make a copy, just to be sure.”
“And how do you suppose we do that?” Goldbaum asked. “We only have the one VCR. Or can we copy from Betamax to VHS?”
Maria grinned and made a flourish with her open hand. A second Betamax tape appeared in it. “There we go. Should be an exact copy, down to the wear on the magnetic film.”
Kelly taped a small sticker on the original and put it into her desk. “Okay then. Let’s see what Sullivan and his cronies were up to.”
“And I didn’t bring any popcorn,” Laura muttered, pulling a chair closer.
Maria fed the copied Betamax tape into the recorder, rewound it and hit ‘Play.’
The TV came to life. At first Laura wondered what they were looking at because the image was terribly dark, only a few shafts of light wandered erratically through the image. Maria worked the TV’s controls until the sound was audible.
There was laughter. At least three male voices and one female. The crunch of shoes on gravel. Then the camera wielder raised the lens. Towering trees could be seen, framing a narrow gravel path. Moonlight threw glittering reflections off the surface of Black Lake, visible as brighter slivers through the trees.
“Is this thing working?” the female asked, her voice slightly slurred. She twirled into frame, her blond hair a wild, unbound mane. She held a brown paper bag in her hand from which a tiny bit of a bottle neck protruded. Instead of the prim and proper clothes seen in her case file photo, she wore a deep-necked black lace number under a thin jacket along with an extremely short mini skirt and glossy knee boots.
“Guys, light me up,” Donna ordered, doing a pirouette in front of the camera. Two flashlight beams caressed her body. She stopped turning with her back to the camera and bent forwards, exposing her naked butt. Her hand caressed between her thighs. “A special peek just for you, Jay,” she said, shooting a lascivious look over her shoulder.
A broad-shouldered young man wearing a green jacket with an embossed “G” on his pectoral entered the picture. He pulled Donna close with an arm around her waist and kissed her hungrily. Her hand went for the front of his jeans, the palm pressing against his crotch.
“I don’t know about you guys,” another voice said off camera, in a slow, deliberate tone, “but I don’t want to get any leaves or shit on my clothes. So can you please keep it inside your pants for five more fucking minutes?” The flashlight wandered off the moaning and groping couple. In the ensuing twilight, there was a leather-jacket wearing person with a bleached mop of hair rivaling Donna’s.
“Ah. The loathsome foursome out for some hijinx,” Goldbaum muttered. “The jock must be Tucker, the camera guy Sullivan and the Mötley Crüe reject Whitting.” She gnashed her teeth. “Underage drinking. Lovely morals.” There was a red glow emanating from Whitting’s mouth. “Oh, and probably drug use.”
“Seems pretty normal so far,” Laura said. “Want to fast forward?”
“Are you in a hurry?” Maria asked, leaning her arms on the back of Laura’s chair. “Let’s enjoy the movie.”
They watched as Donna, Waylan, Jacob and Stephen made their way along the path until they reached a once beautiful wrought iron gate. One of its halves hung askew in its hinges, the other was wide open. Beyond, the imposing granite facade of the old Asylum towered.
“Ooooh, spoohooky,” Whitting moaned in a high register. “This is fucking awesome!”
Tucker strode up the four steps to the entrance and unlocked the front door, shoving it wide open. “Lady and Gentlemen, time for the freak show,” he announced, his voice booming hollow in the empty foyer.
“How did you get the keys anyway?” Jacob asked. He was the quiet one, not nearly as boisterous as the others.
“My dad is fucking the wife of the subcontractor hired to clear this place before it will be demolished later this year,” Tucker said. “He took me along to meet their daughter.”
“And how was it?” Donna asked, snuggling up to Tucker.
“Fun for an afternoon. Culo muy caliente, comprenda?”
Barking laughter all around. “Anyway, after I checked out her plumbing, I simply asked if she could show me where papa kept all the important keys.” Tucker shrugged, passing his flashlight between Donna’s legs. She squealed in protest as the cold metal casing went along her naked nethers. “If you lick real hard, you might taste her pussy on my dick,” he growled into Donna’s ear.
They walked deeper into the Asylum. Their flashlights went over empty walls and the deserted reception desk.
“Now what?” Jacob asked, doing a slow panoramic shot of the foyer. Some of the ground floor windows had been smashed in and in one corner, two filthy mattresses were the center of an impromptu resting space. Halfway assembled scaffolding leaned against the back wall, along with some high-power floodlights.
“Looks like the place was a hobo haven even back then,” Maria said.
The four troublemakers crept deeper into the Asylum, playing pranks on each other. Sullivan nearly dropped the camera when Donna jumped him from behind, screaming “Boo!”
Eventually, they ended up in a side wing which hadn’t been fully cleared. Whitting used a long butterfly knife to crack open a locked door, beyond which was what looked like a storage room. Two hospital beds waited deeper within, while cabinets and shelves were stocked with a lot of white linen.
