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/ /Author’s Note: This story, Terrible Company, is sprawling sword-and-sorcery fantasy satire with a diverse cast of characters. Over its many chapters, those characters will have interactions (both with each other and others) that cross many of the lines that exist between Lit genres. I have come to believe that breaking the story into those different categories, as best I can, is the best way to expose the most readers to parts of the story they might dig, and that they might then be encouraged to read on.
Each chapter is written as a self-contained episode, and although there are running gags that continue through the series that enrich the experience, they shouldn’t prevent one from starting anywhere in the series (including the final chapter) and enjoying it for what it is.
This chapter features:
Val >, the female Orc Warrior/Fighter
Katsa, the female Human Arcanist
Mathilda, the female Dwarf Healer
Ayen, the male Half-Elf Thief
Ivy, the female Human Bard
The massive beast’s screeches cut off in a wet, strangled gurgle. Val reared back and brought her axe down again, severing the final head with a sickening crunch. Mathilda slumped forward, bracing her hands on her knees and dropping her warhammer entirely while she caught her breath. For the first time in what seemed like forever, it was quiet. If only for a second.
Katsa groaned as she looked around and shook her head. “She’s not here.” She dragged out ‘here’ into two syllables. Hee-urr.
Ivy tucked her mandolin under her arm and frowned as she inspected her fingers. “I cracked a blister.”
“She’s supposed to be here.” The Arcanist pursed her lips in irritation.
“Fuck,” Mathilda wheezed. ” ‘ow can she no’ be ‘ere?”
“I don’t know!” Katsa turned, taking in the relatively featureless walls of the dead-end cave. “She’s very clearly anywhere but here. See, this is us, here,” she said, pointing to the ground, “in the place she’s supposed to be, but in reality, she’s in one of an infinite number of other places that are not here.”
Val sighed as she walked around the sprawling corpse. “Does anyone know where the stomach is on this thing?”
Ivy immediately perked up. “For which head?”
“I don’t know,” she replied, shrugging incredulously. “Ayen, get out here.”
“The two heads on the left have a stomach on the right. The two on the right share a stomach on the left. The middle two,” she said, grinning as she built up to her point, “have a stomach located almost entirely in the tail!”
” ‘ow do ye know tha’?” Mathilda shook her head, still panting. “Strike tha’. Why do ye know tha’?”
“Bard Rule number six; It’s always better to know, unless it’s not.”
“Ayen!” Val cried. “Which head bit off your hand?”
“I’ve always wanted to do this.” He laughed weakly, as he staggered out of the shadows at the far end of the cave. “It was the ugly one!”
Val stared at him flatly. “Do you really not know?”
He paused to wet his lips. “I think it was one of the center heads, but it was dark and I sort of stopped paying attention to which head was attached to which part when it took off my hand!”
“Silver linin’ though,” Mathilda added thoughtfully. “Yer Friday nigh’s are open now.”
The Thief narrowed his eyes. “Very classy to pick on the cripple.”
“Oooh quit yer bellyachin’,” the Healer laughed, as she fished around in her pack. “Ye’ll be fine in a minute.” She uncorked one of her green bottles and gave it a sniff and a swig before handing it to him. “Drink.”
“Not in the tail,” Val announced, thick blood already covering her arms to the elbow.
Katsa looked up from inspecting her torn breeches, and cleared her throat. “If you’re going rooting around in there, the livers of Hydra are very useful.”
“Not a Hydra,” Ivy said, wincing as she flexed her bruised finger. “Six heads makes that a Hairon.”
“Hairon livers are just as good,” the Arcanist said, shrugging as she twisted to stare down at her thigh. “Maybe a few scales too?”
“Anyone else want a souvenir,” Val growled, “while I carve up this very warm, very fresh corpse?”
“I’ll take a few hairs,” the Bard said brightly. Mathilda took her hand and muttered for a few moments, enveloping both of their extremities in a soft glow. Ivy gasped happily as the glow faded, and flexed her fingers. “Oh that’s much better.” She nodded and played a few chords on her mandolin experimentally.
“Oh good,” Ayen sniped. “I’m so glad you were able to treat her blister. I was worried it was going to be fatal. I’ll just sit here with my mangled stump, then, shall I?”
“Not in the left stomach,” Val announced. The cavern echoed with the twitch-inducing sounds of bones being snapped as she escort ataşehir dug further.
Mathilda scoffed and turned to Katsa. ” ‘ow ’bout you, lass? Looked like it got yer leg er’ly on.”
