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your girlfriend is a character from kuroinu:
>alicia
>celestine
>chloe
>claudia
>kaguya
>lou lou
>maia
>olga
>prim
>>
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>>5385188
>>alicia
>>
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>>5385188
>>celestine
>>
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>>5385188
>>chloe
>>
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>>5385188
>>claudia
>>
>>5385188
if you wish to make a cuckoldry quest, I'd advise you to take it to anonkun or that terminal velocity thing.
>>
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>>5385188
>>kaguya
>>
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>>5385188
>>lou lou
>>
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>>5385188
>>maia
>>
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>>5385188
>>olga
>>
>>5385188
The fuck is Kuroinu?
Where's the girl with glasses?
Kaguya, i guess.
>>
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>>5385188
>>prim
>>
vote is open
>>
so it's just waifu wars - the quest?

I have never even heard of that anime before
>>
ah, so it's a hentai
kindly fuck off to fiction.live
don't come back
>>
hey buddy I think youre got the wrong board, /aco/ is two clicks down.
>>
>>5385204
Voting for Olga.

>>5385290
>>5385211
>>5385210
Fuck off faggots.
>>
>>5385356
>calling anyone faggot over no effort fake quest that will see at most handful of two sentence updates half of which will be netorare
Go patroon rebellion if you’re that desperate for content, if you can manage to extract your tongue from op’s unwashed hairy anus.
>>
>>5385204
>Olga
You could just turn the Kuroinu plot into a quest sans porn.
>>
>>5385201
Her
>>
>>5385188
>lou lou
or nothing. She has a cute pony-tail you see
>>
>>5385188
>claudia
>>
Question but what’s Terminal Velocity? Also I vote for Claudia.
>>
fuck it, I'm frustrated, bored, a bit drunk and horny to cuck someone. In this case, OP. Let's do it. (don't expect speed or dedication though)

>>5390100
it's actually sufficient velocity and it's another questing site with "relaxed" "standards" for content.
>>
You are Mouse the Ogre, boyfriend of her majesty Olga Discordia, queen of the dark elves and sovereign of the North.

Well, that may be a stretch. Technically, you're only half-ogre, sole survivor of a backwater frontier village, and calling her majesty your girlfriend may be too much.
But still, she must care for you dearly - why else would she make you a leader of her special operation squad and sent you on a quest of pivotal importance? Her golden eyes certainly seem slightly warmer, slightly kinder, when she addresses you over her other lieutenants, with possible exception of her cherished handmaiden.

That's enough introspection. Your mission is to reach Crypt of the Dusk, a sacred ruin located deep in the human lands, and retrieve the relic of the nameless from its depths. Her majesty had prophesized that the fate of the world hangs in balance and the seals have weakened to the point of breaching.
You're not sure what all of that means but so far you were successful in avoiding human patrols - unsurprising as all able bodied men and women were rallied to repel your liege's forces up north.

You look across your special force and ponder your strategy. The Crypt should not be too far from your current camp...
1. Phineous the sophisticated orc. Proficient with crossbow and rapier. Enjoyer of human aesthetic... unlike his kin, he genuinely appreciates beauty and is above despoiling it. Owes you his life.
2. Tithe the Gargoyle. Animated from a marble block recovered from a temple in a conquered town, perhaps as a cruel joke? Considerably smaller than most of his kind, more timid too. Can fly.
3. Sparky the Imp. Only remarkable thing about Sparky is his lack of affinity for fire. He has magical potential but was unable to replicate fire attacks commonly used by his kin. Can fly.
4. Smutkin the Human Bard. Came looking for inspiration for his obscene songs, turned out unprepared for real brutality of war. Your intercession saved him from butcher's block.
5. Finally yourself, Mouse the Ogre. To your paternal heritage you owe brute strength, from your late mother you... you inherited words of kindness.

Quite an eclectic troupe you command, by authority of your beautiful liege. So, what path to take now?

>Press hard for the objective. If your majesty has sent you on a quest spurred by an impulse of prophecy, time may be of the essence. You will proceed carefully but with less rest.
>Maybe you could relax your caution a bit. Everyone left this far south into human lands is fat in complacent. This will allow you to travel quickly while still being able to conserve strength.
>Maintain the current pace. Although the heartland was mostly stripped of armed forces, there was still merit to maintaining both stealth and economy of your stamina.
>Actually, your team is still a bit lacking in experience and this woodland offers some chance to practice. You would probably have to dedicate an entire day to this at least to make a difference.
>other plan...
>>
>>5390442
>Press hard for the objective. If your majesty has sent you on a quest spurred by an impulse of prophecy, time may be of the essence. You will proceed carefully but with less rest.
Might as well show support for someone willing to run this
>>
>>5390632
>+1
I dunno about this hentai except for some stray scenes I've seen around. What's the lore ?
>>
>>5390897
A battle has been going on between two countries for several centuries. One country, lead by the High Elf Celestine, sends a group of mercenaries to serve as a vanguard for the final conflict of this long war. The mercenaries then proceed to double cross the good guys after defeating the Dark Elf queen and begin their path to conquer the remaining kingdom to make their own kingdom alongside the monsters and demons they allied with from the Dark Elf's land. That's the SFW gist of it from memory and a quick google search.
>>
>>5390914
So that's why the dark elf is having her deeds done and also why the female warriors are kinda in a bad spot. I'm wondering if the good guys conviced the mercs to betray her by outbuying them
>>
Although her majesty was not very specific, the tone she took while describing your task instilled a sense of urgency in you that has been driving you above your usual desire to see the queen's wishes fulfilled. You were too close to fail now.
"Alright, men, suit up. Tithe, Sparky, maintain low profile. We're pressing onwards."
"But boooosss. Manoeuvring between trees is exhausting." Sparky complained.
"You can rest on my shoulder when you're tired. Same for you, Tithe. But we can't risk being spotted now. And this also applies to you two - remember the drill."
"Yes yes, understood." Phineous said with a sigh. The human simply nodded, it was after all mode of travel he was accustomed with.

And so your command journeyed onward through the temperate woods of human lands, hastily covering whatever distance you had to travel in the open and avoiding hamlets and settlement with help of Tithe's sharp sight.

You pressed onwards for the entirety of the day and well into the dusk. The darkness came as a blessing, allowing you to sneak past a halfway deserted fort that overlooked entrance to the vale where your objective was located without need to confront the patrols. From there it was only a few hours trip to where the ruins were supposed to be.

No sooner did you arrive that the fatigue was beginning to burden even you, alongside both of your flying subordinates. You were unsure whether Tithe's mass or Sparky's snoring were bothering you more. Nevertheless, you were glad to have reached your destination in good time.

On that note, you took a moment to catch your breath as much as you did to take in the vista before you - or as much as the moonlight of a half moon would allow, though your monstrous vision accustomed to the dark certainly helped - as you emerged from the coniferous forest you've been traversing into a large clearing dotted with rock formations whose regular shapes betrayed their artificial origin.
On either side of the clearing, ridges that formed the valley converged ahead, marking the clearing as valley's boundary with a sheer stone face that was enlivened by a small waterfall which poured down a suspiciously smooth surface into a pool below. The pool in turn fed a rivulet you've been following upstream as it provided a convenient source of refreshment.

You made it. This was without the doubt the ruin. All that was left was to find entrance to the crypt and recover the relic. You look at your men. Phineous manages his pretentious expression although you can detect a slight tremor as he disciplines his breath. Smutkin seems in better shape but you can tell his stance is less nonchalant and more strained than usual.

>Rest up for rest of the night, you can look for the entrance in the light of day. This place shows no signs of being frequented anyway... as far as you can tell.
>You can't afford to rest in a landmark. A random pilgrim could betray your presence. Breach the crypt now and rest inside.
>other plan
>>
>>5391304
>You can't afford to rest in a landmark. A random pilgrim could betray your presence. Breach the crypt now and rest inside.
>>
>>5391304
>You can't afford to rest in a landmark. A random pilgrim could betray your presence. Breach the crypt now and rest inside.
>>
>>5391304
>Rest up for rest of the night, you can look for the entrance in the light of day. This place shows no signs of being frequented anyway... as far as you can tell.
>>
"We need to bear it just a while longer. This place is too exposed to rest safely without risk of detection."

"But boss, we came all this way without rousing suspicion. So what if some fool shows up to pay respects or whatever? We can deal with them easily." Phineous objects.

"And if they are missed, alarm will be raised. We don't know how much work is left to extract our objective, we're not taking chances."

The orc grumbles but does not object further. Satisfied with the discipline restored you look around in search of possible entry points - the clearing could hide any number of collapsed entrances, but you have a feeling that the major feature of this location would have prominent position.

"Phineous, take the northern side of the ruins and see if you can find something of interest. Sparky, you take the south. Tithe, you're on overwatch. Smutkin, with me." You split up the area just to be sure and wait for chorus of acknowledging grunts as the two fliers take off from their perch and the silent human follows you straight towards the cliff face.

As you traverse the ruins, shadows of structures that had once stood there, you catch yourself wondering if they were part of the crypt proper or erected to serve the possible pilgrims or visitors. In any event, they must have fallen to ruin long ago. In either case, as soon as you circled the pool in front of the cliff face you saw your suspicions partially confirmed. The wall was too smooth and straight to be natural, the chiseled face was something you only saw in what was left of temples or monuments in captured human cities - or in walls of citadel of the Queen herself. You didn't doubt you were looking at the wall of the crypt. Only issue left was to find the actual entrance.
Fortunately, that proved to be a trivial task. Upon closer inspection the wall was covered with traces of writing Smutkin was studying with great interest. It was not in language you could understand but you could make out a pattern they formed and following that pattern you were able to make out a rectangular slab of stone. Probing it further you were eventually able to take hold of it and after some experimentation - and with surprising ease - the slab slid inwards and, after some further probing, to the side. Entrance of the crypt was laid bare open and beckoned you to enter.
>>
Trusting the observant gargoyle would see you you gave Tithe a signal to gather the squad. Sparky was first to arrive, grasping a talisman in its claws.

"It stank. But It was interesting. You like interesting, yes?" The imp asks as it hands the item over. It was a simple piece of matted grey metal chain with pendant that resembled a wolf's head. A good luck charm? A memento? You smelled the item but could not discern anything you wouldn't expect from an item left to rust among ruins. Though when you looked at it you did feel some stirring in your lower stomach. You attributed it to hunger though. Didn't people say, 'hungry as a wolf'?

"Good job. Thank you, Sparky." You commended the imp as you put the item away for further consideration. Just in time to see Phineous appear. It appears he found something as well.

"You won't believe it, boss. You say this was a holy related place? Well, this doesn't look like anything that usually comes up in temple loot." The orc innocently presented an elongated wooden engraving. Its shape was impossible to mistakenly identify as anything else but what it was.

Smutkin chuckled to himself, you were unsure if at the object or the statement.

"Interesting find... yes, well done, Phineous." You told your subordinate. Then, with some hesitation, you took the item from him and, wrapping it into a piece of dirty cloth, stowed it away as well. "Somehow I don't think this is part of the ritual objects..." you muttered to yourself. "Anyway, let us proceed."

With that, you let the four of your companions enter into the dark before going in yourself and sliding the portal shut once again, hopefully with none the wiser of your presence.


Entry chamber to the crypt was mostly an unremarkabre corridor lined with supportive arches. Even in torchlight you felt safe to employ here there were no special features, iconography or script to be seen. Only feature of note was a pair of stone statues, both abundantly female and both armed with spears - actual weapons, not sculpted - flanking the portal at the far end of the chamber.

"They look nice." Tithe piped up in an uncharacteristic display of initiative.

"Ah indeed, Tithe, you are a man of culture, just like me." Phineous commented.

"Can we rest nowwwhooah?" Sparky yawned.

>Yes, now is a good time to rest. Whatever awaits you further in, you better recuperate before delving to find out.
>Just one more thing. Talk to one party member about something before resting.
>These weapons the statues hold look real and could be useful. Let's take them. I mean, what's the worst that can happen?
>other plan...
>>
>>5392264
>>Just one more thing. Talk to one party member about something before resting.
Let's check in on Smutkin, he's the only human among monsters and has been kinda quiet
>>
>>5392264
>Yes, now is a good time to rest. Whatever awaits you further in, you better recuperate before delving to find out.
Was it a wooden dildo we found ?
>>
"Yes. Let's rest."

There's a collective sigh of relief as your team drops their knapsacks and pouches beneath the wall and sets about preparing their bedding for the night with what meager supplies you're carrying.

"Smutkin, a moment of your time." You address the silent bard. He gives you a weary look but nods with a smallest of smiles, probably anticipating what you would ask of him. "You seemed familiar with the script found outside. Did you understand what it said?"

"In a way. It's an archaic script, and archaic form of common tongue you can find in ancient scrolls. I read some during my journeys, on my quest..." he trails off. "This place, you can tell it's not an active pilgrimage site. The fort we passed is to keep it off limits by order of the church. Now that I saw it myself, I can imagine why.

This place is a testament to apocryphal scriptures that church of the goddess cannot outright deny, but limits its accessibility and never mentions it in sermons. It is a variant of the creation myth, one that is - or was - relevant to my interests."

You give him a surprised look at that. You know his interest was that of composing depraved tales and lyrics, though you only know this from his own admission as since you requested his release into your custody he showed no interest or ambition to pursue this. Still, it seemed a strange match with what the human faith in their goddess seemed to entail.

"Exactly." Smutkin said, noting your expression. "It's a lurid tale of corruption, how the goddess, exhausted from her work, was taken forcefully by a strange beast. Repeatedly, throughout the entire day and into complete surrender which came with dusk. Only when the beast itself was exhausted by ravaging her was the goddes able to escape. That is where the apocryphal cuts out, at least the texts I have heard of."

"Interesting. But..." You nod, your memory unbidden returning to happier times when your mother and foster father educated you in ways of the world. And to the worst day of your life, the day of your rescue. "Such union is considered anathema to the faithful of today."

Smutkin's expression hardens. "Officially, yes. But I do not think that the rape of the goddess is the reason this story is shunned. The actual offensive part is the surrender."

"What are you saying?"

"I think the church is afraid not as much of the apocryphal's effect on the faitfhul as much as it is afraid that it is true." The bard says, his voice laboriously monotone. "That this world is fundamentally tainted." He exhales. "I'm sorry, leader. This talk has been too heavy for me to bear."

"Thank you for your insight. Sleep well."

With that you make for your own corner of the impromptu camp and, after confirming others are settled, snuff out the torch, drifting off to sleep with heavy heart and only comfort being that of Tithe's watchful gaze ensuring nobody would sneak up on you.
>>
Your night is haunted by nightmares. It is not much of a surprise to you, you are accustomed to them. Most frequent one being recollection of the day where your family is burned at the stake, following by wholesale butchery of the entire village by advancing forces of her majesty. That one at least has one moment that helps you preserve your sanity in it - your mother's final words to you. Those you swore you would never betray.

This one was different. It was worse. There was your mother, in a way you never remember her. But it was not circumstances of your conception. Your foster father was nearby, mauled to death yet somehow aware. And there was no ogre soldier taking his spoils, but a large black wolf. It was staring in your eyes and cackling like a human. You wanted to wake up but you could not, not yet...

Your mother was crying, that is a sound you remember well. But then she stopped and she spoke the words again, drowning out the beast's cackle. You could almost swear it turned into a panicked yelp.

"Never give up your light. Remember our love."

With that, you woke up.

Looking around in the flickering light of torch Phineous had already reignited, none of your companions seemed disturbed as you were, which you took as a comforting sign. At any rate, it was time to move on with your mission.

First snag you hit as soon as you packed up and approached the portal deeper into the crypt. And honestly, you were not even surprised.

"You cannot pass." One of the statues spoke as your group approached and both of them moved to bar entry with their spears.

"We will defend the temple's purity to the end." The other statue added.

Golems. It was worrying, since given military doctrine of both your beloved queen and the human armies, you were all accustomed to fighting foes that valued flexibility and vanity over heavy armour. On the other hand, depending on how aware these beings were, perhaps they could be reasoned with?

>Fight the golems for access.
>Attempt to convince the golems to let you through. Follow your mother's words.
>Attempt to convince the golems to let you through. Leverage the corruption.
>other course of action
>>
>>5393323
>Attempt to convince the golems to let you through. Leverage the corruption.
>>
I feel that in order to prevent misconception or misunderstanding, I should just say this: choices may have consequences outside of the immediate situation. And especially when it comes to deciding whether to lean on and utilize corruption of this world for your goals or to push against it.
>>
>>5393323
>Attempt to convince the golems to let you through. Follow your mother's words
It probably won't be the easy path, but a group of monsters fighting against the inherent corruption of the world is ironically fitting.
A black dog that harms those we love, I wonder what that symbolizes?
>>
>>5393688
alright then, changing to this
>Attempt to convince the golems to let you through. Follow your mother's words.
>>
It doesn’t take a great feat of deduction for you to understand that there is only one way the fight would end if you decided to start one and it would be with the two finely sculpted golems moaning on the floor. In fact, you were feeling confident you could achieve that just by a choice of words, if the picture you got from your observation and Smutkin’s story was accurate.

The cackle from your dream came to mind.

“I refuse.” You said, more to yourself than to the golems, though it still prompted them to exchange confused glances. There had to be a better way.

“You… are not going to fight us?” The first statue asked.

“Does that mean you are going to leave?” The other one added. Was it relief, or disappointment that colored her, or its, words? Could these constructs actually feel anything for themselves? Your gaze darted to Tithe who watched silently, as he usually did. A manner of golem himself, you have known him to show a measure of personality.

“I can’t do that.” You said, turning back to the golems. “But I have a question, guardians. Whom do you serve, who holds your loyalty and devotion?”

“The goddess, of course.” They responded simultaneously.

“And would the goddess be served if I defeated and defiled you, her guardians, with my power and violence?”

“If you were strong enough…”

“…what happens to us is not important as long as her will is served.”

“Is your purpose then to stop me from entering, or to fight to bitter end?”

The golems again exchanged confused glances.

“It is… to fight the interloper?” One golem says, certitude eroded.

“And submit to the strong…” the other admits.

If those had been simple, unthinking automata, this would have been a waste of breath for you. But it appears whoever made them found it fitting to make them sentient enough to be self aware. You opt not to delete too deeply into possible motivations.

“I don’t think it was the goddess who gave you these instructions, guardians.” You speak softly. “I don’t wish to fight you. Please, let me pass.”

“…if we are guardians, we should stop you.” Golem one said, hesitance clear in her voice.

“…. But directive would render us unable to do so effectively.” Statue two noted.

“Are we useless?” The first one asked herself aloud.

“No.” You resolutely answer. “If you are able to ask yourself that question then you should not be required to justify your answer.”

“The interloper’s observation seems accurate.”

“Maybe this interloper is not a hostile.

“Does that mean you’ll let us through?”

“Fine”. The first one said.
“But we will be watching.”

The two golems unbaren the passage before you and you allowed yourself to sigh in relief. Still, you were not out of water yet and your choice to appeal to the golems’ virtues may yet end up backfiring, especially if now they choose to fight you properly. For now, though, the party could proceed.
>>
Next chamber you entered was markedly more voluminous than the hall before, though a bit shorter. However at least initially you disregarded any finer points of architecture or decoration as its principal feature immediately captured your attention and set your heart racing. As your eyes rested on the pedestal rising from the central dais, you knew for sure your quest’s objective is within reach. Glinting even in the flickering torchlight was the coffer with the relic the crypt was built to house. In your excitement you easily missed extra sets of footfalls as the golems followed you in to observe your behaviour.

Of course, nothing could be quite as easy. The coffer was set solidly into the pedestal and although you could probably pry it open with some effort it turned out there was a trivial puzzle attached to it, possibly part of some forgotten ritual. In any event after some fiddling and rearranging of a few stone tori the coffer clicked open to reveal a jewel, or rather a small vessel of sorts, a case made of silvery metal and clear crystal, with some dark substance rolling around within.

You could not help but see the case as having a vaguely vulpine shape.

“That thing smells really bad, boss.” Sparky said. He had darted out towards the chamber entrance as soon as the coffer opened. However, as much as you wished to heed his warning, that item had to come with you whatever it was. So you recovered some of you spare cloth from your bag and as you reached to grab your prize…

It felt as if you touched membrane of a drum for a split moment, and the as if it popped at your touch and enveloped your entire body, then a wave of chill permeated your being, you almost felt as if your queen was giving a scrutinizing glare to your every bone and sinew.

“Interloper triggered the seal…” golem one said
“…and it had not found them wanting.” Golem two added. “Interloper confirmed for not interloper.”

“You could have warned me.” You can’t help but grumble.

“We could not warn a possible interloper.” Golem one protested.
“Be warned now, though, the seal was not just protecting the relic from unauthorized access.” Two added.
“It also suppressed the haunting…” one concluded.

It was then that you noticed that swirl of the smoke you saw in corner of the vision was not just result of your troupe’s movements or a draft. There was another set of guardians, and these were not open to negotiation!

>it’s a fight! Your party vs several shades.

“I can help you.”

You almost jump at the whisper of the unknown voice. No… not unknown. It’s familiar somehow… though not from the sound of words.

You grab the relic through the cloth you had prepared for it, and the voice came again.

“I can give you power to destroy your enemies.”

Was this really time to be talking with disembodied voices?

>fight the shades
>run, you have what you came for
>talk to the voice
>>
>>5393839
>run, you have what you came for
we can talk later
>>
>>5393839
>run, you have what you came for
>>
"Form up! We're leaving." You command and your troop to their credit follow as you hoped they would. Although you're aware your peers mock you for being too soft both on your underlings and the enemy, you like to think your men won't let you down when it counts, and so far they deliver on that hope.

Phineous stands ready with his sword in main hand and torch in off hand as you pass by, your own club in hand, followed by Smutkin with his staff, your two winged allies flanking you and doing their best to claw at the apparitions darting around. You make your way to the entrance and your men move with you.

You have some elementary knowledge of fighting shades. Contrary to intuition, mundane weapons were not entirely useless against them, even though it was impossible to draw blood. For whatever reason, contact with business end of a weapon had disruptive effect on the ethereal adversaries. Even so, alternative means of defence such as torch Phineous was waving as he brought up the rear, was marginally more effective.

The two golems dropped into fighting stance as well. At first you were worried they might object to your carrying the relic out of the dungeon but to your relief the alabaster twins joined your party's formation in chasing off the apparitions.

Despite your best effort and making for the exit, occasionally a shade penetrated your defences, sending a deathly chill down your spine, momentarily numbing a limb they touched. You had to be rid of them, quick. Hopefully, leaving the chamber would suffice, barring that, leaving the crypt entirely definitely should.

It's a gruelling advance despite the dungeon's modest dimensions and each of you receive some chilling bites for your trouble but eventually you make it through to the front door. You curse at having to put away your weapon in order to open them but some exertion later you are out in the clear and in the midday sun.

And in the light of day, the shades disperse.

>Combat concluded! Your party received some experience for the ordeal.

"They will return ere the dusk. Drawn like moths to a flame." The voice makes itself known again.

You look around quickly to assess your group and it seems you're the only one hearing it.

This... could prove troublesome. Both voice's existence and implications it was making.

>Talk with the voice now.
>No, move out of the ruins first.

Additionally, there was the matter of the two golems. Settled into their resting stance now, they were looking at you expectantly, with vaguely forlorn expression. You were taking the relic away, does that mean they would be left to guard an empty dungeon?

>Take the golems with you. They appeared to know how to fight when they put their minds to it.
>Maybe you could try to give them a task, a different purpose to fulfil.
>Send the golems back into the crypt.
>other idea
>>
>>5394036
>Talk with the voice now.
>>5394036
>Take the golems with you. They appeared to know how to fight when they put their minds to it.
>>
Sizing up the two golems you recognized their help probably spared you and your men a few hits from the shades. And on that note, you could benefit from their assistance if they returned, especially as they seemed reasonably competent with their spears despite the questionable directives they originally held. And so you've made your decision.

"There is no point in you staying behind to guard the empty ruins." You tell the golems. "Would you like to travel with me instead?"

Smutkin the bard gives you a curious look, eyebrows raised.

"The seal of selflessness spared you smiting." Golem first - at least you think it's the one, they may have swapped around and they did look sort of identical.
"And you chose to spare us humiliation." Second golem remarked.
"And now you carry the relic." First one concluded the recap.
"Perhaps it was the goddess's will. We can guard you instead."
"As long as you follow the path of the goddess."

Well, that last part could prove to be a cause of problems, especially as you reached lands controlled by her majesty. But you managed to get the golems to see things your way before, hopefully you can do that again. For now it was a non issue anyway.

"I'll be happy to have you."

>feel free to name the two golems that have joined the party.

With the matter of the abandoned golems resolved you moved back to the more difficult issue. Who was the voice and what did it want?

Come to think of it, you did now have someone to ask.

"Is the relic supposed to talk to people?"

The golems traded glances and Phineous and Smutkin gave you concerned looks, probably wondering if you were beginning to go mad.

"We don't know." Golem one said.
"However... long time ago, when crypt was welcoming pilgrims and visitors, the head priest would sometimes be talking to himself or praying. Perhaps that is when he heard the relic. Are you a priest?"

"I am not." You reply and briefly wonder if it was a mistake.

"Then... perhaps a chosen one?"
"If master is chosen one, it is all the more reason for us to support and fight for you." The other golem nodded, satisfied with her newfound resolve.

"I'm not sure about that... but I will make an attempt to meditate, then."

"We will ensure you are not disturbed, chosen one."
>>
You decide to let the title slide for now and focus on the intruding voice instead. "What are you and what do you want?"

"Very to the point. Good. You see, Mouse, what you are carrying is but a fragment of pure power given form."

"You seem to have me at a disadvantage." You grumble, somewhat annoyed at the voice calling you by name.

"Always a good position to be. You see, an item this powerful cannot exist without a measure of will of its own. I am that will. And to answer your other question, I want you to wield me."

"What do you mean?"

"Accept my power. Embrace my strength. With my help your enemies will fall before you. With me, nothing will be out of your grasp."

"And what would you take in exchange?"

"Don't be absurd. Are you a merchant? No, I can tell it is a warrior's heart that thunders in your chest. There is no exchange, only power and freedom to take what is yours."

Before you can comment or further inquire on the voice's offers and explanations you are interrupted by Tithe's voice.

"There's movement in the woods. Someone is approaching."

It appears dealing with the voice will have to wait. You had a more immediate concern to resolve.

>Prepare an ambush to confront whoever is coming on your terms.
>Take cover and hide to observe the new arrival.
>You stand to gain nothing from risking or even pressing a confrontation. Avoid the newcomers and get underway to return to your Queen as soon as possible.
>>
>>5394541
>Take cover and hide to observe the new arrival.
>>
>>5394541
>Take cover and hide to observe the new arrival.
As for names, best I can think of is Minerva and Diana.
>>
“How far?” You asked.

“Less than an hour.” Tithe replies.

You turn to your companions and say, without raising voice of fear it would carry. “Everyone, hurry for cover. Carefully not to make obvious trails. We are going to hide and see. Look for my signal to attack or leave.”

There’s a chorus of grunts and nods and your freshly enlarged party scurries to the edge of the ruins and into the undergrowth. You don’t take chances and lead your party to the absolute maximal range that would still allow you some view of the crypt approach. If it was just some cultist or clandestine pilgrim, there would be no problem. But if it’s someone else coming for the relic…

“Many would covet the strength I can offer. You are both lucky and crafty to be the first.” The voice reminds itself.

You ignore it as your concerns are vindicated as several humans come into view. All armed, though not clad in trappings of knighthood. Adventurers, or maybe mercenaries.

First was a woman with striking red hair and slim, agile form. She carried herself with surety and confidence of experienced fighter.
The second was a hooded figure, slightly shorter and with frame smaller than that of the woman. Going by the attire and a staff he might have been a magic user, though such judgments could be treacherous.
Third figure was that of a powerfully built human man, sporting practical mercenary armor and a massive blade. His movements were that of a predator ready to pounce and betrayed not just training but experience.
The group was closed by another man with build of a fighter, though his stance showed less discipline. Still it would be unwise to underestimate him, or rest of the party.

“Here we are. The forbidden crypt. You sure about this? Fort commander said it’s just a place where some creepy cult had been busted up.” Woman cried out as she entered the clearing.

“Kin?” The third person prompted, and the robed one answered.

“Of course. The bitch queen will be powerless before us if we wield the relic’s power.”

“If that doesn’t sound like a lead worth pursuing, I don’t know what does. Thanks for getting us the clearance, princess knight Maia.” The third man commented. You felt your blood boil a bit by the robed man’s disrespect of the queen but reined in your emotions. The four would soon find out their trip was in vain. You needed to make a decision.

>Just leave. You have what you came for, taking any chances now means imperiling the mission.
>Prepare to ambush the other party as they emerge from the crypt empty handed.
>other plan
>>
>>5395018
>Just leave. You have what you came for, taking any chances now means imperiling the mission.
if possible:
>make sure to leave behind no traces
>>
>>5395018
>Just leave. You have what you came for, taking any chances now means imperiling the mission.
If they realize we have what they're after, they're going to hound us if battle doesn't go as planned
>>
>>5395018
>Just leave. You have what you came for, taking any chances now means imperiling the mission.
Until they know what happened they’ll have to waste time trying to find us and we’ll be long gone. Btw since they talked about “cult”, it t seems the church didn’t take any chances in hiding the apocryphal
>>
The choice was clear. There was no benefit in confronting these people. You held your objective firmly in your grasp, all you had to do was deliver it to her majesty. Especially if the woman really was one of the princess knight, whose prowess was thought to be unmatched, and the man looked no less dangerous.

You waited a bit to ensure the adventurers' focus is firmly on searching the ruins, then signalled for your party to withdraw. Moving carefully to not as much leave a rustle or a twig broken on your way, the seven of you made increasingly hasty advance down the vale.

Pressing yourselves hard the group reached sight of the fortress watching over the approach before sunset. There was some risk involved, but you did not wish to be trapped in the vale when whatever forces were left were roused into high alert when it became clear someone snuck past them earlier. Although, with any luck, if their search eventually turns out with nothing, perhaps they may surmise the crypt has been robbed much longer ago.

Fortunately, it seemed the current state of alarm was as lax, if not more, than when you were passing through the last time. Perhaps you could count your blessings that it was Maia that chose to escort the adventurers. Your intelligence on the princess knight was limited but she was recognized as least formal of them. Though perhaps it was her past as a blade for hire that led her to her present company.

That line of thinking led you to disturbing realization of their actual objective which seemed to overlap with yours perfectly, down to the timing. It's not that you doubted your lady's foresight before, but seeing it at work like this reminded you that there were things in this world outside grasp of mortal mind. And this revelation, in turn, brought up the sordid notion Smutkin shared with you last night.

"Chosen one, why are we avoiding the fortress?" One of the golems - you think it was One - asked. Right, that was another can of worms to deal with. But not right now.

"Our mission is a clandestine one. The relic is dangerous, and we must carry it in secret." You answer truthfully. "I will tell you more once we're in the clear." You promise.

"The woman knight carried a mark of virtue about her." The other golem remarked. "Similar to yours."

holy shit how did I allow this to bloat like that...
>>
Well that was something you didn't expect to hear. "Can you elaborate?"

"I lack the knowledge. Pattern seemed similar to the moment where you breached the Seal."

That was strange. Both being compared to a princess knight, and in the golem being sensitive to whatever that was. You decided to ask for second opinion. "Tithe", you addressed the gargoyle, reasoning it might be closest point of reference given his origin of animated stone. "Can you corroborate any of that?"

"Not with sufficient certainty." Tithe replied not very helpfully. Though you were familiar enough with his choice of words to take that as "Sort of maybe?"

"I think I know what stone lady is talking about. There was funny smell around when you took the thing. It kind of hurt but felt great at the same time. I wasn't close enough to the red lady to sniff her though." Sparky butted in.

You are absolutely positive you smelled nothing out of ordinary back then. The imp must have different view of senses than you do.

"Oh cruel world. And cruel you for giving me a thing to fantasize about." Phineous whines at the imp. You're pretty sure his complain is earnest but you take this turn in conversation as cue to get moving again.

"Let's push forward. I want to be safely out of sight of that fort before the night falls." You command, concerned about the nightmares not being the only things to deny you restful sleep tonight.

And push you do. You succeed in avoiding the patrols - or that is to say, you're not aware of having even remotely seen any - and are able to cover enough ground to feel comfortable about both talking and fighting as you set up camp tonight.

It's a good thing, too, as you can still make out part of solar disk on the horizon when the darkness around you coalesces into a thicker form, if that makes any sense at all, and a chill grips you and your companions. Even the golems snap into combat stance before you have to say anything.

"The haunts are back." You state the obvious, since nobody else will. "Form up, we're dealing with them for good this time!"

