Pariah Company (Part 5)

Here’s the last-ish version of Pariah Company Le Reject Version. Thank you for sticking with me this far. Yes, it’s pretty much a reject version and it ends on a cliffhanger. I’ll post what I managed to get into the second part after this and basically my cliffnotes on how it will end.

This is still the basic concept for the real version of Pariah Company, which will come out some time this year, mostly likely Q3 2018. Enjoy.

5

“Alright, let’s saddle up.” Charles Alberic moved up from around the house as he buttoned up his trousers, feeling much lighter than when he had woken up with a splitting headache just an hour ago. Nobody liked rising at first light, whether it was the farmer attending his fields or the military man gearing up for battle. Then again that comparison broke down once a drinking buddy like Achilleos came into play. Once you decide to join a man like that in toasting fallen or absent friends, family, foes, old horses, ships, monsters you have slain, and the weapons you have slain them with, there was no turning back for a peaceful night’s rest.

The others had already turned out in full force. Achilleos had actually found time to gear up in his best adventurer gear. Being a hero from antiquity this apparently involved a skirt and lots of butter. The big sword and shield he carried on his back above his green cloak make somewhat up for that. Alberic had to admit that it was a strange yet magnificent sight. Wherever the Greek hero seemed to go the wind always found a way to sweep up his hair dramatically.  

“We’ve been waiting for a while,” Catelin remarked. When Achilleos had finally come out in his gear she had quickly warped her simple jacket and trousers from yesterday’s prison break into something more ostentatious.

“I’d be ready within five minutes of getting up as well if I could transform my clothes,” Alberic replied. He was quite happy that Ahmed was still wearing his bulky, unbecoming robes. Even in his best work clothes, the green tunic and feathered cap, Alberic looked woefully underdressed when compared to Catelin and the Greek. “Ahmed, have you lost something?”

The young Muselmann was sitting on the carpet, his outstretched arms pointing west as they touched the floor and he mumbled something. No answer. Maybe he hadn’t understood Alberic. That was probably it. As good as his German was, there naturally had to still be simple communication troubles. So Alberic restated his question, this time louder and slower: “Ahmed. Have. You. Lost. Something?”

“I think he’s praying. Leave him be,” Catelin noted.

Achilleos noted. “Yes, it is a peculiar thing these Arabs. Five times a day they pray west to their holy city.”

“Five times? I hope we won’t have to stop underway,” Alberic mumbled. The journey would be annoying enough without having to stop for prayers four more times. “Also, how do you know this stuff?”

“I read,” Catelin offered with a sharp glance in his direction, “It’s called the information age.”

“I don’t trust books. Mass production can’t be good for quality,” Alberic said, half joking. Reading and writing was something for contract negotiation.

Alberic and Catelin spared with each other non-verbally for another minute when Ahmed stood up, his prayer concluded. “I’m sorry for the delay, we should go now.”

“No worries, friend,” Achilleos laughed jovially as he got on the carpet, taking a seat, “your god is quite sensible enough. My Gods require the sacrifice of a young goat and other gory gestures, so I must admit in the practicality of your rites.”

Ahmed looked at Catelin as if for guidance but the fairy simply shrugged and placed herself on the carpet as well, only looking back to see what Alberic was doing.

Alberic, meanwhile, was stuck at the edge of the carpet, unwilling to get back on after yesterday. Catelin first looked surprised, then mockingly. “It is quite alright, you know?”

Alberic did not answer.

“You have been on this thing before. Yesterday in fact.”

Alberic did not answer.  

“Oh you have to be kidding me. You have stared down demons and gods from above and below, stared down mechanical men from the future, and fought a metal chariot, but you are afraid of an oriental rug?” She paused for a moment, considering her words. “This isn’t still because of the Aerial Screw, is it?” She sighed, already exhausted. “Look, if push comes to shove I’ll turn into a giant eagle and I’ll save you first. Deal?”

Alberic did not answer. Yet slowly, tentatively, he stepped on the rug, sitting down as far as his stiff legs allowed. “Thanks,” he managed to muster.

He almost caught a flicker in Catelin’s face, almost as if she was about to utter another of her snide remarks. Yet she hesitated and, finally, mentally stepped away from it. She placed her hand gently on Ahmed’s shoulder instead. The youth flinched for a moment, recovering quickly though, or at least quicker than yesterday. “We can go now. Slowly though if you please.”

Ahmed nodded as he manipulated the carpet with his hands, speaking to it in Arabianic or whatever the language he spoke was called. Alberic barely noticed the rug taking off. Just like yesterday they were high in the air before he had even noticed it. Catelin was right: this was much more comfortable than the Aero Screw. Probably because, unlike Leonardo, Ahmed was not a drunk while driving. He decided to breath again as his ears started to pop.

“Which direction?” Ahmed tried to keep the carpet steady, but it was obvious that it wanted to finally move, not unlike an anxious horse.

“Three hundred miles north-east is where we have to go. Just keep flying in the general direction and eventually I’ll give you exact coordinates.” Still disgruntled, Alberic pulled out a map from his jacket and slowly unfolded it along with a sextant and spyglass.