“Wait… Wait… Here it is.” The Orc’s lips curled as she rooted around the Hairon’s innards with her dagger, carving and dissecting.
“I’m fine,” Katsa said dismissively. “Just snagged my pants. Worry about him.” Mathilda raised her eyebrows in mild shock, but after a moment she turned back toward where Ayen was vigorously imbibing. Katsa ran her finger up and down the smooth skin of her thigh, brushing away dried flakes of blood.
“False alarm! Just a rat.” Val puffed out of the side of her mouth, blowing a few stray black hairs up and out of the way. “Ew. Still alive.” A few more seconds of wet, squishy rustling. “Oh… Theeeeere it is.” She tossed the hand to Mathilda and returned to her work.
“Oh gods,” he whined. “It’s all chewed!”
“It’s off, ye dumb bastard. D’ye think Ah can’t handle fixin’ a few nibbles too?”
Ayen grimaced as he held up his wrist. “Whoa, Whoa! Stop!” he shouted, when she placed his partially-digested hand against the nub end of his wrist.
“Do ye want yer hand back or no’?!” Mathilda shouted.
“You’re holding it backwards!”
The dwarf frowned. “Left ‘and makes an L… right?”
“I’m facing the other way!”
“Ah…” The Divinist blinked and laughed sheepishly. “Aye… but it’d make a fine tale a’ the tavern.”
“Why don’t you save the drinking until after you’ve put my hand back.”
She shrugged him off, closing her eyes and setting to work. Ayen kept one eye firmly planted on his wrist as he upended the bottle. The light around his hand brightened, intensifying rapidly while Mathilda murmured under her breath. Katsa shivered, feeling a tickle at the base of her neck. She could feel Rhogan reaching into the room. Could sense his presence.
“There ye go,” Mathilda said, staggering backwards. “Good as new.”
Ayen blinked. “That’s it? A little mumbling, a few lights, and I’m healed?”
“Ah’m sorry, were ye expectin’ a meal with yer show?” A dangerous edge crept into the Dwarf’s voice. “A bit o’ dancin, perhaps?”
“No, I just…” He looked around beneath a furrowed brow. “I don’t trust that it was that easy.”
“First ‘f all,” the healer roared, “it wasn’t easy. Ah jus’ make i’ look ‘at way. D’ye ken how many bones and tendons are in a hand? Ah coulda made it far worse!”
“Or, you know, put it back on backwards,” Ayen mumbled dourly, flexing his fingers.
“Second of all,” the dwarf continued, studiously ignoring him, “yer welcome!” She shook her head, muttering under her breath about basic decency, and scooped up her warhammer. “Are we done ‘ere?”
Katsa traded her canteen for the bloody, dripping liver, immediately wrapping it in an embroidered cloth and sliding it whole into a jar while Val rinsed off her arms. “I’m good,” she said, and Val nodded in agreement.
Ivy whimpered as she followed the rest of them back the way they’d come. “I broke a nail on the other hand.”
“No more,” cried the old man strapped to the rack. “Please, no more!”
The torturer grinned wickedly beneath his hideous mask and shook his head. “I’m afraid not, my good man.” He dragged the tip of his rusty, blood-crusted blade along the old man’s chest, leaving a pink line in its wake. “I’m only just beginning, and Mr. Tickles hasn’t gotten to play yet at all!”
In the corner of the room, a huddled man-beast thrashed at his cage at the mention of his name.
“Actually,” said a young woman as she stepped smartly through the door, “he’s free to go.”
“He hasn’t given up his secrets yet.” The torturer turned slowly, his voice filled with mad glee. “It would be such a shame to bring our fun to an end before that.”
Mr. Tickles rattled ravenously at the door to his cage in guttural agreement.
“I’m sorry, Reg, but—”
“It’s The Tailor!” Reg took two fast steps across the room and leaned in close to whisper harshly. “How many times do we have to have this conversation, Gabby? It undermines what I’m trying to do here when you stroll in and use my name! I have an image to uphold!”
“I know,” she intoned softly, holding one hand up placatingly while the other held a clipboard tightly to her chest. “The last thing I want to do is tell you how to run your department, but… it’s bad news. We’re going to have to close the facility, effective immediately.”
He blinked incredulously. “Larry, get out here.”
Mr. Tickles settled down in his cage and tilted his head. “What?”
“Get out here,” Reg barked.
Larry reached his arm between two of the bars and fingered at a secret release on kadıköy escort the top that popped the whole thing wide open. “What’s this then?” he asked when he joined them, as he rolled his shoulders to stretch them out.