“Looks like we finally found our playground for tonight,” Tucker announced, pulling open a cabinet and yanking a doctor’s schmock from within. He wrapped it around his shoulders, grinning. “The docter is in!” he boomed.
“Not yet you aren’t,” Donna giggled, taking a long hit from the joint which had been going around between them. She slipped out of her jacket and put on a schmock of her own. “Doctor, doctor, gimme the news, I got a bad case of… needing to be fucked by you” she sang, leaning against a bed and shaking her butt at the boys.
“It’s true what they say,” Whitting said, staring at the schmock Tucker was handing him. “Girls turn into sluts once the camera is rolling.” He peeled off his leather jacket and an Ozzy Osbourne shirt underneath. A long pull from his paper-bag-clad bottle later, he dropped the rest of his clothing, wrapping the schmock around his shoulders and fanning out his hair. His cock poked from the schmock.
“You know, if we really want to shoot that porno, we need better light,” Sullivan said. He put down the camera and walked into frame, a thoroughly average guy with neck-length hair. He tried the light switch. Nothing happened.
The movie cut out for a moment.
When it resumed, they had rearranged the room somewhat, with one of the beds in the center and one of the battery-powered floodlights had been set up to illuminate it. Donna, now wearing a straitjacket, was on the bed, alternately blowing Tucker and Whitting.
“I think I have the perfect angle,” Sullivan said, stepping into the picture, naked save for his own schmock. His voice shook with excitement and he pumped his cock as he mounted the bed.
“Are they fucking serious?” Goldbaum sighed.
“They are most certainly drunk enough to cook up the idea,” Maria said. She gasped softly as Sullivan impaled Donna on his cock, her leg over a shoulder.
“This is… kinda demented but harmless enough,” Laura muttered. “I wonder what happened?”
“I think I don’t want to sit through some amateur porn,” Maria said, brushing past Laura to get to the controls. “Might impede my concentration.” She reached for the fast-forward button. On screen, all four participants in their orgy suddenly froze, with Sullivan nearly decapitating himself as he tried to locate the source of a sound they heard.
“Go back a bit,” Laura said. Maria obliged and turned up the volume. Amidst the wet slapping of skin on skin, the squelching of hastily-milked cocks and the moans of all involved, there was a sudden metallic clang.
“Hey, you nearly bit my cock off!” Tucker growled, landing a nasty slap on Donna’s ass.
“Sorry, sorry,” she muttered, massaging her violated butt cheek. “Let me make it up to you,” Donna said. “I’ll let you fuck my ass, like you’ve always wanted.”
“Finally,” Tucker grumbled.
“Is nobody even a little bit worried?” Sullivan wondered. “What if there’s someone out there?”
“More likely the draft knocked over some of the scaffolding,” Whitting said, climbing onto the bed. “So, if Tuckie gets to nail your ass, how about you ride me while he’s doing it? And you can suck off Jay.”
Donna took the bottle and put it to her lips. “Shit. Empty. We should have brought more booze,” she said, the ends of the straitjacket flapping around her body. “Alright boys, fill me up then.” She straddled Whitting with a horny giggle which turned into a lusty moan as his cock filled her up. Tuck meanwhile was applying handfuls of spit to his cock as he joined them. With practiced ease, he bent over Donna’s butt and tongued her asshole before putting his dick to work.
Sullivan looked forlorn for a moment then he shrugged, pulled a chair next to the bed and knelt on it, offering his dick for Donna to suck. Once he was busy, Whitting began to stealthily lick Sullivan’s balls, growing bolder with each second the other young man didn’t complain.
“They are not kidding around,” Laura said, fanning herself. “It would be much hotter if we didn’t know what happened to them all.”
“Or what kind of douchebags they were,” Goldbaum added. “Can you skip ahead?” she asked Maria.
Maria worked the controls, turning the lewd scene into a cartoon as those involved humped away at five times speed. Sullivan came first, grabbing Donna by the hair as he bucked and writhed against her face before withdrawing. She bent low and allowed the small torrent of cum to leak into Whitting’s mouth. His hips jackhammered upwards and he too came. Tucker was the last to climax, pulling out just as he came. He shot thick ropes of his seed over Donna’s back.
Maria released the fast-forward button and the action returned to normal speed.
Tucker produced a canister with water from one of the cabinets and the troublemakers began to cleanse themselves, discussing their next scene. Another harsh noise interrupted them, followed by some small tremors which rocked the camera.
“Do you think there’s someone else in here?” Sullivan asked nervously. “The last thing I need is another run-in with the cops.”
“Relax, scaredy-cat,” Whitting needled. “This room faces away from Greenbury. Even if we were to light up all the rooms on this side, no one would know we’re here. Or did you tell anyone?” His voice took on a threatening tone.
“N-No, of course not. I wanted this as much as you guys,” he muttered. “And as promised, once I’m back home, I’ll pull copies for each of you.”