Ahmed nodded and with that the carpet set off, flying at an insane speed when looking down, but completely still from the relative point of view of the travelers. A modern marvel to behold, except probably an old one for the citizens of Arabia where they originated. Alberic imagined as much, though it wouldn’t do to ask. He needed to seem knowledgeable about these things in order to appear like the veteran adventurer and mercenary he was. Until Ahmed decided to volunteer these informations around a campfire he would have to make due with speculations. Shaking off the distraction, Alberic went back to studying the map and the landscape.

Catelin raised an eyebrow as she saw the map in his hands. It was a nice one too, all wrapped in leather and worn from constant use. “I didn’t realize you kept it.”

“I try not to throw a gift away,” Alberic replied with little enthusiasm. He was too busy checking the route. “Besides, it’s a good map.” That was an understatement and Alberic knew it as much as Catelin. Being enchanted the map would show you what you wanted to see, enhance it. Every detail, every street. It was a few years out of date now since Alberic couldn’t afford the services of a high-level sorcerer anymore.

Catelin looked over his shoulder, curious. “What are you looking for?”

“It isn’t so much what I’m looking for but what isn’t on the map.”

“Anything you want is on that map.”

Alberic looked up and smiled, happy to have a leg up on her for once. “Not if it was hidden by magic.” Catelin simply raised an eyebrow while Alberic smiled at her with a supreme sense of superiority. It wasn’t something he could always do so he might savor the moment. After a while, finally, he decided to say the magic word. “Yes. We’re going to Bielefeld.”

While Ahmed was still trying to keep the carpet under control and thus unable to participate in the conversation much, Achilleos was not and gladly did at this point. “What is this Bielefeld?”

“It’s a mythological city,” Catelin said, rolling her eyes as hard as humanly, or rather humanoidly, possible. “We’ve been trying to get there for a mission before, but gave up after a couple of weeks of searching. There persists this rumor that about, what,” she glanced at the map Alberic was graciously spreading out on the carpet now, “three hundred miles north-east from here is this city that appears every couple of years out of nowhere and then disappears again. In these lands it’s known as Bielefeld.”

Alberic smiled. “While you may not be familiar with our lands, you probably know it by different names. Back before the rise of the oceans you see…”

Catelin, unable to ever unclench completely as per usual, shut him down immediately. “He means Bielfeld is Camelot. There’s a lot of bullshit rumors, but a lot of independent sources point to it having once been Camelot.”

Ahmed raised an eyebrow behind the patchy beard and headdress. “But Camelot is English, no?” When they looked at him surprised, he quickly answered. “The legends of King Arthur have reached my people too.” It wasn’t very convincing, but at least it showed some promise. As far as Alberic was concerned a member of Pariah Company needed to be able to upsell a half-dead donkey as a studly stallion. If only for contract negotiations after saving the world once again.

“Yes,” Alberic answered, now trying to shut down Catelin, “Since my… forced retirement ten years ago, I’ve had a lot of time to read up and investigate these phenomena for future adventures.”

“You were bored,” Catelin interjected and retired herself to the edge of the carpet, watching the world fly by in a brilliant display of Arabian magic.

“Semantics. Point is that Camelot must have one point become unstuck in time and space. Maybe it was swallowed up by one of the dimensional portals, maybe Merlin got drunk one day, who knows. Whatever. What’s really important is that Bielefeld is where we have to go.”

“To save Princess Helene-Sophia of Greater Brandenburg?” Achilleos had terrible difficulties saying all of these German sounds in one go without swallowing his tongue wholesale.

“Yes,” Alberic replied with rising levels of frustration. He stole a glance at Catelin, who reciprocated. They were used to so much better. Even in the days of when Pariah Company was still small and run by half a dozen individuals the people they took on missions weren’t this thick. “I thought this went without saying again. In, out, grab the princess on the way. But in order to get in we need to first get into Bielefeld.” Alberic stopped himself a moment while Catelin chuckled. Then he remembered that he had never gotten this far in his drunken briefing yesterday, nor in persuading Catelin. He coughed and continued: “Since Biefeld is stuck behind a dimensional portal, only a sorcerer can get us in.”

“Not many of those walking around anymore,” Catelin offered. It was true, many had either died in the last Dimensional War or gone to live in the mage colleges along with a sizable chunk of the witch population in order to make little magic users. It was best to stay clear of these places and its raw emotional magic.

“True, but apparently this Sigurd guy has one,” he continued, holding up the second of Voigt’s scrolls. He needed to squint hard to make out the densely written code, but at least for once Voigt had provided them with good intel. Having his own ass on the line with the mission failing was probably incentive enough to actually pay his scouts and spies well. “Essentially we need their permission to get in.”

“I can see this going well,” Catelin offered, mockingly imitating Alberic’s voice box, “‘Hello there, enemies. We’re Pariah Company. We haven’t been active in a long ass time but could you please let us in so we can all murder you, knock about your boss, and steal back the princess?’”

Now it was Alberic’s turn to roll his eyes. At the same time a flash went through his head, reminding him why he and Catelin wouldn’t have lasted even after the War. “Ahmed, there should be a village or town of sorts coming up in a while. Has a big castle near some hot springs. Land us there and then we make our way on foot.” With that order given he decided to lay down a bit. His head was spinning from all of this air travel and maybe staring into the clouds might help.