"You could, if you but accept my power." The voice makes itself known to you again. Wonderful. You choose to ignore him... or it? No, you're pretty sure it's a 'him'... for now.
>>
The shades swirl, swoop and dive at you from every direction, as before, but this time you are in the open which surprisingly helps you more than them since your incorporeal adversaries seemed not particualrly restricted by the same walls that limited your movement.
Phineous revels in the chance to swing his blade and scores some elegant hits against the flitting shades and although you can't tell if he did any lasting damage you are able to tell the shades begin actively avoiding effective range of his weapon. The golem spears and your own club seem to have similar effect and just looking at the martial success you'd feel confident enough in your groups ability to keep the shades at bay if not for stamina concerns. Although especially your club is least ideal of the lot due to how unwieldy it is against the agile targets. Luckily though, you are not entirely limited to mundane arms.
You're unsure if it's Tithe's nature as a gargoyle, or his origin from a presumably consecrated piece of rock, but his body seemed impermeable to the shades' chilling touch and once that became apparent he put this to good use shielding his allies when they were weakened by a recent hit or ganged up on by a concentration of enemies.
Another surprise of the night was Sparky. You took him in as a flying scout, messenger of skirmisher as other forces of the horde were not ready to give up on imps capable of churning brimstone at their enemies. Tonight however Sparky seems to have found himself and a way to tap his innate magical power, not through fire, but lightning! And not just any lightning, either. You spotted the imp using two distinct attacks - more often a bluish spark which apparently found enough purchase in shades' mystical forms to both harm and deter them as well as to chain off one another and, more rarely, an intense burst of radiant light that dispersed the shade entirely, gradually thinning the swarm circling around you.
However, with all these individual feats it was ultimately Smutkin the bard who finished the fight. The human first chased a few of the shades away with his staff before an idea occurred to him and he withdrew from his position in formation, letting one of the golems to pick up slack for him, and pulled out his flute.
First few tones were completely off, as far as you could tell. Next few attempts yielded a mournful, sorrowful melody which didn't seem to have any effect. Then, as the bard fervently iterated and avoided mistakes while playing what was probably an unfamiliar tune, that was when the fight turned entirely. First, the remaining shades began to act erratically, stopping in their tracks or wandering off to the side but eventually, with the bard's face serene like you haven't seen him before, and notes flowing off his instrument, the shades simply began to vanish and disperse. Moments later, the camp was at peace. There was just Smutkin's tune, crackling of the campfire and breaths of receding adrenaline rush.
>>
>The party has triumphed against the shades! Everyone in the party except for golems has gained a level! I'm not even going to pretend I track this with any actual system, math or effort, it might be used to fluff things though
>Select specialisation for each party member:
>Mouse the (half)ogre - Hero (individual combat prowess) / Leader (inspiring aura) / Chosen one (Gary sue plot powers >implying you won't get these regardless)
>Phineous the Orc - Fencer (swordplay) / Duelist (less swordplay and some shooting)
>Tithe the Gargoyle - Watcher (combat and alertness) / Temple guard (bonuses vs evil)
>Sparky the Imp - Lightning (pinpoint and area attacks) / Light (single target attacks and healing, bonuses vs evil)
>Smutkin the Bard - Stoicism (???) / Defiance (???)

"Good job, everyone." You say. You will have to address some of these developments individually, but for now you're grateful for the reprieve. "Smutkin, what was that tune?"

"It was a song of parting, melody sometimes played at the funeral ceremonies."

"Excellent thinking. Do it more often."

He scratches back of his head but nods and you turn to Sparky.

"This was the first time you used your power, wasn't it?"

"Yes boss, you liked it?" The imp was fluttering to and fro, his wings flapping at faster pace as he was energized by the victory and his own part in it. "I was trying something I never tried be fore, and it worked! Whee! Wham! It felt great and it hurt a bit and then it felt even better."

"Very well done. I'm proud of you."

"Thanks boss!"

"And this goes for all of you. You fought well and I'm proud and happy to have you as companions. Now though, rest up and rest well. We still have a lot of travel before us."

With that the lot of you turn to finalize the camp, with Tithe and the guardian golems taking up positions to watch over the rest of you and you all drift away to sleep, you in particular accompanied by thoughts of how to best use the next day...

>Talk to the golems. Give them new names (currently Minerva and Diana, for virgin goddessess of justice and hunt from stories of far away) and explain your circumstances truthfully.
>Talk to the golems. Give them new names and come up with a story to trick them.
>Discuss lore with Smutkin
>Discuss magic with Sparky
>Discuss philosophy with the voice in your head
>other interaction

...and direction you'd be taking.

>Take the same path back as you came in, past Arcturus holdings. It should be safe as you took care not to leave trails on your way in but if someone competent was made aware of your presence they might step up patrols in the area.
>Take the shortest path back, past Levantine holdings. The guards there are more hardened and disciplined though, so evading past patrols will be riskier.
>Take the scenic route back along the uncontested frontier. Longer route means more chances to risk exposure while at the same tame making it less likely for a given chance.
>other
>>
>>5395624
>Talk to the golems. Give them new names (currently Minerva and Diana, for virgin goddessess of justice and hunt from stories of far away) and explain your circumstances truthfully.
>Discuss magic with Sparky
>Take the same path back as you came in, past Arcturus holdings. It should be safe as you took care not to leave trails on your way in but if someone competent was made aware of your presence they might step up patrols in the area.
>>
>>5395624
>Talk to the golems. Give them new names (currently Minerva and Diana, for virgin goddessess of justice and hunt from stories of far away) and explain your circumstances truthfully.

>Take the same path back as you came in, past Arcturus holdings. It should be safe as you took care not to leave trails on your way in but if someone competent was made aware of your presence they might step up patrols in the area.

>Mouse: Hero
>Phineous: Duelist
>Tithe: Watcher
>Sparky: Light
>Smutkin: Defiance
>>
As you pack up your camp to continue your travel you decide to take the same route you took to arrive here, cutting through countryside of dominion of princess Alicia. Familiarity with the terrain would help make the return trip safer and faster. There was some risk of walking into ambush or heightened alert if you committed some carelessness during your previous journey but as you were unaware of any such incident you judged the risk to be acceptably low.

You also steel your resolve to deal with a potential source of tension. Although it was both flattering and reassuring to hold apparent devotion of the two golems, you realized it was only a matter of time until they confront you about your employer and your allegiance. The golems may not have been up to date with political situation, but it was inevitable you'd come across results of the horde's advance and the sheer brutality, murder and rape Queen's forces inflict upon the conquered.

Brutality of the war was something you accepted as an unquestionable fact, as a natural order of the world. Perhaps the circumstance of how your happy, careless and sheltered childhood snapped into life of an adult monster in a tempest of fanaticism, death and violence over course of a single day had a part in it - it just felt like two separate, independent stories. Two books someone put next to each other by mistake. Though of course thinking back, you knew that not to be true. Despite your parents' best effort, you could not be completely unaware something significant is wrong with the world. And on the other hand, in the second volume, the tale of a monster among monsters, born in rivers of blood to chorus of scream of pain and shame, you did have a beacon of light and warmth, your mother's final words to you. Even in death, and death at hands of her own kind, she put her kindness first to reach out to you.

How could you disappoint her?

Allowing the recollection to reinforce your resolve you have your squad advance while you fall slightly behind to get closer to the two golems that have been guarding rear of your formation. Partly to avoid them being first to encounter someone, partly to avoid Phineous being too distracted by appreciating their forms, sculpted to embody feminine beauty in almost exaggerated capacity. Maybe you should loot or otherwise procure some clothes for them at some point, even if they did not seem bothered by lacking any.

You did instruct Tithe to watch over the party though, in case the discussion went poorly and you needed help.
>>
"Guardians, there is something I wished - and promised - to discuss with you."

"Nature of your mission, chosen one?" One of the golems, Two you think it was, asked.

"Right. First, I'd like to first settle how to address you individually. Do you have names?"

"We do not, our purpose and orders did not require such trappings of individuality." The other golem said.

"Well, that won't do. I can't keep calling you Guardian One and Guardian Two. And I think you proved you deserve better, too." You consider for a moment and the answer comes before the golems comment on your statement. Thinking of your childhood also brought up the good memories, like your father regaling you with tales from faraway realms. It was your way of seeing the world through his eyes, brought by necessity of being kept out of public sight. "What do you think about Minerva and Diana? The virgin goddesses of a faraway realm, the first of justice, the other of hunt."

You're not sure what brought up these particular characters, was it the virtue that ultimately allowed the two statues to overcome their initial purpose? Or because of father's description of marble statues humans sometimes used to portray gods and heroes?

"Those are noble names." Newly christened Minerva says.

"We will strive to live up to them." Diana concurs.

"Very good. I am glad you are pleased because the next issue I wished to discuss is much more difficult." You pause as you muster the flagging resolve to metaphorically eat the frog. "I serve the dark queen, Olga Discordia, who is waging war against the realm of men, worshippers of the goddess in her elven incarnation. It her majesty Olga who sent me on the quest to recover the relic on a spur of prophecy."

The golems traded glances, as they did previously when something surprised or confused them, as if to synchronize their assessment.

"Fascinating." Diana spoke first.

"You speak earnestly, even though implications are at odds with your actions." Minerva observed.

"You spoke and acted on behalf of goddess, yet by your admission you oppose her followers."

Did you really? You did convince the golems to let you recover the relic they were ostensibly meant to guard, though you did it in a sort of roundabout way rather than playing to their perverted purpose.
>>
"Why do you follow this dark queen?" Minerva asks.

You stare at her dumbfounded. "Because she is my queen. I am an ogre, in her army of ogres, orcs and other monsters. There is no other place for me in this world but under her."

"That is not all, is it?" Minerva questions.

"Your understanding of loyalty goes beyond this reasoning, as you've demonstrated to us."

You take a while to compose yourself at having core of your personality penetrated by the golems' questioning. "I don't think I can answer this with reasoning." You admit. "The thought of world without queen Olga at its centre is simply unimaginable to me."

Golems do their glance exchanging thing again.

"Admiration? Desire? Love?" Minerva thinks aloud.

"Some of these are valid to pass the test of selflessness." Diana notes.

"You make us question our morals and confuse, but the evidence points towards your worth as acceptable."

"New allegiance information seems insufficient to reassess our loyalties. We will keep following you, chosen one."

"Not necessarily so your master." Minerva warns.

Well, that went differently than expected. You'd say easier, if not for the forced introspection. Although perhaps it was too early to say. Seeing inside of the dark citadel or worse, the frontline, might make them reconsider. You suppose though for now you can enjoy the golems' continued loyalty.

"I see. Thank you, guardians. And please, don't call me chosen one. Boss, or leader, is fine." Thought to let them call you by name didn't cross your mind. In the cult of strength that was her majesty's forces you were already stretching conventions as it was.

"As you wish, leader." The golems nodded as one.

You allow yourself a grunt as you acknowledge their choice and move on to the next point you wished to be clearer on before the next camping (and possibly another shade attack).
>>
"Sparky, come over." You say when you are confident, he can hear you without having to raise your voice too much. With some flapping of the leathery wings as the creature abruptly changes its flight path the imp swoops in and lands on your shoulder.

"Yes, boss?"

"I want to ask you about the magic. You can use the powers you showed last night whenever you want now?"

"Yes! Well, actually I don't know for sure. Didn't try. Want to zap something?"

"No, not now. It's enough for me if you claim to feel that way. But I'd like to know, how did you find the spell that worked for you?"

"I dunno, boss. The first one, the zapping spell, I mean I was thinking really hard about something like fire that others use. After the shade things chased us earlier, you know?" You nod. "So, I remembered that there as this stuff that goes WHAM from the sky when it's raining a lot! It looked powerful and scary. So, I tried really hard to imagine how it worked. And it did!"

"You were able to come up with a lightning spell just because you remembered seeing a lightning before?" You ask incredulously. That would have been quite a feat. "That's really impressive." You say as much.

"Hehe, I'm happy to hear that boss! But that's not all. I mean, there's also that time when you or Phin were lighting the torch. I mean, torch is fire, right? So, it's not for me. But that thing you did with the rocks, it didn't feel like fire. And it reminded me of the big lightning."

"I see. Well, that is also very impressive. Good job, Sparky. You helped a lot." You nod appreciatively as the imp leaps up excitedly and follows you airborne. "And the other power you used? The beam of light? That felt very different."

"Yeah, that... hmm... honestly I'm not sure how that came around. I mean, there was this zap when you took the thing in the dungeon. It kind of stung, like... like when that time others threw fire at me to get me to do it, but from the inside. But then I felt kind of really good, kind of like when you stroke my head."

You grimace as you're reminded how the imp's childlike mannerism sometimes trick you into doing silly stuff like that when he does something particularly clever.

"The seal energy hurt you?" You attempt to get the conversation back on track. "It was presumably a holy seal, and you are an imp, so it makes a measure of sense." You think aloud. "But you say it also felt good to you?"

"Yeah. I dunno how else to describe it. Anyway, between that and smelling Tithe and the rock girls I tried to bring out this taste of power too. And wheee, it worked! Although, it still kind of hurts when I do it, so I can't do it that often. But but, I think it hurt less each time! That means I'm getting better, right?"
>>
You are reasonably certain that when the imp speaks of scent, he actually means some innate sense for magical energy. In either case, having unlocked his potential this spectacularly is a tremendous boon, even as it is a mystery. When you took in the flameless imp, this development was certainly not one you expected.

Be that as it may, you are glad to have had this talk with him. You commend him one more time, give him a friendly pat on the head and send him off on his scouting route.

Just as well, as it turns out.

"Leader, you may be interested in this." Tithe descends to indicate a direction to you. "There's a road short distance away. Bandits seem to have waylaid a traveller. Discarded trappings identify her as a royal courier. Bandits have seized courier's missive."

Royal courier? Could she be carrying news about your incursion into the crypt? Or just Maia's report on it being robbed? Or some other news related to war? Whatever she was carrying could be a strategic asset, although given her fate it was unlikely to reach her destination. Still, whatever she was carrying could be important enough to warrant an intervention. Part of you also felt pity for the woman's fate at hand of her own people. It was a cruel world.

>This is very not your problem. Pass by and leave the courier to her fate. You still have a mission to complete.
>Risk is negligible and potential benefits range between none and beneficial to war effort. Attack the bandits and recover the plot ho- I mean courier's missive.
>Different plan

If intervening:
>Snap her neck this is a joke option don't bother actually picking it.
>Leave the courier
>Interrogate the courier / leave courier with a message
>Take the courier prisoner (one of the golems would carry her)

where did that grammar checker come from, is that a site feature or a browser update? I dread the day when AI will judge us for content of the words we share.
>>
>>5396559
>Risk is negligible and potential benefits range between none and beneficial to war effort. Attack the bandits and recover the plot ho- I mean courier's missive.
>Interrogate the courier
>>
>>5396559
>Risk is negligible and potential benefits range between none and beneficial to war effort. Attack the bandits and recover the plot ho- I mean courier's missive.
>>5396559
>Interrogate the courier
just ask her, btw OP only post options that we can pick, even if they're jokes otherwise leave them out.
>>
Although nit part of your mission, you decide the opportunity is worth the delay. You ask Tithe to direct you towards the bandits and have your squad prepare for combat.

You exercise caution as you make your approach do as to not lose the element of surprise but it turns out to hardly be necessary. The bandits are so engrossed with their activity that they pay barely any attention to their surroundings at all. You find yourself wondering how many of queen’s soldiers falls victim to ambushes like this but looking at the sobbing mess of the gagged courier you find little sympathy for them.

As with the bandits. One drops dear caught by a crossbow bolt as you charge, another collapses upon having his skull struck by stone from Smutkin’s sling. The third one you clobber with your club before tearing him off the crying captive. The fight is over essentially before it even began.

Checking the bandits for signs of life you determine there were no survivors, denying you opportunity to interrogate them, though you suspect there would be little to gain from doing so. The courier looked fortunately unharmed aside from bruises and scrapes suffered during struggling and possibly forcible dismounting (which might have well been fatal as well).

“W-what are you going to do with me?”

Her expression shifted from one of relief at having been rescued to one of abject horror when she identified who her rescuers were. It soon shifted to confusion in response to what you did next, namely tearing a cloak from one of the bandits and offering it to her to cover herself. “Asking some questions.” You answer hers.

“Leader, the missive.” Tithe informed you, handing you a scroll pouch adorned with an emblem, possibly that of Arcturus house. You took it and emptied it to look over.

“You can’t do this! This message is intended for..” the courier regains some composure seeing you interfere with her mission but stops herself before revealing more.

“Your mission was a loss the moment you were captured, lady courier.” You say without lifting gaze from the scroll you were unfurling. “I can be accommodating to cooperative persons.”

“You will get nothing from me, monster.” She sure talked big for her circumstances.

“Is it so monstrous to ask, rather than take?” You s asked with a sigh without really expecting an answer but at least you got no more taunts. Though perhaps that was due to Minerva and Diana having walked into couriers field of view. She might not have recognised them as church golems but she likely was surprised to see armed women in your ranks, statues or otherwise. In either case you could dig into the message without distractions.
>>
To your relief the content is unrelated to your mission. What was possibly even better, it hinted at internal difficulties the human realm was facing as it entailed information about elevated organised bandit activity, some sort of large scale operation that threatened princess Alicia’s castle. In dealing with it the princess was informing of adjustment in deployment of her forces and requested support in investigation and guarding her now more vulnerable flanks.

This was definitely a valuable piece of intel your queen could take advantage of with some quick manoeuvring.

“So what we’re you saying? Who was the missive’s intended recipient?” She remains quiet, her grip on the cloak she did wrap herself in tightening. “Of course it’s Levantine. They are closest and in best position to help with such request.” You already inferred that and courier’s grimace all but confirmed it.

“Boss, you’re gonna love this one.” Phineous handed you another pierce of parchment. “ Found it on one of the brigands.

You thank the orc and as you scan the document you frown hard. Then you offer the parchment to the courier who accepts it a bit awkwardly to not reveal herself any, effort you find amusing as you look over pieces of the skimpy lingerie armour that she has been apparently stripped of by the bandits.

However that was not a concern right now. What was concerning was bandits’ orders and the courier agreed if her blanching face was an indication. On second though, you may have made a mistake by showing her that, depending on how you decide to play this situation out.

The ambush was not by chance. The note Phineous found while looting the bodies was in human penmanship an order to intercept the courier to prevent Levantine involvement, expressing concern that Arcturus forces were competent enough to uncover part of the operation and outside help risked to foil other parts of it.

What you took from it was that the princess was facing a conspiracy, possibly even a coup. What you didn’t know, to your annoyance, was if your queen was involved or if it was a purely internal human matter. It only made sense for you not to be privy to all your queen’s operation. However, it is also true you never heard of any human agents, much less entire operations, being ever involved in her majesty’s conquests. So you were inclined this was humans being monsters to themselves of their own choice. You were familiar with that. Still, could you make solid assumptions here? Was it even your place to get involved at all?
>>
>Take both messages to your queen and let her use it as she sees fit and let the courier go. Presumed outcome: weakening of Arcturus front as Alicia is forced to deal with conspiracy on her own.
>Give one or both missives back to the courier, allowing her to complete her task and possibly allow Alicia to thwart the “operation” presumed outcome: weakening of Levantine front and internal strife among humans
>Take the courier prisoner along the missive. Resumed outcome: the conspiracy may continure and even succeed
>Talk to courier some more (about what? Give her a message of your own?)
Other plan
>>
>>5396997
Thanks for the input, as a rule I don’t put in options I wouldn’t write but I felt this one was funny enough to make an exception, hence the spoiler.
>>
>>5397295
>Give the courier the missive from the bandits.
>let her read the other missive.
>then let her go.
>>
>>5397619
supporting
>>
In the end you decide on a resolution you feel to be most “right”, given the circumstances. The mere existence of such dissent was no doubt a boon to her majesty’s war effort but behaviour of the conspirators was vile enough for you to not even consider acting to their benefit. You nonchalantly toss the courier her package which she scrambled to catch even if it means letting the cloak go and briefly revealing herself. Desire her failure you can appreciate her dedication to mission with a curt nod, then you turn to your companions.

“Form up. We are leaving. We have still a lot of ground to cover.”

The courier takes few steps back in anticipation of lethal blow, though puzzled at the package in her hand. After some thought you reach into your sack and ass her a spare water skin as well. “I wouldn’t tarry if I were you, there might be more conspirators around to check on the ones who failed.”

“Why are you doing this?” She asks weakly when she realises she’s being let go.

“This world is rotten enough without my encouraging it to be more.” You shrug. As an afterthought, you bitterly add a warning: “Do not expect my peers to extend you the same courtesy.”

“Wait! What is your name?” She called as you strode out into the woods. “Mine is Elle.” She adds as you don’t stop.

With a sigh now you do. “Mine is Mouse. Don’t bother remembering it, we shall not meet again.”

And you walk on, followed by your men (and women). Barely you can make out a mumble of “I just want to know who to keep in my prayers…”

You lead your group in a wrong direction before arcing back onto your path, just to be sure.
>>
Trip continues uneventfully from there on aside from having to dodge two patrols and, while crossing a street, waiting for a troop of princess’s soldiers march past, likely part of the redirecting her forces to deal with the bandits. You find yourself if it’s going to be enough for the princesss of her command structure is compromised enough to know about the couriers. You suppose you will learn in time.

Next group of soldiers you have to dodge after that is clearly not being transferred anywhere but withdrawing from a loss. Judging by the state they’re in it’s a small miracle they managed to shake off or avoid pursuit, going by their battered armour, broken, resigned expression and shambling movement. Though, perhaps it was not quite that surprising given Queen’s standing orders to restraint and prioritise securing conquered territories over crushing fleeing remnants which especially in case of women knights and undisciplined monsters could expose them to ambushes.

In any event this spectacle was clear indication that next fortress on your route you intended to avoid has in fact fallen and is possibly being ransacked right now. That offered an opportunity though one not free of risks.

>check out the fortress, you may gain some supplies and more comfortable place to rest but at risk of running afoul of your more brutish peers.
>bypass the fortress as originally planned, you are returning from an important quest and participating in pillaging would be a waste of time.
>>
>>5398407
>bypass the fortress as originally planned, you are returning from an important quest and participating in pillaging would be a waste of time.

Gotta finish up the current quest.
>>
>>5398407
>bypass the fortress as originally planned, you are returning from an important quest and participating in pillaging would be a waste of time.
>>
Shaking your head to yourself you banish the notion. You were on an important mission still, even though you have accrued a large number of questions, and some unexpected support, along the way. The sooner you would return back to her majesty, the sooner the things would be made clear. Or at least clearer.

"What is that? Are you going to give up on revelry with your brethren?"

You almost jumped as the voice has been quiet lately. Perhaps it decided to observe you further after your continued resistance to humour it and the battle with the shades? (they have not appeared again since that night).

"I wonder, what are you afraid of? Your spoils being taken from you by force? Or them abandoning you upon realizing your true nature? On that note, I must commend you on a job well done in wrangling the magical machines under your thumb with just your words; and planting that seed of corruption in the woman earlier was a stroke of genius. I'm sure she'd present herself to you willingly at your command."

"We're sticking to the plan. Queen's forces have matters handled and our mission remains a priority." You say aloud, allowing the disembodied voice's words wash over you. Well, not entirely. Part of you wonders how much of what it says are earnest compliments and how much is clever manipulation. Maybe the former case would be preferable as it would mean the voice is revealing its mode of thinking, but you know better than to take such for granted.

There's a chorus of acknowledgment as you set out. Only Smutkin looks at you with a questioning glare. There's a spark of resolve in it you don't think saw there before. As he is wont to do, however, he says nothing and nods, taking his spot in your party's formation. If you wish him to express his thought process more clearly, you'll have to approach him separately.
>>
As the day progresses, and your party alongside with it, at one point it becomes obvious that you crossed from land where humans lived in their own brand of peace to the realm where queen Olga ruled over the monstrous horde.

Your queen.

Somehow this context sidelined any other interpretations of smoke columns rising into the sky, piles of rubble that used to be homestead and, of course, corpses in various states of violation or mutilation. These were products of recent fighting or skirmishes, otherwise there would be only bones left and scraps.

Some of them are smaller than others. You know these are not dwarven lands. Only Tithe is able to maintain neutral expression and you think it's only due to design of the perpetual gargoyle snarl. Minerva and Diana clearly show changes to emotional state in their faces even as they remain silent.

"Is the nature of the monster the ultimate excuse?" Smutkin speaks up.

"Nature needs no excuses. Nature simply is." Voice comments. "Humans, monsters. We take what we want. It is the weakness that needs excuses, and the excuses lead to further debilitation."

"Our lady spoke that our quest could precipitate world changing." You say.

"Would the change be for the better, though?" Smutkin muses.

You have no answer to offer. Save for difficulty of imagining a change for worse.
>>
Silence descends on the party as it makes it way through the increasingly desolate landscape. Need for stealth gone you travel along comfortable routes at steady pace, encountering frequently bands of your fellow monsters traveling in either direction. You rearranged the formation to keep two golems in the middle as some of her majesty's subjects keep giving them hungry looks, if not explicitly stating their intentions or congratulating you on such fine spoils. Additionally, you notice that monsters with greater affinity for magic, most commonly imps, give Sparky looks of abject disgust as you pass them. Luckily though your position as ogre lieutenant tasked by Queen personally keeps any from interfering with or challenging you.

It does not feel like a triumphant return at all. Still, you can feel your insides tighten as the vision of standing before lady Discordia and presenting her your success draws nearer. It is a highlight not even dreary landscape can overshadow as the unnatural shape of the dark citadel emerges on the horizon and grows slowly into the imposing structure rivalling mountains in its monumentality.

You paused to catch your breath, as the exhaustion was beginning to sap at your strength once again. The citadel loomed not far away now, few hours of travel at most. You knew that if you push yourself and your followers, you'll be able to stand before your beloved queen before you'd have to close your eyes to slumber.

But... reason gnawed at your eagerness to lay your eyes on the singular point of delicate beauty in this realm of brutality and force (with possible exception of the queen's half-elf retainer, though from training you remember her strikes as brutal and merciless as those of any orc). The dark citadel was a dangerous place. It was said strength is fostered by conflict and the citadel was rich in both. Reaching it weakened, as much as you wished to believe in Queen's gaze protecting those who were serving her faithfully, could well lead to some ambitious champion attempting to rob you of your victory.

At the end of the day, it was the way of your kind. And ultimately, could you deny its effectiveness? The task would be done. What other way would there be? Would it even be right to deny your queen her prize for such reasons?

>Push yourself and your team. You will deliver the relic to her majesty's feet even if it meant you and your companions collapse from exhaustion in doing so.
>Make a camp now, giving you time to approach the Citadel and request the audience at full strength and maybe give you time to think or discuss things through.
>> optional - discuss things with a companion
>other plan
>>
>>5398564
>Make a camp now, giving you time to approach the Citadel and request the audience at full strength and maybe give you time to think or discuss things through.
>>
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>>5398794
>Degeneracy isn't allowed on this board. Enjoy your ban.
>>
>>5398564
>Make a camp now, giving you time to approach the Citadel and request the audience at full strength and maybe give you time to think or discuss things through.
>Check in on the statues and the voice
>>
>>5398564
>Make a camp now, giving you time to approach the Citadel and request the audience at full strength and maybe give you time to think or discuss things through.

>>5398794
This anon showcasing his reading comprehension skill to the fullest I see.
>>
>>5398564
>Make a camp now, giving you time to approach the Citadel and request the audience at full strength and maybe give you time to think or discuss things through.

Try and remember everything the missive from the courier said.
>>
To just make a push and surrender yourself, and your companions, to the mercy of the dark citadel. Put it like that, you immediately chastise yourself for even considering it. It was not even relying on her majesty's grace; in a way you'd be doing what the two golems were designed for.

"That's enough travel for today. We're setting up camp here." You announced.

"Thanks, boss. I was sure you was gonna have us force march all the way through." Phineous said, relieved.

"It would do us no good to show up before the Queen washed out and toppling over." You shake your head. "And maybe more importantly, we're still going to have to get through whoever is in charge of the watch duty today."

"Huh. That's right. Thanks a lot, boss." The orc said. And it was true, even if your status might have shielded you from some more petty cases of monster infighting, your men needed to be actively looked after to offer them similar protection.

In fact, that was one of the things you might want to broach with the two golems. Among other things. You let rest of your party handle their preparations for the night and took the two animated statues to the side to talk.

They wore solemn expressions you interpreted as them having steeled themselves to follow you through their self-imposed duty even into what must have seemed to them as the heart of evil.

"Minerva, Diana. How are you feeling?"

"Disgusted." One says, you think it's Minerva.
"Horrified." Diana adds.
"Outraged." Minerva picks up.
"Hopeful." Diana concludes.

That last one surprised you a bit. "Elaborate?"

"It seems unlikely a person could survive in this environment and still show as much integrity and conviction as you have." It's Minerva who answers.
"We are eager to do whatever it takes to support and protect you." Diana adds.

Even though the two are golems, magical constructs literally created to obey a set of instructions or a purpose, you can't help but feel touched. Or, actually, maybe it's exactly because they are golems and have chosen this for their purpose by themselves. It's their act of choice in context of their nature that makes this nonchalantly uttered commitment so much more impactful.
>>
"Thank you." You tell the statues, prompting them both to smile briefly before returning to a more neutral expression. Which is probably just as good, looking happy would probably not help them much during their stay, and your conversation moves on to your explanation of what your arrangement while in the Citadel is going to look like. They are your loot and as such will pose as his property (they seemed fine with that, after all, technically it is all true). You instructed avoid moving through the fortress without one of your men, preferably Phineous since as orcish fighter he enjoyed highest status among them, and in case of attack authorized them to use lethal force. Really though you expected the golems would stay in the dungeon chamber that served for your quarters as guardians and, as anyone in the keep would assume, eye candy.

Minerva and Diana took all this in stride and assured you they'd not cause you any trouble and also be prepared to support you in any way necessary. You thanked them again and had them get to watching over the camp. You needed to do one more thing tonight, before you exposed your beloved queen to him. You needed to confront the Voice.

"I am going to bring you before the dark Queen herself tomorrow." You state neutrally once you settle yourself into a position of relative comfort and privacy.

"You want her, don't you?" The Voice asks, immediately having recognized it (he) is being talked to.

You choose to allow the silence be your answer, eager to see how the voice interprets it.

"You are more devious than I gave you credit for." The voice volunteers. "There is elegance in how mere words can bind someone tighter than chains. It is a dangerous game, though, it can be difficult to tell when your prey is sufficiently broken."

Once again you wonder if the Voice is unable to discern your motives, or if its explicit assumptions are a way to get you to its desired mode of thinking. Or, perhaps, are you already thinking that way without realizing?

"What is your preferred way of breaking the prey?" You humour the Voice with a question.

"Through most primal instincts there are: fear, submission and lust." Comes answer without hesitation. "You took the careful option to preserve your strength before confronting your queen. I can respect that. It was not necessary though. I can lend you all the strength you require to take what you wish."

"Indeed, I would rather avoid being put into position of weakness." You admit.

"Well, you will never need to worry about that again. I am the strength. I am the power. I am the making of rules for the weak to follow. You will not know weakness again if you embrace my gift."

"How am I to know you would not take your gift away and pass it to my enemy?"

"Oho, is that what you are worried about? Such caution is better fit for the weak and the prey."

"Even a predator needs to be careful when facing a cornered prey... or a clever scavenger."
>>
A cackle echoes in the back of your mind in response. "I like you. Not many of my hosts figure it out. Well, you need not worry about that as long as my gift is put to good use."

So that is what it wants. Of course, it could be dangerous to make assumptions about Voice's sincerity in anything, but so far and on this point it has been very consistent. The relic promised power to anyone who would hold it, and the knowledge of it reached both your Queen - and the robed mercenary you encountered as you departed the ruins.

There were still questions unanswered, such as exact circumstances that saw the relic sealed where it was, but to you the more pertinent one was - why did your Queen send you to recover it?

It could have been simply to keep it out of hands of the mercenary. If its power matched the robed man's expectations, it could have easily spelled disaster for lady Discordia. Was that the reason? Would she see this power sealed out of reach of her enemies?

"When you face the Queen tomorrow," The Voice makes itself heard again. "Call upon my gift, and you will make her your plaything. If you don't, she surely will. Dark elves were always particularly eager to embrace me, and if as a woman she made it to mantle of a monarch, she must be possessing formidable power." There is a pause. "You are wise to anticipate treachery. None is more skilful at it than the dark elf females. They make struggle that much more exciting than with their fairer counterparts... though there is something arousing in watching their delusions shatter, too."

The Voice lets a brief satisfied chuckle echo through your weary mind before falling silent and leaving you to your thoughts.

The Queen was one person you would never expect to betray you. And if she did, perhaps you would even welcome it? But is that right? Is that something you would accept from the one you love?

You drift off into uneasy sleep.
>>
You are first to wake up, light of imminent dawn only barely beginning to light up the eastern horizon. Nightmares did not leave you in peace this night either. You found the dark wolf stalking its edges since the night in the crypt, but it never intruded again as forcefully as then. Not that it helped much, the recollection was as painful as ever, only the tender touch - not even actual touch, just memory of the caress you associated with your mother's voice - allowing you to pick up your resolve to get up and go on.

There was a slight difference this time, actually. You don't ever remember it raining in your nightmares. It was a weak drizzle, nowhere near anything to put out the pyres, or the burning houses, but it was a novel experience.

Such matters were outside of your current list of priorities, however, as you began to quietly pack up the camp, assisted by Tithe and the twins and eventually rest of your companions as they awoke. Today your quest would come to a conclusion. Quietly you hoped your success would leave the Queen pleased enough that she would acknowledge you not just as a devoted lieutenant, but as a person...

"Let's move, then." You said, once you were ready to depart. "Tonight, we shall feast to celebrate our success." You promised, prompting a hearty cheer from Phineous and Sparky, subdued smile from Smutkin and even Tithe managed to look content somehow in the morning light. Minerva and Diana offered the same smile as before, then returned to neutral expressions you asked them to maintain.

Even so, you couldn't shake off feeling that the optimism was subdued as you made your way towards the citadel.
>>
The approach turned out uneventful. You passed one more warband that emerged from depths of the fortress and passed by barely acknowledging you. Guards stood at attention, a sight not too frequent and depending on the sergeant on duty. As you passed through the outer gates and deeper into the fortress, you could tell there was definitely something afoot. Every soldier was attentive and in a disciplined stance, clearly whipped into being at best behaviour. Some even had markings to prove it on their exposed skin.

"The Queen awaits you, Mouse." An ogre guardsman, a juggernaut clad in full metal from head to toe, informs you. The implication is not lost on you. You are to arrive in person and alone to deliver your report, though you expected as much.

"Phineas, take the men and the trophies to our barracks and await me there."

"Yes, boss." The orc acknowledges the order and heads out towards your humble corner of the citadel. Without following them with your gaze you turn back towards the corridor leading deeper into the citadel. The ogre guard steps aside to gesture for you to go ahead, and you do.

As you walk on, you find yourself burdened, at least compared to what you thought would happen, with doubt and trepidation.
You harboured no illusions over the Voice's intentions. At best it was being honest in its desire to participate in domination and rape, at worse its intention was even more sinister. But even ignoring its nature, the context of the war of monsters and men, the brutality your beloved queen presided over and Smutkin's cosmological dread, you could not abandon yourself to your role as a devoted monstrous champion. Or could you?
Somehow you felt that rather than to receive reward and recognition you were walking into your greatest test yet.

