Michael didn’t quite go unconscious. That would presume there was a cease in their awareness and the agony pulsing through their body.
They were panting in pain, prone on the ground while their back leaked with golden blood. Their second pair of wings finally dispersed, slightly numbing the burning heat, but still leaving a discomforting warmth bleeding from them. It didn’t matter though. They won their fight.
As they laid in the ring, Borzla was right next to them, her head lodged inside the mat and her body limp, her legs hanging in the air while her arms splayed out at her sides. The faint smell of fish wafted in the air as her charred clothes crumbled slightly around her reddened body. Michael was...fairly confident a leviathan could survive what they just did. Largely confident, so their promise was still kept. Most likely. They could check in a moment, once they caught their–
“Wow, you really wrecked this place.” Then they went rigid at the blatantly demonic voice sounding out in the empty ring, looking up to see a creature in all white looking up at the hole in the ceiling.
She stood tall. Much taller than Michael naturally did. White, like a crane, with a beak pointed skyward...it was a mask though. Artificial, just as she had long, white sleeves instead of wings and a long skirt instead of tailfeathers. Twin bandoliers of knives crossed over her hooded coat and a pair of large hunting knives hung in sheathes at her waist. She reeked of sickness, and as the demon looked down at Michael, they saw only white in the mask’s eyeholes. No hint of darkness; instead, it was closer to smothering fog, leaking into the air.
She tilted her head like the bird she mimicked, studying Michael, then ignored them in favor of walking to Borzla and lightly poking her leg with a white-gloved hand. “Are you dead?”
Borzla’s sandal fell off. There was a twitch, then the leviathan groaned, not able to move. “You’re not. Good.”
Without ceremony, the demon gripped Borzla by the ankle and pulled her up like a farmer would a radish. The leviathan’s eyes fluttered, consciousness not yet coming to her, but the demon didn’t seem to care, throwing her over her back like a sack of meat, before looking to Michael again. “I know you. The crippled cardinal.”
A surge of fury went through Michael and their wings nearly pushed out again, a scream almost making it out before exhaustion turned it into an angry groan.
The demon didn’t react. “I wasn’t called to kill you. It might be a good idea though.”
“No, it wouldn’t.” Michael blinked as Anaya suddenly landed in front of them, the druid holding to a vine as she lowered herself to the floor and keeping her eyes on the demon. “Hey Misha. You really did a number on this place.”
“That’s what I said.” The demon seemed amused. “I don’t know you though. Would you give me your name?”
“No, I don’t think I will. You can know my name is Anaya though, and you can know I will fight you if you try anything here, demon of the white plague.” A bloom of green at Anaya’s feet punctuated her statement, the rush of grass feeling...oddly soothing against Michael’s body.
“Anaya. I’ll remember that name. I am no Nosoi though. To you, cripple druid and cripple cardinal, I am Labatu. Know my name, and dread when next we meet.” And before either of them could do anything, the demon and the leviathan vanished in a flash of rotted white.
“...they got away…” Michael snarled, pain clouding the fury they felt. They couldn’t even get up to–
Then Anaya’s hands were on them, and they were being helped up. “Can you stand?”
I can’t. “I can.”
Anaya didn’t let go of them though, smiling as she helped them to their feet. “Okay. I got everyone out, as you asked. Had to bring out the commanding voice and everything, which was kind of a pain, but it worked out alright, for the most part. So, wanna tell me what happened here, or should we save that for when we get outside?”
“...” Michael sighed, then stiffened at the healing sensation of life flowing through Anaya’s hands and into their damaged body. Not that they deserved it, since they did most of the damage to themself… “Outside. I don’t want to be in here any-...She left the satchel.”
The leather bag laid there, amidst the rubble, its strap seared apart, but the rest of it was fully intact and the clasps were still shut. Michael moved toward it, nearly stumbled, then paused as Anaya’s vine pulled it over to them. “...thank you.”
“You’re welcome! So, what’s in it?”
“I have no idea, but Borzla wanted it.”
“Oh, so her name’s Borzla...okay, tell me more, but while we walk, okay? Because I really don’t trust this building’s structural integrity at this point.”
