Sasha slid out of her little hole sleeping hole a couple hours later when she heard her name being called. It was one of the shadowcat children, chirping her name and telling her that she was wanted down with the elders. The truth was none of them were actually old—it was just tradition to called the people who ran the community by that title. Somehow, Sasha herself had become a del-facto leader herself, although how that had happened she wasn’t entirely sure. The truth was, lots of people living in Salutem simply weren’t motivated. All it took was a little bit of willingness on her part to help out, and the responsibility had basically fallen on her shoulders. But with responsibility came influence, so she didn’t mind.
The cave that they used as a meeting was deep within the mountain, taking her nearly ten minutes to make her way through the paths and tunnels she’d grown to know over the years. Another of the reasons the curse had set up in the cave network was the bioluminescent moss on the tunnel walls. Even is her vision didn’t bleed into the infrared spectrum she still would have been able to navigate by the faint green light the moss filled the caves with. It gave a mythical feeling to the caverns, like stepping into another world.
When the tunnel she was crawling through finally gave way to a larger room, the rest of the so-called elders were waiting for her. The only one who was actually of notable age was Ivara, a severe looking woman in her fifties whose left arm was completely covered in fur where the hellcat had burned her. She was one of the few who actually intimated Sasha.
“I see you two are finally done with your boytoy,” Ivara said in a dismissive tone, her voice full of gravel from a lifetime of smoking.
“I’m only human,” Sasha responded, aware of the irony in the statement. It was a running joke among the community.
“Well we have a problem to discuss,” Cain’s central head said before their banter could continue. “A problem in the form of food.”
“There’s an abnormally large hellcat running around, killing farmers and tearing up fields,” Ivara continued for him. “And choking off our food supply. Two of the four farmers who are actually willing to sell vegetables to us were killed.”
Sasha whistled in tune with herself, a pleasant sound. “That’s actually…” she paused on the word for a moment.
“Disastrous,” Cain finished for her, while everyone else in the room nodded. “We have plenty of reserves for now, but the cold season…”
“People will have to leave,” Jenson said quietly. The shadowcat didn’t speak very often, but was their main ambassador to the people that they did buy things from on the outside world. He always wore a small bracelet around his wrist that absorbed the tainted magic bleeding off his body. Nobody knew where he’d gotten the angelic blessing, but it was invaluable. It actually let him talk to regular people without giving them night terrors.
“But that isn’t the biggest problem that blasted monster is caused,” Ivara said darkly. “It hit Relario a couple nights ago. Over a hundred victims.” She let the statement hang in the air for a moment. “The city’s pissed.”
“Well we just saw the first of them today,” Sasha said quietly. “Gave the poor kid a shakedown but I imagine they will be more of them.”
“But it won’t be a problem if they come one at a time,” she added, switching heads she was speaking with, “but there isn’t much we can do if an actually militia comes knocking.”
“That’s why I’m concerned,” Ivara said. “There is going to be a lot of angry people wanting to do something? And who do they blame? They aren’t rational, or they won’t be for a while.”
“People are here because they don’t want to continuously fight for their life,” Cain said. “And if we force them to, all that’ll do is prove the humans right, then the next time a force comes we won’t stand a chance.”
Everybody else in the room nodded. The cerberusmorph was right, it was the problem they’d faced for the past couple years now. If the community made itself known as a threat even when defending itself, that would summon the ire of the humans from all over. They were a target for lazy thinking.
“Then what do we do?” Sasha asked quietly. “Other than run?”
“We can’t hide forever,” Ivara said slowly, “especially since it’s pretty well known that there is a community in this area. At best we can make them not want to come here, although how we’d manage that is beyond me. Any action at all…”
“…just draws more attention to us,” Sasha finished for her with a sigh.
Silence hung in the room for a moment, but it was pretty obvious that Cain wanted to say something, although was hesitant to. Eventually Sasha gave him a prompting stare he spoke up.