When push comes to shove, what will you lean on?

>Voice's gift of strength, to take what you want.
>Your mother's gift of kindness, to banish the haze of darkness.
>Your love and adoration for queen Olga, to place her fortune over yours.
>>
>>5399669
>Your mother's gift of kindness, to banish the haze of darkness.
>>
>>5399669
>Your mother's gift of kindness, to banish the haze of darkness.
Strength from within, not from a spooky voice or simping
>>
>>5399669
>Your mother's gift of kindness, to banish the haze of darkness.
>>
>>5399669
>Your mother's gift of kindness, to banish the haze of darkness.
>>
>>5399669
>Your mother's gift of kindness, to banish the haze of darkness.
>>
Footsteps echo through the corridors of the Dark Citadel which seems to be holding its breath in anticipation. That armoured ogre was the last guard you passed, the hall usually lined with monstrous officers awaiting debriefing, delivering reports or about to grovel for mercy or support eerily vacant. Briefly you stop in front of the portal, last barrier between you and her majesty's throne room.

As the wings of the solid, delicately engraved doors, swing open before you, be it by magic or some clever mechanism - you don't much care which - a sense of peace washes over you as you arrive at a resolution for your inner turmoil. Whatever lies ahead, whatever the trial, you have determined what would be the source of your strength.

Not some sinister voice from beyond. Not your unrequited pining for the dark elven lady. It will be the same font of strength that allows you to banish the terrors of night and get through the next day.

"I will never forget, mother. I will carry your, and dad's, hopes all the way." You say to yourself.

When the movement stops and the portal is yawning at you invitingly and you step through into the chamber beyond, you are one again at peace.
The chamber is as imposing as you remember it, and seeing it mostly empty is in fact not that rare an occasion. The queen frequently has it cleared out so she can discuss the topic at hand in privacy, with only her trusted handmaiden present at all times.

The Queen was reclining comfortably, as dignified as ever, on her throne, looking down at you sternly as you approached her and, upon reaching a suitable place in the middle of the hall, took the knee. Despite your resolve, you drink up every detail as you allow your gaze to navigate up her elegant, statuesque and so very feminine silhouette, making most of the brief look you allow yourself without looking too disrespectful or outright staring.

"Your majesty, I have returned from the Quest you chose to bestow upon me." You address her.

"So I see, Mouse. So I see. Have you been successful?"

"Touch the cow. Do it now!" The Voice demands but you ignore it without effort.

"I have. The relic you requested is secure in my possession."

"Show it."

You reach for the bundle you've been carrying the relic packed in and unwrap it enough for queen Olga to give a clear sight. The elven woman rises from her throne.

"Incredible... so it was true after all..." She says, scrutinizing the item in your hands. She makes no move to retrieve it from you, which is the point where you intended to attempt to ask her some questions. Instead, she simply says: "Chloe."
>>
It is at this time you realize that the half elven girl that never leaves queen Olga's side is nowhere to be seen. Between that fact and the command you make the connection - and act, just in time to avoid a dagger from connecting with your throat with a quick strike of your own! You feel your hand dig into something superficially soft but with firm core. Sound of annoyed grunt and sight of a lithe elfin figure tumbling away to recover her posture is another reward for your quick reflex.

You ignore the manic cackle of the voice as well as your own sense of betrayal, your newfound conviction making both trivial alongside the adrenaline rush as you allow your instincts to set you into a battle stance.

So this was how it was going to be. You did not like your odds against the queen's magic, but for now her majesty seemed content to just stand there and let her confidant do her dirty work. Perhaps she was worried a magical attack would hit Chloe? That seemed unlikely, the queen was as skilled as she was powerful. But now was not the time to theorize. Now was time to fight.

The half elf throws herself at you once more, but this time you see her coming and you know what she's capable of. Your mace moves economically to assist in defence - you don't bother winding up for a blow that has no chance of hitting. Likewise, your frame gives you little chance to dodge anything the nimble girl would throw your way. Your only hope was to anticipate her move and strike when she committed herself to an attack.

Fortunately for you, you did spar with Chloe before and were familiar with her style. Unfortunately for you, the same was true for her, and with her initial surprise attack thwarted, she knew to exercise caution.

And so the fight turned into a mostly static affair, with both of you watching each other carefully, deciding on an appropriate move, with intermittent flurry of movement as the she darts at you, only to just dodge your attempts to intercept.

Ironically, it is Olga who eventually provides an opening you needed.

"Chloe..." She urges her handmaiden. Was she concerned that any moment you could draw upon relic's power? In any case, the half elf responds to the prodding by launching herself into a decisive attack. But in her rush to obey the queen her approach is sloppy and her movements telegraphed. You humor her feint with your mace and intercept her actual lunge by grabbing her arm. And with that the fight was over. In terms of brute strength there was no contest between the two of you, though her lithe body was honed to its limits, those limits allowed you to easily immobilize her in your grasp.

"Forgive me, my queen." She said to Olga, then made one more attempt to break free, hoping the admission of defeat would make you slacken your grip.
>>
"Forgive me, little one." You said to her mournfully before tightening your grip further and incapacitating her. You hoped you were careful enough to not cause her lasting damage. After all this, you still knew her as simply most loyal subject of the queen.

"You have bested my handmaiden, Mouse. What do you intend to do now?" The queen's voice was level and her stature as regal as ever. You were unable to discern what she could be feeling at the time, and frankly you were more than a little bit at a loss at what *you* were feeling, too. Even though the voice was smugly suggesting what you can do with the queen, you easily filter him out.

"I have some questions, your majesty." You make an effort to maintain neutral expression to match hers but you have no idea whether it works. You can't even tell if you were crying. But somehow, you do not feel lost, certainly not to extent where this betrayal of your beloved queen should leave you. Although another mystery that haunted back of your mind was why the queen had not yet blasted you with her magical fire. But if she offered to talk... you would talk.

"Ask, then." She said.

"Why?" You wanted her to say it in her own words.

"The relic you retrieved holds power I can't trust anyone with. Not even you."

"Yet you sent me to retrieve it for you."

"I have. It was your unique qualities that allowed you to access it."

"Qualities?"

"Selflessness. Devotion." Her facade slips for just a moment into a grimace that might have been a smile. "Innocence."

Was this all she ever thought of you? A set of traits to be exploited in some arcane puzzle?

"Why not send Chloe instead?"

"She was less suitable for the task. And I need her here more."

"Did you know we only barely made it out before a group of human mercenaries arrived to the Crypt? They had a princess knight with them." You probe, wondering if the redhead princess was there for the exact same reason as yourself... the Queen may have made similar connection as she visibly paled and her ears drooped.

"You did well." She says, some bitterness seeping into her voice. "Do you have any other questions?"
>>
>Ask her about the relic
>Ask her about the voice
>Ask her about her policies
>Ask her about the world corruption
>Ask/Tell her about the conspiracy in human lands
>Ask her about her feelings for you
>Ask her about something else
>No, no more questions.

You also have a question for yourself, burning at the back of your mind...
Do you still love her?
>Yes. (waifu lock in confirmed)
>No. (waifu lock in released, optional: select new waifu to pursue)
>Maybe. (defer choice to end of encounter)
>>
>>5400102
>Ask her about her policies
Hi Martin, but for real I'll pick
>>5400102
>Ask her about the world corruption
this is the big thing
>>5400102
>Maybe. (defer choice to end of encounter)
She didn't attack us yet, I gotta know more
>>
>>5400102
>Ask her about the world corruption
>Ask her about her feelings for you
>Maybe. (defer choice to end of encounter)
>>
>>5400102
>Ask her about the world corruption
>Ask her about the relic

>Were you afraid that I would fall to the relic and become corrupted or was this just a test? I know you could have easily interfered with your magic ,so why didn't you?

>Ask her about her feelings for you

>Maybe. (defer choice to end of encounter)
>>
"Your majesty," You begin, defaulting to the mode of address you are used to. "What do you know about the world's corruption?"

She grimaces, letting more bitterness through. "That is a broad question. Which ones interest you, avaricious merchants? Callous slavers? Power hungry tyrants? Church bigotry? Or are you perhaps referring to the eternal struggle in my realm?"

"I am referring specifically to rape and submission of the goddess. The legend tied to the relic."

"I see..." The queen pauses, then nods to herself. "Of course. The human bard. I underestimated his knowledge. Or was it the nameless gloating?" She trails off before picking up again. "It is the truth. The goddess has been taken by the Nameless, the Beast of without, and she was tamed by it. This happened before awakening of men and monsters alone and has only been revealed through visions and inspired scripture. The act left the world with taint, the triumph of darkness and evil that is buried down in soul of every man, driving them to cruelty and domination, and woman, making them crave for being taken."

Queen's explanation sounds in line with what you were discussing with Smutkin. Some things still didn't line up.

"If that is the case, how is it possible that human kingdoms have princess knights in such prominent roles?" You ask. You keep momentarily for yourself a question how the queen herself seemed to resist the taint, and even raised her retainer, which you were still cradling gently in your arms, unwilling to set the unconscious half elf onto the stone floor, into a murder machine.

"The taint is a pull at the soul but its exact workings are not known. Perhaps it can be overwhelmed by free will? But it could also be it is all a spectacle, a cosmic farce where the goddess herself is allowing virtue to flourish only to see it despoiled in the end."

You didn't like that interpretation in the slightest, not just because it spelled poor chances for you. By the same token, though, you have a counterpoint - your parents, well, mother and foster father, retained their virtue to their dying breath. So at the very least, cosmic forces must have allowed for exceptions.

"Does this satisfy your curiosity?" The queen asks.

"Not quite. How does this relate to the relic?"

"It is the relic of the Nameless, of the very beast that corrupted the goddess by force. It has been sealed away by the church during the purging, a long time ago. I scried it would play pivotal role in the fate of the world, as you already know."

"So the voice that is urging me to embrace its gift is the same beast that corrupted the world itself?"

Queen's eyes shoot wide open at your question. Was she expecting something else?

"It speaks to you?"
>>
"I'm trying to ignore it, especially right now." You admit, you don't think it would be conducive to this discussion if you shared what the Voice would like you to do to the Queen. You also try to avoid imagining it since your visible arousal might have similar detrimental effect.

For once the queen seems at loss for words. Is she worried you'd turn into the beast right now? Is it guilt? Concern for her retainer?

"What were your intentions with the relic, your majesty?"

This question allows Olga to regain some composure, and steel to her voice. "If I were to follow the current doctrine of the goddess's church, I would be reclaiming my birthright. You, better than anyone, Mouse, know that the church considers the dark kin of every kind a manifestation of rot and evil." She speaks with barely restrained - or carefully modulated - anger. "But in truth the reason was to prevent our enemies from seizing this source of strength. I had no intention of drawing on it myself."

"Look at the whore who sicced her personal assassin at you to hedge her bets claim moral supremacy. Dark elf ability to lie with straight face has no bounds. I like her. Make her moan, why don't you?" The voice puts together a few sentences that make it through your filter.

"Then... why?" You ask again, shifting the half elf in your arms to emphasize your point.

"I have already answered this." The queen flares up, but quickly composes herself. "While you hold the relic, you are a danger."

"Actually, if you accepted my gift you would not need to keep it around." The Voice remarks. "Although I could pass the gift to its new bearer, too."

"Why didn't you use your magic to smite me where I stand? Why don't you do it now?"

"Don't tempt me, Mouse." The queen growls, but denies you answer, leaving you guessing whether she is somehow testing you, or for whatever reason is unable or keeping herself from following on the threat. "Is your curiosity yet sated?"

It is not, but you don't think you're in position to force more unless you resort to taking the beast's offer. You close your eyes for but a moment, part of you expecting to be immolated during that brief moment, but instead you find in yourself enough resolve to ask the one question that maybe weighed most on you, now and ever since you first laid your gaze on the beautiful elf.
>>
"I have but one question left. Forgive my insolence, your majesty, but I must know: how do you really feel about me?"

There is a flash of anger, of indignance in queen's golden eyes and she looks like she's about to shout you down. Is this how she really feels about you, or was it a gut response at being put on the spot? In either case Olga stops herself in time and instead deflates, her posture relaxing, her gaze cast down.

For the first time since you saw her, you could see Olga not as a regal figure of borderline divine stature, untouchable at distant. Now before you was standing a woman, burdened with worries, fallible and vulnerable. You had to put some additional effort to block out Voice's hollering.

"What should I reply to you, Mouse?" She asks, still looking at the floor, leaning on her staff. "I know your history. I know you think differently than most of your kin that is recovered from dungeons. That is not our way. Legacy of the Nameless is strong in us, and the traits that set you apart are weakness among us. You were a... novelty. One that I eventually discovered could be useful."

She looks up now. "Whatever it is you are looking for, I don't think I can offer to you."

Then she straightens up, recovering some of the regal persona. "Unless of course you choose to take it by force."

"What I seek can not be taken by force." You respond without thinking and hear a pained whine at the back of your mind that somehow doesn't hurt you at all.

"Well, I take it you have your answers." The Queen folds her arms under her breasts and tries to give a challenging look. Though after her previous display, whether it was sincere or meant to manipulate, the illusion of divine distance is gone for you. "What do you intend to do with the relic, if you don't intend to embrace the Beast?" She asks, ending in a somewhat hopeful tone.

>You will seek a way to neutralize the relic for now (seal it somehow)
>You will seek a way to neutralize the relic for good (seek to destroy or purify it)
>You will seek a way to reverse the taint on the world (this might be technically compatible with previous two but there could be some conflicts in priorities and economy of time)
>Give the relic to the queen after all
>other plan

As before, do you still love her?
>Yes. You can fix her. (waifu lock confirmed)
>No. She is not the person you could love. (waifu lock released, Olga removed from pool)
>Maybe. The person you thought she was doesn't exist. But maybe you could learn to love her anyway... (waifu lock released)
>>
>>5400594
>You will seek a way to reverse the taint on the world (this might be technically compatible with previous two but there could be some conflicts in priorities and economy of time)
Big boy time
>No. She is not the person you could love. (waifu lock released, Olga removed from pool)
>>
>>5400594
>>You will seek a way to neutralize the relic for good (seek to destroy or purify it)
>>You will seek a way to reverse the taint on the world (this might be technically compatible with previous two but there could be some conflicts in priorities and economy of time)

>Yes. You can fix her. (waifu lock confirmed)
>Mercy and fairness are the mark of the strong, because only the weak can not afford it.
>>
>>5400594
>You will seek a way to reverse the taint on the world (this might be technically compatible with previous two but there could be some conflicts in priorities and economy of time)
>Maybe. The person you thought she was doesn't exist. But maybe you could learn to love her anyway... (waifu lock released)
Interesting way to explain the NSFW element of the base work
>>
>>5400676
+1
>>
>>5400594
>Give the relic to the queen after all

I wanna see how this plays out.
>>
>>5400676
I'm changing to
>Maybe. The person you thought she was doesn't exist. But maybe you could learn to love her anyway... (waifu lock released)
No need to route lock without meeting the rest.
And maybe Olga will get fixed anyways when the taint is removed from the world.
>>
no clear consensus on waifu status achieved: defaulting to maybe/yes hybrid - lock released, but Olga retains headstart in affection

The question gave you pause, as before now you were focused on simply completing the mission your queen gave you. The same queen that now stood before you, asking you what you intended to do. The same queen that you saw as a woman and a person, rather than deity, for the first time.

What should you answer?

It comes naturally.

Item you held in your hands had a direct link to an aberration that in some shape or form stood at crux of every bit of pain, misery and suffering you have witnessed or endured, from your birth, through watching your parents die a torturous death and brutality of those who ostensibly saved you.

"I am going to find a way to cleanse the taint." You announce.

It takes several seconds for the words to sink in, but your resolve doesn't flag in the awkward silence (well, not quite, there was hysterical laughter of the Voice you were learning to compartmentalize into not even registering).

"What." Queen Olga asked, eyes wide open, mouth agape at the audacity of your declaration. She shakes it off and fixes you with incredulous, glare. "Mouse. Do you have any idea what you are saying?"

Your lips twitch slightly before turning into a grin. "No."

"This is no time for levity, Mouse. I was serious."

"So was I. You asked what my intention is, my queen, and that's exactly it. I don't know yet how exactly I will accomplish it, but if there is a way, I will find it."

"A way to change a fundamental rule governing all creation?" Olga asks sceptically.

"Do we know full excess of the taint? From what I learned it came to be from interaction between this Nameless and the goddess. But the goddess still walks the earth, does she not?"

"The reincarnation. The high elf queen, Celestine." Olga says flatly. "She is but a vessel, her flesh as marked by the taint as that of anyone else." She says, then, after a pause, adds hesitantly. "Even me."

"Perhaps. But her presence, and that of this relic, may mean these fundamental truths are not as distant and unreachable as they may seem."

The queen's glare is relentless, but it seems to confirm to her unshakeability of your resolve on the matter. Eventually her gaze softens. "Audacious idea. Insane." She shakes her head. "Truly an ambition worthy of my champion." Her gaze darts to the bundle where you still hold the relic you showed to her earlier. "You have proven you are very difficult to corrupt." The queen states
>>
"Will you help me in my quest, your majesty?" You ask as you look at her. No longer a dark goddess for you to worship, but a powerful woman with her own goals and ideals... some of which you still prefer not to consider too deeply. Even so, and maybe especially as a more approachable mortal, you heart seemed unwilling to condemn her all the way. In a way, your fantasy of holding her hand and seeing her smile seemed more feasible now...

Olga fixes you with a stare again at the implied request. "You are going to be taking the relic with you, exposing it to falling into wrong hands."

"With all due respect, your majesty, letting it out of my hands now would virtually guarantee it would end in the wrong ones." ...not now, though. You could not allow the affection you felt to blind you to her self admitted nature.

There's a dangerous flash in the queen's eyes but she decides not to contest the point. Even if she was earnest about not wanting to embrace Beast's power, she'd understand insanity of the risk of taking her word for it in these circumstances. "Very well. To your question, yes. I can tell you are serious about your self appointed mission. I will provide you with what aid I am able to spare." You feel your heart soar at that assurance from the queen. "However, I have a condition."

"What do you have in mind?" You ask.

"You will take Chloe with you. I..." she makes a pause, as if the word was causing her discomfort to pronounce. "...trust you, and you alone, to carry the relic. She would be my assurance that you would not lose it to my enemies."

You look down at the half elven assassin. That request seemed sensible, even though after tonight you would probably not be quick to relax around her.

"That seems prudent." You respond.

"Very well. In that case, do you have any idea where to begin this... quest?"

"Well, first thing I intended to do was to celebrate success of our mission with my men. And given Smutkin's familiarity with the apocryphal related to the taint, I was hoping he'd have some leads worth pursuing. But if you are aware of anything that could help, I'd appreciate your input, your majesty."

"I see. In that case, I'd suggest..."
>>
>Levantine castle is thought to have a collection of potentially interesting scrolls and manuscripts as the husband of the princess, Klaus Levantine, is something of a scholar.
It should probably be mentioned that Claudia Levantine is happily married and is not a waifu option at all. Had she won the initial vote, you would've been playing as Klaus. The two may play an important role in your mission though.
>Arcturus castle is home to two of the princesses, one or both of them may be aware of other possible sources of information. Additionally, the internal issues they are currently handling might give you an in there.
>Dwarven lands are rumoured to be home to some of the most advanced machines and the dwarves are renowned for pushing boundaries of understanding the natural laws
>The distant eastern kingdom follows its own specific faith that is only tangentially related to the church of the south, they may have a new perspective on the issue of taint
>Heading straight for the capital to seek contact with the avatar of the goddess is the most straightforward approach and most promising one, though also difficult to reach.
>other idea

Needless to say, accessing any of these leads without getting pitchfork to the stomach is going to be an ordeal, but them's the ropes.

optional:
>Request Olga to accompany you? (you'll have to convince her to leave the dark citadel ungoverned)
>>
>>5401010
Either
>>Arcturus castle is home to two of the princesses, one or both of them may be aware of other possible sources of information. Additionally, the internal issues they are currently handling might give you an in there.
or
>Levantine castle is thought to have a collection of potentially interesting scrolls and manuscripts as the husband of the princess, Klaus Levantine, is something of a scholar.
I don't remember which one Elle was going to, but having her to vouch for us could help.
>Request Olga to accompany you? (you'll have to convince her to leave the dark citadel ungoverned)
No, but ask if there is any way to contact her if needed.
>>
>>5401010
>Arcturus castle is home to two of the princesses, one or both of them may be aware of other possible sources of information. Additionally, the internal issues they are currently handling might give you an in there.

>No, but ask if there is any way to contact her if needed.
>>
>>5401010
>The distant eastern kingdom follows its own specific faith that is only tangentially related to the church of the south, they may have a new perspective on the issue of taint

>No, but ask if there is any way to contact her if needed.
>>
>>5401010
>Levantine castle is thought to have a collection of potentially interesting scrolls and manuscripts as the husband of the princess, Klaus Levantine, is something of a scholar.
That should be where Elle is headed if I read that bit right
>No, but ask if there is any way to contact her if needed.
>>
The Queen briefly outlines several possible leads for you. At one point she paused, lost in thought, then directed you to deposit the still limp Chloe on her throne, the singular piece of furniture in the chamber. The request surprised you somewhat, as you considered that monarchs are sensitive about trappings of their power. You took the gesture as evidence of the extraordinary bond of trust and affection the queen held for her half breed knight, despite the nihilism she was otherwise presenting to her subjects.

In either case once your hands were free - and part of you braced yourself for a magical attack now that the handmaiden was out of harm's way - Olga made a complex gesture with her free hand and her staff which lit up with dark purplish glow, and with another wave of queen's slender hand an image emerged from the floor at your feet, or more precisely a map. With this as an aid you spend next few minutes being briefed on current status of the neighbouring lands and the clues and leads Queen shared earlier are put into new context.

You are told of the deep shafts of dwarven civilizations and their pursuit of industry and study of natural laws that might be of help on your quest, of their isolationist civilization that only maintains contact with the halfling lands in the foothills which supply them with agricultural and horticultural products unavailable underground.
You are told of the lands far to the east where culture alien to that of the southern alliance worships their own god, and though their principles seem to mostly overlap with church of the south, the differences may lead to relevant insights for your mission.
You are told of a trove of knowledge the house Levantine has accumulated thanks to their current scion's choice to pursue a scholar's path instead over a martial one (though apparently he married the formidable princess knight Claudia to make up for it), and how the other princess knights' prestige and contacts might offer further leads. In fact you saw this in the mercenary group you encountered at the crypt - it was clearly Maia who facilitated access with her authority.
And finally you are briefed on the incarnation of the goddess herself, Celestine Lucullus, a beloved elven maiden renowned for her beauty, kindness and apparently clairvoyance. Perhaps that last one could help you convince her to work with you?
>>
That consideration led back to a fairly major hurdle you'd have to overcome - your monstrous nature, and the (admittedly understandable) uncompromising stance humans held for your kind. There was little way around it, though. Black Citadel was not a house of learning, and though the queen herself maintained a hoard of magical tomes or items for her own ends, she could tell she was not aware of anything of it being potentially helpful in your ambition. And although it was a theorethical possibility to simply slaughter everyone in a city and then go through their stuff in hopes of finding something, you found such an approach both wrong and impractical.

Fortunately you did have some options in this regard. One was obvious, having Smutkin to infiltrate and obtain texts or information, or possibly liaise access on your behalf. With Minerva and Diana to lend some credence this option seemed marginally less far fetched, too. There was also a possibility of reaching out to criminals or other people of relaxed morals. And finally, almost as an afterthought, you realized you sort of made a friend you could call upon. The royal courier, Elle.

The queen raises an eyebrow where you mention that story. "How fortuitous." She says. "She is unlikely to be able to win you free access, but she may be able to help you find a way to work for it. Your choices served you well. Additionally, that rebellion Arcturus are apparently facing is an interesting occurence. Their sanctimonious leadership would have the people believe they are united against the forces of evil but it seems they are not quite as convincing as they would like to be." Olga says with a hint of satisfaction. She grows more serious when she notices you not reflecting her sentiment. "In any event, it is a situation that may work to your advantage. Where there is conflict, its participants are more welcoming to making friends with outsiders."

And so you reach the end of the topics you had to discuss before setting out on your quest, with one topic left to broach.

"Thank you for your knowledge, your majesty. I have one more question. My quest is likely going to take me far away from your lands. Is there a way I could contact you, should the situation require it?"

"What? You presume to have your queen at your beck and call?" That was Chloe, who at some point regained her senses and upon seeing the queen talking shop with you took silently her position behind Olga's flank, giving you an averagely hostile glare. You're not sure if it was because of anything she might have thought of you before today, because of queen's order flagging you as a threat to be neutralized or simply because she was angry at losing to you.

"No, Mouse has a point. Magnitude of his task is such that such a measure might be justified." Olga says, shutting Chloe up. "Follow me."
>>
The dark elf queen leads you to where you never imagined being allowed to enter, the door behind the throne leading to Queen's own chambers. You drink up every detail to complete your image of Olga, the woman, as you passed through antechamber decorated with mosaics, tapestries and statues, through the arches lining its walls you catch glimpses of an empty cistern which probably served as a bath, another room lined with bookshelves and a room lit up with what might have been artificial sunlight filled with plant life before stopping in front of actual door which moved on its own as the queen approached to reveal a lavishly decorated bedroom, with a clear sight of a large soft bed with silken curtains and cushions and - was that a stuff toy?

"Wait here." You were commanded, and both you and Chloe obeyed, as the queen entered. You didn't have much time either contemplating the mysterious item, or at Voice's behest imagining the spectrum of possible activities that could take place on that bed with or without handmaiden's participation. Yes, you're pretty sure it was the voice at work again. Fortunately, it did not have much time to corrupt you before the queen re-emerged, holding a simple silvery necklace with a gemstone pendant of colour that reminded you of Olga's golden eyes.

"This necklace is paired with another artifact in my possession. Rub it or otherwise warm it up when you need to talk to me, and I will arrange the rest. Use it sparingly, for your own safety."

You accept the necklace and thank the queen for her boon.
>>
"Good. Now I believe with this you know what to do next, Mouse. I will wish you good fortune in your quest." The queen says, then turns to Chloe. "And you." Right, she was passed out when her presence was decided.

"My queen?" Chloe's ears perked up at being addressed.

"You are going to accompany Mouse and support him in his mission to the full extent of your ability..."

"W-what? My Queen, you are sending me away? But you will be alone! I will, I will be unable to..."

"Calm yourself, Chloe. In this task you will be protecting me from the greatest threat I could possibly face, save for Celestine and all the mages of the human kingdoms joining forces to strike at me, and even after my army has been entirely beaten. I know what I am doing."

"B-but..." Chloe begins but falls silent. When she looks up, her face is set into an image of resolve and determination. "As you command, my queen."

"Good. As I was saying, you are to support Mouse in his quest and above all are to ensure that the relic of the Nameless he now bears would never fall into hands of another. I trust only Mouse, you and myself with that item. Remember that."

"Of course, my queen."

"Very good." Olga says and offers one small smile, you're not sure if it's intended for yourself, Chloe or the both of you but it's clear you are being dismissed.

"I will succeed, your majesty." You vow with a salute. "For all our sakes."

With these words you turn around and set out towards your quarters. There were preparations to be made, and you had promised your men some celebration. And then... then the adventure would truly begin." You think to yourself, your vision for the future punctuated by soft, barely audible footfalls of the half elf following you.
>>
Whether it was as a toy or an agent, Queen Olga's personal attention and recognition had its undeniable benefits linked to your station as an ogre lieutenant. Having your own corner of the dark citadel for you to arrange as you deemed fit was without a doubt a major one.
Although it was in a secluded wing that took some brisk walking to reach from the general armoury and training areas, never mind the throne room, it was fairly self sufficient so for the most part there was little need to bother. It also helped to minimize exposure to sneers and petty malice of your peers and kin. In a way, you were quite thankful to be able to recognize it as a home.

There was your personal chamber where you had a cot, a chest for your things - not that you had anything truly personal, all of your past life but your memories burned with your village. Perhaps more importantly, there was your own chicken coop, one of the practically magical features of the black citadel, a room spontaneously generating poultry, known popularly among the more literate troops as "colonel standard's". A common area where your men have with your help put together places to rest - an elevated dais for Tithe, with a pile of cloth in which Sparky liked to rest below it; a pair of bedrolls for Phineous and Smutkin, between them a bookshelf they shared, and a shoddy cabinet that housed writing and drawing implements they also shared. There was a table which you used for communal dining or planning, a hearth and a water fountain linked to citadel's water works. And there was of course a small armoury, supplied with most of the stock items the northern horde used for equipment.

"This doesn't look too bad." Chloe surprises you by saying once she takes in the piece of reality your squad and you have carved out for yourselves. You probably shouldn't feel surprised, you tell yourself, though Olga might for herself enjoy the touch of luxury and feel a measure of affection for her handmaiden, she is probably not a person who would pamper her knight just because she was a favourite.

"Boss, Boss! You're back! How did it go?" Sparky darts out of his hovel to float before you. You gesture for him to wait and look around to confirm rest of the squad is coming along. Tithe is always watching, Phineous and Smutkin put away what they were doing. You don't see the golems anywhere though, so you speak out their names and sure enough they emerge from within your room they have presumably been guarding.

"Nobody gave you any grief?" You ask and are answered in the negative. "Good then. Tonight we celebrate our success..." There's a cheer, which you turn short with a raised hand. "...however, get good night's sleep tonight for tomorrow we depart on a new quest."

"Already? Queen gave you a new quest?" Sparky asks. "What is it?"

"In a manner of speaking." You say. "We are going to mend the world."
>>
Phineous snorts, but quickly stops when he realizes you are being serious, especially when he notices Chloe standing in the shadow behind you. Smutkin simply glares at you with content grimace and eyes alight with determination.

"I will share more details in the morning. For now it will be enough to say we are going to travel to human lands and seek to access the knowledge their hold. Our first stop will be either of the militant houses, Arcturus or Levantine. But for now, as I said, eat up and rest up. You deserve it."

Satisfied with the outcome for now, your men acknowledge the new situation and get about preparing the party, which mostly means Phineous and Smutkin heading over to pick up chickens to process, as neither has common preference for raw meat in their diet, while Tithe recovers a barrel of ale from the pantry.

You notice the golems giving you a questioning look and you realize they may be uncertain how to behave in front of the queen's shadow.

"This is Chloe. Queen commanded her to help us and protect the relic." You explain. "Go on, help the others. You're part of the team now."

"Thank you, leader." The twin golems speak as one.

"We were fortunate to recover such spoils." You tell Chloe in response of her astonished expression. "At any rate, you are too welcome to party with us. You are part of the team now."

"I am and will ever be only ever loyal to one person, her majesty the Queen." Chloe forgets the golems to assert herself.

"Very well. In that case you might want to rest in your quarters? We'll pick you up tomorrow."

"No, my mission has already begun. I'll rest here. It would be nice if you can spare an extra bedroll though."

"Of course." You lead her to the storeroom and show her around in the process.

"Okay. I'll be exercising in the gymnasium while you party."

"Suit yourself." You nod and after some consideration add: "Glad to have you with us."

She doesn't reply, but you think you can spot a barest hint of a smile, reminiscent of that of Olga's. Even a hardened knight can appreciate being welcome.

With that handled, you move to help your men in preparing the improvised feast. You are persons of simple tastes (despite Phineous's protestations), so it doesn't take long for you to sit together at the table and reminiscing highlights of your last trip, and more amusing parts of the previous ones. There's some laughter and cheering to be had, though you run out while the night is still young. Smutkin takes out his flute and a sentimental tune echoes through your unit's barracks. You think you hear the strikes against a training dummy stop momentarily before resuming.
>>
>Hang out with your men
>Talk with a specific member of your squad (Tithe, Sparky, Phineous, Smutkin?)
>Go talk to Chloe, get to know her better.
>Talk to the golems, see how they're settling in.
>other plan

Also, for your destination tomorrow...
>Levantine domain. Elle was heading there and though she might have returned back, depending on how quickly she recovered from her ordeal, she would have certainly left a report of your encounter. Additionally, you were interested in Klaus's stockpile of texts.
>Arcturus domain. Elle may have returned with her response and a report by now; additionally, the bandits operating in the area might give you opportunity to prove your good intentions
>>
>>5401734
>Go talk to Chloe, get to know her better.
Might as well
>Arcturus domain. Elle may have returned with her response and a report by now; additionally, the bandits operating in the area might give you opportunity to prove your good intentions
My plan now is to be able to get a recommendation from one of the princess to be able to talk with Klaus. Elle can vouch for us so they can put a trial to prove ourselves. like stopping the internal turmoil.
>>
>>5401763
>Support
>>
>>5401763
>+1
>>
>>5401734
>Go talk to Chloe, get to know her better.
>Arcturus domain. Elle may have returned with her response and a report by now; additionally, the bandits operating in the area might give you opportunity to prove your good intentions
>>
Not wanting to interrupt Smutkin's performance with words you just gesture towards the training room and head over. If Queen's shadow was meant to be part of your team now it would be better to familiarise yourself with her a bit more than you already have during your previous spars, which were few and far between anyway.

You walk in to see what you more or less expected, the half elf prowling around the dummy in combat stance, mustering strength for a lunge with her dagger, executing a series of cuts and strikes that on a living being would have caused crippling or lethal injuries, disengaging and repeating the cycle.

"Would you like to spar for a while?"

"You are going to try and use that as excuse to chat, aren't you?"

"Yes." You shrug.

"Alright, fine." She says and launches herself at you again, would have caught you flat footed if you were not expecting this sort of response. Although it's not until you manage to deflect her approach that you can appreciate that she did have the decency of stowing away her daggers.

"I just thought that-" hop and a lunge "-seeing as we are going on a dangerous mission together- " stabbity stab with pretend blades into your pretend armour "-we could at least get to appreciate each other as people."

