I hurried Chance through the labyrinthine network of tunnels, an alternate route where few dared to tread. “G-gosh,” she said, “I’ve never been this way before.”
“Not many have.”
She pursed her lips. “You seem to know where you’re going, but this path seems a lot less direct than the one I usually go down… I-is this the way to some torture chamber?!”
She raised an eyebrow and looked around the tunnels. They were unkempt, rough, sparsely lit, dusty and old. “Well, I haven’t seen anyone for a while, not even a Drone to fix this tunnel or put up decorations.”
“We didn’t build this place, we found it. Used to be a city down here, until the Slavani couldn’t maintain their Spawn Pit anymore and it dried up. The place was forgotten for a long time, then my boss found it and set it up as her hideout.”
“I see… So are you trying to avoid somebody by going the long way through abandoned tunnels?”
The shock of her being correct caused me to fumble my steps. “No, not at all! Who would I be avoiding?”
We stopped and she looked up at me, a smug smile plastered across her face. “I don’t know who it is, but it’s obvious. You’re avoiding someone.” She set her box down and circled around me. “You’re keeping a secret from her? Yes… The way you’re blushing under your fur, how you’re avoiding my eyes, I’m spot on! Hmm… ah, I recognize that look. Seen it plenty of times, I have.”
Who was this random Worker girl?! She knew I was lying to everyone? She knew I wasn’t as dumb as I made myself out to be? What kind of life did she lead to recognize it so instantly?
“N-nonsense,” I turned my head to the side. “I’m not hiding anything from anyone.”
“Oh-ho-ho! Of course, of course.” She turned her chin up so she looked down her nose at me. “Then I’m sure you’d have no problem if we returned to the busier part of the cave and continued from there? I mean, if you aren’t hiding from anyone, why else would we be here?”
I grit my teeth, “not a problem, let’s go back to the main pathways.” Looking back, I probably could have thought up a lie if I wasn’t so flustered.
This was bad. I’ve read your scripture so I knew how bad it was.
As a Soldier, I’m expected to be sent off to war, fight, then die alongside my sisters in mass wave infantry tactics. This is fine as you’ll just spit me back into a Spawn Pit where I’ll rise again and rejoin the battlefield. But Workers, as per your doctrine, are specifically never to be touched or harmed. I couldn’t just kill her to keep my secret.
We returned to the populated area of the den and Chance wouldn’t stop staring at my face. Her wings fluttered, her ears wiggled in excitement, and her stubby tail energetically swung side to side.
Every time we passed by a Worker, she studied my reaction.
“Is it her?”
“How about her?”
“Is she the one?”
She enjoyed it far too much. I figured it would be best to focus her attention on something else. “Why are you a drug addict?”
Her ears drooped. “…to be closer to Master. Why else?”
“So pray in a church. Why give this syndicate so much food when you can pray for free?”
Chance’s face scrunched in displeasure. “I… well I did! I prayed. I prayed all the time.” Her shoulders sank lower with every sentence, and the more she talked, the more passing Workers stopped to hear her plight. “But, well, a long time ago, I was a ranching in a village pretty far from here. I had a wife, I loved my job, everything was going great, we were even planning to adopt some newly-spawned soon. Then my village was captured by heretics and we had to flee. But we couldn’t escape with our livestock and had to leave them behind. I searched and searched for a rancher job in order to maybe work my way back up to taking care of animals again, but no positions were available. I tried to find other jobs, but I’m only good with animals, so I kept getting fired. Then I was arrested for being a jobless leech… then my wife left me… then I was assigned to work the next 15 years repairing the stone roads across Oshai. I-it’s important work, don’t get me wrong! But I just miss how things used to be and huggiggle helps me remember Master’s loving embrace cause, you know, sometimes it’s a little hard to remember that she loves us. huggiggle is illegal, I know, but what’s the worst that can happen at this point, right?”
“…” I looked down at the little worker and wiped a tear from my eye. That was the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.
A small crowd of Workers had formed around her, hearing her story, and all were sniffling or outright crying.
I needed a second to compose myself. “L-let’s go get you those drugs, okay?” I grabbed the crate of food to carry it for her. The other Workers gave her pats on the back and encouraging words as she passed. It gave her a weak smile, but it was something. I wanted her to stop poking her nose into my affairs, but I still felt bad for her.