“This is going to sound really silly,” he said.
“Well spit it out,” Ivara retorted, “we’re at a loss for idea’s here.”
Cain shrugged as though it were obvious. “Give them what they want. Give them some kind of challenge. Some monster to slay.”
“That brings them directly to our doorstep,” Ivara said in a flat tone like a teacher telling a student they’d failed a test.
This was the first time Sasha saw Cain roll his eyes. “No, like short ways from here. Ravage the forest a bit, make a spooky cave, and put Sasha or me, or somebody who can defend themselves in it. Or even a couple of us. Give them a villain that isn’t this community, and not one that attacks them. One they need to challenge.”
“That way whenever they want to attack us, they go for that instead of this place,” Sasha said slowly, ignoring the fact that she’d just been volunteered as bait.
“And what if things go bad? What happens to whoever’s on the post?” Ivara demanded.
Cain held his hands up in surrender. “The idea just came to me, okay? Details can be ironed out later, but what about the concept? Does that at least work?”
The older woman looked at him grudgingly. “There’s lots of ways this could go wrong, but yes. I do think that it’s the best idea we have right now.” Then she looked to Sasha. “Aside from you and Cain, who else do you think could work something like this?”
Sasha had to think about that for a moment. “Most of the cerberi here because of their howls obviously, and there’s a couple shadowcats who are trained fighters that could keep themselves safe, but I don’t really know who else. Pretty much everybody except me would have to skirt around them and play the elusive game.”
“Let’s find a location first,” Jenson said quietly, turning heads towards him once again. “Then we can sort out who can work it.”
This content is intended for mature audiences.
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Living in the caves certainly played havoc with Calvin’s sleep cycle. The lack of sunlight, and the fact that so many of the people living within the cave network were actually nocturnal beings made it incredibly easy to become one as well. But the fact remained that his night vision was unfortunately quite awful. He needed to get out of the cave for a month, fly around the continent for a while and get a sense of what was happening in the larger world.
But at the moment he was fast asleep, only gently pulled from his slumber when Sasha slid into their little nest beside him. She was the reason he stayed—and their bed of course. Just a little less than two years ago, the entire town of Salutem had robbed a cargo ship. It had been wrong, but their little community needed some essentials, and thanks to Sasha’s hypnosis they had done it with minimal injury and no casualties on either side.
The floor was layered with bags of feathers and topped off with a luxury carpet, making for a wonderfully comfortable sleeping hole. He hadn’t slept so comfortably since he’d been burned and forced to flee his home. As the hydramorph slid into their makeshift bed beside him, he cracked his eyes open and smiled faintly.
Sasha yawned with both heads as she pulled herself in closer to him, wrapping her arms around him and snuggling in. The initially eerie feeling of her hairsnakes playing over his back and shoulders had become a sensation of comfort, something familiar he’d grown to love about her.
“Just a kid seeking vengeance in the wrong place,” she sighed. “Bit off more than he could chew, ran the moment I let him. The usual.”
“Night terrors will do that to you,” Calvin said lazily, yawning himself.
He felt Sasha nod faintly. “I think that’s the best part about what happened, not living in fear anymore.”
Calvin suddenly felt the urge to play devil’s advocate just to annoy her. “Well, it’s a different thing that we need to be afraid-”
“Oh shut up,” she pulled back slightly so he could see her faces grinning at him in the low light. “Fine then. Not living in magically induced terror.”
Calvin grinned back and pulled her in tight again, shifting so he could unfold his wings and wrapping them around her. “It’s definitely a plus,” he finally agreed. “It’s no wonder those poor buggers go insane. What happened?”
Sasha stopped to think about it briefly. “His sister,” she said after a moments pause. “Probably burned by a shadowcat.”
“Visiting him at night without him knowing, inflicting night terrors?” It was a situation they knew all too well, particularly with shadowcats. Their ability to blink between shadows in the night made it incredibly easy for them to enter homes—something the burn victims did to visit their old family while they slept.