Another small tremor shook the camera. Tucker looked around. “Huh. It almost sounded like bricks falling.”
“Do you think the place is about to collapse?” Whitting asked. “Or are you saying you can’t get it up any more for the grand finale? Would be too bad, now it’s my turn to fuck Donna’s lovely rosebud, seeing as it is thoroughly loosened by your cock.” He licked his lips while lovingly staring at Tucker’s meat.
“Don’t go gay on me again,” Tucker growled. “Your ‘accidental’ blowjob the other day was more than enough.”
“I thought it was hawt,” Donna drawled. “I wish I could bribe you somehow to do that again.”
“Not on my fucking watch,” Tucker growled.
“You have no problem watching me, Sally and Bonnie eating each other out,” Donna complained. “And fucking whichever hole you can stick your cock in.”
“No one is sticking any cock into any of my holes. Not while I’m sober,” Tuck said. “Okay then. Last one. We tie you up and play ‘creepy doctor’ with you.”
Sullivan cocked his head. “Is it me or is there a constant rustling now?”
“It’s you,” Whitting said, cinching his schmock tight around himself. He almost looked respectable — save for his glans poking through the buttons at navel height.
Tucker used the ends of Donna’s straitjacket and several straps he pulled from random cabinets to tie Donna spread-eagle to the bed, lovingly caressing her exposed pussy. “Are you all nice and tight, baby?” he purred.
She tried to get at his cock with her mouth but her movement had been severely restricted. “Yeah. Play with me, play with meeee,” she sing-songed, rolling her eyes theatrically.
“Okay, let’s turn the light down somewhat, make it extra creepy,” Whitting said. “Or at least turn it around so it’s not facing the bed and we can play with the flashlights. Hey Jay, you dreaming?”
“Huh? Oh, okay.” Sullivan turned the floodlights around, plunging the room into twilight.
The next few minutes, all three men played up the lecherous doctor schtick, caressing the near motionless Donna or mounting her for a quick face fuck. The interruptions came more often now and even Whitting fidgeted, even while his cock was deep Donna’s mouth.
Suddenly, something clattered to the floor in the room they were in. A brick fell out of the wall above a cabinet, bouncing off it and crashed to the floor where it exploded into a dozen sharp-edge pieces. Whitting yelped, falling awkwardly off the mattress and cupping his junk. The camera picked up the sound as well, a rhythmic scraping, interspersed with crumbling and breaking sounds. And something else — agitated breathing.
“What… what the fuck is happening?” Sullivan yelled, yanking his flashlight up. There was the sound of something scratching against a cabinet’s back, followed by a dull thumping.
“You lunatic bitch, you drew blood!” Whitting moaned. He held up a blood-smeared hand. The sounds coming from behind the cabinets intensified.
“Whatever it is, I’m not staying to find out,” Tucker growled, grabbing his clothes. He was the first to flee, followed by a limping Whitting.
“Guys? Guys!? Untie me!” Donna whimpered. A new sound mixed in with the scratching and thumping — a low, multi-voiced growling, like ravenous beasts. Sullivan, frantically fiddling with a knot in the straitjacket’s arm, shot a glance over at the cabinet. The angle was bad but one could see two cabinets wobble precariously. Sullivan paled, turned tail and ran. Donna tossed her head from one side to the next. “This isn’t funny, guys. Help! Help!”
One of the cabinets toppled over, hitting the floor with a deafening crash. A heartbeat later, emaciated humanoid figures poured into the room, their skin a mottled gray. Some of them flashed through the camera’s field of view, in hot pursuit of the fleeing men. The rest though turned to Donna.
“Ghouls,” Maria gasped. “Oh no.”
“The room had to reek of sex. And blood,” Laura added. “I … I don’t think we need to see this.”
“Why? What are ghouls?” Goldbaum asked, her face a pale mask of shock. “Are they…”
Maria reached for the controls, cutting Donna’s wail of agony short. “Undead monstrosities with a burning hunger for human flesh. They don’t really care if their prey is alive or dead. And the stench of blood has the same effect on them as it does on piranhas.”
“Leave the volume down and resume,” Goldbaum said. “We need to examine this, if we want to or not.”
“Aye, aye,” Maria resumed the video.
The ghouls tore into Donna. In a fraction of the time it had taken three men to fuck her, the undead horrors had stripped her skeleton of anything even remotely edible, leaving bare bones behind.
Maria pressed fast forward again, skipping through the rest of the tape. Eventually, the batteries in the floodlight died, draping a blanket of inky blackness over the horrifying scene. At the 3:25 hours mark, the tape shut off.
Detective Goldbaum stood up and opened the window, letting fresh air into the room. “I just watched a horde of cannibalistic undead tear a young woman to ribbons,” she calmly said. “That was no Hollywood stunt?”