"I already told you. I'm her majesty's own blade. I'm not joining your outfit." She says after dodging your counter. You sigh internally but honestly you imagined she won't be any easier to deal with. At least you can count on her fulfilling Olga's command to the letter. For now though, you could look forward to this bonding session to be physically exhausting.

"I am not trying to steal you from her majesty." You say. "I can tell your bond with the queen is exceptionally strong. I can tell she cares for you as well."

She actually hesitates as you tell her that, even though she really shouldn't, entire fortress knew Queen and her Shadow are close and occasionally you overheard speculations of just how close two elves can get. But for what it was worth, you did not think that was the case. "Well yes. She appreciates my service."

"I'm not surprised. Your devotion seems uncharacteristic for our army. Do you know how many orc divisions have the same commanders today as they had a year ago? Two out of fifteen."

"What are you suggesting?" Her movements become more aggressive and attacks stronger, though by the same token less refined and easier to intercept.

"I'm not suggesting anything, I'm just glad that the queen can appreciate value of your integrity."
>>
"The queen simply knows I'm grateful that she - for what she did for me. You should, too."

Right, she was not conscious when Olga admitted how she felt about you. "I suppose you have a point. But I was being serious."

"About what, specifically?" She was back to careful, calculated approach.

"We're doing this for her, for you, for everyone."

"I don't need anything more. And I don't care about 'everyone'. The only person I care about... is sending me with you."

"That's fair. I'll try to not drag it out then, so you can be reunited quickly."

"Don't try to lie to me, oaf. You know as well as I do you're dragging me to an impossible task. I may well end up not seeing my queen again."

You were unsure how to reply to that, and sensing your hesitation Chloe executed a particularly daring and vicious feint. Had you not gotten the impromptu exercise session with the shades recently she might have successfully disabled you then and there. As it was, though, you managed to grasp and immobilize her when the maneuver allowed a brief window of opportunity to do so. And so you were holding her, helpless, feet dangling with no purchase in ground or elsewhere, the size disparity made apparent.

"Isn't she cute like this? How easy would it be for you to use her for your relief right now?"

You blinked. The Voice has been subdued recently, but this situation made you realize that you would have to contend with this kind of suggestions until you succeeded or fell. It was not a comforting thought, but one you volunteered to endure on your impossible task.
But, when you thought about it, there was another thought, even more troubling. Where exactly did the Voice end, and your own urges begin? What if these mental images were your own? Would you blame the Voice for all your failings now? Like that time when you stole one of the cakes your mother was baking when you thought she wasn't looking? There was no relic, no voice of the beast with you back then. No, you couldn't-

"Ugh, fine, you win. Can you let me down now?" Chloe's grumbling shakes you from your thoughts.

"Oh, sorry." You carefully set her down. As soon as you release her she repays you with a quick and painful jab to the side, and a vision of her smug smile as she bounced back, ready for more. "Alright, you're on, little one."

Rest of the evening spent getting sweaty with the nimble half elven fighter leaves you exhausted and sore, though you hope your monstrous physique will let you recover enough during the sleep to not impact your ability to travel swiftly. You barely register how the elf puts her spare bedroll in front of your personal chamber as you tumble into your cot and let the nightmares wash over you.
>>
Next day, queen herself actually saw you out. After you departed the citadel you noticed there is a commotion behind you and when you turned around, Olga was there flanked by a pair of heavily armoured ogre knights. You could not help but feel somewhat touched by the gesture, even though it might have been aimed at Chloe. Even in that case however you were glad as it left the half elf in considerably better mood, at least for a time. You offered a salute, unsure if the queen would notice it at that distance, but in any case she turned around and withdrew into the citadel shortly afterwards, letting you to continue on your way.

Your trip towards the Arcturus stronghold proves uneventful, as well it should considering most of it goes through lands firmly under horde's control. You were slightly more worried about crossing the frontline, partly because you now had three more hooded figures accompany you, but more importantly because of the presumed Levantine reinforcements that were likely to be dispatched to help Arcturus' forces when they were preoccupied with their bandit problem.
However, you saw no Levantine heraldry in the troops, be it living patrols you snuck past or the dead who wandered into path of one of Olga's warbands. Either they did not yet arrive yet or were deployed differently, though you found difficulty imagining scenarios where that would be the case, bar maybe seeing that the coup problem was considerably more severe than anticipated.
Additionally, the golems could move with surprising stealth and for Chloe such mode of movement came entirely naturally. Her ability to scout will prove invaluable in settings where Tithe or Sparky would be too exposed.

Eventually you find yourself taking shelter in a secluded copse within sight of the keep where princess Alicia is presumed to reside. You certainly hope that is right, it would have been silly to spend days' worth of travel only to find that the princess is in a different castle. Tithe however eases your worries by stating that both Alicia's and her cousin's colours can be seen on the keep, announcing presence of both fabled princess knights.

"Alright, boss, how are we doing this? I guess we can't just walk in and request an audience." Phineous asks.
>>
"I don't think the law forgot about the charges against common decency that got me exiled," Smutkin speaks. "But I think I should be able to sneak in and gather some information. Maybe even track the courier girl."

"How long would that take?" Phineous asks. "It's a decently sized city by the looks of it. It could take days without finding anything of interest, unless you straight up break into the courier barracks or approach the main keep openly."

"It may take a while but we should be able to avoid detection." The bard replies.

"Why would you even return to us at all?" Chloe asks. "Don't you feel you belong with them more than with us?"

The bard fixes her with a stare, but it's not one of anger, fear of indignation. It's one of resolve. "There was a time where I would have considered that." He says. "But right now... I feel like I'm finally part of a story I wish to see to a satisfactory conclusion."

"Do you have a suggestion, Chloe?" You decide to interject to preempt possibility of half elf's sceptical retort.

"I do. You said the humans are fighting against each other here. The ones that ambushed the courier, right?" You nod. "We could find them and take them out, or maybe at least scout them out."

"Getting involved before we've gathered some information on what's going on can easily turn against us. We can attack wrong people, or our activity can get them to decide to work together. And until we reach some understanding with the house forces we will be assumed as enemies." Smutkin objected.

"Scouting them out might actually be both viable and useful though." You muse aloud. "We know these bandits are in contact with someone from the keep. Maybe in their outpost we could find something to tie these together."

"What are we going to do with them though? Are they gonna believe anything we give them?" Phineous doubted.

"Actually, if I was the one who delivered such evidence, it might work..." Smutkin mused.

"Would our presence be helpful, leader?" One of the golems, you think it was Minerva, asked.

"Your help could convince someone of our intentions, but if discovered prematurely or to wrong person it oculd also identify us as having visited the Crypt." You say, before returning to your decisionmaking.

There were several paths forward, some of them overlapping or connected... which one would you pick?

>Smutkin's idea, send him in to gather information. It might take some time to bear effects.
>Chloe's suggestion, look for the bandit camp in the countryside. Elevated risk of encountering forces of either side though
>Split the party, granting you chance to pursue both leads but denying you Smutkin in case of combat and preventing him from reaching you in case of developments OR denying you both Smutkin and Tithe if sent with him.
>other idea
>>
>>5402250
>Our group will have to be on the move to stay hidden from patrols while we wait however, so might as well look for any bandits while at it. Probably will find way less so close to the city, but maybe we will be able to see any patterns of who goes in and out. Remeber to set up some fixed locations to rotate to at certain times in case Smutkin or Tithe need to report to.
The split the part but with a focus on Smutkin's plan. Any bandits or spies found would be targets of opportunity instead of hunting for them.
>>
>>5402250
>Split the party, granting you chance to pursue both leads but denying you Smutkin in case of combat and preventing him from reaching you in case of developments
Let Smutkin gather info alone
>>
>>5402354
>Chloe's suggestion, look for the bandit camp in the countryside. Elevated risk of encountering forces of either side though
>>
"Why not both?" You ask a rhetorical question.

"We are in a land that's not friendly to us. Splitting up can be dangerous." Smutkin answers it anyway.

"That is true, but our quest was always bound to have its risks." You say. "We can't afford to waste time waiting around too much either. So this is what we're going to do. Smutkin, you go through with your idea to find out more about the situation in the city. If you could find a way to contact the courier, that would be great. Tithe, you will find a vantage point Smutkin can reach to pass along messages for us. Only travel at night - avoid detection."

"Very well."
"As you say, leader." The bard and the gargoyle acknowledge your commands.

"In the meantime, the rest of us will prowl the countryside and look for signs of bandits or conspirators. As long as we don't reveal ourselves and prompt an organized hunt, we should be able to easily overpower isolated individuals or small groups and hopefully extract some information from them. That way we avoid sitting on our thumbs while some work."

There's a chorus of acknowledgment from the party and with the next course of action decided you pack up to be on your way. Which essentially means Smutkin heading off on his own with Tithe following him while the rest of you head out into the countryside, intent on avoiding hamlets and patrols in search of potential bandits.

Consulting what you remember from looking at the maps of the region, what Tithe reported on your way here and what Sparky had to add you single out several prospective areas where a gang of bandits could set up a muster point within range of the fortress while also not being at immediate risk of chance discovery: a forested island on the river upstream of the fortress, marshes downstream of it, a secluded vale in the nearby foothills and finally depths of a forest that might have served as the nobles' hunting grounds before the war gave nobles and their retainers more important business to attend.

You begin with the forest which technically you already entered and indeed it doesn't take you long to find signs of human habitation. You come across a path that has to be regularly travelled to keep it from overgrowth, though it is too narrow to accommodate more than individual people at a times. You keep clear of it to avoid bumping into someone but follow its general direction to reach a settlement of what must be outlaws.

However, closer examination confirms your earlier suspicions - this was not the hideout you were looking for. Even you, and Chloe who ventured closer, could spot entire families with women and children, but no stockpiles of armour, weapons or collected loot that bandits or conspirators would presumably have. You surmised these were probably 'regular' outlaws or exiles or maybe heretics or otherwise undesirable people driven out of the city. You keep the location noted but seeing no benefit in contacting the people here you decide to move on.
>>
You camp for the night before you depart the forest entirely, and shortly after dusk Tithe arrives with a report of Smutkin's early findings. He was successful in avoiding recognition - his time in captivity changed him, after all - but he had little to share for now as he familiarized himself with layout of the fortress. He did manage to panhandle some coin with his music in the lower class drinking dens, and gained some street level rumours, mostly concerning developments of the war and princess knights' cup sizes, prompted by arrival of a contingent of knights from Levantine. There was some concern about bandit activity but apparently the common man was not really aware there might be an organized conspiracy going on.

Admittedly you feel some relief at the implication that Elle had likely succeeded in delivering her message. The look in her eyes, the mixture of sadness and confusion at seeing you leave, left you with enough impression that you'd feel sorry had she been captured again in the end.

After being thanked for his report Tithe departs back to his perch on the fortress's temple where Smutkin can reach him under pretence of prayer after receiving soup the nuns are distributing there for the poor and for the refugees.

Next day you reach the river and cross it to reach the suspect island. You are easily able to carry party's supplies without them getting wet, and both you and Phineous get to enjoy what sheen of water does to animated stone bodies of Minerva and Diana who maintain neutral expression at your ogling while Chloe rolls her eyes and huffs.

Unwilling to let this all distract you from your task here you search the island, though it quickly becomes apparent it's entirely uninhabited. You do discover one interesting feature, however, a stone monument marking the spot as a resting place of some sort of magic user. You regret somewhat not having Smutkin with you to decipher the script and only make the "magic user" part out because you are attacked by one of the plants as you examine the landmark. The entity is using its whip like appendages to lash out and try to immobilize with clear preference for Chloe and the golems, but its vines turn out to be not strong enough for them, so Minerva and Diana are easily able to defend themselves and extricate Chloe while Sparky zaps creature's body with a ray of magical light which causes it to seize up and drop dead.

It tastes vaguely like ginger.
>>
When no other parts of landscape give you any further trouble you decide to set up camp on the island. Tithe finds you without problems and reports on Smutkin's progress.

This time, the bard has an interesting bit of information for you. Apparently, one of the nuns at the soup kitchen went into the marshes to collect fresh herbs, of both cooking and medical variety, and has not returned in expected time. Of course, that could be due to a number of reasons, but considering you regarded the marsh as one of the possible locations for bandit hubs, it seemed a distinct possibility that the sister came across a particularly toxic kind of plant.

Unfortunately, the location meant you would have to circumnavigate the city. Would you even be able to be of any help? If you set out now, and don't tarry, you might be able to arrive around dawn.

>Head out immediately. It will take a while, but you will try and investigate this lead as soon as possible. Besides, even if the nun was not captured by bandits, you might still be in position to help with whatever the problem was.
>Keep the lead in mind but stick to your previous plan, rest now and tomorrow check out the foothills before completing the circuit in the marshes.
>split the party again somehow (Chloe is currently unwilling to follow any split that would keep her from keeping track of you)
>(optional) instruct Smutkin to drop his current activity and scout the marshes out by himself / with Tithe / with Sparky
>different plan
>>
>>5402741
>Keep the lead in mind but stick to your previous plan, rest now and tomorrow check out the foothills before completing the circuit in the marshes.

Hey QM, could we maybe make a copy of the script or a rubbing of it on paper to send to our Bard via our courier?

Also, great work with making an interesting quest from the source material btw.
>>
>>5402741
>Keep the lead in mind but stick to your previous plan, rest now and tomorrow check out the foothills before completing the circuit in the marshes.
Just had a thought, how much shorter is Mouse compared to his pure brethren? He’s still large enough to hold Chloe in one hand, so I’m a little curious
>>
>>5402772
>+1
>>
>>5402741
>Head out immediately. It will take a while, but you will try and investigate this lead as soon as possible. Besides, even if the nun was not captured by bandits, you might still be in position to help with whatever the problem was.
I have a feeling that if we wait too much they will send knights to investigate, and we would have to deal with two forces at the same time.
>>
>>5402772
The copy idea is a good one and I support it.
>>
Although small part of you fears that postponing trip to the marsh may lead to it being more difficult to navigate because of course the humans would send out knights to rescue the missing nun, you quickly abandon that thought reasoning that you wouldn't make it before anyone from the city proper anyway and this way at least the sister is likely to be rescued by her own people. In the end you decide to stick to the original plan, though you do resolve to keep your eyes open when you get there regardless.

With the course made clear again the party retires, though on impulse you have Tithe to wait a bit longer and under flickering torchlight requisition a piece of parchment from Phineous's stock and make a copy of the monument markings for Smutkin to try and decipher.

Next morning you make for the foothills. Not wanting to risk Sparky exposing himself in daylight too much you ask Chloe to scout ahead of the party and with her help manage to steer clear of active mines and quarries, hamlets and occasional patrol. The more difficult terrain slows you down noticeably and you succeed in surveying only about half of the area you hoped to cover, which itself is a fraction of the greater region. On the other hand, with the region being more heavily exploited than you had anticipated it seems less likely to be haven of the brigands, unless of course there is corruption involved and one of the legitimate looking hamlets or excavations is actually a hidden bandit base. Unfortunately there's not much you could do to tell without actually entering to look around, and that would be both too risky and too time consuming so for now you settle on at least trying to map them out for future reference.

Eventually the nightfall catches you in one of the nameless little vales, with Tithe's report soon after. There's not much new except Smutkin admitting he afforded himself a bath and change of clothes to be able to infiltrate more refined areas of the city. He intended to try and reach the courier barracks tomorrow, something you held hopes for. Tithe also brought back his transcription of the monument writing, though it turned out to be about as useful as you feared it might be. It read:

"Here lies Erosmus, the depraved sorcerer, Amoretta's last student. When life gives you dicks, make dick juice."

With a sigh you put the parchment away and thank Tithe for his reliable service before he darts off into the night.
>>
Next morning you pack up camp before dawn to make sure light of day doesn't catch you stationary. You continue your probing trip from yesterday, the nimble half elven knightess taking the point again. You begin to wonder if you made the right call not pursuing the marsh lead first when Phineous, studying the map you've been updating, speaks up.

"Hey, boss, I think I found something funny."

"What kind of funny? What did you find?" You ask.

"Arrangement of these mines and quarries." He indicates markings the two of you were making, with help of Sparky to confirm the exact position. "It looks random at glance, but if you look at it from distance, it looks kind of like they're arranged in a string. Well, several, maybe." The orc says.

You came over and found that he had a point. Well, mostly. It did look like the mines and hamlets were arranged in such a way that a route could pass around most of them without rounding too many hills.

"Guess they were not really founded haphazardly, but in a way to make collecting the material efficient." You comment.

"Yeah. But here's the other funny thing. This one doesn't seem to fit the pattern." Phineous singled out one of the mines. It had a road to it, as did others, but it was oriented in such a way that you had to circle a hill and pass through a narrow crevice if you didn't want to crest a ridge. Which is what you did when you mapped the place, although it looked abandoned when you did.

"Maybe it was founded independently and then abandoned because it couldn't compete." You muse. "Only one way to know for sure."

"You wanna check it out, boss?"

Inclining your head you decide against it. "No, at least not right now. It looked abandoned when we checked it out for the first time, if it was active we'd be likely to at least see some sentries or patrols. Let's complete the survey for now. Then we can get back to it later."

You highlight the offending mineshaft and turn back to the orc. "Good job, Phineous. Do it more often."

He gives you a toothy grin in return.
>>
You don't actually travel very far before Chloe gets back to you to warn you.

"Group of soldiers ahead. They look like they travel somewhere specific, too relaxed to be a patrol."

"Which direction?" You ask Chloe, pulling up the map.

"Roughly east." She answers. "Down this vale." She points it out.

"Doesn't make sense." You try to extrapolate their destination. "Unless..." You look at your orcish subordinate. "Hah." You turn back to Chloe. "How many?"

"Twelve of them, with an officer at the front. All men, all in Arcturus colours." The half-elf reported her findings. You paused at mention of sex, but considering how substantial portion of human military seemed to be women (even though their armour frequently sacrificed much protection for mobility), seeing a unit composed from only males did seem something worth noting. "Thank you, Chloe."

"Uniformed soldiers... could they be actual Arcturus forces?" Phineous asked.

"Doing what? They are clearly headed neither for the frontline, nor on lookout for bandits." You shook your head. "Although this is the case Smutkin was afraid of, I'd wager my next dinner these would be either disguised bandits or traitors."

"What do we do then, ambush them?" Chloe asks. She seems confident in her ability to take them all on. You, have some doubts.

"I don't like those odds too much." Phineous agrees.

That's right. You had a solid clue to follow now, but confrontation could go wrong in several different ways.

>Ambush them. It was a risky prospect, but with element of surprise perhaps doable. There was high risk that some of the soldiers would be able to get back to city and report your presence.
>Let them pass and follow them to the strange mineshaft.
>Let them pass and try to figure out the path they came from.
>Let them pass and continue search as originally planned before moving on to the marshes.
>other plan
(in any event, the strange mineshaft is now confirmed as a point of interest for later investigation)
>>
>>5402772
Thanks, I aim to please. though mostly myself, muhehe

>>5402799
Not much. This is hentai biology so he's in reality as ogre as any other ogre. He considers himself half because he latches on having been raised by human family. He's a bit smaller and less robust than regular ogres also partially due to that (different diet and not much fighting at younger age)
>>
>>5402879
>Let them pass and try to figure out the path they came from.
>>
>>5402879
>Let them pass and follow them to the strange mineshaft.
>>
>>5402877
>"Here lies Erosmus, the depraved sorcerer, Amoretta's last student. When life gives you dicks, make dick juice."
Alright, that explains the plant targeting
>>5402879
>Let them pass and follow them to the strange mineshaft.
>>
>>5402879
>Let them pass and follow them to the strange mineshaft.

Just like muh Tactical Espionage Action Games, except the voice in the codec ain't a qt girl.
>>
>>5402879
>Let them pass and follow them to the strange mineshaft.
>>
"We're going after them." You decide. This opportunity to confirm what is going on was too good to pass up.

Chloe nods, her expression serious, and heads out to keep track of the group she discovered.

Phineous looks unsure, but falls in line as you set out to move, following Chloe's signals. Minerva and Diana keep their peace and Sparky looks as eager to adventure as always.

The soldiers maintain decent traveling pace and it doesn't take long for you to approach the suspicious mine entrance. Chloe ahead of you gives you a signal to stop before you clear the line of sight, then motions for you to carefully approach, directing you towards some rock outcroppings and shrubbery that should obscure your bulk and allow you to watch what was apparently going on.

When you crest the hill that was separating you from the facility you are able to confirm that the mine was in fact not abandoned after all. The soldiers Chloe reported were standing to the side while the officer and another man were taking the centre of the stage, discussing things. You narrowed your eyes at the colours the other man was wearing - then you recall that the adventurer you encountered at the crypt was wearing a similar getup.

"-this time?"

"The volunteers, as promised, for your operation. B- the mutual friend is confident in having enough men to pull off his part of the plan without a hitch."

"Does he now? Well, it's his head that would end first on a pike should he fail, so he better be certain."

"He's aware of the stakes."

"Good, good. Alright." The man addressed the soldiers next. "Welcome to the company, lads! Do well by us and we'll have you drowning in gold, booze and bitches like the holier than thous would never allow." There's some trading glances and murmuring as the soldiers try to gauge the atmosphere which soon erupts in eager hollering. "Get on in. We'll go through a crash course and see that you fit in." He motioned to the entrance and turned back to the officer, reaching into his pouch and tossing him something small and shiny. "Give our mutual friend a token of appreciation."

"I will. Good hunting." The officer said and actually saluted.

"Same to you." The other man nodded and, after last soldier was through, followed them into the depths.

With that the officer headed out, prompting you and Chloe to withdraw lest he stumbled across you as it turned out he was moving in direction of the city.

Your group reconvened and it fell to you to decide what your next course of action would be.

>You could try to infiltrate the mines. You are guaranteed to be outnumbered in there though close quarters might mitigate that risk. You don't have much hope of maintaining stealth given your size and your group composition.
>Maybe you could try and backtrack where the soldiers came from. It did not seem like they went directly from the city...
>The officer is travelling alone, you could ambush him and get some answers from him.
>other plan
>>
>>5403943
Any of these two
>Maybe you could try and backtrack where the soldiers came from. It did not seem like they went directly from the city...
>The officer is travelling alone, you could ambush him and get some answers from him.
>>
>>5403943
>The officer is travelling alone, you could ambush him and get some answers from him.
>>
>>5403943
>The officer is travelling alone, you could ambush him and get some answers from him.
>>
"The officer seems a perfect opportunity." You decide.

You pause for a moment to consider why such a presumably high value target is allowing himself such vulnerability, but when you list out possible threats, it doesn't seem that far fetched. His own army would probably not bother him, and even if they did he might have some bullshit excuse prepared anyway. Queen Olga's forces were nowhere near the fortress (yet), so he was not in real danger from these either, and what was left was bandits and outlaws which he must have held for either not a threat or outright allies.

Well, you would have some answers from him soon enough.

"I'll handle it." Chloe volunteered. You hesitated ever so slightly, and she might have picked up on it as she gave you a glare.

"We'll have your back." You assure her. She gives an unimpressed smirk and moves out.

It's not that you doubt her ability. You worry though about extent to which the Taint makes her vulnerable. And so when she disappears from your field of view you pick up pace following her, just to be sure.

Your concerns, at least for now, prove unfounded, as when she comes into sight again, it's with her dagger at the officer's throat, his sword, still in scabbard, lying on the ground nearby.

With a quick sigh of relief you approach the prisoner and begin thinking on how exactly you would actually make him talk. You can't really imagine torturing him, though you suppose Chloe might have some ideas. Luckily, the officer preempts your concerns when he sees an ogre before him. His eyes widen and he quickly speaks:

"Wait, wait, don't hurt me." This part you were sort of hoping for, but it doesn't end there. "I have the token. Do you have yours?" This one takes you by surprise, which you quickly suppress and hope that the man is not good at reading your kind's facial expressions.

Was he assuming you were part of his faction somehow? You'll sort through implications later. For now, you need to decide how to make best use of this. First thing you do is make a hand signal for rest of your party to stay out of sight, you're not sure how he'd react to seeing the golems. You're not currently sure if he saw Chloe who ambushed him.

>(bluff) Treat him as inferior
>(bluff) Treat him as an equal
>Drop pretence, intimidate him as champion of the queen
>other

>optional: show him some proof of your allegiance... or what you wish him to think it is (do you carry something like this?)
>>
>>5404278
>(bluff) Treat him as an equal
>optional: show him some proof of your allegiance... or what you wish him to think it is (do you carry something like this?)
I can only think of the orders from the bandits, make it seem we want to questions why it failed, since we saw levantine reinforcements patrolling.
Another one would be the wooden dildo from the ruins, since it was probably a heretical symbol.
>>
>>5404288
>+1
the plot thickens
>>
>>5404288
supporting
>>
>>5404288
No wait, I just rembered something better than a fucking dildo: The wolf collar. The nameless monster appeared as a wolf in the dream, the heretics probably use them as the symbol.
>>
There's hardly enough time to think, so partially driven by instinct you reach into your knapsack before you even decide what to look for.

"I'll show you mine if you show me yours." You say, then on impulse also add: "Shiv, ease off him, just in case."

Chloe luckily understands what you're after and steps back silently. You're not sure how widespread knowledge of Queen Olga's faithful Shadow is, but dark elves alone are so rare and precious that they rouse suspicions. Chloe pulls hood over her to obscure her features in case the officer looked around.

The man in question meanwhile reaches into his own pocket but seems to retain enough care to hesitate before revealing proof of his allegiance before you do. Although you could probably intimidate him to do it first, it would likely make him more guarded in next dealings so instead you quickly consider if you have something that might work.

Your thoughts rush through possibilities of which there shouldn't be many. After all you have nothing to do with neither Arcturus forces nor the conspiracy surrounding it. But for whatever reason your mind wanders to the phallus you recovered at the crypt ruins. You pin blame for that immediately to Voice and move on. It's not like you even have the toy, or idol, or whatever it was supposed to represent, with you. You left it in storage so unless Chloe recovered it for whatever reason it was back at the citadel. Though given Chloe's attitude, you doubt she'd as much as want to look at it.

Fortunately, there was one other thing you, or rather your team, found in the ruins. Well, two if you count the relic itself (you were not going to count Minerva and Diana as things, that's for sure). You pull out the wolf charm Sparky discovered and immediately see relief on the man's face as he pulls out his own. You note it's a different item than the one the man at the mines tossed to him, but it would probably be a bad idea to ask the officer about it now. Instead, you make a show of shifting into a more relaxed pose. You're all friends and equals here, right? You figured that the conspirators are unrelated to Queen's forces so have no reason to consider non-humans as superior. However, the man's readiness to accept a monster as one of his peers gives you food for thought later. First, though, you would see what the man would volunteer by himself.
>>
"Phew, I really thought you were going to take me for a spy or something for a moment there. Don't worry, the operation is safe."

"That's good to hear." You nod. "Coulda fooled me with all those Levantines strutting about."

The man's cheer vanishes. "Tell me about it. Bea- uh, the boss should have sent some professionals to intercept the bitch, not that base scum."

Somehow from what you saw so far from the treacherous soldiers you doubt there is much distinction, but say something else instead: "Well, I'm not going to pretend to know details of that, I was just surprised by number of patrols. I'm Breaker, by the way. It's what I do." You make an effort to loom a bit. "Don't mind Shiv, he's not a chatty fellow."

"Um, yeah. Pleasure. I'm Alexander. Er... are we supposed to know each other's names?"

"As long as we don't know where to find each other without good reason it should be fine." You placate him. "On that note, I was on my way to report in when this clusterfuck happened. Was there any special measures or development I should be aware of? Don't want to walk into a trap just because the fallback was compromised."

"Sure, that sounds sensible. Well... our guests and loyalists are swarming all over the marshes, so be extra careful if you're meant to report in the bandit camp or in our rally point. The excavation seems secure. Were you headed there? No matter I probably shouldn't know. I didn't hear of any new meeting points or anything, though the dead drop is not due until end of the week."

"The one under the bridge?" You risk a gamble.

"We have one under a bridge? No, I meant the one in tannery. Oh shit, we're probably not meant to talk about it."

"Huh. You're right. Well thanks anyway. I'm not going to tell anyone if you won't."

"Deal." Alexander nods. "Um, I suppose I should be going so I can fill in reports for the sluts in charge."

It seems the helpful gentleman is about to depart...
>Let him go. Risk of him mentioning you to anyone important seems minor, him going missing would likely attract more heat from both loyalists and conspirators
>Capture him. However, currently you have nobody to hand him over to that wouldn't take his word over yours
>Silence him permanently, only way to be sure he doesn't accidentally mention there's an ogre at large. However, missing officer is likely to alert both sides something dangerous is afoot.
>you have something to ask or tell him (what?)
>other plan
>>
>>5404919
>Let him go. Risk of him mentioning you to anyone important seems minor, him going missing would likely attract more heat from both loyalists and conspirators
>>
>>5404919
>Let him go. Risk of him mentioning you to anyone important seems minor, him going missing would likely attract more heat from both loyalists and conspirators
We got to rush to the dead drop, or mention it to Smutkin.
>>
Deciding to go with what you see as the least disruptive option you choose to let the officer go after his business while ostensibly setting out back towards what you suspected was dubbed the 'excavation'.

"He's out of sight." Chloe informs you.

"Thank you. Excellent job."

Chloe preens with a smug smile, like you could expect anything else from her. You are shortly reunited with remaining companions. You extracted quite a lot of interesting information and you had to decide how to act on it. Regrettably, your options were currently limited. You had a hint as to where conspirators are keeping a dead drop, though no real way of narrowing it down or taking advantage of it other than recovering whatever is currently in it.

Going back to things you could actually do was to check out the excavation, which you knew now to be a dangerous prospect, or at least two points of interest in the marsh. Alexander referenced a bandit camp and a rally point. The distinction implied the latter would be a gathering point for uniformed conspirators. Would it be entirely off the books of the army, or was it a military outpost taken over entirely? Something you suppose you could determine by talking to a legitimate officer. Smutkin better succeed in making contact with the courier, she could be the most convenient contact in this. Unless...

No, first things first. The sun was already sinking towards the horizon and you needed to find a suitable spot to make a camp. In the end you decide to head towards the marsh while the light allows. You can determine the next step based on Smutkin's evening report.
>>
The report has you feeling warm and fuzzy inside as well as optimistic, for several reasons.

First of all, the bard succeeded in ingratiating himself at a tavern where military women liked to hang out. Even better, he managed to contact Elle. The courier didn't recognize him, but when reminded of her rescue seemed eager to meet you again. Smutkin promised her he'd give you your response the next day. The courier suggested a meeting outside city boundaries after dusk.

"It's a trap." Chloe said. "Humans cannot be trusted."

It was a possibility you could not dismiss. Whether because her caution or sense of duty took over, she'd report the contact to her superiors and arrange for the soldiers to capture and kill you during the meeting. There was not much you could do about the latter except for fighting, but you could probably work with getting captured. Of course you would not expose rest of your team to such risk. Still, if the request was earnest, it could be a great chance to pass information you gathered to the Arcturus in charge and prove your intentions to them.

"Well, we know nobody will trust us because we're not people." Phineous says. "Will they trust the courier woman if she speaks on our behalf though?"

"Good point, and another risk for us to shoulder." You confirm orc's concerns. "However, there's a measure hope. Apparently there are some beastfolk in the city, some in position of menial labour -"

"Slaves." Chloe says, her expression darker than usual. You consult the report again.

"Smutkin doesn't mention slavery anywhere. Whether because slaver guild doesn't operate in the city or because the ruling house doesn't allow it, I don't know."

"Maybe they just don't call it by name."

"In either case, I was saying there's also some artisans, so it appears there is a possibility a non-human is recognized in some manner... we also have our encounter with the traitor officer." You return back to your original point. Chloe seemed rather agitated by the topic. Perhaps something to ask her about later. For now though, you had a few decisions to make.

Firstly, do you accept Elle's proposed rendezvous?
>Agree to the meeting, come alone to the specified place
>Refuse the meeting, pass a message instead
>other response

Secondly, you will have the next day left to look for more clues and arguments to get the princesses to listen to you. The Marsh seemed a solid place to search, although it will take some effort to avoid the apparently elevated patrols. Depending on weather Sparky could be useful, though Minerva and Diana are likely to prove a greater boon since their nature will allow them to safely guide you through paths regular patrols would deem too dangerous.
>Head into the marsh, try to find the bandit camp
>Head into the marsh, try to find the traitor guard camp
>Head into the marsh, try to find the missing nun
>other plan
>>
>>5405073
>Agree to the meeting, come alone to the specified place
>Head into the marsh, try to find the missing nun
>>
>>5405073
>Agree to the meeting, come alone to the specified place
>>5405073
>Head into the marsh, try to find the missing nun
>>
>>5405073
>Agree to the meeting, come alone to the specified place
>Head into the marsh, try to find the missing nun
>>
"I'll do it." You decide. The opportunity is too good to pass up. "I'll go alone, in case Chloe is right, and- "

"What about the relic?" Chloe interjects. "We can't let it fall into their hands."

"It can be hidden for the duration of the meeting. You are right, we can't let it fall into enemy hands."

"What if someone finds it?"

"Minerva and Diana, or Tithe, can guard the hiding place."

The back and forth continues for a while, discussing several contingencies, but in the end you write up response to Smutkin to accept the proposed meeting. Possibility to gain access to the princesses was just too valuable to ignore.

With that matter settled, you move on tho the plan for tomorrow. When questioned, Tithe quickly confirms that the missing nun has still not retired, leaving you to ponder what might have happened. Especially seeing as the marshes were apparently focus of the military attention, were the humans stretched so thin they could not afford a search party? Or did they try and fail? In the end you decide that you can devote the next day to this, it was a few days now so the chances were looking slim. Still, it was worth to try.

So resolved, even though Chloe seemed less than enthused, you send Tithe back and retire for the night. There was another busy day ahead of you.
You were certainly looking forward, if nothing else, then to waking up.
>>
Brief trip to the marsh passes without incident, but as soon as the biome change becomes noticeable Chloe warns you of a first patrol she spots in the distance. She's unable to discern anything that would hint at their allegiance but at this point it doesn't really matter. Part of the reason why you chose to look for the missing woman was that if she was not found by now by the roaming patrols she was likely foraging out of their routes, which should mean you'd have easier time avoiding the military during your search.

