Don't hate me, The plot Bunnies made me do it.

The world you are about to enter is a very, very old design of mine called Delacroix, it has made some appearances in other fan fictions, specifically my old Inuyasha fic Flirting with Demons. This specific cluster of countries isn't mentioned often.

There is a set of various kingdoms on the farthest most remote side of Acrinox, continent of the Goddess of Man, rival of her sister Goddess of Beasts. The two goddesses have long been at war, beast eating man, man enslaving beast, so that many humans believe that to mistreat an animal is a sin, and use human slaves instead. To forcefully enslave is a crime against the goddess of man, so Slaves must be sold by their families, or themselves, and may buy their own freedom for half of their original price, as the work they do is considered payment. If a slave dies during their servitude, the owner must give a death offering to the family as decreed by the dark lady, Goddess of Death.

The land of man is a large continent, one of seven ruled by two gods, three goddesses, and the goddess of death, who though she is a female to many, is never mentioned as having any actual gender. The seventh continent, the land of the gods, is said to be where all seven deities, along with their lesser gods and spirits, live. It is at the very top of the planet, while the land of death, Salvatore, is at the bottom. (Think polar icecaps.)

This cluster of kingdoms is often called Fenar by Glastonians, the most influential country of the lot. There are twenty different kingdoms in Fenar, the top three strongest and most wealthy being Gloston, Hestern, and Bafterna.

Fenarians are most commonly blonde, anywhere from red-gold to ivory, and dark skinned, from honey colored to black as mud. The wild lands, fifteen islands off the coast of Trasteran, are known as Probretan, from the main island Probreta. They are as black as swamp mud with hair the color of bronze. Probretans live mostly in marshy areas and are not so much slaves like Africans in our world, but sold children and indentured servants.

There is another race of Man called Tlishani, from what some people are calling the lost land. Tlishanar is a mysterious primitive kingdom said to be located near Salvatore at the very base of the world. Some people believe they are the very hands of the dark lady, Goddess of Death. However, few have dared to deliberately sail to the lands of death, only being blown there during storms. They believed it to be the line between life and death, and when the Tlishani repaired the ships and healed the wounded, the sailors would be off back home.

Somewhere in history a cruel, greedy captain, bewitched by the ethereal beauty of the Tlishani, is said to have captured a score of them and shipped them back home with them as prisoners, gifts for royalty.

Tlishani are fair skinned with thick, jet black hair and eyes the colors of gems, where Fenarians tend to have duller eyes such as gold, brown, or dark green Tlishani have emerald green, violet, and many, many shades of blue. The Tlishani quickly became a royal gem, a status symbol of power and favor, pets and lovers to kings and grand chancellors. Decades after the social sensation a terrible plague seized the continent, wiping out a large majority of the poor and nearly all the noble, the horrifying thing was that the Tlishani were immune, not a single one of the hundreds of dark beauties brought to the land fell ill. Not even the half-breed children bore by the women, both Fenarian and Tlishani, who had the dark blood, came down with even a simple cold. The people of the land saw it as a sign that the dark goddess was furious that mortals dared imprison her disciples and an uprising began. Infuriated survivors charged the homes of Tlishani owners and returned them to the land of the dead the best way they could think of, by slaughtering them.

With the dead, both plague corpses and Tlishani slain, burned and the streets cleaned the plague had only the survivors to prey on, and they were already exposed, immune systems stronger, as such less and less died, and the people rejoiced that they found a solution. Soon after the new Monarchs declared it a crime punishable by death to have a Tlishani. The eighty kingdoms of Fenar became twenty, and generations later the law still stands, but some are too attached, too deeply bewitched by the foreign beauty of the Tlishani to let something as petty as death get in the way of their lusts.

There are many, many other kingdoms, continents, and races to tell you of, but that would veer way off course. I gave Vlad an unnamed and undisclosed location in the land of man in which to plot. I do not know what kingdom he is in or who his ruler is, or even what his status is. I just threw them somewhere into my fabulous world and let them make the best of it. I think it turned out rather nice.

Some background information you'll need.

Valerie sold herself into slavery to keep her father out of a Hestern debtor's prison, after her first mistress, a baroness, was murdered she became a cutthroat in one of Trasteran's many underground conspiracies to overthrow their cruel queen. After that failed she was sold again to a marquis who used his servants for surgery experiments. When she discovered this, she gutted him with his own equipment and released the rest of the slaves.

When she reached Teslan, the major city in Trasteran, she allowed herself to be sold as a tavern wench to catch the eye of the duke who reportedly freed slaves just to have them recaptured and tortured as runaways. She slit his throat in bed, fleeing with a satchel of gold taken from the tavern keeper's quarters. With that she rounded up runaway slaves of near every nationality and armed them, becoming street bandits. The bounty placed upon her head was considerably large, and many times she poised as her own hunters to kill cruel slave masters and dealers, and steal more. She was in the process of raiding a duchess' carriage and escort when Vlad intervened.

Enjoy, and wait patiently for the new updates to all my other stuff. I'll be moving in when I post this, and I'll be lucky if I have the time to jot down a grocery list.

-

Vlad gazed at the duo from behind his large witchwood desk, ink and quill sat neatly and innocently off to one side of his resting elbows while piles of parchment, marked and unmarked, lay scattered around the other side in haphazard disarray. He was dressed up in all manners of finery, from his silk cloak spread over his broad shoulders to his leather gloved hands entangled with each other and pressed firmly to his mouth hiding the grim line his lips had firmed into. On all ten of his fingers gleamed jeweled rings of rubies and sapphires and emeralds of if not substantial size then size nonetheless. His long gray hair was pulled back at his neck and secured there with a threaded gold band.

His face was worn and tired, his eyebrows furrowed so that if they descended any further they would overlap his eyes completely, and his forehead was creased with the deep lines of his age. He felt his age, every year of it, this night as he sat before his company. Company that, despite the clearly comfortable chairs arranged around his office, stood stiff and waiting, patient and youthful. Everything he was not at this time. Everything he tried at this most crucial time to appear.

"There is not much else I can give you information wise." He admitted finally. "All that you need is within the scroll." He waved at the delicate roll of parchment, sand falling from his hand to land on the ink, preserving the instructions.

