Heretics 1

Chapter 1

I ducked down low behind a chair as several guards stormed past the open doorway. I heard shouting and clanging in the distance, as apparently, one of my new ‘teammates’ had revealed himself too early. That was fine with me, since it made my job a lot easier.

I had been hired by an odd group of young men who claimed to be adventurers. The leader, a boy no more than nineteen years of age, had lost his girlfriend to a local brothel because her parents couldn’t afford to support her anymore. He had wanted to immediately break in and save her, but not many mercenaries were willing to do so.

Taking on a brothel meant incurring the wrath of the lord, and the poor fool would be forever hounded by his men. I told him as much and was summarily ignored, probably because I was a woman. And what did women know? We were raised to be the docile servants of men, after all. I, being a mercenary, had to put up with his attitude, even though I was the only one willing to help him.

I could have lived the simple life of a housewife, or even the life my parents had chosen for me, but instead I was seduced by the lifestyle of my brother. He was a paladin, versed in the healing arts and an accomplished swordsman. Alas, women were not allowed to become paladins. I had to run away and settle for the mercenary lifestyle.

In the beginning, not many considered me for a job. Only other women, and sometimes the elderly, were willing to give me a shot – likely thinking that I was a safe person to be around. My current employers wanted nothing to do with me at first, but eventually caved in when no one else would answer their call. I also had an impeccable reference to vouch for my abilities, thankfully. As much as I didn’t want to help them, I needed the money.

As I said before, no one was stupid enough to take on a brothel, but at least I knew how to sneak around in one. All for naught, of course. Since I was a woman, my opinions and good advice didn’t matter. The teenagers foolishly decided on a half-baked plan to sneak in a few hours before sunset. The leader’s job was to kill the boss, while the others covered him. I was given the mundane task of finding his girl.

I suppose my job could have been worse. They could have made me the ‘lookout’. My skills in battle were being wasted, but I could make up for it with extra practice tomorrow.

When it was all clear, I moved from my hiding spot and headed out into the hall. I had very little time, but I used the distraction to sneak into the rooms where the prostitutes were kept. If there was anyone who could help, it would be them. The girls were a bit disoriented from just waking and tensed when I came in, but they quickly relaxed when they realized I was a girl too. Men and women alike underestimated me.

They were highly cooperative, telling me everything they knew about the new girl and where she was kept. Ilana, my target, was being held on the first floor in the auction cage. New girls were auctioned off on their first night as ‘virgins’. It didn’t matter if the girl actually was one or not, so long as she had never been seen in a brothel before.

During my interrogation, there was a knock at the door. A gruff voice informed us that he was coming in to check on them. I was a little surprised with the courtesy, considering that this was a room of whores. One would think they wouldn’t care, since these women were usually seen under dressed.

The unexpected decorum on the guard’s part gave me the time I needed to find a place to hide. They scrambled to aid me, covering me with blankets from their beds and placed themselves in a way where I wouldn’t be seen from the door. Deep down I knew they were only helping me because my success would mean one less girl stealing their tips. Greedy bitches, the lot of them.

After some questioning and half hearted searching, the guard told them to stay in their room and left to patrol the hall. It was a setback, since I needed to leave out that same door in order to get down to where Ilana was being held. It would be a pain if I had to fight him. I had wanted to save the target before causing a ruckus, but now I would have to settle for speed. Hopefully I could avoid being spotted along the way.

I pushed back the blankets and looked about the room in hopes of finding another escape. The room was very small; it was barely tall enough for a person to stand in. There was a small vanity mirror in one corner and many rickety old beds lining the walls, with barely any space between them. Clothing hung from pegs on the wall and on ropes that stretched across the area. At the foot of each bed was a small chest, likely containing personal treasures and hidden tips. There were no chairs or windows and the thin wooden floor creaked and groaned when I walked across the room.