Minerva and Diana actually express some measure of worry and distaste about marshwalking. Although they don't dispute their ability to crawl out of any pit they would submerge in, and consider the purpose you are doing this for a noble one, they make it known in no uncertain terms they are not going to enjoy it. After this initial objection they do take the point in your formation without further protests.

You spend several hours searching the edge of the marsh, moving gradually inwards, prioritizing areas with scarce or no patrols. It feels like you move at glacial pace and especially in latter phase I have to backtrack several times where the golems mark further progress unviable, even with their abilities and liberal use of rope.

You make a brief pause settling on a slightly drier patch of land to munch on your rations before continuing. You'd have few hours of time before you have to head towards the rendezvous point and although you can tell Phineous was about ready to give up and Chloe's face was frozen in a sour expression you were unwilling to give up.

Initially your effort was about as successful as in the morning. As the sun moved overhead you began to lose hope yourself when it was actually Chloe who spotted something interesting.

"I think I've got something." The half elf said, narrowing her gaze at an object almost lost among the reeds with its earthen colouration.

It was an herb pouch, and it was about half full. You didn't know much about how quickly plants decayed when picked up, but its contents might have been days old.

"This item was carried by a person of strong faith." Minerva says when leaning over the item.

"Do you think you could use that sense of yours to determine if she's nearby?" You asked.

The two golems exchange glances. "We could try." Diana says.

"What about you, Sparky? Can you, ah, smell something on this?" An idea occurs to you.

"It's... strange. Sort of nice, stings a bit. Kind of like my light, but not really." The imp says after sniffing the sack for a bit. Then he takes off. "I'll try to sense more around..."

"Be careful. We're very close to a regular patrol path." Chloe says.
>>
The golems and Sparky move around where Chloe found the item and do whatever it is they do to perceive the holy or faith or whatever energy. You have to interrupt once, alerted by Chloe's hiss you quickly take cover among the reeds as a pair of soldiers walks by. There's no real danger of them spotting you since they seem to be in good spirits and too busy chatting with each other to look around. As soon as they're gone your survey continues and this time the golems and the imp agree in a vague direction. Your group moves short distance up the path and then, before you can walk into another bunch of soldiers, off to the side into a copse of taller overgrowth which turns out to conceal a hidden hut, or maybe lean-to would be closer. Once you pull aside the flap of cloth serving as entrance the fate of the missing nun becomes obvious.

The poor woman is lying there, dirty, bruised, bound in torn remains of her habit. The stench is intense enough to offend even your sensibilities. Glancing around you see various expressions of outrage in Phineous, the golems and the special case of Chloe which looks with mixture of emotions you find difficult to deciphere. Sparky seems mostly sad and sick.

You kneel next to the woman, as much as you're able in the constrained shelter. You can see her breathe and her eyes seem open, out of focus and dry.

"Minerva, Diana, go watch the approach." You speak as you reach into your bags for a waterskin. The golems obey without a sound. "Phin, unmake the bindings." You add and the orc approaches to help you. Chloe seems to be watching you intently and something in her stance tells you not to bother coming up with a task with her. So instead you address the imp. "Sparky, you can manipulate the light as human priests do. Do you think you could try to heal someone with it?"

The imp inclines his head as he considers it. "No idea, boss. I can try if you want."

"I do. Try it on me first."

"Okay."
>>
The first attempt is not very therapeutic at all, although it's nowhere as painful as being hit by imp fireball during a spar in the citadel you can tell it's an attack. "Ouch."

"Sorry, boss. Should I try again?"

"If you think you can figure it out, keep going until you do." You say as you pull the water skin back. The woman did gulp down some water though remained otherwise unresponsive.

It takes a while which you use by trying to clean the woman up, especially her wounds, occasionally responding to Sparky's attempt with appropriate feedback. Eventually though he seems to have succeeded in getting it right as instead of sensation of prickling, heat or some other possibly combination of the two elements Sparky showed affinity for, a wave of rejuvenating, refreshing force washes over you.

"That was it. Can you do it reliably again?"

"Think so..." Sparky says and the refreshing force flows through you again, though having been recently healed the sensation doesn't linger as much.

"Very good, heal her, please."

"Y-yes, bo-ss" The imp rallies his strength for one more spell and you can see its effect on the sister's body even as Sparky passes out from exhaustion. You chastise yourself quietly for not paying closer attention to his limits. Phineous sees your concern and gently picks the imp up and carries him out into the fresher air.

As an afterthought you decide that seems like a good idea. Woman's wounds were mended now, her breathing and expression more relaxed. Of course, you still couldn't leave her here. You wrapped her in your cloak, took her in your arms and carried her out of the shed.

Not a moment too soon, as it turned out. Minerva was quickly closing in.

"Someone's approaching from direction of the city."

You quickly withdraw deeper into the swamp, carrying the insensate nun carefully. You managed to find a suitably concealed spot to wait for the patrol to pass through.
>>
To your surprise, two men emerge from behind shrubbery, making way directly for the hideout you've just left.

"Fuck! She's gone! Ned, she's fucking gone!" The first one to see inside cries out. The second quickly confirms.

"Rico, you idiot, how did you tie her?"

"Fuck you, you saw how out of it she was. There was no need to tie her up at all."

"As it turns out, there bloody was!"

"What do we do now? If she talks, we're fucked! Do we desert now?"

"Fuck no. Calm down. If we desert and they catch us, it's rope for sure. But this? Who would she tell? They'd throw her out of the order for being a slut. Even if she risked that, it'd just be her word against ours. Cap will stand up for us, Alex is a solid guy."

"So what, you're saying we just go like nothing happened?"

"What are you talking about, Rico?"

"But..."

"Yeah? Nothing happened. Nothing to talk about."

"...alright..."

"Maybe we should clean up... I mean, it's a shame the deserters cleaned this place up and left no clues, right?"

"The dese- oh. Oooh. Right."

With this the two men got to work disposing of remaining evidence of their activity.

You sense movement at your side. Chloe is getting up from her hiding place and you have an idea of her intentions, but you catch her arm to grab her attention and confirm.

"What are you going to do?"

"Isn't it obvious? Pest control." She hisses. "Let me go. Or do you want me to *spare* them?" she asks, modulation of her whisper-shout making it clear she is being sarcastic.

>Let Chloe end the soldiers.
>Don't, you will bring them to their own justice later.
>Don't, it could imperil the mission.
>Kill them yourself
>Capture them instead (bring them to the meeting?)
>other

Your mind also races on what to do with the nun.
>Leave her in the open for a patrol to discover (and watch until she is to confirm she's being helped)
>Bring her to the meeting
>>
>>5405801
>Capture them instead (bring them to the meeting?)
>Bring her to the meeting
>>
>>5405801
>Don't, you will bring them to their own justice later.

We can tag em for now and deal with them later. Also we could trade the information about it to the courier.
>>
>>5405835
I don't know, they just said that they are captain's alex's man, who is probably that Alexander traitor we met.
Getting them plus the nun and the dead drop might be enough to imprison him, and that means interrogating a member of the conspiracy. On the other hand, it could force their hands to act sooner.
>>
>>5405810
+1
>>
>>5405801
>Capture them instead (bring them to the meeting?)
>Bring her to the meeting
>>
"We are going to capture them, and hand them in."

"Are you insane? Didn't you hear them? This is just how humans act. It's like saying hello for them." Chloe hisses furiously.

"Just please trust me on this. I promise to you they will not get away with what they've done." You keep holding her and looking in her crimson eyes, currently flaring with rage. A moment passes, though, and she relaxes slightly.

"Fine. I'll hold you to it. Go on then. I'll follow your lead." The half elf grumbles.

You let go of her, gently hand the nun to one of the golems and get into motion, timing your steps with the noise the two make in their effort to clean traces of their deeds. They are too preoccupied with their work to really pay attention, presumably expecting that any confrontation between bandits and loyalists would take place deeper in the marsh, allowing you to close most of the distance before one of them, the one you identify as 'Ned', hears some sound that alerts him.

"Fuck!" Is all he can get out before you are upon him, the queen's shadow flitting past you to take care of the other one. It takes some internal struggle for her, you can tell, but she refrains from slitting their throats.

You don't waste time trying to interrogate the two, the time is growing short and this close to the path you might be drawn into a fight. Instead you tie and gag them and withdraw deeper into the marsh, leaving the place of their crime as it is - if someone checks it out before elements take it, it will lend more credence to your tale.

Trip to the meeting point passes without an incident. The rescued sister seems to be resting peacefully in Diana's embrace. If she woke up, she showed no indication of it, though even if she was merely pretending you wouldn't mind. Hopefully she'd realize she's not in danger anymore.

There was one more thing you needed to do before you went to the meeting. Chloe was right that it could have easily been a trap, in which case you couldn't afford to allow the relic of the Nameless to fall into hands of Queen's enemies. You looked for a suitable hiding place nearby and placed the relic, bundled up in cloth, inside. Rest of your party would watch over it while you went to the meeting. Had you fallen, it would fall to Chloe to bring it back to her majesty for whatever purpose the queen had originally intended.
>>
It was as you were making final preparations before the meeting that the rescued woman awoke. She was at peace at first, as when she came to her first sight was the golems standing watch over her. Minerva and Diana dried up and brushed carefully off remains of the mud and dirt, apparently attached to their pristine appearance. However, as the nun got better look at situation she quickly scrambled in panic.

You took it as a good sign, honestly, as it meant she has not been broken by her experience.

"Please, be at peace, sister."
"You are not in danger anymore."
"These travelers are not enemies of the goddess."

Minerva and Diana take care of calming her down and it was likely more effective than anything you could have told her. Perhaps it was by the same way the golems were able to sense sister's faith, the sister may have been able to tell these statues are genuine articles. You find yourself wondering if she'd be able to tell the difference if Minerva and Diana were to be corrupted somehow, but ultimately discard this consideration as waste of time.

You do appreciate that Chloe doesn't sneer on that last comment, though.

The priestess eventually settles down and even accepts a meal from your rations after being assured it is no human meat.

"Thank you for saving me... stranger. Providence of the goddess truly comes in unpredictable ways."

She introduces herself as Anna and confirms that she was indeed looking for herbs for the monastery and appreciated having her pouch returned. It is a woman of below average stature and her skin began showing signs of her mature age. In truth she reminded you slightly of your mother. Not with her wavy brown hair or hazel eyes, but rather with the crow feet around her eyes that showed her past propensity to smile kindly. This connection felt to you as source as both warmth and pain as she broke into tears when she noticed and recognized the two bound, gagged and blindfolded men for who they were.

Against your better judgment you hugged the woman and assured her she was safe. She accepted with some initial hesitation but insisted she'd be fine.

"Will your order be supportive of you upon your return?" You asked, remembering what the soldiers were saying.

"They will be," She answers with a sigh. "although depending on... circumstances, I may be forced to find a new calling."

It took you a while to understand.

"Uh, boss, sorry to disturb, but the sun is almost gone." Phineous approaches you to remind you of time.

"Of course. Thank you. Come, sister. You'll be back with your people soon."

When the time for the rendezvous came, you were waiting in the specified location, watched over by Tithe and Minerva, from a distance. The twin golems were not happy about being separated, but Chloe insisted that if she can't watch over both the relic and you at the same time, you'd at least both have a golem for support.

At your side was Anna, at your feet two bound prisoners. All that was left to wait.
>>
You passed the time telling the sister about Sparky's healing her. She did notice her body was in better shape than she expected it to be and was amazed to hear it was due to magic of an anomalous imp. She was unable to offer explanation of how such a thing would be possible. Perhaps you are mistaken and the creature is not an imp at all? You sort of regret keeping Sparky away from her afterwards, worried about response she'd have to a demonkin.

Before you can get into discussion on demonology or classification of magical creatures, your date makes an appearance.

"Mouse, you came!" It is voice of the courier you remember having rescued.

"Elle. It appears I have been proven wrong." You admit as ways of greetings. "Thank you for agreeing to see me."

"How could I not? I owe you my life." The woman smiles as she approaches. You can get a better look at her in the dim glow of the moon and stars. You might have had difficulty recognizing her in a crowd now that she's clothed and in better shape. Elle was a tall woman with visible muscle tone from her military training, though not right now. She must have been in her civilian clothes, plain tunic and trousers and a cloak with a hood from which few strands of unruly dirty blonde hair poked. Quite a contrast to the bikini armor military women seemed to favour on duty. Her expression seemed happy at first, quickly turned to surprised and concerned when she realized you're not quite alone and hurried to close the distance to find out more.

"She is yours. Claim her now, and have the nun as dessert. The two losers can watch." Voice intrudes. You don't think it's trying too hard, since your discussion with the queen it seems to have come to conclusion that you're mad. It doesn't seem like it had given up, though.

That it seems capable to talking to you even though you are not even carrying the relic is another cause for concern. But not now.

"What's going on? I thought you are going to be alone?"

"That was the plan." You nod. "However, I seem to have picked up some people that needed escort back to town, and this is the most I could provide." You say.

"I'm sister of the order, Anna Soir. This person rescued me from... a very dangerous situation." The nun introduces herself.

"These two scoundrels captured her and were using her body for pleasure." You don't mince words and give the nearer soldier a kick. He gives a pained yelp but wisely refrains from vain struggles, possibly thinking he'd be rescued soon. You think it's the Ned.

The sister winces at your words but nods. "It's... it's the truth."

"Oh, goddess... I'm so sorry, sister. I assure you there will be justice for this. Sir.. sir? Mouse? Please, tell me what happened."
>>
It takes well into the night to recount all the relevant events to the courier. You work backwards from Anna's rescue and make the presumed connection between the man two soldiers named as their commanding officer and the one you encountered bringing a batch of traitors to the suspicious mercenary facility. You do make a point of looking at the captured men when you mention Alexander's name and the man you kicked does indeed seem to seize up a bit at the mention. You take that as admission that it might be the same person though it's impossible to tell from such response whether the two knew or not that he's himself part of the conspiracy.

"Everyone knows we have a bandit problem." Elle says, with a hint of bitterness. "And... since you rescued me, we know there's treason. But I didn't expect there could be conspiracy of the magnitude you mention. The princesses must be warned, quickly!"

"Wait. That's still not all."

You continue to tell the courier about the presumed dead drop at a tannery. She writes it down and tells you there are three tanneries in the city but she's sure princess Alicia will have them all searched and guarded once she brings back this information.

When you mention the repeated slips of the tongue Alexander had, she looks pensive. "Bea, you say? I don't recall anyone that could fit that name. Maybe it's a pseudonym, like 'beagle', 'beanstalk', or 'beautiful'? Well, obviously there's minister Beardsley, but it's inconceivable for him to be a traitor. He's at the highest position he could hope for and with track record of loyalty to the city."

You can't but shrug at that, your knowledge of contemporary politics of the castle and surrounding city is well out of your grasp. Even so, you mentally note to keep your guard up around the man.

Eventually you reach to conclusion of your story, the quest you chose to undertake, and the immediate goals you have set for yourselves convincing the princesses to help you gather more information on the Taint.

"That's... sorry, but that's really stretching my imagination. You're saying the entire world is tainted? That's... horrifying thought."

"And blasphemous." Anna adds, her expression stern despite her recent experience. "It is true that there is much evil and cruelty in the world, but to say that the goddess succumbed to it..." She shook her head.

"Do you then know what happened at the place known as Crypt of the Dusk?"

"Crypt of the... oh. I think I heard about it. But it's forbidden lore. Place of great heresy."

You continue your tale, telling the two women of the adventuring party who beat you there in search of relic of power, accompanied by one of the princess knights, Maia.
>>
"That is a serious accusation." Elle said. "I wouldn't bring it up before lady Alicia, I think they are friends. But... I think I know what that mercenary outfit is. They are a large company that the alliance contracted to take the fight against the dark queen..." She makes a pause, recalling how fondly you've talked about the Queen's grace in allowing you to take on this quest. "...anyway, they call themselves 'black dog company' and are led by a man who goes by 'Volt'. Very confident and charismatic leader. To think he would be a traitor..." She grimaces. "But wait, you said it was the man you saw speak with the officer? Maybe it's not a conspiracy at all but some approved transfer?"

"Sorry, but no. Everything the officer told me thinking I'm a monstrous ally of his made clear this is a conspiracy. He explicitly mentioned having you intercepted." You shoot down Elle's hopes mercilessly and her expression darkens as she recalls the experience.

"You need to talk to lady Alicia. She is righteous, passionate about her duty but fair and has a good heart. She will hear you out, I promise. I will speak up for you."

"As will I. I don't know about this heresy you speak of, but you seem to have light in your heart, mr. Mouse." Anna adds.

"I'm touched and grateful, but also concerned. Do you have a plan?"

"It's simple. I'm still a royal courier, if you accompany me, I can take you right to the audience chamber. We can go right away, although her highness may be upset at being woken up. But this seems important enough."

>Agree with Elle's idea. She will escort you, and you alone, into the city. Thought you are confident at least Tithe will follow you from air.
>Agree, but take the golems with you. You'll trust Chloe with the relic, she can carry it back to the queen if something befell you.
>Agree, but take everyone with you, relic included. It's not like something could go wrong, right?
>Respectfully Disagree, come up with a plan to infiltrate the town avoiding as much military as possible
>Respectfully Disagree, ask Elle to try and arrange a meeting outside city limits
>other suggestion / other plan
>>
>>5406544
>Agree with Elle's idea. She will escort you, and you alone, into the city. Thought you are confident at least Tithe will follow you from air.
>>
>>5406583
Oh, and take one of the golems with us, the other can keep watch over the relic.
>>
>>5406583
>>5406591
>Support both
>>
>>5406544
>Agree, but take one golem with you.
>>
>>5406544
>Agree, but take one golem with you.
Having one around should give us additional credence at the very least.
>>
Even though you have some doubts it's going to really be that simple, Elle's confidence and faith is somewhat reassuring. Even so...

"Very well, although I hope you won't mind..." You turn to the darkness where you vaguely expect the golem to be watching you from. "Minerva, come over please!"

After a few moments the cloaked golem steps out of the darkness, almost exactly from direction you were calling. Whether your guess was accurate or she went out of her way to make you not look silly you cannot tell. "Can you accompany us? Elle will take us before the princess."

"Of course." The golem nods.

"The golem bears clear mark of the goddess, she was a temple guardian." Anna tells Elle.

"I see... it's an honour. And a good thing, too, another proof you're earnest." The courier recognizes golem's value. "Alright, let's go!"

And so you pick up the two captured men and carry them as you follow Elle towards the city. The courier goes first, you after her and the nun, wrapped in whatever she was able to salvage of her clothing under the cloak you gave her. The meeting took place short distance from a city gate at an abandoned farm. You passed a few dwellings before reaching the gate itself which was obviously guarded and shut for the night, though Elle had no difficulties negotiating a door in the gate to open for you. Luckily it was large enough for you to fit through. The guardsman inside was more than a bit shaken by letting an ogre with two bound prisoners in but Elle seemed to have sufficient authority to convince him you're pacified and don't require a spear through your guts at this time. That, or he was too distracted by ogling Minerva.

Commotion roused the officer who was in charge of current watch at the gate though and that one was less amenable to your presence. Initially he insisted that an escort squad be summoned from barracks that would take care of you but Elle was adamant that the matter could not wait and this time you were sure it was because of her station that the officer ultimately relented. Though not before sending one of his men to run to the barracks to inform them of this development, something you were sure would come around to bother you.

From then on you made your way through the city. It was a novel experience, to walk through an inhabited city that was not on fire, it being night time and the streets deserted only added to the eerie atmosphere for you even though you could see Elle's expression of resolve on completing her current task, in Anna's movement you could see pure relief. She returned from an ordeal to a place she was familiar with. Everything would work out somehow...
>>
Your eclectic group made its move among workshops, storehouses, taverns and tenements, some of them in disrepair from abandonment as their inhabitants were directed into the war machine or beyond the veil. From the few people you met, maybe two drunks did anything else than give you a wide berth, and even those two were easily turned away, one by your glare alone, the other by Elle handily throwing a him onto the cobblestones when he tried to grab her. Other than that, though, Elle's escort idea seemed to be working smoothly to her expectations.

If you were superstitious, you would have cursed yourself for this idea when you reached a bridge that would take you to the keep where the princess, or currently two princesses, resided. Elle and yourself stopped abruptly when approaching flap of wings heralded Tithe landing ahead of you.

"Leader, there is movement in the keep ahead. Soldiers have been roused and are preparing for confrontation."

You don't bother asking how many. You're in the middle of a walled city. Of course the runner from the gate must have alerted someone.

"Can we reach the keep another way?"

"Well... my station should be enough to get us through this, I'd normally say, but with the conspiracy abound..." Elle rubs her chin. "We could try to take the other bridge to the waterfront district on the other side, there's another castle entrance there, but it might take time and the houses there have their own guards. We could... urgh, try to sneak in through the water works. I... *think* you should be able to squeeze through."

Suddenly you begin to wonder if going in like this was really the best idea. But... you were so close. And all this you would have to deal with eventually one way or another. Still... what now? Confrontation was likely going to end poorly for you...
>>
"There's another way." Anna speaks up. "You could seek sanctuary in the monastery. The military will not raid monastery unless the abbess allows it. I'm sure we can convince her to give you shelter and arrange for the princess to hear you out."

"That might work. Princess respects the work sisters do for the city and the poor."

You ponder your options and remind yourself of one more.

"Tithe. The bard is still at the same bunkhouse?"

"Yes. He is in the military district."

You had previously asked about Smutkin's repertoire, after his successful performance with the shadows. You knew he could weave a rather convincing lullaby. However, bringing him into this would mean revealing his presence, and you might need his help to get out of the city later.

>Risk going through with the initial plan and walk straight into the welcoming committee. Rely on Elle's courier status to carry you through.
>Risk going around through the more luxurious part of the city, though that might ultimately mean even more confrontations.
>Try sneaking through the waterworks. Of course if caught there it will be more difficult to argue your good intentions...
>Take Anne's proposal and seek refuge in the monastery. If the nun is correct then the princess should be willing to meet you there tomorrow.
>Have Tithe wake Smutkin and have the bard try to sing the waiting soldiers to sleep so you can pass among them. This might reveal Smutkin's presence if it doesn't go perfectly though.
>other plan
>>
>>5407894
>Take Anne's proposal and seek refuge in the monastery. If the nun is correct then the princess should be willing to meet you there tomorrow.
I was thinking of asking tithe to awake smutkin and have them both help Elle sneak closer to the palace, so she could warn the princess about the conspiracy and captain alex.
Just waiting might let them convince her that the monastery feel to heresy and to siege it.
>>
>>5407894
>Take Anne's proposal and seek refuge in the monastery. If the nun is correct then the princess should be willing to meet you there tomorrow.
>>
>>5408067
>+1
>>
"Sister Anna, I think your suggestion has merit." You turn to the nun after some consideration. Although you didn't much like the idea of having to wait until a meeting could be arranged, you could ill afford to get into a fight while registering as hostile to conspirators and loyal soldiers alike. You could still end up being a boon for the conspiracy until you could carry what you learned to the princess and convinced her that your goals align.

"Very well. Please, follow me. And... I recommend to avoid speaking blasphemy, at least until the princess arrives. I don't know how familiar abbess Martha is with the apocryphal and forbidden lore, but she is very serious about her faith."

"Noted. Thank you, sister."

Your group turns around and backtracks short distance before turning towards a square dominated by an obviously church edifice. Considering its position you surmise it's the structure Smutkin was referring earlier, where soup was handed out to the poor and where Tithe took roost during the day. The decorative style did make it plausible for the gargoyle to go unnoticed if it stayed immobile.

Showing up at the door gives no small amount of shock to the monk who was keeping vigil inside, but upon recognizing Anna, reassured by Elle's presence and in slight awe of unspoiled Minerva keeping you company you are ushered in through the temple into the administrative section and soon enough you stand before the abbess, a robust woman with stern features and piercing glare that was mostly fixed on you, aside from few moments when Minerva came into her field of view, while Anna presented your case as someone who rescued her and had important information for the princess Alicia that related to the bandit threat.

You found yourself admiring how the nun spoke nothing but truth without letting slip details of your mission she thought might set the abbess off, though you imagined she might have experience in dealing with her superior. Even so, by abbess's gaze you also got the feeling she realized she's not being told everything.

"Temple guardian. They are very precious, the art of making them probably lost to time. And here one stands before me, in pristine condition and of her own will." The senior nun says when Anna concludes her story.

"You honour me, abbess. I have simply found task worth pursuing, by grace of the goddess."

"So it appears. The paths of the goddess are truly beyond mortal comprehension." The woman turns to you. "And so I suppose I should be thanking you... child... for returning our sister to us."

"He also saved me from the bandits earlier." Elle pipes up.
>>
"It is said that if two sisters testify for you unbidden, lady's grace must truly be with you." Abbess nods to herself. "Very well, I will grant you sanctuary and arrange for the Princess to hear you out. These circumstances are too foreboding for me to tarry. If the conspiracy is as rampant as it seems from your testimony, child," There is less hesitation this time. "The princess must know at once. Brother Christoff?" The abbess turns to the only other man in the room while picking up her quill and scribbling a message hastily.

The monk that let you in perks up at the address. It's a lanky man with weary look, but it seems his work for tonight is not yet done.

"You are to deliver this to the castle, to hands of princess herself. Have her woken up if needed. Her royal guards know better than to deny a servant of the goddess."

"Of course, sister." The monk bows reverently, takes the scroll from her and departs in a hurry. The abbess turns to the rest of you.

"Anna, find our guests some accommodations in the back. I'd better make preparations in case the soldiers arrive before lady Alicia does."

Anna acknowledges the command and, after thanking the woman for her help, you are herded through the corridors until you stop in front of a nondescript door, one of many lining the passage. Anna confirms that it is empty before opening it wide and letting you in.

"It's one of the cells where our sisters and brothers live. We have enough room, as some have left the order to join the military." She explains. "Please have a rest, mr. Mouse. I will pick you up once the lady arrives. And once again, thank you for rescuing me... us." She corrects herself after exchanging glances with Elle, which she addresses next. "The cell next door should be vacant as well..."

Left alone with Minerva who automatically chose to stay with you, you are free to do as the nun suggested and catch some rest. Before you do, though, you approach the sole window at the far wall, too high up for people to look out of but just about right height for you, and sure enough in a moment Tithe lands on the parapet. You instruct him to pass the current developments to rest of your group and only after the gargoyle departs as well do you attempt to find a comfortable enough position on the floor to relax as you wait, thankful for Minerva's silent watch.
>>
If you were hoping for dreamless rest, you were disappointed. What's more, it was something new and topically appropriate for your current lodgings.

"Leader, awaken." Dry, firm, yet a touch soft, grasp of the guardian golem rescues you from the pit of the dreamscape.

"Thank you, Minerva. Is-"

The door opens before you finish. "mr. Mouse, please hurry. Lady Alicia has arrived." Anna says and you scramble out of the cell with the animated statue at your heels.

The nun, who had meanwhile put on a new habit, leads you through the monastery into a hall which you imagined normally served as place where the monks and the nuns held communal meals. At this time however it was mostly empty except for the unmistakable form of the abbess and, across from her, a trio of armed women, with two uniformed men standing off to the side.

It was easy to identify the middle woman as the princess knight Alicia, she cut an impressive figure that struck just the balance between feminine curves and knight's firmness and stature, her revealing outfit allowing you to judge both beauty and fitness with confidence. Of course, now was not the time for that since as soon as you entered her attention snapped onto you, matching your gaze with that of her violet eyes, her expression stern and serious.

"So that is the lost soul you mentioned, abbess?"

"Please forgive the omission, your highness, but I did not wish any preconceptions colour your impression of importance of the situation. This person rescued one of my sisters, as well as one of your own couriers and he is accompanied by a temple guardian." The violet glare slides off you for a brief moment and focused on Minerva, before returning back to you.

"So it was you? The ogre who saved Elle from the bandits?"

"That's right." Elle herself speaks up on your behalf as she shows up at your side.

"Very well. I do appreciate that, ogre, whatever your intentions were. You earned that I hear you out at least."
>>
"Are you serious? It's just one of dark queen's minions. Whatever it will tell us is liable to be poison meant to weaken us." One of the two men says.

"Thank you for your input, commander Hanig, and thank you for keeping decorum in the house of the goddess." Princess reacts with clear annoyance. Still, the officer shuts up. You took the chance to size him and his partner up and to your relief don't recognize either as the 'alexander' you met. Of course, that did not mean they were not connected to the conspiracy. Was this Hanig's outburst due to understandable dislike of your kin, or was it because he felt threatened by whatever the sisters told them before summoning you? "Now then, commander has a point." Alicia addresses you directly. "You are self admitted agent of the dark queen and an enemy soldier. Why should we take anything you say with good faith?"

"She's so cute in her arrogance. Can you imagine her panting with exertion and desperation as she is taken by you? I can make that possible. Nobody would be able to stop us. And you needn't even be worried of being betrayed as you've left my relic safely hidden. Or have you?" The voice makes another pass, you quickly banish the mental image it's proposing as you come up with a compelling counterpoint to princess's justifiable concerns...

>Just tell her the truth. You're on a quest. If evidence of your actions and testimony of the women is not enough to back you up, nothing will.
>Reiterate that actions speak louder than words, then tell her what you learned of the conspiracy - as further proof you're on her side.
>Try to ease the princess into being more receptive to hear of your quest by bringing up your human parentage.
>other idea
>>
>>5408827
>Captain Alexander is walking around carrying heretical symbols, working together with a mercenary company to staff hidden camps and mines, bandits that tried to capture Elle when she tried to get help from Levantine, and his men have abused the sister they were sent to rescue, certain of their protection. He is not the only traitor you have, since he serves someone that goes by Bea. So Do you want to listen to those planning to stab you in the back, or the enemy that is offereing help for free?
>Because stopping this conspiracy was coincidental, I'm on a mission for my queen to cleanse the corruption inherent on monsters, so that this war may end in peace instead of complete destruction of of either side. I was chosen because as a half-ogre, my soul knows how it is to be torn between the loght and dark, and I refuse to fall for the temptation.
>>
>>5408846
Ignore this post, just go for this
>Reiterate that actions speak louder than words, then tell her what you learned of the conspiracy - as further proof you're on her side.
>>
>>5408827
>Reiterate that actions speak louder than words, then tell her what you learned of the conspiracy - as further proof you're on her side.
>>
>>5408827
>Reiterate that actions speak louder than words, then tell her what you learned of the conspiracy - as further proof you're on her side.
>>
>>5408827
>Reiterate that actions speak louder than words, then tell her what you learned of the conspiracy - as further proof you're on her side.
>>
"You shouldn't." You answer simply. That seems to take the princess aback some, but you follow up before she or her entourage can comment. "You have every right to be distrustful, and nothing I say should sway you, if you are being careful. That is why I hope that my actions would speak enough on my behalf. However, I believe I can offer further proof in terms of facts you can verify for yourself. To begin with, there is a man amongst your officers called Alexander."

Princess frowned. "What is that supposed to prove?" Hanig speaks up again. Alicia's gaze flicks towards him momentarily, but doesn't reprimand him this time.

"I have encountered the man yesterday, escorting twelve men in your uniforms to some clandestine excavation operated by the Black Dog company."

"Do you know anything about that, Hanig?" Alicia prompts when the commander doesn't immediately respond.

"No... but a twelve-man patrol went missing from the bandit patrol duty, presumed ambushed." He narrows his eyes on you. "He could have simply ambushed my men himself. We don't know how many infiltrators are there."

"Fair possibility. If you choose to investigate the mercenary operation, you will find your men, though. Speaking of which, unless you have multiple officers by that name, two of his subordinates are currently under lock and key here in the monastery. It is the two I have captured when I found sister Anna."

"What?" Hanig's eyes go wide.

"They are locked in separate cells. Brothers Anthony and Inigo are watching over them." Abbess volunteers. "Sister indeed confirms they are the ones who captured and tormented her."

Alicia's face is a grimace of fury, luckily not meant for you. "Hanig?"

"I'll check it out."

"Charlotte, go with him."

"As you command, your highness." One of the knights accompanying Alicia salutes and follows the officer out of the hall.

"Please, continue." The princess prompts you.

"That was the extent of what I can share you can easily verify without incurring a risk or a cost to yourself. However, I'd recommend searching Alexander's private items for symbols like this one." You recover and show the princess the wolf charm Sparky found at the crypt. "It is a token which Alexander took for proof of my allegiance and which led him to share more information, such as knowledge of the plot to have miss Elle ambushed..."

"I brought back the written order." Elle reminds.

"I know. It is still possible it is a trick." Alicia tells the courier, her tone and expression softer.

"It's not. Everything I've seen from mr. Mouse shows him to be a good person who just happened to be raised by monsters." Elle speaks in your defence; you decide this is not the best time to correct her assumption.
>>
"Is such a thing even possible?" The remaining man in the room, the second officer accompanying Alicia, spoke up for the first time. "His lordship mentioned the possibility of a 'kind monster' as a concept discussed in some philosophical treatises, but evidence for it was exceedingly slim."

"As pleasant as a thought that might be, we are still at brutal war with enemy that takes obvious pleasure in murder, rape and ruin that follows them." Alicia says and you can't help but be stung somewhat by the words, even knowing cruelty humans are capable of themselves. Perhaps a topic for another time. "But you understand this, don't you... Mouse? Was there anything else you wanted to share?" The princess addresses you by name, presumably out of courtesy for her courier's feelings.

"I do." You admit. "And I did. Alexander mentioned the conspirators are using a dead drop and I tricked him into revealing its vague location - it is meant to be somewhere in a Tannery."

"There are three of them in the city. I wonder..."

It was at this time that Hanig and Charlotte returned, alongside Anna who guided them.

"It seems I owe you an apology, ogre, and thanks." The officer said.

"It was smart to keep them apart." the knightess adds. "They were awfully eager to have the other guy take the fall."

"I see..." Alicia looks back at you, then back at Hanig. "I take it they confirmed our guest's recounting of events?"