“No,” Laura said softly. “This is the reason why we have a murderous being running around draining certain people of their life energy. You’ve seen the corpses, Detective. Do they look like props to you?”
Goldbaum shook her head. “What am I supposed to do now? I can’t book either of those assholes for manslaughter because they’re dead. And what are we going to do about this vengeful spirit?”
“Standard procedure would be to investigate the place of her death,” Laura explained. “I doubt we’ll find much in the way of remains or clues by now but maybe our cleric can contact her and suss out if she can be put to rest, now that her targets are all dead.”
“What if that doesn’t work?”
“Then we’ll have to kick her ass and take her down for good,” Laura said, balling her fists. “You are okay with that, aren’t you?”
“Absolutely. You have my blessing.” Goldbaum stood up. “When do we go?”
“Hold up, hold up,” Maria said. “Remember what Jenna and Doug said? The Asylum is most likely a nest for our local roach thrall problem.”
Laura grinned, closing her hand around the hilt of her sword. “I’m pretty sure Detective Goldbaum-”
“Kelly. Please,” the detective said.
“Okay. Kelly probably knows how to put a few ounces of lead downrange.”
“Damn straight. Let’s go clean up my town.”
“Before we do that, we should report back to Jenna and the rest of the team. Things might get ugly real fast if we’re not prepared,” Maria said.
* * * *
Laura’s warhammer connected with a sickening crunch, caving a roach thrall’s face in. Claws scratched and jerked at her armor, trying to find a gap. Something managed to get past the coat of scales. Laura winced at the sharp stab near her shoulder and whirled around, using the weapon’s long heft in a two-handed grip to push an over-eager roach thrall off her. The courtyard of the old Asylum was more like a landfill than anything else. It was unclear where piles of refuse ended and makeshift hovels began. She blocked another attack, countered with an overhead smash and shoulder-tackled another six-limbed horror.
“They seem much more coordinated than back at GobCo,” she gasped into her headset. Nearby, Kelly’s AR-15 barked. The detective only shot at those roach thralls who had lost their disguise — which, thanks to an early Fireball spell launched by Maria — meant pretty much most of the ones in the courtyard.
Jenna had transformed into a towering, seven-foot tall hybrid of woman and bear, picking up roach thralls like children’s toys and tossing them about like rag dolls. Her claws did little actual damage against the hardened carapaces but the impact against the Asylum walls or each other left them stunned or broken.
“Guys, there are even more coming out,” Maria said, a concerned note in her voice. The sorceress and Eric hung back, near the Asylum’s utterly rusted-through gates.
“Told you,” Laura grumbled. “Fuck zombie apocalypses. This is much, much worse.” She blocked a thrall’s attack with her forearm and responded with a vicious kick against its abdominal plating, followed by a wide cut with the hammer which drove her attacker and those beside him back.
Ichor fountained as Kelly landed a head shot, exploding one of the thrall’s heads.
Laura followed up and shattered a thrall’s knees before pulverizing its head. Claws clattered against her armor like hail.
“I think it’s time we split up,” Doug said. There was a loud, ringing sound as he used his shield like a battering ram, knocking two thralls off their feet. “Maria, clear us a path. Jenna, over here girl!” He tucked his head in and headed for the door, swatting roach thralls with his shield.
“That means Kelly, Eric and I go for Donna?” Laura asked, ramming the head of her hammer into a bum’s stomach. The impact sent him sprawling, his head bouncing off a camping cooler. When he came to his feet, the human skin slid off him, revealing another hissing monstrosity. Kelly aimed past Laura and put two bullets into it.
“Here’s hoping us going for their nest will draw them away from you,” Doug rumbled. There was a flash of neon colors and Maria appeared in the Asylum’s front doors, clad in flickering armor plates seemingly made from neon light. She unleashed another fireball, scattering a dozen or so roach thralls. Hissing and slapping at small patches of flame on their carapaces, most of them came back to their feet.
Eric sprinted across the courtyard, head tucked in between his shoulders as he ran. His shotgun spat, unloading both barrels into a thrall’s face. Uttering an ear-piercing wail, the creature slapped its claws against its mangled head.
“It just ate a full shotgun blast to the face and didn’t die?” Eric sputtered. He reversed the grip on his weapon and slapped the shotgun’s butt stock against the thrall’s head. It collapsed.
Panting, Eric came to a stop near Laura. He flipped the barrels open and dropped the spent cases before replacing them with fresh ammo. “That’s a whole lotta uglies we have to go through if we want to reach the foyer,” he observed.
“We are going for your nest, shitheads!” came Doug’s roaring voice from the foyer. Like iron filings drawn by a magnet, the roach thralls in the courtyard turned towards the entrance.
“Something definitely is controlling them,” Laura said. “I’ve never seen roach thralls behave like this before.”
“I’ve never seen anything like this before period,” Kelly muttered, reloading her rifle. “Now what?”
