Axel and Rayner, fresh off their defeat of the bandits, arrive at the town of Ridgehill and try to relax.
Axel’s worrying over the plan to attack the bandits proved misplaced. As Barny explained to him, battles were often small-scale brawls and went from one extreme to the other with lots of death on one side, or an indecisive outcome with few fatalities.
Theirs had been a resounding victory. All the bandits they knew of were dead.
They took longer than expected, as they had to deal with another two dozen women and girls rescued from the bandits. Then there was the packing of the loot.
The bandits had been busy, they had plenty of food and even more weapons. Nothing too amazing as Alta was not a rich country. The bandits had been attacking both the Inimi and coalition forces, hitting their supply lines.
Rayner told him the bandit boss was an officer in the coalition army who turned deserter, finding it more profitable to loot the countryside.
The two prisoners who helped the rest of the women were the ones sent by the Coalition to stop the deserter bandit boss. One caught him trying to leave, and the other was part of a group sent to bring him to justice.
Rayner told him soon after the battle his plan for the loot and Axel agreed. He didn't really want anything they had. They would present the idea to the others when they got settled in Ridgehill.
They also checked their stats, and it had remained stagnant except for Rayner’s new skill.
Rayner said he had discovered how to create the skill himself, just like last time. It was not as if they both had not tried before, but nothing worked, and it hurt to try, putting strain on their mana.
The feeling of using mana felt painful for Axel as if bees were in his stomach. And for Rayner, he described it as his surging through his body, then leaving him as he activated the skill. He and Rayner spent the ride to Ridgehill trying to figure out how to make another skill.
Ridgehill’s name was apt. The town was on top of a large mound and surrounded by ridges of varying height. As they approached, the gates lay open, and people were waiting for them.
He could hear the sounds of cheering. The two gate guards waved their wagon train in with smiles on their faces.
The throng of people went up to the wagons trying to touch them. What was this all about? Were they movie stars? It became difficult to get the wagons past the crowd.
Then the town guards showed up, pushing through the crowd, making a path for them and their wagons. They followed, having nowhere else to go. The rest of the guards stayed to hold the crowd back. They arrived at a large building.
“Your friends are inside the hotel,” the guard said. A hotel, not an Inn. He was eager to find the cause of the townsmen’s jubilation.
Entering the building Axel looked around. A smartly dressed woman cleaned glasses at the bar. The interior had tables made of rich wood and cushioned chairs. Tessa and Garman sat with a woman he did not know.
“I’m going to get settled in,” Dara said. Evans went with her.
He and Barny took a seat at the table. “That was quite the welcome,” Barny said.
A mature woman in a fine low-cut dress answered Barny. “I apologize. News of your arrival spread fast,” the woman said. “You being here means you have defeated the bandits. They’ve been harassing us since the invasion. Worse than goblins those men.”
“Food would have become a problem if things did not change. Mrs. Harman let us stay here until you came back,” Tessa said.
“Grace Harman,” she said, extending a hand for them to shake.
Rayner who had not taken a seat waited until greetings were done. “This is as good a time as any. I want to talk about how to distribute the loot we got from the bandits.”
“We will not take your spoils,” Grace said.
“No, I want to set up a fund for the refugees. They need it to rebuild their lives. No one family would get a significant amount, but if we share, it should support hundreds of families at least. If they have help from the authorities.”
Her eyebrows raised; she had expected them to keep it for themselves. “Oh, this will be no problem. We can and will help. We’ve already taken in all the refugees in the area, a few more with the help of the loot will not hurt. I will speak with the rest of the council about loans—at a reasonable interest rate I assure you.”
The rest nodded their agreement, even the gaudy merchant Garman. Rayner had expected resistance, but seeing the ravages of war had made them all sympathetic.
“The councilwoman has rooms ready for everyone. The staff will take your things to your rooms,” Tessa said.
“Everyone? In this hotel?” Axel asked
“The wealthy patrons of this establishment fled long ago. And us refugees won’t be staying here once you spread out that loot amongst us. The rooms are reserved for those who fought,” Tessa explained.
“Don’t know if Evans and his fighters will stick with us, but it’s not like they have anything left,” Barny said.
“I would not be so sure my friend, some of the widows have been pursuing them aggressively,” Garman said.
“I know there is much to discuss but…” Axel said. His eyes struggled to stay open.
“Of course, your journey has been long,” the councilwoman said. She clapped her hands and scantily clad servants came and escorted them to their rooms.
Gaudy was the best word Axel could think of to describe the room. Thin blue carpet covered the floor and the walls. Two chairs with light green padding and pillows were at a writing desk with a lamp and the other in the corner.
Unlike the other homes they passed coming to the hotel, these windows had glass, not just a curtain or wood shutters to cover it.
Every surface of the room was covered in some form of cushioning, Axel could sleep on anything in the room he wanted. It helped because boy did he need some shut-eye. He fell asleep as soon as his head rested on the pillow.
Axel had never felt so good after sleeping. He felt like a new man. Checking his stats, he saw his mana had increased by 1, from 12 to 13. He didn’t know if rest increased his mana, or the mana increase improved his rest, and he did not care, because he felt great!
He still had not washed and had noticed his own smell for the first time in a while. The staff showed him the bath and washrooms before taking him to his rooms so he knew his way there. He knocked before entering, no answer.
He went inside, got everything ready and sat in the bath. The bathtub filled itself. No pipe or faucets could be seen. The water was already the perfect temperature. The room was faintly lit, though no light source was in the room.
The staff explained to him a hospitality God generated the light, heating, and water with its blessing. Such gods and their Worshipers guide travelers to inns, spas, and other places of comfort, making them a popular choice for those in the leisure business. The hospitality God was tied to the building itself. It wasn’t one of the higher gods like the ones from the Coalition.