"We didn't interrogate them, just collected the different lies. But I confirmed they're Alex's men, and that they were in contact with deserters. They have many songs to sing."

"What is to be their fate, then?" Alicia asks.

"For their crimes it should be a quick trip to the headsman's block. But if they help us root out the rot," The officer shrugs. "It naturally depends on you, highness, but I'd like to give them a chance to save their hides."

Alicia's gaze moves to the nun. You can tell she is conflicted, and you remember her crying. Still...

"I... If there is a way for them to atone by their testimony, I'm in favour of such chance as well." She says.

"Very well. Make it so, Hanig. But make it clear to them that while mercy of the goddess may be infinite, mercy of mortals is not."

"As you command, highness." The officer salutes. Chloe will probably not like this too much, but you can't deny the value...

"Another thing. Can you organize enough men to search all three tanneries simultaneously?"
>>
"Not without compromising the patrols. Why?" The officer is quickly brought up to speed. "I see... well, it can be done, but we'll have to suspend our operation against the bandits."

"How about keeping them under watch, seeing who comes in or out?"

"That's even harder. I'd have to have men trained or experienced with cloak and dagger stuff, otherwise our mark won't even show up, and they'll probably assume the place is compromised anyway."

"Well, arrange the searches then. Shuffle men around, too. Bandits are a problem, but if they have collaborators in our ranks, we need to clean up inside first." Princess commands.

"You're right, your highness. It will be done." Hanig says with a sigh. "Beardsley will not be pleased. I get an earful every time I need to lock a place up for inspection and audit, now all the tanneries..."

Mention of the name reminded you of one more factoid you wanted to share. "Do you know of any other person whose name, or perhaps a pseudonym, begins with 'bea-' sound?" You speak up, again attracting attention on yourself. "Alexander was "

"Just the minister comes to mind." Alicia says. "But we can rule that out, I think. His record of service is beyond reproach. He is a respected and well off man, he has nothing to gain by conspiring."

"I will have a chat with the captain and get it out of him." Hanig promises. "It's probably an alias anyway. Who would use their real identity in a conspiracy?"

"Do it. First things first though, the tanneries. I'll join the search myself. And you, Mouse, you will go with me."

"Are you sure this is wise?" Hanig asks.

"You'd have to put him under guard anyway, costing you men. I can handle him if need be." There is a malicious snicker at the back of your mind. "Go arrange your men."

"Right now? I was hoping to do this with next patrol rotation... goddess, what a mess." The officer complains but quickly composes himself. "Okay, fine. I'll arrange it. Which tannery do you want to take? The closest one is also the largest one, it does most of the day to day business. I intend to handle personally the one in military quarter. The third one is that small workshop in the artisan district."

"I'm thinking the industrial one. Its size mean that people coming and going would be less likely to attract attention, and also more possible hiding places." Alicia reasons. "Mouse, did you glean anything from the captain that might narrow it down?"

>No, you agree with Alicia, the biggest compound seems most innocuous place for a dead drop
>No, but you'd sooner expect it in the military complex, considering how tied the conspiracy seem to be with military
>No, but you find the artisanal tannery more suspicious, its nature might make it more open to more diverse clientele...
>suggest postponing the tannery raid and investigating the excavation instead
>other idea
>>
>>5409633
>>No, but you find the artisanal tannery more suspicious, its nature might make it more open to more diverse clientele...
Also allows for more discreet meetings, since the richer clients can just demand privacy. The nobles have private soldiers, if one or two are in the conspiracy then they could have forces inside the city with free run of the place.
Better to check it out to either confirm or deny the worst case scenario.
>>
>>5409674
>+1
>>
>>5409633
>No, but you find the artisanal tannery more suspicious, its nature might make it more open to more diverse clientele...
>>
"I do not, princess, but I find the artisanal, small, tannery a more interesting and suspicious in this context. A more notable client that might stand out in the industrial facility or among soldiers could be less obvious in smaller, more exotic workshop. Such could also offer more privacy, especially should owner be a conspirator themselves."

"I'm rather skeptical of that, especially because using the smaller workshop would virtually require the owner's participation, sacrificing deniability of the location." Hanig says.

"He makes a good point about the nobles, however, as any noble visiting smelliest part of the lower city would undoubtedly raise commotion." Alicia ponders. "And if any of them have joined this treachery, with their house guards, we need to know before they make a move. Very well, let's check out the smaller workshop."

"House guards... you're right, princess." The commander looked serious, perhaps he did not consider the possibility. "I'll send a squad to support you. Please, be careful not to set possible conspirators before our men can seal the place off."

"Of course. Come, then, let us go, mr. Mouse."

"Could you instruct the guardian to stay with us for the moment?" Abbess asks. "I'd like to study her and ask her some questions."

"I would prefer he didn't." Minerva speaks for herself. Hanig, seeing the delay as not relevant to his duties, heads on out after wordlessly requesting leave from the princess, who grants it with a nod in his direction.

"You do not follow his commands?" The senior nun asks.

"I do, by choice, but his words helped me realize I can choose how to fulfill my purpose."

"That's amazing. What convinced you of his worthiness?"

"His words, passing the trial of the seal, and the quest he has undertaken."

"The trial of the seal?" Abbess is visibly surprised by that more than anything. "Mr. Mouse, your highness, when you are no longer busy with urgent affairs, please seek me out. There are things we need to discuss... and I need to study."

"You have my promise, abbess." Alicia says. "alright, let's go for real now, mr. Mouse. Elle, you'll have to suit up. You can catch up with the troops Hanig will send." The princess also addresses the courier who looked eager to join you but hurries off after the commander now while you head out after the princess, her two bodyguards falling in position behind you.
>>
Your group of four traverses the town without incident, although as the breaking dawn slowly begins to fill the streets with light and people your group begins to attract attention and gazes of awe and adoration directed at the princess, spite and hatred at yourself and surprise and confusion at your entire group. Alicia takes note of this and when you reach the part of city where facades are slightly better kept and the shields on stores are nicer and better crafted directs you to a guardhouse.

"We'll wait for Hanig's men here." She tells you once the guardsman on duty composes himself from sudden arrival of the princess, cleaning up misconception of you being a prisoner (yet) and takes you to the guards' common area.

The guard post is deserted aside from the sole guardsman, need for personnel obviously more pressing elsewhere. One of princess's knights, the one that's not Charlotte, promptly requisitions guardhouse's supplies and begins preparing tea. There may be some wordless communication you miss between her and the princess but in either case she takes out four cups, and you already know Minerva doesn't eat or drink.

"We have a few moments before they arrive. Why don't you tell me about this quest of yours?" The princess asks.

>Tell her explicitly about the taint, and how you set out to purge it. Tell her you hoped to gain some clues how to achieve this from the princesses, and of your intention to request access to Levantine lord's library.
>Tell her you are looking for a way to make the world less cruel and twisted place, for your mother.
>Tell her you are on a mission from your queen to find a way to find a way to combat magical corruption.
>say something else
>>
>>5410577
>Tell her you are looking for a way to make the world less cruel and twisted place, for your mother.
>>
>>5410608
>+1
>>
>>5410577
>Tell her you are looking for a way to make the world less cruel and twisted place, for your mother.
Avoids the whole heresy of the submitting goddess bit, but still reveals our character
>>
>>5410608
Also
>Inb4 Alice misinterprets what we say and thinks that Olga is our mother.
>>
It takes you a few moments to compose your thoughts on the matter. You hope the princess doesn't take that as meaning you are being insincere, even though you are somewhat motivated by desire to avoid bringing up matters she might consider heretical. Still, though, the response you come up with is as sincere and heartfelt as your kind can muster.

"I seek to make the world a less cruel, less twisted place than it is." You end up saying, causing the princess to give you a surprised, somewhat dubious look. "I understand that may seem strange for my kind's reputation. Well deserved one, too. But... it is something I resolved, for my mother. I cannot bear the thought of disappointing her."

There was a moment of silence, with Alicia's expression softening somewhat, though she still maintained posture that was only partially relaxed. There was light behind those violet eyes that was not familiar to you from the dark citadel. Was it innocence? Confidence in herself, or in something greater than herself?

"What is your mother like?" The princess eventually finds words in form of a question she asks you.

"She was a gentle, caring woman. Patient, but quick to laugh." You reminisce. With the benefit of retrospective, you can also admire her strength. You rarely saw her cry, usually when she thought you can't. She was resolved to keep her burdens from spilling over to you, or father.

Yes, you think you will keep referring to the man who chose to stay with her even after your birth left her barren your father. He gave his everything to mother and yourself, right until their final moments.

"She sounds like a wonderful woman." Alicia says, then hesitates. "Although... it seems rather difficult to imagine someone like her in the black citadel."

"She was not." You sometimes do wonder whether excruciating agony of burning alive was better or worse fate than spending rest of her life in the citadel dungeons. What would fate of your parents be had the raid that resulted in your liberation (if you could call it such) arrived a day earlier, or an hour? "I was raised in a human village until..." You fall silent, unsure how to continue the sentence.

"Oh... I'm sorry. I understand." Alicia misunderstands and her expression softens into one of compassion. "I believe if we can find-"

Whatever she is about to suggest, and your possible clarification, is interrupted by the guardhouse doors swinging open and uniformed soldiers filing in.
>>
"-the last time, no staring at her rack if you don't want latrine duty y-y-your highness!" The soldier that came in first stammers as he realizes the guardhouse is not exactly empty.

"For the love of goddess, why is this kind of instruction even necessary?" Alicia frowns at the man. "...sergeant?" She adds, somewhat unsure.

"Y-yes, your highness, I'm sorry, your higness."

"Forget it. I appreciate the effort at least. Commander put you in charge of this search?"

"Yes, your highness." The sergeant was calmed down somewhat by Alicia's dismissal, or perhaps the absurdity of situation of walking in on the princess drinking tea with an ogre and two knights while a marble beauty watches from the sidelines allowed him some level of detachment. "Our team is smaller than the others because the workshop is much smaller than the in lower city tannery, but I assure you nothing will slip by us."

"Very good. Then let's go, no point in wasting time."

"Of course, your highness."


***


The workshop is quite close to the guardhouse and your now considerably larger group covers it with confidence at a swift pace, unwilling to give anyone watching time to respond.

"Johann, Clement, as we agreed - take the cargo entry and the canal access with your boys." Sergeant commands at one point and you recognize, by the shield saying 'Frederick the Furmaster' that you've arrived at your objective. "Robert, you and Hannah keep watch outside. Rest of you wait for my command. Highness, do you wish to do the honours?"

Alicia simply nods and proceeds towards the storefront. Charlotte enters first, you enter after the princess. As your vision adapts to the gloomier inside of the store you are met with a stunned store clerk, trying to figure out the configuration that just entered the shop. He blinks a few times before cautiously saying:

"Your... highness?"

"Yes. By necessity of alliance security, this store is hereby under inspection. Fetch the proprietor at once please. Brigitte, go with him."

"Of... of course!" The young man moves for the door behind him, a knightess catching up with him before he does.

"Commence!" Sergeant calls out towards the outside as he enters behind you.
>>
In the brief moment that follows you have time to take in the surroundings of the shop, as the glossy translucent window illuminated it. Massive wooden counter was mostly featureless aside from several examples of taxidermy, most of the samples of proprietor's craft were lining the walls in terms of a wide variety of treated skins and furs either pinned to the walls, or placed in movable wooden frames for the customers to browse. There were two doors in the back, one the clerk and the knight took, now followed by two of the guardsmen or soldiers sergeant brought while through the other you could see rows of bins and coffers, labelled though obviously unreadable at present distance.

"Your highness! What an unexpected surprise! Would you like to make a special order?" An elderly bespectacled man emerges to address the princess. "Would you like the ogre skinned?"

"No." Alicia frowned and stared coldly at the man. "I suppose your man was unable to tell you that your workshop is being inspected for evidence of treason."

"T-treason? I assure you..."

"Not necessarily yours." Princess says. "But the threat warrants this intrusion. You will be naturally compensated for the disruption."

"Of course, your highness is most... gracious. Would you like a tour of the workshop while your men search for villainy?"

"Certainly."

It's not immediately clear to you whether you're meant to go with Alicia or not. She said she'd be watching you, but technically you're being watched by rest of the guards...

Charlotte seems intent to stay at Alicia's side no matter what while Minerva is looking at you expectantly, perhaps sensing your hesitation.

>Go along with Alicia and the 'furmaster' for the tour.
>Stick around and look through the storeroom while they go on the tour.
>Recommend the tour start with the storeroom you can see from here.
>other idea
>>
>>5411043
>Recommend the tour start with the storeroom you can see from here.
>Ask for Minerva to keep watch that no-one tries to hide anything
>>
>>5411129
>Support
>>
>>5411129
+1
>>
>>5411129
>+1
>>
"If I may suggest something, let's begin the tour right here in this storeroom." You speak up, causing the proprietor to look at you in shock.

"Sounds like a good idea." Alicia concurs and heads towards the indicated room immediately, leaving the furmaster no choice but to hurry along.

"Of course, as your highness desires... This is where we store individual special orders just before the client picks them up. They are all very secure containers so client can examine the quality of the wares to their satisfaction in private setting."

Sure enough the room was lined with cabinets, bins and chests, all having some sort of locking mechanism in place. Only piece of furniture that was not a container of some sort was a table positioned against a wall with a window. This window was transparent, not just translucent, and allowed you to see how the workshop's back had access to the canal the sergeant referred to, presumably to handle wares and waste of this and other workshops clustered in this part of town.

"As you can see there is not much to see here. If you'd just follow me to the more inte-" the proprietor was trying to navigate you elsewhere.

"Open these." Alicia cut him off, indicating the cabinets.

"But, your highness, client confi-"

"Your clients can take that up with me later. Now, open them."

"But it's clients who have keys to all these coffers..."

"And how do you fill them, then? Quit making excuses and bring the master key or whatever arrangement you have. Otherwise it will have to be done by force."

"Oh... you're right, of course. I apologise, a lapse of the mind. I'm just..."

Alicia scowled at the man which finally got him to move. "I'll bring the master key. Please, don't... force anything in the meantime." He said on his way out.

"And bring list of clients linked to each individual cache while you're at it." The princess calls after him.

You took the chance to took closer look at the boxes. Nearly all of them had some inscription, the only ones that didn't were some sort of unique containers that stood out among the rest. There was quite a lot of them, examining them thoroughly and carefully would take some time, unless most of them were empty. You're not sure what exactly you, or perhaps rather the princess's guard, would be looking for but going through all the mess might open an opportunity to sneak something out...

"Minerva, can you watch closely to ensure that nobody tries to sneak anything out covertly?"

"Of course. I will do so."

You thank the golem in advance and look back to the door where the proprietor emerges with a ring of keys and a book in his arms. He makes for the table to put the book down, and you consider where to begin your search...

>Look for specific pattern in client names
>Look for specific theme among names or pseudonyms
>Look for specific material ordered
>other idea
>>
>>5411609
>Look for specific material ordered
>Look for specific theme among names or pseudonyms


>Look for a pattern in the dates perhaps we can narrow down how long the conspiracy has been going on and allows us to cut out any purchases before that date.
>>
>>5411609
>Look for specific pattern in client names
>Look for specific theme among names or pseudonyms
Both of these seem to be the same thing
>Look for a pattern in the dates perhaps we can narrow down how long the conspiracy has been going on and allows us to cut out any purchases before that date.
>>
>>5411609
>Look for specific material ordered
>>
>>5411615
>Both of these seem to be the same thing
it can be interpreted that way but the intention was that first is looking for a pattern of letters (e.g. 'Bea*') in the client list while the latter is rather a topical theme in the identifiers on the boxes (e.g. wolf or dog themed)
>>
>>5411609
>Look for specific pattern in client names
>Look for a pattern in the dates perhaps we can narrow down how long the conspiracy has been going on and allows us to cut out any purchases before that date.
>>
While the furmaster begins, with visible reluctance, unlocking the cabinets under princess's watch, you take a look at the book and flip through its pages. There is a section for individual orders, which you skip for now, and then there are tables of assignment between client names and the containers, and another table with dates showing where orders have been placed, filled and recovered.

First you spend some time browsing the client list. Carefully scanning it from top to bottom you hope some sort of pattern would spontaneously emerge that could attract your attention, but in the surprisingly diverse mesh of names nothing really strikes you as odd. In part because you realize you don't really have much to compare against, some of the outlandish names could easily be a joke pretend names and you'd be unable to tell.

You do naturally look for anything related to Alexander's slips of the tongue but can't find any order placed for Beardsley, for instance. Nor do you find Alexander among the name of clients. With some exasperation you give the list a once over before moving on to the next table, the one with dates.

This one is even more taxing on your imagination. There's just too many to keep track on without having a specific thread to follow. Still you grit your teeth and force through.

It brings you small measure of satisfaction when you spot few semblances of regularity you're finally able to connect with a name - only to deflate again a little bit when the clients in question turn out to be leatherworkers and craftsmen from the same district. Still, that you managed to gather that much at least showed this approach had potential.

You lose track of time, and the progress made by the princess and her soldiers around you as they progress systematically, examining each cabinet and coffer for hidden compartments. At some point a soldier brings some refreshment for the princess and, later on, the rest of the men. You're kind of shocked when at some point a slim hand places a morsel and a cup of water at the table next to you. Looking up from the book you spot Elle, the courier, once again in her revealing uniform. "Found anything, mr Mouse?" She asks.

"Not really. Well, maybe." You take out the parchment you were using to make notes on. You were able to find several clients that were placing and checking out orders on regular basis without being a business that could conceivably be using the leather (although you expected these would have to be checked out as well). "This... is for me?"

"I realized they probably will forget about you so I brought you something. So, what do you have?"

You thank the courier for the refreshment and went through the few candidates you found. First one turns out to have already been searched by the sequential search so you go straight for the second one, borrowing the master key from the proprietor to open one of the larger cabinets.
>>
You briefly feel your hopes flare when what you recover from it is a a large bundle of wolf furs. However, upon its unfurling and examination the hope goes die, replaced by confusion.

"Is that a... suit?" Elle asks.

"What's this? Some sort of costume?" Alicia notices you've gotten to actually act on your analysis and comes over. "I didn't realize you also craft from your leathers, mr. Haar."

"It's, ah, not entirely my work." The proprietor objects. "It was client's request to have this arranged on his behalf."

"Maybe it's for one of those festivals down south, I hear they wear masks on them..." Elle muses.

"The cabinet is empty and clear outside of this." A soldier reports that was poking around inside after you took the suit out.

"...but you said this is being checked out at weekly basis?" Elle asks you, to which you can only shrug.

"It's for repairs." The proprietors explains weakly.

"Well, there's that then. Do you have any other clues?" Alicia asks.

"Yes, one more." You say, pointing at the third name in your notes.

The box in question turns out to be a very plain one, but with a solid lock; it also turned out not to be unlockable by furmaster's master key - it was one of the dedicated keys on his ring that opened it.

"Homo homini lupus." Alicia reads inscription on the lid. "Man is wolf to man."

Opening the box reveals a bundle of wolf furs. No costume this time, just several treated skins. There seems to be nothing of interest about them, however the box itself is quickly revealed to have a false bottom and underneath it a single piece of parchment is found.

"I have made necessary steps to adapt to the changes in timeline and implemented suggested contingency. I will ensure that L. presence is kept at suitable distance while keeping watch of 1's movements. Your operation should be safe as long as you avoid leaving any links to those loyal to me." Alicia reads aloud. "As per contingency, 2 will be brought to the agreed location on signal. Make sure it doesn't come to that! 1 may be controlled, but with your promise regarding north unfulfilled, threat levels remain unacceptable. Signed, B."

Alicia's expression was serious and her stance was tense.

"Sergeant!" The princess called out.

"Your highness?"

"Apprehend the person of this name immediately. It seems we have found our traitor." Frederick the furmaster exhaled with visible relief as the princess showed the sergeant name on the list associated with the coffer. "And take the proprietor in for questioning as well. I want to know exactly the extent of his connection." Alicia added, causing the furmaster's face to drain of colour.

"As you command, your highness. Mr. Haar, this way please." The sergeant saluted and ushered the proprietor out of the room.

"What could all this mean?" Elle asks aloud as they leave. Before either you or Alicia can react, a sound of tapping brings your attention to the window. Tithe is sitting on the ledge.
>>
"Wait, this is my man." You speak up as you see Alicia and several other people draw their blades at the gargoyle's appearance.

"What does it want?" Alicia asks. None sheathe their weapons.

"Allow me to ask him." You open the window.

"Leader, there is fire and commotion in the city, towards south and across the river."

"Did you see what's happening?"

"No, leader, it would require me to leave you for too long. Shall I fly there now?"

Before you can think of reply there's more commotion from the opposite side. A soldier comes running in, breathing heavily. "Prin- princess. The city is under attack. Mon... monsters are rampaging in the southern district."

"Monsters?" Alicia asks and gives you a suspicious glare. "How did they get in without alarm?"

"We don't know. There was no signal from the gate. Much of our forces are... " the man gulps. "Busy elsewhere."

Alicia turns and regards you coldly. "If I find that you played us for fools, ogre..." She shakes her head. "No matter. Has commander Hanig been notified?"

"Yes, your highness, runners have been sent out to rally the men."

"Good. Then enough wasting time, let us repel the invaders. As for you, ogre..."

>Let yourself be escorted into custody of the military and wait in a cell.
>Let yourself be escorted, then overpower the escort and try to sneak out of the city
>Ask to join the princess in the fight. You can go first if she's worried about backstabbing, but you don't want to expose her to risk now.
>Suggest different course of action for the princess. What if this attack is a diversion? Wasn't there a second princess in the castle?
>other
>>
>>5412632
>Suggest different course of action for the princess. What if this attack is a diversion? Wasn't there a second princess in the castle?

>Offer to join the fight in her stead.
>>
>>5412632
>Suggest different course of action for the princess. What if this attack is a diversion? Wasn't there a second princess in the castle?
>Ask to join the princess in the fight. You can go first if she's worried about backstabbing, but you don't want to expose her to risk now.
>They are not aligned with my queen's forces if you are worried about it. Most monsters lack loyalty, I wouldn't be surprised if this conspiracy wants to usurp both kingdoms eventually.
>I can call my allies to attack them from the rear, but that would risk friendly fire and they might not arrive in time.
>>
>>5412632
>Ask to join the princess in the fight. You can go first if she's worried about backstabbing, but you don't want to expose her to risk now.
>>
>>5412632
>Suggest different course of action for the princess. What if this attack is a diversion? Wasn't there a second princess in the castle?
>Ask to join the princess in the fight. You can go first if she's worried about backstabbing, but you don't want to expose her to risk now.
Secure Prim while we go to the front lines
>>
>>5412646
+1
>>
"What if the attack is a diversion?" You ask before the princess can assert her authority. The question takes her by surprise.

"What do you mean?" She narrows her eyes. "Do you know something?"

"If this is action ordered by my queen then I have no knowledge of it. But we... well you are dealing with treachery now. This notice mentions a '2'... wasn't there a second princess in the castle?"

"Prim!" Alicia's eyes went wide at the realization. "The keep is impregnable... but if there is traitor in the palace... Still, the attack..." Her face contorts into a grimace as she resolves an internal struggle. "I can't divert soldiers on a hunch when my people are in danger." She resolves. "Charlotte, you'll come with me. "Brigitte, Elle, go with the guards and handle the monsters. I'll join you as soon as I am able. Now, for you-"

No, that wouldn't do.

"Princess, please let me go with you. I'll go in front of you if you're worried about backstabbing." You argue when you realize Alicia intended to investigate your hunch with just one knight for support.

She fixes you with a stare, considering if that would be a good idea.

"Fine. But no more delays. Brigitte, go. Charlotte, be on a lookout if the gargoyle tries something. And the golem goes with the soldiers."

"Minerva, you heard the princess. Go and help the soldiers fight off the monster raiders." You tell the golem.

"Very well, leader, please be safe." She said reluctantly. You departed from the workshop and headed in different directions.
>>
The keep was an impressive structure. You don't much enjoy idea of having to force your way inside without having it softened up considerably by magic and siege engines.

Unfortunately for the princess, no physical defences offered by themselves a reliable safeguard against treachery. Upon arriving at the gates of the keep you had yet to find any evidence of it - at least until the gate swung open before you could approach it and through it walked a group of six soldiers armed with polearms in a protective formation around a finely dressed older man and a pink haired young woman whose circlet immediately identified her as the second princess.

"Prim!"

"Alicia!"

The two princesses called out to each other immediately. Before either could say anything more the nobleman seemed to have assessed the situation and grabbed the princess who yelped in surprise at the unexpected action. "Minister, what -mmph!" Was what she managed to get out before one of the old man's robust hands covered her mouth. The pink haired princess made some effort to struggle but her attention was clearly divided between her surprise and indignation as she tried to process what is actually happening.

The men were clearly loyal to the minister as they showed no hesitation at the man's actions and shifted into combat stance.

"Are you out of your mind, Beardsley? Let her go this instant!" Alicia shouted in fury.

"Now now, your highness, remember your station. It is unbecoming of a princess like you to speak in such unrefined manner. You give your dear cousin a poor example. Look at her innocence. Wouldn't it be shame if something happened to it?"

"Beardsley, I don't know what drove you to this, but if you hurt her..."

"Then what? I have had enough grovelling before some arrogant, pompous child."

It looked like the two have some unresolved issues. Alicia was so focused on the treacherous official that she probably forgot you're even there. Charlotte's attention was split. You didn't like the numbers much, even with Tithe high overhead, but they seemed manageable. Despite the enemy armament not being ideal for your preferences you felt confident you'd be able to deal with them. Problem was how far the noble was willing to go in his threat.

>No point in making this more complex than necessary. Charge into the formation and break it. Tithe will interdict whatever the minister intends to do, and he is probably intelligent enough that if the princess dies he is not leaving this place alive.
>Try to talk him down. Concern for Prim's health is only reason he's still alive and him releasing her safely is the only way to remain such.
>Alicia is fixated on Beardsley and Prim. You could easily overpower her now and double cross Beardsley when he doesn't suspect it. However, there's risk to Alicia and her knight in this plan.
>other idea
>>
>>5413828
>So this is the strength of the followers of the nameless huh? I guess I shouldn't be surprised, that mangy dog did only attack someone that was so tired that couldn't fight back, no surprise the ones that listen to him are only brave enough to attack those that don't even know how to defend themselves.
>No point in making this more complex than necessary. Charge into the formation and break it. Tithe will interdict whatever the minister intends to do, and he is probably intelligent enough that if the princess dies he is not leaving this place alive.
>>
>>5413828
>No point in making this more complex than necessary. Charge into the formation and break it. Tithe will interdict whatever the minister intends to do, and he is probably intelligent enough that if the princess dies he is not leaving this place alive.
4v6 aren’t bad odds
>>
>>5413896
>+1
>>
>>5413828
>ultra violence
>>
>>5413828
>Try to talk him down. Concern for Prim's health is only reason he's still alive and him releasing her safely is the only way to remain such.
>>
Briefly considering using words to either try and convince the minister to stand down before his life is forfeit, or taunt and goad him into forgetting about his hostage entirely, ultimately you decide to not make the situation more complex than it needs to. With Tithe above and the two women at your side, your chances were solid to end this quickly and with little danger to princess Prim.

"-years of service to end in such disgrace-" You heard Alicia say as you shifted your weight forward. You did not yell. By the time Beardsley took note of your charge you had already built up momentum and had your weapon raised to deflect the raised polearms - the soldiers were on guard and responded quickly, but they did not expect to be facing a charging ogre. Or half... though in this particular case, you were happy to embrace your monstrous side fully.

"Wait, what are you-" Alicia was not very happy with your initiative but had no chance to roll with it as she too surged forward to reach Prim before the minister made good on whatever threat he had in mind, with her knight covering her approach.

Treacherous soldiers for their part recognized you as the bigger threat and although the two most distant ones moved to intercept the two women, rest of them made effort to meet your charge with their weapons. You swept two of them aside with your weapon, narrowly evaded thrust of the third. The fourth actually managed to land a glancing hit, luckily most of the force was deflected by your leather armour and the hard skin underneath. Had the polearm found sufficient purchase it could still wound you and you prefer not to think on effect it could have on womens' exposed stomachs.

"Stop! Stop I sa- ack!" The minister cried out in panic before a light gray shadow descended upon him from an unexpected angle, gargoyle's talons gripping the man from behind, panfully biting into his flesh and forcing him to let go of the princess who dropped on her knees and picking herself up quickly scurried out of the way of combat, still making sense of the bizarre scene before her.

The scene being you having grabbed one of the disarmed soldiers and brandishing him at his companions, hoping they were unwilling to hurt their companion - or at least lose their weapons by burying them in him - and were largery proven right as two of the soldiers took a step back. In recognition of their comradery you let your impromptu weapon fly at them, collapsing them into a pile. Last combatant facing you realizes his situation then and when you turn to face him he just stands there as you gently take his weapon from his hand and snap it in half.
>>
And with that, the fight is concluded. As you survey the courtyard you see two other soldiers kneeling, nursing their wounds, watched over by the knightess Charlotte. Beardsley was sitting on the pavement, arms half raised in gesture of surrender as the diminutive gargoyle held him firmly by the throat. Princesses were together, hugging and reassuring each other. The three men bundle disentangled themselves but assessing the situation wisely decided not to resume fighting again.

When the princesses released hold on each other, Alicia took few angry steps towards you, her blade drawn.

"What were you thinking, you damned brute?" She asked. "He could have hurt her! He could have *killed* her!"

"I had faith in my comrade." You indicate Tithe. "And the minister would have to be insane to think that he could make good on his threat and make it out of here alive."

"What if he was? What if he was not thinking clear? That risk was not yours to take! If he hurt Prim..." She asked angrily.

"Alicia..." The pink haired princess came up behind her cousin.

"Don't worry, Prim. We're safe now." Alicia said, more softly now. "It's over."

"I... I know. Thank you for saving me, Alicia. Charlotte. And... and you, mr. Ogre. And... mr. Gargoyle?"

"I'm delighted to have been of help." Tithe says.

"Yes... I suppose I do owe you thanks as well, in spite of how reckless your actions were." Alicia relents.

"What would you have done differently?" You ask, as softly as you can and still a bit worried the question would come across as condescending. The princess was not wrong, the risk may have been small, but it was not non-existent, and you took the choice from her with your initiative.

"I..." She says. "I don't know." She grins mirthlessly. "Are those the 'hard choices' ruler was supposed to make, that Beardsley used to tell me about?" She shakes her head. "No matter. Our men may still be fighting off monsters, but we need to clean up here first. Get up, you. You know your way to the dungeons well enough I trust?" She turns to Beardsley and his soldiers.

The defeated conspirators offer no further resistance as your group accompanies them into the keep. The few soldiers left inside are surprised to see the development, as last they saw Beardsley it was to - reportedly at Alicia's behest - be escorted along with Prim to an undisclosed location - but none gainsay the princesses and soon the traitors were secured in cells.

Afterwards, Alicia intended to head out to help fight off invaders, having judged that the keep should be safe enough for Prim to stay in. Although she did not entirely forgive you your methods yet, she seemed convinced enough that you are at least her ally and was willing to let you help. Before you headed out though a group of soldiers reached the keep, led by commander Hanig. Among the men you spotted Minerva, Elle the courier and between them, Smutkin the bard.
>>
Hanig reported that the city was once again at peace and secure. Raiders have been slain or captured by the loyal soldiers. At that point Smutkin had been singled out as instrumental to minimizing the losses when he entranced and put to sleep a substantial group of invaders with his song. It also turned out the gate guardians were mostly unharmed - at least for now, as the entire guarding crew was revealed as traitors who let the monsters in alongside bandit raiders. Interrogations, raids and searches were ongoing to find rest of the conspirators. Critical positions were being reorganized to be manned by Levantine reinforcements withdrawn from countryside patrols.

The conspiracy has been thwarted.

And so you found yourself in a study of the princess, a well lit room lined with bookshelves and comfortable, relatively unassuming for Alicia's station, furnishings. A private setting to discuss matters between you and the princesses. Also in attendance was Smutkin the bard, and the two familiar lady knights.

"Mouse, I believe I owe you a debt of apology and gratitude." Alicia said. "Apology for doubting you despite the circumstances of our introduction, and gratitude for your role in saving this city from Beardsley's plot. I can still scarcely believe at amount and intensity of venom the man was holding in him, and still can't comprehend his reasons." She sighed. "In any case, you and your companions have more than earned recognition and friendship."

You know there is a but in there and so you wait for the princess to continue.

"However, I can't simply ignore your fealty to the dark queen. Unless you wish to abandon her service?"

"Never." You reply automatically.

"I see. Then why did you help us? Wouldn't it be to your queen's benefit to see us fall?"

"Perhaps it would be. But that is not my mission here. And I was being earnest when I explained my motivations earlier."

"You mentioned your mother's kindness." Alicia nods.

"Ogres also have kind mothers?" Prim asks. "Oh, sorry mr. Ogre, that was a cruel thing to ask."

"It's fine, I understand. Most ogres don't know their mothers at all. I was lucky in this regard."

"Oh." Prim didn't know how to really respond to that.

"Let's say that I believe in your good intentions, Mouse. What are you going to do next? Although I'd very much appreciate if you could accompany me to Abbess to discuss matters with her, as I promised. But other than that, what is it you intend to do?"
>>
Well, one matter of some urgency would be recovering the relic.

>You would like to introduce the princesses to rest of your troop - Phineous, Sparky, Chloe and Diana. This should make it easier for them to navigate human lands.
>There was no reason to bring that up, you'd pick your other companions up on your way up. They won't get neither recognition nor exposure.

After that, you needed to decide where your next steps should lead.