"That is more than what we will be needing." Declared one of his guests, a tall woman, far more curvaceous than what was fashionable, but the crossbow at her back and the wicked stilettos dangling like jewelry from the leather sling around her thin waist would no doubt prevent anybody from commenting on her body structure. "I'm sure my associate and I can handle this boy without trouble."

Vlad nodded. Valerie Grey, the master slayer as her bounty hunters came to call her, an escaped slave of numerous occasions. She was dark as tar and muscular in a way few women cared to try for save farmer's daughters and pirates, with intense forbidden good looks that many white ladies would trade their very titles to achieve. It was said she used to let herself be sold so that she could kill the masters, Vlad didn't bother with doubting it, it was better to treat her as if it were all true than to underestimate her and regret it later.

He found himself extremely fortunate to have picked her up while stepping into aid a carriage during a mere roadside raid. The Duchess was, regrettably, slain but turning her over to the authorities had seemed like such a waste of her talents.

Her associate, as she had called him, only scowled at him from across the desk. Strong and proud, Master Dashiel Baxter was perhaps the most promising and competent of his farmhands to ever dream of becoming a soldier. Vlad had felt near insane when he accepted the boy's offer to work to pay off his father's debts, thinking a noble born would be useless, but he was strong and hard working. His comely face was tanned from the summer's sun and his normally golden hair had been bleached to the point of ivory from days working in the fields. He was hefty for his age, but agile and ferocious in a scuffle, though a bit dense and childishly spoiled, as he found many noble born to be these days when peace and a kings promises seemingly protected them. The rapier at his side would be skillfully wielded, the handle on the sword worn by use, and his ability was well known and provocation well avoided.

"Master Baxter," he addressed, removing a thick ring from his vest pocket, the only ring he would never place upon his fingers. "I know your feelings of this situation." He removed a thick black stick from beneath a pile of parchment and held it before the flame of a candle, not bothering to find his wax set in the disarray of his office. Once the wax had dribbled a fair amount of itself upon the parchment beside his signature, he pressed the ring into the drying blotch and held for an instant then continued. "But know that, if the situation hadn't turned so ghastly, I would not be forced to implement the services of yourself and the captain."

Dashiel set his jaw firmly and refused to acknowledge the murderer beside him who had somehow worked her way from the irons to being his liege's commander.

"I need to know, Master Baxter, that you can do this. As promised when you deliver him to me, your father's debt will be more than forgiven, I will open up my own purse and restore you your birthright."

"The payments matter not my lord, the honor of simply being chosen for this is reward enough." He replied with straight back and grim expression. Valerie snorted indignantly and muttered something along the lines of 'humble boot licker' and 'piss up a chimney' but again the young master chose to be blind to her existence.

Rolling the scroll between his hands Vlad stretched his arm across the wide desk to hand it over to his captain. "Remember, you must never relinquish this information to another or it will send hell's very own fire down upon us." Translation being, you let this thing incriminate me, I will have your balls. A well backed threat.

In sequence, the two slammed their fists into their chests and bent low into a bow of silent respect. Varies ample breasts bounced at the motion, but neither man had blood red or hot enough to acknowledge it, doing so would earn only a dagger in the eye.

Once they had left his office Vlad allowed himself the luxury of collapsing, letting his heavy signet ring fall back into his inner vest pocket where it would stay until he had use of it again. His heart drummed loudly in his chest and echoed in his ears. He was getting far too old for the weight of that little ring, and now his one chance at a successor was to be murdered in the dark of night, and by his own people no less. But it was for the best, how long had he really thought he could hide the boy? Was he really so stupid to think no one would have figured it out?

With heavy heart and heavier conscious Vlad retired for the evening, praying that if Daniel was in any pain, Dashiel and Valerie would end it for him.

-

It had not taken long for the two of them to fall comfortably into the habit of ignoring each other. Dashiel and Valerie may have set out together, camped together, and when the situation called for it, fought together, but they were certainly not traveling 'together'. In fact, if one came across them on the side of the road they could only describe the two as coincidentally traveling in the same direction at the same pace.

They didn't take horses, as so many people had started to do despite the heralding of the temples, or teams of servants, but were content to trek across the land on foot to their destination. A small bag of gold was carried by both as well as a rucksack of provisions; their camping gear consisted of spark stones and survival skills. Overall, they traveled light, they traveled well, and they traveled fast.

The silence between them was thick as fog and comfortable as a tick in a steel breastplate, painful and impossible to be rid of.

It was around a small fire, not for warmth or light, but for the raw meat of a wild pheasant Valerie had plucked from the shrubbery at the side of the road, that they spoke companionable for the first time. The tenth hour of the evening on their third day out, Dash was finishing a prayer to the Lady of Beasts for forgiveness while Valerie was oiling the mechanics of her crossbow and testing the sharpness of her bolts.

"Valerie Grey cannot possibly be your true name," he said quite suddenly, so unprompted that the woman near sent a shaft off into the woods, her finger never but a hairs breadth from the trigger when she had the device in her hands.

"And why would that be?" She responded idly, returning to her task.

"Because it is neither Fenar, nor Probretan and you-"

"Are neither as well," she interrupted. "My birth name is not my identity, and my birth family would never speak it anyway." There was a heartbeat, and then she continued. "Valerie was what my mistress called me, my first mistress."

"Oh?" Dash shook his cloak out and stuffed it behind his head. "Was this before or after you buried a blade in her ribs?"

A blade that, miraculously, appeared in the ground all too close to his inner thigh. "This conversation is over." She growled, and Dash shrugged, plucking the stiletto from the dirt and tossing it back to her with deadly precision. She caught it deftly a scant few inches from her chest, resheathed it, and set her mind to working at her potion of the meal.

"At least my name is true, and it is my identity." Dash spoke, turning his back on her and the fire to relinquish his thoughts to the darkness of his dreams. Valerie snorted and mumbled something along the lines of 'cabbage brained pig rapist.'

The nicest things they'd said to each other all day.

It was two days later at a decomposing stand on the outskirts of Sternoc, a small huntsman and fishing village said to be blessed by the Goddess of Beasts herself, that they were once again friendly. They had been out for almost a week and had made progress.

Sternoc was quite possibly blessed by the lady herself, as even on the outskirts beast and man mingled. Dash was at the stand, ordering a light amount of salted fish and dear, enjoying a good haggle with the owner who seemed in good spirits despite the fact that they were his only customers in days.

