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Introduction:

Noah gets to work dismantling the Profane.
Is anyone actually reading this? Ryojin Jakka is the only one commenting. All I want is a little feedback, please. What do you like? What are your favorite scenes? What do you think of the characters? I want to hear from you.

Methodology

It was the middle of the day, and the tavern was lively, with men and women alike indulging in spirits. Tails of all different kinds hung out of the backs of chairs and stools, whether furry, scaly, or feathered. Most of the light came from the front windows, but candles still burned in dark corners. Friends and coworkers talked amongst themselves, sharing complaints and jokes, but most of it was the former, all directed at Uther. Whether it was the taxes or the guards patrolling the streets, Uther’s authority was grudgingly endured, but murmurings were going on. Whispered in fear and anger, talks of rebellion passed between bowed heads and over empty mugs.

Yet despite the patrons' heightened senses of sight, hearing, and smell, no one knew of the intruder sitting among them. Wrapped in a veil of mana, Noah listened in to the numerous conversations, noting any details relating to the Pack and the Profane. He also paid attention to dialects, accents, and slang, learning how to speak as an ordinary citizen of Welindar. He had spent several days perusing the local taverns and other meeting places and roaming the back alleys, picking out anyone looking or acting suspicious and tailing them for info.

While Noah was doing undercover work, Shannon assisted Valia in the streets, chasing leads and taking down the fiends.

“Thank you again for letting me come with you,” she said as the two walked down a crowded street. “I’m glad to help Lord Noah with his work, but some of the things he does in there, the things he does to the people you capture, the way he experiments on them… I couldn’t stop imagining those things being done to my kin.”

“Considering what I walked in on, I’m surprised you lasted so long. Noah lives in a very different world from you and I. I sometimes get glimpses of it from his stories, and they often leave me awed, horrified, and heartbroken. Other times, he’ll tell me a story that makes me fall in love with him all over again. Anyway, it’s nice to have you out here. Honestly, I thought you had a grudge against me.”

Shannon gave a mournful sigh. “I was never mad at you. It just hurt to be reminded of that night. But I know you did everything you could to save my father, I know that you wanted to make everything right. What happened wasn’t your fault, it was theirs; the Profane, and if not for you, I wouldn’t be here. I don’t simply want to help my people, I want to return the favor.”

“Well I’m happy to have you. Just be ready, these streets are crawling with danger.”

“Yes, My Lady.”

Off in the distance, they heard several roars and the sounds of battle. “Looks like you’re going to get your chance. Let’s go!”

They set off towards the commotion, Valia sprinting and Shannon galloping in her centaur form. They crossed three streets and arrived at the scene, where a squad of soldiers were battling against a fiend. The hairy behemoth swung a log as a club, knocking the men through the air. Shannon drew her grandfather’s bow and an arrow as soon as she saw him. The tip had been lathered in the poison she helped Noah create, the fruit of her labor, and with perfect aim, it struck the fiend in the center of the chest. Such a wound wasn’t even a hindrance to the beast, but as the toxins entered his bloodstream, the mighty warrior began to seize up, and with equal ease and elegance, Valia finished him off. They continued on like that through the city, with every victory raising Shannon’s confidence and each arrow easier to shoot than the one before.

Back at the bar, Noah had just spotted one man talking to another in a corner and flashed him the mark of the Pack. They both left the bar, and Noah followed them. When they split up, Noah chose the one who revealed his tattoo. Once he stepped into an alley, Noah made his move, first filling the air with his mana to smother all noise. He then snuck up on the man, wrapped a rope around his neck, and kicked the back of his leg to bring him down to his knees. Noah pulled hard on the rope, making the man fight for every breath, but gave him just enough leeway to dig his fingers underneath and open up enough room to answer questions.

“You try to transform, you try anything I don’t like, and I’ll make this infinitely more painful for you. Who was that man you were talking to the bar?”

“Argh! Eat shit!” the man growled, struggling for air.

Noah responded by boxing his ear, rupturing his eardrum, and making him shout in pain.

“If you had a parasite, that wouldn’t have hurt as much. Tell me who he was.”

“Fuck you!”

This time, Noah robbed him of one of his eyes. “No one is going to save you. No one is going to end this but me. The only freedom you have right now is to decide how much pain I will inflict on you.” Noah forced him onto his stomach and smashed his face against the ground until a puddle of blood formed. “Tell me who he was!”

“Tolk! His name is Tolk!”

“Is he above you or below you in the Pack?” The man didn’t immediately respond, so Noah jerked hard on the rope.

“Below! He doesn’t even have his mark yet!”

“And who is above you?”

The man used what little breath he had to try and scream for help, hoping someone would hear and save him. He was aptly punished.

“Brusin, he recruited me. He manages a dozen other men!”

“And where do I find him?”

“He runs a tannery to the west of here! There is a squirrel on the sign!”

“Does he have a parasite?”

“No!”

“And who is above him?”

“I don’t know! I can’t use a parasite, so they don’t tell me much!”

“Then you’re no longer useful to me.”

“Please, no! I have a son! He’s only—”

Noah ended the man’s life and disposed of the body. He moved on to the tannery and found Brusin, a balding, heavyset man. Noah spent the next two days spying on Brusin, listening in on his conversations with other members of the Pack, following him on his errands, and collecting evidence and photographs with his phone. The man had no idea how much information he was leaking to Noah, which he brought back to the prince.

“This is incredible,” said Lupin, looking through lists of names, dates, and locations. “Between you and Lady Zodiac, the tide is finally beginning to turn here in Welindar. We may be able to eliminate the Profane before long.”

“How are things beyond the city?” Noah asked, speaking with the prince in the throne room.

“We’ve been going after the farms growing those plants, as you suggested, but they are well-guarded and hidden. Still, your arrows have made the fiends much less of a threat than they were before.”

