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Things are not all well and good in Colbrand.

The voices of the arguing men could be heard outside the closed room and through the corridor. They sat at a long table, dressed in either elegant noble garb or modest working attire, these squabbling captains of industry. They were the heads of the various business guilds in Colbrand, from blacksmiths to textile workers, all thinking they deserved the biggest piece of the pie and projected it by bickering over resources and coins.

The doors to the room then opened, and all eyes turned, expecting to meet the host of this get-together. Instead, they faced an interesting trio. On one side, a beautiful blond woman, around twenty years old, wearing a blue battle dress and carrying a bow. On the other side, a similarly-captivating beauty with long crimson hair and a sunny smile, holding the trio’s winter coats. Between them, a young girl wearing a witch’s hat and tiny evening gown, smoking a long-stemmed pipe held in her small hand.

“Greetings, gentlemen. I hope you weren’t all waiting for little old me,” the girl said with a wry smile.

“Ah Cyrilo, you always love to be fashionably late,” one man laughed.

“Isn’t it a bit early for you to be so short? You told me you only turn into a wee lass in the wee hours of the morning,” another man asked.

“I’ve been making some headway in solving my aging hex,” said Cyrilo, walking around the table to an empty chair. “You could say my current state is a work-in-progress. Regardless, I wouldn’t miss this for the world, especially as the head of the newly-formed brothel guild.” She took a seat, but her chin barely came above the table.

“Now that you’ve taken down the church, your little pet project can finally grow to fruition. Congratulations, you’re close to your ultimate dream of ruling Colbrand with an iron fist,” said a third man.

“My rule would be a gentle utopia, you know that.”

Alexis and Sophia took their places against the wall behind Cyrilo, along with several other bodyguards and attendants brought for the meeting. These days, Cyrilo never left the Knight’s Sheath without them, even to come here, the palace. They had become famous for revealing the church’s schemes and corruption, how the clergy planted their agents in the military, using their authority as knights to commit murder, arson, and all manner of immoral acts in the name of their gods. Anyone who became a threat to the church or challenged their doctrine was eliminated and their removal was covered up.

Since then, the king had been working to purge Uther of the shadow council organizing the assassinations. Every priest was arrested and questioned, and every church and clergy safehouse was searched for evidence and ill-gotten gains. The purge was a mixed blessing. The actual churches were mostly untouched, as well as the priests innocent of any wrongdoing, all to protect the faith and the citizens’ access to their houses of worship.

Removing the fetid, corrupt order was necessary for every system occasionally, but not everyone was happy to see it go. To oppose the church was to oppose against the gods, a mindset pushed by all religions, and plenty of people believed it. Having their spiritual leaders arrested for everything from bribery to assassination was disheartening, to say the least, and challenged their beliefs. When faced with new evidence contrary to their beliefs, the mature and intelligent will change their views, but most don’t have what it takes to admit being mistaken about what they hold dear. For the fools of the world, unpleasant truths and inconvenient changes were always the result of hoaxes and conspiracies.

Armies of zealots challenged the purge, accusing the kingdom of framing their most pious deacons and cardinals. The clergy wasn't corrupt; it was obviously the king, and who started the king on this warpath? Madam Cyrilo. For months, the Knight’s Sheath had been attacked and vandalized by angry citizens trying to avenge their fallen clergy.

It wasn’t all that different from the usual level of controversy the Knight’s Sheath generated and the ire it invoked, and these lacked the planning and authority of the attacks made by the clergy. Though the messes were annoying to clean up, Alexis relished the action. Fighting kept her from getting bored, and her day felt wasted if she didn’t get to punch someone who deserved it.

Finally, the meeting host arrived, a man in a government uniform with long hair and a scar over his eye. “Apologies for the delay, everyone. There was a last-minute issue that required my attention.”

“There you are, Lord Strauss. Finally we can get down to business instead of waiting with our thumbs up our asses,” the leader of the blacksmith guild said.

Strauss was one of the king’s advisors, focusing on the nation’s wealth and economy. Though the kingdom had ceded most of its control over the private sector to the nobles in exchange for military power, no business or group could reach a specific size without the government involved.

“Yes, I have invited you all here today to talk to you about the Arena Project.”

“Don’t tell me it’s still stalled,” said the head of the fishermen’s guild. “I could see that thing from the sea, growing like a giant barnacle, and then it just stops?”

“That’s why we’re here. Due to troubles in Handent, more of the imperial budget is being spent on bolstering defenses and troop presence. As such, funding for the stadium has hit a momentary snag.”

“I thought the king was paying for it with all the wealth accrued from the church purge. I heard stories of chests full of jewels, gold statues, and elven silk being wheeled out of the cardinals’ mansions,” said Cyrilo.

“Let’s just say that the church is good at hiding its assets. As such, the flow of wealth has halted, as has construction of the arena.”

“And the king wants us to foot the bill, is that right?” asked the head of the farmers’ union.

“Temporarily. At most, you would be funding around 15% of the arena.”

“Dwarven labor doesn’t come cheap,” said the banking guild leader.

“They’re the best stonemasons and architects in the world, and since Vandheim is nothing but snow and mountains, they’re used to building in the cold,” another man stated.

“To think that the king would commission such a massive project in such a short time frame. A massive stone stadium, completed in less than a year? Even with earth magic, it’s preposterous,” said the fisherman.