“That’s usually what it is.” Sasha just sounded resigned to the situation. Someone would have to go and find the poor girl before she inflicted to much damage on her former community. “But on the plus side, we know where to look. He was carrying a sword made in Yowlen.”
Calvin grunted. “That is pretty close by air. I’m surprised he made it this far on foot.”
“Probably had a horse, but you know how they get once they’re close to here.” One of her hairsnakes nipped his ear affectionately.
“Oh, so you’re going to sic the job on me now are ya?”
Sasha giggled. “What? It’ll only take out a half a day to get there.”
“And a bloody month to catch that shadowcat,” he muttered. “Do you know how big of a pain that is?”
“You should be good at it by now! Plus you’re going stir crazy in this cave, you need to get out into the day again for a while.”
“But I don’t wanna,” he mock pouted. “It’s comfy here.”
“I know! Why do you think I’m staying? Besides, who else we keep the stream of terrible heroes from slaying the residents of this little place?” she asked in a teasing tone.
“Cain? He’s a big guy.” Calvin wasn’t serious, he knew fully well that it was best if Sasha stayed. She was by far the best equipped to keep people away in a non-lethal manner.
“Pfft. Cain’s just a big fluffy dope. I don’t care how many heads he has.” Her hairsnakes nipped at both his ears again while her lower hands started playing down his abs. “And we don’t want you getting fat now do we?”
Calvin snorted. “Careful now, you might offend me.” One of the benefits about his form was he didn’t seem to story energy as fat, and was quite proud of his figure for it, even if it came with very little work. He leaned back from their embrace and kissed her, drawing it out passionately.
“Ohh, the right head this time,” her left whispered into his ear while her right reciprocated his advance. Her forked tongue, much longer than his, slipped into his mouth playfully while her lower hands each reached down and grabbed one of his members.
“And you want to send those away?” he asked in mock sadness, breaking the kiss off.
The tips of her tongue poked from her mouth as she smiled at him. “That’s why we’re having a little sendoff party,” she said, adding a bit of hiss to her voice like she usually did when they had sex.
“You’re as bad as I am,” Calvin grinned as her left head, unfazed by their conversation continued to suck seductively on his neck. “And you didn’t even have a run in with a succubi for an excuse.”
There was something thrilling about only talking to one of her heads while the other acted as an auxiliary, trying to steal his attention from the other. It was the only time she ever behaved that way around him—pretending like she was two separate people in one body. It was bizarre, having his girlfriend suddenly become two distinct personalities clambering for his attention. Normally her dual personality act freaked him out, but during sex Calvin thought it was hot. It made him feel wanted, desired, something to be fought over.
Finally he rolled on top of her, going in for a kiss on her left head this time while her right nibbled and sucked on his ear. “Come on,” she whispered faintly, her voice a primal serpentine hiss, “get them in there already, don’t keep a girl waiting…”
He could play that game too, and dropped his voice into a guttural, draconic growl.
The town of Salutem wasn’t really a town per say, more of a community. A town implied that there were buildings, roads, and all the other things that would tell a traveler this would be a hospitable place to stay for the night. Salutem had none of those things. It was a cave in the mountainside, obscured by jungle and completely uninviting. Some who ventured too near even said it was haunted, with malevolent spirits and demons hiding within.
Those people weren’t entirely wrong. Salutem’s location had been chosen based on the fact that no human in any reasonable state of mind would even go there. It was a foul place, and it took a special type of person to live there.
A cursed person.
Salutem was a community of the curse. Innocent people caught at the wrong time, burned by the fires of hell in one shape or another. It tainted them and filled their bodies with unholy magic, but it also gave them power. So it made sense to establish a community by the firegate, the cursed were already immune to its damning magic, and no rational human would ever dare venture close to it. The night terrors inflicted on the mind simply weren’t worth it, even if one did survive.