Once we disappeared down a side hallway and got away from the rest of the Workers, Chance looked up to me, “anyway, back to you!” I pursed my lips. “It didn’t seem like you were avoiding anyone back there. So, who is it you’ve got a crush on?”
My ears perked.“…what?”
“You can’t hide it from me, miss Grungel, I’ve had crushes on quite a few girls in my time and all the signs are there!” She listed the reasons off her fingers. “You’re avoiding someone, I can tell it’s ‘cause you smell bad, your hair’s a mess, and you’re looking a little pudgy, probably cause you ate too much. But it’s not general anxiety of being seen in public because you weren’t trying to hide from all the girls back there. So, you must be hiding from someone specific. Someone you don’t want to see no matter what. A crush? It has to be a crush!”
“I… smell bad?” I pulled my collar over my nose and took a deep breath in.
“Yeah, like onions. Probably ate a lot of them. But anyway, spill it! Who’ve you got a crush on?”
“…Uuh…” How was I supposed to respond to that? I thought I found an intelligent Worker, only to find she’s an idiot like all the rest. “That’s not-“
Then Vortes rounded the corner. She held a map and rubbed the back of her head. “This isn’t the way to the baths. Where am I?” She looked around, and our eyes met. “Grungel?”
“Oh Master’s foot…” I grumbled. “Boss?” I tuned my voice to sound stupid again. “Good see boss!”
“What are you doing down here?” She crossed her arms, “you’re supposed to be on the surface, standing guard.”
As we talked, Chance glanced between us with an innocent smile.
“M-me was! Stand guard good, no intruders, but…” I gesture to Chance. “She… maybe heretic! Want do harm, big bad.”
“So why didn’t you send her off?”
“…Cause…” I scratched my horn. I couldn’t remember what excuse I used to escort Chance and get away from the entrance. “Cause…”
Chance stepped between us, giving me a wink. “You see, ma’am, she said I could pass but then she said to stop because she thought I was a heretic. Grungel’s the epitome of a true Slavani though, so turning me away after she said I could enter would have been going back on her word, and there’s nothing Master hates more than people who go back on their word. She couldn’t turn me away and she couldn’t let me go on her own, so the only option she had was to escort me down herself.”
Vortes looked to me, and I nodded. “Yep-yep. That right.”
Vortes sighed. “Fine. She doesn’t look like a fed-err… ‘heretic’ to me though, so get on back to your post.”
My shoulders slumped, such a weight was taken off them. My secret was safe, and I could say I’m heading back up but instead continue down to the escape tunnels!
“Yes boss! Me head-“
Then a Worker came running down the hall. “Boss! Booooss! There you are, it’s the feds!” She looked at me. “Heretics, I mean.” She winked at Vortes. “They’re here. The heretics wanna steal our stash. There was a small horde of customers at the entrance, and they tried to stop them, but it wasn’t enough! The heretics have broken through and they’re trying to arrest everyone they see!”
Vortes pointed at me, baring her teeth. “This is why you’re not supposed to leave the entrance. Now go, get back up there and stop them!”
“Yes, boss.” I turned to leave, intending to rush down to the emergency exit when I was out of sight, but Chance ran over and whispered in my ear.
“Don’t worry, it happens to lots of girls. Their ability to speak goes down the drain when they’re around the person they like. I got you.”
Chance turned with a bright smile. “Why don’t you go up with her, boss lady?”
“What?” Vortes and I spoke in unison.
“She needs to get to the surface quick, right? So, since you know the layout of the cave, why not take her? I’m not a heretic, so I can go down by myself, right?”
Vortes tapped her paw. “I guess that makes sense… You’d probably get lost. Fine. Let’s go, Grungel.”
Vortes walked off and I looked to Chance, my mouth agape. She returned my stunned look with a double thumbs up.
This jerk thought she was helping me! She thought I had a crush on that idiot boss of mine and was trying to get us alone together!
I couldn’t get out of it. Vortes would deliver me right to the feds, and I had to fight.
My only hope was that Vortes would get lost along the way, but no. She took me every correct direction, passed through all the right doors, all the way up to a large foyer on one of the higher levels, where we snuck up on a contingent of feds. The foyer had two staircases flanking the sides of the room, they were on the bottom floor, and we approached from the top.
We stealthily poked our heads over the lip of the second floor.