Despite Anaya’s worries, the building did hold as she and Michael made their way outside, so clearly her concerns about its structural integrity were unfounded. Of slightly more concern was the very large crowd outside the hotel, who all looked to Michael and Anaya as they exited with visible confusion and curiosity, once the vines moved out of the way.
“Why did you block off the doors?” Michael asked, ignoring the crowd for a moment.
“Ah, that. Yeah, some of the hotel’s patrons wanted to help, so I needed to get and keep them out. Kostas helped lend some authority to it though.”
Michael glanced to where Anaya nodded and saw the familiar pair of Kostas and Ludano, though the former winced when he saw them and averted his eyes as though pretending they weren’t there, which was...irritating. Ludano gave them a slight wave, though he also pulled away quite quickly, taking Kostas with him and leaving Michael to deal with the crowd of hotel staff and guests, along with every other gawker staring at them. And the presence of Rodoa’s guards/bouncers in the crowd didn’t help either. Sure, they were visibly trying to maintain order, but the way they looked at Michael with suspicion and apprehension made them bristle.
“Why are you all–”
“Hey there! So, demon threat’s been taken care of, Misha handled it-” Anaya patted them on the back and Michael couldn’t help their hiss of pain. “-sorry, and, uh...maybe don’t go back inside, because it’s kinda a horrible ruin in there. Building’s intact though, so hey, maybe–”
There was an ominous creak as everyone looked towards the hotel. The enormous stone salamander wasn’t on the side facing the street, instead still clinging to what was essentially the back of the hotel, frozen in place with the hole torn through its head. Which was a good thing, because a massive stone colossus was a very heavy thing, and the hotel was very structurally unsound at the moment.
So unsound that the creaking got a great deal louder, and the entire hotel tilted backwards. Then fell. The entire hotel fell straight backwards, crashing into the lake as the upper portion was torn straight from the lower portion.
“...So. Probably can’t repair that,” Anaya mumbled, still staring at the utter ruin the now one-story hotel had become. Every part of it looked completely wrecked, aside from one portion on its western side–
“Oh gods damn it all!”
“What? What’s up? Is there something else?”
“The blasted casino survived!”
Anaya lurched for a moment and Michael felt a brief concern the druid wasn’t actually able to carry them, then the angel paused as they noticed a number of people staring at them. “...What are you looking at.”
That started up a number of whispers from the crowd, rather than silencing them.
“–an angel, right? Like, an actual–”
“–pretty sure I saw her in the casino–”
“Does this mean Zemava’s invading?”
“No way, they wouldn’t–”
“I am not invading,” Michael called out, making the discussions pause, “I was here to handle the leviathan infiltrating your city, and the leviathan has been handled. That is all.”
“...So you admit to completely destroying one of Rodoa’s biggest casinos?” one minotaur asked. A tanned, dark-haired woman in slightly more official-looking clothing, consisting of a sleeveless back top with bronze trim and white pants. Also, a nose ring; a hoop through her right nostril.
“I didn’t destroy the casino portion.” They gestured to the still standing segment of the building. “So no, though I regard that as a loss.”
Anaya sighed at their side and pressed a hand to her forehead, for some reason. Something about not letting her talk? “Did you wish to speak?”
“...” There came a slower, deeper sigh, before she looked towards the minotaur instead of Michael, for some reason. "My apologies, constable.” Constable? This place has actual law enforcement? “I certainly didn't expect things to get this out of hand. However, most of the structural damage came from the salamander golem, as well as the leviathan controlling it."
"And where is this leviathan?"
"Thanks to her demonic companion, she managed to escape," Anaya stated before glancing down at the bag Michael held, "But she left that behind when she went."
"Hm. Hand that over."
Michael frowned at being ordered, but did as they were told, tossing the now empty bag to the minotaur. Empty, because they reached inside and took all the papers in it first before tossing it.
“...Are you kidding? I...you didn’t even try to be subtle.”
“What? These documents are important and I refuse to trust them with a random and potentially corrupt constable in a city apparently known for debauchery.”
Anaya sighed again, for some reason, as the constable frowned. “Oh, so you can’t trust it with a lowly deputy, huh?”