"Why is that rabbit just staring at us?" Valerie asked, unnerved. Rabbits were not a brazen bunch, and the noise and movement the two men were making should have sent it bounding back to its home.

"Ah, that is the power of the blessing." The man walked around to the brush and picked the perfectly calm beast up by its scruff. "So long as we are not hunting, it will not flee." As if to prove the point the rabbit kicked playfully and sniffed at the man's face.

"How cute." Dash cooed, touching a finger to the hare's twitching nose. The animal bit his finger gently and wriggled.

"Hares are the great lady's messengers, and to kill one outside of a hunt would be a breach of the oath. Take care if you see one, yes? It wouldn't do good to have her anger hanging over you next time you need a meal. Two copper pieces each, that's all you'll be getting from me lad." He returned to haggling with Dash, letting the filthy creature hop across his table until it reached the edge and sprang back to the bushes.

Dash agreed and paid the man an extra copper for directions. Sternoc was barely a few hours travel from where they were, but the sun was setting and however well armed they were they did not want to be caught up in any fights after nightfall in unfamiliar territory.

"That was surprising." Valerie mused.

"I hear stories about bears being offered shelter in homes during bad storms and tree cats leading lost travelers to safety at night around these parts, a tamed rabbit shouldn't be so hard to believe.

"No." Valerie said. "Your reaction. Men don't tend to call things 'cute' particularly things you could eat."

Dash flushed and scowled in her direction. "And women don't tend to walk around in vest and breeches, but I haven't jabbed at your gender deficiency."

Valerie's fist clenched. "Because you're afraid I'd kill you while you slept, is that it?"

"Fearing a woman, another thing men don't tend to do."

"You've never been married." She retorted.

"Neither have you." Dash paused, "Have you?"

Valerie's scowl should have answered that question. They continued in the painful, itchy silence until Valerie finally sighed. "I couldn't stand their cruelty."

Dash was startled. "Who's?"

"The master's." she dropped her bag in a small clearing barely large enough for the two of them and began kicking aside dead leaves and weeds. "They enslave humans to protect themselves from the Huntress' wrath then use their servants like they're some indefinite work force because a few coins in the grieving families' purse will cleanse them of their sins."

"Huntress." Dash looked puzzled. "That's what the Probretans call the Goddess of Beasts?" He leaned against a thick tree and watched as she furiously kicked at the forest floor until a circle of dirt appeared.

"Yes." She huffed. "Because they believe just as Man is eaten by beast, so can beast be eaten by man, and it requires no blessing." She hissed the last part through bared teeth. "She's a huntress, a wrathful protector, like the mountain cats, not some coddling doe."

Dash made an 'ah' formation with his mouth. "My mother once said the Goddess of man is being perverted into the whore of man." He smirked. "A grotesque warrior, slayer of dragons and beasts, pictured only in her most formal, most furious battle attire and never anything else."

"She has turned a bit vile these past few centuries." Valerie smirked. "It seems we're both familiar in the old days of the gods."

Dash's amused face turned sour. "I said my mother believed it, not I. I share no common ground with you but the dirt beneath us."

Her mood darkened, she let herself fall back gracelessly onto the dirt, arms behind her head, and smiled mockingly up at him. "Very well, Master Baxter, why not share a bit of your own past, let us see how far this rift between us delves.

Dash looked challenged for a moment, but slung his own bag over by hers and plopped down to be somewhat level. "We'll have no fire tonight I suppose." He muttered.

"Pigs wallow, tales by firelight are for old war veterans and shipwrecked sailors, we discuss this as warriors, without the fear of our pasts lurking like specters in the forest's shadows."

"There is not much to tell, and less to be afraid of. My grandfather was a knight, Sir Baxter of the king's royal guard, seven and twenty was his age when the Tlishani plague struck Fenar, he lost his wife and two sons to that catastrophe and was present when the mobs overrun the keep that the royals hid with their cured pets. He was struck on the head while protecting the king's mistress, a budding young Tlishani barely fourteen and heavy with child, royal child Valerie, it was his sworn duty to protect her but the mob didn't care. They clobbered him until his face was smashed and slew the young woman, My Mother said they cleaved her belly open and pulled the child from her and slammed it against the stones. If there was ever cruelty to hate, it was that night.

"My Grandfather survived, but his face was a mess of scars and shattered bones, no physiker could do a thing to repair it. It wasn't his marred flesh that he cursed, but the act that caused it. He declared that if the sickness spared the Tlishani from death than killing them would bring the Dark Lady's wrath upon the kingdoms tenfold, but when weeks past with fewer dying and more recovering his words lost all their weight. The green king, fifth son of the very man my grandfather fought for, stripped him of his title and sent him out on the streets." Dash looked out at the shadows of the trees. Dusk was approaching and a chill had crept into the air. "My grandfather lost an eye defending the royal family and their Tlishani whores, and his remaining one was near blind, yet they threw him to the cobblestones like a drunkard's vomit.

"His one remaining Daughter had married a Duke, her dowry having been quite substantial when Grandfather had his title, and lost her husband to the plague, as well as his son, my brother." Dash took a breath. "She married my father, a knighted war hero, and cared for my grandfather until his dying breath. She bore me, and no others. She will be four and thirty this summer."

Valerie looked astonished. "So old, it's a wonder your father hasn't taken a mistress." And Valerie would know, because her friend worked in the Baxter household.

"Indeed, but despite my father's lust for gaudy tapestries and other such finery he loves my mother and would never be untrue. But the Duke's coffers could only hold so much and my mother had spent most tending to my invalid grandfather, and the drought three years ago bled us just to keep the servants from starving. Vlad understood this when he came to collect the land tax, my mother may be a Dowager

Duchess but my father was just a petty knight and her title did not transfer to him, we fell into debt, barrowing money just to pay for our right to keep our land and the servants fed. Even with profitable seasons we never could pay off the interests and when Vlad's messenger came to collect for the king, we had nothing to pay but the land. My mother, Duchess Baxter, whose name she had kept despite both her husband's dispute, would be on the streets like my grandfather. I couldn't let that happen."

Valerie was sitting up, scowling. "So you sold yourself to Vlad, not knowing what kind of man he was or what he would do, to save your family from debt?" Dash nodded somberly and Valerie sighed. "It would appear the rift has a bridge." She looked ill. "To think that shit-flinging Fenar monkeys could have anything similar to Probretans, let alone the nobles," She feigned a shudder, "my Father would spring a rupture."

