Murmurin had grown bigger.
A month after Maure’s army and Vainqueur’s guests devastated it, leaving no stone unturned, the village had grown unrecognizable.
Murmurin had not only risen from its ashes but grown into a decent, if chaotic city. With tribes of monsters moving in for the promise of steady food, overplanar visitors setting shop, and undead looking for a place where they could 'live' undisturbed, the population had reached eight thousand. The fields and sheep pens, originally created to accommodate Vainqueur’s guests, could now sustain a large population; and Maure’s fall had only encouraged locals to get closer to the new ruler of Ishfania.
As he flew over the city with his great wings, Victor could only marvel at the difficulties this population boom caused. Everywhere he could see new buildings and houses under construction, with kobolds, gnolls, goblins, and other creatures cooperating to build them. Angels and fiends had each claimed a district next to the other, and he caught sight of two of these rival species harass a gnoll to sell him an ‘afterlife service’. The Kobold Rangers had to break three of these rivalries which turned violent this week.
Neither did the newcomers always get along. Gnolls and goblins kept picking fights, and the newest settlers, a tribe of orc, kept causing acts of petty vandalism.
In short, Murmurin had become an island of chaos in a feudal world.
Victor had done his best to steer this evolution into a positive direction, but there wasn’t a day without a new issue or problem to solve; and he had his debt to Vainqueur to reimburse. Even with his Class’ resistance to fatigue, the constant stress had started getting to the chief of staff.
Victor landed in front of his mansion to find a line of monsters waiting for him, surrounded by kobold minions. “Okay, who is here for business?” the grand vizier asked, with quite a few hands raised up. “Who is here for breeding?”
Fewer hands raised up, although some visitors had raised their hands twice. Weeks of turning them down had weeded out his number of admirers.
“No breeding today,” he announced, the people in the line complaining.
Victor remembered all these harem animes, where he had fondly dreamed of the constant attention of female company. That was until he experienced it himself; constant sexual harassment and outright stalking didn’t feel nice, it was tiresome and outright disturbing. Some even broke into his mansion to steal his hair!
Eventually, he just kept turning down almost everyone and having the Kobold Rangers restrain the ones who didn’t get the memo. It wasn’t that Victor disdained female attention, and he even indulged a bit, but being treated as a breeding stallion annoyed him.
Thankfully, most of his harassers eventually lost interest… with a few exceptions.
“Chocolatine…” Victor frowned upon finding her in the line with a big smile.
“I’m not here for breeding!” she said. “I’m here for the new temple.”
Victor frowned, before remembering that matter. Still, he doubted she had changed her mind about him. “After I’m done with other urgent matters,” he said with a sigh, the werewolf pumping her fist.
The chief of staff walked inside his home, with Charlene waiting for him, a pile of papers in hands. Someone else had gotten to her first, much to her dismay. “But honey…” Croissant begged on his knees for her to come back again. “I swear I love you.”
“Croissant, I do not know in how many languages I have to say it,” Charlene replied. “We’re done. I have a busy day, so unless you are here for business...”
“Honey, I have thought over it for weeks,” Croissant insisted. “I am so sorry…”
“You lied to me, hiding that you were a werewolf!” Charlene complained. “And all the cakes you gave me… I thought it was sweet, but you fattened me up for dinner!”
“Okay, yes, maybe our relationship started as animal husbandry, but I care!” Croissant said. “It’s… it’s like a pig you have fed for years to make ham, only to find you couldn’t go through with it.”
Real smooth, Croissant, Victor thought, as Charlene reddened at the pig comment. It didn’t help that she had lost weight since she broke up with him. “A pig? Is that what I am to you?”
“Yes,” Croissant replied, mistaking her anger for blushing. “You are my cute piglet...”
Victor struggled to keep a straight face, as Charlene turned into a tomato. “Enough!” she said, turning to undead guards. “Take him off government property!”
“But Charlene—” Croissant found himself surrounded by skeletons and was forcefully dragged out, crestfallen.
Victor shook his head at the sight. “That was therapeutic,” Charlene replied, adjusting her hair with a hand. “But he’s annoying.”
“I can issue a restraining order if you wish. The Kobold Rangers hate him, so they will love the job.”
“No,” she replied, dusting off her clothes. “He will give up eventually.”
If he was anything like his sister, no, he wouldn't.
“What will it be this morning?” he asked, as Charlene handed him a pile of paper bigger than yesterday's one.
“The Universal Minion Deathcare project, the new shared temple project, legalizing murder—”
“Legalizing murder?” Victor almost choked.
“Or waste disposal, if you want to sound politically correct,” Charlene replied, taking this with more stoicism than him. “With the angel-demon price war, Savoureuse sensed an opportunity and lobbies to open an official assassin guild.”