Once again, the girls proved themselves useful by directing me to a hatch that led to a cage under their room. Some brothels were designed this way so guards wouldn’t have to personally escort every single woman to their nightly job. With so many women working, there were too many to account for. This arrangement made it harder for unwilling girls to sneak away and escape.

I thanked the girls for their assistance as I lowered the ladder and climbed down. In return they whispered their words of luck to me, and hid their air-headed giggles behind their perfectly manicured hands.

It was late afternoon with sunset about an hour away when I touched the bottom floor of the cage. The cage faced the street but since it was still daylight, there were no men gathered and cat calling at the bars just yet. Though there were quite a few people roaming the streets and visiting nearby shops, none noticed me as I quietly crossed the spacious room to the only door on the wooden wall.

Naturally, it was locked; some would rather take their chances on the streets than be a whore. I glanced around again to make sure I had no one’s attention before I waved my hand over the knob, concentrating. Soon the locking mechanism came apart from the inside, allowing me to silently push the door open and venture into the hallway.

With some luck, some of the girls might find the open door and escape – if they wanted to.

I walked carefully, making sure my boots didn’t make a sound on the hardwood floors, as I traveled further into the heart of the building. It was surprisingly empty on the lower level, perhaps because of the idiots I came with. Even though they might end up getting killed for their reckless actions, they did a wonderful job attracting the guards.

It wasn’t long before I heard feminine whimpering close to the back of the brothel. Strangely, it was much darker in this area, with no windows, torches, or glowstones illuminating the hall. I peeked around a corner to find faint a yellow light coming from under a door. As I kneeled down and pressed my ear to the crack, the whimpering sounds got louder, along with sounds of a struggle.

Straightening, I felt around for the door handle and quietly opened the door. Inside there was a small, open cage at the back of the room. In front of it was a chubby man in expensive robes trying to subdue a young girl who looked to be in her mid teens.

The girl was flushed from embarrassment and tears were rolling down her cheeks. From my vantage point, I could see that her under dress was ripped open at the chest and there was a red mark on her face that was beginning to bruise. I noted her wavy auburn hair and grey eyes. She matched Ilana’s description.

I carefully slid through the crack in the door and reached for the nearest blunt object. Luckily the man’s back was to me, so he didn’t see me coming. I struck hard, bashing his head with a large golden candleholder – but he proved to be quite resilient, as the blow only dazed him. Still, it was just enough for the girl to struggle free and run behind me.

Senseless, the man turned with a silly, yet confused, grin on his fat face. His arm reached out to grab Ilana again, but he stopped short when he noticed me in his way. Before he could make a sound, I swung the candleholder again, this time across his cheek. It was almost comical, watching his fat ripple like jelly, as his head snapped to the side. He stumbled backwards as he fell, managing to twist and slam his head into the floor, his rear end perfectly perched in the air.

I couldn’t resist such a giant target, and gleefully gave him a sharp kick in the ass. The man groaned as I grabbed the girl’s arm and started hauling her away.

I had barely gone a few feet when a voice screeched into the darkness. I allowed a resigned smirk to appear on my lips. Apparently the fat man recovered fast. Lucky me.

The thundering sounds of heavy boots soon filled the area and light began seeping into the darkened halls. Thankfully I’d had the foresight to do a reconnaissance of the brothel beforehand to locate my escape routes. I quickly led Ilana towards where the backdoor should be.

As I ran down the back passageways of the brothel, I spied a lone door at the end of the hall. No time to be stealthy, I yanked it open and was rewarded with the light of the late afternoon.

Dashing out, I lightly cursed as we ran, regretting that the mission had to be done during the day, when we’d be in full sight of everyone as we escaped. We were lucky that there were many low bushes edging up against the back wall of the brothel, making it harder to spot us. If we kept low to the ground, we might make it to the forest surrounding the city without being seen.

Ilana was weeping as I pulled her along, scared out of her wits. There was no time to comfort her: I shoved her into the bushes first and quickly followed. Anyone on the upper floors could still see us from above, so our best bet would be to get out as fast as possible.