“Excellent. From what I’ve learned, several mid-level members of the pack in Welindar will be having a meeting the day after tomorrow. If we can capture them, not only will it be a significant blow to their operation, but they’ll be an excellent source of information. I don’t know exactly where the meeting will be held, only that it’s somewhere in the eastern district. However, while I’ve been out and about, I’ve also been paying attention to your management of the city. You’re doing an excellent job, especially with the war orphanages, and I heard you’ve lowered taxes on the poor while raising them for the rich. Well done.”

“You might call it a stroke of luck, but the former king was not well-liked. Though he was able to hold Uther’s forces back for a number of years, his domestic and foreign policies left a lot to be desired by the people. I’ve made great strides with public relations by undoing a lot of his mistakes. Besides, the people of this city may not like it, but they are now citizens of Uther, and that means it is my job to ensure their wellbeing.

Every day, I spend hours with city delegates and former advisors to the last king, trying to address and fix every problem. The people’s needs come before all else, and I want to make them happy. Years of war have been hard on everyone, and I just wish I didn’t have to destroy so much before I can begin rebuilding. Have you ever felt such burdens before?”

“Indeed I have. I’ve worn many crowns, from taking on the responsibility for a tribe wandering a scorched hellscape, to leading a town through a recession, to ruling one world with an iron fist, and everything in between.”

“You were once the ruler of the world?” Lupin asked in shock.

“Well, not this world. It took decades of work and planning, but I managed to corral all the nations of another planet into my sphere of influence. The problem is that once you reach the top, it doesn’t get any better, and you have to keep expending effort just to maintain the status quo. What kind of leader do you hope to be once you take the throne?”

“With my conquering of Welindar and the surrounding territories, I’ve proved myself as a warrior and military leader, and once I am king, I wish to reestablish my affinity for diplomacy. These lands have been steeped in war for too long, and I want to give the people peace and prosperity. I want to focus my attention to strengthening the country rather than expanding it, and improving relations with the other nations. Sir Noah—no, I suppose I should address you as Lord like the elves—would you consider serving under me once I become king as one of my advisors? With your knowledge and expertise, there is no limit to what our nation can accomplish.”

“You honor me, but I’m afraid that I must decline. Valia and I still have to find her brother, who I believe can help me break my curse. That takes priority over everything and everyone. After that, I have a home waiting for me in Sylphtoria, where I plan to live out the rest of my days. However, that doesn’t mean I’ll be out of reach. The elves speak very highly of you, and are ready to fight alongside Uther should the Profane rise to power once more. If you ever need my counsel, you need merely ask.”

“That is a shame, but I thank you for any help you can provide in the future, and I’m glad that Queen Elisandra will honor the old alliances. I just hope it never comes to that.”

Two days later, preparations were being arranged to raid the Pack meeting. Soldiers and knights were dressed as commoners with hidden weapons and formed a loose, scattered perimeter around the eastern district where the meeting would occur. The beastmen were known for their excellent senses, so ambushes were difficult. They had to stay far away and wait for all of the major players to be at the scene, and then Noah would signal the location. Until then, they pretended to be average citizens walking the evening streets, waiting for the order to tighten the noose.

The problem came when Noah snuck into Brusin’s tannery, getting ready to tail him to the meeting place. Brusin didn’t know the location, but someone was supposed to arrive and escort him there. As Noah climbed the stairs to the upper level, shrouded and silent, he heard an anguished groan and a body hitting the floor. Noah rushed to Brusin’s room to find him laid out, releasing his final breath.

Intracranial hemorrhage, arrhythmia, whatever it was, it struck fast, and despite Noah performing CPR and even administering a health potion, there was no bringing him back. Now Noah was stuck with a dead lead, and even worse, he heard someone knocking on the front door. If the escort arrived and found Brusin dead, the meeting might be called off, leaving Noah only one option.

He placed his hand on the corpse and activated his cloning magic, taking on Brusin’s appearance. He had discovered this ability when he first arrived in Colbrand, unintentionally mimicking a Harajin he killed, but rarely used it. His voice, smell, and even his clothes became an exact replica of Brusin, but as he stood up, he realized a problem: Brusin was shorter than he was. Whenever Noah used magic to change his appearance, whatever form he took was stretched over his natural build, like wearing a costume. Fortunately, Brusin wore loose-fitting clothes, so Noah remedied it with some crouching. Noah walked downstairs, hurried by the impatient banging on the door.

“Kurd,” he said, priming the man outside to answer with the password.

“Bollat.”

Noah opened the door, finding an anxious-looking man, whom Noah had seen at the tannery before, Jensen. “Brusin, ya ready or not? We’re gonna be late.”

“S’ready s’I’ll ever be,” Noah replied, donning Brusin’s speech patterns.

The two men started walking down the street, heading east.

“Ya think everywona show?” Noah asked.

“They should. Hopefully they have some good news. Ya hear about those arrows those Uths been usin’? Tuttle had to have his arm chopped because it swelled up so bad.”

“Sometimes I think those black worms are more trouble than they worth.”

“I don’t know, they’re a lot better than they used to be. I used to want to throw up when I saw someone transform, but now? They look pretty damn impressive. Maybe you should think about getting one.”

“Can ya imagine what my fat ass would look like if I used one of those things?”

“Maybe it would help you lose some weight. The guys who have them do look skinnier.”

“That’s ‘cause they’re getting sucked dry like a noble at a whorehouse.”

“Well that’s the cost of freedom. Collin, you know Collin, right? He said something interesting the other day. ‘It is the duty of life forms to seek ultimate power and strive for perfection and supremacy, regardless of the evil required’, or something like that.”

“Makes a good point. What is the fight for life other than pursuing growth? You either keep getting better or you die, even bugs know that.”

“Apparently he heard it from the boss.”

The meeting was taking place above a butcher shop, and once Jensen led Noah there, they went their separate ways. After giving the password to the man at the door, Noah headed upstairs to a candle-lit room, where almost a dozen men were seated at a large table, all of them mid-level members of the Pack. Most were former military, not ready to accept they had lost the war, while others were citizens who had proven their dedication to the cause. More than half showed signs of parasite attachment.

