Chapter Thirty-Nine

The tavern inhabitants begin to dwindle as the night goes on. The rogue had long since left, her pride battered and left in the corner of the tavern. Koltira, ears warm and cheeks pink from the inferno punch, smiles over at Juliember as she finishes a tale from her own travels. The demon hunter purses his lips.

“I wish I had epic stories like that. The only thing I have is my herbal research, which is boring to everyone else. Oh, and the change. That was…different. But I like this” Asheeda motions at his own body.

Anarchaia smacks a hand on the table, having long since finished her drink and nursing another. “I find it interesting!” she chirps, then falters. “Yeah, and what’s that all about? Do tell.” Her pen and parchment appear behind her, but the quill seems to laze around the paper, the handwriting less legible than it normally would be. “Did it hurt?” She leans forward on an elbow and smiles, overly excited for the information.

Asheeda laughs. “I slept through it with a potion. Went to sleep as a woman, woke up as a man. My hair was still long so I cut it all off.” He smiles at Anarchaia, excited to be the subject of research. “Want to see what I used to look like?”

“Fascinating.” The mage’s eyes brighten and she nods emphatically. “Please!”

Asheeda slips a potion from his satchel and smiles, then swallows it down. Smoke billows around him and when it clears a female demon hunter with curled horns, cracked red skin, and pearlescent white hair to her jaw sits in his place. He puts a small leather harness around his chest to conceal his new breasts and smiles. “I’ll admit, I miss the funbags.” He squishes the breasts together a few times within the skimpy leather confines.

Koltira looks away, entertained but still uncomfortable.

“You are a pretty woman,” Juliember says.

“Aww, you’re too kind.”

Anarchaia giggles. “Must be nice.” She reaches up to her own chest and frowns, visibly disappointed. “Why did you decide to change?” she asks, returning to drawing circles on the table with a finger and smiling.

Asheeda’s eyes widen. “Why wouldn’t I? I mean, did you see that paladin? And I don’t have to wear shirts! Just grab a pair of pants and go. Plus it’s just…way more comfortable.”

Anarchaia blinks and tilts her head. “You can’t be with her as a woman?” She chuckles. “I’m sure there’s plenty of people who wouldn’t care if you wore a shirt or not.” She finishes her bottle. “But the comfort I understand.”

“It’s harder to find women interested in other women,” Asheeda shrugs.

Koltira raises an eyebrow. “Not trying to offend anyone, but it is strange to me.” He sips at an inferno punch. “I am also very drunk, so don’t take anything I say seriously. I haven’t been this drunk since…” He purses his lips, his eyes flit to Anarchaia, then away. “It’s only been a day, but all the same. Feels like an eternity.”

“I like women,” Anarchaia says pointedly. “And I like men. Though…you’re right. I haven’t met many others who feel similarly.” She glances over at Koltira, catching his brief gaze, then smiles and lowers an eyebrow. “Didn’t take you for the judgmental type.”

“I’m not judging!” The death knight sits up defensively. “I’m just… What do people call you? How often do you drink a potion to go back to how you were? And also, can I have one of those?” A silly smirk pulls at the corner of his lips.

In a puff of smoke, the demon hunter is back to being male. He laughs. “First, it’s okay to be curious, I’m not mad. Second, I like to be called Ash, but my full name is Asheeda Lamb—please no sheep jokes. Third, it’s just a party trick to freak people out. Finally, yes, I have a few to spare.” He hands Koltira three vials of the tincture.

Anarchaia gives a small laugh. “I can make ewe a lamb if you’d like.” She wiggles her fingers menacingly, then stops. “Ugh. Master is wearing off on me.” She eyes the death knight beside her warily. “What do you have planned? Something diabolical?”

He chuckles. “I just think it could be fun, that’s all.” Thoughts he hadn’t planned enter his mind and he turns away to hide the blush creeping up his neck as he sets the vials aside.

Asheeda smiles. “I’m not even going to ask. But you should know they last about five minutes and taste like fish…and you might be a bit sore afterward.”

Juliember stands abruptly. “I’ll be retiring for the evening. I’ll be seeing you all in the morning.” She turns a smirk on Asheeda. “It was nice meeting you, little girl.” They both laugh.

Anarchaia straightens and gives an enthusiastic wave to the troll. “Good night! Thanks so much for helping us out again! We really appreciate it.” She looks back at Asheeda and smiles. “I can do that stuff without a potion.” Memories strike her and her smile turns to a grimace. “It takes a lot of concentration though.”

“You can turn into a man? Without a potion?” Asheeda’s eyes light up. “Show me!”

The mage blinks. “O-Oh! Okay. Uh…who?”

His brow furrows. “What do you mean ‘who’?”

