Glass mugs filled with devil’s water clattered together, filled by lovely, scantily clad women and girls with smiles of promise on their faces. The Coalition officers in the bar cheered, mugs raised in celebration of their victory at Ridgehill over the Inimi forces one month prior.
In the now crowded brothel, Axel sat with his own full mug of devil’s water, brooding over the events since he was summoned to this world. Almost from the beginning, he and his best friend Rayner had been embroiled in conflict, battling goblins, Inimi soldiers, bandits, and even dragons. All he wanted now was to slip into obscurity and keep a low profile. Too much attention brought the wrong kind of scrutiny. People would start asking dangerous questions about them. Questions they could not safely answer.
Questions about where they were from, who were they, and most importantly why the gods did not see fit to provide them with any form of blessings. For without the gods’ powers to bestow blessings, their worshipers are unable to use their mana for skills to aid them in life and combat. Axel would not tell them he and Rayner held the heretical titles: Godless and Faithless. It may spell their doom.
Now that he had his wished-for anonymity, he chaffed at the boredom of his otherworldly life. He spent most of his time idle when he was not training or manhandling the Coalition officers that now frequented the brothel.
A well-muscled blond teen with eyes of morning blue pulled out a chair beside Axel. Rayner had returned from his patrol with the town guard captain, Evans. “You’re back early,” Axel said. “Everything alright?”
Rayner’s eyes lingered on his mug before answering. “I’m fine. We all are. Monster hunting wasn’t the goal of the patrol. The refugees requested we search their former homes for any remaining valuables and for their dead to be buried.”
“Both of us have already been through their homes when we traveled with Tessa. The Inimi took everything they didn’t destroy outright.”
“I told Evans that but he wanted to make sure. We tried to avoid trouble when we searched so we may have missed something. Besides, there should have been plenty of bodies to bury.”
“What? Were there fewer than you expected? I could have told you that. Monsters or wild animals must have gotten to them.” Axel hadn’t seen a monster eat a corpse, but after all the ones he fought eyed him with hunger.
Rayner leaned toward him, and he spoke with his voice hushed. “We found no bodies, Axel. Not one. Evans even ordered us to dig up places the bodies could be buried including sites he knew for a fact to have been graveyards and still no bodies turned up.”
Axel put his devil’s water aside. “That’s ... weird. Oh, and remember you don’t work for Evans. He can’t give you orders.”
“I don’t mind. I’m lucky he lets me on these missions.”
“He’s the lucky one. You and that hammer of yours probably do all the work.”
Axel leaned to the side to see the hammer that normally hung comfortably on Rayner’s waist was absent. “Your hammer broke again.” How much did Rayner use it to push it past its durability again? Dian Powin, the weapons shop owner, told them that their weapons, though average, should last them months with restrained use.
“I’ve been out a lot. I want to get used to combat.”
“I thought you would have had enough. We fought a dragon for god’s sake.”
At the mention of gods, he and Rayner paused their conversation to look around then toward the sky as if they would be smitten by a deity. Their titles prevented them from being blessed or cursed by the gods, leaving them protected from any ill intent from the higher beings, but they still worried.
A mature, sultry voice spoke from beside both of them. “You two are odd young men.”
“Madam Grace, good morning to you,” Rayner said. Axel nodded his own greeting, having already seen plenty of the woman today.
“I hope the ceiling will not collapse. Then again, maybe I do. It would mean my lovely girls are fucking until the roof collapses.”
Madam Grace, who was also a member of the town council, had bet on them and this town. Her idea was that when the conflict died down business would once again flourish in her brothel. She’d proved herself prescient. The soldiers of the three armies camped outside the town of Ridgehill frequented her brothel endlessly, keeping the whores busy from day to night. If it weren’t for the blessing of the brothel’s deity keeping the sounds of sex muffled, Axel would never get any sleep.
“I’m glad your fortunes have changed, Madam Grace. A rising tide does lift all boats,” Rayner said.