“They’re shutting us down,” Reg said.
“It’s not like that,” the young woman calmly said. “You two kept this department in the black, and that’s something to be proud of, but unfortunately, that doesn’t justify continued operation here. We just got word that some adventurers broke in and killed the Hairon.”
“Why would they do that?” shrieked the taller man.
“Why do adventurers do anything?” she replied, rolling her eyes. “But you two both know that selling the Hairon eggs was the bread and butter of this facility. With that gone, there’s really no feasible way to keep this place profitable.”
“Fuck me running,” Larry whispered hoarsely.
Reg ripped off his faux-flesh mask, leaving his sweat-matted hair a gnarly mess. “So what are our options?”
The HR rep sucked air through her teeth and shook her head. “We only maintain Torture Departments at two other locations, and they’re both full up right now.”
“Excuse me?” the old man whimpered.
“You know I have a family I’m providing for, Gabby.”
“I really am sorry. The whole thing is a messy business but…” The HR rep offered the beast a sympathetic smile. “…I’m sure you’ll end up on your feet,”.
“So what… we’re just fired? Is that it?”
“I know, guys. I’m sorry. This was a huge shock for all of us.”
The man on the rack piped up again, “I can go now then?”
“Do we get any severance?”
“You knew that torture was a cutthroat industry when you signed—”
“And the wife is pregnant with a litter… what am I going to tell her?” Larry sighed, rubbing his furred snout. “I should have transferred to The Hell Hole. Six months ago, yeah? They had an opening?”
“You made the right decision at the time, mate. The school system here is incredible, and you couldn’t have known.” Reg shook his head emphatically, as if sheer willpower could reverse the course of fate. “I don’t accept this. We must have some kind of recourse.”
The old man craned his neck to try and look at the three. “…I’d really like to get going if it’s all the same.”
Gabby shrugged indecisively. “You could always file a grievance, but I can already tell you that the language in your employment contracts shields the ownership from adventurer-related losses. I…” She took a breath and made compassionate, direct eye contact. Just like her training had said to. “I really am sorry.”
Reg stood there, stunned, as the HR rep turned and exited the room. Larry snarled and ripped the peg board, upon which all their tools hung, off the wall.
“Now now,” Reg said, focusing hard on the floor. “There’s no need to be destructive.”
“Of course there is!” The furry man-beast grabbed a sack and started shoveling the scattered scalpels and hammers into it.
“What are you doing?”
“Well I’m not leaving here empty handed.”
Reg grinned. “Alright then. Give me a hand with the iron maiden.”
“That’s the spirit!”
As they walked out, carrying a load of nefarious tools and equipment between them, the old man slumped in his chains. “I’ll just stay here then. Don’t mind me.”
“Mathilda,” Ivy intoned.
“No more looking for secret doors, remember? We passed a resolution.” Ivy tapped her yellow notepad for emphasis with one of her unbroken fingernails.
Mathilda pulled her hand back from a suspicious-looking torch handle with a harrumph. “We’re never gonna make anything. An’ don’t gimme tha’ tripe about breakin bones bein’ worse than breakin’ even. Ah can ‘eal bones, but Ah can’t ‘eal an empty purse.”
“I just want to be done,” Katsa mumbled drearily. “I used up, like, all of my prepared spells.”
“Dun ye just make more?”
The Arcanist sighed in frustration. “Yes, and I will. It’s just going to take days. It would be one thing if all that effort had been worth it, but…” She trailed off in a sigh.
“Perfidy!” Ayen shouted, holding up his deck of cards. “Perfidy!”
The Thief angrily shuffled the cards against his chest, cut the deck once, and withdrew the card of the Rabbit Prince, with his broken sword held up in the air. “See?”
Everyone stared at the card in confusion. “What does that mean?” Katsa said.
“Perfidy means disloyalty,” Ivy offered brightly.
“I know what Perfidy means!”
“You didn’t see that?” They all shook their heads. Ayen grumbled as he reshuffled the deck, cut it once, and withdrew the Rabbit Prince card. “See?”
“No one has any idea what you’re doing right now,” Val said, maltepe escort bayan folding her arms across her broad chest.
“It was slow! A full one-sixteenth-of-a-second slow!” Ayen glared, his eyes ablaze. “You healed me wrong.”
“It’s a card trick, lass. Ah think yer overreactin’.”
He growled, reshuffling and cutting the deck once again. “There, see? Slow!”