Unfortunately, there was a lot of irrational people in the world.
Sasha had pinned one, harmlessly as ever of course. It wasn’t particularly difficult, she knew the jungle like the back of her hand, and the trespasser never would have stood a chance against her even if he could fight back. This was the fifth one to try and find Salutem now, and as usual she was interrogating him. After two years, the place was drawing attention to itself and she didn’t like that. The jungle and the caves were good for deterring lone wanderers, but not an army.
She had him wrapped in her coils, for she was a hydramorph. Her serpentine body was long and powerful, morphing into a human form at the hips with four arms and two heads. Sasha had him wrapped up snugly, not wanting to use her hypnosis on him since she was eventually going to let him go. Instead, she was playing in the intimidation game, and carrying on a conversation between her two heads. She was one person with two connected streams of consciousness, and the conversations she could act out could be quite unnerving, especially when the victim thought they were listening in on something intimate, and true.
“We could kill him,” Sasha said with her left head, regarding him like he was a lame horse and deciding if he was worth the effort. “It would be the easiest thing.”
“It would be,” her right head agreed in faux conversation, “but that would cause such a hassle. Look, he brought a sword. He knew was he was doing, other’s probably do to.”
Her left head nodded slowly, the hairsnakes writhing a little more actively as she leaned in closer. “But how many would come? You think it would bring more? Or keep them away longer?” These were of course all thoughts Sasha was having, but she didn’t need to orate to reconcile them between her two heads. But it was much more intimidating if she did.
She pursed her lips on her right face, making one of the many snakes atop her head brush against her captive’s ear, flicking its tongue over it then nibbling on the lobe gently. The boy, no older than twenty whimpered weakly. As far as he was concerned, this monster could crush him within her coils at any moment. “One kill with keep them away for a while, but if we keep it up more will come. How long until someone gets the jump on us?” Then came the crucial part, the part she was counting on to keep more from coming as long as possible.
“And then we become what they think we are right?” her right head continued, almost in a resigned tone. “If we kill every dumb kid that walks by, we give them the right to try.” Sasha leaned back and put her lower hands on her hips, putting her upper right hand underneath the kid’s chin and lifting it up slightly.
“Why you here boy?” It was a demand, emphasized by squeezing her coils around him a little and making his joints crack under the pressure. “Do you want to kill us?” Sasha reduced the pressure as quickly as it had come and waited for his answer, staring at him intently with both sets of eyes. It was kind of funny watching him try to pick a head to look at; a problem even people who knew her still seemed to have.
“You took my sister!” he wheezed, prompting Sasha to take a little more pressure off. “You turned her into one of…you things!”
Sasha shook both her heads sadly, then had them look at one another.
“It wasn’t us,” Sasha said with her left head, now trying to look understanding. “Any of us,” she said almost as a side note, gesturing to the caves behind her with both left hands. “How do you think we came to be?”
Her right head took over. Hopefully she could squeeze some understanding into this kid before letting him go. “It’s the demons you want to kill, not us morphs. We’re just victims like her. Burned, bit, whatever it was. Turned into…” her right head looked down at herself while the left looked away almost shamefully, “…this.”
She loosened her grip so he could wriggle, but didn’t let him go quite yet. “Go home. Protect your town, don’t waste your life coming here.”
Sasha plucked his sword off the ground and examined it curiously. It had a golden gemstone mounted in the hilt, but was otherwise a simple weapon. “I can’t give you this back though, and risk you trying to kill me when I let you go.”
The serpentine body she had in place of legs was nearly forty feet long, and incredibly heavy. If she wanted, Sasha could pin him simply with the weight of her body. So she moved him about twenty feet away from her and readied her magic in case he tried something.
But he didn’t. The moment she released him, he scampered away in the opposite direction, ecstatic to escape even with his life. Crisis averted and pleased with her performance, Sasha turned back to the towards the opening in the mountain. Hopefully that would be the last they’d see of him.