Rowana, Robin and Lydia were gathered inside a well-furnished sitting room as the sun lazily set outside the tall windows. It was a cozy enough space, with a colorful carpet, plush seats, and some paintings and house plants to liven it up. Each of the girls in it were relaxing in their own way after a long day of travel. The elf was lounging on a couch with her legs curled up and enjoying a refreshing cup of herbal tea. The youngest and most muscular of the nephilim sisters was halfway through the six hundred one-armed push-ups of her evening workout routine. Lydia was absorbed in a book titled ‘Elven Culture & Customs: From Dominion to Republic’ while sitting on her sister’s wide back to provide her with a bit of extra challenge. Having her ‘seat’ constantly bob up and down looked to be an odd and uncomfortable way to read something, but the eldest of the triplets didn’t seem bothered by it in the slightest.
“Excuse me, Miss Slyth? May I ask a question?” she suddenly spoke up.
“Yes? What is it, Lydia?”
“You and Miss Morgana appear to be wearing your engagement rings in the traditional elvish manner, suggesting you intend to get married in your hometown. But it says here that same-sex marriage is not legal in the Ishigar Republic.”
Robin momentarily paused when she heard the possibility of that sweet elf lady being a criminal, but resumed her workout once she realized this was about one of those boring civil laws.
“It isn’t now, but it will be in about four months,” Rowana replied calmly. “You know what our exarch is?”
“The leader elected by your people through popular vote. Yes, I am aware.”
“We had a new one come to power last year, a respectable gentleman by the name of Alazar. He’s one of the many people whose lives Keira had saved, and she had him swear to legalize unions like ours as payback. He agreed and already passed a bill to change the law, but it won’t be until late autumn that it goes into effect.”
It was also likely that her parents might have pulled some strings behind the scenes to expedite the process, but Rowana’s wife-to-be was without a doubt the chief contributor.
“I see, so Miss Morgana is fulfilling her Hero duties splendidly,” the nephilim declared with a small smile.
“Huh? She is?”
“It is the calling of the Hero of Chaos to elicit change, after all.”
“Ah, I see. I suppose that’s one way to look at it, but that’s not how she sees it.”
“… It’s not?” Lydia raised an eyebrow.
“Deep down, Keira is a kind, but selfish person. The main reason she pushed for that law was because she wanted the two of us to be as happy as possible,” Rowana said while blushing lightly. “The fact that other couples like ours will get to benefit from her actions is nothing more than a ‘happy accident’ in her mind.”
“So you’re saying she did everything in her power to change a centuries-old law without even considering the political, social or religious implications?!”
“Uh, yeah. More or less.”
It was then and there, while sitting on top of Robin’s bobbing back and with beads of cold sweat forming on her forehead that Lydia realized she was severely overestimating Keira Morgana’s foresight. Or underestimating the lack thereof, depending on the point of view. Either way, it served to remind her that the Gods’ chosen ones were just as flawed and wilful as regular people. She already knew that though, otherwise both herself and her sisters would be carrying Sigmund’s children right now.
The double doors that served as the only way in or out of the room flew open with a loud bang, startling the three women and drawing their attention to the ‘intruder.’
“I cannot believe this place!” Madeline exclaimed, her voice loud and excited.
“Madeline!” Lydia yelled at her. “I told you not to wander off and cause trouble!”
“But, this place is so freakin’ huge!”
“Yeah? Huff! So?” Robin questioned her mid-push-up. “The fort was, huff, way bigger.”
“It didn’t have a gigantic library, though! Or a huge kitchen! There’s even an indoor bathhouse! With a pool! A pool!”
“I honestly don’t see what the big deal is,” Rowana shrugged. “There’s no flower garden, no hedge maze, not a single art gallery, and the staff is, frankly speaking, third-rate at best. I guess it’s an alright enough place, but nothing to raise a fuss over.”