He heard someone enter; without opening his eyes he yelled that the room was occupied, and continued to relax.
“My lord,” it was a woman’s voice.
That got his attention. A naked woman stood before him. Axel recognized her as one of the staff. Now that he thought about it, all the staff were women who dressed provocatively.
He would get this lord stuff cleared up first chance he got. Not because he did not like being called a lord, but a real lord might show up and take offense. Was this woman here because of that misunderstanding?
“I am not a lord, people just started calling me that,” Axel said.
She moved closer, seeming not to care. “I am here to service you. I would have come earlier, but you slept so deeply.”
Even this lovely creature would not have been able to wake him up. He had no problem with prostitution, but he believed paying for sex was like giving up. He knew some guys just wanted to fuck and leave, but it was his dream to find a woman who would do that for free, a foolish dream.
All men paid one way or the other. Still, he was not in the mood for sex, not since coming to this world. He thought rest would help. But as he stared at this woman from her bare feet to her button nose, he still had no reaction.
“Thank you, but I don’t pay for sex.”
“I am already paid for. Word of your brave actions is all over town.” She moved next to the tub, kneeling. “Ridgehill used to be prosperous. Now it’s full of desperate refugees. The wealthy have fled.”
“Your clients all left, this is not a hotel, it’s a high-class brothel.”
“High-class,” she laughed. “A whore is a whore. However, we do provide better service and keep cleaner.” She moved her hand into the tub, reaching for his cock. "Let me assure you, us so-called high-class prostitutes are much dirtier in other ways," she said while stroking his cock.
“You think a handjob is dirty?” If so, he would get up and leave on principle.
“You are not in the mood for more, but you need to relax.” She got him to full erection, taking her time stroking the length of him. “You are…very large.”
He knew she was not stroking his ego, yet he was not happy with her words. Girls said that just before leaving, not wanting his log of a cock inside them. A point of endless frustration.
She joined him in the tub, it was large enough, for this was its true purpose. Using both hands she grabbed his cock, stroking all of him. One hand focused on the tip and the other his base, “You have to relax. Here,” she said, leaning forward, offering her well-formed breasts to him. He grabbed them, enjoying their softness.
She took her time, making sure to pleasure all of his cock, moving to play with his balls, never doing the same thing for too long. He could hear her breathing, she was doing so on purpose, for him, it was like she was humming a lullaby. Her breaths, her stroking, the feel of her soft breasts, all of it brought him over the edge.
His cum shot into the air landing on her face and covering her soapy hands. It had been a while, and his built up cum kept shooting. She purposely aimed him at her face and stomach, getting most of her upper body splashed with his cum.
She stood and paused, letting his eyes wander over the curves of her wet body, with her face, chest, and stomach dripping with his cum. Without cleaning herself off, she left the bath.
He’d fallen asleep in the tub. The rest he got was just as good as the one before. He checked his mana, and it was the same. Too bad. Sex and sleep did not increase his stats.
He went to the bar, and Rayner was waiting for him.
“Hey,” Axel said.
“Hey,” Rayner said, drinking this world's version of coffee.
“Same,” Rayner said, blushing.
A waitress brought him a drink, and they sat silently for a time. They had been fighting since getting to this world and now that they had time to think, they did not know what to do with themselves.
“The prostitute told me the town has gone to hell. All but one of the neighboring towns and local villages and hamlets have been attacked,” Rayner said, after finishing his drink.
“The rich left, leaving the poor. I don’t blame them.”
“I do. The rich have a responsibility to care for the poor who let them live their lives of privilege.”
It was good to know Rayner had not changed too much. Axel called for the waitress. “How many people live in this town now?”
“2000 before the invasion, 5000 after the refugees came.”
“Thanks.” He did not expect an exact number. Why did she know that?
“Are you sure that’s all you want lords?” she said suggestively, leaning forward to show her assets. Yes, this was a brothel for sure. He politely declined; surprisingly, Rayner looked like he wanted her to stay.
Getting Rayner’s attention by waving a hand in his face, he continued. “Ridgehill has more than doubled in size. I am surprised they let all those people in.”
“My guess is that it has something to do with the gods. If many of the refugees worship the same god or an allied god, then the town leaders may have had their hands forced.”
“My god, politics must be hell in this land.”
“They are at war, so yes, it is hell,” Rayner said.
“What’s next for us? Everyone has gone their separate ways. We live in the same hotel, but everyone has their own priorities.”
“This is a RPG world, with no guild, and since this country has no major religion, there is not a church that posts missions.”
"Because of our Titles, we are not affiliated with any religions. So it wouldn't matter."
“You know what!” Rayner banged the table with his glass of beer. “We won’t figure out anything sitting around. Let’s get out and see what this town has to offer, we can meet back here at the end of the day.”
“Look at you, taking the initiative. I like it.”
They got up to leave, but the waitress stopped them. “The Madam wants to talk with you two.”
“We were just heading out. Is she fine if only I attend?”
“Yes, that would be acceptable sir.”
“You go on ahead Rayner. I’ll see ya later,” Axel said, waving Rayner off and turning to the waitress. “Take me to your leader.”
The joke fell flat.
Rayner left the hotel, wondering what the Madam wanted from them, hoping that they don’t owe money for sleeping with those prostitutes. It could be because he was a little rough with the girl that showed up in his room. He was having nightmares about the battles and thought she was attacking him. He had grabbed her by the throat and thrown her on the bed. She had taken it in stride, smiling and telling him she offered rough play as well. The old him would have told her she was mistaken, that was not what he wanted, but it was a lie. He took her on the bed, without taking off her clothes. When he woke up, she was gone. He would find and apologize to her.
Poverty and suffering were everywhere as he walked the streets instead of riding past them in a wagon. Beggars sat on the ground with their hands out. Mangey dogs dug around for trash. Barefoot children ran through the streets, trying to steal coin purses. He was wearing clothes from his home world, with pockets they could not open or find. He was likely stronger than everyone here and still did not feel safe.
