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Introduction:

Axel and Rayner recover from sudden battle and a new Coalition leader appears.
A ghostly warm glow came from all directions in the room as Axel sat waiting for Grace to finish her work.

The hospitality god’s blessing on the brothel provided numerous small benefits. It allowed warm water to run throughout the building, providing warmth without the need for a pumping system. It also sourced light that appeared to originate from nothing and with only a simple thought to activate it.

Frankly, the blessing even this petty god, so weak as to not have a name, provided was a marvel even to Axel, who came from a modern world with advanced technology.

Grace had informed him that combined with the skills of the other whores they were able to provide special services and comforts to rival those of the larger cities.

This advantage was one of the real reasons for the profitability of the brothel. The sexy women offering pleasure was just a way to draw customers in.

None of that was why he came to see Grace. The events of the previous days had a greater effect on him than he wanted anyone to let on. He’d sparred with the little Coalition soldier Ava for days and learned much about her and saw why her helplessness grated on her bones with such tenacity.

All that training and potential for the future possibly snuffed out because of men with loose morals under the command of a traitor. Axel would have been pissed too.

Making matters worse, the three armies' unity had grown worse. The Coalition wished to save face and refused to acknowledge any responsibility for the disaster. A visit from an esteemed commander made them sweat with the shame of their losses. It made them eager to play up their own roles in ending the battle.

Axel already regretted giving them the credit for the victory.

The militia suffered from a weak morale. Their spirits were at a soaring height after winning the battle against the Inimi. The defeat by a horde of kobolds made them reconsider their worth as soldiers.

Some went home. Others took to infighting.

The power struggles for leadership again renewed and a new face popped up every day claiming leadership of their forces. Axel’s original structure of the militia had crumbled away.

Then there were the newly minted forces of Alta. A supposedly competent general led them but few had seen him or even knew his name. Even his whereabouts during the battle was a mystery. Hardly an example to show other countries the supposed might of Alta.

All this, combined with crime and poverty in full view on the formerly welcoming streets of Ridgehill led to an atmosphere smoking with fear.

The armies had to take action; instead, paralysis reigned. The councilors met daily to discuss solutions and ended their meetings frustrated and forlorn.

He shook off his musings and looked to Grace Harman, her nose deep in her ledger. Gone was the host of a whorehouse whose clothing was designed to please the male eye with its generous helping of cleavage and tightness around the waist.

Now Axel saw her for what she truly was, a frumpy old businesswoman. Her eyes were tired and her hair in a neat bun with a face showing her age. Though, she still had quite a healthy figure and bust.

At his attentions, Grace’s lips turned up slightly causing Axel to break out in a furious blush.

He wanted to interrupt but was curious at the work Grace did to keep the place running. As he now knew, her leadership of the brothel included more than owning a place that let the opposite genders grind into each other.

It required health checkups for the workers to keep them free of illness. Pregnancy tests were routine and required. Grace had herbs given out in large amounts to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Tailors designed, replaced, and repaired an ever-growing supply of clothes to suit the assets of each lovely whore to entice the clients.

Peeking at the paper, Axel saw she even had a graph that provided an image of each whore’s strength and weakness. Grace took pimping to the next level. Madam and Councilwoman Grace Harman continued to prove his choice to work with her correct every day.

Grace closed her ledger and gave him her full attention. “Forgive me Axel, I said I would only be a minute and look, it is almost night.” She looked to the wall as if staring outside, though the office had no windows.

“Not a problem Grace. Business is business. It gave me time to think.”

“Good. What is it you wished to speak with me about? Are you finally going to partake in all my brothel has to offer?”

“No, I wanted to talk about—well, it’s a bit sensitive.”

She sighed, seemingly knowing what he meant. “Yes, of course, I apologize wholeheartedly. Rayner gave me the details after our talk and you made the best choice you could at the time. I am no warrior and in no place to judge your actions in a chaotic battle.”

It took a beat for Axel to figure out what she was on about. Then he remembered when she implied he was a coward for leaving the camp followers behind to be slaughtered.

She may have been right, but It wasn’t why he came here. “Grace I’m here to talk about sexual culture, specifically…assault.”