“You wait until you have a clear path into the Asylum proper,” Doug said. “Then you draw out Donna, deal with her and then get your cute asses down into that hole in the foyer and help us out. Damn, how deep does this thing go?”
There was a low, rumbling explosion from within the Asylum. The thralls in the courtyard uttered a singular, screeching wail and poured back into the dilapidated building.
“That’s our cue,” Laura said, pointing towards the entrance with her hammer. “Let’s go before we’re face-deep in roaches again.”
Kelly, Eric and Laura sprinted across the devastated courtyard. Small fires still burned, giving the surroundings a rather hellish appearance in dusk’s twilight. They had to weave around several dozen dead or dying roach thralls. The stench of decay and waste was eye-watering.
Laura stepped into the Asylum proper. She had seen the entrance hall only a few hours ago but the one she looked at now was almost unrecognizable. Where the reception desk had been in the video, now a huge hole gaped. She saw a handful of roach thralls vanish into it. The din of battle echoed up to them, interspersed by growls and roars.
The rest of the foyer was cluttered with refuse, neglected tents and hovels. Most of the rear wall had been torn down, allowing a gaze into the inner courtyard which didn’t look much better than the landfill out front.
“It gets worse every time I’m here. Only last time there were just bums and addicts around.” Kelly said, kicking a rotting folding chair out of her way.
“Rather, you only saw bums and addicts. There’s a good chance there were already roach thralls among them,” Laura corrected her. “How long ago was that?”
“Two years.” Kelly used a door frame as cover and checked the way ahead. “Clear. A young girl had gone missing and we had to check.”
“Did you find her?” Eric asked, trotting along in their wake.
“No.” Kelly sounded even more disgruntled than usual. “Not even a shred of her clothing.” She peeked into one of the rooms going off the corridor. It was crammed full with all manner of broken-down furniture.
“When we’re done here, you should petition the captain to push for this place to be demolished,” Laura suggested. “It’s way too tempting as a nesting ground for all manner of monsters, human or otherwise.”
“Noted.” Kelly checked the next room. This one had been stripped of anything usable, leaving only naked concrete behind. Dark stains ran down the walls and converged on a drain in the middle of the floor.
The further they went from the entrance, the less waste and trash they found. Some of the corridor windows even remained intact. Kelly pushed open one of the few doors which had been left on their hinges. “I found it,” she said quietly.
Laura joined her at the door. “This does look familiar,” she said. “Cabinets, floodlights, bed… bones. They are still here?” She crossed herself. “That’s not good.”
“I wish you had shown the video to the rest of us during the briefing,” Eric said.
“You didn’t miss much,” Kelly said. “Unless you’re into awkward amateur gangbang porn.” She stepped into the room and looked around. “Like freaking Swiss Cheese.” The barrel of her gun pointed to the left. A cabinet had fallen forwards and a huge hole gaped in the wall.
“Does this lead to the same place as the hole out front?” Laura wondered.
Kelly turned on an illuminator mounted to the underbarrel rail of her rifle and checked the opening. “This goes down one level. The cellars presumably.”
“They hopefully didn’t build this on top of some ancient cemetary,” Laura muttered.
“No. Black Lake Cemetery is much closer to town. And as far as I know, we didn’t have trouble with grave robbers. At least not since I’ve been on the force. Do you want to check it out?”
“Doug, how are you doing down there?” Laura asked into her headset.
“Just peachy,” Doug roared. “I had to pluck an especially ugly bastard off Jenna’s back. If you could wrap up that Donna business and help us out, I’d be very- ugh!” The connection stuttered and died.
“Doug? Doug! Shit.” Laura looked at Eric. “Time for your big moment. You know what to do?”
“Sure, sure.” Eric said, pulling a piece of chalk from a pouch. He knelt down and hastily scribbled sigils onto the floor around the bed then connected them with a thick line, forming an impromptu summoning circle. He then carefully crossed the line to the outside and produced a piece of paper. “I always thought spell scrolls were actual scrolls, not simple hardcopies printed on enchanted paper,” he said. “Okay… one ‘Speak With the Dead’ coming up.”
He unfolded the paper and read off a string of Latin-sounding words. One after another, the sigils on the ground lit up. The serene glow enveloped the bones on the hospital bed.
Laura felt a strange tingle crawl down her spine. A moment later, she noticed a presence in the room which hadn’t been there before. Donna’s ghost hovered above the bed, still wearing her lacy blouse, miniskirt and a horribly devastated visage. Her nose was missing, as were her ears. Gone was most of her luxurious blonde mane, only some blood-soaked strands remained. One arm was fully stripped, leaving only bones behind while the rest of her body featured ghastly bite marks.
“Donna Wilson,” Eric said. “We have come to lay you to rest. The men who-.”
“Who the fuck are you?” the ghost snarled. Her voice was filled with a pained wheeze. A flap of spectral skin on her throat opened and closed in time to a semblance of breathing.