At the market, plenty of food was for sale at what looked to be fair prices. Yet people went hungry.
The market was structured differently from the rest Ridgehill; the vendors sold their wares out of buildings lining the streets, instead of the open-air market he imagined from fantasy TV. This reminded him of a plaza from back home.
Rayner stopped by a shop with a sign of a symbol of three crossed swords; he could swear he saw that sign somewhere before. A bearded man came out and waved for him to enter, seeing him standing there watching the shop. When Rayner didn't move, a bearded man left the shop and dragged him inside. Aggressive marketing.
“Sorry for grabbing you like that boy, but standing in the streets gawking isn’t safe,” said the bearded man who forced Rayner into his shop. “These be dangerous times, and what you need for danger is weapons!”
Rayner gave the man a smile, he was entertaining, and the hammer he stole from the Inimi army wasn't a proper weapon. Both he and Axel could use an upgrade in weaponry. Axel's knife had suddenly broken; Garman said the durability was low.
“I use a hammer, my friend uses a knife,” he said.
“I have just the weapon for you,” the weapons dealer said. He grabbed a pick-hammer on display hanging from the wall.
Rayner took it, giving the hammer a few practice swings. The pick-hammer, lighter than his current weapon, felt odd in his hands. But he could see himself getting used to it. The long shaft of the weapon would extend his reach. The pick end of the hammer didn’t suit him.
“Something wrong sir?”
“Don’t know if a pick is for me…also, I might drop this when the shaft gets covered in blood.” Did he say that casually? His face tightened and stomach churned, remembering the blood, his hand covered in it.
“I have wrapping that soaks up blood neatly, and material for a firm grip. I would suggest the pick-hammer, never know when it will come in handy!”
“Sure, I’ll take it.” He took the first weapon offered. He couldn’t be bothered to haggle and would pay higher to avoid it.
“Here you go, 3 silver.”
“And a knife?”
The weapons dealer pointed down. The counter had a glass cabinet under it, with knives on display. The knives were flamboyant, to say the least. The cabinet held a dagger so long that it should be a sword, another had the shape of a porcupine, and other curved in on itself.
“These knives are…exotic,” Rayner said.
“You Worshipers do like your strange weapons. I hear it’s because bonuses are added to the weapons by gods or the World. You would know better than I why women wear armor that covers nothing.”
So, they had that in this world too. The World gives bonuses for certain weapons. It would explain why Axel’s knife broke; the World had set limited durability on it. Good to know the World is a God on its own.
“What are these bonuses?”
“Sorry sir, I don’t know. Not trying to cheat you, not saying they do anything amazing. I can only guarantee that they come with bonuses.”
“Is my hammer the same?”
“No bonuses on the hammer sir.”
“That’s OK. I prefer a knife with no bonuses.”
“No problem,” the man said, taking out a simple dagger.
“Good enough. Sorry I didn’t get your name?”
“Dian Powin sir, please come again.” Dian bowed slightly.
Rayner wanted to achieve more for the day than buying weapons. While wandering the streets he came upon several temples, packed close together and gleaming white. Refugees went in and out from all of them. A woman came up to him and asked him if he wanted to rent space at a temple. When he told her he did not understand, she explained many worshipers did not have a church, so they rented space to pray. Smart idea, and practical. His Title Faithless meant he didn’t need such services. Time to move on.
A man ran up to him. Rayner grabbed his hammer. The man slowed down and raised his palm up. In this world, the raising of the palm was a sign of peace and surrender. It allowed him to see his stats as well. The man posed no threat.
“Sorry—I just—sorry,” the man stuttered.
“It’s fine, you surprised me,” he said.
“I need your help,” the man blurted out.
“I can’t give you any money.”
“No, I do need money, but I actually want to hire you.”
“With no money? And who says I’m for hire?”
“I can offer my services for barter. You see sir, I have been praying for days and my God can offer no help, I have even prayed to other gods for help, but none have answered. Until now. My God says you can help me.”
“You can switch gods? And does your god have a name and what can you barter?”
He took a moment to take in all of Rayner’s questions. “Yes, I only worshiped a small god. Most small gods have no personality and aren’t powerful enough to warrant having a name. They won’t curse Worshipers for switching gods. As for my services, my god will bless you,” the man said.
Interesting, that was something to investigate. Asking too many questions might spook the nervous man. The problem was that their Titles made this deal tricky. The Title Faithless meant he could not worship a god, this job was a loophole around that, and Axel wouldn’t benefit as he couldn’t receive blessings or curses. “My God does not allow others to bless me. Sorry.”
The man looked desperate. “Your allies could receive a blessing, maybe an item instead.”
“What exactly is this blessing?”
“A charm,” the man avoided his eyes. Rayner knew what kind of charm he meant.
“Alright, what’s the job?” His acceptance surprised the man. Rayner wanted to take the job and help this man even without the reward.
“I left my family to come to the Alis region. I had a family member who owned a farm around here. We were going to move here once I checked things out.”
“Then everything went to hell.”
“They live in the Alea region of Alta where monsters are active, it’s why we wanted to move. War is here and monsters over there. I did not know what I could do. Until my God directed me to you.”
“I am not familiar with this land. If I’m correct, the monsters are north of this town,” he said.
“Yes sir, it is a difficult place to leave with few strong Worshipers to do quests. That is why I need you to get my family and bring them here to me. I am betting Alis will recover from the war. It has before.”
Rayner took note that Alea suffered invasion before. “So, do we sign a contract or something?”
“No, we just shake hands. You truly are a foreigner.”
Rayner took his hand and sealed the deal. He was signing up Axel for this as well, but Axel had grown kinder since coming here. Seeing suffering in real life and not on TV may have changed his attitude. He didn’t even make a joke about his social justice project when he gave the money to the refugees.