“I do not sleep enough to deal with this madness,” Victor replied with a sigh.
“I know,” she replied with a knowing smile. “Next, there is the quest you wanted to tackle in Barin. Kia also sent a message saying that Mauria is more or less pacified, and Barnabas has been introduced to the new Agarthan smiths. He said they will deliver new magical items next week.”
“Put the temple last on the agenda,” Victor decided since Chocolatine would attend. “Vainqueur wants to leave tomorrow, so let’s deal with the quest first.”
She pointed at a paper in her pile, Victor reading it. It detailed the quest and a map of the southern continent. “The quest comes from Barin’s leader, the legendary tactician and merchant Barsino,” Charlene explained. “He wants to recover an ancient artifact, the Bottle of Mot, kept within the desert’s most dangerous dungeon: the Tower of Sablar. Barsino informed me he would gladly reveal the location of the Blue Rose Legion's members in exchange for the artifact.”
The Tower of Sablar? The place where the ancient ritual that turned Ishfania and the southern continent into a desert took place? It was a superdungeon that frightened everyone; however, the tales of the riches held within encouraged tomb raiders to try their hand at conquering it.
So far, few returned alive.
“It is a very dangerous quest; the Tower of Sablar is considered a challenge for adventurers in their high fifties. Barsino believes that, I quote, ‘a dragon emperor of Vainqueur’s caliber should prove powerful enough to triumph.’”
And it would certainly contain Crests for Victor. “I will ask Kia if she wants to tag along,” he decided. The paladin would certainly enjoy the adventure, and they would need the extra muscle.
“We begin with the universal deathcare then?”
Victor nodded, entering the dining hall of the mansion, which he had more often than not turned into a reunion room. Ghostly will o’wisps provided additional light, and skeleton servants polished a large, rounded table with handkerchiefs. The chief of staff sat, and observed as Charlene invited Malfy, Miel, and Jules into the room.
Since she couldn’t rely on the usual guild fee, Charlene had to more or less depend on both Gardemagne and V&V’s donations to maintain her chapter. Eventually, confronted with the challenge of building an administration for the city, Victor settled on employing her part-time as an assistant.
His own chief of staff.
Instead of stressing out, being put in charge of the city’s administration improved her mood a lot. Victor guessed she had stagnated at Valbain, and being promoted to city administrator helped with her self-esteem. She was actually a nice person to hang out with, when not stressed out and annoyed.
Of course, Victor also worked on her in other ways...
“Dead and fiendish gentlemen, angel lady,” Victor welcomed the group, as they sat around the table. “I gathered you to officiate the new Minion Deathcare project.”
“Before we begin, I want to say that I love the name, Victor,” Jules said, the most enthusiastic of the three about the idea. He had even offered a large share in his new undead start-up to the vizier, which would help a lot with the debt.
“Death sucks. Trust me, I’ve been there twice, it sucks. It’s painful, and you have to wait months before going to a decent afterlife.” Which Victor wasn’t even sure was that good... “So I’ve been thinking… we can make sentient undead cheaply. Since many minions of V&V die in the line of duty, I think our guild should owe them something for their service. Hence my idea: V&V minions can have their own undeath pension plan, allowing them to be raised as undead after death.”
“I was against the idea of creating sentient undead for labor, but the idea of making necromancy a societal institution won me and the church of Camilla over,” Jules added. “The minion’s individual contribution will determine what kind of undead we can raise them as.”
“I suggest lichdom for the most deserving,” Furibon said from within Victor’s scythe, startling the chief of staff. He had almost forgotten the lich, since the undead spent his time talking with the other sealed souls rather than his jailer. “You will need a virgin sacrifice, but it is worth it.”
“Undeads are a plague,” Miel stated, drawing a glare from both Jules and some of the skeletons. “Instead, you should make Heaven Insurance mandatory. This is the only way to ensure a good, safe afterlife for all.”
“This is a free-market economy, redemption chaser,” Malfy butted in, before turning to Victor. “I say that Infercorp gets a priority claim on the souls first. We have been pillars of the Empire since its conception, and we are all about customer service.”
“Hence why minions can choose between three retirement plans,” Victor said. “Undeath, Heaven Insurance, or whatever Hell—”
“Happyland,” Malfy corrected.
“Whatever Happyland proposes.”
“But one of the options is amoral and the other immoral,” Miel complained.
“If you want people to sign with you, offer them an afterlife they want without a month long delay.”
“You were a particular case!” Miel defended her poor customer service.
“Certainly if Heaven is as good as an afterlife as it advertises itself, people will flock to your outdated overplanar company,” Malfy taunted her. “Also, Mr. Victor, you have heard Infercorp opened its succubus brothel in Murmurin. It would be great if you could, as the vizier, sample the wares. For safety reasons.”