While the Inquisition’s ‘embassy’ in the imperial capital was undoubtedly a classy residence, it was no match for the opulent standards that a Slyth typically grew up with.
“What is with you guys?!” Madeline protested while stomping her foot. “Get excited at least a bit, will you?!”
“I think you’re the one that needs to dial it down, you’ve been out of control since we left home,” Lydia coldly reprimanded her as she stood from Robin’s back. “First it was the forests. Then it was the fields. Then it was the city and the people and a million other things. For Teresa’s sake, you giggled for half an hour just because you saw, and I quote, ‘a really big-ass squirrel.’ So, I’m only going to ask you once. Stop. Bothering. Our hosts.”
“I kinda agree with her,” Robin chimed in. “You need to calm your tits before You-Know-Who comes back and does it for you.”
“Oh. That’s a good point, actually.”
Though Maddie was used to being shouted at by Lydia and subsequently ignoring her, a single mention of She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Pissed-Off was enough to get her to sheepishly pipe down. Surprisingly enough, however, the one the sisters were so wary of was not a certain red-haired beastkin. The true identity of She-Who-Will-Wreck-Your-Shit was that of the woman who vaporized half a flock of birds with a single toss of her electrified hammer because they were cawing too loudly while passing overhead.
“What are you meatbags going on about?”
Madeline squealed in surprise at the metallic voice that came from behind and below, practically leaping out of Fizzy’s way as she did so.
“Hey Fizzy,” Rowana calmly greeted her. “Don’t mind them, they’re just being silly. Any word from Keira?”
“Yeah, she just arrived a minute ago, she asked me to tell you lot to go see her in the kitchen. Said she had a ‘gift’ she needed help with.”
“Welp, you heard her, girls! I’ll meet you downstairs!”
Madeline carefully circled around the mithril dynamo golem as she said so, then practically ran off towards the staircase. The other two nephilim followed in her footsteps, doing their best not to piss off the irritable golem.
“Meatbags,” the golem disapprovingly shook her head.
As for why Fizzy was in such a foul mood today, it was because one of their Inquisition escorts called her a foul abomination unworthy of being in the presence of the Goddess’s children. He also called her deity a worthless hack and a pathetic trickster, which didn’t help alleviate the grinding of her gears. And she couldn’t just turn the man’s head into soup without causing an incident, so she had to grin and bear it for now.
At least Boxxy had promised that the insolent heathen would eventually be met with an unfortunate and tragic accident, but that would have to wait until after they’d crossed the border.
“What about you, Fizzy? Care to join us?” Rowana asked politely.
“No, I’m good. I’ll just be out in the yard, doing my thing.”
Trying not to go Charger Mode on that loudmouth’s ass, she added internally.
The elf nodded to show she understood and proceeded through the doorway, down the hall and then down some steps before arriving in the manor’s kitchen. The two chefs on duty and the three nephilim were currently standing by the swinging door that led into the room, making it difficult for Rowana to see what they were staring slack-jawed at. After politely nudging her way through, she saw a massive horse-beast splayed out in the middle of the checkered floor. It had glistening white fur, an arrow through each eye, three more in the neck, and a single spiral horn jutting out of the middle of its head.
And standing knee deep in its freshly eviscerated guts was none other than Keira.
“Oh, hey honey!” the redhead waved to her, bloodied butcher cleaver in hand. “I caught us some dinner!”
“Is that a unicorn?!” Madeline exclaimed. “How could you?!”
“Huh? What are you talking about?”
“Unicorns are supposed to be sacred!”
“... Heh. Hahaha! Ahahahahahaha!” the Hero laughed merrily. “Monsters being sacred, ahhhh-hahahaha!”
She slapped the dead creature’s hide repeatedly as she laughed, causing it to wriggle and gush bodily fluids with every strike.
“Urk… I think I’m going to be sick…”
The middle sibling covered her mouth with her hand and turned away from the gruesome sight, but that didn’t seem to dissuade Keira as she merrily resumed dismantling her catch.