"Speaking of which." Dash growled. "I was raised to believe history as a type of coinage, I suggest you start trading in some of yours or open that purse and start counting."

Valerie shrugged. "There's darkness yet to waste, as you claimed most all the dusk's shadows with your own pathetic wallow of shame." Dash knew she was just trying to get a rise from him, but it was working well.

"I was born on the shores of Trakashel, what you Fenar call Tantra, the third largest island in the Probreta wild lands, and my mother a Hestern and Trasteran mix of noble birth. She was the sixth daughter of a noble family blessed with only one son, an illegitimate heir snatched from my grandfather's mistress and dressed to look like a member of the family. When his true mother fled to the wild lands to escape a death sentence, nobody wanted her to speak of her child you see, she took my mother with her. Gracious was weak after birth, barely fifteen and just lost her child, and my mother no older than her. My father was a worker in the pits, a marshy area of our island that we dug out and collected large slugs, fish, giant water lizards, and swamp fish in. My father loved water lizards; they almost took his leg off in a hunt once, and was out feeding his crop of them in the pit when my mother and her captor fell. Amazingly, the snapping things didn't crush them in their jaws, but slid harmlessly around them like fish in a shallow pond. My father was amazed.

"After calling for aid they were fished out and taken to the leader's crutchet, what you Fenar call mud-huts, a shelter built of reeds and clay, messy when wet, but when dry it was hard as stone and impervious to weather, even rain. Only the salty water of the sea could erode it, and so we built them in the marshlands, with our trendoras, or tree huts. There they rinsed the mud from their almond skin and ivory hair and dressed them in warm cloths. My mother and father fell in love almost instantly."

"After I was born the city moved my family from the crutchets and helped my father build a trendora so that belly crawlers wouldn't kill me for their own meals. I had a water lizard as a child, I remember my uncle saying the Huntress favored my father and his care of his cluster of them so bade them not to harm our family. She had sent for my mother they said, that was why the girl had come with someone who was not her family, not even her friend."

"That's why you're so attached to the goddess." Dash grinned. "You think you're blessed."

"Fool, my family was idiots to think the goddess favors one man, no matter how loyal." She hissed at him. "My mother's family hunted her down like a prized dog. They had fallen into poverty and my dear aunts and illegitimate uncle all died with Coalman's fever. If the Huntress fancied my family the Dark Lady surly did not, they set fire to our trendoras to flush her out and slit Gracious's throat when they saw her. My grandfather was far from the noble yours was, and left my father for dead and dragged my mother and me back to Trasteran. My father survived, and spent everything trying to find us. When he had nothing left, he borrowed, and soon fell into horrible debt. The land he owned back on Trakashel was seized as collateral and would be sold if he didn't find a way to pay them back.

"I was unfortunate enough to be the only survivor after a band of cutthroats ambushed our carriage and when finding nothing but poor, land rich nobles and a shivering, filthy girl they slashed the necks of our surviving relatives and dragged my mother off. I was hiding under the carriage seat where my grandfather stuffed me because he couldn't stand the sight of me. Eight years old and orphaned, I climbed from the carriage and went searching for where my mother was dragged. I'm certainly gad a troop of horses nearly trampled me before a reached the other side of the road, because I don't know what they did to my mother but there were large bloodstains on the trees. I was picked up by a Probretan messenger on business from his maser, a wealthy baron in the next town, a baron who happened to be my father's moneylender."

Dash made an 'ah' sound, having nothing else to do during the long pause Valerie left after that.

"I realize I'm jumping around a bit, but there's a lot about me, and not so much about you. So by your creed unless you want more, you'll need to open your purse." She smiled cruelly when Dash scowled. "But in all fairness I'll summarize that after several small incidents I was reunited with my father in the baron's household and the young baroness offered to take me as a servant in exchange for my fathers land and forget the money. The baron was shrewd, and would have sent my father to prison for his debt, but even he acknowledged that a young handmaiden was worth more than a plot of swamp and a single tree in a foreign land. My father went home free, but alone, with only the promise that I would buy my freedom and return to him in a few years. And that's the last I saw of him." She shrugged, knowing that that didn't explain much anything about her, but it was the only thing she would give. Her life and history was hers, and it would never be a fair trade with what the noble cock-licker had offered. Nothing he went through would ever match hers.

Turning over on the dirt she signaled the end of the friendly exchange of hardships with a flip of her hand.

"Crotch rotting whore," Dash muttered, taking up his own sleeping place, retrieving his rucksack to be used as a pillow, this time leaving his cloak to shield himself against the chill of the night.

Valerie countered with something very interesting about cock sucking and sodomite but Dash was too far away to hear her mumblings.

-

Sternoc was a small city compared to its neighbors, but it was sizeable for a fishing village, with a harbor deep enough for ships and migrating sea-creatures to fit together comfortably without fear of each other. It was said the great dragons of the God's ocean could rest in the harbor without a single scale lifting above the water. This was an exaggeration, of course, because no one had ever seen a great ocean dragon fully, they never left the god's ocean near the ice castles at the far end of the planet.

Oxen and horses were not the only pack beasts in the streets, there were some with large hoofed creatures much like dear but with wild lion's mains that reached all the way to their muzzles, they walked on two legs, their forepaws folded at their chests like rabbits and curved horns on their furry heads spiraling out. A large snake-like beast carried a long multiple seated saddle on its back and walked the ground with many muscular limbs that clutched and grabbed and snorted, large slimy pink tongue sticking out like a tortoise's to yawn. Dash stepped back from the thing as it passed, receiving a nudge between his shoulders from a miniature giraffe with a much shorter neck and stubbier legs, with horns that curved back like handles to be gripped.

Dash stared at the thing, it's chest reached up past his shoulders and it's muscular neck curved down to let its head be level with Dash's. It bayed, head butting Dash in the chest and nearly toppling him over.

"Looks like he likes you," Valerie sniggered. "It's called a Troxer, they grow a good few feet more, this one's just an adolescent and likely to be a handful to the one selling him, see how he's kept from the others?" she pointed to a corralled group of near identical troxers, all a bit older and larger than the one Dash was currently petting. They were large animals, Dash would have to swing up with more effort than he would with a horse or elk, but the horns were larger, thick cones curving back like flattened ears and could easily spear a rider if he was careless enough to be too close when the thing threw its head back. "They live in the Bafterna controlled mountains in Wantorg, those horns are long adapted to spearing attacking mountain cats that jump on their backs. Their pretty and fast, but dangerous to ride, few nobles even bother with them, valuing their lives over their reputations. I'm surprised someone has so many of them."