“Where can I find you when the job is done?”
“You can come here and look for me, I pray daily, or ask for me at the second block apartments. Tell the landlord you are looking for Fred Copper.”
The man left after writing down the location of his family and giving him some other minor details. He left in a hurry; was he afraid Rayner would change his mind?
They had a quest. Rayner had one thing left to do.
Tessa greeted him at the refugee quarter, otherwise known as the slums. The smell of unwashed bodies and waste bombarded his senses. Tessa couldn’t stay with them at the hotel any longer, and she did not want to. She rejected the brothel and cursed it as a hive of sin. A hotel is better than a slum, in his opinion.
Tessa led him through the narrow paths, past crowded makeshift homes. Women offered him sexual services at rock-bottom prices, flashing him their tits as he walked by. The streetwalkers grabbed his crotch and placed his hands between their legs and on their chest. A girl his age offered him an entire week with her for food or a place to stay. Many of the women recognized Tessa and went back to their dark corners when she scolded them. Rayner hoped the money from the loot would make its way to the people of the slums soon.
They made it to Tessa’s shack; its interior was well furnished and clean compared to the others he glimpsed on his way here.
"It's not that bad my lord. I have kept my position as a representative of the refugees, and I am taken care of when I need food."
“What are you going to do for work? Representing refugees isn’t a paying job, even if they do share food.”
“My husband was a farmer, and I tended to the gardens. Once it is safe, I can occupy the abandoned farms. That’s what many of the jobless masses are waiting for and because you killed all the bandits that may happen very soon.”
“Are you safe here?”
“Safer than most, everyone is sticking together.”
“Oh, I forgot to tell you all. Me and Axel are not lords. We never said we were. We thought it would make things go smoother if everyone believed that.”
“Yes, we knew," Tessa said as if it were nothing.
At seeing his hanging mouth, she giggled and explained. “I am sorry, Rayner. We were all desperate and believed if you two felt the responsibility of lords, you would continue to help us.”
“Oh well, I guess it worked out for everyone then,” he said, clapping his knee, laughing.
“Yes…Rayner, why are you here? We did not grow very close in our travels, and while I owe you my life, and you are a kind young man, I don’t see why you would visit.”
He had not seen the question coming. He did not know himself. He’d thought he was checking in on a woman he was responsible for, but that wasn’t the reason. “I can’t talk to Axel about it. He doesn't want to talk at all.”
“The violence,” she said.
“Yes. Since we came to this land, Alta, it’s been nothing but violence. It’s not that we did not expect it, we were seeking it but…”
“It did not turn out how you hoped.”
“Even when the battles were easy, it was hard. That sounds weird, but it’s how I feel. I hammer a guy to death, and I feel relieved because it’s over, but it’s not because I've got to kill the next guy. I have to fight to get stronger, so I can fight less, but it just means I have to fight more.”
“Violence creates more violence.”
“Yes, that’s it. What I’m doing is not working. Eventually, we are going to stop getting lucky and run into real trouble and die, or worse, people around us will die."
He rambled on, speaking of the blood and the guts and the fear, and Tessa listened patiently. Until she grabbed his head and placed it on her lap.
“What are you doing?”
She gently stroked his brown hair. “It’s a lap pillow.”
“I know what it is, why are you doing it.”
“This worked for my husband after a bad harvest. I don’t know how else to comfort a man…other than coupling, but you have plenty of that with the whores.”
“Oh OK,” he said trying to relax, ignoring her venom for the hotel staff.
“I don’t know what to say to make you feel better, and I would not tell you if I knew. Because then you would stop, go off to a safe country and live the easy life like other powerful Worshipers. You have suffered, but you have suffered and accomplished much. Most cannot say the same. My husband died fighting off goblins to get us to safety; he fought and suffered. If I and my children died, it would have meant nothing. You and Axel have people’s sacrifices mean something. I hope that can give you some comfort. For it comforts me.”
“It does, a little. Thank you.”
At least he had not broken down crying. He wasn’t there yet.
Then her kids came rushing in, screaming, and raising hell. The oldest tackled him. Unlike when he first met the child, it wasn’t in anger. Rayner would stay here for a while and play with the kids. And not think about violence while he did.
Axel sat in the Madam’s office room. The Madam, the owner of this fancy brothel doubling as a hotel, was also on the town council. He considered she may use his and Rayner’s sexual encounters to blackmail them, but that seemed silly. What would she do, tell their non-existent families?
“We didn’t get much time to speak yesterday. Just as well, I wanted to speak with you alone, without the merchant or the guardsman,” Grace said.
Did she now?
“The refugees had so much to say about you and it all sounded amazing.”
“I don’t think so.”
"You came out of the Corpsewood. The last anyone heard two armies had gone there to attack Grayhaven. After that, the both of you fought some wolves, captured some bandits, and wiped out an entire camp of them."
“You are making this sound like something special, we had experienced guardsmen with us.”
“You told the refugees that you were from far away, so you may not be aware of the difficulty of your actions. But you are right, none of these things are impossible. You two boys are completely normal, other than your charitable nature toward the refugees. What isn’t normal is that you are at level 3 and a teenager.”
“I train hard.” Axel tried to keep a cool face.
Piercing gray eyes examined Axel’s expression. “This confirms it. It’s not that you’re hiding something, because you don't know you have something to hide,” she leaned forward over the desk, staring intensely at him. “Most worshipers stay at level 1 their entire lives. Some acolytes get to level 2; you are at level 3!”
“Getting experience has been hard, but reaching 100 EXP should happen, eventually.”
"What backward place did you come from? 100 EXP to level up is a myth told to peasants to let them dream of being strong Worshipers. It's the quality of the experience that counts; 1 point of EXP could level a Worshiper up.”