“Eric Deveraux,” the cleric said. “Like I said, all your potential victims have died already. There’s no one left for you to kill.”
“Are you stupid?” she snapped. “No one left? Last time I checked, no one in the town of Greenbury didn’t care if I lived or died.” She looked down at the bones on the bed. “No one in that fucking hellhole even bothered to bury my bones! And I am supposed to rest in peace after Jacob Sullivan denied me what little revenge I could dish out?” Her form became much more substantial with every hate-fuelled word she spat. “Oh no, my vengeance is far from done. I will only stop once Greenbury is a smoking ruin where only ghouls and roach thralls roam!”
She looked from Eric to Kelly to Laura. “Who are you people? How can you talk to me?”
“Order of Martinius,” Laura simply said.
“GPD,” Kelly added. “God, this feels weird!”
Donna broke into a braying laugh. “What, you’re here to arrest me?”
“We were hoping to settle this matter peacefully,” Laura said. “So, how about it?”
“Fuck peace,” Donna growled. The bones on the bed rattled precariously, then began to float. They arranged themselves into a skeletal shape around the spirit. “I have schemed and planned for forty years and I won’t let you fuck up my revenge.”
“Girl, you’re sitting in a summoning circle,” Eric said calmly. “You’re doing nothin’.”
There was a blinding flash of light and a hysterical howl. The bone-wearing Donna ghost tumbled away from the edge of the circle, cursing wildly.
“What do we do now?” Kelly asked, raising her gun. “I think I heard something move down there.”
“My servants are coming,” Donna growled. “Let’s see how you like being eaten alive.”
“Uh thanks but no thanks,” Eric muttered, coming to his feet. “I’ve already had the pleasure.” He touched his face. “I’m really sorry for you. Unleashing a plague of trash monsters on Greenbury won’t give you peace.”
“But it will give me satisfaction, to know that all those ignorant, little people will suffer the same fate I did!” Donna howled.
“I tried,” Eric said to Laura. “Now what?”
Kelly fired into the tunnel. “Ghouls first, Donna later.”
Eric chanted something, his right arm blazing bright. “Laura, your sword,” he commanded.
Laura drew her weapon and held it his way. Eric touched the blade. A silvery light sprang into existence around it.
“Thank you,” Laura said, joining Kelly near the hole in the wall. The detective shot as fast as her rifle would allow but it wasn’t enough. A gray-skinned creature, bald and armed with wicked claws and crooked, yellow fangs, dashed past her. Laura was ready for it though, landing a vicious two-handed cut. Her blade cleaved through the monster from the right shoulder to the left hip.
“I’m out, cover me,” Kelly barked, dodging away from the hole. Eric fired both barrels of his gun into the opening but the undead tide didn’t relent. More and more ghouls poured into the room.
Kelly rammed a new mag into her rifle, felling two ghouls. Laura intercepted those heading straight for Eric, giving the young cleric time to reload his shotgun. She beheaded one, impaled one through its chest and hacked off a third one’s leg, finishing it off with a stab through its neck. After taking down another one, its wounds igniting like miniature stars, the others hesitated.
“What are you doing? Kill them, kill them, kill them!” Donna shrieked behind them. The ghouls rallied and resumed their attack with renewed fervor.
Laura dodged two ghouls who tried to gouge her unprotected eyes out. A series of small shocks crackled over her back. She looked down. Her foot was inside the summoning circle, a smeared chalk trace ending under it.
“Crap,” she hissed.
A moment later, skeletal hands grabbed her head from behind. “Now you die,” Donna hissed, the stench of death accompanying her words. Laura reversed the grip on her sword and stabbed backwards. Her enchanted blade tore into the half-materialized ghost, causing her to howl in agony. The skeletal hands poking for her eyes vanished. Laura pushed the bed. It creaked against the wall on rusted casters but Donna had stumbled out of the way.
Eric’s shotgun roared twice. “I think they got Kelly,” he yelled. “She’s not moving!”
“Shitshitshit!” Laura hissed, trying to keep both the ghouls and Donna in view.
Laughing hysterically, the ghost floated away, halfway disappearing in the far wall. Its skeleton rattled against the cabinets.
Eric stood there, frozen in place. A ghoul, grinning maniacally, tore both its claws over his chest, opening eight fiercely bleeding cuts. As if awakening from a bad dream, Eric slapped his bicep and yelled a single word. An explosion of holy radiance rippled outwards. The half dozen ghouls clustering around them hissed and recoiled.
“Be gone!” Eric roared, waving his gun. “The power of the loa compels you!”
Donna roared with laughter. “What are you trying to accomplish? They are mine. Mine! And no puny cleric-”
To her amazement, the ghouls, hissing and spitting, slowly retreated back into the hole.