“Preposterous if it fails, genius if works,” said Cyrilo. “Every year, Knight’s Day is sullied by the bloodshed of the Red Revelries, and the past two years have been particularly damaging to both the city and the country. Arresting and killing the revelers has failed as a deterrent, so why not find a way to profit off this wellspring of bloodlust? An arena, where we can put these murderous fools to work for the entertainment of the people. Give them the battle they crave and rake in the money. I wish the king had thought of this years ago.”

“I’m glad you are in agreement as to its merits. If it is to be completed before next year’s Knight’s Day, the kingdom will need help in funding it. That is where you come in,” said Strauss.

“I’m sure our generosity in this matter will be well-rewarded, right?” the banking chief hummed.

“The kingdom is prepared to offer you some very generous tax cuts, as a start,” said Strauss.

“Then by all means, let’s talk business,” said Cyrilo, smoking her pipe. “I have a sweet tooth, and am in the mood for more honeyed words.”

Behind her, Alexis and Sophia prepared themselves for a long meeting. After more than two hours of negotiating rebates and dividends, the heads of all the guilds were released back into the winter cold.

“I didn’t think that was ever going to end,” said Sophia.

“Once Carson starts talking, he doesn’t stop. He’ll eat breakfast and then spend the rest of the day describing it,” said Cyrilo.

“Don’t forget that textiles guy,” said Alexis. “I don’t know what it is about his voice, all I know is that I hate it. Every time he spoke, it was like there was a centipede in my ear.”

Rather than walk the frosty streets, they got a carriage to bring them back to the Knight’s Sheath. The interior had no heat, but it got them out of the wind and snow. As they rode back, they glanced out the window at the unfinished coliseum looming over the rest of the city. It replaced the old Uther slums, a long-time haven of criminal mischief. After all the damage it had suffered in recent years, especially during Noah’s battle with Seraph, little demolition was required to clear the area for construction. The slums had always been a gangrenous limb attached to the city, and the people were happy to see the space used for something better.

“Do you really think this new arena is going to put an end to the Red Revelries?” Sophia asked.

“Maybe not put an end, but definitely cut them down to a manageable level. The Red Revelries started out as just rowdy academy applicants getting bored and looking for a fight, usually because they were drunk. With each year that passed, more and more fighters started getting involved, simply for the rush. Hopefully, with this arena, we can give these battle addicts a place to satiate their bloodlust, while keeping the public entertained.”

“It also keeps everyone off the king’s back for a while,” said Alexis. “With everything that’s been going on these past few years, he needs all the help he can get. The nobles are growing bolder, and this purge of the church is giving them both plenty to fear and plenty to complain about.”

“It’s been much more than a few years,” Cyrilo sighed. “The power of the royal family has been in question for centuries, but it didn’t used to be that way. It used to be that the royal family possessed the ultimate means of protecting this city from invaders, an unstoppable power that granted them near-divine authority.”

“You mean the Wassengel, correct? I read about it in the library,” said Sophia.

“That’s right. Part of the reason Colbrand was built on this spot is because it is the site of Enochian ruins, and among those ruins was an unstoppable weapon, one so powerful that it supposedly created the Paleon Channel. The first king of Uther managed to awaken this weapon and use it against his enemies. He linked control of it to his bloodline, so only those of royal lineage would be able to harness its power.

Unfortunately, the temple that was used to control the Wassengel was destroyed around two or three hundred years ago. Since then, it has remained inert and useless. Numerous armies have attacked Colbrand since then, and because the royal family can no longer protect the city as it once did, every mistake makes the king more expendable.”

“At least with the church leaders out of the way, the list of people who can challenge the king is now shorter,” said Alexis.

“On the contrary, it may have made him more vulnerable.”

They finally arrived at the Knight’s Sheath just as a snowstorm began brewing. The three women released sighs of relief as they stepped out of the cold and went to the foyer.

“Ah, you missed it. Look what finally arrived,” said Lucius, standing at the bar. He held up a large book made with high-quality leather binding and gilded pages. “Your manu*********** is finished.”

“It came back from the painter?” Sophia asked excitedly.

“He just dropped it off. The borders of every page are complete and every diagram and picture are a work of art.”

Everyone gathered around to look through the book, a testament to sexual health and pleasure. All of the information from Sophia’s original booklet had been included and expanded on, as well as everything regarding sensuality. Each artistic depiction of sexual acts and positions was both arousing and beautiful.

It was dubbed the “Sex Codex,” picked from a list of names submitted by everyone at the Knight’s Sheath. Other names included the “Brothel Bible,” “Erotic Encyclopedia,” “Dick Dictionary,” and even “Ass-Play Almanac,” and somehow, the other names just got weirder and more perverse from there. It was difficult to tell where the real submissions ended and the joke submissions began.

“Now we can start mass-producing copies,” said Cyrilo. “The health section will kill arousal rather than invoke it, but the rest of the book is something best enjoyed on a lonely evening with a bottle of wine.”

Their happiness was ruined by a loud crash from upstairs and the sound of a door opening and slamming shut. A half-naked man rushed down the stairs, still in the process of pulling his clothes on, and when he saw Cyrilo and everyone else, he scowled, flashing the scratch marks on his cheek. “You need to put down that lunatic like a rabid dog!” he yelled as he fled the building. Upstairs, they could hear more crashing and angry screaming.

“Looks like Bella’s having another episode,” said Lucius.

“Daniel, you know what to do,” Cyrilo said to the musician beside her.