“Then what is experience for?”
“It’s an estimate. Worshipers use EXP as currency. It is something everyone has, but still limited, valuable and universal. Before you ask, no, it cannot be used to force a level up. Again, quality not quantity.”
"Why is it valuable if it can't help users to level up?" he asked, feeling like a schoolboy getting a lecture. It was useful, however. This is the first time he'd gotten a proper info dump from anyone.
Grace leaned back in her chair, frustrated at his ignorance. “What do you think we give the gods when we worship them?” Mind…blown. She could see the shock on his face and looked equally shocked by his reaction. “This is not how I imagined this conversation going.”
Her shock at his level made sense now. The gods are the source of power, and Worshipers need power to get greater and more quality experiences. But gods take EXP as payment for power…good lord, that made it almost impossible to level up. It was like the debt trap his parents got stuck in. You need the loan to pay the loan to work to pay the loan!
“I was going to wait till I revealed this, but I know that you and your friend were essential in the battle at Grayhaven, and had something to do with the Corpsewood zombies calming down and the resumption of the treaty between the fairies and Dwarves," Grace revealed.
She even knew about the true identity of the Elves. “How could you know this?”
“Whores travel fast young man.”
Must have been the camp followers, who are known to be prostitutes.
“OK so you know things; I’m kind of amazed. If you are going to blackmail me, then I have news for you—.”
Her eyes widened. “Is that how I came across? Maybe I am getting old, I was going for flirtatious. I wanted you to know I’m a knowledgeable woman, who can acquire and keep secrets.”
“I’m sorry, usually I’m sharper than this, but I am not catching on.”
“It’s OK, the other councilmen tell me I too often beat around the bush. I am offering my services to you, in exchange for protection.”
“Protection from whom? The bandits are gone. Do you need to leave Ridgehill?”
“From the Coalition. Their victorious army from the Grayhaven battle are coming to Alis, and from what Garman and my girls tell me, they have gotten into the habit of not paying for services.”
His mind lit up. "We make sure your customers pay and don't rough up the girls and we get free room, board, and information."
She nodded, glad he caught on. “The girls come as part of the deal.”
“I don’t want to cheat them out of money,” he said. That deal sounded nice, but he could see them striking back, upset at giving services for free.
“Young man, do you think I sent those girls to you and your friend last night?” Axel nodded and Grace chuckled. “I did not. We are in a war zone, monsters are acting up, the gods are at odds. The powerful cannot protect themselves, how could they hope to? They hear of heroes saving refugees, slaying bandits, giving away loot to feed the poor and they see safety and security. No, they ingratiated themselves to you boys on their own initiative.”
“Can’t you hire someone else for this? Not like I don’t want the job, but the guardsmen are more qualified.”
“I am letting them stay here too, but they may have other jobs in the future. I think you and your friend have nowhere else to go.”
This woman was smart and correct. They needed what she was offering. “We won’t be here all the time and defending you from an army is out of our depth.”
“Young man.” He noticed she called him a young man whenever he was slow on the uptake. “An entire army can’t and wouldn't stay in this town, nor would they attack it because of some whores.” She paused to consider that last part. “It’s the officers, officials, and strong Worshipers I worry about.”
If Rayner was speaking as he was, Axel would have called him weak. The thing was he did not think he was capable of this task, or that the reward she was offering was fair. There must be a catch.
“I see the problem now. You don’t know what else you bring to the table. I should have expected as much, you only now learned about levels and EXP. Look, I am not a school teacher, but it would be best to figure this out yourself and I will guide you through it.”
She went to a drawing board at the side of the room. It looked like something a school teacher would have. He bet the madam used it for lewd drawings to teach the prostitutes.
Reading what she wrote down simplified much of what he already knew. Title indicated degrees of service to the gods. Class shapes what skills are learned, and how attributes are directed. Skills are the form mana takes. Mana is used for powering skills and other special abilities and experience is food for the gods.
Grace was a talented artist, the visuals were great, and she even colored the drawings.
“What is missing from this, what would make this complete?” she said.
How did his level fit into this picture? Degrees, shapes, forms, direction, power, fuel.
“Force,” Axel said. School was useful after all. “It’s how my mana interacts with others.” He remembered when false Yazid’s mana attack assaulted them in the forest. He suspected it was because of the resistance his higher level provided. Could this mean his mana was of higher quality as well? Is that why his Pain Knife was so effective?
“You are beginning to understand. I have never seen it in practice, but in theory, you could withstand a fireball, go into an area too thick with mana to travel past, resist compulsions.”
“I am truly on another level.” Excitement coursed through his body. He began to understand why the madam wanted him. If her enemies tried to use skills on her, he could resist it just by being present.
Grace sat back down. “So now that you understand.” She pulled out a stack of papers. “The details of the contract.”
He wished Rayner was there to help him hammer out the details of the deal. Quite a lot of issues needed sorting out. Minimum required time at the brothel, shift schedules, cost for failure of service on both sides. He had to answer questions like if room and board included the buying of weapons and storage; lists of fetishes for when the girls come to service them. And how many times a week or day are sexual services required.
Axel signed it, but Rayner would also have to. He didn’t worry about being tricked somehow. Grace was a clever woman and that would be against her interests. Axel supposed there was a small risk of the prostitutes betraying them. Madam Grace had hinted that her spy network extended past the town of Ridgehill.
It would be wrong to still call this place a town anymore. The refugees had doubled its numbers, making it close to the size of a small city. Madam Grace was not an unkind woman, but poor people were not good for business. The flood of jobless women meant competition, meaning the lowering of prices from women asking for coppers in exchange for a night of sex. What the cheap whores really wanted was a place to sleep, not the coppers.