“Ahh, I needed that. For real though, don’t listen to those old children’s stories,” she said once her laughter died down.
“Yes, unicorns are beautiful magical beasts that have a soft spot for virgins.”
“However, that’s only because they’re perverts.”
Maddie had turned away in an effort to avoid staring at the gruesome sight, but she still saw the shadow of Keira’s cleaver every time it rose into the air. She closed her eyes and plugged her ears, but she couldn’t block out those horrible noises and words no matter how hard she tried.
“Unicorns, bicorns, and tricorns, they’re all monsters that only look out for themselves.”
“Don’t let them being herbivores fool you, they are just as violent and territorial as any troll or goblin.”
“The ones you see prancing around the capital? Monster Tamer mounts. Impossible to domesticate otherwise.”
“They still have their uses though. Their meat, pelts, horns and blood are all valuable materials, but that’s it.”
“The world would honestly be a better place without them.”
“Stop it already!” the blonde girl shrieked. “You’ve made your point!”
“No, I clearly haven’t.”
“Look, I know why you’re upset, I get it. You felt your head ornament might’ve made you kindred spirits or something.”
Madeline’s eyes flew open in surprise. How did Keira know about that when she hadn’t even told her sisters about it?
“And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. I’ve heard many people say unicorns and their ilk have some demonic influence in their heritage.”
“Another thing you lot have in common with them, I suppose.”
A few moist droplets landed on the back of the blonde girl’s neck, but the Hero’s lecture had captivated her so completely that she didn’t even notice.
“But that’s where it ends.”
“At the end of the day they are just monsters, and you would be an idiot to ever approach one without the intent to kill.”
“Don’t get me wrong. Having dreams is fine. Great, even.”
“But you need to learn to watch your step before you gawk at the clouds.”
“Otherwise you’re the one that’s going to end up on someone’s chopping board.”
“Now, I’m going to need some help turning this thing into steaks and jerky. Those of you not willing to lend a hand are free to leave.”
The two human chefs looked at one another as they silently confirmed their intentions, then rolled up their sleeves and got busy. Rowana merely excused herself while requesting that Keira save the horn for her, then left the kitchen as if seeing her wife-to-be gut a beast five times her size was something normal. The triplets followed after her, but their moods were far less casual about the ‘demonstration.’
“That was… enlightening,” Lydia mumbled. “I’d read that unicorns could be found in the vicinity of the capital, but seeing one up close… it’s nothing like the diagrams.”
They were also relatively rare and difficult to catch, as they actively avoided people unless cornered. The only time any of those horned horses would willingly show themselves in front of someone was when the person matched their ‘special tastes,’ and even then only if they were alone. Unicorns chased after virgins, bicorns preferred used goods, and tricorns had a fascination with sexual deviants. What happened to individuals that were charmed, coerced, or otherwise stupid enough to ride off into the forests atop their backs was best left unsaid.
They were also considered something of a delicacy, which was why only one of the two that Boxxy caught made it back to that kitchen.
“Enlightening my ass!” Madeline protested. “What was the point of showing us all that?!”
“I think I get it now,” Robin declared, her hands behind her head as she stared blankly at the ceiling. “It’s all a matter of perspective, huh?”
“What are you talking about?” Lydia inquired.
“Well, where Maddie saw some sort of potential pet, all I could think about while watching that was dinner.”
Robin was fully aware that different people had different opinions. However, having lived her short life in what was essentially an echo chamber, she failed to realize just how radically different these viewpoints could be. Having been confronted with that barbaric and gruesome scene appeared to have finally made something go ‘click’ in her head. That conversation about the Republic’s changing laws was also part of it. If the government could declare today’s criminal as tomorrow’s innocent or vice-versa, then it made sense why her ‘uncle’ had a hard time administering the Goddess’s justice.
“I’m just saying, I get what Keira was telling me earlier this afternoon,” she added. “I need to consider other people’s circumstances before I put labels on them.”