Her eyes lit up when he mentioned sexual culture then frowned at the mention of assault. “I am a student of sexual history and can tell you much about sexual culture. When you say assault, you mean the use of force, correct?” He nodded, uncomfortable. “Has anyone been hurting my girls?” she said in a heated tone.

“No, no.” Axel waved his hands. “It’s this girl I met, well, I met her a while ago but only got to know her now. She was captured by the bandits and escaped with our help before anything happened to her. But other men and women seemed to have dissuaded the bandits."

Axel had gotten pretty good at ignoring the horrors of the war, but he had to confront it now to move forward. “She got me thinking about how this part of the world views sex. Rayner had an orgy with random virgins and it all seems so odd. I don’t know what the rules are.”

He could not say this part of the world was a new one entirely. Fortunately, Grace had gotten used to his cryptic asides to where he and Rayner came from.

“Ah, I’m aware of the situation you are talking about. It is simple. Sex is seen as a form of worship. Some people have complicated rituals to praise their gods. Others light a simple fire. But sex is the most popular.” Pausing she added with a grin, “For obvious reasons.”

“But why all that when the gods only need EXP?”

“The rituals are a middle man, so to speak. They lube the path for the EXP to get to the gods. They don’t live in the same realm as we mortals. Well, not all of them. That includes hospitality gods like the one blessing my brothel. They are anchored here but do not live here. Not unless they have a physical form like the Forest God you boys encountered.”

“I see.” Rayner had poured through the Will of the Unnamed God to look for ways to accomplish his wild goal of creating a god and found numerous ways that the fairies of the corpsewood had used to worship him throughout the centuries.

“As for the matter of assault.” She coughed. “It is a special crime against gods and goddesses. Even the weakest gods will expend themselves to curse those who attack their worshipers by such means. I don’t know why it’s worse than all the other tortures inflicted but it is. They see it as direct attack against them.”

“Yet the bandits did it anyway and still lived.”

“There are ways to mitigate or delay the curses. But they would have fallen soon enough. Like I said, I’m aware of the situation and you are under a misunderstanding. The bandits did not assault anyone, at least not in the way you are thinking. You caught the bandits with their pants down right? That is because some of those men and women seduced them to plan their escape. Some work for me now by the way. Still, they may have tried. The things greed and lust will do to some fools.”

Grace obviously said this from experience as a peddler of flesh. Manipulating greedy fools was her stock and trade.

Her answer explained much. The refugees must have known help was coming when the group of bandits originally sent to attack the caravan didn’t return. Terra and the other refugees never spoke of this.

But they did call him and Rayner lords to gain their help. These were clever people.

Getting his answer, he moved on to the other reason he was here that was key to him making his choice. “Could you tell me how quests work? I have only done one and failed.”

“Yes, I know. You are already aware quests are given out by the gods for worshipers to complete tasks, yes?”

“I have. So how is the council able to give us one or any human for that matter?”

She perked up once realizing this was about the task she and the council wished to give them.

Her casual tone gone, she continued her explanation. “Worshipers can contact the gods using rituals and pray for a quest to solve their problems. The Coalition church uses this method on mass I hear. They even dull the costs of failing a quest as a form of insurance. The Mayor and I have created a quest for you and Rayner to obtain the God Stone for our use. Not anyone can do that you know but we are esteemed members of the town and have plenty of experience between us. We decided this would be a good use of EXP.”

Axel wondered how a nobody like Fred Copper gave them a quest. “How are we even supposed to get such a hard-to-obtain item? Accepting sounds like a path to failure, unless you give out quest insurance as well?”

“Unfortunately, no. As to how, the dungeon that we speak of is the one you two prevented from fully forming. It is what we call a half-formed dungeon. By that I mean It has no bosses protecting the rooms and floors.”

“Holy shit!” The consequences were almost unfathomable. All the treasure of the dungeon would be unguarded.

“Indeed. Monsters will lurk in the dungeon, but won’t scale in difficulty as you travel through. But, the chances of a random monster appearing are higher. And, it is not guaranteed that places with greater loot will have stronger monsters protecting it.”

So, he could waste his time searching the wrong places. In games, going to the harder to reach places acted as a navigations trick.

Axel’s choices were clear.

He had a motto: hesitate and die. He would follow his own advice.