Six Workers and two Soldiers, all dressed in the standard black leather uniform of their organization. They had bound some twenty drug addicts, and a few Workers of the drug den, in chains. The two soldiers wore pads under their leather and swung their batons around playfully. The Workers did the grunt work like making molds of the captives’ horns for identification.
Vortes gently tapped me on the back and whispered, “looks dangerous. Nothing you can’t handle, right miss ‘strong as a hundred soldiers’?”
I gulped. “W-well, I mean, I’m not really at top form today. I think I ate too much, and I haven’t stretched either…”
“Okay, so you’re only as strong as fifty Soldiers? Shouldn’t make too much of a difference. I’m gonna slink away down one of the emergency tunnels, have fun.” She quietly backed off and ran away down one of the side tunnels.
Everyone in the drug syndicate knew we were being invaded. If I was seen trying to escape, everyone would know what a fraud I was. My only hope was to fight my way through to the surface, and escape into the desert. A slim chance, but the only option left.
I rose to my paws and took a deep breath,. I leapt off the balcony with a battlecry and landed on one of the Soldiers, taking her out instantly.
“What the-?” The other Soldier swung to look at me, her eyes shot open, “they’ve got a Soldier!”
She grabbed her baton and charged me. My fists were raised, my right leg was up with my claws ready to shoot out at a moment’s notice.
Now, on a good day, I’m probably the strongest creature on the whole of Oshai. This particular day, however, I ate too much, I was distracted, and I wasn’t fighting for some grand cause, just got roped into fighting for drug dealers. All of these are the reasons why I really didn’t do that well in the fight.
She was skilled with her baton, it gave her a lot more reach than my claws gave me, and she was conscious of my legs. No matter how much I tried to swipe or stab, she always jumped away at the last instant to avoid a fatal blow. She bashed her baton into my arms and shoulders a few times, but there was no lasting damage.
After I swung my leg too wide, she jumped forward and started pummeling me with the baton. I powered through the pain and finally got a few decent hits in with my fists. Heavy blows to the torso and face, enough to knock her unconscious.
Or maybe I killed her.
Well, practically speaking, there isn’t much of a difference for us Soldiers. If she died, then the feds would have just given her a new body and she’d be back in, at most, a few years.
By the time I finished, my breathing was labored and there were a few bruises under my fur.
“Yes! She did it!” One of the captured drug addicts yelled with a smile.
“No! She did it!” One of the Worker feds yelled with a frown. With an annoyed, heavy groan, they abandoned their prisoners and walked out of the foyer.
“By Master, you won’t get away with this you know.”
“We have plenty more Soldiers than just them.”
A few shook their fists at me, or stuck their tongues out, as they left the foyer. They knew as well as I did that Workers have your divine protection, they had no reason to be afraid.
I hurried over to the addicts and released each from their bindings. They thanked me as they fled deeper into the cave, but I overheard some of them mention that some huggiggle will inevitably be left behind so they should go take it for free. It didn’t matter to me, as a group of six more Soldiers burst in, alongside a Caster.
“Aaah,” The Caster spoke with her smooth, honeyed voice, “so you’re the infamous Grungel Chara Gree, are you? The Soldier as strong as a hundred of her fellows! How good it is that I’ll be the one to take you in.”
My mouth coiled into a smile too wide for my face, my eyebrows turned up. “Oh? I’m famous?”
“Hehhehhehheh,” I couldn’t stop giggling, “if you’ve heard of me, you think Master pays special attention to me?”
The Caster snarled. “Only to document your many and frequent offenses against her rule, heretic.”
“H-heretic!? I’m no heretic! You’re the heretic!” Master, I may work with heretics, but that doesn’t mean my own soul is damned. I’ve been taking advantage of heretics and scamming them for years, I’m like an anti-heretic. Or, uh, so I thought at the time.
There wasn’t much of a chance for me to win, but I couldn’t let that insult stand. I raised my arms, readied my leg, and watched as her soldiers followed suit. I wouldn’t be leaving without a fight.
I didn’t win.
I did pretty well, considering the numbers and the situation. I tossed the enemy soldiers around, I gave a few devastating kicks, my punches were hard, and no matter what damage I sustained, I never once fell to my knees. It wasn’t until the Caster launched a spell which shut off my limbs that I finally lost.
Me and the other Soldiers were cut, bruised, and broken. Nerve fluid leaked from our bodies, its pale, yellow shade soaking into the carpet as the Caster enacted another spell to heal our injuries.