“Those parlor tricks won’t work on me,” Donna hissed. She launched herself at Laura. “And now you die.” Her skeletal hands aimed for Laura’s face. She managed to block one, the other tore into her cheek, tearing it open from her eye to her jaw.
Gritting her teeth against the pain, Laura thrust and cut her sword into the half-formed monstrosity before her, breaking bones and dispersing spectral matter.
Donna retreated, her wounds streaming silvery contrails. “Do you really think your feeble sword can destroy me?” she whispered.
“I can at least try,” Laura snarled. There was an ugly, cool draft coming in through her cheek. She didn’t raise her hand to touch it, dreading what she might find there. Hot blood trickled into the neck of her armor. She charged, landing a solid hit before Donna could even raise her arms.
Eric muttered another spell behind her. There was the sound of a gun falling to the floor from numb fingers.
Donna feinted left and darted right, heading straight for Eric’s unprotected back. Laura was there, swatting her aside with a well-timed cut. One of Donna’s skeletal arms sailed across the room and clattered against a cabinet.
“Do you think that hurt me?” Donna snarled.
“Probably not but it will affect your cohesion sooner or later,” Laura growled. She spat out a gob of blood. “You might be incorporeal to an extent but you’re not invincible.” She attacked again, going for Donna’s bony rib cage. The ghost drifted away from her, through the open door and out into the corridor. Laura followed, taking every chance to land a quick blow.
“Such a scary monster, attacking feeble old men and trying to backstab helpless clerics. You’re even running away from me,” Laura jeered. “Are you afraid, little Donna?”
“Just you wait… my ghouls or my thralls will tear you limb from limb,” Donna spat.
“But I don’t want to wait. Come and get it, like the little slut you were,” Laura growled. “You loved being fucked by the boys, all at once, didn’t you?”
“Shut your fucking trap, you skank,” Donna roared, all thoughts of fleeing forgotten. “I only did it for the money.”
“Uh-huh, right. I’ve seen the video, sweetie. You were a moaning, cock-craving slut and you loved every single moment of it. Who was your favourite, huh? The jock, the queer or the quiet one?”
“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” Donna howled, swooping in. Laura was ready. The remaining bone hand went for her throat but she didn’t even defend against it. Instead, she put all her might into a two-handed cut at head height, tearing Donna’s skull from the spine. The whole ghost erupted in blinding silver flames.
“Nooo!” Donna shrieked, her voice hollow and weak. “What have you dooone?”
The remaining bones clattered to the floor. The hovering silver flames collapsed in onto themselves until they winked out of existence.
Gingerly, Laura brushed the hand bones from her neck. “I put a little bitch to rest,” she said. “Good riddance.” She turned on her heel and strode back into the room.
“Shit,” Eric said. “You look horrible.” He invoked a spell and touched Laura’s arm. Warm, healing energy rippled through her, closing the torn-open cheek.
“Thank you,” she said, looking over at Kelly.
The detective’s bulletproof vest hung around her in tatters, her hair was unbound and she looked pale and rattled. “I’m okay,” Kelly said, her voice shaky. “Being a helpless prisoner in my body felt much longer than the few seconds it really was.”
“At least you didn’t pee your pants,” Eric grumbled. “Donna’s done?”
“Yup. Didn’t like to be called a slut and got a bit careless,” Laura said. “Thanks to your blessing, I was able to tear her apart.” She exhaled slowly. “Speaking of: We should get a move on, help Doug and the others.”
“You’re right. It’s awfully quiet,” Kelly said. “What about the remaining ghouls?”
“They are much less a threat than the nest of roach thralls. We can come back for them later,” Laura said.
* * * *
When they returned to the foyer, they saw Doug, Jenna and Maria, bloodied but whole, climbing out of the hole.
“And here we are, coming to your aid like the damn cavalry,” Kelly quipped. “What did you find down there?”
“Too many roach thralls to count, plus a Megaroach,” Maria said.
Jenna made a low, grumbling sound and plucked a severed thrall arm off her back, tossing it into the hole. Her fur was matted in a dozen places and she left bloody paw prints. Eric went to her and cast a healing spell. The werebear muzzled his hand in thanks.
“They suddenly stopped being all organized and got in each others’ way,” Doug went on. “Without that lucky break, things might have ended much worse. We took down the Megaroach and set fire to the nest, along with most of the thralls down there.”
“When the connection died, I thought you’d be in real trouble,” Laura said.
“Well, shit,” Doug muttered. “One of the fuckers got his claw into my helmet and tore my headset cable to shreds. What about Donna?”
“Dead and gone. Didn’t like being called a slut.”
“Who does?” Maria said. “The ghouls?”
“We killed half a gazillion of them,” Eric boasted. “Others escaped back into the cellars.”
“That means another hunting expedition into this landfill. Yaaay,” Laura moaned. “The sooner it is flattened and filled with concrete, the better.”