When Achilleos and Ahmed were coughing, wondering if there could be a bigger briefing before the mission, knowing at least some details, it was actually Catelin who dismissed it all, saying: “Don’t bother. He’s never given anyone the full picture of his plan all at once.” She snarled now. “It’s what gets people killed though.”

Alberic refused to answer, focusing on a nice white cloud instead, drifting past much quicker than he was used to. He wouldn’t change his ways now and Catelin should know better at this point. “Wake me when we’re there.”

*

The team landed the carpet just outside the gates of Paderborn. Originally founded a good 700 or more years ago by none other than Charlemagne, the city had seen better days. Before the War it had been a rather large bishopric and spa for the wealthy and powerful of the German part of the Empire of the Three Romes.

“What a shithole,” Catelin said out loud, voicing the general feelings of the group.

Alberic kept quiet as they walked past the guards, easily bribed by a few coins. It had been a long time since any prince of the realm or the German Emperor himself had stayed here. Too many monsters in the area. The city bore the marks of that. The gates were barely operational, the stone walls decisively scratched and scratched. The fact that the city was even left was surprising. And yet, as they neared the town center, the omnipresent Teutonic Knight symbols along with a surprisingly large number of priests and monks explained it all.

“I thought it was just a rumor,” Catelin offered. She had quickly morphed herself into a man when they landed, her generic blonde prince disguise. “The Church’s seriously gone in the science business?”

Alberic shrugged as he asked a passerby the way to the city’s main square. “Apparently. It’s a bishopric and close to a cluster of magical portals and the Imperial Diet. Ideal if you want to study all the creatures that come in into our world.” He was trying to hide how much it all disturbed him. There was a reason he had kept clear of this area for so long after the War. With the presence of the Teutonic Knights, who had found a new purpose as the Catholic Church’s anti-monster shock troops, it was as if the War was still going on strong. As if everything they had accomplished had been for nothing. He glanced back at Ahmed and Achilleos. While the big Greek seemed to be having the time of his life actually getting to where he wanted to go for once in good time, the young Arab seemed like he was about to bold. But he didn’t. Alberic could respect that.

Eventually reaching the inn, Alberic checked out the notice board. Outside the usual dirty works, like purging the omnipresent Reptilians from the sewers or collecting more and more wyverns for the Church’s minions to dissect and armorers to work into plate, there truly was nothing. “Looks like we have to search inside.”

“Good to know we’re still just tagging along,” Catelin replied with bitter sarcasm. Normally Alberic hoped for her to shut up at this point in a mission, but she was entitled to bitch a bit considering their history. She held the door shut with her arm when Alberic was going for the handle. “Who are we looking for. Details. Now.”

Alberic sighed loudly enough for a passing by Teutonic knight to rear his head, but not loud enough for him to actually stop and investigate. “This Sigurd guy is a big English history guy for some reason, really into King Arthur.”

“He wouldn’t if he’d seen him after he accidentally strangled himself to death after sex,” Catelin offered, a slight smile coming across her face as she reminisced about the past.

“You knew King Arthur?” Ahmed snapped out of his trance for the shortest of moments.

“Funny story,” Catelin offered. “See about fourteen years ago we were testing Leonardo’s aero screw…”

“Yes, long story. For a different time. Point is since he’s the new lord of Camelot, he’s decided to start his own round table. He’s holding ‘auditions’ for it now and I figured since we’re only few dozen miles away, there should still be some hedge knights, mercenaries, and adventurers around here willing to take him up on it.”

“Oddly convenient for our missions,” Catelin asked with the singular suspicion of anyone who actually knew Alberic.  

“Or is it that Sigurd is now making a grab for power barely a hundred miles from the next meeting of the Imperial Diet,” Alberic countered. “So the plan…”

“The plan is to watch and learn,” Catelin said, grabbed Alberic’s sword from his belt, shifted herself a burgundy cape, some chainmail, and a coat of arms on her shirt, then stepped into the inn as loudly as possible.

Alberic and the others remained behind for a moment. Achilleos and Ahmed simply looked at him confused, but followed him inside anyway. Alberic now carried his musket in his hand. This wasn’t Trier and not carrying a weapon would cause much more suspicion for what they tried to accomplish anyway.

The inn was like most of the city. Run down, dirty, dark, a hint of sulfur always in the air. There were some guards drinking their sorrows away, as well as other heavily armed individuals. Not a single citizen in sight outside the innkeeper, which told Alberic all he had to know about this place. He grasped his musket harder and chastised himself for not giving the kid his pistol beforehand, leaving him with that dingy knife of his. A dangerous town like this attracted the wrong crowd to begin with and it seemed they were all gathered here in this place. He silently gestured for Achilleos to make himself bigger, flex his always oily muscles while his wild locks flowed in complete calm.

Meanwhile, Catelin had made her way to the bar, ordering three ales and a milk for the group. The innkeeper was dour and gaunt and much too skinny for someone running an altogether successful looking inn. He couldn’t blame him though. The graveyard atmosphere outside coupled with the rowdy cutthroats inside and the lack of a local food market would play tricks with his appetite and digestion too.