“Be quiet and crawl after me,” I hissed at the girl, but when I looked over to her she was frozen. She sat stock still, unable to register my words or be of any use.

Cursing under my breath, I tried to think of an alternative. Inspiration struck, and I told her to give me her outer dress. If I could run in another direction and make it look like I was dragging her with me, I could direct the guards away from her so she could make her escape. She hesitated, but finally relented, removing her heavy velvet dress and revealing even more bruises on her arms.

They appeared a little too old to have come from the brothel, but… I didn’t have time to worry about it. Once the mission was complete, there was no need to concern myself with her anymore.

She was now in her thin white underclothes with several rips and tears. Ilana self-consciously crossed her arms over the large rip over her cleavage. I told her to stay still for a few minutes and then head north after I was gone. I was dismayed to find that she didn’t know her directions and I had to point it out for her.

“When you reach the road, go to San’s house and stay there until he returns. You should know your way when you get out of here,” I told her, hoping that to be true. I didn’t want to go searching for her again later.

“Okay,” the girl spoke in a soft dulcet tone, nodding once. She seemed to have calmed down enough upon hearing the name of her boyfriend.

I quickly arose from the grass and leaves with her outer dress in tow. I ran cumbersomely to give the illusion that I was burdened with a heavy body. My direction was east, away from Ilana, and toward another sea of grass and leaves. I knew someone spotted me when I heard shouting.

I threw the dress on my shoulder and crawled madly, knowing that I needed to get increase the distance from my pursuers to make this plan work. If they found me, they would know Ilana was on her own, and there was no doubt they would recapture her quickly.

As I moved, I was careful not to disturb the bushes so I wouldn’t give my position away. I could hear the rustling of leaves as my pursuers drew nearer. Suddenly, a hand shot out to grab mine, and it was only thanks to my sixth sense that I didn’t attack the offender.

“Sathra, this way,” a familiar voice whispered to me. I allowed myself to be pulled into a trench in the earth. Upon further inspection, I realized that it wasn’t a trench, but a creek bed. I sighed heavily and sat down. I felt tired as I pulled my knees up to my chest.

“Thanks Gahn. I figured you would be done long before I was,” I said to my cloaked rescuer as he settled beside me.

“All I did was distract the guards outside,” Gahn replied, acting as though he had done nothing.

I resisted the urge to snort. The only reason he didn’t do much was because he didn’t volunteer his services to the idiot teenagers. He only helped out for my sake, even though I distinctly remembered telling him to butt out. Then again, if he hadn’t challenged those guards, there probably would’ve been more around to make my job more difficult.

“Hmm…did you win the challenge?” I asked as I felt my eyelids droop. It was a stupid question, considering that he was sitting right next to me, seemingly unscathed. He was ten times better than me with the sword, and I was no pushover.

Through the shadows of his hood I caught the amused smirk on his lips, “Silly question.”

Gahn had been traveling with me for several months now. In fact he was the reason I had gotten hired for this job. His name was famous, and having him work beside me helped increase my job opportunities. There probably wasn’t a man alive who didn’t know of the legendary general of the Evergreen army, so the few times he threw his fame around, the gullible masses ended up as a benefit to me.

We came from the same country, but we lived in rival kingdoms. I was from the Holy Citadel, and he was from Evergreen. Imagine my surprise when I had noticed him following me. I didn’t recognize him at first, but when I discovered his identity, I thought he had been sent to capture me and take me home. A few months went by with no suspicious activity, and I eventually stopped viewing him as a threat and allowed him to be my partner.

I didn’t know what led him to leave the Silver Country, but he was as good as a wanted criminal back home. It was hard to believe that he was the same boy who had led his troops into my town and slain the king. The first and last time I saw him was during the victory parade. He was fifteen, and only a captain back then, and I was about seven at the time.