Madam Grace, who was also councilman, had ulterior motives for approving the distribution of loot amongst the refugees. If the lives of the poor improved, her business would thrive again. When he asked if she could really afford to house him, Rayner, and the other fighters at the hotel, she pointed to the part of the contract explaining that money must be held in reserve to fulfill terms of the contract. She must be dipping into her savings. She was betting on when the turmoil ended, the region would become vibrant. He did not feel like asking why she thought so.
Before he left the brothel, Grace told him he could find Evans at the training yard. He did not think Ridgehill would have a place like that. There was a lot more to this town than he originally thought. He hoped Rayner was finding out as much as he could.
It took the cuffing of a few pickpockets and the dodging of people throwing their waste out the window before he approached the training site. Seeing people throw crap out told him many did not have a hospitality god cleaning up for them.
The training site looked like a very dangerous child’s jungle gym. Men and women crawled under strings, jumped through hoops, and climbed up wide ladders. Trainees used a variety of weapons on human-shaped dummies. Among the trainees with the spears, he found Evans drilling his fighters.
“Hey there!” Axel called out to him.
Turning to Axel, Evan waved him over, yelling at the others to continue training when they stopped. “Axel, how are you? Come for some training I see.”
“I am doing well. I let the ink dry on a job contract.”
"The councilwoman hired you," Evans said, knowingly.
“Did she offer you the position as well?”
“No, and I wouldn’t have taken it. Some of the men have found lovers among the refugees and those girls are upset enough at them living at a brothel.”
“So, what are your plans, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Ask whatever you want Axel, you got us out of a horrible bind. We of the volunteer fighters have decided that we never want to be helpless again. We have decided to become combat-focused Worshipers. The problem is finding a god not affiliated with the Inimi or the Coalition, but who can still give us enough power to be effective.”
Axel didn’t need an explanation why he wanted nothing to do with the people who had invaded his homeland. “The ways of this land differ from mine, but may I make a suggestion?”
“Power is what we make of it and comes in different forms, often only revealing itself to those with talent or perception,” Axel said, trying to sound wise. “The god you seek may not be oriented for combat or have a large following.”
Holding his chin, Evan said, “That is wise Axel. Now that I think about it, Barny’s guardsmen used a shield and communication skill to devastating effect.”
Evan stood thinking on Axel's advice, forgetting his presence. Then Axel felt a hand on his shoulder. He jumped away and turned toward the person who had touched him, pulling out his knife forgetting it had broken, leaving him defenseless.
“Calm, Axel,” Evan said. “This is the owner of the training ground, Kevia.”
A tall dark-haired woman stood before him with a half-smile on her face, and a hand on her hip, "Pleased to meet you, Axel."
“Why did you sneak up on me?” he said, narrowing his eyes.
“Why was I able to?” she answered back.
Axel could make an issue of this, but she had a point. That and it was his philosophy to avoid silly fights with women. He would not back down, but he would pick his battles. He relaxed and went to leave having already checked in on Evans.
“Not going to stay here and train? The price is fair.”
He did not know why he felt like saying something silly, like ‘he did not need it’, or worse, ignoring her. Training would be a good idea. Rayner may be right; he did have a problem dealing with women. He was thinking of the power dynamics of a casual encounter instead of being practical.
“That would be nice,” he replied.
“Oh, you will be paying me, it’s not nice at all,” she said, making a gesture of coins rubbing together.
"You use knives, so I will get you a practice knife and a training partner skilled in the use of them."
“How do you know I use knives?”
“You made a move to pull out your knife. Don’t make that obvious,” Kevia said, then called for someone.
So, she knew what she was talking about, or as she said, he was making it obvious.
“I’m here ma’am,” said a gangly boy, holding wooden knives.
“Don’t call me ma’am,” she said.
“Yes ma’am, sorry ma’am.”
This was his training partner. Axel’s instinct was to underestimate him, but something else told him that would not be wise. The boy got ready to face him after giving him a practice knife.
Evans and the others stopped their training to watch. Why was he getting an audience? Now he was nervous.
“First lethal hit wins, first to get hit 3 times loses,” Kevia said. “Start!”
Axel dashed, closing the space between the two of them, and stabbed at the boy’s arm. The boy stepped forward into his stab, adjusting his shoulder back, dodging the blow. Then tried to stab Axel in the throat. Surprised, Axel moved back, tumbling, and before he could regain his balance, the boy kicked his ankle, sending him to the ground.
It ended with the boy over him, hitting him in the chest with the wood knife.
The boy helped Axel back up, “Wow kid, you got me,” Axel said, disappointed at his loss.
“Again,” Kevia said.
This time, knowing the boy’s skill, he took his time. Moving from side to side, moving his knife to make the boy think he was going to stab, then slash. He thought the boy was not going to make a move; then he did, lunging at Axel as he did in the first round.
Axel was not able to dodge, so he prepared to swat the boy’s arm away. However, the boy had not made a move to strike yet, getting right up into Axel’s personal space. Instead of Axel swatting the boy’s hand away, it happened to him, letting the boy get his knife to Axel’s chest again.
Now he was embarrassed. Kevia had not called for another round. He did not look at Evan and the others watching. At least he did not drop his knife. How could he be this bad?
“Judging from your reaction you think you put up a bad showing. And in a way you did. But this is sparring, not actual battle,” Kevia said. “I learned from watching you, but already guessed. You don’t have any formal training with knives, all your experience is from combat. You are tall so you have the habit of stabbing downwards. And you have a skill that only requires you to cut your enemy, possibly poison.”
He stared at her, she had it correct, except for the poison but it was close enough.
“Ha! I’m right. OK look, I know who you are, so I am cheating a little. You will be at a disadvantage against professionals, but most monsters, dangerous animals, and bandits are not professionals. You also seem used to fighting with a team,” she said.
“Yes, that’s correct. Oh, and am I famous or something, I remember the crowds when we entered, but that was a team effort.”