“Seems quite civilized. I have no idea why you were so wiry,” Achilleos said in between sipping the small ale empty in one go and trying to make himself feel comfortable while looking dangerous.

“The silence is due to us,” Alberic stated matter-of-factly. He now turned around as well, resting the heavy musket on the bar behind him. They had clearly seen the caliber. Musket balls were already big and scary but this one was for slaying wyverns. Even lowlifes such as these could imagine what it would do to a human or, rather, humans.

“Maybe,” Ahmed said to the still disguised Catelin, “we should get on with things? Time being of the essence and all?”

Catelin nodded, coughed, and got in-character. “Say, innkeeper?”

“Yes… sir?” The innkeeper said, unsure whether he should be impressed or intimidated by this apparent hedge knight. Eventually he settled on impressed as Catelin stood up and started Acting with a capital A.

“My bannermen and I have heard of a great knight doing good deeds in this area. We have come to offer our support. Pray where may we find him?”

“You must mean Ritter Johann von der Alp,” the innkeeper pondered.

“More like Johann of the… arseface,” one of the patrons said drunkenly, the rest of the inn falling in right behind him in laughter and mockery. He laughed even harder as he guzzled down his beer. He laughed until a knife hit him in the hand, pinning it to the wooden mug. Naturally, he screamed.

Alberic and Catelin turned around just as Ahmed relaxed his throwing arm. He looked apologetically. Clearly it had been meant to land in the wall behind the loud mouth.

“Ahmed, that was uncalled for,” Catelin quickly improvised as she walked up to the man to offer first aid that didn’t involve amputation. “I am terribly sorry, good man. But my follower Ahmed is a crazed Serazin whom we took from the Holy Land with us. He knows nothing of our ways.” She stealthily gestured to Ahmed to play along. The kid obliged, starting to rave and scream in Arabianic or whatever his language was called. It was gibberish to Alberic as much as anyone but he quickly pulled him by the shoulders, restraining him back on his stool. For a quiet fellow he could be as fiery as a pissed-off girlfriend. Must be all the goat’s milk, Alberic decided. Non-drinkers were often violent, as was common knowledge.

Catelin had since dressed the wound expertly. The man was now ready to talk. “Thank ye, noble Sir,” he now said with more respect. “Ritter Johann is currently with the major. We’re waiting for his orders to take down the dragon.”

“Catelin nodded. “I see. You are forgiven for your behavior. Now rest the hand. We will need you in the fight ahead.” She turned around to the others. Leadership stood her well, always had. Maybe better than Alberic himself, but he refused to think about it for more than a half second at a time. “Alberic, on me. Achilleos, take this and gather supplies with Ahmed.” She threw him some gold. And as she and Alberic made their way to the door, she turned once more. “And pray keep him away from knives.” Ahmed turned red from discomfort as the door closed and the inn collectively took a sharp breath in.

*

They made their way to the town hall rather quickly. The streets were wide but empty after all. Maybe war was useful for traffic, Alberic mused. “Good theater,” he admitted to Catelin. “You did not disappoint. Better than ever before, actually.”

She smiled from behind the strange face. “An actor is only as good as the supporting characters.”

“Did you know he could do that?”

She shrugged. “ I didn’t know him until a short while before you came to Trier either, remember? I suppose there’s a reason those Arabs were after him. Maybe he’s a thief or assassin and everything until now was him hedging his bets.”

“Nobody is that good at pretending to be a nervous wreck,” Alberic countered, “but you’re right. I think we’ll still be impressed by him.”

As they reached the town hall and started to climb up the many dozen steps, Catelin asked. “What’s the matter with Achilleos?”

“Your usual immortal hero with a demigod complex. Dumb muscle looking for loot, women, and glory,” Alberic said copying her shrug.

“Charming,” she offered as she told the portier to introduce them to the mayor, “but be careful, Charles.”

“Why?” Alberic wasn’t really listening. The town hall was an empty shell, everything pretty and valuable sold off months or years ago.

“You cannot force another Pariah Company into existence. What we had was beautiful and unique and I doubt it’s coming back. Our age is over,” she said.

He shook his head as the portier returned, beckoning them to follow. “No, the world is still in need of help.”

She threw him a curious glance, somewhere between pity and affection. “You’re not trying to save your soul, aren’t you? Because don’t bother. You did nothing wrong, we chose our fate together.”

“I shot Guine. I am responsible,” he stated flatly.

“Oh Charles,” Catelin shook her head, dropping back to her normal voice for a sweet moment, “we all have gave our consent. And that’s why the Company needs to stay dead.”

Charles Alberic took a deep breath, trying not to choke. Thankfully, at this point they were led into the chambers of the Lord Mayor of the city, who was currently drinking wine with a knight so prim and proper the only blood his armor could have ever seen was from kicking peasants and bedding their virgin daughters.

Alberic bowed but Catelin just took it in stride and extended her hands. “Ah, Lord Mayor, Ritter Johann. My name is Sir Carl of the Backwater.”

“Well met, Sir,” the knight said happily. He seemed rather decent towards other nobles. He looked at shabby Alberic though like he was a monster or, worse, a commoner.