In the distance, Prince Lupin, his attendants, and Valia and Shannon waited for the signal, some more impatiently than others.

“This is ridiculous. Why are we putting so much faith in a stranger?” Paulman growled.

“Lord Noah has proven that he can get results. We’ve been waiting for an opportunity like this for ages, and he’s given it to us,” Lupin replied.

“Without telling us how. For all we know, he could be working for the enemy, and everything he told us could have been a ruse to earn our trust.”

“Don’t talk about Lord Noah like that!” Shannon blurted out, shocking everyone. “You speak of things you know nothing about.”

“Your Highness, this is too good to be true, and you know it,” Paulman argued. “We don’t even know what he’s doing over there. How can we trust any information he gives us when he won’t reveal how he got it? He’s probably in that meeting with them, spreading our secrets and laughing at us for believing him.”

“Noah has developed tools that let him see and hear from great distances, and has ages of experience in going unnoticed among others,” Valia interjected, preventing another burst from Shannon. “Just let him work, and as you’ve seen, the results speak for themselves.” She then turned to the centaur. “I’m glad to see you in high spirits.”

“Forgive me, My Lady, I’m really grateful for everything you and Lord Noah have done, and I don’t like hearing others ridicule you. But it’s not just that, this whole thing is making me tense. Lying in wait, surrounding them from all sides; is this what it felt like for the monsters that attacked my village? This weight of imminence?”

“Combat is the same no matter which side you take. If you want to live, if you want to win, you have to fight as effectively as possible.”

“I know, it just leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I don’t understand how these men, who claim to fight for freedom for beastmen, would sell their souls to the Profane and enslave the very people they sought to liberate.”

Back at the meeting, Noah listened in to the conversation and even used his phone to record everything that was going on under the table.

“The Liege’s last dilthim delivery was a day late. Any later and a few of my men would have degenerated,” said one man. Dilthim was the seaweed used to make the stabilizing agent, drawing Noah’s interest.

“I told one of those pale fuckers that we can’t afford such lapses, and he nearly took my eye for speaking up. The Profane have wrenched this organization from our hands and made it their own,” said a second.

“Spoken as someone too afraid to make a real commitment. You don’t even have a parasite,” a third mocked.

The second man got to his feet. “I fight for Welindar and my people, not those sun-fearing cannibals! With that leech on your back, you’re nothing more than a puppet, and so is the boss!”

“Enough,” said a fourth man, raising his hand. “We cannot hope to defeat Prince Lupin and Uther by fighting amongst ourselves. The Profane have shared their power with us, and the Liege has backed us since the very beginning. We wouldn’t be here without his material and financial support. A day’s delay is worth all the help he’s given us.”

“But at least the Profane are here with us. The Liege hides in Uther. I can’t trust someone until I’ve seen their face. Has anyone upstairs even met this person, or are they just as blind as we are?”

“It doesn’t matter. Our job, our calling, is to fight for these lands using whatever means we have at our disposal. That is what Kaisen wants us to do.”

“Any idea of when he’ll come back?”

“I heard he’s still gathering allies from the northern tribes, but should return soon, and with reinforcements. Until then, we have to keep this organization alive.”

As the meeting continued, Noah conjured a metal canister from his ring under the table and began venting gas. Odorless and colorless, it was developed to mimic the succubus powder he had collected in Sylphtoria. The moment he felt the slightest effect, he pulled out a handkerchief and covered his nose.

“Brusin, what’s wrong?” one of the Pack members asked.

“My nose just started bleeding, don’t worry, continue.”

His original plan was to observe this meeting invisibly and be protected with a gas mask, but he had to improvise. As the gas filled the room, Noah slowed his breathing as much as he could and used the handkerchief to try and filter the air. Soon enough, the Pack members began feeling the effects, but it was too late. One by one, they all fell unconscious. Once they were out, Noah released his illusory guise and donned the prepared gas mask.

There was no telling if the gas affected the parasites, so he didn’t waste any time. He bound all the men, not with chains and shackles, but with wire, alchemically crafted to be as strong and sharp as possible. If they tried to transform, the wire would dig into their flesh. He also injected them with sedatives to ensure they wouldn’t wake up anytime soon.

Once all the men were incapacitated, Noah climbed onto the roof and used his grimoire to summon an illusory crow. He had it fly over to the nearest tall building and began cawing shrilly and continuously. That was the first signal to the Uther forces, letting them know the precise area of the meeting. As they started to close in, Noah heard a whistle in the distance from Valia. They were in position.

Noah shot a flashbang into the sky, signaling the Uther forces to advance. Many of the Pack members’ bodyguards were waiting outside the building, and when they saw and heard the flashbang and the charging knights, they realized they had been set up. They all transformed, taking on monstrous appearances, and roared in challenge. However, they were beset with arrows before they could draw Utheric blood. Among the archers was Shannon, and her speed and accuracy, honed on the plains, overshadowed the efforts of the knights and soldiers.

The fiends’ armor protected them for the most part, but all it took was one injury to have an effect. The result was instantaneous, tearing clothes and snapping straps as the monsters’ flesh inflated like a balloon. Anaphylactic shock was setting in, courtesy of the specially-crafted poison. The fiends who received injuries to their heads struggled to see as their eyelids swelled shut, and they coughed painfully as their throats threatened to close. It wasn’t enough to kill the abominations, but it made them vulnerable.

Prince Lupin jumped off his horse as he approached and drew his chain whip, swinging it around him to build up an aura of mana. “Steel Stinger!” He twisted his body and jerked his arm, sending the whip shooting forward like a tethered harpoon. It struck one of the fiends in the forehead and blew off the top of his skull, along with a decent amount of brain matter.

Lupin pulled the chain back and turned around, then swung it at a fiend as though he was bringing down a hammer. “Concussive Crack!” The whip struck the fiend’s shoulder with brutal force, crushing the bone into splinters. The fiends could heal flesh wounds quickly enough, but bone took more time and energy to mend. The knights finished what he started, hacking and stabbing the monster to death.