All this time sitting around the brothel was one giant hesitation. Ava had shown him how easily one could become helpless despite having great strength. She also showed him how to deal with it.

Axel needed to push forward.

Axel steeled his heart and gave Grace a steady gaze. “We leave as soon as possible.”

Grace grinned.

***

Leyla Lewitz, Commander of the Coalition army operating in the country of Alta, stormed through the camp.

At first, others cursed her and her entourage as she pushed past them but on seeing her knight’s armor and the collection of priests and squires trailing behind her, they got wise and got the hell out of her way.

Her swift stride didn’t stop her from taking in the poor state of the camp. She’d half expected a parade to greet her, though she had no wish for it after all the pomp and pageantry of her award ceremony.

No, there was no grand meeting. Either sub commander Kristof hadn’t gotten word of her return or there had been an attack.

But if that were the case there would be the unpleasant scent of death lingering around the camp. Still, the other signs showed.

Tired lines of loss were drawn on the faces of the soldiers. Others limped in search of comfort, for orders.

Her army was in a state of confusion.

The flag of the Coalition flapped majestically in the wind outside the command tent. Another flag waved at the camp. A flag bearing the image of an oval mirror with glued-together cracks was planted at the other side of camp.

Another force had taken hold here along with the militia she was familiar with.

Command had called her home before the final battle. She had worried for her soldiers under Kristof’s leadership but it seemed two armies had come to their aid.

A victory she did not earn. That didn’t stop Command from sticking a medal on her.

Reaching the command tent, Leyla pushed the flaps to the side to stand at the center with her fist on her side and sword hand resting on the pommel of her sword.

She saw Kristof bent over behind a desk rustling with papers. “For god’s sake, I told you no more interruptions.”

“Look before you tell someone to go away. They might be important.”

Recognizing her voice, Kristof shot up. “Commander Leyla, welcome back.”

She gave Kristof a once over, his uniform was tidy, as usual. He had the appearance of the perfect knight, broad-shouldered with a strong jaw. His looks hid his defect of incompetence.

If not for the aid of two armies, Leyla was sure they would have lost the battle and the country along with it.

“I wish I could say it is good to be back, Kristof. My journey has been…troublesome.”

“Did kobolds attack you on route?”

“Kobolds?”

“Yes, they attacked us just before you arrived.”

She held out a hand for him to stop speaking. “Gather the officers for a meeting. Then I will be briefed.” She didn’t want to hear only his side of the story and get a head full of lies.

His lips turned down slightly, indicating that he had exactly that in mind. “Of course.” He pointed to a servant standing unnoticed behind Leyla. “Go get the officers.”

The servant wore clothes not of the styling of the Coalition. He wore pants and a jacket of low quality, held up by strings.

Coalition men liked clothes with many buttons and zips. The servant was local then, hired on to make her soldiers lazier.

Following her eyes, Kristof explained. “Hiring the refugees allows them to earn coin and food. It also provides safety. All those people packed into Ridgehill has made the streets unsafe.”

“Good, it will endear us to the locals. How many women have you hired on for this capacity,” Leyla asked suddenly.

Caught off guard, Kristof stuttered out a response. It hardly mattered, his pale face gave her the answer, and he knew it.

“Please take a seat while we wait, Commander,” he said, trying to brush over what just transpired.

Leyla let him. She had other issues to talk about than the lusts of soldiers. “Back to the topic of my journey here. Vera, my right hand, was sent to scout the route ahead and fell under attack by goblins.”

“A knight killed by goblins!”

Leyla took her seat and crossed a leg over the other, her hand on her sword pommel. “There were no bodies or enough blood to indicate death.”

The priest that came with her from Command spoke up from behind her. “We believe goblin lords captured her.”

“How dire. We shall launch a search party as soon as possible!” Kristof said.

If she didn’t know the man, his steely eyes and strong disposition would have filled her with confidence.

Sadly, she did know him. A rich boy sent to take a position of leadership to pile on his credentials.

Kristof’s family thought participating in a war in a tiny country would let him coast by. They never counted on General Kent being assigned to Alta. Neither had she or she would have kicked Kristof out long ago.

For that she felt well-deserved shame. By accepting him, she hoped to gain favor with the higher-ups. Then she would use that favor for her future goals.