“Yeah, yeah, hold on.” Daniel retrieved his guitar and followed Cyrilo, Sophia, and Alexis upstairs to Bella’s room.

Inside, Bella was throwing a fit, smashing furniture, throwing items against the wall, and screaming bloody murder. Sophia carefully opened the door, and Daniel began to play his guitar, a soft, wilting tune to calm the nerves. Mana flowed from his guitar and filled Bella’s room like knockout gas, causing her to slowly drop to her knees. When Bella got violent, Daniel’s magic was the only way to subdue her without physical force. His music could attract attention and calm the minds of those who heard it, allowing him to draw massive crowds and de-escalate situations, but in Bella’s case, it was only a temporary solution. Even now, she was muttering to herself and clawing at her scalp.

Sophia entered her room with Alexis on standby should Bella lash out. “Bella, are you ok? It’s me,” she said softly.

“I’m not ok, I need my darling.”

“Do you want to tell me what happened with the customer?”

Bella turned to her with crazed eyes. “That disgusting pig! That arrogant cretin! He said he could make me fall in love with him, that I would call him darling! Only Noah can be my darling! No one else! Why hasn’t he come back yet? Doesn’t he know that I’m waiting for him?! I need my darling! No one can make me feel as good and happy as he can! I need him back!”

“Bella, honey, I know you miss Noah, but you can’t treat customers like that. It’s time for you to move on.”

“I don’t want to move on! I want my darling!”

“Well he’s not here, any you need to accept that. You need to find someone or something else that can make you happy.”

“There is no one else! Nothing else! Get out! You don’t understand!”

“We can’t leave until we know you’re calm and clear. I can’t have you continuing to destroy the Knight’s Sheath,” said Cyrilo.

“I don’t care about the fucking Knight’s Sheath!” She screamed at the top of her lungs, beating her fists against the floor.

“Alexis!” blurted Sophia.

Alexis rushed over and grabbed Bella in a bear hug. Bella thrashed and flailed until Sophia clasped both sides of her head and sent a powerful charge of holy energy. As a healer, Sophia’s magic couldn’t cause harm, but a large burst directly to the brain was enough to make Bella faint. It realigned Bella’s synapses, slowed the rapid chemical imbalance, and caused her to reboot like a computer. It was yet another means of calming her down during her episodes. Alexis left her on her bed, and Daniel and the three women retreated to Cyrilo’s study.

“I’m honestly considering removing Bella from the Knight’s Sheath,” Cyrilo sighed from behind her desk.

“You mean throwing her out into the street? You can’t do that!” Sophia exclaimed.

“Believe me, I don’t even like considering it, but she isn’t leaving me with much of an option. She’s long-since become a danger to both the customers and the girls. I have to think about the safety of everyone here. Besides, she barely even works anymore. She refuses to entertain most clients, and when she does, she doesn’t even try to hide her disdain. She’s driven off everyone but the masochists.”

“I agree that something needs to be done, but kicking her out isn’t the solution,” said Alexis. “With her mental state, it would be a death sentence. We’re her only source of support.”

“Where I come from, people with problems like hers would receive special medicine, little pills to help them be less crazy. Can’t you whip up anything like that for her?” Daniel suggested.

“I’m an alchemist, not a miracle worker. I can create a poison that would numb her out and make her a mindless husk, but that wouldn’t exactly solve the problem.”

Sophia shook her head. “Well maybe there is a middle ground. Between the two of us, there has to be some kind of medicine we can make that will at least make her more docile and less prone to violence.”

“It’s worth a try. A merchant friend of mine will be stopping in town soon. He usually carries ingredients you can’t find anywhere else.”

Over the coming days, Cyrilo and Sophia made numerous copies of the Sex Codex, using alchemy to rearrange raw materials like an atomic 3D printer. Cyrilo distributed them to the other city brothels and her friends across the map, spreading the sensual knowledge far and wide. With the church now a shadow of its former self and the kingdom backing her literacy program, there was no one to stop her. She even gave lectures on health and wellness the way Noah had, but the live demonstrations were forgone since he wasn’t around. No one could fill his shoes.

Once the darkest days of winter passed, Cyrilo set out to meet her merchant friend. Sophia was currently training healers from other brothels, and Alexis was running the bar while Lucius was off meeting with booze distributors, so today, she had Daniel escorting her.

“Whew, it’s blustery today,” said Cyrilo, currently in her late fifties. Due to her altering her curse, her age was still random. She could be an infant one day and an old woman the next.

“That ocean breeze really packs a punch,” replied Daniel, pulling an empty cart behind him.

“That’s a good thing. As long as none of Tom’s other customers are as tenacious as us, we’ll get the best ***********ion and prices.”

“It’s amazing to me that you can create diamonds out of coal, but you still hunt for bargains like a cat chasing mice.”

“It’s the thrill of the chase. Thank you for coming out here with me. I know the weather seems to have it out for us.”

“There is no way I could refuse. It’s my job, after all.”

“I’ve noticed you stepping up more and more lately, trying to take on more roles and carry more responsibility. I definitely appreciate it, but I just hope you’re not doing it to impress Alexis and Sophia. I see you glancing at them.”