Sample the wares? Victor’s head perked up, while Charlene rolled her eyes. “Is it always open?”
“Always, for a friend.”
“Mr. Victor, I have great news for you!” Miel immediately went on the offensive, “Thanks to your service to the cause of universal heavenly insurance, my higher-ups have decided to offer you a free guardian angel, who will do everything you want. Everything.”
“Oh, Mr. Victor, it seems that a large public donation has slipped from my hand,” Malfy put a large purse full of money on the table. “It would be a shame if nobody picked it up…”
“Okay, thank you, but this deal isn’t negotiable,” Victor stopped them as Charlene distributed them pieces of paper. “Take it or leave it.”
The three examined the documents and eventually signed; Victor noticed Malfy and Miel exchange a heavy, tense gaze as they handed out the papers. He could almost see the lightning between their eyes.
Why did he have the feeling he had started a war?
Twenty minutes later, the three had switched places with a very enthusiastic Savoureuse, who carried a basket. “Hey, Vic! How has it been?!”
“I’m fine, Sav,” Victor replied. “Work is tiring, but we manage.”
“Manage? Vic, you’ve done great! I leave the village for three weeks, and I find a city on my way back! Oh, and I have a gift for you…” Savoureuse opened the basket, revealing an array of cheese within. “I brought you this from the north.”
“Oh, sweet!” Victor couldn’t resist taking a goat cheese, although Charlene declined due to her diet. “So, Sav, Charlene told me you wanted to… legalize waste disposal?”
“It’s a bit more complicated. The Nightblades’ leadership thinks your city has grown enough to deserve its own chapter operating here. At first, they wanted to open a thieves’ guild, but I told them ‘a thief guild in a country ruled by a dragon? How can that end well?’”
“You don’t say,” the chief of staff deadpanned.
“So instead, I suggested they open an assassin guild,” Savoureuse explained happily. “It will be good for the economy, Vic.”
Victor gave her a blank stare.
“It will create jobs!” Savoureuse defended her profession. “Like my nephew, Potiron. He couldn’t find work with his law degree, so he reinvented himself as a respected hired killer. Vic, as long as there are three people on the planet, there will be a victim, an assassin, and a silent partner. If you do not regulate it, the Nightblades will still carry out contracts, except we will do it in seedy back alleys instead of offices with government oversight.”
“What kind of argument is that?” Victor contested. “You will legalize every crime under the sun with it!”
“Of course not. Waste disposal is a community service, taking care of troublemakers. What is the difference with mercenary work, besides the fact we cleanly kill our targets in their home instead of on a battlefield?”
“There’s a difference between killing a soldier and assassinating someone’s business rival,” Victor replied. “Sav, I have spent enough time among the Nightblades to know they aren’t picky about who they stab, so long as they get paid for it. I’m not going to openly condone that kind of trade, especially since people here are amoral enough to make use of it.”
“So, it’s a no?”
“If I may,” Charlene butted in before Victor could brush his friend off. “I can see a compromise.”
“Charlene, do you want an assassin group operating here?”
“No, but as she said, they will carry out contracts anyways and cracking down on them will be a drain on our very tight budget. There is another, cheaper solution, which worked well in Noblecoeur.”
Noblecoeur? The stronghold of the Nightblades syndicate? Victor saw where this led before Charlene made her case. “Nobody leaves the Nightblades,” the guild manager said, Savoureuse nodding. “Since Victor was part of the syndicate, he could be made the head of the local chapter.”
“Yes,” Savoureuse agreeing. “I was going to suggest it. As the Crime Lord of the local chapter, Vic, you will have a finger in every pie, and you will be the one to approve the hits or not. The perfect union of crime and government.”
Was Victor the only one seeing a problem with this? “So, you will want me to legalize an assassin guild, by making me its head?”
“Vic, what kind of empire does not have a shadowy assassin arm to complement its monstrous army?”
When she put it this way… Victor decided to stall for time. “I will consider it, but I’m not making a decision today.”
“That isn’t a no,” Savoureuse rejoiced. “I cannot wait to show you the tricks of the trade. It will be just like old times.”
Victor sighed and sent her out of the room. “Charlene, how many jobs do I have?” he asked his own chief of staff, before realizing Savoureuse had stolen Malfy's bribe without anyone noticing.
“Taking into account Vainqueur’s titles, I count at least twenty.”
Why was the reward for good work more work? “You can’t seriously expect me to take this one,” Victor said. “Even if cracking down on them will drain the budget, it’s better than letting a criminal syndicate operate undisturbed.”
“But by running the organization you will be in the perfect position to dismantle it, if the situation calls for it,” Charlene replied.