Dash let the miniature troxer nibble on his fingers a while. The teeth were sharp, not flat and worn like a mountainous shrub eater should be, but not canine like the cats and wolves of the region. "Their teeth are shaped weird." Dash said.

"Ah, do we maybe have an interest?" up waddled a pudgy young woman in working leathers, she had what appeared to be a mixture of mud and something's droppings on her tiny boots, her feet couldn't possibly hold her girth up, but she stood still when she reached them, not having to grip anything for leverage. She came up to Dash's ribcage.

"Why are its teeth shaped like this?" he asked.

"Well they're scavengers, having to pick between crevices and into mouse holes, their teeth elongate and jut out like a bird's beak to accommodate them." She grinned. "They're not completely carnivorous of course, they do eat grains and fruits, but I wouldn't give them leafy greens if I were you," she tapped some of what was caked on her boots onto the ground. "If you know what I mean."

"Is that as big as they get?" Dash jutted his chin out at the little herd.

"Well that's all depending on diet." She said, not at all annoyed at so many questions. She was rather friendly for a street market shopkeeper. "If you give them all the rights they need they'll get big and wide." She laughed as she patted her own vast belly, "but give them what they had out on the rocks and this is what you tend to get." She patted the little ones head. "Strong and healthy and quick, and you can file and cap their pikes for safe ridding, it don't matter to them, they break and chip 'em out on the mountains all the time. If you don't file them, they get too long and heavy for their poor heads."

The troxer used the curve of his horns to head butt Dash's chest gently.

"Ah, he likes you, this one."

Dash pat him a few more times sorrowfully while Valerie looked impatient. "I'm afraid that other than passing curiosity my interest is absent." He backed up and nodded to Valerie.

"You're lying," she chirped, "but that's okay, go finish your business and see what your mind keeps coming back to. He's young, he'll wait. When you want him, he'll be here, just name your price."

Dash gave the woman an apologetic, unconvinced look, then followed his companion through the market, not hearing the keening of the beast he left behind.

-

The tavern they were instructed to visit was on the far corner of the city, nearest to the closed off section of the harbor where playful visiting sea dwellers splashed and danced and hosed down those who got too close with a stream of water the force of a swift river. Dash was one of those unfortunate passers to be knocked to the ground when a gargantuan creature resembling a slimy black slug stretched to the point of snapping reared its eyeless head and shot a blast right at him.

Others in the water bayed at its antics and one appeared to blow him a kiss, Valerie stepped over him and kept walking. "You have such a way with animals." She sneered.

Dash made a rude gesture at the overweight eel, his admirer made snickering noises and waved a fin, back flipping in the water. Dash entered the tavern behind Valerie chased by a chorus of incomprehensible, and he was sure obscene, noise from the sea.

"Want a towel there boy?" came a voice from a corner and he noticed a few others just as soaked as him. His pride repaired itself a little.

"Naw, at least it wasn't the other end." He joked, and someone remarked on 'how he knew it wasn't?'

"Them buggers are terribly cheeky, but they're behaving here because her ladyship makes them." One said. "You should see them on the sea. Little shits throw the remains of their fishy meals at you."

Dash would rather not experience that.

"Where's Foley?" Valerie demanded.

"Maur's in the back." The bartender waved a hand. People who came calling for the owner by name tended to have pressing business, and few knew that the Probretan owned the place.

"Maurice Foley?" Valerie asked when she saw a stooped man in what was once the anteroom to a respectable seaside home, now a tavern to drunken sailors willing to take a beating ocean style.

"Yes?" the voice was rich and eloquent, suggesting a far more refined life than that of a seafarer's. "Ah, Master Baxter, Lady Grey, how nice."

Valerie stopped, shocked. "How did you know us?" Her hand was at the small of her back where the clasp that held her crossbow rested, a gentle nudge at the button would unlatch the weapon that would then fall into her waiting hand. It wouldn't take her three seconds.

"Master Masters describes all his men to me." He said casually, rising as though he didn't know the woman before him could kill him before his next breath. "For possibly this very reason. No need to send a letter of introduction, I know you both by sight. Just a bit of proof that this isn't an act of mutiny and I'll be glad to answer whatever you ask."

"We have no proof." Dash said.

A flicker of something crossed the man's eyes a moment, and he was a bit guarded when he answered. "If I know Vlad, I think you do." He held his hand out. "The scroll please."

Dash's hand touched his rapier, Valerie tensed and her finger tapped the clasp, the weapon falling into her hand.

"I'm not going to read it, children." He said, "Just the bottom, where he placed his seal."

Dash slowly reached into his vest for the scroll, handing it to the man. He unrolled just two inches of the parchment, slightly damp but still safe. Nodding as he saw the signature and the seal, he rolled it back up and tossed it in the burning hearth beside him.

"Hey!" Dash and Valerie cried in unison, Valerie had her crossbow out and resting on the bridge of the man's nose in a blink.

"You'll regret that." She growled.

"Please." said Maurice not at all intimidated. "The only reason he put his seal beside his name on an incriminating piece of parchment was to keep me from killing you." He tapped his temple twice and there was a click. Dash turned to see a lanky youth step out of a hidden passageway. He was dark as his father and Valerie, with the typical mop of golden curls on his head and a not so typical cylinder he tapped gently onto his palm and out fell a needle with a scruff of feather on the end. He slipped it into a box on his belt and stood by his father.

"Your son," Dash guessed.

"Correct. Now my guess is you already know the instructions on that little piece of parchment." Dash nodded and Valerie removed her crossbow from her host's face. "This is my son Tucker, Tucker, this is Dashiel and Valerie, please be polite and don't kill them." Tucker nodded and tucked the wooden cylinder into a loop on his belt beside the box. Dash tried not to doubt that he could retrieve and load it in half the time he put it back. Doubters tended to end up with poisoned needle in their skin.

"Now." Maurice began. "What is it you want to know?"

"Vlad's heir, Lord Daniel, has been imprisoned by Sir Jerald in Gloston's capital."

Maurice mad an 'ah' sound. "Yes, Sir Jarhead." Tucker sneered. "I think I have the blueprints to his manor in Grestwood."