“Why not do it now?” Kelly asked, patting the butt of her rifle. “I mean, we’re all alive, we have enough bullets and the night is still young. Why wait and give them time to regroup?”
“The lady has a point,” Doug said. “Okay then, let’s go!”
* * * *
“So, that’s where you got that scar,” Vicky said, a concerned look on her features. “I gotta say, you look like a badass now. Does it hurt?”
“Only my pride.” Laura touched her cheek. “It might eventually vanish completely. It all depends how well my body reacts to the vile damage Donna’s claw swipe caused.”
“How’s the rest of your team?” Vicky tilted her phone so the camera could show more of her naked breasts. Her bedding rustled underneath her as she caressed herself. “Any fallout I should know about?”
“With a cleric like Eric in the house, everyone recovered pretty quickly from their injuries.” Laura chewed on her lower lip. “What else? Well, we did bury Donna’s bones in hallowed earth, to make sure there is zero chance of her ever coming back. No more roach thralls, at least until the next one crawls into town. No more ghouls too and if Kelly is as persuasive as she is stubborn, the Asylum will be gone in a few months as well.”
“So a happy ending all around. Good. Anything else to report?” Vicky asked.
“Yup. Kelly showed up twice for dinner.”
“Oh? What for?”
“Mainly to swipe some of our monster manuals,” Laura purred. “Or to hook up with Doug. I really can’t say.”
“That still doesn’t explain why it was so goddamn hard for me to get a hold of you this past week and a half. Are you mad I sent you these pictures?” Vicky asked. “I even wrote in my e-mail that I’d like you to meet Frida and Grulat once you get your shapely ass over to London. They are fucking a-mazing!”
“Your mail did put my gears into motion, I have to admit,” Laura said. “I already wrote what I did in the succubus brothel.”
“Hmmm. I wish I had been there to cheer you on. Or to participate,” Vicky purred. Her phone tilted down further, showing her fingers caressing her nether lips.
“Then there was Jenna, eating into my quality time. We sparred a lot.” Laura began. “Aaand… I also met a new friend.”
“Tell me more,” Vicky purred.
“At first, we just hung out.” There was a hushed rustle next to Laura. She sighed softly as a slender green hand caressed down her naked back, ending on her butt. “Jessie, my friend, wanted to watch a few movies. We made it halfway through ‘Spider-Man: Far from Home’.”
“She put her hands under my T-Shirt and groped me.”
“You don’t sound too mad about that,” Vicky said.
“To be honest, I was a bit vengeful myself, after you had that magnificent threesome with, what were their names?”
“Frida and Grulat. Laura… I was lonely, drunk and very horny.”
Laura grinned. “Nothing new there, except for the ‘drunk’ bit. Well, when Jessie made her move, I didn’t stop her. We ended up in bed and it was pretty wild.”
“We met again a few days later and went shopping together.”
“Anything kinky happen?”
“Apart from seeing each other naked in a Hot Topic changing booth? Nah.”
“Hot Topic? Laura!” Vicky crossed herself. “Why, in Lucifer’s name, would you go into such a shop?”
Laura giggled. “To buy a lacy, see-through black evening gown. Jessie and I went into the Basement Club tonight and had a look at the Bella And Edward Show. Also, we made a lot of people either very horny or very embarrassed when we made out on the dance floor to Type O Negative’s “Black No.1.”
“Laura… did you find yourself a girlfriend?” Vicky asked, breathless.
“I’m not sure just yet, but I’d dearly love to find out,” Laura admitted. She tilted her phone so Vicky could see Jessie, naked, cuddled up to Laura. The goblin waved, a cautious smile on her lips.
“I do like her wicked sense of humor though. Reminds me of a certain dark elf,” Laura said, caressing Jessie’s backside.
“And you obviously love her cute gobbo butt,” Vicky observed.
“Oh, going by how eager she ate me out when we got home, I think she also loves my sweet green pussy,” Jessie said, her smile wide and naughty.
“Before I give my blessing, I need to make sure you take good care of my girl though,” Vicky said. “So, unless you’ve got better things to do, how about you show me what that sweet mouth of yours can do?”
“You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” Laura told Jessie. “Vicky’s just being her usual bossy se- Oh my God, Jessie!”
The goblin had lifted one of Laura’s legs and eagerly dove between her thighs, attacking Laura’s sex with gusto.
“And don’t you dare drop that phone!” Vicky ordered, her voice a hoarse moan.
I hope you enjoyed this twisted fantasy of mine. If you did, let me know. Vote and/or comment. It’s the only way for me to know if and how you liked this story.
Some quick housekeeping: Arach does appear primarily in my fantasy stories. The town of Greenbury first appeared in “The Making Of ‘A Little Heresy’, a 2016 Halloween contest story. Depending on the feedback, there may be more Order of Martinius stories in the future. The solution for the hidden songs can be found in the comments section below.
Thanks for your time and Happy Geek Pride Day!