“It has to be someone I’ve seen or know. Sometimes illustrations work, too. I can’t just…create someone.”

The demon hunter blinks. “Oh. The potions actually show you how you would look as the other gender. But, um… Pick someone you find attractive.” He gives her a toothy grin.

The mage’s shoulders give a slight jerk and her eyes quickly flick to the man beside her without her thinking. “Uh…” she stammers, then stands. Her body sways a bit from the alcohol, but she manages to wave a hand. Violet smoke encases her body—when it clears, an exact replica of Asheeda stands in her place. She places her hands on her hips and smiles nervously. “Like this?” Oh gods, please don’t be offended…

The demon hunter laughs and slaps a thigh. “I had no idea you felt that way.” He gives her a sly wink.

A jolt of jealousy shoots through Koltira and he turns away from the two, deciding that drinking more is a good idea. You have no right to be jealous or possessive, you idiot. Stop it.

Anarchaia waves a hand, thinking quickly. “I’m just trying to flatter you. Heh.” Another vortex of smoke changes her back and she sits again. She clears her throat. “So, alchemy. What got you into that?” She takes a drink and nervously glances at the man beside her, searching for signs of hurt feelings. “Is it difficult?”

“I like to explore and discover things. You could say science is my passion.” He stifles a yawn. “What made you choose to be an adventurer?”

“I see. And I… didn’t really choose it. I do whatever Master asks of me.” She sobers some, but smiles. “But I don’t regret it.” She hesitates. “I don’t regret any of it. I’m glad I’ve met the friends I have.”

Koltira’s ears perk. She’s just talking about the journey.

Asheeda yawns again. “So sorry. I’m a bit worn out. Why does your master have you doing all of this?”

“No worries,” the mage responds with another wave of her hand. “Please, don’t stay awake on my account. My stories would simply put you to sleep anyway. Heh.”

With another yawn and a fist rubbing his eye, Asheeda stands. “Well, now that I have your permission…” He chuckles and gives her a friendly wave.

~ * ~

The rain patters down around them. Grimory looks out over the forest from the safety of the gazebo, though the two are already soaked. He can’t help glancing over at her multiple times, each time building up the strength to say something, but ultimately saying nothing.

Alisbeth holds onto the demon hunter’s hand, unable to let go for fear she’ll be lost in the nightmare again. For the first time in a long time, her mind is quiet.

“Do you want to go back soon? Or would you rather stay here a little longer?” He gifts her hand a squeeze and smiles down at her. “You still have that request, you know.”

Alisbeth shakes her head. “They don’t want me there.” She keeps her eyes on the forest, looking for moving shadows. Determined, this time, to kill the two when they resurface.

His smile fades and his brow furrows upward in concern. “Ali, that’s not true. You’re our friend. Ana likes you, and obviously Koltira does, too. Why would you think they don’t?”

Alisbeth bites down and turns to look away from him, sure that he must be lying. After a moment she says, “Why are you following me? It’s because he wanted me out of his hair, isn’t it? He’d rather spend time with your mage friend.”

Grimory pauses, the strange behavior of the two the night prior fresh in his mind. He grits his teeth. “He…bet me that I couldn’t handle you for a day,” he confesses. “But at this point I’m not really concerned with winning that bet.” He swallows and looks down at her. “I’m terrible. You can slap me if you like.”

“Am I really that awful?” She leans her head to his shoulder. “I don’t think I am.”

The Illidari shakes his head, surprised she’s not angry. “I don’t think you are. Especially knowing what I do now.” He brings a gentle hand up to pet her hair. “I think you’re misunderstood.”

She sniffs and rubs at her nose as it runs just a little. “Will you help me kill them?”

He blinks down at her then gives a small laugh. “You know I will.”

“I shouldn’t have run. I should have killed them.” She purses her lips and goes silent for a long time. “I don’t want to go back. But you need to sleep, right? And…I have to be good while you’re asleep. Koltira wants me to give you hell, though. What do you want?”

Grimory sighs and runs a hand through his hair. “I want you to do what you want…and be happy.” He shrugs and gives a sad smile. “And if that means me losing a bet, then so be it.”

“What if what I want is for you to be happy?”

Grimory’s smile quickly fades again. His jaw tightens. No one’s ever asked me that before. “I…” He clears his throat and looks away, color seeping into his cheeks. “I’m happy if you’re happy.”

Alisbeth giggles. “That’s a stupid answer.” She pokes his cheek. “What do you want to do?”

He turns and smiles again, his cheek crowding his eye when her finger pushes against it. “Stay here with you.”

She smiles. “Then I guess we’re staying here.” She blinks into the night and sighs. “Tell me a story.”