Like she did here for Gardemagne? Victor was pretty sure she kept watch of Vainqueur for the Kingdom. “How did we end up working so closely together?” The vizier couldn’t help but make a joke about their situation. “Didn’t you hate my guts before the invasion?”
“I disliked you,” she admitted. “But as you said, that was before the invasion. After seeing you leading the defense of this town against Maure’s army and saving my life, it would have been very petty of me not to reevaluate my opinion. What are you doing tonight?”
“I’m leaving tomorrow, so I need sleep,” Victor replied, as Allison and Chocolatine walked in. he couldn't suppress a question which haunted him for a while. “Hey Allison, I need your point of view on something. Rolo turned some enemy elves into sheep.”
“Sheeps,” Allison ‘corrected’ him. “Yes, what about it?”
“If I eat a sheep that used to be a humanoid, does it count as cannibalism?” Victor asked, worried.
“That kind of question is why I am a vegan. No meat, no questions.”
Victor couldn’t live without meat—in fact, his transformation into a half-dragon had only worsened his appetite for it. He would have to secure a safe, non-dubious source of food.
Chocolatine must have read his mind. “Vic, it is only cannibalism if you and the food are equal,” she chirped, trying to reassure him. “This is why Isengrim condones hunting demons.”
“I’m a bit worried by your experiments, Choc,” Allison admitted. “Some of the new tomatoes you watered with demon blood have teeth.”
“But they can grow in the desert, was it not what you wanted?”
“Ladies,” Victor interrupted them before they engaged in another debate. “The church of Shesha is coming to invest in our little city, and they offered to fully fund a new temple for the twelve gods.”
Since the Agarthans worshiped Veran, Jules Camilla, and the Nightblades Deathjester, the triad of evil deities known as the Dread Three had gained a following in the city and requested a temple of their own. Outside of Isengrim, Murmurin had become a haven for ill-reputed or chaotic cults.
Strangely, neither Mithras nor more lawful gods had followed them.
“It would be good to increase the size of our temple,” Allison nodded. “Since Choc invited other werewolf tribes into Murmurin, we no longer have enough space to hold congregations. But Shesha being Shesha, she never does anything for free. I am not going to pay rent to worship my own goddess.”
“I haven’t seen anything of that kind in their proposal,” Victor said, Charlene shaking her head. “I think she just wants publicity and goodwill by funding that public work.”
“As long as there is no fine print,” Allison shrugged. “Does that mean you’re going to stay a polytheist, Vic?”
He nodded in response. He had discussed with her about the worship of her goddess Cybele since his current afterlives weren’t so appealing. Of course, Chocolatine, upon hearing of it, had immediately tried to convert him to Isengrim, and even Jules had preached to him the benefits of worshiping Camilla. Since he had been marked by three gods already, with one of the cults treating him as a prophet, and to stop everyone's nagging, Victor had settled on shunning everyone equally.
The more the chief of staff considered the matter, the more he came to agree with Vainqueur that becoming a god might be his best bet.
After another boring meeting discussing the temple’s architecture and location, Allison and Chocolatine agreed to share the new building with the other cults; the Moon Man’s followers had already given full power to Victor to decide on that case.
“Vic,” Chocolatine asked, after the meeting ended, “Can I talk to you alone for a minute?”
“Charlene, do I have another meeting soon?” Victor begged his assistant.
“You still have six scheduled, but the first begins in ten minutes.”
Victor slammed his head against the table in tiredness. “Okay, one minute…”
“Yes,” Chocolatine pumped her fist, as Allison and Charlene exchanged a glance and quietly left. “You know Malfy is opening a new casino?”
“Yes.” Although the fiend hadn’t tried to pitch it to him as hard as the succubus brothel. “What about it?”
“I have two, two VIP invitations for the luxury lounge...”
Of course she hadn’t given up. “Chocolatine…”
“But you have bred with seven people this month, Charlene included!”
“Yes, but… you’re special Chocolatine…” Victor suddenly realized that wasn’t the phrasing he should have used, at all. “Wait, how do you know? You stalked me?”
“No, I smelled you.” Victor recoiled. “Just one date. One date! And if it doesn’t work, I give up!”
Victor’s eyes widened. “Really?”
“Yes!” She said, putting a hand on her chest. “I swear on my god Isengrim. If it doesn’t work, I’ll stop bothering you.”
“Deal!” Victor jumped on the opportunity before she changed her mind. Finally, an exit was in sight. Just one date, and it would be over. “Just a date, no breeding, after I’m done with the newest quest, but deal, deal, deal!”
“Yes!” Chocolatine replied, just as overjoyed. “You’re not going to regret it!”
It wasn’t like it could end anything but badly, but he would live with it.