The prince and Valia, working together, broke through the enemy defenses, only to find a new foe smashing through their front line. At first glance, he appeared to be a towering warrior garbed in white armor. However, he was not wrapped in steel, but bone. Even the warrior’s face was hidden within a calcified helmet. It was an exoskeleton, appearing cancerous and deformed, yet able to easily repel blades and arrows. Knights and soldiers attacked from all sides with magic and weapons, only for their lives to be snuffed out instantly. Every swing of the juggernaut’s mighty arms obliterated skulls, pulverized torsos, and snapped limbs and swords alike.

“What kind of animal could he be?” Lupin hissed.

“I don’t think he’s a fiend. I think he’s another ghoul-type host,” Valia replied before raising her sword. “Zodiac: Teez! Baol!”

Valia activated her magic and sprinted towards the warrior, leaping into the air and bringing down her enchanted blade towards his head. He blocked her attack with his arm, and finally, his defenses were broken. Her sword cut through the layer of bone and deep into the muscle, but went no further, and with a snarl, the warrior flung her aside. The wound had sealed shut in seconds, and the armor was mending itself.

Turning his head, the ghoul spotted the prince and charged with every football shaking the ground. “Protect the prince!” Paulman shouted. Soldiers and knights got in between Lupin and the charging warrior, and all attacked as one with steel and magic. Fire, water, and lightning splashed off the bone armor, while arrows, swords, and other weapons struggled to crack the white plating. On the other hand, the warrior had no issue slaughtering the seasoned fighters, crushing and tearing through their metal armor like they were aluminum cans. Blood sprayed freely with every blow he delivered, shredding flesh and turning bones into splinters.

Lupin began spinning his whip, building up a charge and then sent it hurtling towards the warrior. “Steel Stinger!” It struck the ghoul in the collarbone and left a fist-sized crater, making him momentarily falter, but he regained his momentum and closed the distance.

Lupin rolled to the side at the last moment, narrowly dodging a killing blow from the warrior’s spiked arm, and swung his whip and wrapped it around the ghoul’s ankle, trying to trip him up. Instead, it yanked the prince to the ground, barely hanging on to his weapon. The ghoul stopped, grabbed the whip, pulled it from Lupin’s hand, then turned and approached the prince.

Before he could get close, an arrow struck him in the face. Rather than a normal arrow, it was tipped with a glass sphere filled with acid. The acid smoked as it dissolved bone and leaked through the gaps in the faceplate into the ghoul’s eyes and mouth, causing him to gag and growl in pain. With one good eye, he spotted Shannon, already nocking another arrow. He ducked down to dodge the second but could not avoid the third, hitting him in the knee and eating away at the exposed joint. The wound couldn’t heal until the acid ran its course, and there were plenty more arrows where that came from.

The ghoul charged towards her, trying to dodge her arrows as best as he could, but she was no amateur and shot him numerous times. Billowing smoke and dripping with melted bone, he leaped towards her for a killing blow. Before he could reach Shannon, Valia attacked from the side, kicking him in the head with enough strength to knock him through the air and send him crashing into a building.

“Zodiac: Rakshon!”

Valia sheathed her sword and approached the ghoul, slowly getting to his feet. His neck had been broken, and his head twisted, but he worked it back into place just in time to receive Valia's super-powered punch to the chin. He got to his feet and countered with a punch to her stomach. From there, the two exchanged blows with all their strength and might, Valia’s steel body vs. the ghoul’s bone armor, her enhanced strength vs. the Profane might. Each punch and kick landed with the force of an RPG, and the two fighters were doing everything they could to not get tossed through the air.

“Valia, move back!”

Hearing Noah’s voice, Valia stepped out of the way, and a bundle of acid bombs flew past her, bombarding the ghoul. With his armor broken and the tissue underneath exposed, the acid went to work, eating away his muscles and causing shards of bone to fall away like eggshells. Noah approached, hurling more and more glass spheres, each breaking and releasing their payload, wreathing the ghoul in smoke.

“Now, with me! Go for the arms!”

Noah and Valia drew their blades and slashed the ghoul simultaneously. The armor that had stopped Valia’s last attack was no longer an issue, and the warrior’s arms were removed. Before the ghoul could react, Lupin cracked his whip and wrapped it around the monster’s leg, succeeding in bringing him down.

“Shannon, crush him!” Noah shouted.

She hesitated, unsure of what he meant, then quickly assumed her centaur form. She galloped over, leaped into the air, and landed square on the ghoul’s chest with all her weight. All four of her hooves were like blows with a war hammer, pulverizing his ribcage and organs. He vomited a fountain of blood and passed out.

As Noah approached, Lupin looked around, seeing all the other fiends being brought down by his knights and soldiers. “Lord Noah, were you able to secure the middle echelon members?”

“All unconscious and accounted for, just waiting to be hauled away.”

“Then we have victory.” He raised his fist. “Men, we have just struck a decisive blow against the Profane! The night is ours!” All the knights and soldiers raised their weapons and cheered, and their voices were heard throughout Welindar.

As the captured Pack members were hauled away, Noah quickly collected the vanquished ghoul. Tenacious as he was, his wounds were extensive and healing slowly, and Noah didn’t want to lose such a valuable research subject. From previous experiments, he found that the Profane didn’t react to healing potions, but gained power by consuming others. He was too injured to willingly eat, but that wasn’t a problem. Noah retrieved one of the ghoul’s severed arms and forced it into his mouth, guiding the lower fangs into an artery. Immediately, the muscles in the throat began to quiver as they started sucking in the blood, turning the arm into a shriveled husk and restoring some vitality to the splattered ghoul.

Once the captured Pack members were brought back to the castle, those with parasites were separated from those without. Even if they couldn’t transform, the hosts received the benefits of their parasites, and Noah was still searching for a way to safely remove them, so regular interrogation methods wouldn’t work. He had a couple ideas of what to do with them, but in the meantime, he turned his attention to those with unblocked pain receptors.