I remember looking at him with hatred, furious that he was being treated as a hero for the murder of my king. His actions ended a very long war between our kingdoms. By all rights he should be considered a hero. My ire didn’t last for long, since I didn’t lose any family in the war, so it was easy for me to forgive him. My brother had been eleven – too young to enlist – and my father, a powerful magician, was tasked with protecting the king in his court and thus was never on the front lines of battle.

That was a long time ago, and in a strange twist of fate, two people who were born to be bitter rivals had run away from home and allied together in a brutal fight for survival. To be fair, I didn’t actually know what Gahn’s story was – and I didn’t ask – so I couldn’t say he was a mere ‘runaway’ like me. The man was thirty-three. He was too old to be called that.

The sun-soaked stone felt warm on my back even as the air around us began cooling in preparation for the night. I resisted the urge to lean my head on Gahn’s shoulder. Instead, I folded up Ilana’s outer dress and placed it on my knees as a makeshift pillow. I wished I’d had more sleep the night before.

Last night was the first night I had relented and allowed him to share a room with me. It turned out to be a mistake; I wasn’t used to having a roommate. I woke up every time he turned in his bed, which he did frequently.

It wasn’t that I didn’t trust him, it was just taboo for a man and a woman to share a room unless they were married. Gahn didn’t seem to care though, and while neither did I, I hadn’t wanted to deal with the rumors. I gave in simply because I was poor.

Every man I met eventually considered me as one of them, anyway. While I had the figure of a woman, no ‘respectable’ woman would have such short hair, or could easily lob off an arm if someone got too close. I was far too ‘masculine’ to be considered a worthy bride. That was perfectly fine with me; I didn’t want to be saddled with a husband anyway.

“Quickly! They were heading east!” a voice cried in the distance, followed by the thundering hooves of horses. I smiled when I heard ‘they’. It meant that they thought Ilana was still with me. I briefly wondered if my employer and his little goons managed to complete their part of the mission, or if they even got out alive. I hoped so for Ilana’s sake… and because they still needed to pay me. I refused to do this for free.

We remained still, not daring to move an inch as several men on horses jumped over us and crossed the creek. No one bothered to glance back as they headed further off into the forest. Good – I wasn’t in the mood to deal with more guards. Unfortunately, we weren’t completely lucky, as two lagging men on foot jumped down nearly on top of us.

One of them was a burly man in his mid forties. His head was shaved and there were a few lumps visible on his scalp. Scars lined his sinewy arms and a few stitches could be seen on his upper left.

The other one was the complete opposite; a youth of maybe seventeen years with some baby fat still on his face. His hair was a tangled mess of chocolate brown. His eyes were light brown, large with inexperience. There was not a scar or cut to be seen on his body. He would have been quite handsome if he practiced better hygiene.

“Well, what have we here?” the older man said as he held up his sword. If there were any confusion for my hooded partner being the other girl, it was immediately cleared up when we stood. Gahn was a foot taller than me and had too broad shoulders to be anything but a man.

“Good evening gentlemen,” Gahn called out smoothly. “What can we do for you?”

The youth appeared doubtful and his eyes darted between Gahn and I. He lowered his sword and whispered to his companion, “I don’t think these are the people we’re looking for. We’re supposed to be searching for two girls.”

“I ain’t so sure of that. The brats we captured mentioned that a woman with dirty blonde hair and gold eyes stole our whore. This man must be her accomplice, and they have hidden her.”

I assumed the ‘brats’ he was referring to were the idiots who had employed me. They must have sold me out to save their asses. To fuel the boy’s doubt, a look of exaggerated confusion came on my face as I glance toward Gahn and asked, “Any idea what this drunk is slurring about?”

For added effect I crossed my arms and pretended to be angry with Gahn. “Have you kidnapped some girl behind my back? You pig…”

I could see his smirk in the shadows of his hood. Both men appeared confused and unsure, but only for a moment. The older man shook his head and took a step closer.

“Do you think I’m an idiot? I will kill you and take the woman!” he snarled at Gahn, ignoring me completely. I sighed with boredom as I realized I would have to watch Gahn do all the fighting. I was the one who beat up the fat man and befriended their whores. …Wait. That came out wrong.