“I’ve come to offer my help with that dragon business. My bannerman. Stay back, Charles. Don’t forget your place, man!” She was now operating on peak noble.

Alberic bowed and shuffled away. She was clearly loving this. Anything to keep her happy, he supposed. And he did deserve it.

“I am glad for every help I can get,” the Lord Mayor said. He was as gaunt as the innkeeper. So at least the mayor suffered along with his citizens, which already made him decent folk in Alberic’s eyes. “Ritter Johann was just talking me through his plan.”

The knight nodded. “So my plan is to ride up to the dragon’s lair and have my archers surround it. Meanwhile my swordsmen and lancers will go in and slay it. I will take point.”

“Very good, Sir,” Catelin cried jovially, as to cover Alberic’s outright laughter.

The knight was oblivious to the very concept of sarcasm so he took it with pride. “I thank you. I am sure this time we will succeed.”

“This time?”

“Our third attempt only,” the knight said while the Lord Mayor grimaced behind his back. “The guard and Teutonic Order joined us before. The wyvern’s’ fire though… anyway. But we won’t give up because of a couple of failed attempts, right? Not unlike that Order, pathetic unworthy knights.”

Catelin took him by the arm and escorted him out while Alberic caught the thankful gaze of the mayor. “Say, Ritter Johann, this is quite heroic for such a young man if I may say so myself.”

The knight inflated his chest. “I may be my father’s third son but unlike my brothers I shall make him proud. I hope to join the Round Table, you know, after we vanquish the dragon. Did you ever hear of the return of the Round Table?”

“Indeed I have,” Catelin said without a hint of irony while Alberic still couldn’t believe their luck and keep a straight face simultaneously. He stayed another step behind for good measure. “What a coincidence, I say,” she continued, “I want to join Lord Sigurd too.”

“My word, by Christ the Redeemer himself! What a splendid coincidence,” Johann replied, “You are a man after my own heart, Sir, if I may say so.”

Catelin smiled, trying to stay in-character. “And my compliments to you. Not many would join him.”

The knight waved dismissively. “Politics. Chivalry stands above such earthly concerns. The old ways need to return. But come now, to prepare the men!”

“You go ahead, I need to confer with my footman.”

The knight left happily enough, returning to the inn. Alberic stepped forward now, his face red from holding his laughter in for so long. “Poor fella. If he weren’t insufferable I’d really be sorry if he gets his ass roasted by a lizard,” she said.

“I still don’t think there’s a dragon. Any of the big ones changing locations would be reported throughout the realm.” This was an understatement. In the hierarchy of flying lizards real dragons were just under the Great Old Ones themselves, terrible beasts who held the magical fields of the world in order. But they mostly slept so their cousins, the four-legged, two winged dragons were the ones one needed to concern themselves with. There weren’t many of them so while anyone could report one taking up shelter around here, some other region would have spread word throughout the realm that theirs had left. No, more likely it was a big wyvern that was mistaken by an amateur for a dragon.

“And if there is a dragon this fool is going to get everyone killed. Since when don’t they teach basic anti-dragon tactics anymore? Archers? Where are his musketmen, his artillery? Chivalry this or that, we are fighting modern warfare here.” Alberic was actually quite upset.

Catelin knew him well enough to disregard the query. “Same as usual then?”

“Yes,” he said going through his pouch and handed Catelin some money. “Keep them busy, will you?”

Catelin nodded and Alberic took off. Shouldering nothing but musket, powder, and ball, as well as his spyglass, he rented a horse from a nearby stable. And while that horse was barely alive, smelled as much, and was slow as tar, he still preferred it to a magic carpet.

*

The dragon’s hiding spot was easy enough to find. Everyone could point to it if only to run away from it real fast if anywhere near it. Any maybe there was something to it. There were wyverns and small drakes all about the hillside. Binding the horse on a charred tree near the end of a well trodden footpath, he pressed on alone.

After about an hour of climbing, he stopped and pulled out his spyglass. The drakes, four-legged baby dragons essentially, were lounging about the entrance of the cave, taking in the sun. That was suspicious. Unlike their bigger cousins they were neither brainless or nor smart, more like wyverns. A link between the two really that was created when a wyvern was given dragon’s milk as a pup. But these seemed perfectly normal specimen. Dozy, unaggressive. How were these a threat at all? He stashed his spyglass and decided to make his way to the cave.

“May I help, effendi?”

Alberic almost lost his grip as the Muselmann appeared next to him on that damned carpet of his. “Jesus Christ, Mary, and fucking Joseph!”

“No, it is just I: Ahmed,” the kid said – was that actual sarcasm? “Catelin said you might need help. And since I do not drink…”

“All under control,” Alberic answered, climbing up another ledge.

“Are you sure?”

The kid had a point as Alberic looked down and then up. At the very least he could escape more easily. He was wrong of course, but dying would be a shame. Also the climb was still long and there was much to accomplish and too little time to do it. So he jumped on the carpet and Ahmed carefully maneuvered them higher. And Alberic had to admit that flying everywhere was quite easy. Yet it also took the fun out of travel. After all, what was the joy of not getting held up by highwaymen?

