The story Ausilio told, upon being set on the ground and having a good ten minutes to kiss at the dirt as though it would somehow vanish out from under him, was a simple one. An annoyingly simple one, in that it lacked a significant amount of detail.
Ausilio was not the mastermind to any sort of grand scheme, but a mere pawn handed a package and told to bring it to a specific place by a man he claimed not to know. He then promptly handed the package to a craven thief who had spent most of his life in and out of various prisons–apparently some idiots don't get how penitence works–and happened to owe Ausilio money. The corrupt paladin instructed the poor fool to complete the task for him, and the fool then vanished entirely, presumably finding a wayward treasure chest in the forest and allowing his greed to get the better of him.
As to why Ausilio accepted such a job to begin with, the paladin of Lopetra wasn’t a particularly upstanding member of his order. Nor an especially decent one. Really, he was mediocre at best and was well aware of that fact. So he took to vice rather than self-improve, preferring to remain idle in his duties while taking bribes from petty criminals, and it appeared that someone used that to blackmail him. Who specifically, he seemed not to know, as he said he never met them in person and was really only sent messengers. It was his own folly, and no one else in his order was involved. If he were to be believed, that is.
Just what exactly the mastermind had in mind, he didn't know either, as he claimed to have only followed the command and not questioned a thing in carrying it out.
So not only was he practically useless to Michael, he was also beginning to annoy them with his desperate groveling. So, while it was somewhat petty, they did feel justified in kicking him in the stomach and leaving him to whimper on the ground outside the milk bar as they retrieved Anaya, who was having a far more lively discussion with the two barmaids.
“-ank you again for the help!" Anaya told the two workers, who no longer seemed annoyed at having to speak with Ausilo. Though that genuine interest seemed to be replaced with fear as one glanced over to Michael, and stiffened in place as she stood at attention, soon followed by her coworker.
"O-Oh wondrous Angel, to what do we owe this pleasure of your visit?"
Oh, right, took off the disguise. Letting out a sigh, Michael schooled their face, and put on the guise of an elfin paladin once more.
"I had some business with Paladin Ausilio, nothing you should concern yourself with."
"My apologies for intruding on your business! If I may, I would like to offer a jug of our finest milk!"
"A-Ah, I meant two jugs! Or would you prefer more?"
Soon enough–well, more accurately, a day later, since Anaya had mortal limitations and needed to sleep in a sheltered place, have food, all those things–Michael and Anaya were on the road again, though now with the addition of six metal jugs of milk rattling in the back of their carriage. Michael wasn’t quite sure how that happened; they tried to placate the workers by handing them a diamond as payment, and somehow that earned the angel even more milk.
"Well, if nothing else, this milk is quite delicious," commented Anaya as she drank straight from the jug for some reason. "So, where are we going?"
"Aside from stopping at a more prominent paladin's territory to inform them of Ausilio's treachery, we have no reason to remain in Zemava."
"Huh. I guess…shouldn't we go to Rodoa first?"
Michael raised an eyebrow. "Why would we?"
"Well, according to those workers, Ausilio was complaining about some friend of his in Rodoa making him do all their work. So, I thought whoever might be there was the one behind it all."
"..." For a brief moment, Michael considered flying back to Lopetra just to kick the paladin again for hiding this information. "...Rodoa is it? From what I remember, it's a relatively small town, so whoever is in charge there might have ended up as corrupt as Ausilio."
"...Are you sure you’re thinking of the same Rodoa?”
“What does that mean?”
It meant that Michael’s memory of the small, lakeside town was...inaccurate.
First and foremost, the city of Rodoa was now a city, rather than a town. What was once a small village situated at the northern end of Lake Rodízio had not only extended around the entirety of the lake bordering both Zemava and Sollamava, the southern side of it seemed to have grown massively, extending outward into the low plains of Sollamava.
However, the most jarring part was that it appeared that Rodoa had become a resort city, open to the public and accepting any visitors. One that was seemingly very packed, as their carriage came to a near halt as people, most of whom seemed to be either high elves or minotaurs, paraded around the open streets wearing hardly anything. Bright signs directed pedestrians to attractions promising cheap drinks, rich foods, and fantastic foods as music sounded in the streets, played by a band of saxophone-bearing bards outside a variety hall with a massive clarinet atop its roof acting as its sign.