“Yes, that’s exactly what I said.” Can’t even understand such a simple thing without it having to be explained... Though, given that the deputy scowled rather than responded, she obviously agreed with Michael’s assertion, and with that settled, the cardinal examined the collected papers to see what information they bore. Then their eyes widened as they quickly realized what they had in their possession.
Nearly every paper seemed to be some form of contract obliging silence or missive of smuggled goods, all evidence of some kind or another that the leviathan Borzla had been using against the paladins of Zemava and the constables of Sollamava. Records of illicit dealings, captured images of compromised paladins, fully outlined graphs of just who connected to whom in veritable trees of corruption...It was practically a sensual dream of blackmailers the world over...
Michael paused, their gaze snapping upward. "You, constable, what is your name?"
She raised an eyebrow. "...Jocasta. Now are you going to tell me what's on those papers?"
"No. Not yet, at least. Tell me, do the officials of Sollamava use an imprint of their hooves as a stamp?" Hm, none of these are signed by a “Jocasta”, so there is a small chance she is trustworthy...
"..." Sighing once again, the constable marched forward. "Just let me see the damn thing." And before she could grab them, Michael pulled away, but turned the papers to let her see what was on it, along with the hoof print at the bottom.
“Alright, cardinal or no, you’re being a real-...Sheriff Demalli? Wait, poaching bribes?” The other onlookers in the crowd started looking closer along with the deputy, some trying to peek around her or over her shoulders to spot what the issue was.
"Can you verify this is authentic?"
"..." With a scowl on her face, Jocasta glared at the paper. "...I know Sheriff Demalli. That's her print."
"Very well. It appears that paladins are not the only one who fell to the sway of corruption, and, as such, we must deal with them at once." They spread their wings despite the twinge of pain, ready to-
"Whoa now, I can't just let you go off like that!” Then lowered their wings and frowned at the scowling deputy. “Even if all that is true, you still blew up a hotel! Sure, it might’ve been for a good reason, so you say, but what you did was basically an act of aggression on Zemava's part!”
"That's stupid." And now Anaya was stepping in front of Michael.
"What my partner here means to say is that they didn't intend any aggression towards Sollamava. However, if these people in these papers were working with a leviathan who was doing bad things, we do need to find them. Blackmail is a powerful motivator and who knows what they've done because of it.”
“I know, because their ‘favors’ are also listed in the documentation,” Michael stated, before looking to the constable, “Do you still intend to stop me?”
“Not for that reason anymore, but yeah, I do. Even if we leave the hotel thing alone, right it off, I still can’t just let you go runnin’ off to whoever knows to hunt down sheriffs and deputies! Sure, you’re an angel, but this ain’t your place to run around!”
“Fine, then bring me to the highest authority in the land, so I can present these findings and have them handle this very real issue!”
Jocasta huffed. “Yeah sure, fine! I’ll just get you an audience with the damn queen!”
And that was exactly what happened. In a sense.
The bizarre sequence of events following the destruction of the Morningstar Salamander began with Deputy Jocasta escorting Michael and Anaya to the Rodoa Sheriff’s Office, while making a firm point to state that they were not, in fact, being arrested, even if she dearly wanted to. The last part felt unnecessary, but the deputy spoke it regardless.
So Michael, in turn, made it a point to not let anyone sit in their carriage, and while unnecessary, they made sure to mention Jocasta wasn't allowed near the carriage. Anaya, for some reason, seemed to want to talk with the deputy, which surprisingly turned out to be insightful. For example, it appeared the reason Sollamavans used hooves for their stamps was logical to them, as each minotaur had distinctive hoof marks which made it easy for them to tell whose was whose.
At least that's what Jocasta said. Michael themself couldn't really tell any difference between the hooves, aside from some that had odd chips at points.
“What did you say this sheriff’s name was?” they asked, glancing to the constable as she led the way into the stocky, solid, one-story building that served as the town’s Sheriff Office. Red bricks and brown wood, not especially stand out… They’d half-expected an enormous sheriff’s star to be on top of the roof.
“Rowan Matakis. He’s not going to be in those papers there, cardinal. He’s a decent man, forthright and honest, even in a town like this.”