As they reached the level of the cave, they slowly stepped off. Ahmed rolled up the carpet, shouldering it like others might a musket. Again he had to notice that the carpet seemed to shrink in size when not in use. Or was it bigger when one stood on it? “Careful now, kid. Follow my lead.”

So they walked up to the dozing and sleeping drakes. They all, universally, smelled of sulfur and shit. And if that wasn’t enough to bear, they all snorted. Badly. They walked slowly and carefully and carefully. “Don’t step on their tails.”

Ahmed nodded and and kept his gaze squarely fixed on the ground. Almost at the cave entrance, a sleepy drake walked up to them, blinking rapidly like the pup it was. It was sleepy.

“Hey there, little fella,” Alberic kneeled down and started rubbing it under its chin like a dog. The drake cooed, rolling to the side. “Most people think dragons and drakes are the real problem,” he said to Ahmed as he beckoned him to cautiously approach, tentatively rubbing the drake’s belly and making it coo and purr even more. “Wyverns give them a bad reputation. Dragons are smart and can be reasoned with, bribed even. Drakes are scaly dogs. Or cats. The metaphor is somewhat flawed. Also, you’re not petting it.”

“Oh?” The youth continued anyway to pet the lower belly near the tail.

“That is a female. And you are pleasuring it.”

Ahmed flinched back, but Alberic forced his hand back in place. “Don’t stop now, man, you want us to get killed?!” After a moment the drake went to sleep.

“Okay, that did it. Come now,” Alberic said, handing the kid a handkerchief. They walked into the cave now. Ahmed wanted to go for his knife but Alberic, his musket still shouldered, shook his head. “Won’t do anything anyway.”

The cave went surprisingly keep. Clearly not a natural formation. It must have been a mine once. Or still. Light was coming up now. Hammering, scratching. “You there, we come in peace!” Alberic shouted as loudly as possible.

The hammering stopped. Wing flaps. “Approach… friends.”

Alberic took a deep breath. “Here we go.”They walked into the light, their hands in the air. After some time in the dark it was hard to see anything at all. “Oh mighty dragon of Paderborn, I come in peace and spect into your horde. My name is…” He stopped as he saw the 25 foot dragon and four humans holding pick axes. They looked at him as surprised as he was. And that ebony black dragon looked familiar.

“Charles fucking Alberic!” The dragon’s voice boomed and it came up to him, careful to not maim while patting him on the back.

Alberic sighed with relief. “Hello, Trixie.”

“You know… it?” Ahmed seemed aghast.

“Sadly, yes,” the dragon boomed. The humans looked at Trixie angrily, holding their ears in the small cave. “Oh, sorry.” Trixie the dragon seemed apologetic. She closed her eyes and disappeared in a puff of smoke. All that remained was an old, dark-skinned woman. She walked up to Alberic and gently touched his cheek with utter warmness. “You have grown grey.”

“Look who’s talking, crone,” Alberic mouthed with a smile. He nodded to the four men. “Fresh meat?”

“New recruits,” Trixie shrugged, “Time’s are tough.” Her dark skin stood in contrast with her flowing grey hair.

“Tell me about it. Now I’m sorry I didn’t bring Catelin.”

“Catelin’s here?” Trixie’s face lit up with joy. It betrayed the fact that aside from long grey hair and some wrinkles across the eyes she was still surprisingly spry. “Are you guys back together?” She still spoke with her old Imperial accent, belying her origin.

“For a job only,” he stated, “this is Ahmed by the way. New recruit. Ahmed, meet Trixie and Pariah Company’s ‘sister unit’ Bright Brigade. The better funded, less handsome version.”

“Ah yes, well met, ‘Ahmed’,” Trixie said, looking Ahmed up and down, smiling knowingly. She turned back to her old friend. “What brings you to my humble lair?”

“There’s talk in town,” Alberic said, slightly on the defensive. Truthfully you could never be on the offensive with someone who could turn into a dragon at will. “About a dragon terrorizing the region. We kindly need you to stop.”

Trixie looked honestly hurt, her eyes shifting red and slit-like ever so slightly. “Me? Did this stupid knight Arseface get you on this?”

Alberic shrugged. “The town has seen better days and two of his assaults so far have failed. They say the dragon stopped them. Haven’t seen another yet.” Trixie was always hard to deal with. It’s how she had gained her name a long time ago and still lived by it.

She sighed. “Yes, the wyverns and drakes attacked him and his men in self-defense. There’s a particularly big wyverns on the top of the hill. You know how big they can get by eating sheep and other livestock. Besides, we’ve been busy in here.” She pointed at the work equipment, the scars in the rock face.

Alberic nodded. While Trixie had never been on the side of the angels, neither had Pariah Company really. And when push came to shove, he’d rather believe an old friend than an idiot nobleman like Ritter Johann. “And how do you explain the wyverns attacking the town?”

“You mean besides the usual attacks?” Trixie seemed obviously angered. With her family history it was quite understandable. “Oh, could you mean the cursed buried artifact that makes them go stir-crazy and incredibly territorial?”

Alberic looked at her incredulously but she just nodded. “Yeah, we got hired to bring it back to Worms University. The sorcerers’ hope is to do… magic to it. I didn’t pay much attention. I just came along as deterrent for my men and to help digging with my claws.”