“The town council was preparing a force to find and attack the bandits. A town lives and dies by its trade, and those bastards prevented that. You saved the town a lot of money and blood. Don’t you go getting a big head about it, people will forget in time. They always do,” Kevia said as if from experience.
"Don't worry sir, you will improve in time I am sure," the boy said.
“Thanks kid. So how much for the training.”
She told him her price. Fair my ass.
As agreed, Axel and Rayner met up at night and now sat in the bar of the hotel drinking devil’s water, talking of what they did that day.
“So, while I was training you spent the day slumming it with refugees,” Axel said.
“I am getting to know our community, Axel,” Rayner said. “We will be staying in this town for some time, as the city and other countries don’t sound too great.”
They had both learned that the places with the most power and resources are also the places with the most political intrigue. As most other countries were influenced by a handful of major gods, their lack of worship would be realized and freedoms restricted.
“At least I got weapons. While you made us into bouncers,” Rayner chided.
“It’s a good deal. You read the contract.”
Rayner agreed, grumbling. He turned his head to the waitress watching them. She averted her gaze. “Are you sure we should talk here, out in the open?”
"No. But Councilwoman Grace already knows almost everything about us, and I think we draw more attention to ourselves by acting all mysterious. It's like walking into a tavern on a stormy night with a hood covering your face. Of course people will know that guy is hiding something.”
“True.” Moving his eyes away from the waitress. “Funny thing. Turns out everyone already knew we weren’t lords. They said it to stroke our egos and endear themselves to us.”
"Yeah, Grace said something similar. It humbled me. Not only was I beaten in a sparring match by a boy when I sparred with Evans and his fighters, but almost all of them also beat me. The reach of a spear is no joke."
“All of our fights have been with other groups, and we had a plan and the element of surprise.”
Axel had meant to ask Rayner about something for a while but kept putting it off as his friend kept avoiding it. “You fought the bandit leader, with Barny. It was not a one and one, but still, Barny said he was a tough bastard.”
Rayner grimaced. “He was just a bastard. We found him abusing a prisoner during the battle. And Barny found information leading him to believe he was not a deserter. The Coalition may have ordered him to sow chaos.”
“If true, then that’s messed up. It would mean the two soldier girls we rescued were reigning in a rogue agent rather than a bandit leader. Too bad we did not take any more prisoners."
“What’s done is done. He is dead and so are the rest of the scum.”
“Now about that quest you signed up for. I think this is a good chance for us to get some distance from events. Let people forget about us, do something minor.”
“And help a man with no other options,” Rayner said, ever the hero.
"Yeah, that too," then hesitated to say what was really on his mind. It was hard to admit, but it was essential they communicate if they wanted to survive. “It’s not just my bad showing in the sparring matches that worries me. I think we may be weaker than we seem.”
Rayner could tell he was serious and put down his drink. “I knew something was bothering you. Glad you finally came out and said it.”
Axel was surprised. “What gave it away?”
“Before we attacked the bandits, you made everyone go over the plan 7 times! It would have been more if Barny did not stop you.”
Ah, that. His obsessive need to always have a plan did stem from fear of his own weakness.
"It does not mean you are wrong. Our Titles sound cool but give us a major disadvantage in this society. Even the poor can accomplish what we would consider amazing feats, but they think is basic because of their worship and affiliation with a god. There is a reason none of the refugees died of sickness during their travels. It was because one of the wagon drivers worshiped a survivalist god and was able to extend a blessing on everyone else, except us.”
They had not learned much about the system of blessings and curses, but from what they could tell, it was like a perk for worshiping a certain god. The majority of the population did not have fancy skills, but they did have blessings and they could pray for curses on their enemies.
“It’s not all bad news though, Axel. You missed something important when councilwoman Grace gave you that lesson on how stats work,” Rayner said.
“Please enlighten me,” Axel said, not knowing what he could have missed that Rayner figured out.
Leaning forward Rayner lowered his voice, his eyes alight. “EXP goes to the gods when people worship, making it hard to level up. We can’t do that and don’t need it. That means we can amass EXP!”
“That’s your big reveal? I know that is a reason I level up so fast, but it’s the quality that really matters.”
Rayner shook his head, looking pleased that Axel had not understood his point. “Because of that, EXP is also used as currency!”
“Maybe it’s not my wisdom that has increased after all because I still don’t get it, so we will be able to buy fancy stuff when we go to a city or find the right merchant, so what? Just tell me already.”
“Or we can give it to someone else, and before you say you don’t get it, I will give you one last hint. What did we learn from the Corpsewood God’s Will?”
He took time to think as Rayner said. And it hit him, blowing his mind. He forgot about the Will-of-an-Unnamed-God text they received. The text described how the God of the Corpsewood started out as a weak spirit and became a petty god, and how it tried to grow more powerful. Was Rayner really thinking what he thought he was thinking?
“You can’t really mean?” Axel said, shaken.
“We have a blueprint and the means to create a god.”
They had more to discuss, but after hearing Rayner's crazy Idea he had to get some sleep. The training left him tired and stressed. Creating a god sounded cool and all but did not change his insecurities about his weakness. Someday soon he would be in a one-on-one fight with a determined and prepared enemy. He had to get stronger before this happened.
His idea was to create another skill. Rayner had done it, with his new skill Roar. He should be able to do it too. He tried remembering the pain of his death and summoning to this world again, but it didn’t work. It only stressed him out even more.
He gave a frustrated shout to the ceiling of his room as if shouting at the gods that would have nothing to do with him.
He turned to the familiar voice. It was the prostitute that jerked him off in the tub.
“Yes, lots of things are wrong…I locked the door. Do you have a key to my room?”
“It’s part of the contract. A key is required so we can enter your room and be ready for you,” she said. Then quickly added, “Theft will not be an issue.”