“I’ve had enough of defeating small fry,” Gahn complained and glanced at me. “Why don’t you fight them?”

“Gee, thanks…” I deadpanned. I knew he was letting me have a turn, but did he have to make it sound so unappealing?

“What!?” the ugly one barked in rage. A disgusting waft of stale alcohol and bad breath drifted to my nose and a few droplets of spittle landed on my face. He was absolutely livid at the insinuation that I could face him in battle. His whole face was red and with his veins popped out around his neck.

With a loud battle cry he charged at Gahn with his oversized broadsword, but he stopped short when my blade, a measly short sword, was placed under his chin. Normally I would carry a lightweight broadsword, but my stealth mission demanded that I leave it behind with my armor.

“You heard the man. I’m your opponent,” I said forcefully.

My ‘adversary’ growled before he managed to jump back and swipe at me with his weapon. I easily dodged and found an opening. Before the man knew it, he had a new bloody scar on his arm. All sorts of vulgar names erupted from his mouth, and he tried to attack again by lifting his sword above him.

He intended to cleave me in half, but I was faster than he was. By the time the blade buried itself on the ground, I was behind him. Reaching around him, I thrust my sword into his neck and cleaved him across the back from his jugular vein to his upper hip on the opposite side.

His face was in shock as he dropped the heavy weapon and fell forward. But before he touched the ground, and before his body could separate and spill all manner of blood and guts, he faded away like dust. It was a special technique of mine – I would steal the soul with this attack, and send it to be reborn again.

The move was commonly known as the Rebirth Strike. It was a typical attack used by most paladins, but I hadn’t liked the mess after it was done, so I had invented a spell to disintegrate the body almost immediately after.

The youth was shaking from the display, looking like he would piss in his pants any second. Even though it was an act of mercy, it didn’t change the fact that I had killed a man. He flinched when I faced him and then shakily held his sword before him in defense. I knew that he had no experience in the act of killing. He had probably never even hunted for food before.

If he wasn’t going to attack, then I wouldn’t kill him. I wasn’t a mindless murderer.

“You’re getting soft. He’s still the enemy, and will alert his comrades if we let him go,” Gahn said, noticing my hesitation to attack. He was right, the kid would squeal on us if we let him live. Gahn had seen it far too many times on the battlefield to be wrong. But this wasn’t a war, and this kid was no warrior.

Any argument I could have thrown back was lost as I sensed another man trying to sneak up and attack me from behind. I turned to parry his blow, then knocked the sword out of his hand just before ruthlessly slashed him through the abdomen, sending his soul to be reborn as well. The boy dropped his weapon and fell to the ground when I turned to face him again. He must have thought I was a monster… and it may not have been too far from the truth. I had rightfully earned my name after all.

There was no point in cutting his life short if he had no desire to fight me. He trembled violently as I approached. I lay my palm over his forehead, and soon he fell over, unconscious.

“We better hide until it’s safe to return to town,” Gahn suggested calmly, not one bit upset that I chose to spare the boy. He wasn’t a mindless killer either. He was just a strategist who cared more about the safety of himself and his comrades first. But the fact that he didn’t berate me meant that he approved of my decision.

“Where should we hide? The forest is crawling with the brothel guards now,” I pointed out.

He answered me by rolling a large stone to the side. Behind the boulder was a tiny cave. Gahn had done his own reconnaissance while I was scoping the brothel, and found a good place for us to meet and hide out.

With a gentlemanly gesture, he urged me to go in first. I had to crawl due to the size of the tunnel. Gahn awkwardly shuffled through backwards so that he could replace the stone in front of the opening. Seeing a handle carved into the stone proved that this wasn’t a natural cave.

The tunnel widened to a tiny room just tall enough for me to stand in, but far too short for Gahn. In the center was a pile of natural glowstones that illuminated the room with a soft green light. Old musty pillows and blankets were piled around the circular walls, smelling slightly of mildew. Above us in the ceiling was a hole that led to the hill above the creek, letting in fresh air for the people inside.