She’d played suck-up just like everyone else. She clutched the sword pommel tighter.

Relaxing her grip, she refocused on Kristof. “You will not send soldiers. Vera is trained to escape capture and resist interrogation. She has to take care of herself for now.”

Leyla could practically hear the thoughts of the others in the tent. They judged her as a cold bitch for abandoning a woman they all knew was her lover. She did not disagree.

Kristof couldn’t stand the silence and attempted small talk. “What news from home? I’ve heard rumors of rebellion.”

“The rumors are true I’m afraid. Rebels in the far west.”

He shook his head, not surprised by the source of the trouble.

The far west held a collection of kingdoms even smaller than Alta but vastly richer. Between the small kingdoms were small principalities that they fought over incessantly.

Problems arose when the Coalition had killed their priests. While the kingdoms fought, an unwritten rule existed that kept the priests safe from danger. The priests acted as trusted go-betweens for trade talks and peace negotiations

And that is what got Coalition Command nervous. It should. For that structure resembled that of the Coalition itself. With combined lands greater than the Coalition and suspected support from the Inimi, the far west could become rivals.

An unacceptable outcome. No wonder the priests had unfortunate accidents. Nobody bought the lie, and the people rebelled.

In hindsight, the Inimi themselves may have orchestrated the drama.

Leyla put it out of her mind, not her area of command.

Kristof leaned over the desk, putting his face uncomfortably close to hers. She resisted leaning back.

“You know what they need to do,” he said.

“Please tell me.”

Not understanding her sarcasm, he went on. “Crackdown on the priests. Kill them all.”

“Not exactly winning hearts and minds.”

He waved his hand in the air in dismissal. “Bah! What good does that do? Hasn’t helped us much here. We come to save the Altans and they demand money for food and lodging.”

“Are we running out of funds?”

“Well, no, but that money can be used for our troops.”

“To do what, exactly?”

“Buy food and lodging of course.”

“I see.” And she truly did. If only Kristof understood his own contradictions, or cared to.

Already growing tired of the conversation, she said nothing more until the officers arrived.

A frustrating amount of time later, officers began streaming into the tent. They made the once spacious tent claustrophobic.

Leyla rose from her chair and went around the desk to Kristof…“My seat.”

“Oh!” He hustled out of her seat. She’d hoped, futilely, that he would have realized before the officers arrived. She took it as a sad lesson not to hope.

Taking her own proper seat, she saw three officers fidgeting at the front. “Are you the ones who are to brief me?”

“Yes, Commander Leyla!” the three shouted.

“Save the shouting for the field or roll call. I’m right in front of you.”

“Yes, Commander Leyla,” they stuttered out in lower voices.

“Begin the briefing. Start with introductions. Then answer why are you before me?”

The only woman of the three, her hair buzzed at the sides, stepped forward to speak for the rest. “Alisa, Commander. The others are Kite and James. During the attack, I and my fellow officers took action to rally the scattered forces of the three armies.”

“How?”

“We gathered the scattered forces around the camp and had them follow us to the main thrust of the kobold attack. The kobolds rode snakes around the camp. Their weapons had a fire affinity, either spelled or magical from the start.”

“Three armies and not one of them caught the approach of such a large raiding force.”

The Alisa’s eyes flicked to Kristof. Her eyes went back to Leyla too to prevent Leyla from noticing.

Kristof must have busied himself preparing for Leyla’s return to the exclusion of camp security. If any soldiers remained to watch for an attack, their attention would be on the other armies at camp. When Alisa said scattered, they may have been fighting those other armies.

If that was all they were hiding Leyla could let it go but there were other irregularities and Leyla listed them. “Right, you are telling me that three low ranked officers who had no idea that they were under attack rallied two armies to them though it is likely they were fighting those armies under the belief they were responsible for the attack."

Leyla leveled her eyes on all in the room. “No, this is not the truth and I am too tired and upset to take you three in private to tell me what really happened. Also, for officers who have won such a great victory, not one of the other officers behind you look jealous of your honors. James and Kite didn’t even come forward to introduce themselves.”

“Try again,” Leyla demanded.

Alisa’s eyes flicked to Kristof again, this time Leyla shut it down. “Don’t look at him. Look at me.” Leyla did not yell but the girl must have wished she did.