Val leaned toward Katsa and mumbled, “Did that look slow to you?” out of the side of her mouth. The Arcanist merely shrugged.
“And stop calling me Lass.”
“Stop bein’ so pretty,” Mathilda fired back.
“You’re a better drunk than a healer!”
“Fer fucks sakes,” Mathilda groaned. “If yer so unhappy with it, I’ll take it righ’ back off then.”
“Oh, you’d like that! Wouldn’t you!”
“Why in all the hells would Ah want a one-‘anded Thief fer a party member?”
“Because you can’t handle the competition!”
Mathilda sputtered. “The compe… the fuck’re ye talkin’ abou’?”
Ayen glanced at Ivy. Then Mathilda turned to look at Ivy. Then everyone turned to look at Ivy. Ivy, who was certain they couldn’t be looking at her, turned around to look behind herself.
“Oh. Oh, Ah see.”
“I don’t,” Ivy said, staring at the bare wall. “Is this some kind of metaphor?”
“So…” Mathilda took a step toward him, grinning widely. “Ye think that we’re competin’?”
“I’m usually pretty good at figuring out metaphors.” Ivy peered closer at the wall, looking for hidden meaning. “Is there something special about this wall?”
“Bringing her on was my idea,” he growled. “I had dibs.”
“Dibs?!” the Dwarf laughed.
“Oh,” Ivy said, staring curiously at a brick with no mortar around it. “There is.”
“No!” Val shouted, looking up, but it was too late. Ivy pressed the brick. Everyone paused as the room around them filled with the sound of stone grinding against stone. Suddenly, a massive slab slammed down from above, dividing the room in half and leaving Ivy trapped. Faint shouting came through from the other side of the wall.
“I’m okay,” Ivy gasped, as she ran her hands over her body and found all of her bits exactly where she’d left them. “I’m okay.” She flinched when a bit of dust landed on her eyelashes, and when she looked up, the ceiling began to descend. “Oh…”
Her mind raced through the various Bard rules, immediately discarding the 137 that dealt specifically with deepthroating or oral sex. “Come on, Ivy,” she said out loud, to herself. “You’ve got this. Let’s show that mage the power of Bardic Magic!” She unstrung her lute and unleashed a blistering solo laden with alternating arpeggios and power chords. Music filled the increasingly smaller space, only to be met with silence as the ceiling shuddered to a halt. A terrible groaning rumbled through the walls and floor. “Put that in your pipe and smoke it,” she cried with a triumphant leap. The buttons in her shirt whined as she landed.
“—completely underappreciated,” said a tall man to his much shorter and furrier companion as they walked through a well-oiled secret door behind Ivy. “Artists like us, mate, we’re never understood in our time. None of them upstairs get what we’re doing down here. To them it’s all pulled fingers and guts nailed to the floor, but… oh…” They drifted to a stop when they finally saw her. “I’m sorry. Who are you?”
“That’s Peggy,” the shorter one whispered. “From Accounts Payable.”
The taller one whistled. “They weren’t kidding.”
“Oh no,” Ivy said. “I don’t work here. My friends and I, we just broke in and… um…” She trailed off as their expressions hardened. “… um… brought you a singing telegram?” She flashed her widest, brightest smile and brandished her lute, but they remained unamused.
“It’s one’a them,” grumbled the shorter one. They set down their heavy, clanking bags, and walked away from each other, circling her in opposite directions. “What an interesting turn of events.”
“You appear to be lost.” The taller one’s voice was smooth, like milk flowing from a cup. “This is a dangerous place to be all alone.”
“I’m not alone,” Ivy said cheerily. “My friends will be right back.”
“They’re not here now,” the Tailor growled.
One of The Maestro’s lectures on the subject of perception vs reality, delivered during a particularly lengthy blowjob, bubbled up from the murky depths of her memory. “No, but you’re here. So technically, not alone.”
“Don’t you know who we are, little girl?”
Ivy thought for a moment. “Artists?”
“No! Well… yes… but…” He rolled his eyes in irritation. “I am the Tailor. My associate,” he said, gesturing, “Mr. Tickles, and I think you might be misapprehending our purpose, little bird.”
“It’s not to kill me, right?”
“In our line of work, a quick death is a waste of a perfectly good body.”
“Oh good!” Then the Bard frowned. “…I think.” She gasped, shocked, as Mr. Tickles grabbed her from behind, snaking his arms around hers and pinning them behind her head. “Ow! Hey!”
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