“So, it does, so it does,” Grace answered, taking a seat between.
Rayner was referring to their increases in pay as the brothel respectfully increased its earnings. While his job as bodyguard bored him, it provided him easy coin for handling drunk soldiers.
A girl showed up to fill his empty glass and he made no effort to resist peeking at the tops of her bare breasts as she bent. He turned his eyes away. Grace was trying to entice him to use the brothel’s other perks again. She’d sent the girl to fill his cup to get him in the mood to drain his balls. Axel disliked the manipulation but understood this was the way of the world and, honestly, what did he expect when he chose to live at a brothel?
Thanking the girl, he steered the conversation to its point. “Grace, something is wrong, isn’t it? You’ve been too busy to sit down with us like this recently, so what’s up?”
“I don’t like your slang,” she said. “But you are correct. Ridgehill is facing numerous problems.”
“Is another battle coming?” Rayner said. His eyes were worried but his body flexed, eager as his large muscles strained and fists clenched.
“Not that I heard of. After the whipping the combined forces of the Coalition, militia, and Alta armies gave the Inimi, I don’t expect them to bother us anytime soon.”
Finishing his mug quickly, Axel asked, “Then what? Monster attack? Petty god’s curse?”
“We should be so lucky. No, we face petty crime, increased food prices, and worse. Those little refugee sluts are competing with my girls.”
“I can’t imagine anyone competing with your brothel.” As the only brothel in Ridgehill, competition wasn’t possible. Grace never bothered even naming it.
“Not from another brothel. The horde of poor sluts offering themselves for food is pushing prices down.”
“That’s horrible,” Rayner said, placing a comforting hand on Grace’s bare shoulders.
Grace gently patted Rayner’s hand in thanks. “Yes, it is.” She dabbed at her eyes. Unknown to Rayner, the brothel owner was upset for different reasons other than the plight of the poor girls.
“What do you want us to do about it?”
“Not you, Axel. It’s Rayner who can help. Go talk with that woman with the little children. She is the representative of the refugees that came with you. During her stay here she did not seem like a woman to condone whoring. Have her talk with the female refugees prostituting themselves. I am sure that prudish woman can convince them not to sully their loins for money.”
“You mean Tessa,” Rayner said.
“I was going to visit her today anyway.”
“Again?” Axel said.
“Yes, again. It would help if the refugees had better places to live, and money, and food.”
Grace took out a fan from the hollow of her large, barely covered chest and waved it at her made-up face. “Oh, I am aware. Don’t think I’ve forgotten. The funds from the loot you obtained from the bandits have long since run out and the loans were short term. While they were low interest many still struggle to pay them.”
Axel watched a Coalition officer with matted hair in his gray-white uniform get a little rough with a girl’s bottom. Evidently, the accepted light spank on the rump was not enough for him. The officer pointed to the brass symbol of two hands with fingers interlocked that stuck proudly on his chest as if the girl didn’t know he was from the Coalition. Axel would keep his eye on that one.
He returned his attention to the conversation. “With the armies here and Rayner and Evans going out so often monsters shouldn’t be a threat nor should bandits. Merchants should be able to travel freely, so why the food shortage and the price increases?”
Grace’s fan increased its fluttering. “It is because of the three armies that prices are increasing. Nearly all the farms in the Alis region were burnt and now three ravenous armies are here.”
“Leading to the food shortage causing the price increases and the up-tick in crime.”
Grace nodded. “You two need to do something.”
“Like what? Summon food?”
“I know the part you two played in recent events. You can do so again.”
Rayner showed his empty palms. “As much as I want to fix these problems, Madam Grace, I can’t. Even though I have experience organizing the distribution of food. Even so, it’s not enough. My hammer and Axel’s knife cannot solve this problem.”
Axel gave Rayner a hard look. Giving information about their true pasts was a big no-no. It was unlikely Grace would figure out they came from another world via the summoning ritual of Yazid, the necromancer. Still, he still wanted to err on the safe side.