“It’s nothing like that. To be honest, I admire them, but not in a romantic way. I mean, I admire how strong they are. At first glance, Alexis looks like a dainty maiden, but she’s really a fucking lioness with a spine made of solid steel, and Sophia is a sweet little cinnamon roll, but she has so much heart and courage; it’s amazing. During the Lucius incident, when Sophia and I were waiting outside the palace, Sophia was cool as a cucumber and ready for anything, but I was so tense I was ready to jump right out of my skin. When we realized Alexis was fighting someone, I was too scared to act, but Sophia ran right into danger.

Watching her sprint off to help, this nineteen-year-old girl heading into battle, I was truly inspired, as well as ashamed. I looked at myself, cowering behind her, and realized how pathetic I was acting. I mean, I had been trying before then to be better, braver, tougher, like when the old Knight’s Sheath burned down and when we captured that crazy religious guy, but they showed me just how far I had to go. I want to be someone that people can depend on. When things go wrong, I want to be able to say ‘leave it to me’ and save the day.”

“Well I’m very proud of you, and I can tell you’re on your way there. Keep up the good work.”

They arrived at a small shop, routinely rented out to various merchants, and stepped out of the cold.

“Tom! Hello!” Cyrilo cheerfully exclaimed.

“Madam Cyrilo! My lovely lady!” the mustachioed dwarf behind the counter replied. He circled around to her, and they exchanged kisses on the cheek. “And you’re wearing that perfume I love! Oh, you conniving wench, you do not play fair.”

“Since when have I ever?”

“And who’s this fellow escorting you?”

“This is Daniel, my prized musician. His music is nothing short of a gift from the gods.”

“Hello,” Daniel said with a nod.

“Very interesting. I’ll have to come by and visit, we can share a bottle of wine.”

“Unfortunately, the old place has burned down and we’ve changed locations. There have been a lot of changes since you were last here, most of them good. For one thing, I have a drink far better than simple wine for you to try.”

“Oh, you sure know how to tease a dwarf, but we can catch up later. Come, come, I have all manner of wonderful things to show you.”

He took her on a tour of the shelves and display cases, showing her jars, bottles, and sacks full of every substance and material a magic researcher would need. Looking through the endless collection of sediments, monster pieces, and medicinal plants, Cyrilo was like a kid in a candy store. She paid handsomely for whatever caught her eye, quickly filling Daniel’s cart. She used diamonds, catching Tom’s eye. Typically, she was careful in how she distributed them, not wanting to destabilize the market and draw unwanted attention, but Tom was a dwarf, and the two things a dwarf could not resist were jewels and liquor.

“Such exquisite gems! I’ve never seen diamonds so clear and pristine! They’re like shards of starlight! I must know, where did you get these?”

“If I told you, Tom, I’d never be rid of you. You’d grab my leg like a humping dog and I’d have to pry you off with an iron bar.”

“You know me well. These will do very well for me in Vandheim. So, is there anything else I can interest you with today?”

“You tell me. I know you’ve got something extra special hidden. Your mustache twitches when you’re holding an exceptional product.”

“Get out of my mind,” he said as he retrieved a lockbox from behind the counter and opened it. He held up a small glass vial with a glittery green liquid inside. “You know what this is, don’t you?”

“Is that Abernathy’s Ichor?” Cyrilo gasped.

“Could it be anything else?”

“Mind if I ask?” Daniel piped.

“Abernathy’s Ichor is a rare elixir distilled over the course of years from very rare ingredients,” said Cyrilo. “It’s one of the most valuable runecrafting substances in the world.”

“And what does it do?”

“It is able to copy individual magical characteristics of other substances,” said Tom. “Take, for instance, wyvern blood. For destructive spells, there is no more powerful ink ingredient. It can turn a regular fireball into a firestorm. However, it also degrades the user’s control over the spell, making it very easy for the spell to blow up in their face. Abernathy’s Ichor can copy the power-enhancing effects of wyvern blood, without the destabilizing side effects.

Or you could take the nectar from a foxtail flower, which enhances the efficiency of water spells so they require less mana, but accelerates the disintegration of the inscribed medium. This elixir can replicate the efficiency aspect of the nectar without damaging the medium.”

“Sweet,” said Daniel.

“Oh, the sweetest,” replied Tom.

“How much do you want for it?” Cyrilo asked.

“You don’t know what I had to do to get this. Its value is nigh incalculable. If I were to sell it for anything less than, say, a whole sack of diamonds, I would be a failure as a merchant.”

“Fair enough. Bring the ichor with you when you visit the Knight’s Sheath tonight and I’ll have your payment ready. It’s in the northern district, just ask for directions.”

“My dear lady, I shall see you then.”

Cyrilo and Daniel bid farewell and then returned to the Knight’s Sheath, though pulling a full cart was much harder than pulling an empty one. That evening, Tom arrived and enjoyed Daniel’s evening concert, and then he and Cyrilo shared a bottle of Knight’s Ambrosia in her study while catching up.

“I’ve been hearing troubling news out of Vandheim lately,” said Cyrilo, “talk of civil unrest and gratuitous means of suppressing it.”

“The king’s declining health is cause for great concern, and his steward has been taking on more and more responsibilities. He’s been cracking down on rebellious activity from the Baum clan. And like Uther, there has been ongoing conflict with the beastman tribes.”

“If the king’s condition is so poor, then shouldn’t he abdicate the throne to his successor?”

“Things aren’t quite that simple, I’m afraid. The crown prince died in a hunting incident last year, and it’s created a big mess. He was the only member of the royal family supported by all the clans.”

“Do you think war could be on the horizon?”