Maurice nodded. "Would you go get them son, and make a sprint of it. Our guests have little time if Vlad lost Daniel." The adolescent, nothing but jutting bones and bobbing hair, disappeared back into the dark hole he crawled from and returned a moment later, carrying a large wilted scroll with yellow on the edges where pieces had not chipped and torn off. The manor must be old.

"Good lad." Maurice praised, and placed a thin, near transparent piece of cloth over a portion of the map. "This, my sweet jewels is a birth of my wife's own brilliance." He explained, "Though I won't tell you what it's made of, that's a secret." He winked. "It's thin enough to see through, flimsy enough to roll and fold, yet strong enough to resist being torn, dissolved, and trampled. And!" he plucked off a corner and stuffed it in his mouth. "It's a lot easier to eat that parchment." He smiled broadly "quite handy when one needs to dispose of evidence quickly."

He picked up a thin black stick from his desk and began tracing from the window they were to enter to the section of doors that Jerald would keep a prisoner if he wanted them comfortable, then picked up another sheet and traced the details of a second entrance for those he didn't wish such luxuries onto.

In the end, the duo had five small edible sheets the size of Dash's palm with their only hope of getting into the manor scribbled delicately onto them.

"Do enjoy your mission." Maurice called as they left. "And try not to lose those, otherwise I may find myself with sudden competition."

The tavern was still busy, the number of people wet hadn't changed too noticeably, though Dash saw the people who were wet were not the same ones from before, and the jokes about the fishy beasts outside had yet to dwindle off. The bartender must get bored very quickly.

Outside Dash was met with a chorus of cheers and apparent catcalls from the sea-folk. His admirer blew him more kisses and attempted to copy his rude hand gesture once again, unable to do anything but wave. No wonder sailors were so foulmouthed; they learned it from these barbarians.

-

To say it was a long trek to Grestwood would have been a terrible lie. It was barely a day's ride by messenger horse, a creature that looked absolutely nothing like a horse, but other than scientists, nobody ever bothered to recall its actual name. With a blessing from Sternoc's temple of the Lady of Beasts, they acquired a set of the large running lizards for transportation and set off.

The reason it was such a short ride was that messenger horses could never be trained to take paths. They knew by scent the exact location of wherever you wanted to be and went there in a hurry. From infancy they were trained to incorporate the scents given to them in stables with the location, and walked around cities with bags over their snouts breathing nothing but the stuffs. When they reach the ripened age of five they were released to temples for travelers willing to go through the arduous ritual of getting the Huntress' blessing, then a quick whiff from a perfumed bottle, and they were off to the location brought up by the specific scent.

They were not, however, highly recommended traveling mounts, as they rarely obeyed orders, thought little of the comfort of their riders, and would have to be tied up if you had to tread back a few paces to retrieve something you dropped. Not to mention that halting them in any way before they reached their destination caused them to go into fits of babyish wailing loud enough to deafen. The only thing capable of convincing them to stop, even for the night, would be a piece of fish spine, an ordinary piece of trash, but delicious to them and quite a good piece of bribery.

Dash had three clean sets of fish spine for their mounts in each saddle bag should he or Valerie happen to experience an unfortunate tumble and need to be retrieved, they weren't however, properly prepared to dive headlong into the forest and be scraped by various limbs, both tree and animal wise, as their scaly friends tried to meet an imagined deadline.

When they finally reached Grestwood they were scraped, dirty, and sporting very unfashionable hairstyles.

"Well wasn't that a merry blend of fuckery?" Dash chirped in the most eerily happy sarcasm he could force from his throat. "Let's take the same way back."

"If we get him out alive, we may have to." Valerie said, running a hand through her mess of sun bleached curls now that the lizards were comfortably within their memorized territory and willing to obey body language like the good little ponies they were.

"What do you mean if?" Dash spurred his messenger up beside hers and grabbed its reigns, an unneeded bit of theater to make him feel justifiably furious. "You aren't seriously considering putting the poor boy down? Do you even know Daniel? How could you just write him off like that?"

Valerie felt her hackles rise at being talked down to and jerked the reins back from Dash's grip. "Yes, no, and I will do what I've been ordered, as you should." She growled.

"He said if we deem it necessary, not if it's convenient. I don't care if the heir is suddenly a leper, if he has a chance to live, I'll cleave your head before I remove his." She smirked when he mentioned that and his face flushed with anger.

"He has his land and his money." She said. "That's all that matters to Fenarians."

"I mean it whore, you will not harm him, he's all Lord Vlad has. I will not allow that man to accuse me of incompetence because your callous nature."

In a blink she had a stiletto at his throat, but he already had one at her gut. "Never call me whore." She hissed.

"It's much less insulting than whatever you've made a habit of mumbling under your breath, I'm sure you'd rather be a strumpet than a pissant cock sucking ass fucker as you so grandiosely labeled me throughout our journey." He ground back.

"I never called you an ass fucker," she said sulkily, "that would make you the rider, not the ridden." And with that and a sassy grin she slapped a hand on the muscular thigh of her mount and was off towards Sr. Jerald's Grestwood Manor. Leaving Dash to keep up with her sudden head start, trailing a long list of obscene insults behind him.

Tying up the now placid messenger horses was far easier and far quieter work within their destination and with enough fish spine pieces to keep them busy for the night. They didn't have to worry about anyone taking the lizards, only a fool would steal a fully-grown trained messenger without knowing, and obtaining, all the scents required just getting it from city to city. Not to mention steeling a beast from a temple of beasts was asking for a mauling. No one who ever insulted the Huntress dared even set foot outside for fear of animal retaliation.

Split between the upper stories and the lower stories Dash and Valerie, for the first time in a week, divided up and went separately. She scaling up walls and stealing into a window with a concealed fake latch, supposed to be known only to Sr. Jared's wife and lover, as she was the one to install it this past spring. Valerie would be checking the finer rooms of the second and third stories, before climbing to the attic and searching there, while Dash made do with the three complicated sheets of flimsy paper that brought him to the dungeon and even lower to the very pits into which the sewer seeped.