Grace’s eyes sharpened like a bird ready to catch prey. She had noticed the slip of tongue and had already stored the information for future use. The Madam did trade in information as a side hustle. A major part of their agreement with Grace was for her to give them information as to not get caught off guard by unknown enemies but whenever she gave them information, she would probe them about their origins.
He went for his devil’s water to find it next Rayner, daring him to take it back. Not wanting to start another argument on his drinking habits, Axel backed down and resumed talking to Grace. “If there is something we could do we would have.”
A slap rang out around the bar. The girl being pawed at by the Coalition officer with matted hair had slapped the man, leaving his cheek red from the sting and his face red with anger. His fellow officers laughed at his rejection. This would be trouble.
Grabbing the girl by the wrist, the officer raised his fist for a blow.
Axel was out of his chair and holding the man by his own wrist before anyone could realize. “Let go, officer.” He emphasized the man’s rank in order for him to remember his place. The Coalition had their faults but they tried to put on the appearance of being noble in contrast to the Inimi.
His efforts were fruitless. The officer bristled at the challenge. Rather than back down, he scanned the room to see the patrons all starting at him. Unwilling to retreat with eyes on him, his eyes narrowed and a hand went to his sword, only to feel Axel’s hand already there stopping him.
“Time to go.” Axel learned during the month that these guys did not respect begging. He would ask politely once and only once. Then he would boot them out.
Removing the sword from the officer’s waist he threw it behind him for Rayner to catch leaving his hand free to draw his dagger. With a quick and shallow prick of the dagger and the activation of his skill, Pain Knife, he flooded the officer with pain. The skill had the effect of an infinite number of tiny pricks of the dagger causing the officer great discomfort. The girl got free of the officer’s grasp and ran to Rayner, hugging him for comfort.
Everyone who stayed at the brothel long enough recognized the sickly red haze coming from the dagger and knew what it meant. The officer’s friends stayed seated, unwilling to help the fool out of the mess of his own creation.
The officer’s eyes flashed before relaxing. The effects of Pain Knife also had a sobering quality; the people he stabbed with it who were drunk or under the influence of drugs woke up from the pain. Axel figured that was how Vix escaped from the miasma’s influence. The officer backed down.
Grace’s voice sounded out from behind Axel. “I said if this happened again there would be punishment. Axel, take him to the jailhouse.” Grace loved money but she would not accept her girls being roughed up. At least not without their consent.
Axel led the man out the bar, looking back at the table to see if the other officers would make an issue of it but he’d fought some of them before when they first arrived when they thought they owned the place. He showed them otherwise.
Satisfied, he took the man away and into the streets.
Axel’s dark skin stung under the sun’s heat as he dragged the Coalition officer through the streets and to the jail. Once the man had realized that his imprisonment was no bluff, he’d renewed his struggles. Axel had to threaten the man with his dagger every time his struggles became too annoying.
Adding to the trouble of keeping the officer in line, the crime that Grace warned about had crept into his awareness. Barefoot children stalked behind unsuspecting passersby, hoping to get at their coin purse. Two men struggled over a loaf of bread deep in an alley until one of the men started eating his piece rather than fight the competitor.
The conditions of the slum quarter were spilling out into the respectable part of town. The effects of this wave of crime did not touch him; his high-level meant people could feel the mana he exerted unconsciously and it scared potential assailants away.
As he approached the jailhouse, a boring building with a sign of bars and chains designating its purpose, another fight took place in the middle of the streets. A man dressed in the gray uniform of the Coalition army held his sword out in front of him, poised to strike. He faced an Altan soldier armed with a short spear dressed in clothes that looked to have been wrapped around him from a single incredibly long brown cloth. They cursed at each other and dared the other to strike first, each wanting the excuse to fight.