"...Huh. You know, I thought a Zemavan resort town was going to be like a quiet peaceful place where everyone has a relaxing spa day and meditates. But I suppose I shouldn't just assume things," Anaya muttered to herself, all while Michael shook in silent, seething rage as they saw citizens of Zemava acting in ways they shouldn't. They could even swear they could smell some type of Alcohol nearby!
Letting go of the reins, Michael jumped down off the carriage, and immediately grabbed a nearby High Elf who was in the middle of chatting with his group of friends beside some type of bar with a cornucopia on its roof, drooping painted wooden “grapes” above its entrance.
"You, tell me where the nearest paladin is!"
"Woah, woah, simmer down Miss, you're harshing the vibe~"
"I… what?" Michael blinked at his words, though their attention was soon diverted as someone else in the group–a rather large, male minotaur–grabbed the arm they were using to hold the elf.
"If you're looking for a paladin, you're gonna need to head elsewhere. Rodoa is Sollamavan territory."
"...I understand that Rodoa may stretch out into Sollamava’s borders, but it was initially a Zemavan town."
"Well that changed a while ago, so unless you want to start something, I suggest you let go of my date."
"Hey hey, we don't need to fight, we're all friends here~" stated the high elf as he reached over to grab a mug filled with what Michael was sure was alcohol, and moved to offer it to them, "Here, you thirsty?"
"Ah, excuse me, my friend here doesn't drink," cut in Anaya, stepping in before Michael could smack away the mug.
"Oh, my bad, I think they serve water if you want that instead," the elf replied, setting the mug back on the table.
"We're good, our apologies for bothering you two."
"Hm. You." Staring up at the minotaur, Michael pulled their arm out of his grasp. "You weren't lying about this being a Sollamavan city now?"
"I have literally no reason to lie about that. Besides, alcohol is illegal in Zemava right? So if there's alcohol here, it's not Zemava."
"...That logic isn't entirely sound, but very well." Reaching into their pockets, Michael pulled out a diamond and handed it over to him. "Here, as recompense for my actions."
“I have caused you trouble, therefore you should take this as recompense. It is also my thanks for the information.”
“Woah, that’s a big rock,” the elf muttered, earning a frown from the minotaur, before he looked back to Michael.
“I can’t accept this-”
“Ah, what Kos means to say is, thanks, but that’s kinda a lot to pay us for just correcting you about the city, right?” It is? “So to make things more even, why don’t we walk and talk?” The high elf grinned, patting his date on the back as he held out his other hand. “Here, the name’s Ludano, friends call me Lou, and this is Kostas, I call him Kos.”
Michael stared at the hand. Why in the world would I ever accept the aid of a drunk-
“Nice to meet you!” And Anaya took his hand, beaming as she shook it. “I’m Anaya, and this is Misha. We’re traveling around and we thought Rodoa would be a good place to stop, though I didn’t think it would look like this when I heard it was a ‘Zemavan resort town’.”
“Probably because it’s Sollamavan,” Kostas replied with a smile–Is he mocking her?
“Oh yeah, how did that happen, by the way?” Anaya asked, cutting Michael’s bristling short, “Oh, actually, we wouldn’t be imposing too much if we asked you two to show around, right? See some of the sights~?”
“...Ahhh, sure, why not? Might as well walk around.”
Ludano beamed at that. “Sweet! Alright, gimme a sec to let everyone know, then let’s go!”
So apparently this is happening now. Michael frowned, taking a moment to scrutinize their two guides as Ludano said his goodbyes to his gathered friends. The elf seemed the type to prefer the outdoors, judging by his more rose-gold complexion–the high elf equivalent to a human tan–and his bronze-brown hair was longer and looser than most Zemans kept it, though he had it tied back in a short ponytail to keep it out of his eyes. He had the lean figure of most elves and carried himself like a careless man, very…“easygoing”, as some would describe, which was further emphasized by the loose, colorful orange shirt–dotted with yellow flowers–and blue shorts he was wearing, which only went down to his knees, leaving much of his shins scandalously bared. He even had his tail uncovered, allowing it to hang loosely as he went about his business, a trend many of the high elves Michael could see around seemed to follow.
At the very least, he was still keeping his ankles wrapped, despite the lack of coverage his sandals provided, so he hadn’t fully descended into moral degeneracy.