“You gave my girls quite a bit of trouble,” the Caster mocked, “but not even the best muscle in the world is a match for Master’s magic. I would advise you to submit, but your compliance is, at this point, unnecessary.”
With my face pressed in the carpet, I knew it was over. I was captured. It didn’t matter my intentions, Casters are too stubborn to listen to reason. She won’t understand my plot or my schemes, she’ll think I’m a heretic like the rest of the fools in the syndicate. Emotions welled up within my chest, and it wasn’t long before tears began to pour out. My nose began to run.
“Why are you crying?” The Caster asked before her face curled into a smirk. “Finally realize the depths of your heresy?”
“I-I’m not a heretic!” I cried. “I scam heretics! I just say I’ll protect them for food, but I always bail when trouble arrives so I never actually work for heretics!”
She narrowed her brow to study my expressions and movements, then realized I was telling the truth. “Huh, interesting. So the infamous Grungel was a scammer. But you accept their food and pretend to be their guard, don’t you?”
“Okay then, so you’re still a heretic.”
She crouched down and poked my forehead to punctuate each reason. “You’re working with heretics. You’re hired by heretics. You get food from heretics. You give heretics peace of mind. You’re a heretic. The fact that you’re bad at your job doesn’t lessen the fact that your job is to protect heretics.”
“Bu-but! But I’m lying to them. I’m syphoning their resources!”
She gripped the bridge of her nose. “This is why you Soldiers should be kept on a leash. You don’t understand law or civil structure, and you get these absurd ideas in your head to justify your nonsense.”
She took a deep breath. “Okay, sorry, I forgot I’m talking to a Soldier. Let’s say you threaten to beat someone up if they don’t give you their food, and they give you their food. If you secretly weren’t going to beat them up even if they refused, and were just bluffing, does that make you a criminal?”
“No, of course not.”
“I see,” she nodded. Some of the Soldiers behind her nodded as well. “Do you think Master is infallible?”
“Of course!” I tried to puff out my chest as I laid limp on the floor. “She’s infallible on all counts! Everything She’s done is perfect and to question Her is heresy!”
“Good answer. So, according to Master’s law, you would be a criminal for threatening someone, and you would be a heretic for working with heretics.”
“…” I blinked a few times, trying to register what was just told to me. “R-really?”
My heart began to race, I felt cold and nauseous. A wave of 70 years worth of memories came flooding back as every last second of me being a heretic flashed before my eyes. “AAAAAAHH!” I screamed. It was a guttural scream made loud from so much regret.
I’m sorry Master! I had no idea I was breaking your laws! I thought it was okay cause I was scamming heretics, you know? Please don’t think I’m a heretic… that I’m irredeemable.
“Don’t worry, Grungel.” She kept a soft smile as she gently brushed the hair out of my face. “Your heresy seems the result of ignorance, not maliciousness. You’re a Soldier, stupidity is in your nature and I should take this in consideration when judging your soul.”
“…” I sniffed to clear my nose. “Wh-what?”
“You’re just a poor, dumb Slavani whom I can’t blame completely. I’ll reform you, execution isn’t the answer. Use your strength to catch other heretics. Under my orders, of course.” She smiled. “You can’t be trusted to make your own decisions when it comes to this stuff.”
So, I managed to avoid execution or prison time. Success!
But… I still feel like I lost somehow.
Rather than forced labor, they ended up conscripting me into their ranks to fight other drug dealers. I wasn’t given as much food as before, but oh well, it’s a stable job and I don’t have to worry about running afoul of the law. I also needed to start paying you back for all my crimes.
I even caught up with Vortes a few months later. She had moved to another den across the country and restarted her drug manufacturing. I rejoined her operation as a double agent, and eventually led to her arrest.
Now, Master, your words were very clear on this. Only heretics can be executed.
So, what’s a heretic? Someone who doesn’t repent for things like blasphemy or going against your rule. All Vortes or any other criminal has to do is say they’re sorry, and bam, they can’t be executed. Sure, she got 15 years of hard labor and couldn’t weasel her way into a cushy fed-job like I did, but once those 15 years are up, she’ll be right back to making and selling huggiggle across Oshai.
A happy ending for us all.
-Sincerely: Soldier Grungel Chara Gree, 3rd Daughter of Soldier Sum Gnat Gree and Worker Tera Bo Waverya, Born of the Velant Spawn Pit on Crown World Oshai.