It didn't take her more than a few dozen doors to realize Daniel Fenton was most certainly not in the higher levels, but she continued on, checking cupboards and closets, wardrobes that may have been emptied for a bound body, secret passageways for a secret room. She would search it all thoroughly, careful of the passing servants and the nighttime wanderers. When she was absolutely certain that the heir was nowhere within her line of search she nimbly climbed out the window and ran along the grounds wall to the entrance she and Dash had agreed upon to wait for him. They would have to hurry if Dash was to come carrying the body of a Fenar noble through a potentially crowded and guarded area of the manor and not have the city watch close in their heels.

Assuming the young lord was even in the manor, and that Dash would not slay him as Vlad advised.

-

The servants entrance was, despite warriors tales, incredibly well guarded, as was the second entrance indicated to him, a summer parlors window, the room's wall mainly consisted of glass and the window was larger than Dash was, but it was latched almost to the point of permanently sealing it. So he was down to the third and last, a barricaded gardener's door leading into an abandoned tool shed, since the manor's inner wall became its outer and only wall, cutting out the vast garden it had had near a hundred years ago before the city became the capital and the buildings around it closed in on all sides.

It was frantic, noisy work to ram the door open, but he got through the rotted wood boards on the fifth try, entering the dark, mold-scented room with only a throbbing shoulder in which he continuously glanced over in case someone heard him.

From that gardener's shed, he entered the cellar, where bulbs, seeds, and stores of fertilizer were stored until winter frost was long past and spring would gently rear the sprouts to beautiful fragrant adulthood. From the neglected seeds and fertilizer, there were rodents, parasites, and all manner of vermin coming in from the sewers and wherever else to make a home.

Just as the sheet told him, the cellar had a large drainpipe in case of flooding that would prevent the cellar from becoming a private swamp. Shucking off his cloak and vest he approached the hole, the wooden grate long having rotted and fallen through. The drainpipe led down into aqueducts connected with the cities sewers, a fresh rain would probably leave even this long abandoned conduit flooded and dangerous, but with the autumn dry season at its peak and winter's chilly breath breathing down everyone's sun reddened necks the channel should be both cool, and dry.

And it was. He feared, for a desperate moment as he slipped down the vertical shaft, that his broad, beefy shoulders would jam him in midway and leave him there to starve or suffocate or drawn during the next rain, whatever the gods sent first. A strange thought to have mid-jump, but he slid through the four yards of grimy stone pipe-way, landing on the balls of his feet, then onto his butt, safely, with only a few filthy scratches to add to the scrapes his travel had given him.

Sitting in the larger, but still cramped tunnel Dash fished around himself before touching the sheets he had stuffed into the waist of his breeches. Using his spark stones he struck a light on a candle he had tucked away in his boots and allowed the hurtful glare of the yellow light to pierce his eyes and illuminate his surroundings. Perfect, this entrance left him closer to the improvised and reportedly abandoned dungeon then any of the others. This wouldn't do him a lick of good if Daniel was bound and gagged in the attic, but at least he could feel accomplished.

A heavily pregnant rat hissed up at him and he sneered back. God he hated rodents, always where they shouldn't be, but in this case he would restrain himself from crushing her and her addition to the population because he was still under the blessing of the lady of beasts and that would probably revoke it.

Gods the conduit was a warren, branching into many, many entrances and alternate paths, some places dry as the dessert and others sloping into sunken holes collecting seeping water in the hopes of forming its own lake. Some of these Dash could jump over, others he had to wade as carefully as possible to avoid whatever might be hidden in the dark, filthy liquid.

Finally he came bellow a raised dais stretching only a few inches above his head, continued on by a three-foot wooden barricade that looked newer than most other wood he had encountered in the undergrounds so far, but still fairly close to collapse. The enclosed dampness was no place to build with wood.

Above him there appeared footsteps, he blew out the candle and pressed himself into the darkness, someone stomped by, climbing steps by the sound of it, wordless and from the clipped, measured strides quite sure of where they were going. When the noise had faded Dash counted his breaths and peered over the platform.

It was narrow, about as wide as a single well-built guard would need to walk in mild comfort without fear of falling. There was no stair from the sewer to the dais but there was a portion were the wood had rotted so much it appeared someone had leaned on it and fell through. Scrambling up over the edge Dash hurried in the direction the whoever-it-was had come from. There were various cells and cages, some hanging over the sewer passages, possibly for those flooded times where the prisoner would dangle precariously over rushing water containing who knew what and the creaking of rusted, fragile iron to fill ears and feed fears of plunging into that horror.

It was deep into the line of cells that Dash heard a noise, a scraping echo that sent him spinning to his rear, then back to his front, desperate to find the creator. Finally, once his heart slowed its racing to a less life threatening pace he turned to the cell set off from the aqueducts. It appeared to be a very narrow cell, smaller than any others he came across, and for an instant he dismissed it as having to make room for another cellar behind the wall, but then the scraping sound came again, this time with a clink of metal.

It came from within the cell, though there was obviously nothing occupying it. Never being one to believe in wraiths Dash slowly opened the unlatched door and entered the empty cell.

It was narrower within then it looked without, barely wide enough for a man to stretch out longways or sideways, but a portion of the far end was shadowed. Approaching in carefully Dash discovered a gaping hole, about a foot wide and going all along the wall. Peering down Dash lit his candle again and let the light illuminate dimly what lay below.

It was a pit, a shaft about seven feet deep and as wide as the cell he was kneeing in, craning his neck to the point of almost falling in he saw that behind the wall was nothing but more space, reaching up to heights he couldn't adequately measure at the angle he was in but the dark blue square shining in the far wall suggested that it opened to allow fresh air and night sky, possibly a good view of the manor's wall.

Something down there twitched and he instinctively turned to the source of movement, expecting another vile rat, but it was larger, shadowed, slowly began to move. The sound of scraping iron chains filled the walls for a moment along with pain-filled gasps.

The cell was occupied?!

His heart thundered against his chest, swelling with hope and dread. Was this the young lord, and if it was what could they have done to him to create those pained sounds, the sounds Dash had heard many make over the years he was working Vlad's fields, the sounds of someone suppressing cries of agony.

"Who's there?" he whispered, to the darkness, getting a jerky surprised movement and a shakier outcry of pain at the action. The chains rattled.

"Who are you?" croaked the prisoner, having energy enough, it appeared, to emphasize the 'you'.

"A rescuer if you are the one I came to retrieve." He replied. No sense implementing himself if it was the wrong man and the guards offered a reward for the intruder's identity.

"And who have you come to rescue?" such a long sentence in what sounded like a well abused voice caused a coughing fit, tearing more at a throat unable to take the assault.