“It always is. We’re hoping that Princess Cynatas’s marriage to Prince Lupin will provide some supporting pillars to the situation.”

“I’ve heard that the prince is dealing with his own mess in Welindar. It may be some time before he can meet her at the altar.”

Tom sighed and emptied his glass. “Can I just say that this is the nectar of the gods? I would suck a goblin dick if this came out of the end.”

“The recipe is a gift from my favorite patron, Noah, the Wandering Spirit. He’s revolutionized this place.”

“I’ve heard rumors about him. Whenever someone asks ‘what happened to Uther’s princes?’ someone will reply ‘Noah happened.’ If half the things they say about him are true, I really want to meet him. I want to shake his hand just for this drink.”

“It was the princes who burned down the original Knight’s Sheath, but Noah was my angel of vengeance, and made things better than ever. In fact, he blessed me with the gift of knowledge, which I was able to put to good use.” Cyrilo got up from her chair and retrieved a codex from a nearby stack of copies. “Here, consider it a gift.”

“My word,” said Tom, flipping through the pages.

“That reminds me, here are your diamonds,” said Cyrilo, laying a bag of gems on her desk.

“Wonderful! And here is the ichor, as pure as mother’s milk,” Tom replied, placing the small bottle beside the bag. “Now, before I go, I think need one more glass of that ambrosia.”

“Are you sure? You’re looking a little wobbly there.”

“Please, I’m a dwarf. We don’t just drink liquor, we practically breathe it. One more glass, if you please, then I’ll be on my way.”

And just like that, Tom ended up passed out on Cyrilo’s couch. A spare room was prepared, and Lucius carried him away like a giant toddler.

The next day, no one saw or heard from Cyrilo other than being told she wasn't to be disturbed for anything. Even Sophia was barred from entering her study until midday, when she was finally summoned. Inside, she found the curtains drawn, ensuring no sunlight entered the room. The air was thick with anxious breath and the smell of various inks and potion ingredients. Cyrilo’s desk was covered with runecrafting tools, parchment, and potion-brewing equipment.

“What’s going on?” she asked Cyrilo, who was now the same age.

“I need your help with something, and I need you to keep a very big secret.”

“Very well, I understand.”

“No, you don’t. No one can know about this, not even Alexis, and certainly not the knighthood or king. I need you to swear that you won’t breathe a word of this to anyone. You’re the only one I can trust with this.”

Sophia paused and took a deep breath. “I swear I won’t tell anyone, now tell what’s got you all riled up.”

“Yesterday, among the many resources I bought from Tom, I also received a vial of Abernathy’s Ichor.”

Sophia gasped in shock. “You mean it’s real?”

“It’s real, all right, but that’s not the secret. I’m using it to try and copy a magical characteristic from another ingredient, one that is, well, the term ‘illegal’ doesn’t even do it justice.”

“What ingredient?”

Cyrilo turned to her desk and picked up a metal flask. “What do you know of the Profane?”

Sophia gasped again, this time in fear, and the look on her face answered Cyrilo’s question. As a healer and former member of the church, Sophia was well-versed in the horrors the Profane wrought upon the world and what their powers were capable of. It was like asking a nun what she knew about Satan.

“What is that, and why do you have it?”

“I mentioned before about how I once blackmailed Noah, right? I found out he had taken part in the Red Revelry and threatened to give his name to the authorities before he could enroll in the academy. In exchange for my silence, I had him retrieve a potion brewed by a friend and bring it back to me, just a simple courier job. Unfortunately, my friend ended up sending me the wrong bottle. Instead, I got a bottle of Profane venom.”

“And why in the world haven’t you destroyed it yet?! What’s in that bottle could kill everyone in the city!”

“Why do you think? Its use as runecrafting ink is limitless! Listen, since I got this, I’ve been experimenting on it, testing its capabilities. It corrupts and destroys the very laws of reality, destabilizing even the most powerful runic equations. Any kind of defense, any kind of spell, no matter how powerful or unbreakable, this venom slips in like a knife between the ribs and makes it as malleable as clay.

The problem is that it’s impossible to use without lingering effects. Use it to write a water spell, and the water becomes flesh-eating poison. Use it to open a magically-sealed lockbox, and the box grows teeth, becomes sentient, and tries to kill you. I’m sure it can help me to rewrite my aging hex, but it would undoubtedly turn me into a corrupted being of pure wickedness.”

“So you want to use the ichor to harness its destabilization ability without carrying over the corruption.”

“Exactly. Unfortunately, the venom is… stubborn, like it has a mind of its own. It’s more than eager to share its power, but you either get all of it or none of it. Despite my best efforts, every time I try to transfer the destabilizing ability to the ichor, the corruption slips through and turns the ichor into more venom. I need your holy magic to act as the filter that will keep the ichor from becoming corrupted.” Sophia turned away, looking everywhere but at Cyrilo as she pondered her decision. “Sophia, I’ve been waiting a long time for this, longer than you’ve been alive.”

“Do you know what you’re asking me to do? This isn’t just risking your health, it’s risking your soul. For your sake and the sake of the world, I should destroy that venom right now and burn your research.”

“If it was Noah asking for your help, would still say that?”

“Don’t. You have no right to lay that on me,” Sophia shot back.

“Think of what could be done with this ichor if the destabilizing ability can be transferred. It could be used to create the most powerful ink in the world. I believe Noah will return someday, and when he does, do you have it in you to look him in the eye and say you won’t help him? After everything I’ve done for you and Alexis, can you look me in the eye and say you won’t help me?”