As for Kostas, Michael had to actively remind themself that this was not, in fact, Zemavan territory, and thus the exceedingly tight and figure-bearing shirt that the dark-skinned minotaur wore was not considered inappropriate by their standards. Nor were his own noticeably tighter and shorter shorts, or his unkempt mane of shaggy, black hair. Of course, minotaurs were often naturally hairier than elves, so it wasn’t much of a surprise to see the thick forests of hair up his arms, nor the stubble present at his rugged cheeks. It was somewhat interesting to see how his calf-high boots were modified to accommodate his hooves though. Considering they seemed to be cut out the bottom, they seemed more like a fashion statement than practical footwear.
Regardless, Michael did their best to not be astonished at the lack of modesty in the city as they focused their senses around them, trying to see if they could find anything in particular to hint at where they may find who they were looking for. They knew little of Ausilio’s “employer”, but the rot of corruption should not be difficult to uncover, even in a city so full of indulgence.
"Rodoa is a pretty cool place once you get to know it, and as such a lot of elves like myself come here when they want to let loose. It's kinda become a tradition, you know? ‘Indulge yourself for just a moment so you may fully appreciate the moral lessons our teachings impart'," Ludano said, seemingly imitating the voice of an older elf.
"Meanwhile, everyone else is just here to have fun just because," Kostas added as he led the group.
“I can get behind that,” Anaya replied, grinning as she looked around as well, though Michael had a feeling she was less interested in finding the source of their problem, and more interested in seeing the decorative city, “But that tradition is interesting too. Were your friends back there also participating?”
Ludano smiled wide. “Yup! Everyone’s interested in seeing the world, and Rodoa’s close enough to home to feel like an adventure, just not a dangerous one. You get to experience another country, try new things, meet cute new people~” He turned his smile at Kostas then and Michael bit back an annoyed sigh as they tried to tune out the conversation. The buildings around all seemed to be shops of some description, selling either food and drinks or clothing and amenities. Nothing that stood out.
“Heh, so I see~ I can see how Rodoa would be nice in that case. There’s still that sense of safety in being so close to home, though I think I’d still worry about someone trying to take advantage of young elves if it were my kids.”
Wait, does she have kids? Michael nearly paused in the street, but discarded that thought in favor of continuing their observations. It was difficult to detect anything though. The whole city seemed tinged with the scent of gluttony, characterized by roasting meats, sharp alcohols, and careless hedonism, which the buildings seemed to be proud to display. Seeing a turkey and roasted ham atop of a restaurant certainly proved that.
The people here were gleeful in their consumption, a characteristic that sent their nose wrinkling with irritation. Also, they really just didn’t like the smell of wine. It was so unpleasant...
“Aw, thanks for the concern, but really, we’re good. The people around here are friendly, and the merchants around have a vested interest in keeping people safe, you know?”
Kostas nodded in agreement. “It looks bad if people get robbed while trying to enjoy themselves, so the local merchant guild hires guys like me to keep things steady. Not that I’m on the job right now, it’s my day off.”
“Oh wow, no wonder you’re so big and strong!” Michael nearly stumbled as Anaya giggled, shooting the druid an annoyed glare that she returned with a cheeky smile. “Do you ever run into any trouble around here?”
“Nah, not really. Sometimes you get people who can’t handle their wine or weed who need to be cooled off, but the more thuggish types know they can’t get away with causing trouble around here, and bouncers like me know not to abuse our power cuz the merchants will get up in arms. Meathead’s aren’t hard to find, so if one’s a mean bastard, the word spreads and they’ll find no one’s willing to hire or sell to them.”
“Wow, sounds like a good system. So you must have it really easy here!”
“Yup. Hell, most of the time, I’m just keeping an eye out for troublemakers, or dumb tourists who get too tipsy and try streaking~” He grinned down at Ludano, who turned a curious shade of red and averted his gaze.
“W-Well, i-it was the first night, things happened...ah, oh, though you should tell them about the con artists.”
“Ahh, yeah. We keep violence to a minimum around here, but you’ll still hear about someone getting screwed out of their money someway or another. It’s shitty to say, but we’re unofficially supposed to let it lie unless it becomes too huge a problem. A tourist losing a few coins on a bet they couldn’t win isn’t the biggest thing, but, well, sometimes it gets bad, and certain people see that as more a money-making opportunity than they should.”
“Oh, really? How bad does it get?” Why is Anaya insisting on following this conversation? Why would we ever need to know about stupid thieves? Neither of us are dumb enough to fall for such nonsense–
Michael paused for a moment and slapped away a hand reaching for their pocket, shooting a glare at a pained satyr who promptly hurried into the crowd, clutching his burned hand. Hopefully, he would learn from his chastisement, but Michael had other matters to attend to and continued following their group as Kostas continued.