The two men behind Alisa, whispered for her to come clean and her shoulders slumped in defeat. “Two young men named Axel and Rayner rallied the armies. They were with another man of the Ridgehill guard named Evans.” The woman looked relieved to tell the truth; her entire body relaxed from the tension Leyla had first assumed was from military rigidness. “They have a relationship with the militia in particular.”

“Oh, and what is the nature of this relationship that allowed them to stop the inter-army fighting.”

“I believe they created the militia.”

Interesting. “Where are they now and if they had such leadership qualities how did they let the situation get so far?”

“They are not the leaders of the militia, commander. They created it and left it to other leadership.”

“Why would they do something like that?” To create an army and not command it!

“An attempt to maintain their privacy. They are not from Alta and the militia was created to fight off a monster horde in the Alea region.”

“So, they created an army in passing and wanted nothing to do with it after. I’m going to assume the leaders they put in place are no longer in charge.”

Kristof spoke from her side, “Their leadership changes frequently based on a mix of popularity and merit.”

“What else do we know of them?”

“Nothing.”

“There should be a ‘yet’ after that, Kristof.”

The camp priest stepped forward, the one she actually trusted, not the one assigned to her from Command. “I have made discreet inquiries and nobody else knows much about them either. Their daily routine is rather bland, consisting of bouts at the training yard and helping patrol outside Ridgehill. They work and live at a brothel knocking around unruly guests.”

“How many of those unruly guests are Coalition officers?”

“Enough that there are no vacancies.”

Leyla had the root of the problem. Her army and its leaders treated the war as already won. So, they took up with local women and lounged their days away.

She would have to put an end to such sloth.

Leyla rose from her seat to properly address the rest of the higher officers. “Many thought this war should have ended already. They thought wrong. Wars don’t end themselves. Wars are not won by underestimating our enemies or taking advantage of allies. From now the army shall be on full alert, not for monsters but an enemy army. Make no mistake, that is what these kobolds are. We will remain on full alert until the kobold threat is terminated.”

The priest sent to monitor her made a complaint. “But Commander, the army is to return home and be reassigned to other battlefields.”

At this, a murmur ran through the crowd. Leyla had got him! He had revealed that the soldiers would have no rest and be redeployed as soon as possible, likely to the far west to be harassed by rebels.

She removed her fist at her hip and gestured to the priest. “This is Hewet. Thank Command for sending another priest to aid us in this effort.”

Her introduction of Hewet did two things: Sour the officers to the priest’s presence as they would blame him for being redeployed and force the priest to help with the renewed war effort. He would find spying on her difficult under the attention and responsibilities.

“I will work with him closely, Commander,” the camp priest, Ebert, said.

“Next we will suspend all attempts to convert others to a god or goddess of the Coalition,” Leyla said, and both priests’ eyebrows rose at that.

Leyla explained, “Espousing the greatness of a people and an army that has not actually won the war yet seems…premature.” Both priests grudgingly nodded.

“Meetings with other factions will take place to determine rules, what they can share, and hard boundaries so we don’t end up killing each other when snake-riding kobolds come to eat us.”

Then came the hard part for Leyla. “Finally, accusations of wrongdoing by our soldiers will be investigated. I don’t want to believe it, but what I want to believe has nothing to do with how wars are waged. If any of you have a complaint, then I remind you of the rumors of what is taking place in the far west and ask yourselves if you want that to happen here, when two foreign armies are camped beside us.”

That silenced the rumbles beginning to stir. Out of all her new decrees, this was the most crucial. The Coalition wasn’t trained to fight rebellions. If one broke out, they would suffer.

After that, the briefing went by the number. Officers gave her information on how the kobolds fought and the number of dead from the attack.

Absently Leyla noticed papers under her seat and knew them to be what Kristoff searched for when she entered the tent. His attempt to hide the evidence of his lies. Oh, he would be trouble, that one.

While she tried her hardest to pay attention to every little detail offered to her during the briefing, her thoughts drifted to her girlfriend, Vera. Alone, battered, maybe even dead. It left her scowling for the rest of the day.
2 comments

throatwarbler mangroveReport

2021-01-15 16:59:09
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eva.miller1988Report

2021-01-14 05:38:43
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