“Do you have any idea what you’re asking of me? Making me a part of this? I am a servant of Lumendori, and being involved with that bottle in any way, other than destroying it, is an affront to my faith. You’re asking me to dirty my soul in the eyes of my god. You are inviting calamity upon us all for your own endeavors, and when something does happen, the blood will be on my hands.”

“Sophia, what is the first rule of alchemy and runecraft?”

“You cannot take more than you give. The object or goal a person will trade for must have an equal value to what the person trades with.”

“Exactly. I once was a shriveled old woman, nothing you hadn’t seen before, but I was trying to fight off the inevitability of time, and I decided to alter a curse I found to give me eternal life. As you well know, the results were not what I wanted, and my age has been in constant, rapid transition since then, but that was forty years ago. Despite the unpleasantness of my aging condition, I succeeded in warding off death and have enjoyed a life longer than any human, aside from Noah. I took a risk, I suffered for my choices, and I got my reward.

For every advancement, a price must be paid. You have the same thirst for knowledge I do, the insatiable need to learn, to understand, to grow. We are researchers; knowledge is our nourishment, our passion, and passion demands sacrifice. Sometimes, you have to lessen yourself to become greater. Sometimes, you must swallow your ideals and beliefs to see beyond them. I’m willing to take a risk to make my dream come true, and someday, you’ll be in the same position. That is the curse people like us are born with. We always have to know what is over the next horizon, and there will be times when our ambitions cost us, when a gamble doesn’t pay off, but that doesn’t mean we can stop.

Listen, you are not responsible for anything going on. Whatever happens, the responsibility is mine and mine alone. If you don’t want to do this, I’ll find someone who will. I asked you here because I trust you and want you to trust me. So please, I’m begging you, help me.”

Sophia turned around and cursed, something very out of character for her. “Fine, I’ll help you. However, I’m only doing it once. Whether this succeeds or fails, I’m walking out that door.”

“Thank you. Now, please, come over here. I have everything set up.” On her desk, two glass beakers had been arranged, one with a small amount of ichor and the other with an equal amount of venom. Both beakers were set on a scroll covered in runic formulas for the ability transfer. “Once the process begins, power will flow from the venom to the ichor. I need you to create a wall of holy energy that will filter out the corruption. Are you ready?”

“No, but you might as well go ahead.”

Both women stood on opposite sides of the desk. Sophia set her hands on the side of the scroll, the space between them perpendicular to the channel the power would travel along. A field of holy energy stretched between her palms like a gold curtain.

“Ok, here goes nothing.” Cyrilo activated the spell, causing the ichor and the venom to glow. A line of black energy extended from the beaker with the venom, moving towards the ichor. However, it met Sophia’s power and began to crackle, with the venom in the beaker frothing as though angry.

“It’s not going to work. The parchment will just disintegrate,” said Sophia.

“It’ll work, just keep the energy steady.”

Sophia didn’t take her eyes off the venom for one second, feeling like it was staring back at her, furious for her involvement. She felt like, at any second, the beaker would shatter, and the black glob would lunge for her like a striking snake. She could feel the unholy energy clawing at her barrier, trying to break through and spread its influence. Just being so close to it was making her sick with fear. Finally, a line of gray energy leaked through her barrier, flowing to the beaker of ichor and causing it to change color.

“Ok, I think it’s done. Here, run a current through the ichor, just to make absolutely sure that none of the corruption got through.”

Sophia sent her energy into the beaker, hoping that the ichor would just burn away, leaving no trace of the power it had received. However, there was no reaction. “It’s clean, there is no corruption,” Sophia sighed with relief.

“Perfect. Now I can start making ink and get to work on my curse. Thank you so much, Sophia.”

Sophia didn’t even look at her. “Don’t ever ask me to do anything like that again,” she said before storming out.

The next day, after countless hours of preparation, Cyrilo compiled all the work she had gathered to fix her curse, including the stone slab that originally bore it. Over the decades, she had tinkered with the curse, trying to rewrite it using runic formulas written with powerful inks and mediums. Now, she was the closest she had ever been.

Using the newest ink she developed and the most potent medium she could get her hands on, she once again attempted to rework the curse, keeping its benefits while overwriting its detriments. Sophia wasn’t there to help, not ready to forgive Cyrilo for possessing the venom, but she waited with everyone in the parlor for her to step out of her study.

Finally, she emerged, and everyone was shocked. She had set her age to 25, the peak of her vitality and beauty, but unlike all the other times she had experienced this age, she had combined it with shamanism. Her human ears had been replaced with feline ears growing out of the top of her head, and she had a long swishing tail.

“So? What do you think?” she asked.

“Yowza!” said Daniel.

“You look gorgeous!” Alexis exclaimed.

“Very nice, but will it stick?” Lucius inquired.

“What did you do?” Sophia asked,

“Until now, if I didn’t want my age to be in constant flux, I’ve had to stay as a cat. However, thanks to the new ink I made with your help, I pushed that ability even farther. Now, as long as I remain in this semi-transformed state, my age will never change. Do you know what this means? After decades of work and struggle, I have finally achieved eternal youth!”

Everyone gave her a round of applause, and even Sophia, angry over the venom, could not contain her joy and rushed to hug her mentor. This was a monumental day, with Cyrilo having achieved her dream. How could she not be happy for her?