“Ehhh...not bad enough that it stops people from coming, but one place has sorta taken to recruiting types like that, so they’re getting more protected than they used to be. I guess con artists are good for the casino life, but eh…”
“Ah, c’mon, no need to worry about that right now! We’re having fun!” Ludano grinned again, patting Kostas on the back. “Besides, the best rule I’ve heard is just stay away from the salamander if you’re not looking to gamble or try anything hardcore. You keep away from there and you can still have plenty of fun!”
“What’s the salamander?” Michael cut in, frowning.
“Oh, the big building over there.” And Ludano gestured towards the lakefront, where...well, that was a very large building.
Even compared to the other ostentatious businesses in the city, “the salamander” seemed to make an effort to stand above the rest. The primary portion of the building seemed to be a large, block-like structure, stretching up eight stories above the ground right at the edge of the shore, and–rather than following the trend of having a large prop displaying what type of service the business provided–there was an enormous statue of a salamander that stood above the entrance, clinging to the side of the building directly over the open double doors leading inside.
"That place is well known as an ‘anything goes’ type of casino. You might find some fun there, but you might also get more than you asked for."
Focusing their senses, Michael could feel that even in a city like Rodoa, sin clung to that building as if it were made of pure vice. Brushing past Kostas, Michael made their way directly to the building, ignoring the words of the group, as it was evident to them whoever they were searching for was in there.
Thankfully, it appeared no one was getting in their way, and in fact, the crowd before Michael parted as they walked forward, as if ensuring they wouldn't bump into anyone. That is, until they felt a hand on their shoulder.
"Misha, where are you going?" Anaya asked, as if it wasn't obvious.
"Whoever we're looking is obviously in there, and if they're not, then I can at least deal with the vile sin permeating that structure."
"Uh…I mean, it is a casino, so I dunno what you can do about that…"
"It's not just a casino, it's a den of demonic energy. Regardless of whether it's a demon or a warlock it is my duty to deal with them, even if I have to take the place down on my own."
“Or, here’s a better plan, you don’t try throwing a fireball at this place, because then I’m pretty sure you would hurt whatever innocent people are inside, and you don’t want to do that, right?”
My cousins would. That would be a terrible answer, so they picked a different one. “I am entering that establishment and handling whatever monster has taken it over-”
Anaya put a finger to their lips and their mind stuttered as she spoke in a quiet voice. “I know you have your duties as an angel, but I think it’s a really bad idea to go into a building, palms burning, without any plan or investigation. Why don’t we scout out the building first, make sure there actually is or isn’t an issue, and then take steps to make sure things go okay? I really don’t want you to get jumped by any well-meaning bouncers who think you’re the villain for throwing fire around in one of their establishments.”
“...” Michael grabbed her wrist and pulled her hand down from their mouth. Gently, of course, they weren’t going to be forceful and potentially hurt her. “...I understand the merits of your suggestion. I will take the steps I find necessary to handle this problem when I find it though.”
“Okay, on one condition. No killing anyone.”
"If my hand isn't forced, but don't expect a follower of the demonic to simply surrender. Whoever it is that's in there is stupidly overconfident if they think they can be this close to Zemava without issue, but they still must have some strength."
"Oh…didn't expect you to agree so easily." Why would she think that?
"It'd be one thing if it were simply a foolish warrior who gave themselves over for power, but the fact that they're also manipulating paladins means they have a plan, plans that I must know about to protect the Light Lands. However, should my gods decree it necessary afterwards, their death will not be stopped."
"...Even if they do surrender?"
"The will of the gods is above all else, and I imagine their punishment for someone attempting to corrupt their lands will not be kind." As they spoke, Anaya seemed to be conflicted for a moment, emotions visibly warring on her face, before she let out a sigh.
"Alright, let’s find whoever it is we're looking for."
“Uh, so, are you two okay?” Right, Ludano and Kostas are still here…
“Oh, we’re fine! Misha wants to go to the Salamander though,” Anaya explained, smiling at her fellow elf.
“Yeah, I noticed she was walking that way? So...all the warning stuff didn’t sink in, or are you a lot more daring than I guessed?”
Michael scowled. “I’m immensely daring and I can handle any den of iniquity.”
“...Kay then! Well, hey, at least this gives me the excuse to check out the restaurant. I heard they serve really good seafood!”
And that decided that, it seemed.