The men without parasites woke up in a dungeon chamber, all of them chained to the walls, unable to move. Though facing each other, the gags in their mouths wouldn’t let them talk. They could only grunt and groan to express their confusion. What happened? How did they end up here? A few candles lit the chamber, and fresh air wafted through the steel grates of the small windows overhead. Of course, this dungeon was built by beastmen, for beastmen, so whether the prisoners could transform into snakes or mice, there was no squeezing out.

The door opened, and a man stepped inside, carrying a brazier filled with wood. He was older, with icy eyes and a pale face covered in scars. Was he the jailer? The interrogator? He looked like he had plenty of dark experience, but it didn’t matter what he tried because they wouldn’t talk. They attempted to curse him and spit despite their gags, but he ignored them and set the brazier down in the middle of the room.

“I know what it feels like to be in your position, chained up and awaiting torment, trying to brace yourself against the pain you know is coming,” the man said, speaking with a dry, deep voice that forced the Pack members to listen. “Your throat is as parched as the sand under your feet, and your hands tremble in your shackles. You try to leave your body, to separate yourself from your senses, but every twinge of discomfort, every minor ache or annoyance, drags you back to reality and makes you wonder how much worse it’s going to get.”

He lit a fire and continued to talk, never taking his eyes off the fledgling flame. “You ask yourself what’s at stake, what you lose if you give in to the pain: your friends, your cause, your dream of being remembered as someone who stood on the right side of history. They kept you motivated through mayhem and struggle, but that’s because you had the option to run faster, to fight harder, to end your own life on your own terms. What happens when your only options are to talk or suffer? How hard will you resist for something you’ll never live to see?”

Once the fire was burning healthily, the stranger revealed two knives and stuck them in the radiant heart. “In a moment, I will commence torturing you all for information. Before I start, I will explain the process so you all understand what you’ll experience with complete clarity. Then, and this is important, I’ll remove your gags and give each of you the chance to talk, to save yourselves and your friends. I strongly advise you to use this chance wisely.

Should you spit, curse, or tell me anything I don’t want to hear, then the gags go back in, and you’ll no longer be able to stop the pain. Inevitably, it’ll become too much, and you’ll beg me to stop and spill all your secrets, but to me, it’ll all just sound like muffled screaming, so I won’t have any reason to stop. I’ll just keep torturing you, even after you give up, until I finally decide to remove the gags.

Now, the method I’ll use is one I devised while helping a friend torture the guy who raped his wife and killed his daughter. He got a big saw to hack the limbs off the criminal, and I almost had to smack him for being so wasteful. Every time you cut off a body part, you’re losing all those precious nerve endings, those pain receptors that can be better utilized to make the victim spill their guts. Why remove someone’s hand when you can break their fingers, yank out of the nails, mince the flesh, and so on?

The process is straightforward: just cut and burn, cut and burn. I will take these knives and start carving off small pieces of your flesh, almost like whittling. The hot blade will cauterize the wounds as they’re inflicted, so you won’t pass out or die from blood loss. When one blade gets cold, I’ll stick it back in the fire and switch to the other. I’ll start at your fingertips, which are one of the body's most sensitive areas. The cuts will be tiny, but even a hair’s breadth will feel like a slash running down to your elbow. Just the tip of one finger, that’s all I need to make you howl in agony.

Cut and burn, cut and burn. I’ll remove the flesh from your fingers, the muscles underneath, and the nerves and tendons, just stripping the bones clean. It’s a slow, tedious process, requiring a whole hour just to do one hand, but that’s the beauty of it. You’ll be able to watch the entire thing. You can watch me slowly move down the length of your fingers, palm, and wrist, like watching the incoming tide wash away a sand castle.

The hand you’ve had all your life, the hand you’ve used, cherished, trained, injured, the hand given to you by your mother when you were growing in her womb, you get to watch me slowly take it from you, one tiny sliver at a time, and you’ll never get it back. Of course, you can close your eyes, try not to look, but you can’t block out the smell of burning flesh or the sound of the sizzle.”

As the man spoke, the captured Pack members stared at him with growing fear. He pulled one of the knives out of the fire and walked around the room, letting the prisoners see the glowing edge. A simple scrape was enough to make them yelp in pain and twist their bodies, but they couldn’t get away. It wasn’t just the knife that scared them. Everything this man did was unnerving, from his gait as he strolled around the room, to how he flashed his teeth in some kind of demonic attempt at a smile. Even with a fire burning in the middle of the room, his presence chilled the air.

“After a while, something will change. You’ll start going numb and feel like you’ve gotten used to the torture. You’ll feel like you can handle it, block it out, and endure. You may even get a little smug and righteous about the whole thing. What’s happening is your body is producing something called endorphins to block the pain. It does it for all injuries. However, it doesn’t last forever. Eventually, your body runs out and can no longer produce more. Once that happens, oh boy, that’s when the pain really gets raw. You’ll want to scream harder than ever in your life, but you’ll already be all screamed out by then.

I’ll work my way up from your fingers to your shoulder, and the fun part will be watching you lose sensation and use of your arm. If I cut it just right, I can completely remove all the skin and most of the muscle, but you’ll still be able to wiggle your thumb. Once your arm is done, I switch to your other limbs. Once those are finished, I can get started on your face and genitals. However, that’s not to say I’ll spend all that time on just one of you. I’ll carve down your arm, switch to… you, and start with your leg. You can all watch each other get tortured and really share the pain.

And then, if by some miracle, I’ve whittled you all down until you’re barely alive and still refuse to answer my questions, I guess I’ll just have to bring your families in here and start the process again. I already know your names, so sending soldiers to your homes to seize your loved ones will be easy. Now, as effective as this method is, it always leaves me with a painful knot in my shoulder.” The man twisted himself and pointed at a spot on his back. “Yep, right there, that’s the real torture. I can already feel the muscles tightening up in anticipation. I can always get it rubbed out later, but all that cutting really does leave me sore. So, how about you all spare me the effort of torturing you for hours and hours and spare yourselves the pain of getting burned down to a nub like firewood? Anyone ready to talk, start nodding. Anyone who isn’t, I’ll get to you momentarily.”