After the battle of Ridgehill, tensions grew thick when the armies made camp. The unity showed when fighting off a common enemy had disappeared like smoke to be replaced with the embers of distrust, hatred, and intolerance. The militia who originated from the Alea region had good reason to distrust the new Alta army. Where were they when monsters besieged their homes and who was this so-called Prime Minister that now ruled Alta? As for the Altan army, they rankled at the presence of a foreign army making themselves comfortable on their lands.
The Altan soldiers also blamed the Coalition for bringing their war down on them. And they were right to think so. Alta was just a proxy country to have war in, its importance weighed by the will of others not wanting it to fall into the hand of their enemies. Then there was the Coalition who acted as if the entire country should kiss their boots for saving them from the Inimi while begging to submit to their gods. They were disappointed, to say the least.
All the pent-up emotions led to frequent arguments and tavern brawls. This was the first time, however, that conflict broke out in the streets. Nobody wanted to appear like the bully to the people. He wanted to ignore this but if anyone died in the fight it would spell trouble for Ridgehill and for him as he called this place home. He chose to step in.
“Hey! You two. Don’t let this get out of hand,” Axel said to the men.
“Mind your own stew, boy.”
Well, fuck these guys then! Dagger drawn, Axel dashed to the men, his dagger covered by an ominous black haze. They had already turned away from him and Axel would make them regret it.
He slashed at the Altan soldier, catching the man’s soldier with the short arc of his slash. Forgetting his opponent to pay attention to Axel, the Altan leveled his spear in Axel’s direction, eyes hard.
Those eyes went wide and darted at the onlooking crowd. “Why are you looking at me! Stop, stop, stop. Get away!” The Altan soldier dropped his spear and fled, screaming that the eyes were chasing him.
Fear Knife was a wonderful skill; its effects were the same as its name, generating fears that increased with the severity of the wound, unlike Pain Knife that ramped up the pain with each wound until healed or the effect ran out.
“What did you do?” the Coalition soldier yelled, bewildered at his opponent’s meltdown.
“Ended your stupid fight. Now that he is gone, you can go.” Yet the man kept his sword in hand. Furthermore, he hardened his stance and crept towards Axel. The reason became clear once he followed the soldier’s eyes. The Coalition officer had signaled for help. “This man is going to jail for roughing up a woman. That is the law.”
It was the wrong thing to say.
The soldier charged, sword thrusting at Axel’s midsection. The thrust was skillful and without Kevia’s training sessions it would have run him through as if he were a pig on a spit. He was not the same teenager from a month ago. He was a level 3 thug and the last threat he’d faced had giant claws and a body that curled around hills. This man was no real threat.
Axel let his mana flare, freezing the man with the pressure of his power. Hesitate and die. He repeated his favorite motto as he plunged his dagger into the soldier’s thigh. Pain knife wasn’t needed when a dagger was hilt deep in the thigh. The soldier clutched his knee and screamed after Axel removed his dagger and the pressure of his mana.
The crowd gawked at the show he put on. The young boys and girls were pleased by the excitement and others exchanged coins, having taken bets on the result. He frowned as it appeared more money was lost than gained. They had bet against him. And to think, a month ago they cheered his arrival.
Wanting to avoid trouble but instead starting it, Axel sighed and took the soldier and officer by the arms. Now with an additional prisoner, he dragged them into the jailhouse and was surprised by a familiar face. “Dara, have not seen you in a while. How have you been?”
Dara sat in a chair in front of one of the cells, legs crossed and eating an unfamiliar purple fruit. Her guardsman uniform of faded black fit unruffled in stark contrast to her dirty leather chest armor that hugged her chest. The engraved sword sheath at her side hung loosely but her hand gripped the handle firmly as she ate. Turning her gaze to him, she said, “I’ve been busy.”
He waited for her to elaborate and when that failed, he asked her. “Busy doing what?”
Seeing that he was not going to let her finish her fruit in peace she engaged him in speech. “Almost as soon as the whore woman recruited you and your friend as bodyguards a merchant hired us too.”