The demon hunter chuckles and looks out over the land beyond the confines of the gazebo as well. “When I was young, my cousin Therys and I fancied ourselves bowmen. We had small short bows and blunted arrows that we used to shoot bottles with. One day we found his father’s short bow…with real arrows in a quiver nearby.” He laughs. “It took so much strength to draw that string. In the end, Therys couldn’t hold it very long. Loosed it before he could even turn towards the target. Hit me in the ass.”

Alisbeth holds back her laugh. “That must have been awful.”

He shrugs and laughs. “I think I’d have rather had an arrow in my ass than the whooping he got for it.”

“Tell me another.” She smiles at him.

He smiles. “Nuh uh. Your turn.”

“After my parents died and I went to live with the paladins, there was this boy. He was an idiot and I let him know it every chance I got. I was…sixty and he was just seventeen.” She laughs. “I got so mad I threw my sword at him. Took his ear clean off. They were able to heal him, of course.” Her smile fades. “When I sought revenge on Thassarian, Esmond was the only paladin on my side. He said it was because of my tenacity. We didn’t care about Horde or Alliance. He was my friend…right up until Thassarian killed him.” She rubs at her nose and squints at the water. “It was my fault.”

Grimory sobers and squeezes her hand again. “You know. Ninety-nine percent of the time, when people blame themselves for something, it’s not actually their fault.”

“It’s because I couldn’t fight. We’d found Thassarian but…that’s when I discovered Koltira. We tried to run, but Esmond fell. Koltira tried to kill me, but I was able to escape. He chased me down and tried to kill me again. My horse saved my life. When I got back to my camp the death knights had slain my small troop. Those paladins were only out there because of me.” She swallows. “How could I think myself worthy of the Light after that?” She smiles. “Tell me another story.”

He frowns and looks away, wanting to oblige her wish, to distract her from her story, from sadness. But he shrugs. “I…don’t have a lot of happy stories, if I’m being honest. My real parents abandoned me in the woods. Spent most of my time wishing I was something greater than myself. I joined the Illidari because I was so sick of rolling hills, trees, and horses. Instead, I saw friends and comrades torn apart by demons and nothing but the green haze of a crystal for ten years.” He gives another shrug. “You guys and Ana are the most exciting things that have happened to me since then.”

Alisbeth tucks herself closer and wraps a hug around him. “I don’t have many happy stories, either. You’re the only friends I’ve ever had.”

Grimory drapes an arm across her shoulders and sighs. “Well, I’m glad we are.” The corners of his mouth tighten into a small frown. “We should probably go back. We have stuff to do tomorrow.”

“If you say so.” She giggles again. “If it makes you happy.”

Grimory stands and stretches, holding out a hand. “It doesn’t, but duty calls.”

Alisbeth makes a face. “If you insist.”

The demon hunter laughs and raises his hands, making back for the flight master. “Hey, if you want to stay here, I’m not going to stop you.”

She scurries to walk with him. “But then you’ll lose the bet!”

“Oh well,” he says. “You aren’t something to bet over.” He snorts. “As much as I’d like to see the defeat in pretty boy’s face.”

“But you made the bet. Don’t lose because you pity me. What were the terms?” She wraps her arms around one of his and holds it as she walks beside him, a slight skip in her step.

He gives her a sideways glance, eyebrows raised. “It’s not because I pity you. It’s just wrong to do.” Not that that’s ever stopped me. “But the terms were just that I had to keep you in line for twenty-four hours. Like he normally would.”

“Okay. What do you each win?”

“Bragging rights and ale.” He pays the flight master and holds out a hand to help Alisbeth onto a brightly colored hippogryph. “Things I can live without.”

Alisbeth takes his hand and lets him assist her up. “I want you both to win. Can you both win?”

He laughs. “On this particular bet? I don’t think so. It’s okay, though. Stop worrying about it.” He climbs on behind her in the saddle and the beast takes off into the sky with little effort.

Alisbeth leans back into his warmth and smiles. “I’m gonna tell Kolty to call it off.”

Grimory resists the urge to wrap his arms around her. “No,” he groans. “Then he’ll know I told you.”

Alisbeth chews on her bottom lip. “Just trust me, okay?” She reaches her arms up and gently grabs Grimory by the horns to set his head on the top of hers so she can run her palms along the curl of them. “Don’t worry. I’ve got you.”

Grimory smiles and gives in, wrapping his arms around her waist. “If you say so. Like I said, I’m not stopping you from doing anything anymore.”

“You’re warm,” Alisbeth sighs, sinking deeper into him and closing her eyes against the biting wind.

Grimory chuckles again. “Well I’m not dead, so…”

“I like that. I miss that.” Alisbeth threads her fingers together behind his neck.

Grimory sobers as the cold winds hit his face, his heart fluttering behind her head. This is bad.

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