>Initial idea was to ask the princesses to vouch for us so that Levantine would allow you to access their stockpile of scholarly texts, now maybe you could even approach Klaus to help you himself.
>Alternatively, you could head directly to the holy city where Celestine, the reincarnation of the goddess, resides. Of all the possibilities, the clairvoyant elven monarch would probably have the best idea on how to proceed.
>There was another possibility - land of the dwarves, who have been known for their pursuit of natural knowledge and machinery. Although whether that knowledge extended to metaphysics you had no idea.
>The far eastern realms had their own view of the world, not entirely different but still distinct from the faith in the goddess. Perhaps they would have an idea that would offer guidance on your quest?
>Deny the princesses answer, they don't need to know, or share, where you are going next - although that might also limit or negate support they can give you.
>other idea

Additionally, you could use this chance to ask the princesses for a boon or two, like for instance
>a pardon for Smutkin, though that would mean attracting attention to his past
>>
>>5415158
>You would like to introduce the princesses to rest of your troop - Phineous, Sparky, Chloe and Diana. This should make it easier for them to navigate human lands.
>Initial idea was to ask the princesses to vouch for us so that Levantine would allow you to access their stockpile of scholarly texts, now maybe you could even approach Klaus to help you himself.
>a pardon for Smutkin, though that would mean attracting attention to his past
>>
>>5415160
Some other ideas for boons I have is
>Teach Sparky more about his holy magic. An imp doing miracles is unusual
>Anything that could help Minerva, Diana and Tithe advance with their temple guardian nature, they were all holy statues.
It's a lot, and more on the abbess's knowledge side, but it's the kind of thing only them can help

We can do something for Phineous when we get to Levantine, that human culture lover is going to love that library
>>
>>5415205
>Support the boons

>You would like to introduce the princesses to rest of your troop - Phineous, Sparky, Chloe and Diana. This should make it easier for them to navigate human lands.

>Alternatively, you could head directly to the holy city where Celestine, the reincarnation of the goddess, resides. Of all the possibilities, the clairvoyant elven monarch would probably have the best idea on how to proceed.
(If no one else comes to vote I'll switch to levantine)
>>
>>5415158
>You would like to introduce the princesses to rest of your troop - Phineous, Sparky, Chloe and Diana. This should make it easier for them to navigate human lands.
>Alternatively, you could head directly to the holy city where Celestine, the reincarnation of the goddess, resides. Of all the possibilities, the clairvoyant elven monarch would probably have the best idea on how to proceed.
No thoughts on boons.
>>
>>5415160
>+1
>>
"I intend to pursue my quest." You reply after considering the question for some time. If you were on good terms with two of the princesses, your ability to access human resources without need for confrontation has substantially increased. "The original idea was to attempt to convince house Levantine to permit me access to their hoard of knowledge to study I understand lord Levantine has accumulated."

Prim giggles. You give her a confused look.

"Oh, sorry mr. Ogre. It's just that even Ogres know that Claudia's hubby is a huge nerd." The princess says with a smile. Then the smile vanishes. "Oh, I'm sorry. That must have sounded rude. I didn't mean..."

"Don't worry about that." You dismiss the casual and well deserved racism. "At any rate, the other option would be, if you could vouch for us for safe passage, we could seek audience with lady Celestine herself and seek her wisdom in the matter."

"That can be arranged easily. The troops Claudia lent us will be gradually returning now that the threat has been neutralized, and I expect commander Havel would like to personally deliver report on the situation to Claudia and lord Levantine so he can introduce you. Additionally, I think lady Celestine would be delighted to hear about your quest as well." Alicia says. "Who exactly do you mean by 'us', though?"

"Right. You have already met Tithe the gargoyle, and now you've met the bard," You indicate Smutkin, who has been observing the discussion in silence.

"Yes. Smutkin the perverted piper." Alicia says, fixing the bard with a stare. He does not shrink back. "Hanig's men recognized him. His valour in defence of the city naturally earned him to have the petty charges levelled at him stricken. As far as I am concerned, he is a free man."

"Thank you, your highness." The bard says with a bow. "However, I have committed myself to Mouse's case and intend to see it through."

"Very well. Was there more, Mouse?"

"Yes. There's Minerva, her twin golem Diana and three more companions I'd like to introduce you to, should you be willing to vouch for us."

"Of course. If I'm going to be giving a group of Dark Queen's agents free roam of the land I'd like to at least have seen them once. Would you like to send for them? I understand Elle would know them."

"It would be better if I retrieved them personally." You say, keeping the issue of relic to yourself for now. "If I may, I'd suggest that I bring them to the monastery, I believe their presence in meeting the Abbess would be beneficial." Like for instance the twin golems being reunited and then there was the issue of Sparky's apparent affinity to light and healing magic.

"That's fair. Take Elle with you, though, to avoid incidents."

With that the meeting concludes, at least for now, as Alicia makes it clear she'd like to make good on her promise to Abbess sooner rather than later.
>>
It's rather liberating to be able to traverse the city like this, without having to worry about patrols, or pillaging peers lusting for combat. You do get looks of malice and contempt but you can't really hold it against these people. Elle tries to defend you when you first encounter an angry citizen voicing their desire to see your head on a pike and entrails feeding the fish but you ask her to give it a rest.

After a brief walk you reach the location where you and Elle met last evening. You barely made few more steps before getting intercepted by Chloe.

"Finally! We were beginning to be worried." She says. "You made contact with the princesses then? And you are that courier, right?"

"Yes, and yes." You tell the half elf. "I've come to pick you up and recover the relic. We need to determine our next steps. But first things first."

Rest of the team was happy to see you return in one piece, and Minerva was visibly pleased and relieved at being reunited with her twin. You let them clean up the camp while you retrieved the relic from its hiding spot, thankful for your companions' trustworthiness.

It didn't take long to catch up with your team - they stayed put and out of sight do watch over the hiding place, and went unbothered by patrols in turn. It's not surprising considering city's forces were much too busy elsewhere. Phineous took the chance to draw a few sketches of Diana and Chloe. Unfortunately, Chloe confiscated hers in early stages so he couldn't show you.

The guard at the gate looked a bit apprehensive about letting your group in but did not voice any protest or concern - he heard that you participated in city defense after all.

You spend the trip to the monastery getting your companions caught up in turn. Chloe was furious at the monsters being involved in the fight.

"Damnable traitors! To abandon our queen just to serve as puppets of human in their power struggles! How can anyone cast away their dignity so?!"

It was not a bad question to ask. Fighting for queen Olga held promise of violence, glory and spoils. What could the humans have offered to do all of that in defiance of the queen? You can imagine - queen forgive you - someone wishing to flee from the fighting entirely. But to turn coats just to fight for humans? Was this the influence of the Nameless, or was it greed?
>>
By the time you reach the monastery Chloe's wrath had receded and she was settled in expression of grim determination to just get on with whatever it was you were doing. At least outrage over treacherous monsters distracted her from occasional jeering.

"Oh, it's you. Come right - wait, is that an imp?" Brother Christoff is the one to meet you in front of the religious edifice.

"Yes. His name is Sparky." You say and introduce the others as well.

"I... think I need to consult with Abbess." The monk says and hurries inside. After a few moments he returns, accompanied with Abbess.

"Please, come on in." She says. "Princess is already here."

She watches you enter, but you're sure she's focused on Sparky in particular.

"How are you feeling, little one?" The Abbess asks in a kind voice, which seems rather out of place for a nun addressing an imp.

"A bit dizzy, miss, but good. Why do you ask?"

"Remarkable." She turns to you. "An imp with no adverse response to entering an unspoiled monastery."

"Uh, I'm not sure, I've seen plenty of them gloating in conquered chapels and churches." You say. The abbess grimaces at that.

"Yes, but that was after the faithful around have already been killed and despair has taken hold." She says. "Have you seen a demon being first to breach into one of them?"

Now that you think of it, you're not sure.

"Come now. We need to talk." The sister motions for you to follow. Your out of place group makes it in front of her office, where you can see Alicia standing up from a chair to greet you.

"All of you will wait outside. I need to discuss only with the princess and Mouse right now. Everyone else stays out." Abbess says in a tone that leaves no room for argument. Seeing no reason not to you shrug and comply, closing the heavy door shut behind you.

"Good. Now that we're here," abbess Martha reaches below her desk and placed an aged scroll in front of her. "we need to talk about things even goddess herself would keep private. I ask of you, your highness, that you honour the same, and not share what you learn further, and not discuss it with anyone not already initiated."

"Of course, abbess." Alicia replies without hesitation.

"Good. I'm not going to ask you, child of the dark, because your word should not be a cause of scandal to anyone." Sister turns to you. "However, if this discussion is to bear any fruit that is not poisoned, I am going to ask you to speak honest truth and not omit anything. Do you understand?"

"I think I do." You answer slowly. It appears the sister is referring to what you learned on the twisted nature of this world's creation. How much would she know? How would she take what you know? Should you go along with this? But the chance to learn more...

>Tell her everything
>Don't
>>
The debate left you with a weary heart, and perhaps it was this weariness that prompted Alicia to invite you and your companions to spend the night in her keep after you had automatically introduced them to her when you eventually emerged from the abbess's office. And although you managed to note how Alicia was once again viewing you with a different emotion hidden in that flicker behind her violet eyes, you were still replaying and processing what you heard even as you decided how to spend rest of the day...

(should have time for two, maybe three)
>hang out with your companions
>hang out with specific companion (Phineous, Smutkin, Sparky, Tithe, Chloe, golem twins)
>hang out with Alicia and/or Prim
>use the necklace to contact Olga
>go to town and buy something (what?) - princess awarded you with some currency so you don't have to plunder on your travels.
>look up someone else
>do something else
>disregard hospitality, head out immediately
>(optional: choose what to do / talk about)

(the church related boons will be handled in next update)
>>
>>5416118
>Tell her everything
>I know the church considers this to be heresy, but my cause is to remove this taint.
>>
>>5416122
>hang out with your companions
Mouse is a good boss
>hang out with Alicia and/or Prim
A chance to be friendly and talk without all these problems.
>use the necklace to contact Olga
She needs to be informed about monster turning coats. If there is another conspiracy back home, she needs to be extra wary without Chole to act as her shadow
>>
>>5416118
>Tell her everything
>>5416122
>hang out with your companions
>hang out with Alicia and Prim
>use the necklace to contact Olga
Check in on everyone, then update Olga about our quest.
>>
>>5416145
>Support
>>
>>5416118
>Tell her everything
>>5416122
>hang out with your companions
>>
>>5416122
>hang out with Alicia and/or Prim
Both, separately, sex time.
>>
>>5416214
+1
>>
>>5416145
This.
>>
>>5416175
I'll replace hang out with your companions
With
>go to town and buy something (proper weapon and armour for mouse)
>>
Sister, or perhaps mother, you're not entirely clear on monastic ranks, Martha revealed to you and princess Alicia the apocryphic version of creation myth commonly held by humans. Of a kind and nurturing goddess that created the world as a perfect garden in which the various races awakened and began to live happily together. At some point, though, as the awakened were exploring the garden and each other, some of them discovered enjoyment in pain of others. It is said that when first man took a woman by force, the resulting offspring was a dark elf, and in their heart burned the same wicked desire. As they grew in power, they would gather like minded around themselves and together they would indulge in violence and malice. In response, the other people banded together to protect each other. That is how the divide between men and monsters came to be. Or so goes the common knowledge.

The alternate version represented for instance among the ruins from which you retrieved the relic told a different story - the one where nameless beast would intrude on the goddess exhausted from her work and in her vulnerable state violated her, tainting the world in the process. In this tale the goddess would submit to the beast and accept its supremacy, giving birth to twin elves, one light as day, other dark as night. One standing for kindness and selflessness, the other for violence and ambition. The awakened would split in adoring these as they grew while both the nameless and the goddess receded from the material world. The monsters and men would live side by side, embracing all creation had to offer - including the sanctified submission of the weak to the strong.

It is not clear how or why it happened, whether it was by deepening divide between followers of either twin, or because the "weak" have banded together sufficiently to achieve strength of their own, but at some point a conflict broke out which resulted into the divide between the monsters embracing the violence fully and men who abhorred it - but were still forced to learn it to keep the monsters at bay. Resulting war is said to have led to formation of the current creed and establishment of human kingdoms.

"Of course, that is still just the forbidden lore. I can't attest fully to how accurate it is, but senior faithful are asked to preserve it. Partly to be better able to recognize and root out heresy. But partly, I think, in a hope for a miracle." The abbess would say.
>>
"A miracle?" You would ask.

"It is a heavy burden, to be made aware that not even our goddess is exempt from the seed of evil. It would suggest it is the evil that holds the ultimate dominion, that good is but a futile, flitting dream. But at the same time, we did not give up. Our ancestors did not give up. The goddess may have submitted, but her kindness is still with us, somehow. Men more learned than me can discuss this in more depth, but for me it is hope that the evil is not as pervasive as the story suggests. That outside of the tainted world, there may be a greater good that makes our flickers of light possible."

Was it just wishful thinking on her part? Or was it a possibility? If you intended to go through with your quest, it would have to be the latter. Or wouldn't it? You would need to know more.

You stole glances at Alicia to see her go between horrified, despairing and resolved. Perhaps Martha's hope found support in Alicia's heart as well.

Regardless, with her part shared, the abbess next asked you to give your recount.

And you do. You don't omit anything that seems relevant, from her majesty's prescient dispatch, through the items found at the site and persuasion of the golems to your return and your confrontation with Queen and her Shadow.

"So That is the quest you took upon yourself?" Alicia was taken aback by the magnitude of the task. "And what you told me about your mother...?"

"All true." You confirmed and went back to recount how you were raised in secret, only leaving your parents' farm in the dead of night with your father, only to eventually be found on the cusp of adulthood - and witness your parents die from your cage at hands of a fanatical crowd, only to be saved by an attack of Olga's horde which came unexpected because the lookouts joined in the lynching.

"Oh my child... I'm so sorry." Martha was struck especially hard by your tale, knowing that the pitchfork mob would call on the same goddess as they purged what they deemed unclean. You didn't notice Alicia's reaction, your vision might have not been entirely clear at the time. But she kept silent.
>>
Eventually you were the one to break the silence as you asked the abbess if there was something she could do for your companions. First, there was Sparky. She already noticed something strange was going on in him, but she was completely confounded when you reveal he also succeeded in channelling a healing spell. She promised you she would look into the matter, and that she'd lend you a tome from monastic library that healer initiates read for guidance.

Next you asked about the golems, and the strange sense of kinship Tithe felt with them, which you attributed to him having been chiselled out of previously consecrated stone. Sadly, sister Martha was unable to offer you much as the art of crafting and animating holy guardian golems was not something she was aware was still around. She promised she would send a message to a church academy for scholars to pore over, but for the time being most she could suggest is maybe letting the animated statues access the book Sparky was getting.

This led to the abbess getting the discussion back to its original purpose. Your ability to convince the golems and withstand the seal that was placed on the relic to keep it secure without exposing anyone to its corruptive effects was something she took as sign to reinforce her hope. The dark queen was not known for prescience but for her magical might. What force compelled her to set you on path to intercept Black Dog's attempt to retrieve the relic - presumably using princess knight Maia to break the seal? And what force compelled her to keep you around when her forces... rescued you?

Of course, the queen's scepticism which you relayed, was a possibility. Did you not find enough malice and corruption in the land of humans who ostensibly sided with the purer aspect of the goddess over the taint? Perhaps it was true that purity and beauty was only allowed to flourish to be despoiled, faith to be warped and abused, and hope only rose in order to be crushed?

It would be up to your choices to find a way for that to be proven untrue.

And so you walked through the halls of the keep, servant and guards giving you looks ranging from fear and suspicion to respect and gratitude. It was nice to see the occasional smile, even if sometimes they seemed forced.

You would not relent, and you would not give up. First, though, you would see to your men. This has been eventful few days and they deserve some comfort and recovery. And what better way to secure that but with full stomach? With resolve momentarily steeled and anchored at an island of stability in the tainted world, you decided to pursue the scent towards the keep's kitchen.

Asking one of the servants could work, too.
>>
(before the next update, feel free to decide where to go from Arcturus' keep)
>Go with commander Siegfried Havel to Levantine, begin your search in Klaus's library.
>Travel south to seek out audience with Celestine
>other destination

(additionally, Elle has volunteered to accompany you on your journey)
>Take her with you
>Ask Alicia to come instead
>Ask Prim to come (and Alicia to entrust her into your care)
>Refuse, your team and Chloe is all you need
>other ideas
(I'm not saying it's going to necessarily work, feel free to make argument to support your case)
>>
>>5417315
>Go with commander Siegfried Havel to Levantine, begin your search in Klaus's library.
>Take her with you
>>
>>5417315
>Go with commander Siegfried Havel to Levantine, begin your search in Klaus's library.

>Take her with you
>>
>>5417315
>Travel south to seek out audience with Celestine
>Take her with you
>>
>>5417315
>Go with commander Siegfried Havel to Levantine, begin your search in Klaus's library.
It's closer and if we find nothing we can just continue on.
>Take her with you
>>
>>5417315
>Go with commander Siegfried Havel to Levantine, begin your search in Klaus's library.
>Take her with you
>>
"Hey, you're the ogre who saved princess Prim!" The elderly woman clad in mostly white, somewhat stained apron lights up when she sees you, an unfamiliar experience for you. "I can't thank you enough for putting that sleazebag Beardsley in his place."

"Uh... you're welcome?"

"Ha. I didn't think I'd live to see a decent ogre. But that's not why you're here. Followed your nose, have you? Yes yes, I know how mouth watering my works are. Don't tell Jean I said that, though. Royal chef is soooo full of himself."

"Al-right?" You're a bit taken aback by woman's barrage.

"Alright look, I am a bit busy preparing rations for patrols, especially now with the reinforcements that gave me a checklist of stuff they need. Bit pompous some of them. But for saviour of the cutest flower in the realm I think I can misappropriate some time and stocks, so just tell me what you like?"

"Actually, I-"

"Or do you perhaps want to ask me what the princesses like, hm? I'm going to tell you anyway, they love sweets, even if Alicia would never admit it. Oh how I wish I had magic or machines to make ice. Or maybe not. We wouldn't want their highnesses to get too pudgy, heh, heh."

"I think I'll-"

"No, no, wait. Sorry, I'm all ears now for real. So, what would you like?"

Thankfully the woman follows through on her promise and actually falls silent, allowing you to explain to her composition of your squad and amount of food you'd like to requisition. You assured her you would speak to the princess so she would not get in trouble but she just waved off your concerns.

"Alright, I think I get it now. And are you serious? Just a pile of meat and some water? No, this will not stand. Just tell me where you are staying and I'll handle the rest. Now scram, I've lot of work and can't afford any more diversions. Thanks for talking to me! Actually, wait - grab two of these! I'd have to send two pairs of hands apiece otherwise. Now chop chop and sit tight!"

And so you find yourself walking, a keg of ale under each arm, back towards the rooms your squad has been assigned - a bunk room for guests' retinues with attached facilities. When you arrive you find your troops already relaxing, each to their preferences: Chloe eviscerating a training dummy someone brought into the common area, Phineous sketching something, stealing furtive glances at the practicing half elf, Smutkin reading a book he must have obtained during his stay in the city as you don't recall its cover. Sparky was peacefully curled into corner in what looked like a pile of blankets taken from several of the bunks. Tithe set himself onto a cabinet and was overlooking the entire hall while the two temple guardian golems took position in another corner where someone put three bunks next to each other, presumably out of consideration for you.

"Friends." You attract their attention when you enter. "I come bearing booze."
>>
You are met with a mixture of silent acknowledging nods and some "hey boss" from Phineous, Sparky and Smutkin. Even Chloe interrupts her practice for just one moment to see what you brought. Then she takes advantage of Phineous's momentary distraction and seizes his drawing book, tearing off the topmost page before gracefully returning the book to the orc.

"Shadow, why must you torment me so?" He whines.

"I told you, I have no desire to have my likeness among your fantasies." queen's retainer replies.

"But why? Do you even realize what a work of art you are? Boss, tell her something."

"He's right, you are a beautiful predator with elegance in every movement." You support your subordinate.

"T-that's beside the point! Whatever I am is not for your benefit, is that clear?"

Phineous sighs. "Oh alright already. If that is how you feel I won't bother you again."

"I'm sorry, am I interrupting?" A new yet familiar voice prompts you to turn around. It's Elle, still in her courier uniform.

"Not in particular, at least not yet I was told there'd be some food delivered soon." You reply.

"Oh! That's good that you get to enjoy princess' hospitality. But as long as you have some time, I wanted to ask if I could travel with you? Her highness already gave me leave."

"So that you can spy on us?" Chloe asks.

"No! I mean, actually yes, sort of. Princess told me to be careful. Mostly about your companions, mister Mouse, no offence. But, I told her that nobody that can travel with you would be a traitor or something."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence." Smutkin says with a smirk.

"Anyway, would you have me? Princess will give you a pass with her seal so you should have no problems with other house's guards, but it might still be good for you to have someone like me with you."

"We'll be happy to have you." You agree without much hesitation, her presence will certainly make your passage smoother.

"And I'll be watching you." Chloe says.

"I'll help!" Phineous volunteered. "In fact, could you just stand like that for a moment?" He adds, picking up his drawing implements.

"I like your crew already, mr Mouse." Elle giggled, earning a scowl from Chloe.

"Er... mr. ogre knight?" Yet again a new, this time unfamiliar, voice is heard from the corridor. "Miss Laffel wanted us to bring this here. Um. Please, try to not break the cutlery..."
>>
When you head out to check out what was brought you are greeted by a handcart laden with foodstuffs and a pair of lads with expression of abject terror when your gaze rests on them.

"Thank you." You tell them.

"It was his idea to say that." One of them quickly points.

"What? Traitor!"

"Don't worry. We'll not break anything. Please relay my gratitude to... miss Laffel is the cook lady?"

"Yeah." The boy says. "Didn't I tell you? They wouldn't let an enemy ogre free in the keep."

"Uh... sorry mr. ogre. But is it true you eat little boys?"

"Sadly, my kind eats just about anything and anyone." You reply. "I'm not eating people though." You add quickly when you see the boys' pale.

"Can... can we go?"

"W-we'll tell miss Laffel you liked it."

The boys dart away when you nod and you drag the cook's offering into the room. There was, by your estimation, just about enough for your group to eat your fill with maybe some minimal left over - there was smoked and preserved meat, pickled vegetables and freshly baked bread.

"Would you like to eat with us, Elle?" You ask the courier.

"I'd be delighted."

So you end up having a common dinner with your crew and it's most recent provisional addition, a royal courier of house Arcturus. It begins a bit awkwardly as you're all aware you can't exactly share war stories given your perspectives. Fortunately a topic naturally emerges which you can agree upon.

The food is delicious. Meals are simple, but very distinct from the raw stuff you subsisted on since entering her majesty's service. Elle is visibly less impressed in general but even she appreciates the undeniable worth of baked goods that only barely cooled down from the oven. Although you may be somewhat biased because biting into those buns almost made you cry as it brought you back into your childhood.

"Those are not the only worthwhile buns in the room right now, are they? Tell me, ogre, are you familiar with the term 'spitroast'?"

You take another bite and wrestle the spectre back into the void at the back of your mind and shift focus on the conversation, where Elle regales you with meals she had chance to see at exotic tables during course of her duties.

"Such image. The way you describe it, m'lady, I salivate at just picturing the look, nevermind the taste or scent." Phineous confesses. "Boss, do you think..." He trails off.
>>
"Yes?"

"I was just thinking, maybe such a display of refinement as what lady Elle describes, would it be enough to convince the brutes at home of the value of beauty?"

"Only one way to find out." You shrug. "Honestly I doubt it. I'm sure..." You hesitate, looking at Elle, but end up deciding to follow through. "...some of the raided settlements queen's army captured had stockpiles of very refined food. I don't think anyone who partook in pillaging was inspired by it in the way you probably hope for."

"That's different." Phineous shakes his head. "It's just something we seize and stuff ourselves with. But idea of having something prepared for you, with attention to every detail. Would that not be able to touch a soul?"

"It's an interesting idea. Maybe you are onto something." You answer after considering the notion for a moment. Although it was perhaps too naive, the direction Phineous was taking resonated at some level with your experience...

"Phineous, you are brilliant." Smutkin says, evidently reaching similar conclusion.

"Thanks, I guess?"

"I'm serious. The idea itself is probably lost cause, because I think it's still missing a crucial component which you carry with you. You'd make a fine bard, I think."

"What component?"

"I don't know." Smutkin smiled mysteriously, perhaps a bit wistfully. "I just feel."

Comfortable silence only punctuated by sounds of Sparky chewing vigorously and quaffing descended on you for a few moments before the casual talk resumed. You continued to dine and talk for a while before Elle decided to head back to her own barracks as the afternoon shifted into early evening.

You decided to exercise your officer's privilege and let the troops clean up and load the used cutlery back into the cart someone would eventually recover and headed towards the more prestigious part of the keep. Now, on full stomach, there were a few matters you wanted to discuss with princess Alicia, perhaps Prim as well...

(...to be continued (no prompt today, though feel free to say if you want to address something specific with princesses, or later with Olga))
>>
>>5418715
To Olga, we need to talk about the extent of the conspiracy: how they were working with the mercenary company that was looking for the relic, had a minister on their pocket and had monster allies that Chloe did not recognize and attacked the city. Warn her that the heretics might be active in her kingdom as well, and to be on the lookout for traitors organizing themselves.

For Alivia and Prim, bring them sweets, and talk about their life. What is this whole princess deal, are they all related to Celestine? Talk about their childhood, since we revealed about ours too. And do some small talk.
Oh, and warn to keep an eye on the two pieces of shit that abused Anna. Following orders and peer pressure are not reasons to do what they did. They were promised to not be executed, but maybe they should get a punishment to make sure they will never be able to do it again.
>>
>>5418715
>Olga
Inform her about the monsters who have allied themselves with the humans.
>Princesses
Ask them about the other princesses so we can get some more ideas on who to approach after Claudia
>>
You make your way to the princess's study where you talked previously and find it guarded by the knight you recognize as Charlotte.

"Well met, sir Mouse. Do you have business with her highness?" She asks when she sees your approach.

"There are matters I'd like to discuss. Is she busy?"

"I'll check with her." The knightess says and disappears into the study. Shortly afterwards she emerges again. "You may go in, their highnesses will see you."

You give the knight a grateful nod and walk past her into the room.

"Hello, mr. Mouse!"

"Good evening, Mouse, what did you wish to talk about?" The princesses greet you as you close the door behind you.

"Good evening, princess Alicia, princess Prim. Several things, but firstly I wanted to thank you for your trust and your hospitality. I realize it cannot be easy for you."

Alicia gives you a smile that does in fact very much reach her eyes as her usual serious expression softens. "It's the least I could do after your help. And... saving Prim."

"Yeah! Thank you, mr Mouse! I had no idea what was going on. Minister was always so polite. Does that mean he was lying all this time? How can anyone keep that up?"

"I cannot say, princess." You shook your head. "Maybe not all the time, but he seemed very contemptuous."

"No amount of previous sincerity could excuse what he did. People died during that attack, and to bandits before." Alicia says, her tone serious again. "It has been a shock, but we need to face the truth. And Beardsley..." She let out a sigh. Despite what happened, she seemed to derive no pleasure from what needed to follow. But there was only one penalty for treason of this magnitude. "...will hang."

"Has the conspiracy been crushed?" You ask.

"Many of the captured traitors are happy to talk to keep their lives. It is fortunate we have support from Claudia - another thing we owe to you, is it not? Though I expect Elle made that clear enough for you, you made stalwart friend in her I think."

"I appreciate that and will strive not to let her down. So if the conspiracy is beaten, what about bandits and the mercenaries?" You attempt to get the conversation back on track.

"Bandits remain a problem for now, but not much longer. As soon as we can rely on our forces in entirety there will be a raid of the bandit camp. As for the Black Dog, Hanig said he'll keep on lookout for them but they had no forces stationed here officially. I sent out word to other realms about their participation, the rest is out of my hands."
>>
"You said 'officially'," You noticed "I take it that doesn't include the 'excavation' operation?"

"I had that checked out. Hanig's men found entrance to the mine but it was freshly collapsed and abandoned. I'll make sure it's cleared and searched for evidence when we can spare men to guard the place, which might take a while. But as far as I can tell, they cut their losses here and left."

"So you are confident your realm is safe for now?"

Alicia hesitated. "From treason, at least." You realized what she hinted at and felt your own mood sink. The princess picked up on it somehow and hurried to add: "Don't beat yourself over it. I... understand your positon now, I think. It was... not easy to process. But it only made my own resolve stronger. I will hold this fort, and I will keep praying for not just myself - but for your success as well."

"Hey, you know more about mr Mouse's quest and didn't tell me? Come on, cuz, that's not fair!"

"I'm sorry, Prim. It was a bit... not something I expected. I'll tell you more later, I promise."

"Why not now? Or mr. Mouse, could you tell me yourself while you're here?"

Alicia and Prim both look at you pleadingly for completely different reasons. You decide to go with the vague enough answer.

"I'm looking for a way to make the world a better place. It's a promise, of sorts, I made to my parents." You respond, rewarded by Alicia's grateful smile.

"And your queen let you? I mean, the war is kind of her fault."

"Prim."

"No, it's fine." You sigh. It was not fine. "Yes, my queen supports me in my task. And... I realize that from human perspective she is the cause of all suffering. But it's not all that simple. Princess, do you know anyone who remembers how the war started?"

"Well, no. But we know what happens in the towns conquered by the monsters. Why can't they all be as nice as you?"

"It is our way, it seems. And I hope that in course of my quest I will be able to find a way to stop that."

"I see... Like finding some sort of magic artifact that makes people nice, or maybe finding some secret valley where humans and monster live in peace so they can teach you, or us... or maybe you find a cursed rock that makes all monsters evil and the curse can only be broken by a kiss of true love."

"Oh Prim, you and your fantasy novels." Alicia offers one of her kind smiles again. There is something precious about it. Something reminding you of home. Could queen Olga be capable of radiating this emotional warmth? You saw her shift when she briefly dropped the facade of the indomitable queen. Maybe she could host such a smile as well. What about Chloe? You did see her smile before, though not quite like this.

"Mr. Mouse, do you like Alicia?" Prim asks suddenly.
>>
"W-w-what brought that on?" The princess stammers, her cheeks a bit rosy.

"I do admire her resolve, her vim and her dedication to her people." You answer.

"T-thank you, but why are you asking, Prim?"

"He was looking at you and smiling."

"What? Were you?" She turns to you.

"I'm sorry. I didn't want to offend. It's just you had this kind smile when regarding princess Prim and I was trying to imagine queen Olga and Chloe with it."

Alicia goes through a mixture of expression in succession too quick for you to follow before settling on her vaguely friendly polite one.

"Oh, I see... they are important for you?"

"My queen is my queen." You say simply as if that explained everything. "Chloe is a skilled companion I'd like to consider my friend. To see both of them happy, yes, it's something I'd like to witness."

"You are a very strange person, mr. Mouse." Prim says with a smile that reinforces your resolve and tells you she really doesn't mean anything bad by that choice of words.

"I wish I could meet your parents. They must have been wonderful people." Alicia says. "I mean, from what you told me they sounded like people of immense fortitude and unrivalled kindness." She adds hurriedly and Prim starts to giggle for some reason, only stopping when Alicia fixes her with a frown.

"Yes, I too wish that were possible." You'd really rather not dwell on it right now. "What about your parents? As I understand, princess is a title usually carried by junior members of royal line."

"Oh, that. Well, with us princess knights in particular it's more of a title and our participation in the alliance than direct bloodline. Most of us have noble descent but for instance Claudia has been elevated into position as consort, and Maia for her martial skill." Alicia was happy to explain, thankful for change of topic. "As for our family, specifically, my mother fell in the war long ago and father is courtier at the imperial court far south. I haven't seen him since joining the alliance and taking over house holdings up here, though I have fond memories of him, and of the uncle as well."

"My father is brother of hers." Prim explains. "They tried to talk Alicia out of volunteering, but she said someone has to protect the people with aunt gone. And when she decided, I insisted to go with."

"I still think it was too reckless of you. Just look what just almost happened."

"Hmpf." Prim pouted, but quickly reverted to her cheerful expression. "But I suppose you're right. I'll practice much harder with both sword and magic. I'll be as good as you, cuz!"
>>
From then on the conversation thankfully stuck to lighter themes. The princesses shared their own childhood experiences, telling you how life of a young noble lady looked like in the human civilization and giving you marginally better idea of the links they share with their peers. You learned that despite her currently dutiful and serious demeanor Alicia was no stranger to mischief. Apparently she may have been at least partially inspired by the cadet girl that showed up at Klaus Levantine's side at some point. Amazed by the older girl's ability to hang out with such a boring nerd she began to look into knightly virtues and ended up internalizing some of the principles.

You also got confirmation on the princesses' affection for sweets. You thought to bring some with you to this meeting but ended up deciding it might have been an awkward gift at this juncture, you'd also be hard pressed to find some in the time left today. Still, you resolve to secure some sweets when situation allowed - for the princesses, and perhaps, maybe, also for Olga and Chloe.

Eventually Prim fails to suppress a yawn and you take it as a hint of having outstayed the proper amount of princesses' time and exchanging goodnights with them and Brigitte (who must have switched out Charlotte at some point) left the study.

There was one more thing you needed to do today.

When you returned to the wing of the keep where your troop was currently crashing you did not head directly to rejoin your troops but headed into one of the neighboring empty rooms and barred the door behind you. Then you pulled out the necklace queen Olga gave you and did as she bid you to activate it.

It took you by surprise when the gemstone gave you a jolt that felt briefly like a searing burn, only to immediately cause a chill in your arms as if it drained the warmth out of you to power itself.

The room was no longer dark, but lit by dim purplish glow that somehow flickered without smoke, shadows flitting across the walls between your own silhouette. And then, another shape emerged, as if coalesced from some sort of ambient smoke that grew thick, then solid, until a simulacrum of the dark queen Olga stood before you.

"You are in a seat of power." She said, looking around. The room was without features except for some simple furniture covered by blankets, perhaps the queen saw more than you did. "You haven't gotten yourself captured, have you?"

"No, my queen." You answer. "I enjoy hospitality of the lady responsible for this keep."

"Is that so." It was not really a question. "What have you done to earn this privilege, and why do you risk it by calling upon me?"

"I wished to offer an update on my quest, and a dire warning."