All the prisoners started nodding, several while shedding tears. The man pulled the gag out of the nearest prisoner. “Now tell me about the Liege.”

He was quick to speak, giving Noah everything he needed. After he had finished questioning the prisoners, he went to find Lupin. He was directed to a door where two guards stood watch. Behind the door, Noah could hear the jingling of chains and the crack of a whip.

“Is His Highness available?” Noah asked.

“The prince is currently training. He requires absolute privacy,” one guard stated without looking at Noah.

“Sir Noah, over here.” He looked down the corridor and spotted Nell sitting on a bench.

“After that big battle, it’s the middle of the night and the prince is training?” Noah asked as he sat down next to her.

“He’s always been this way. After every fight, he’ll spend hours in that room, practicing with his whip, striking targets, and honing his magic.”

“Impressive dedication. And you? Don’t you think you should get some sleep?”

“I’m his attendant. When he comes out, it is up to me to greet him with water and a towel, and should he injure himself during training, I must heal him.”

“Your loyalty is commendable. You’re both two of a pair.”

Nell averted her gaze. “A-anyway, what are you doing here?”

“I wanted to give the prince an update on the prisoners. They’ve been quite talkative.”

“Thank you, by the way, for all your help.”

“It’s my job, isn’t it? To help Uther defeat the Pack?”

“I’m not thanking you on behalf of Uther. I’m thanking you as His Highness’s attendant. He’s lost many good men since this darkness started, and more than that, he’s lost friends, and he’s been blaming himself for being unable to avenge them. No, that’s not right, it’s not about revenge. He wants to make sure that they didn’t die for nothing, that losing them was a sacrifice for the greater good, and every moment that he’s stagnant in this new war, I think he feels like he’s failing them. You’ve given him more than just a few victories, you’ve given him his hope back.”

Noah chuckled and got to his feet. “You’re a good woman, Nell. I wish you luck with him. Let the prince know I’ll speak with him tomorrow. Right now, I think I’ve earned some sleep.”

----------

Tysinger walked silently down the dimly lit corridor, each step quieter than a whisper. He was not sneaking around for espionage or assassination; it was simply in his nature to remain stealthy and battle-ready at all times, even here, in the main base of the Profane. The walls, floor, and ceiling were made of a seamless, synthetic material, with light from cables running along the corners.

A set of double doors opened ahead of him, and he stepped into a large chamber filled with cylindrical glass tanks. Floating in the liquid within were numerous beastmen and parasites, all in various stages of transformation and disfigurement. Pipes and cables led from the tanks into the floor like tree roots, all coming together at a large technical interface built into the wall at the end of the room. The massive screen, the malleable controls, and the keyless keyboards combined mechanical designs, magical power, and even organic appearances.

“Curcio, have you lost track of the time? We’ve been summoned.”

He spoke to a dwarf working at the computer, dressed in a white coat. At first glance, he appeared to have a shaved head, but it was more than simply the absence of hair. His entire scalp was missing, exposing polished cranium and muscle, and though his pale complexion looked to be a side-effect of his work and environment, his sharp fangs gave away the actual cause.

“Ah, I suppose I have. Still, I will say there are few pleasures greater than getting so wrapped up in your work that all else falls away.”

The two walked side-by-side through the chamber to another set of doors. “Any luck finding a suitable replacement for Deacon?” Tysinger asked.

“None. Elves are hard enough to capture, and very few can wield a piece of Somerset’s power. Oh well, we still have Dradam. His armor abilities are better than I could have hoped for.” Curcio stopped and looked at the beastman floating in the tank beside him, seeing his brain extending out of his ruptured skull. “Oh, when did this happen? Let’s see… D-327, yep. I had a bad feeling about this one. I guess it’s the grinder for him.”

They left the lab, walked down several corridors, and then arrived at a chamber where another two Profane were waiting. “It’s about time,” a male ghoul said, speaking with a lower jaw split down the middle and opened horizontally instead of vertically. The other was a a female ghoul with white hair. “Yes, yes, start the meeting,” said Curcio, placing his hand on the wall. Vents opened up in the ceiling, and streams of colored smoke poured onto circular panels on the floor. The smoke didn’t spread, as if bound in an invisible container, and instead organized itself into various shapes, taking the form of other members of the Profane. “Before you say anything, I know I’m late, so let’s just get on with it, shall we?”

“I agree. We have pressing matters to attend to,” said one woman, a full-blooded fiend similar to a centaur, but with a spider body instead of a horse body. Her smoke form mimicked her speaking, but her voice came from the ceiling.

“Prince Lupin has gained two powerful allies, and they are turning the battle for Welindar against us,” another ghoul said, once a dwarf like Curcio with a braided black beard.

“And who are these new allies?” the white-haired asked.

“One is Valia Zodiac, the Sword Goddess,” another man said, speaking from the end of the room.

“Didn’t we have dealings with her brother?” a succubus asked, wrapped in her wings.

“Yes, we traded relics and artifacts,” said Curcio. “I myself made off like a bandit, if I do say so myself.”

“If her power is as great as the stories say, it’s no wonder the prince is making such strides,” said Tysinger.

“The other is someone you’ve already met: Noah, the Wandering Spirit,” the man at the end said.

Tysinger’s brow furrowed. “Lord Scyler, that’s impossible. I reduced him to ash myself.”

“Apparently not, his presence has been confirmed, and he’s assisting the prince. He has created a poison that works against our troops, and he’s captured several mid-level members of the Pack, including Dradam.”

“Ugh, sloppy,” the female ghoul said.

“I remember that name,” said the succubus. “He was in Sylphtoria when my Leanne was performing her mission. He’s the reason why it all fell through.”

“Who is this man anyway?” the split-jaw ghoul asked.