Weeks passed, and Cyrilo’s age didn’t change. She had succeeded in retaining her youth and decided to enjoy it. One frosty spring evening, moans could be heard coming from her bedroom. She was with Daniel, bouncing on his cock while her tail flicked and curled behind her. Her tits jiggled as she rose and fell, and she bit her lip with a smile as he massaged them. Daniel was doing everything he could not to ejaculate, from clenching specific muscles to controlling his breathing, all directions he had read in the open Sex Codex beside them.

“Come on, you’re not going to make me do all the work, are you? Man up a little!” she teased.

“Ok, ok, just hold on a second,” Daniel said, flipping through the book to the page with the various sex positions. Following one diagram, he pushed Cyrilo down onto her side while he got on his knees with their legs intertwined. Locked in Pretzel Dip, he thrust deep into Cyrilo with one hand secured on one of her tits, playing with the nipple.

“There you go! Now just keep up the pace.”

“Whew, I need to start jogging in the morning or something,” Daniel panted. He remembered Noah's demonstrations and how he could fuck like a machine without getting tired.

“I’m almost there, just a little more!” she exclaimed, arching her back.

“I’m not going to make it! I’m not going to make it!” Daniel grunted, feeling his own fuse lit.

“So close! So close!”

“Argh, I’m sorry!” he groaned, suddenly stopping with his hips shaking.

Cyrilo dropped her head and sighed. “It’s ok, I understand.” With semen running down her inner thighs, she pulled away from Daniel and crawled over to the bedside table, grasping an hourglass and turning it on its side. “And look, you lasted even longer than last night! Every day, you get a little bit better.”

“Hold on, let me make it up to you.”

“What do you mean by— oh!” Daniel slipped his fingers inside her, stirring his semen as he stroked her front wall. While one hand probed her g-spot, his other hand massaged her feline ears, deeply massaging the cartilage. “Oh God, don’t stop!” Cyrilo moaned as Daniel fingered her. She was extremely sensitive, so it didn’t take long for her to climax. He was still far from Noah’s level, but he made her moan in bliss.

“There we go!” he said proudly.

“Ah, well done!”

“Thanks,” he panted as he lay beside her.

Cyrilo retrieved her pipe and lit it. “What do you want to try tomorrow?”

Daniel pulled the book onto his lap. “I had my eye on the G-Whiz.”

Cyrilo took a puff and released a cloud of smoke. “Looks interesting. Just know that if you struggle at all to hold me up, I’ll never forgive you.”

“We could also try the Drop Box.”

“Oh, that looks fun.” She passed the pipe to Daniel, and he took a turn. “I must say, when you suggested we I try everything in this book, I was a bit of a skeptic, but this is proving to be very enjoyable.”

“Well like I said, I want to be a better man, and this is a very important skill to learn.”

“It just might be the most important skill there is.”

“Besides, you got eternal youth. That fine ass of yours isn’t going to quit, so you might as well enjoy it.”

“And you don’t have to worry about waking up to a shriveled husk the next morning, right? Mr. Forever Unclean?”

“I apologize for that.”

“Don’t, your reaction was priceless.”

When Cyrilo wasn’t fooling around with Daniel, running the Knight’s Sheath, or working on her literacy program, she and Sophia continued to explore the secrets of magic, alchemy, and health. Their goal was to devise a medicine to subdue Bella’s manic obsession with Noah. For months, they poured over books of various potion recipes, researched countless plants and ingredients, and created numerous pills and potions to stabilize her emotions, but none worked.

Certain medicines left her a drooling vegetable, some made her hallucinate, others worsened her mood swings, and that’s not counting all of the side effects. From skin rashes to dysentery, it was no wonder Bella’s patience eventually wore off.

“No! No more! I’m sick of being your test subject!” she screamed, taking the newest medicine and throwing it against the wall of Cyrilo’s study.

“Bella, I understand your frustrations, but unless we keep trying, we can’t help you,” Sophia implored. “We’re so close to finding the right concoction, I can feel it!”

“You’ve been saying that for weeks, but these drugs just get worse and worse! I’m not taking any more of your potions!”

“Bella, we’re trying to make you better, so you’ll stop obsessing over Noah and go back to how you used to be. You used to be one of my best girls. You had countless men wrapped around your finger and you loved your job. Now you’re just miserable and violent and I can’t let you remain like this.”

“I don’t need you to fix me! I need my darling!”

“Well he’s gone! You need to grow up and accept that, or you’re going to have to leave the Knight’s Sheath!”

“What did you just say? After all the money I’ve made for you over the years, you’re throwing me out?”

“You leave me no choice. Bella, this is a business, not a boarding house. The room you sleep in? That’s for you to entertain clients, not brood over your lost love. You’re here to work, but you’re not doing your job. I’ve been as patient with you as I can, but if you can’t get over Noah and move on, then you need to accept our help or leave.”

“Fine,” she spat, “I’ll pack my things. I’ll be gone by tomorrow.”

Bella stormed out, and Sophia sighed. “I really thought we could help her.”

“She has to want to help herself, and she clearly doesn’t. I just hope that wherever she ends up, she’s able to find comfort and stability.”

That night, after the evening excitement had ended and everyone was asleep, there was movement. Daniel had left Cyrilo satisfied, so she was deep in her slumber, unaware of Bella creeping past her room towards her study, her pointed rabbit ears twitching with every sound. If Cyrilo was kicking her out, Bella would take what she was owed: every coin and diamond she could carry, severance pay for years spent on her back. With that money, she would buy a house, and when her darling returned, they could get married and live happily ever after.