So she says, but he assumed it wouldn't be easy to prove who stole anything if items went missing.
She moved toward him, approaching slowly as she did in the bath, taking smooth steps on her bare feet, toes touching the floor first instead of her soles, making it look like she was walking in high heels. It caused her legs and hips to sway suggestively.
“You need to relax.”
“I do…and I don’t. I am training right now,” he said, staring between her legs.
"You cannot focus if you do not relax.” Taking a seat beside him on the bed. “Let me help.”
“This is not the kind of thing you can help with. I am trying to perfect a skill and it’s not working out. You would distract me.” He couldn’t tell her that he was trying to create one from scratch, it might give away that he did not receive a skill from a god.
“Thank you,” taking Axel's words as a compliment. A prostitute lived or died on being able to distract her clients. “Us whores know how to listen, tell me of your troubles.”
He thought of telling her to fuck off, and that she couldn’t help him, but he was stuck and why not take advantage of her services? Madam Grace said this brothel entertained important guests. Some of them may have been strong Worshipers. “I use the feeling of pain to draw out my mana. It’s not working when I try to use my new skill.”
“That sounds horrible.” Though her expression didn’t change. “Is that the only feeling you could use?”
“My friend used the feeling of life rushing through him, but that does not work for me.”
She put her hand into his zipper and pulled out his cock without him realizing. “I am sure you would prefer that.”
“Yes, I do. I mean would.” Axel messed up his words as she fondled him.
“Is pain all you feel?”
“Not now.” He had become erect.
“Now does not count.”
Was he really going to open up to this prostitute whose name he didn’t know? He had already started so he might as well go all in. As much as it pained him to be one of those saps whining about their problems to prostitutes.
“Fear,” he admitted.
She stayed silent, instead choosing to focus on masturbating him. He was fine with that, leaning back and enjoying her soft hand.
“Don’t fight it.”
“I mean the fear. Don’t fight your fears. When I started pleasing men, I was afraid.”
“It’s a dangerous job.” Trying to look serious as the woman played with his balls.
“It can be. But I was more afraid of failure. Getting a bad reputation through word of mouth can end a young whore’s career. So I fought that fear. Pushed it down.” She was clearly opening up to him in exchange for him doing the same. “It did not work. It made me like those other jaded horrible sluts. The girls who come give a halfhearted fuck with some exaggerated moans and think they have done the man a great service.” Her face showed her distaste for such women.
“What did you do to change that?”
“I submitted. I let the fear in. Fear was my teacher. It made me remember whenever I was with a man, that I should be sure to service him, not myself.” She emphasized this with a squeeze of his cock head.
He thought about it. He did not want to feel that fear. He imagined it when using his mana and trying to make his skill, but was he also suppressing it? He did the same for pain and his Pain Knife worked. The difference being he could numb pain, not suppress it. Fear was of the mind.
She said nothing more, focusing on her main objective: stroking his cock and getting him to completion. Increasing the tempo of her hand, jacking him off hard. He closed his eyes, letting himself enjoy her hand, and letting his fear in. Every charge he made, every swing of a weapon that had come at him flashed in his memory. He let it all in and relaxed.
He came, covering her hand in white. The interplay of emotions brought him to the edge. And like the last time he was with her, she silently got up and left the room without cleaning herself.
He looked at his own hand while lying on the bed, checking his stats. In the skill section, a new skill appeared. Fear Knife.
“You got a new skill…from a handjob,” Rayner said, face slack.
He and Rayner were packing supplies for their quest to find Fred Copper’s family, and Axel decided it was a good idea to tell Rayner every detail of how he learned his new skill.
“It got the job done. The results speak for themselves,” he said.
The Fear Knife skill caused it to instill anyone who looked at the knife with fear. At first, it sounded redundant, as most people are afraid of knives, but giving it more thought he realized its true potential.
He could imagine scenarios where that fear was at the exclusion of all other concerns. An enemy would focus on the knife and not see Rayner coming up behind them with his hammer.
Having packed the last of their supplies and nearly spending all they had left doing so, they were ready to go. They headed directly for the gates.
“Rayner, not like we are in competition or anything, but I am technically stronger than you. I would like it if we stayed at the same general level of capability. Makes it easier to plan things out."
Rayner raised a brow. “Oh, is that what you think? Should have known. Well for your information, and to help with your plans, I will tell you what I learned about my charisma. I can use it aggressively. It’s what made my Roar so effective against the bandits.”
“That’s nice,” he said, unimpressed.
“Like I said, just you watch.”
At the town gates, a guard recognized them. “You two heading off so soon?”
“Yeah, we have a quest,” Axel said, not feeling the need to elaborate.
The guard did not seem to care. "OK, but I just need to give you two your papers. With the excitement at your arrival, we didn't get a chance." He'd heard nothing about needing identification. “The councilwoman informed us that you are from a faraway country and don’t have any identifying documents, so we made one up for you. It will say that this is your town of origin.”
He would thank Grace later for her foresight, their deal already reaping benefits. Rayner took the papers, giving Axel his. It had their basic information, an extremely accurate colored drawing of him, and blank boxes for what he assumed was for stamps.
They folded them to put them away until the guard stopped them. “Don’t do that, just shake it,” showing them the gesture.
They did, and it folded up into a card showing their name, image, and less info. It reminded him of a guild card. He had supposed guild cards weren’t needed when such information was on people’s palms. The palm reading was for stats, this was for daily life.
“Thanks,” Rayner said.
“No, thank you. If you all didn’t clear out those bandits, I would have had to go. Can’t scar up this pretty face!” the guard said. He was quite handsome.
The guard’s words reminded him of what Kevia said at the training yard. People would forget their deeds soon enough. It’s what they wanted, but he wondered how he would feel about it if it actually happened.
They passed the gates and took their first steps toward a new adventure.