Michael nodded as they all walked into the office, and looked to the sheriff–an older, balding minotaur with a solid white beard and lightly tanned skin, wearing a simple blue shirt and dark pants–at his desk, who looked up as they entered. “Well howdy, what can I-”
“Hello Sheriff.” They held up one document from their sheaf of papers. “This is a record of the bribes you took from Cathleen Albeach, otherwise known as Borzla the leviathan and the former manager of the Morningstar Salamander, to not only look the other way in regards to her smuggling operations, but to actively direct people of ‘potential’ to her for the purposes of accumulating further blackmail.
As the sheriff gaped, Michael turned the document to look it over. Not because they needed the information, but because it gave things a sense of sufficient drama. They also ignored the deputy’s baffled look, which was quickly turning to building fury–thankfully more directed at the sheriff–and Anaya’s amused smile, though they did note the latter. “This complete ledger of these bribes, quite meticulously noted down, is further divided into categories based on whether they were of a monetary and sexual nature.
The minotaur looked as white as his beard as Michael looked back up at him, their expression deliberately neutral. “I do hope you take comfort in the fact that she did seem to regard you favorably amongst her many dupes. Though she did take note that you were especially ‘thick’, so take that as you will.”
Anaya snorted for some reason, and was trying to stifle her giggles as Michael glanced at her. Odd reaction, but the sheriff did have quite the stupid look on his face–
They watched as the sheriff sprinted and dove out a nearby window, tilting their head to track him as he ran through the streets. “...” Then they looked at Deputy Jocasta. “You should get after him before he escapes. I would, but I have been informed Sollamava is not my jurisdiction–Oh, she went through the same window. Hm.”
Anaya started outright laughing at that point. Suffice to say, they could not use that sheriff to handle the blackmail issue, and had to move up to the ranks, as it were, to the Archduke of the region. Granted, due to mortal limitations, they did have to leave days later than Michael would have preferred, but they had other matters to keep them occupied during that time.
“Why is an Archduke the direct superior of a town sheriff?” Michael asked as they drove the carriage down a dusty road, past the stone posts bordering Rodoa’s outskirts. Each one was heavily marked with protective runes for warding off monsters; essentially–they were a cheaper, if still effective–version of the full stone walls most cities had.
“Provincial sheriff, actually. Rodoa is considered a major enough city to contain the provincial office for Rodalli, and that makes the Archduke my direct superior,” Jocasta, the now interim sheriff for Rodoa, explained quite calmly as she rode beside them atop a shaggy rhinoceros. She’d been somewhat more positively inclined towards Michael and Anaya following the arrest of the corrupt members of her constabulary. Apparently knowing which of her colleagues she could actually trust was doing wonders for her mental health.
“Hm. And there’s no intermediary between you two?” Michael continued their questioning as Anaya stared at the opposite side of the carriage. At what, they weren’t yet sure, but the elf seemed content with staring at the fields on either side of the sandstone road, in between cooing at the unicorns or the woolly rhino. Apparently, it’s brown fur was exceptionally comfy.
Michael wouldn’t know, because they had better things to do than press their face into the flank of a beast of burden, but the beast in question barely seemed to mind. As such, while Jocasta handled the arrests of corrupt officials and Anaya played with the animals, Michael had lent their efforts to clearing up debris from the building they had...unfortunately broken in the course of the failed apprehension of a dastardly criminal from the deep. Not that Michael particularly minded the disruption to the local businesses, seeing as such business was sinful.
If there was one benefit to being forced to stay in Rodoa for four more days than intended, it was getting to see the high elves head home following the Morningstar Salamander’s destruction, unwilling to “indulge” themselves any longer with the sudden violence in their midst. Most other patrons still stuck around, but they were happy with a slight victory nonetheless.
...It still took way too long to fish most of the debris out of the water, but that didn’t matter because they were on the road again and they had no need to dwell on the past. The filthy, dusty, unpleasantly wet and sodden past that had a tendency to soak into their robes and meant they often had to leave the satchel of papers in Anaya’s care which was certainly not ideal…
“Nope. Why would there be?”
“It strikes me as odd. Why wouldn’t the archduke delegate their responsibilities?”
“They do. An Archduke usually has a steward and castellan to handle the day-to-day, while they’re more runnin’ the big things, like regulatin’ law enforcement. Course, plenty of things can slip through the cracks, as your papers prove.”