“Ah,” Alberic said. “Hmm. Problem is we still need to convince that dumb knight the dragon was slain or he’ll never quit and I’m already behind schedule on the next phase of my mission. You think you could find the artifact by tomorrow?” It sounded so much like a Bright Brigade mission that it could only be the truth.

Trixie looked at her people, then back at him. Universal nodding. “Sure. When we started there wasn’t even anywhere near a tunnel here, everything collapsed. We’ll manage until tomorrow. Can’t be too far off now.”

“Alright,” Alberic said, pulling out his magic map for a closer look at the terrain. “Here’s what we’re going to do…”

They left the cave just a short while later. The sun was setting in the distance, the drakes wandering down the hole for warmth retention. Alberic didn’t pay either much attention. He was hungry, sweaty, exhausted. And more alive than he’d been for years. “Okay, roll out the carpet,” Alberic said, “I’ll need to pick up the horse and then we need to get to work.”

Ahmed refused to unholster the carpet. “What, by Allah, was that?” His voice was squeaky, effeminate.

“Who, Trixie? A scale walker.” When Ahmed didn’t seem to understand the world, Alberic quickly added: “A drake becomes a drake when a wyvern pup drinks dragon’s milk.What do you think happens to a human baby?”

Ahmed’s eyes widened. “So the stories about dragons taking human form?”

“Bullshit,” Alberic stated. “But with a kernel of truth, like any good bowel movement. Come now, we only have a few more hours and I need a few pounds of manure and some base chemicals.”

*

“Advance!” Ritter Johann’s voice was hoarse as he led the horse train the next morning. Slowly but surely all the hungover soldiers started to follow. Very slowly.

“Seems like we missed quite the party,” Alberic mused while riding with Catelin just behind.

Catelin, still disguised, smiled mischievously. “I had to use up all the money you gave me.”

“I thought whether you ‘had’ to,” he shrugged and accepted the long receipt from Catelin’s hand. “We might as well enjoy it while it lasts. I doubt Voigt will pay for our expenses ever again after this.”

They let Johann and his troops advance some more. Achilleos and Ahmed tried to keep up. One unaccustomed to horses, the other a walking navigational error waiting to happen. Catelin chuckled. “How is Trixie?”

“About as ornery as can be expected from a, what, thousand year old? I never kept track of birthdays. I’m sure we could arrange to run into Bright Brigade on our way back from the mission if you want to meet her.”

Catelin pondered the thought for a moment,then shook her head. “I’ll return to Trier on the fastest way possible.”

Alberic tried to stay graceful, but it was quite hard. “You know, helping a few prostitutes is all fine and good by me but once they are done Trixie and her people will have saved an entire city, an entire region, from doom. Life will return here.”

“Unlikely, the War still ruined this place,” she answered, “You can’t feel the energy of course, you’re human, but…” She paused, a cold shudder crawling over her, “The wyverns are a symptom of the disease.”

Unwilling to make the argument for her, Alberic replied: “There are other places that still need help though. Bandits, monsters, war. Injustice. Treating a symptom isn’t shameful. Do it long enough and the disease disappears.” Idealism wasn’t his strong suit, lying was though.

“We’ll talk later,” Catelin said stakkato-like. Alberic knew well enough that this was Catelin’s way of shutting the conversation down for good.

The troop train came to a stop shortly afterwards. The archers formed up, lancers in front of them, sellswords before that. Johann and Catelin went to the very front, brandishing swords themselves. Alberic loaded his musket near the rear, slowly, deliberately, and in full view of everyone who wanted to see. The ball went down, the ram rod went home.

“Face us, foul beast!” JOhann shouted as loud as he could. It was somewhat pathetic.

Catelin stole a glance at Alberic. He nodded to some freshly plowed earth. It had been their last act of yesterday.

Finally, after a good five minutes of build-up, Trixie finally showed her face at the cave entrance high above. Drakes took to flight. “Foolish mortals! Who dares to face me, Trix… Terror… Terrotrix the Destroyer of Men! And small children! And women! And property! The Destroyer!”

Alberic sighed as he primed his flintlock. Trixie was many things. A brilliant general, writer, healer, architect, philosopher, priestess, circumnavigator of the globe. As good an actor as Catelin or even himself she was not. Clearly not.

“It is I, Ritter Johann! And Sir Carl! Face us in combat so that you may leave the town and the good people alone!”

Trixie took to the sky, spewing fire in a circle around everyone, careful not to hit anyone though. It made for good illuminations. Then she landed near the plowed earth, roaring terribly, reducing lesser men to quivering babes and even Alberic shook a little. Only Ahmed and Achilleos remained unaffected. Maybe there was fight in the kid yet. And Achilleos was simply thick. Now arrows darkened the sky.  The archers did their best but nothing could penetrate the thick scales of a fully grown dragon. No wonder Trixie had made it through the War.

“Ready, Cat… Carl!” Alberic shouted as loud as he could. Some theatrics so that Johann had some stories to tell, then Alberic would fire and get it over with. The knight and Catelin charged now. She was trying to hold back and it was obvious when compared to Johann as she swung her sword. She was a decent swordfighter, equal, about the same as Alberic, which made them nowhere near the Grandmaster that Frederick had been, but sheer combat experience made up for any training from even the best master-at-arms.