“A knight of Uther, and the rumors about him are… well it’s difficult to tell fact from fiction,” said another male ghoul, towering over the others with his lanky body. “I know that there is a price of a hundred gold coins on him, and he slaughtered an army of bounty hunters and piled their heads in front of a church in Colbrand. He also tortured the two other Uther princes, one to the point of attempting suicide. Tysinger, you faced him, what’s he like?”

Tysinger paused. “In terms of destructive ability, he’s not worth mentioning. However, his agility, his technique, his killing potential, they’re practically inhuman. He crushed Deacon without suffering a scratch, and his skill with a blade is equal to mine. I offered to make him a ghoul and he declined. Had he accepted… he’d be the strongest of us.”

His words sent a shiver through everyone.

“My creations are supposed to be foolproof,” said Curcio angrily. “No one could make a poison against them in so short a time.”

“According to our double-agents, he’s unlocked the secrets of the Enochian technology. He is no ordinary human,” said Scyler.

“We should assume that the Pack members will talk when questioned. Everything they know, Uther will soon know,” the spider woman said.

“Tell Kaisen that it is time to move up the schedule. If his whelps want more power, they’re going to have to earn it,” Scyler declared.

“And what of the interlopers?” the split-jaw ghoul asked.

“They’ll either join us or die.”

----------

It was a quiet night, lit only by a sliver of the moon. A wagon caravan was traveling down a forest path, but no torches or candles were burning. Monsters were not enough to invoke such caution; the fiends guarding the wagons could defeat any creature roaming the lands. What they feared was detection from people. Therefore, the beastmen, corrupted and not, focused on their sense of smell. Every time the wind shifted, they checked for any scents that didn’t belong. Everything was fine. Everything was still. Until it wasn’t.

They rained down upon the caravan, orbs of light that burst with a teeth-rattling crack, leaving the beastmen blind and deaf. More balls of light appeared overhead, floating above the forest and casting their light down like flares. As the Pack struggled to regain their bearings, the rain continued, this time with poisoned arrows.

With a shout, soldiers and knights rushed from the woods, discarding their disguises of sod and brush. They had also been doused in chemicals to erase their scent, and their muscles were stiff from waiting so long. They attacked the caravan from both sides and assaulted the weakened fiends with weapons and magic.

The fiends were once unstoppable goliaths, but now they could barely defend themselves. The soldiers ran them through with spears from all directions to pin them down, and the knights delivered decapitating strikes to finish them off or hacked off limbs so that they could be taken alive.

Leading the charge was Valia. Fighting poisoned enemies didn’t sit well with her, so she targeted the fiends who had escaped the arrows. She ran up and down the caravan with her super speed, using her mana-laden blade to sever heads and limbs. Also present was Noah, walking calmly through the battlefield with his sword in one hand and an illusory gun in the other. Every time a fiend lunged, Noah would shoot him in the face, causing the monster to trip up as his mind rebooted, and during that window of vulnerability, his sword carved through flesh and bone.

A fiend spotted him and charged, and rather than firing his gun, Noah simply pointed at him with his sword. The enraged brute was closing in, wielding a mighty axe, but was stopped when an arrow, launched from the woods, planted itself in the side of his head. Nourished by the black venom, a head wound like this was not enough to kill the beast, but once the poison on the arrow spread through his brain, things got nasty.

Nearby, a fiend grabbed a soldier, raised him up, and ripped him in half at the waist in a shower of viscera. As the fiend grabbed another soldier, Noah pointed his sword, and an arrow flew through the air and struck his throat. The fiend struggled to breathe, and a second arrow found its home in his eye socket, setting off a catastrophe within his skull. Noah turned in the direction of the arrows and nodded. He could not see her, but Shannon could see him, and that nod was enough to make her ears twitch in giddiness.

Soon enough, the battle was over. All the surviving members of the Pack were bound in heavy shackles and weighted muzzles. While Valia and the knights went after anyone who might have escaped during the fighting, Noah examined the cargo on the wagons.

“Sir Noah, is it there?” Reynolds asked as he approached.

“Yeah, we struck gold. It’s enough dilthim for an army,” he said, opening a barrel full of stems and leaves.

“Ha! Our third score! The Pack won’t know what to do! We’re unstoppable!”

His joy was correctly placed. The shipment they had just intercepted carried various plants, powders, and liquids, all needed to cultivate parasites. The contraband was subsequently burned, minus a portion Noah took to use in his experiments. Noah, Valia, Shannon, and all the knights and soldiers returned to Welindar the next day in high spirits.

Things had certainly changed since Noah and Valia first arrived. Without the middle-echelon members substituting for the missing leader, the lower-level members of the Pack were without orders. Thanks to all the info Noah was gathering through his investigation, Lupin’s forces were shutting down every lab in the city, and now that shipments of dilthim and other plants were being interrupted, maintaining the fiends was next to impossible.

Though they still roamed in the wild, Welindar had fallen securely back into Lupin’s control. Any fiends that caused trouble were killed and put on display, not just as a warning to would-be rebels about defying the prince, but to show the public the ugly side of the Pack and let them know what kind of horrific monsters they would become should they join.

Upon returning to the castle, Noah, Valia, and Sir Reynolds went to speak to the prince. “Well done, all of you. With this, we’ve ripped Welindar from the Profane’s clutches,” Lupin said.

“We’ve definitely made progress, but the war is far from over,” said Noah. “Looking at those bags under your eyes, I can tell you know that as well.”

The prince gave a weary chuckle. “I’ve been hard at work while you’ve been gone, taking out lab after lab and shutting down the fiends’ support network. I’ve also been putting a lot of work into public relations, working to fully assimilate Welindar into Uther.”

“Any idea as to their leader’s whereabouts?”

“Only rumors that Kaisen is somewhere to the north, beyond our reach. He may have given up trying to retake the city. He appeared shortly after Welindar was taken, preaching for rebellion and trying to rile people into fighting back for the sake of beastman supremacy. He is a mighty warrior and killed one of my gold knights, so people were quick to flock to him. He disappeared around the beginning of summer, but there were no rumors about his death, only that he had set off to recruit more beastmen to the cause.