Which was going to be difficult considering she was not what one would call a ‘people person.’
“Oh? She managed to get something like that through your thick skull, did she?” Lydia noted with a hint of awe in her voice. “I think I’m starting to understand why mother entrusted us to her.”
Though not overtly obvious at first glance, what the Hero of Chaos was doing was educating the naive trio by shattering their blissful ignorance with harsh lessons. For Robin, it was showing her that the world was not black and white, but shades of gray. For Madeline, it was the uncomfortable truth that reality was not all smiles, sunshine and rainbows. For Lydia, it was that theory and practice were the same in theory, but not in practice.
Or at least that’s what the eldest nephilim assumed her biggest fault was. As the most well-read and intellectual of the triplets, she was distinctly aware that her lack of real world experience was without a doubt the most glaring of her shortcomings. She had tried to keep an open mind about things, but even then there were events and situations that constantly caught her off guard ever since the nephilim left the safety of their gilded cage. Like, for instance, what had happened upon their arrival at the capital mere hours ago.
Dietrich Smith, the lord-mayor of Oshinas, was supposed to do a meet and greet with the Hero of Chaos and her group since the loudmouthed Inquisition escort announced their arrival. It was mostly a polite formality, nothing to get too excited over. However, when the guest of honor was nowhere to be found, he practically chased Rowana, Fizzy and the triplets out of his reception hall in a thoroughly displeased and insulted manner. Madeline seemed convinced he was putting on an act, but Lydia refused to believe that was the case. At least not until half an hour later, when a lovely fruit basket with an unsigned ‘thank you’ note on it arrived at the manor’s doorstep, addressed to none other than one ‘K. Morgana.’
That revelation surprised Lydia quite a bit. Not so much the lord-mayor’s behavior, but the fact that Madeline had guessed his true intentions. Though she might not have had her sisters’ brains or brawns, she had a gift for empathizing with people and reading between the lines. Something that the Bard tutoring she received helped nurture and develop to the point where even a seasoned politician was like an open book to her. It was also why she was able to so easily brush off the fact that Keira threatened her with such intensity upon their first meeting. Though the Hero put on a good show, the nephilim was able to grasp she wasn’t being serious about hurting her once the initial shock had worn off.
There was a downside to that emotional sensitivity of hers, though. Namely the fact that she was the most childish and bratty of the triplets when things were not going her way. It was why she continued to pout, grumble and complain about Keira’s impromptu lecture on realistic expectations. Even if part of her recognized it was for her own good, having a childhood dream vandalized in such a brutal and insensitive manner would obviously leave her fuming. This bad mood continued on for about an hour more until the unicorn stew was served up. Madeline naturally wanted none of it, but Robin insisted she at least try it. She insisted so hard that she practically shoved a spoonful down her sibling’s throat while pinning her in a headlock.
Long story short, Madeline still thought of unicorns as her favorite magic creature, but she now preferred them served with desert spices, sweet corn and dwarven jumping beans.
The all-female group resumed their journey northward first thing in the morning. The leader of the Inquisitorial escort had a few choice words for the Hero of Chaos for disappearing like she did, but she shut him up by almost literally bludgeoning him with Sigmund Law’s seal of authority. The next several days were mostly uneventful apart from Keira doing her best to educate the nephilim siblings on the finer points of the Empire’s wildlife. Rowana also got in on the tutoring by teaching them some common knowledge about magical herbs and plants, as well as some basic first aid skills.
It was also during this time that Madeline developed something of a gluttonous side. Apparently her diet had been strictly controlled during the two years she was growing up, and she was eager to experience these strange new flavors the trip presented her with. She even went as far as badgering the beastkin and elf for cooking lessons despite the fact that she had been told time and again she had to wait until they got to Azurvale. Her seeing monsters as ‘food’ rather than ‘potential friends’ was a good thing, but Boxxy was not particularly thrilled about this development.