"Speak, then. Be concise."

"Of course, majesty."
>>
You briefly tell the queen of your part in helping the princess thwart the conspiracy and of the parties involved, then of your talk with the abbess and your plans to continue to the realm of house Levantine to pursue further knowledge.

"I see. You succeeded in securing access to help you on your quest. In doing so, however, you have foiled a coup that could have left our enemies divided."

"If that is the way you wish to view it, majesty." You sighed, prompting her to raise an eyebrow. You don't think you would have dared to retort to her like this prior to events that transpired on your previous meeting, but as it was you felt compelled to stand your ground. "It is my hope that my quest will result in our people no longer needing to consider each others enemies."

"Do you consider yourself as one of them, then?" Olga inquires, and you hesitate.

"I know I am not one of them." You admit. "But you know why I feel close to them. I am still your subject, and I still owe you my life, my queen."

"Very well. What was this about warning?"

"The conspiracy has been cooperating with monsters. A number of orcs and ogres have carried out an attack in the city as a distraction for conspiracy's benefit."

"What makes you think those were not sent by me?" Queen asks, leaving you speechless for a moment.

"It is a possibility I could not rule out." You admit. "However, their connection via the mercenary company and use of iconography of the Nameless leads me to believe this is not the case. My queen, the treachery I have seen here is not restricted to humans. I implore you to be careful."

Olga inclines her head as you speak and you think there's hint of a smile there in the image. "Your concern is noted."

"Would you perhaps like Chloe to return to your side?" You ask.

"No. She has her mission, and I am serious about it." She says. Then, more softly, "I will be careful not to give any treachery an opening. Your news of the followers of Nameless rallying a fighting force is troubling." Her expression hardens again. "You tell me to be careful, but you are the one who has to ensure that you do not deliver the relic into their hands! If you fail in this, all your work would have been for naught."

"I will not fail." You vow. Then, a thought occurs to you. A troubling one. "Majesty, do you think... there are more relics like this? Could there be another way for them to use the taint against you?"

"It is... not impossible." Queen avoids saying she has no idea, which is troubling. "And not only against me. Keep in mind the princesses are likely especially susceptible. The nameless revels in defilement, the purer its victim, the better." She falls silent. "Take good care of Chloe, Mouse. Go, and succeed. Go with my blessing."

The image dissipates and you are left alone in the darkness.
>>
Your party departs next day towards the Levantine lands, accompanied by Elle the courier, commander Havel from house Levantine's forces and two soldiers as his escorts. You did not have much time to talk with the man before, pershaps during this trip you will have a chance for that.

As you part you look back to the keep and see both princesses watch you go from the battlements. Prim waves energically, Alicia is more composed. But when she sees you look her way, she too gives you a wave.

Recalling queen's words before she severed the connection leaves you uneasy. What would their fate have been had you not intervened? What could it still become, in the world so twisted?

Forcing yourself to smile you wave back. Now would not be good time to be losing spirit. Not now, not ever. You had your task cut out for you, and you would not fail.

>For plot reasons, Mouse has advanced a level down the path of Hero! Choose one: [intuition(???), insight(???), spirit(???)]
>For his valour in combat, Smutkin had advanced a level! Choose one: [the tune (???), the tale (???)]
>For her valour in combat, Minerva had advanced a level! Choose one: [temple attendant (affinity for holy magic), sacred guard (combat prowess)]
>Through the bond she shares with Minerva, Diana had advanced a level! [temple attendant (affinity for holy magic), sacred guard (combat prowess)]
>For her stealthy prowess and catchup bullshit Chloe has earned a level! [champion(fighty), shadow(sneaky)]

Your party could travel considerably easier now that you could use roads and didn't have to worry about evading patrols, but it was still at least three days of travel to Levantine keep, not least because Havel intended to take the route that led solidly inland, far from any possibility of fighting. You could easily shave off at least a day, but at cost of skirting regions where queen's forces could be conducting raids.

>Go with Havel's route. There's no need to risk confrontation and as far as you or anyone in Arcturus keep was aware there were no imminent crises looming over Levantine so you could probably afford the day.
>Split up, you can make the trip with all benefits of speed keeping Elle with you, though you'd lose the chance to talk to Havel en route.
>Convince Havel to accompany you on the shorter route. You can offer him reasonable assurances your group would not be attacked, and you'd fight at his side if it were.
>other idea

Also feel free to say what you'd like to talk to Havel about (if accompanying him down either path)
>>
>>5419642
>Spirit
Feels like it matches Mouse's will to stand up against the Nameless
>The tale
Lore master Smutkin
>Temple attendant
Minerva is the goddess of knowledge
>Sacred guard
And Diana of the hunt
>Shadow
We have plenty of fighters, but a proper rogue could be very useful
>Convince Havel to accompany you on the shorter route. You can offer him reasonable assurances your group would not be attacked, and you'd fight at his side if it were.
We can always send Chloe ahead to order the monster to leave. And if they don't, than it means they were disloyal anyway.
>>
>>5419642
>Intuition
>The Tale
>Temple Attendant
>Sacred Guard
>Shadow
gotta have an assassin, but will bump her hard numbers sometimes as well later on

>Go with Havel's route. There's no need to risk confrontation and as far as you or anyone in Arcturus keep was aware there were no imminent crises looming over Levantine so you could probably afford the day.
friendship time
>>
>>5419655
>Support
>>
>>5419655
Forgot to mention what to ask of him.
Ask him what got him to join the military.
Note that Alicia trusted him a lot, ask how long he has been serving her.
And thank him for trusting her order even though his gut instinct. We got off on the wrong foot we would like to fix that, he seems to be a good man.
>>
>>5419733
You're confusing the one male commander for the other m8. Havel is the second guy that was in monastery and only spoke once.
>>
>>5419744
Fuck.
Then I have nothing to talk to the dude other than ask why he joined the army I guess.
>>
>>5419642
>Insight
>The Tale
>Temple Attendant
>Sacred Guard
>Shadow
>Go with Havel's route. There's no need to risk confrontation and as far as you or anyone in Arcturus keep was aware there were no imminent crises looming over Levantine so you could probably afford the day.
>>
>>5419642
>Spirit
>The Tale
>Temple Attendant
>Sacred Guard
>Shadow
>Go with Havel's route. There's no need to risk confrontation and as far as you or anyone in Arcturus keep was aware there were no imminent crises looming over Levantine so you could probably afford the day.
Best I got is if he can tell us about Claudia and how she is in comparison to Alicia and Prim
>>
After some consideration you decided to go along with Havel's planned route. It might cost you some time, but from what you knew the cost seemed too low to warrant risking a potentially lethal confrontation. It would not look good for you if you arrived to Levantine lands after getting their officer you shared the trip with injured or killed.

On that note, the travel made for a good opportunity to get to know the commander of the Levantine reinforcements and perhaps learn a bit about the land and house itself.

"Oh, mr. Mouse, was it, yes?" The officer addresses you when he sees you approach. He and Elle were the only two members of your party riding a horse, though with rest of you going on foot the beasts seemed to enjoy the leisurely pace.

"That is correct. Would you mind if we talked a bit as we go?"

"Not at all. In fact I was hoping that this would be the case. Your appearance and actions have been most intriguing, not to mention beneficial." The man says, in good spirits. When you compare him with Hanig, who had this air of casual competence around him - though possibly a bit misleading considering how many of his subordinates turned out as traitors - commander Havel looked, so to speak, more delicate and refined. Where Hanig looked like he might have elevated into his rank from a sufficiently charismatic footsoldier and sergeant, Havel gave impression of a minor noble or perhaps a clerk. Or at least your image of what one could look like, it's not like you met a lot of nobles or clerks in a setting where you could examine them in their natural habitat.

"I am glad that our interests and my task were in alignment." You say. "I have seen enough cruelty for rest of my lifetime."

"So I understand." Havel nodded, though you're not sure how much exactly he got regarding specifics of your quest as you presume the princess must have told him something to bring to the Levantines. "Pray forgive my indiscretion, but I've been aching to ask. How has it come to pass that you're so much more, well, articulate, and dare I say, conscientious than others of your kin? I understand that you had some human upbringing?"

"It is the truth." You say and briefly recount your background, omitting the most lurid details.

"I see. You have my sympathy for the hardship you and your loved ones were exposed to. Would you attribute your current stance, morals, values as being owed to the people who raised you, then?"

"Absolutely." You reply without hesitation. "At least, so I believe." You add. After all, just because that is how you feel doesn't mean you can't be wrong.
>>
"Fascinating." The officer says. "I apologize, that may have come across as callous. What I meant is, I have discussed this a few months ago with his lordship and he did mention possibility that a monster, if it could be isolated from the pathological, corruptive influence of the state of the horde and placed into a natural, organic family, could conceivably be raised as any other citizen and internalize beneficial values and emotions of love, conscience, compassion, courtesy et cetera, overcoming what appears to be the common mould. Of course, the evidence for such a possibility was never presented as it would require an organic family to adopt and raise a monstrous child. There were no volunteers to such endeavour and the very idea was considered by some to be heretical."

"So it was." You say dryly.

"However, in yourself evidence now exists of this being a possibility. Sadly, only one example can be dismissed by scholars as an anecdote." The officer trails off, but picks up quickly enough "Pray tell, your subordinates are of similar mind as yourself? Are their circumstances different?"

"All our circumstances are individual and different. As far as I know, I'm the only one with exclusively human upbringing, too. With obvious exception."

"Ah yes, mr. Smutkin. His mastery of bardic craft did not escape attention of the guard. Would you mind if I talked with your subordinates?"

"Not at all. I'd suggest you are exceptionally sensitive around Chloe, though. She is especially distrustful of humans."

"Understandable. I heard of what happens to dark elves down south. It's a disgrace what the chamber of commerce can get away with just on promise to keep the funding stable."

"Chamber of commerce?"

"Oh, beg your pardon. It's easy to forget you're a stranger with how easy you are to talk to. It's a political group of landowners, industrialists and merchants that coordinates much of the alliance's economy. Somewhat shamefully for us who value ability to form coherent thoughts over shape of the head that is sharing them, one of the businesses in this network of favours is the guild of slavers."

"So it is true, slavery exists among humans."

"That's the thing. It is illegal for humans to be enslaved. I have never heard of dwarven or halfling slaves - these people look out for their own. It's inconceivable to imagine one of our lady Celestine's kin enslaved. But beastfolk, monstrous folk and notably dark elves, despite how rare and precious these last ones are, seem to be fair game." Havel shakes his head. "Lurid business, that. But moralist outcries are quickly silenced by accusation of treason and necessity of cheap labour. I should hope that end of war could help to end this practice as well."
>>
"Don't make me laugh. If your kind won the war, you'd be keeping us like living trophies to remind yourselves of your greatness." You almsot jump as Chloe materializes next to you. Were you so absorbed in the talk that you didn't notice her approach?

"Lady Chloe, I presume?" The officer says. "I suppose that your... concern is not unwarranted. There is much in our society that is contentious."

Chloe just scoffs and vanishes from sight as suddenly as she appeared.

Havel sighs. "This touches on another subject I was hoping you could elucidate. What motivation do forces of the dark queen have for their fight? Widely it is assumed that lust for violence is all it takes. Is the sentiment of injustice also a factor?"

"Well, as far as I can tell the common assumption seems correct." You say. "Our kind loves to fight, dominate, pillage and plunder and is very open about it."

"Uh." Was the answer something different than what he expected?

"However it is also true, as you saw, that some of us have other justification or outrage to drive us."

"I see. You see, mr. Mouse, I was wondering if it would be possible to find some sort of common ground, some peaceful settlement between our people. We know that Queen's forces are capable of speech and under certain circumstances, even parley, but it wasn't until I encountered you and your men that I'd consider such a possibility."

A thought runs through your mind about what settlement could be possible between the monsters and men. If the forbidden lore shared by the abbess was to be believed, such an option was not entirely outside realms of possibility, but with the Taint at play, it would not be on terms that much of the participants would enjoy. You let your gaze roam for a bit, pausing briefly when you spot Chloe walking casually ahead of you, then on Elle riding behind and slightly to the side. She smiled when she noticed you look, which you reciprocated.

"I just realized you probably approached me for a reason and I just hogged the conversation." Havel says. "Was there something you wished to talk about?"

"Yes, actually. If you don't mind me asking, how did you end up in the military? You don't look like a stereotypical soldier."

"Ah, is that so obvious?" Havel chuckled. "It's true, my path only recently took me into the ranks of their lordship's military as a member of the officer corps, among first graduates of the academy of warfare lord Klaus had founded. My squad had some success in fights since, which eventually got me to my current station as one of the knight-commanders."

"Commander takes good care of us." One of his escorts who walk behind, a stocky, bearded fellow, speaks up.

"Yeah, we'd be dead if he hadn't pulled off that ruse when Yewford fell." The other, a muscular woman, comments.

"Although apparently it left me softer when it comes to casual discipline." Havel remarks.

"Sorry, sir!" The two salute simultaneously and fall a few steps back.
>>
"Do you know princess knight Claudia, and her husband, personally?" You ask. "Could you tell me what to expect of them?"

"I'm acquainted with them and it's usually from lady Claudia that I receive assignments." Havel says. "Lady Claudia is a marvelous woman and makes lovely couple with lord Klaus. You already know she is one of the renowned Princess Knights, but she rose to the status by her martial merit." The officers chuckles. "She pretty much had to, for lord emeritus to approve of the marriage. It is no secret that lord Klaus has chosen a more scholarly pursuit, which was quite a surprise for house Levantine known for its knightly lineage. But I dare say, Lady Claudia compliments lord Klaus in this respect quite nicely. She is very tender and polite in civil settings, but a beast in the training yard." Havel stretches a bit as if remembering some past ache. "I wouldn't worry about their reception too much. Miss Elle already shared her recount of events with them, and with vote from two Princesses I'm sure both their lordships will be happy to assist you in your quest, mr. Mouse."

"That is reassuring." You said. "Could you also tell me about the city?"

"Of course. You'll have to be able to find your way around. As I'm sure you know, the fortress is built as central part of a bulwark spanning narrowest point of the Locust Vale..."

You spent some time trying to visualise layout of the city with its military, industrial, commercial and residential districts but suspect you'd be spending most of your time in the citadel proper as apparently that is where Klaus kept his library and Claudia her training yard. With the main landmarks noted you continue to maintain small talk with the officer until you reach a small hamlet where for once and to consternation of inhabitants you are able to rest and refresh yourselves briefly before continuing on your journey.

You end up covering decent distance by the time the daylight begins to wane and in absence of conveniently placed village set up camp for the night.

>Hang out with your troop
>Talk to someone about something (what and who?)
>Go to sleep [timeskip to next day]
>[timeskip to the city]
>other plan
>>
>>5420459
>>Talk to someone about something (what and who?)
Let's see Sparky, see how he is holding up learning more holy magic
Talk to Chloe and tell her what we talked with Olga.
Talk with Phineous and Smutkin to ask if they are looking forward to see Klaus library, ther got to be plenty of lore and art there
And ask what this Yewford ruse was with havel, learning some military tactics could help
>>
>>5420465
>Support
>>
>>5420465
>+1
>>
>>5420465
+1
>>
There was one thing you neglected to do before departure and decided to remedy before retiring tonight. You surveyed the nascent camp, looking for Chloe's knapsack and bedroll - to no avail. Was she not around? Did she leave? Impossible, she wouldn't abandon her mission like that. Did something happen to her? Slightly worried you began to pace around, hoping change of perspective could reveal something you missed.

"Looking for something?" A voice comes from above. Looking up, you see the half elf sitting on a branch looking down, legs dangling leisurely.

"Chloe. Good, I was worried when I couldn't find you."

"I'm practicing not being seen." She says with a smug smile.

"Excellent." You nod. "Your stealth is invaluable. Keep at it." She inclines her head, as if surprised to hear you approve. In truth her choice to practice avoiding exposure over confrontation pleased you, especially after Queen's request and warning. Which reminded you why you were looking for her in the first place.

"You wanted something, Mouse?"

"I did. I used Queen's boon to speak to her last night."

"And you didn't take me with you for this?" She frowned.

"I didn't want to attract attention by singling you out and taking you aside." You explain. "But I warned her about the treacherous monsters. She promised she'd be careful and you may be pleased to hear she expressed concern for you."

Chloe smiles at that. So she can smile without the smug after all...

"I mean, thanks." She composes herself quickly, though. "Alright. But when you do it again, try to take me along, will you?"

"I'll do my best as circumstances allow." You say.

"Hmpf. More a weasel than a mouse." She scoffs and nimbly lifts herself and darts out of sight.

With a shrug you look around for your next victim. Sparky sits next to where Smutkin andd Phineous are lighting a campfire, holding a worn tome Elle brought from monastery shortly before your departure, his brow furrowed with focus.

"How's the lecture, Sparky?" You ask.
>>
"Oh, boss! Yeah, it's... weird, sort of. I mean, there are these parts where you are meant to think of how much your friends mean for you. Or family I guess but we don't have these. And these make me feel... hmm." He scratches his scalp. "It's kind kind of like eating prickly candy, but with your entire body. Do you think it's supposed to feel this way? Bad, then good?"

"I have no idea." You confess.

"Touch of the goddess's love is gentle and soothing." Minerva who has been standing nearby says. "I can feel the echo of power rolling around. It's uncanny, sensing its interactions with Sparky's nature."

"Huh. So this light is hurting me because I am an imp?"

"It is a possibility. Or maybe your origin is trying to fight the power. But somehow you still embrace it in the end."

"Yeah, when the prickles are gone, it's kind of warm and soft feeling." The imp turns to you again. "Don't worry though, boss, I won't let you down!"

"I know you won't." You tell the imp with a smile. "You never have."

Sparky grins and digs back into the tome with redoubled effort. You leave him at it and turn to the orcish duelist and the bard.

"Looking forward to seeing the library?"

"Boss, you have NO idea. If this Klaus fella is half as avid a collector as the rumours say, he's going to have stuff I can barely even imagine! Smutkin told me, they even have books in the east that have story AND art!"

"Yes, they are considered decadent form of entertainment." Smutkin says. "Which suits me fine." He adds with a grin, but quickly gets serious again "Don't worry, leader, I won't forget what we're after. I have a few ideas what to look for, though we'll need to consult with lord Levantine first to explore if these are viable."

"Very good. I'll be counting on you both."

With that, noting that it was getting late, you headed into a suitable corner of the camp and laid yourself to rest, expecting another encounter with the horrors of the night.

There is no surprise for you this night, either. And yet something had changed. In a dream, everything feels natural, but still somehow it was not what you expected. Instead of the familiar scene, you find yourself among the burnt ruins of your home town. You traverse among them, as if looking for something, but cannot find it. There's wolves howling in the distance. They are not getting closer, yet...

You are roused from your sleep by Tithe informing you that the humans are waking up. Not wasting any time your group packs up the camp and before the sun swings too far above horizon you are on the road again.

>Chat up commander Havel again, talk about his past exploits or other stuff (what?)
>Talk to someone else (who, what about?)
>Travel in silence [timeskip to rest]

You will rest in a tavern tonight.
>Hang out with someone (who?)
>Sleep early [timeskip to city]
>>
>>5421275
>Chat up commander Havel again, talk about his past exploits or other stuff (what?)
He mentioned that ruse of Yewford,et's find out.
And discuss overall tactics with him. Mouse probably learned about war through experience.
>Hang out with someone (who?)
Elle, let's see if she is getting along with our troop. We are a bunch of outliers for monsters
>>
>>5421294
>+1
>>
>>5421294
Supporting
>>
>>5421275
>>Travel in silence [timeskip to rest]
>Sleep early [timeskip to city]
>>
The uneventful, peaceful trip continues for the next day. You take the opportunity to talk some more with Havel, knowing that your paths will probably diverge once you arrive and he delivers his report, possibly being sent back to oversee the Levantine reinforcements.

"Ah, come for more conversation, mr Mouse?" The officer greets you as you approach.

"Quite right. I was intrigued by what your men mentioned earlier, saving them with a ruse."

"Ah, hah hah. I see. Should I really be talking military matters with you, mr Mouse? You are technically an enemy."

"You have a point commander. I won't press if that is how you decide."

"Well, I figure if you earned trust of the princesses to such extent to vouch for you, they probably don't consider you that much of an enemy. And who am I to gainsay a princess?" He smiles. "In truth, there's nothing too impressive to say, even though it was the event that earned me a promotion. Circumstances and luck were with us that day - as much as they abandoned us the day before." He pauses to collect his memories. "It was during a raid of the dark queen's forces on a frontier village, up to northeast. Our forces, posted as forward defense, have been pushed from the approach we were defending into nearby hills. Commanding officer has fallen early into the fight and before order could be restored the enemy had cut off retreat route into the village. So we ended up split off rest of defenders and any reinforcements.

The enemy chose to not pursue us but instead spent some time pillaging our outpost before pushing to the village. That gave us chance to regroup, but our smaller force was at obvious disadvantage. What I chose to do was to hastily set up several decoy camps that would optically enlarge our forces and hopefully make the enemy either spread his own or commit more to defence from that flank, weakening their attack forces. Then I took the men that at this point were under my command around to face the raiding party from different direction.

Luckily it worked out and when the enemy launched their attack, the defenders were able to stall them enough that both reinforcements could arrive and my men were in position to harrass them from an undefended flank. In the end the battle ended with enemy rout."

"I see. Well executed, then. I think I heard about that attack. The orc commander in charge has been stripped of rank." You tell Havel.

"The fortune could have easily turned against us had the enemy commander recognized the decoys for what they were or intercepted us during relocation. But I can't say I'm displeased with the result." Officer shrugged. "As I said, it was not something terribly insightful, and follows one of basic principles of warfare, that force alone does not decide outcome - application of it does; and that's why it is important to have good information and ability to act on it."

You spend some more time talking tactics and strategy with the officer until time comes to stop for some rest.
>>
Your group stops for a rest at a picturesque clearing, with a brook flowing along its edge and flowers blooming throughout, sheltered amidst a mixed deciduous forest. It makes for a nice backdrop as you chomp down on your rations and refill your waterskins.

Once you get moving again you decide to leave Havel in peace and approach the courier, Elle.

"Mouse! Is there something I can do for you?" She asks with a smile. "Actually... there was something on my mind, too. I wanted to apologize for calling you a monster earlier, even though you just saved me." Her expression hardens at the recollection.

"Don't mention it. It was a perfectly good assumption."

"Well, when you put it like that... thank you for understanding. But even so, I was being rude to someone who did nothing to deserve it and it bothered me."

"Then I hope your feelings are put to rest now." You wave it off.

"Thank you. You know, that day... it was like my world was turned upside down. My own people ordered my death, and one of those I considered evil incarnate came to my rescue."

You're not sure how to respond to that.

"By your own admission you are special." She says, looking you in the eye. "Do you know why that is?"

It is at this time you realize you've been sharing your life story with almost everyone else but not yet with Elle. You suppress a sight and resign yourself to giving her an abridged, sanitized version.

"I see... they seem like wonderful people. I wish there were more like them. I never knew my father."

Strictly speaking, neither did you, though you don't feel you missed anything out. The one you would consider such filled the role in a way...

The thought is left hanging before you complete it, as if hesitating if you should finish it. Would fatherhood be something in your future? You already vowed to yourself not to hurt a woman the way the creature that sired you hurt your mother. At the same time, it was true that you felt something stir when you watched or imagined queen Olga's sensuous curves flow with each gesture, each shift of her stance; that you could not deny Chloe's lithe, predatory elegance, or the purity and innocence of both Alicia and Prims, further accentuated by their regal outfits and stature, with additional touch of hidden steel for Alicia and saccharine cheer for Prim.

And then there was Elle, her courier outfit leaving virtually nothing to imagination, showing off both her muscle definition and the soft curves of her femininity. Her bruises and scrapes that marred her when you first met her, fully healed. And a deepening crimson on her cheeks as she was aware of your gaze.
>>
"I'm sorry, I was lost in thought. Reminiscing" You explain yourself when you realize you may have made her feel uncomfortable. "What I wanted to ask you initially, was how do you feel about traveling with my crew so far? I understand it must be a novel experience."

"Oh. Um, well, honestly you guys feel like something out of a children's tale. Sparky is so adorable I want to hug him. He looks nothing like the fiends that..." She gulps as her mind is directed towards a more horrible mental image. "...do all these horrible things to people. I feel like I'm in an adventure tale. I sort of feel bad for enjoying myself when I realize your queen still wages war against us." She sighs, and you frown.

"I hope that if our misison is successful, there would be no more of that." You say, which then leads to your retelling her another summary of your current quest.

Elle seems eager to be part of it, and you spend some time on relaxed small talk.

As the sun swings once again towards the western horizon your group approaches another village. This one actually marks edge of domain of house Levantine and a pair of guards with uncertain expression challenge your intentions. They seem to be mostly put to ease when Havel trots forward and identifies himself and the rest of you. With barely any reluctance they let you enter where you are viewed with wonder of the villagers until you withdraw into the village tavern where you are set to spend the night. You are treated a delicious feast that leaves you a bit worried about remaining stock in village granary (Havel assures you that they have enough) before retiring for what should be the final day of the trip before reaching the stronghold.

>social interaction with someone
>timeskip to city
>>
>>5422530
>timeskip to city
>>
>>5422530
>>social interaction with someone
Minerva, Diana and Tithe since they are the only ones we haven't talked in this trip yet
Maybe talk about how they are going along learning more about themselves, having their own goals and choices.
Also tell Tithe he has done a wonderful job back in Arcturus, he saved Prim after all.
>>
>>5422563
>+1
>>
>>5422563
Might as well complete the set
>>
This night, the dream from yesterday returns, though you make no progress in understanding it... if there is anything to be understood in the first place. Just ruins, and the distant howls. Still, you awaken more rested and not just because of the additional comfort.

Your group packs up and departs early in the morning, to no small relief of the innkeeper and the villagers. The weather continues to be favourable and so the trip continues to be a pleasant hike. As your destination grows ever closer, you decide to catch up with the three of your comrades you may have been slightly neglecting.

"Minerva, Diana, how are you holding up?" You ask the two golems while beckoning Tithe over from above.

"We are undamaged..."
"...energized..."
"...and eager to serve the goddess and her chosen."

"Chosen, huh." You mutter. "Well, I'm glad you're feeling well at least."

The diminutive gargoyle perches on your shoulder as you speak.

"Tithe."

"You wished to speak, leader?"

"Yes, I wanted to just make sure to let you know how much I value your help when you saved princess Prim. I was counting on you and you did perfectly."

"Thank you, leader. Of course, she needed to be protected. It was the most effective course of action."

"I wanted to ask all three of you," you address all three of your animated comrades "What do you wish for, what would you like? Now, and for the future?"

You can see Tithe incline his head out of corner of your vision, and Minerva and Diana exchange glances as they consider their response.

"I liked watching the city from the monastery. Watching the various people pursue their tasks." Tithe says. "Although the pigeons were annoying, I'd like to do that once you die and no longer need my services, Leader." The gargoyle thinks for another moment. "Unless you give me another task."

"Well, I don't intend to die in near future." You chuckle, undisturbed by the grim sounding statement. You were accustomed to gargoyle's mode of speech. "But I'm sure that can be arranged, maybe as soon as we conclude our quest."

"I appreciate it, leader." The gargoyle accepts your word as a commitment.

"What about you, ladies?" You turn to the golems."

"The flying one has the right idea." Minerva says.
"We could continue to serve the goddess in a temple."
"One that is not soiled, where our purpose would remain pure."
"But only after the task for which you have been chosen is completed."
"Yes, no sooner."

"I'm touched." You nod. "We're likely to see the cathedral of the goddess at some point. Maybe you'll find your future purpose there?" You think aloud, contemplating what the future could bring. Although your current objective is to learn what you can from whatever scrolls and tomes lord Levantine might have accumulated, it was difficult to imagine your task to unmake the goddess's taint would not at some point not bring you face to face with the current reincarnation.

"We will be looking forward to it." The twins speak as one.
>>
You spend rest of the trip taking in the sights as you go, once again revelling in how refreshing it is to be able to traverse a pleasant landscape without needing to be on constant lookout for signs of enemy. You pass through one more hamlet and past two manned guardhouses, people giving you the familiar tense looks as they take in the bizarre assembly walking past. Part of you wonders, if beastfolk are viewed similarly, or if being recognized as members of human society, even as second class citizens or slaves, also sets them apart. Though probably not to the same extent as belonging to a kind that is known exclusively for violence and brutality, or, as in Sparky's case, being a conjured being considered to be formed out of pure evil.

Your musings are interrupted and forgotten when the path crests another low ridge and the castle comes into view. Immediately you begin recalling the mental image you had from Havel's explanation, as well as what little you knew from reports of what the walls look from the far side of the valley. It was a monumental thing, straddling the wall that spanned width of the vale - you could make out movement where patrols were traveling along the wall, on lookout for invaders, from one guard post to another.

From this side you are glad you did not decide to try and slip around here first. It wouldn't be unfeasible, especially as you noted how sparse the patrols were - no doubt also hit by attrition of the war, and now by support sent to Alicia.

You take few moments more to link the visible landmarks - the citadel, the adjoining spire that probably housed the library, the distinctive districts and to the south the reservoir and the gardens and farmsteads below it - to the mental map you made thanks to the officer's recount before continuing down into the vale which you noted was otherwise relatively barren compared to the woodland you emerged from, slopes of the vale dotted by shrubbery, a river meandering in the middle, flowing from northwest to south. It's not lost on you that the reservoir is fed by an aqueduct from the hills rather than being connected to the river.

The final approach is a bit more dreary than rest of the hike was, only in part due to the receding light of day blanketing the landscape with growing shadows. You're ever so slightly reminded of approaching the dark citadel - this place, too, has been raised by someone valuing strength over beauty. Though given its role and location, that seemed the sensible choice to make.
>>
Havel takes little time to negotiate the gates being opened for you and although as usual the military - substantial fraction of the soldiers and knights being women wearing outfit not unlike Elle's - gives you varying amount of stinkeye, you are able to proceed up the main street towards the central keep without incident and before the last sunlight is gone for good you find yourself being ushered through a wide corridor lined with martial portraits and decorative armours before a closed door. Havel and Elle are let through first, leaving you to wait outside for a few moments, presumably for the governing couple to receive a brief heads-up for introducing a bunch of monsters. Then you are let in.

When you enter the audience chamber, similar in size to what you recall from Alicia's keep though with more martial decor in line with the corridor you came through, Havel and Elle stand next to a man and woman that watch and size you up as you approach. You take the chance to do the same.

The man is tall and slim, clad in a fine robe and looks at you with expression of eager curiosity and a small, gentle smile on his lips. It must be Klaus Levantine, the man you're mainly here to see. The woman is clad in what appears to be ceremonial armour for female knights, that is to say, not much, allowing you to take in her abundantly feminine figure. She's about as tall as her husband and her stance seems as confident as that of any knight you've encountered. She was scrutinizing you with a pair of blue eyes sitting in a flawless face topped off with shoulder length hair arranged into an intricate coiffure held back by a circlet of the office. This was obviously Claudia, the princess knight of this keep.

"Welcome, welcome!" Klaus said. "We're told you've saved Alicia and Prim from a coup? Such unlikely heroes, if you don't mind my indiscretion."

"It was the right thing to do." You shrug, and think Claudia's lips quivered briefly upwards before returning to her carefully neutral expression.

"Your assistance is appreciated, and it earned you this audience." The princess says, raising a scroll in her hand and skimming it. "Alicia is vouching for you very hard, to be helped on your quest." She locks gaze with you. "What is it that you plan to do, stranger?"

>Tell them about your quest in full
>Tell them about your quest in part
>Request for Havel and/or Elle to depart before discussing the quest
>other

Also, feel free to distribute tasks for your team (Mouse, Phineous, Smutkin, Sparky, Tithe, Minerva, Diana, Chloe, Elle )
>Searching the library for clues
>Training / study
>other task
>free time
>>
>>5423453
>Request for Havel to depart before discussing the quest since it's sensitive, but Elle can stay since she will be accompanying us.
>Tell them about your quest in full
>The abbess has confirmed and blessed my cause.

>Searching the library for clues
Mouse, Smutkin, Phineous, Minerva
We and Minerva have connections to the relic, while Smutkin and Phineous are the book nerds
>Training / study
Sparky, Diana, Elle
>other task
>Keep watch over the city, castle and library for any suspicious activities
Chole and Tithe
The Black Dogs are still out there, and it might count as training their watcher and shadow roles too
>>
>>5423453
>Tell them about your quest in part
>we seek a way to purify a magical relic from malevolent energies/magic

Mouse
>Searching the library for clues
>when ever we need a mental break train our body. try and spar with Claudia or Graves

Phineous & Sparky
>Training / study (holy magic for sparky)

Smutkin & Elle
>free time (he'll probably try and improve his craft)

Minerva & Diana
>Searching the library for clues

Chole and Tithe (she can be stealthy and he can be her look out)
>look for any signs of enemies/conspiracy here.
>>
>>5423453
>Tell them about your quest in part
>>
so while we wait until either a vote or two trickle in or I decide to combine the three already in somehow, do you guys want to continue in a new thread, or just wrap it up into an epilogue?

Also, which girl should Mouse end with? Or should he renounce all pleasures of the flesh and conclude his mission with commitment to celibacy?
>>
>>5424567
>continue in a new thread
we have just really gotten started.
>best girl
I don't know but Alicia and Prim are competing for first.
>>
>>5424567
New thread, we haven't neutered the dog yet.
And I don't know, all the girls have their own charms so far, although I kind of see Prim as more daughterfu and I'm glad we managed to protect her smile.
>>
>>5423453
>Tell them about your quest in part
as for tasks, >>5423465 works fine
>>5424567
New thread, we haven't achieved our goal yet. Don't forget to archive on suptg. Also thanks for taking over what was definitely just a troll OP. I'm a fan of Chloe (despite knowing it's the hard mode choice),but every girl has their charm.
>>
>>5424567
>New thread

>Best Girl
to be honest, I'm divided between Alicia and Elle
>>
>>5424567
don't forget to link the new thread.



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