“They need help!” Achilleos shouted, brandishing his giant broadsword the size of Ahmed.

“Wait, what?” Alberic looked to Ahmed who was similarly perplexed.

“Have at thee!” Achilleos cried out and ran into the thick of it, dodging fires on the ground, arrows from behind in a truly godly fashion. A pleasure to behold. The problem was that he was making a mess of the plan.

“I thought you told him yesterday evening. You roomed together,” Alberic said.

Ahmed was as stunned as Alberic. “I did. And again this morning to be sure. I think he believes Trixie is the name of a maiden that the dragon ate. He wants to avenge her.”

Alberic lowered his musket and sighed once more. “Oh come now. Really?”

There was still a long way to run till Achilleos could reach Trixie, all the while swinging wildly and crying havoc. Thankfully Johann and Carl were now pulling back.

“Effendi has not been blessed by Allah with wisdom,” Ahmed lamented.

“No,” Alberic mumbled and took aim. A musket was a blunt instrument but he could make it work. “I really question my team building decisions sometimes.” Then he pulled the trigger.

A puff of smoke enveloped him as the powder ignited and the ball left the barrel, flying and hitting the patch of dirt, igniting the explosives buried there.

Johann and Catelin had found shelter behind a big rock from Trixie’s tamed fire, but Achilleos, still charging, was hit by the explosion squarely in the face. The full force made him fly back a good fifty feet.

When the explosion had died down, the dragon was gone. Trixie now lay beneath a trap door, ready to emerge when they left. She was a good trooper and friend despite that time she had stolen the Holy Grail right from under their noses. No one was perfect.

Alberic and Ahmed closed the gap. “I’m sorry, my lord, one of the arrows must have hit the fire belly.”

Johann staggered to his feet, disoriented. “Fire belly?”

The belly where fire is created,” answered Catelin. There was indeed such a belly but an arrow could never pierce it. Even magical beings weren’t this badly constructed.

“Hahaha! Achilleos rose to his feet behind them, black from the sutt. He raised his sword in triumph. “We have vanquished the beast and avenged fair Trixie!”

Catelin looked upon Alberic. He simply shook his head. “Don’t ask.”

*

When the search for the dragon’s remains came up empty they returned to town. A much transformed town. The people had finally come out of hiding, now lining the streets, greeting the conquering heroes. The mayor turned out as well, creating them all honorary citizens on the spot. It was a nice gesture.

“We have already sent word to all other settlements in the area. Soon life will return to at least some form of normal. We can manage the magical residue as long as the dragon is gone! Haha! You all will be famous across the lands!”

Alberic went up, trying to cut things short. They had already lost enough time. “All hail Ritter JOhann and Sir Carl! Dragonslayers!”

“Ritter Johann and Sir Carl! Dragonslayers!” The crowd cheered.

As the celebrations in town slowly began, the Lord Mayor pulled them quickly aside, waiting until Ritter Johann had been carried off. “I sent word to Lord Sigurd’s chief advisor if you please. I know he’s not well liked within the realm these days.” It was an understatement worthy of any politician. Sigurd was officially an enemy of the realm as declared by the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, as well as the two other Triumvirate Emperors. “But you truly lived up to the ways he promised to return and Ritter Johann, well, he made good on it. You all did. Chivalry did save us where the modern ways failed, it seems.”

“Yeah. Hurrah for the old ways,” Catelin said in a deadpan monotone. Thankfully sarcasm was a lost art upon the Lord Mayor. The amused look she gave Alberic in this moment made it hard to remember exactly when everything had gone bad. For a moment there Pariah Company was still together. Paulus, strongest man there ever was was still alive. So was Qiu, deadliest archer this side of the steppes of Mongolia. So was Frederick, Grandmaster and Sword of the North. So was Guinevere, powerful sorceress and sister to Catelin. Where had it all gone wrong? Where had he failed them?

“Charles?”

Catelin’s voice, her real voice, pulled him back to reality. He looked around. He sat on his horse, surrounded by his group and Ritter Johann. An old man stood in front of them, speaking empty words. He had sorcerer written all over him. “Charles, are you ready to go?”

“Hmm?”

“Bielefeld. Or Camelot rather,” Catelin said. “Right behind the portal.” She pointed behind the sorcerer, the small glittering split in reality, barely noticeable to anyone.

“Yes,” he said as Johann and his closest retainers went through first. Alberic looked back at his group and decided it could be worse. He climbed off his horse, took a deep breath, and walked through. On the other side: Camelot and the Princess.

Literally. Princess Helene-Sophia of Greater Brandenburg stood on the other side of the portal. Not in a flowing gown, a hostage to Lord Sigurd the Dragonheart. No, she stood right there in full armor, brandishing a sword with righteous glory. “Charles Alberic. I’m sure you will like our dungeon before we execute you.” She turned to face Catelin who morphed back to her old self. “Well done, Catelin, and thank you for your loyalty.”

Catelin bowed. “My princess.”

To be continued

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Author: Alex

Full time student, part time "writer" of things.

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