“And maybe less things would slip through those cracks if you had a direct superior watching over you that wasn’t meant to run an entire province.”
“And how’s that workin’ out for you Zems?”
Michael bristled. “What does that mean, exactly?”
“It’s an honest question–Oh, right, you’re a cardinal angel. You know, that’s real easy to forget, what with the attitude and lack of grace–”
“I am perfectly graceful–”
“Anyways, save the criticism for when we actually meet Archduke Routhra. Just don’t be too rude, I still need to figure out if I’m in charge permanently or if I get a new boss.”
“Oh don’t worry,” Anaya said, glancing back at them, “Misha can be very nice and pleasant when they want to be. Can’t you?”
She was staring at them far too earnestly… “Yes. I can do that.”
In contrast, Jocasta looked far too skeptical. “Sure, we’ll see.”
Except they didn’t. None of them did, because they were turned away at the gate to Rodina, the capital of Rodalli Province. It was a large city, walled off and resting on a hill beside another large lake that flowed into a series of rivers, carrying ships of all types and a large set of docks that reached beyond the city walls, where green flags flew tall with the sigil of a...sea-goat, from what Michael could see, patterned on them. It was certainly a colorful city that they weren’t allowed into at all.
“What? Why can’t we go in?” Jocasta demanded of the gate guard, himself another minotaur in a half helm and padded surcoat, “Archduke Routhra should’a got the letter I sent.”
“He did, yup. So you’re not allowed in, so long as the angel’s with you, ma’am.”
“What.” Michael hopped from their carriage and strode over to the guard, glaring up into his eyes. “And why am I the one being left out?”
“Cause you’re supposed to go to the capital, ma’am.”
“...Yes. Of course I am.”
Jocasta stared at them for a moment, then looked back at the guard. “So I’m allowed in without them?”
“Right, see ya Anaya. Have a nice trip,” Jocasta said, waving to the elf in question, who waved back with a cheerful smile. Then she urged her rhino forward, letting it go a few paces through the open gate before looking back to Michael, who was glaring at her now. “Treat her right, you hear?”
“What? I–Yes, I hear, but what does that–”
And Jocasta left, leaving Michael scowling again. If I never see her again, it’ll be too soon…
Regardless, Michael and Anaya were on their journey once more with the proper travel papers fully signed by the region’s Archduke, though an additional caveat that now meant their carriage had to have an escort, who would guide them through the arid grasslands to the capital of Sollamava–Sona Komottos–to meet with their ruler, Queen Molgari. Who seemed agreeable enough, if not as professional as Michael would have preferred, from their brief encounters with her in the past.
Traveling by road wasn’t particularly speedy when compared to flight, so the mortals in their party–so everyone except Michael–needed to stop at points to rest and eat and do other mortal things. Naturally, this meant camping under the stars, around a bright campfire as Anaya entertained their new traveling companions–along with whatever wanderers along the road stopped at their camp–with songs and stories while Michael kept watch. The mortals did insist at points that the angel in their midst should join in their gatherings, but Michael had no need of rest and undue merriment would be a detriment to their job.
As such, they stayed at a distance and ignored all calls to join in. Really, they had no need for such foolery, even if the noise and light seemed to actively ward away some of the creatures that wandered the prairies. So there was some use to their “escort”, though that didn’t mean Michael was going to bother to learn their names.
Though it seemed as they were no longer going to be able to keep a low profile, as once they arrived at the immense, walled city of Sona Komottos, the fact that they had an armed escort drew eyes towards them.
“...Misha, you sunk a hotel into a lake,” Anaya responded after Michael shared their thoughts with her, waiting in the line of travelers looking to enter the city. A very large line, full of varying riders, carriages, travelers...the Sollamavan capital was a bustling place. “I think we’ve already vaulted past the point of subtlety.”
“No one here knows I did that. I am but a simple paladin of Zemava who is driving a carriage pulled by unicorns alongside my druidic companion. Nothing about us necessarily attracts attention.”
“...Maybe I should do the talking,” she muttered in reply.
Michael didn’t dignify her mutterings with a response. They were a Cardinal of Divica, one gifted by the God of Judgment with life and wisdom.
They could handle meeting a queen.