When it considered the fact that Lydia took after Teresa and Robin took after Arms, having the middle sibling unironically ask whether goblins were tasty had some… troubling implications.
The group’s time in the Empire drew to a close when they arrived at the nation’s northern border on the sixth day after leaving Fort Aynor. The proverbial line in the sand between the Empire and the Republic was punctuated by a large military outpost where the Imperial highway came to an abrupt end. The outskirts of the ancient forest called the Rainy Woodlands was visible on the horizon to the north. Within it lied the city of New Whitehall, which was Keira’s next destination. Though still recovering from the damage it sustained at the apex of the Calamity Conflict, the settlement had a functioning Forest Gate that would take the group straight to Azurvale.
However, it would seem that getting across the border would be easier said than done, as three platoons of soldiers bearing the insignia of the Republic’s Legions blocked the convoy’s path. Their presence was a bit worrying, as it was ludicrous to think these men and women were here solely because of the turbulent political climate. Well, that was part of it, but the border between the two nations was so wide that keeping watch on this one single spot was more or less pointless. Unless, of course, they were waiting for a very specific someone to arrive.
An elf clad in silver-colored armor approached the befuddled armed escort on foot.
“Hail!” he offered while raising his hands in greeting. “Which one of you gents is Inquisitor Patterson?”
“That would be me!” one of the mounted knights declared. “Identify yourself!”
“My name is Connor Valen, an Optio of the Ishigar Republic’s Third Legion and their liaison to the Foreign Intelligence Bureau! I hereby officially request a peaceful discourse with Inquisitor Patterson!”
Having confirmed the other side’s representative, the two men approached each other while their respective subordinates formed ranks. It was unlikely a skirmish would suddenly break out, but it was important to be prepared. Just in case.
“So,” the Inquisitor said with a huff. “Am I to assume you will not let us pass?”
“Indeed. We simply cannot have a foreign military detachment roam around unchecked throughout our lands. I’m sure you understand.”
Of course, Patterson understood. This was more or less the standard way other nations treated the Inquisition, and nobody could blame them for it. Though religious at its core and not directly affiliated with the Empire’s government, it was impossible to deny they were a potential threat. Not to mention that, even if those in power understood the group’s goals were noble in their own way, it was hard to convince the citizens of that. Much like Keira had told Robin a week before, if a commoner saw a group of soldiers armed literally to the teeth approaching their home, they would automatically assume the worst.
“I’m afraid I must insist,” the human stood his ground. “We have in our protection people of interest that-”
“Yes, I am fully aware of exactly who and what you are transporting. I would not be here if I wasn’t.”
Patterson looked over his shoulder at the carriage that the nephilim were riding on and saw Keira leaning out of the window, waving playfully at him with a smug, shit-eating grin. It was now evident she had sent word of their arrival ahead of time and requested that the FIB replace the Inquisition as her escort. It was hardly surprising given how she was not exactly courteous with the human soldiers. She even went as far as calling them vaguely unpleasant things like ‘obstacles’ or ‘wardens.’ Her profound resentment of Imperial soldiers was well documented as were her strong ties to the FIB, so this outcome was almost inevitable in hindsight.
“I’m afraid I cannot leave those children’s side under any circumstances,” Patterson declared. “I must ensure their safety, regardless of where their ‘guardian’ takes them.”
“I understand, you have orders to fulfil. However, I dare say there is more to this than just jurisdiction.”
Valen nodded at something behind the human, prompting him to look over his shoulder once more. He was then beaned in the face with the very seal of authority that Keira had been lording over him this entire time. The large coin-like object bounced off of his helmet’s visor, prompting him to try and catch it in a panic that nearly made him fall off of his high horse in the process. After securing the precious object, he was then made aware of the six women that were calmly walking past him with their luggage in tow.
“Keep the change, asshat,” the catgirl sneered.
“You best hope we never meet again,” the golem growled at him.
“Sorry about those two, and thank you for looking after us,” the elf smiled.