She slipped into Cyrilo’s study, mindful of the magical tripwires set up. Bella had worked for Cyrilo long enough to discover what tricks and traps she used to keep her treasure safe. Bella went behind the desk and rummaged around to find Cyrilo’s lockbox. It had survived the burning of the old Knight’s Sheath, but the lock was damaged, and Bella managed to pry it open.

Inside, she found various gems and a knight’s ring. Bella put it on and tried to activate it, unintentionally emptying its contents onto the desk. A mountain of gold coins loudly poured out, along with various other items. Bella attempted to stop it, but immediately, spheres of light entered the room, cast by Cyrilo standing in the doorway.

“Bella, what in the world are you doing?” She then noticed the gold coins. “You ungrateful little thief! How dare you try and rob me after all the years I kept you off the streets?!”

“You don’t get to say that after kicking me out! If I’m going to leave, I’m taking what I’m owed! After all the work I’ve done here, this money is more mine than it is yours! You have some nerve to lecture me, surrounded by all these treasures you bought thanks to me and the girls spreading our legs! Look at this; gold, jewels…” She picked up a small metal flask from the pile. “And all these potions and witchcraft!”

“Bella, put the flask down,” said Cyrilo, feeling terror fill her stomach.

“What’s this? You’re little eternal youth serum?”

“Bella, I mean it! Put it down!”

“I spent years working here, and if you’re going to throw me out, I’m going to take those years back!”

“Don’t do it! Bella!”

Bella opened the flask and drank the contents, sending every black drop running down her throat. She instantly realized she had made a mistake, but it was too late. She dropped the flask and staggered back, screaming and struggling to breathe. All her veins turned black and became swollen as the venom entered her bloodstream, and her body began to contort.

When the Profane passed on their venom, they were particular in how they bit their prey. The lower fangs would pierce the jugular to drain blood, while the upper fangs would inject the venom into the spinal column and let it move up the brainstem. When the venom was transferred a different way, such as consumed, the results tended to be unpredictable, as Bella was realizing.

“Bella!” Cyrilo rushed over and tried to hold her, but Bella screamed, and her flailing arm knocked Cyrilo to the ground.

Throughout the Knight’s Sheath, candles and lanterns were being lit as Bella’s screams shook everyone awake. It didn’t take long for Alexis and Sophia to burst into the study, and the two women gasped in shock at the sight before them. Bella’s entire body was twisting; limbs, torso, neck, and even her fingers were rotating to the point that her bones snapped, and her skin and muscles were torn to shreds. Her head had spun around near the point of popping off, and her spine was beyond mangled, but somehow, she was still conscious and screaming. A pool of blood formed beneath her as her body threatened to completely destroy itself.

Then, in one rapid motion, everything untwisted and snapped back into place, instantly healing all the damage. However, Bella’s body had changed. Her complexion was a sickly gray, her arms were longer with broader shoulders, and she now had large furry feet like a rabbit, lifting her heels off the ground and making her taller. Her face was downcast, hidden behind her black hair, and she looked less like she was standing and more like she was hanging from a noose.

“Bella?” Sophia asked.

With a loud spinal crack, Bella perked up and looked at her. Her face appeared normal until she flashed the most horrific grin Sophia had ever seen. Her cheeks split, and extended her smile from ear to ear, then receded down to her gums, revealing two rows of needle-like teeth. Her pupils dilated, expanding to the point that her eyes were pitch black. The shrill cry she released chilled the blood of the three women.

Alexis instinctively shoved Sophia to the floor as Bella lunged, moving with demonic speed. She tackled Alexis with so much force that she was pushed straight through the wall behind her. The two landed on Cyrilo’s bed, with Alexis stricken with a concussion and numerous broken bones. About to pass out, she was awoken, screaming in agony as Bella sank her teeth into her neck and began sucking her blood.

A lightning bolt struck Bella’s back, leaving a minor burn that instantly healed. Regardless, she released Alexis and looked back at Cyrilo, standing with her grimoire in hand.

“That’s enough, Bella! Get off her!”

“Fine! I’ll eat you first!” Bella squealed.

Bella lunged again, moving with the same bullet-like speed. Unaccustomed to her new strength, she shot past Cyrilo, succeeding only in scratching her with her nails. She slammed into the wall and collapsed behind the desk as Cyrilo crawled over to Sophia. Both women gazed in horror as two rabbit ears rose above the desk, followed by black eyes staring into their souls. At that moment, Lucius and Daniel arrived.

“What’s going— whoa!” Lucius exclaimed in shock, seeing Bella.

Bella gave another shrill scream and flipped the desk, hurling it at Lucius and Daniel and knocking them to the floor. She then turned once more to Cyrilo and giggled. “I’m going to enjoy peeling the flesh from your bones.”

Sophia got to her feet with a resolute scowl and aimed her hand at Bella. “In the name of Lumendori, I command you! Begone, demon!” She then released a massive burst of holy energy, energy that would have healed a normal person, but burned Bella like a flamethrower. Bella shrieked in agony as the light charred her flesh and jumped to the side, smashing through the window. Now outside, she ran off, disappearing into the night.

Sophia looked down at Cyrilo. “Are you ready? Because everything that happens now is on your head.”


2024-03-29 21:41:02
Book 5 #10 and book 5 # 11 are the same.

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