This cave was child size, but clearly it had been built by adults, maybe smugglers. I ignored the old smells and spread out a blanket to sit on. When I settled down, Gahn came to sit beside me.

“We should stay here until it’s completely dark. That way, it will be harder to be seen,” Gahn reasoned.

At that point I was dead tired. Gahn tossed the dress I’d forgotten onto my lap and then pulled the hood off his head. His hair was about the same length as mine, if not a tad longer. The ends of his hair flared out, giving it the appearance of it being shorter than it was.

It was an ebony color, darker than night itself. It was his hair and the crimson color of his eyes that had earned him the title ‘Demon’ where I used to live. He was still considered a monster back home for all the attacks he led against my kingdom during the war.

‘Demon’ was actually the title given to heretics that turned against the Chosen Way of Life, as dictated by the High Priest. The clergy sought to control the masses by forcing others to become dependent upon them and their rules. So when a person wanted to follow their own path, the clergy didn’t take well to that.

The main punishment for such insubordination was death, but priests were not omnipotent. There were plenty of Demons running around, free for as long as they kept their mouths shut and avoided temples. It was bad enough that the clergy brainwashed the public into believing that the heretics were people who ‘killed and bathed in the blood of others’ so successful Demons were either alienated, or forced to group together with like minded people.

Gahn officially became a Demon when he left home, but my people had always believed that he was a heretic and a murderer. I, however, simply stopped caring since it was so long ago. Gone was the pale youthful face I used to hate, replaced by a tanned, chiseled face belonging to a man. Though, for whatever reason, word never spread to other countries of his Demon status. Only his picture had been sent out, and no name was attached.

I didn’t realize I was staring at him until I focused on the beard stubble on his jaw. I was reminded of the fact that he didn’t have time to shave this morning and jerked awake from my daze. I wondered why I noticed to begin with.

I finally gave up and rested my head on his shoulder to doze off for a bit. I wouldn’t usually lean against anyone, but he was a special case. I trusted him, and he was polite enough to let me get away with it. I jolted awake several minutes later when I felt his hand snake around me and pull me closer to his body. I had to admit it was a much more comfortable position to be in. It was also warmer, since the glowstones did little in heating up the cave. This was the first time I was ever this close to him and it was a bit unnerving.

“Why are you being so affectionate?” I questioned groggily.

“No reason,” he replied, cool as always.

He was so close that I could feel his warm breath on my face. It was unusual for him to get this comfortable with anyone. There was a regal air about him that exuded a presence of superiority that made him untouchable. He also acted the part by ignoring people and distancing himself from admirers.

I was aware that he was staring at me and tried to keep a straight face. To my inner horror, I still felt my cheeks warming. I had to say something to distract myself…

“San seems to want you to join his so called ‘adventures’. Are you thinking about it?” Inwardly, I cursed myself for such a stupid question. Gahn didn’t care for the little nuisance anymore than I did.

“I haven’t thought of his offer at all. Would you go?” It was a rhetorical question, as he knew I wouldn’t have accepted either.

“I wasn’t invited,” I muttered, surprising myself with the anger in my tone. I guess I was still upset over the discrimination…

“Am I making you nervous?” His question was blunt, but I could hear the amusement in his words.

“Why would you ask that?” I countered quickly, my tone defensive. I almost jumped when I felt his head lean against mine. Gods, what was wrong with me?

“You’re tense and you’re trying to start a conversation with silly questions. There’s no reason to be nervous around me.”

Easier said than done, I thought bitterly, but then realized he was right. It was getting colder as night approached and there was no other way to keep warm, at least not with the ratty blankets in here. I was being silly. I learned long ago to shut my feelings away and let go of my dignity when it came to survival. My body began to relax and my eyelids grew heavy. Gahn fell asleep first, and I quickly followed him in sweet oblivion.

Chapter 2

Title Page

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