“Later, Pats! Crack a few heretic skulls for me!” Robin waved goodbye at him.
“We’ll bring you some yummy souvenirs when we get back, okay?” Madeline promised.
“Do not worry, I am certain we are in capable hands,” Lydia reassured him. “I’ll also try to write every day.”
Patterson began swearing like a sailor in his head, but as much as he didn’t like this development, he was ultimately a man in a difficult position. Teresa herself had decreed that the triplets follow and learn from Keira and the girls seemed more than happy to accompany her. It wasn’t as if he could just force them to stay behind, especially given the Legion presence that would surely interfere should he get any stupid ideas. Frankly speaking, the only reason he didn’t just quietly hand the ‘children’ over was because of his own ego and slightly inflated sense of self-worth.
It wasn’t as if Patterson was a bad man at heart, but it was hard to keep one’s cool given the importance of the task he was given.
“… Stand down, men,” he ordered his subordinates. “We’ll set up camp in the nearest town and send word back to Fort Aynor.”
The Inquisition escort backed off, allowing the others to meet their new security detail.
“So, these are your Legionnaire buddies, huh?” Robin asked as she looked over the elven soldiers. “They definitely have a different feel to them than uncle Sigmund’s guys.”
“That they do,” Keira nodded in agreement. “However, I don’t think ‘buddies’ would be the right word to use.”
“That’s rather harsh coming from you, Decanus Morgana,” the commanding officer reprimanded her. “I seem to remember you were quite protective of your squad during the siege of New Whitehall.”
“You’ll forgive me if I don’t look back on that idiotic war with nostalgia, sir,” Keira bit back. “What’s going on, though? I know I asked for FIB protection, but isn’t bringing the Legions into this a bit much? And why does everyone look so miserable and on edge?”
Valen took a cursory glance at his dispirited subordinates. While it was true their helmets were hiding most of their faces, it was impossible to hide the nervousness in their eyes. He had hoped to get this bunch to a more secure location before he had to say anything, but he knew firsthand just how stubbornly inquisitive the beastkin Ranger before him could get. He still hesitated for a bit, but ultimately decided to spill the beans right then and there.
“Because something terrible happened while you were away, ma’am,” he revealed in a heavy tone. “Eleven days ago, Azurvale was attacked by an unknown entity, leaving a big part of the city in ruins. Thousands lay dead, many more are homeless, and part of our Forest Gate network is crippled. People are calling it the worst disaster in the city’s history since the fall of the Elven Dominion, possibly even beyond.”
Rowana covered her gaping mouth in disbelief as she tried to process this terrible news while Keira just blinked at the officer with a blank expression. Having overheard ‘thousands lay dead,’ the triplets were also quite aghast at this sudden turn of events. Even Fizzy was visibly worried, but mostly about the integrity of her workshop rather than the loss of life. As for the soldiers gathered around them, many were shaking with anxious rage while a few were desperately trying to hold back tears.
“There is… one other thing I should mention,” Valen added while looking straight at Rowana.
“No…” she mumbled as the grim realization dawned on her. “No!”
“I’m sorry, Miss Slyth.”
“Nooo! Please, Goddess, no!”
“Your mother survived, but your father was not as fortunate.”
The platinum-blonde elf broke out into a sorrowful wail and buried her face in Keira’s shoulder. The catgirl did her best to console the weeping woman while putting on a brave face, but the monster inside was practically fuming. Not because of the casualties, it gave not a single damn about elves getting killed off somewhere. It also wasn’t because it was worried about its lair, as Lavender would’ve reported any irregularities should its home dungeon come under threat. However, it considered the city of Azurvale to be its playground, a front yard of sorts. Which meant that, knowingly or not, this ‘unknown entity’ had just taken a massive dump on Boxxy T. Morningwood’s lawn.
And they were about to find out why doing that was an incredibly idiotic, extremely ill-advised and phenomenally terrible decision.