"My lord and Masters heir." He let the surname slide into the words like a secret message, but this made the shadowed body rise up and, stretching the chains as far as they would go, he brought himself into the light.

Dash was horrified at his state, he couldn't tell if the blackness on his arms and near bare body were grime, bruises, or dried blood but the wide, hollow eyes and pale skin that even the corpse of his sickly grandfather had not achieved told him this boy, he was just bones and hollows, must have been starved for near all his stay. His golden hair was cropped short, but so covered in filth and possibly caked blood that in the dark it looked black as pitch.

Iron bands led from his feet, wrists, and neck to staples in the wall. Even with the hopeful pained look in his eyes and the stubborn jut of his jaw Dash could see the shaking of his legs and shoulders. Simply standing was too much for him! How could he leave the boy here, even if he wasn't his assigned ward?

"What is your name?" he asked gently, cringing at the hoarseness of the answer, so dried and withered that the sound didn't even reach Dash's ears. "I'm sorry." He whispered. "Try without the sound; I'll know what it is."

The waif desperately pressed his hands up against the wet looking stone wall, dirty fingers curling into the rough rocky surface and tilting his face up as far as he could manage, stretching into the light and closing his eyes, letting his lips and tongue say the word he couldn't.

'Daniel,'

Wishful thinking, trick of the light, or maybe he was just so fortunate to have the heir so close he could reach down and stroke his cheek, but Dash nodded a grin spreading across his face.

"That's good, very good." He cooed as though speaking to a wounded animal. "Here, take this, and these." He passed down his candles, one lit, two unlit, to the boy. "Light all of them, keep them lit and don't burn yourself, I'll be right back." The skeletal prisoner let out a small broken cry that tore at Dash. "Don't worry, don't worry." He shushed. "I'm just getting a chain that will let me get down to you and back out." He tried for a smirk, hoping it would reassure. "Wouldn't want to get you out and end up trapped myself, then we'd really be in trouble."

Daniel nodded twice and shuffled weakly back to his corner where filthy blotched straw served as his bedding and only warmth.

Dash left and quickly returned with a long, strong hauling chain that he latched to the iron bars and then lowered into the pit. Seeing the cell better lit he rolled his shoulders, shook his clammy hands, and prepared to fit himself through an incredibly narrow space.

He made it through feet first and landed hard on the cold floor. Daniel must be frozen, it was far colder than the dry seasons should allow, but the youth seemed to be enjoying the warmth of the candles and let the hot wax dribble from the flame onto his clasped hands. Dash watched the now stronger light dance across the boy's face, swollen lips curved in a grateful smile, blackened eyes gazing up at his seemingly massive height with amazement. He couldn't be any more than fifteen, same age as Dash, but he looked so frail, so hollow that he might as well have been a newborn.

Dash learned how to charm a lock from his grandfather; the old man was near blind and yet could break into any mechanism he had placed before him, and in the short time he had known his grandson he had taught him everything necessary. "Never know when you'll need them till you do." Sir Baxter had said, and he was right. Dash had never needed the little lock pick set he carried with him until that very moment, and the old fashioned things may not even fit these chains, but Dash had the smallest hopes that they were both from the same generation.

In a few minutes of clumsy rattling and Daniel trying to keep the light close enough for Dash to see, yet far enough so he wouldn't burn himself, they had all five iron shackles off and Daniel was standing without their weight for the first time in who knew how long.

He looked so much lighter now, less weighed down. Dash licked his fingers and snuffed out the candles, pinching the wax into place before sticking them back into his boots and hoisting his ward up out of the cell.

It was far more difficult to leave the pit than it was to enter, as it was possibly designed, but with the aid of Daniel's weak pulls and Dash's own experienced wriggling they both made it out in good time. For a few seconds they smiled at each other, just outside the narrow hole, then Dash scooped up his young lord bridal style and began the first of a long sprint out of the dungeon. Daniel didn't protest, despite that the uneven movements jarred his injuries and his male pride should never let him be carried so; he just let his head loll against Dash's firm shoulder and relinquished his hopelessness to the remains of the sewage of Grestwood.

-

Trying to get out the same way he had gotten in would not only be incredibly difficult, it was impossible, with or without the added burden of recently rescued young heir apparent Daniel. So Dash was forced to take the steep, dark, twisting, unfamiliar steps slick with gods knew what, and even the gods probably curled their astral lips in disgust at the knowledge.

That was, of course, excluding the very real fact that at any moment someone could come marching down these very dark, very narrow steps and ram right into them, illumination or no these damn steps spiraled around so tightly that every three steps was a twisting curved corner. Then both parties would be fucked sideways, with all the bruises and broken bones generally attributed to one recently raped by a bull. Dash was promising routine offerings and service to the shrouded lady Death long before his legs began to ache, only growing more elaborate and ridiculous with each hurried step and gasping breath.

They ran headlong into the thick wooden doorway halfway through a promise of much kowtowing and a third of his pay, as well as tributing every meal he has for the next decade to her and many other such nonsense that would have no doubt continued if he hadn't been silenced by the door. Daniel let out a cry of pain as he was suddenly crushed between solid wood and solid muscle and Dash gave forth his own startled cry, then they both fell silent. There could be any number of people on the other side of this door.

Dash tried to remember the other entrances to the dungeon, but couldn't, and didn't trust Daniel's feet to hold him on this final step while he fished for a candle and map, he couldn't risk his ward toppling down those deadly steps, he would just have to risk it.

Taking a deep breath, he prepared for whatever came.

-

Some of my dear readers are bound to notice, as they so often do, the general mutilating of certain cultural, technological, and evolutional facts in this fic. Due to this being a completely separate planet I may claim the honorable excuse of having abstracted for the sake of comprehension of peculiarities of this little world.

I also can cop to the traditional affliction of many authors: I don't know what the hell I'm talking about.

Here's hoping none of you know any better, I may just get away with a few grammar mistakes. :D

I cannot do anything with this beautiful place of mine without giving thanks to the RPers and miscreants of Yahoo's chat rooms whose wit, advice, perversions, and general outlandish company brought many of what you saw to life.

I don't stroke egos and name names, but thanks to all of you. You know who you are.

Now go off and masturbate to someone else's brain vomit, I have bitchiness to disperse liberally before I complete the next section of this and get on with updating Photo Opportunities.