“So far we’ve seen how the Pack functions without him,” said Valia, “but I worry what will happen if he should return.”

“I’m more concerned about the Liege,” said Noah. “After three raids and countless interrogations, we’ve still gotten no closer to discovering his identity. No one I’ve spoken to has ever actually met him in person, only through letters and messengers. The dilthim and other plant shipments change multiple hands before being handed over to the Pack, so we can’t identify the source.”

“I’ve had suspicions that someone has been thwarting Uther’s expansion from back home for quite some time. I can think of at least a dozen nobles, clergymen, and underworld figures who would profit off this ongoing conflict.”

“Well it’s clear this man has been helping the Pack fight against Uther for years, supplying resources, funds, and information, and by extension, helping the Profane. It’s no question that he is the third side of this terrorist triangle. I’m going to stop in the lab and speak to the prisoners once more. After that, I noticed that this castle has a library, so I think I’ll spend some time researching.”

Noah returned to his lab, though it wasn’t in the same place it had always been. With all the work going on and all the equipment Lupin’s forces had seized, Noah’s lab had been moved out of the evidence room and into a much larger chamber. Here, the prince’s experts, those who had struggled to make sense of the parasites and the Pack’s tech, now worked as his assistants and maintained the lab while he was in the field.

Noah walked along a row of cylindrical tanks, each large enough to hold a person and used for that purpose. Floating within were captured fiends, dismembered and heavily sedated. Along with a feeding tube supplying them blood, other lines were hooked up to their bodies and parasites, collecting various substances for research, such as venom and the stabilizing agent.

“This solution in Subject 8’s tank looking murky. Lower the pH and add some avedicine.”

“Yes sir!”

“What are the NTO readings on Subject 3?”

“7.8, sir!”

“Good, begin harvesting the spinal fluid and dose him with eight milligrams of levenol.”

“Yes sir!”

With their fancy robes and long beards, these learned sages, who had initially scoffed at Noah’s explanations, now followed him around like lovestruck schoolgirls, eager to receive more otherworldly knowledge. He was careful with how much he gave them, such as advanced alchemy and specific compounds. Noah stopped before a tank holding a different subject. Rather than a fiend, it was the ghoul captured with the middle echelon members. Most of his bone armor had been harvested, and he hung in a suspended animation like the others.

“What do we have on Subject 4?”

“Subject 4’s parasite seems to be a different breed from the fiends, with much more potent venom. Any attempt to inject it into other subjects causes violent rejection and extensive mutations. Just look at poor Subject 12.”

Noah looked to the end of the line at a destroyed tank, where a twisted mass of bone stood, looking like a gnarled, diseased tree.

“Hmmm, an extremely high level of compatibility must be required. How are the prisoners?”

“Very eager to talk to you, sir.”

Noah left the lab and went down to the dungeon, where howls and snarls mixed with the rattling of iron bars and chains. Before Noah arrived, such sounds were due to the captured fiends’ refusal to cooperate, thrashing around in their cages like wild animals. Any attempts to question them were met with screaming curses and threats, proclaiming the downfall of Uther and the rise of a new beastman kingdom, and anyone who got too close would be met with the fiends’ fangs and claws. Now, with Noah in charge, the prisoners’ attitudes had done a full 180º.

“Please, I’ll tell you whatever you want to know!”

“I need my medicine! I need my medicine! In the name of the spirits, I’m begging you!”

“I’ll do anything! Please, just a drop! I’ll make you feel good!”

These soldiers of the Pack, and even the middle echelon members who had worked directly under the former king as generals and advisors, had now become shadows of their former selves. They reached their arms out as if begging for food, and as Noah walked by, their desperation grew, throwing themselves at the iron bars. Where pain had failed to make these corrupted souls talk, pleasure opened the floodgates, pleasure in the form of a syringe full of Elutrin, the only thing more addicting than the parasite’s venom. Just as he had used it on Mark Saveat, it worked wonders in getting the Pack members to spill their secrets.

He stopped at one cell and revealed the needle. “Sorin, the details you gave me on the three shipments proved truthful, so you get a dose.”

“Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” He thrust his arm out, exposing the darkened veins, and licked his lips frantically like a dog trying to eat food off a counter. The syringe went in, and as Noah pressed the plunger, the man’s deranged face melted into a look of hedonistic euphoria. He collapsed to the floor, relishing the high.

“Now, the next dose goes to whoever can tell me the identity of the Liege.”

The men all started shouting names, locations, and details, none of which matched, and soon, they all started arguing with each other, throwing around accusations of lying. That was the problem with using Elutrin to gather information. They were addicts and would say anything to get another hit.

“I don’t like what I’m hearing. If nobody gives me anything I can use, then nobody gets their medicine.”

“We don’t know who he is!” one man sobbed. “We keep telling you! We never met him in person! Only the Profane up top have seen his real face! Please, we’ll answer any question you have, but we can’t tell you anything we don’t know!”

“That is quite disappointing. Do any of you have any real leads I can follow?” Everyone was either silent or continued shouting lies. Noah went to the crying man and gave him a dose to reward his honesty. “Now, the rest of this syringe goes to whoever can tell me where the beastman prisoners are being kept. Your forces have been sweeping the west and snatching up the nomadic tribes, so I want to know, where have you been holding them?”
2 comments

oldFReport 

2024-02-03 09:25:54
You are right, sorry; I have been wondering about the metal noah got out of the crab, did he use it? I really like how his relations and abilities are developing. The last book you let us know how colbrand was doing, it would be nice to have an update. I do admit I am looking forward to the next installment / story and hope you keep posting more.

Ryojin JakkaReport 

2024-02-01 21:38:49
I'm truly sorry that no one is commenting. I will try my best to describe my feelings in words. I love Noah, I've always been fascinated by longed lived characters whether that be Noah's multiple reincarnation or simply characters who have lived for thousands or hundreds of thousands years.

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