“Is that what you’re doing at the jailhouse, guarding merchants? And whatever happened to Garman?”
Dara tilted her head to the cells, packed full of grubby men and woman. The cells were so packed that both genders shared the same space. “Some of them tried to steal into our client’s home. As for Garman, who knows what that man is up to.”
“Whatever he is doing, it is probably profitable.”
She nodded in agreement.
One of the prisoners, to his surprise, entered the conversation. “What else are we supposed to do?” a dirty-faced man said, arms sticking between the gaps of the cell bars.
“What work? I tried the armies but they don’t want a man whose ribs show.”
“OK, how about street cleaning or hard labor?”
“All labor is hard labor,” the prisoner pointed out. “And the streets have already been cleaned by people like me looking for anything of use.”
“Right, so what about...” Damn, he did not know what else a poor person could do for money in this world. As desperate as the world he came from was, there were charities and government aid of some sort. “You got a point. Does not mean you can go around stealing stuff. All it does is provide work for this charming lady.” Axel nudged his chin in Dara’s direction, who was now finishing her purple fruit, getting the juices all over her leather armor.
“We all have loans to pay.” This voice came from a female he could not see in a cell further into the room. Why was he even listening to these people? “If we don’t pay up the thugs come visit us at our homes.”
Thugs. His insides churned at the word. The people shaking down these poor folks shared the same class as him. A class that gave him the power of violence. His skills, Pain Knife and Fear Knife, originated from this class.
He raised his voice so the woman could hear him clearly. “Are these thugs combat worshipers and do they have the class of thug?”
“Some of them are and some do,” she answered his questions in order. “The ones that do display their tattoos arrogantly to intimidate us.”
He looked at his own tattoo, peering into the patterns in a trance until the lines morphed into readable text.
Name: Axel, Level: 3, Class: Thug, Mana: 21, Skills: Pain Knife(0.5) Fear Knife(0.5) Malice Seal(X), EXP: 47.
Only his Experience had changed from the last big fight he’d entered. The only note of worth was that the combination skill he and Rayner used only appeared when they were together. His training sessions, while useful, refused to make a dent in his EXP and, therefore, his level.
Staring too long at one’s own palm was considered a sign of vanity in this world, so was displaying it frequently like the thugs were doing. He placed his hand into his pocket before Dara or the watching prisoners made note of it.
Nobody spoke. Instead, the searching eyes of the prisoners loomed on him. Even Dara sat silent, her full attention on him, waiting.
“Can I help you with something?” he said, wondering why he was getting all the funny looks.
“Do something about it,” said the dirty-faced man.
There was that request again. “What is this something you want me to do and why should I do it?”
“You’re that guy who helped the merchant caravan with the refugees. You did something then. Do something now.”
“Again, you fail to describe this something to me. Plus, others helped too, like Dara over here.”
Dara responded with a firm shake of her head. “Oh, no, these guys did most of the work. Planning the battle and leading the charges. Real hero this one.” She was smiling, an unfamiliar expression on her.
“Well that something I’m going to do is nothing.” At that, the prisoners made moans of complaint as if he were a politician informing them that, yes, there would be a tax increase. And did someone just boo him?
Before he could retaliate with whining of his own a commotion came from outside. Dara was already out her seat and out the door while he trailed behind her.
The streets were chaos. Men and women, some carrying children, ran away screaming.
Dara grabbed a man to ask what was going on. “Monsters,” the man said, then ran away.
“They are running in the opposite direction of the walls,” Axel said. “That means the monsters have not entered Ridgehill yet.”
“You go. I have to check my client and find Barny.”
“Now? we could use you outside.”
“We all have jobs to do. I fight inside. You fight outside. Panicking citizens does not make for a good defense.”
She was right. His experience fighting off the siege against a town he stayed at during his first quest bore this truth. Accepting she had to go, he wished her luck and went on his way toward the sounds of screams and clashing blades.