John gets to know Corsa while a new danger stalks them in the grassy hills north of Khalas. No nookie in this one, but trust me, it's worth the wait. "You could do something to make yourself useful," John snapped at the halfling lounging on the wagon's bench. "I could," Zynga agreed. "But I've got a good thing going here, why mess that up?" John scowled and shook his head. "Are all imps as lazy as you are?" "Racial profiling at its worst," she muttered. "What?" She waved it away. "Another time in another world. But yes, generally speaking, we like to have other people do the work. Not like we'd go out of our way for it though." John chuckled. "No, not if that meant more work than doing the work." She stuck her forked tongue out at him, changing that tiny bit of her from her halfling guise to her true form for his benefit. John walked away from her and joined Artesia at the back of the wagon. She'd taken the fence down already. Together they lowered Corsa's barrel to the ground. John looped a rope around the middle and twisted it tight with the shaft of his spear. Once secure he loosened the iron bands around the top of the barrel and pulled a few individual spans out, bending them enough to allow the top of the barrel to slip free. Artesia plucked it out and they both stared into the shadowy interior. Wine sloshed as Corsa made a guttural groan. Artesia reached in and gripped the half-elven woman under the arms. She picked her up, slowly. The lady's face was contorted in pain and her wine-stained legs and arms remained tight to her body. Artesia set her down as gently as she could on the ground and moved to fetch the young woman a dress. John gestured with his hand and sent his magic to her. He kept it from trying to invade her body and make her his plaything. He did take note of her lithe and wiry figure. Small breasted and skinny, but young and pretty. Now was not the time for such observations or thoughts, but he was alive and well thanks to his Mistress, the succubus Lady Beytrixxa. Keeping his infernal magic firmly in check, he used it to dry and clean her, leaving her shivering in the cool night breeze. "That must have been horrible," John said. "You shouldn't have to get back in there. We're a day's travel away now. Corsa nodded but didn't speak. She couldn't speak, thanks to her step-mother's order that her tongue be cut out. Artesia returned with a blanket and dress. She did a double take when she saw the woman was dry, even if her entire body below her neck was stained red, and looked to John. "She's clean," he said. "She could use some clothes though." "Yes, my lord," Artesia bowed her head and helped Corsa pull the robe over her head. Straightening each arm and leg took time. Her muscles were cramped and even after restoring feeling to them moving them was an exercise in torture. John turned. "Zynga, get a fire ready. A small one, don't try to set the countryside ablaze." The imp snorted loud enough to be heard and then hopped down from the wagon. The hills had bushes and small trees aplenty for her gather wood from. John turned back to the now clothed woman he'd taken responsibility for and knelt down beside her. "When you can stand let's get you warmed up properly. Some food and drink too... although I doubt you want wine." She grimaced and John chuckled. "I'm sorry, that was crude of me." She shook her head and reached a shaking hand out to him. John watched her and let her take his hand in hers. She pulled it to her and bent her head so she could kiss the back of his hand. "No, no, I'm not your lord or master or anything, I just—" She shook her head and looked up at him. He saw the fresh wetness in her eyes and on her cheeks. Her hand went to her chest and her lips parted. A strangled sound escaped them, causing her to blush and looked away. "I think she's trying to say thank you, with all her heart," Artesia guessed. Corsa's head jerked up and she nodded. "Oh! Well, think nothing of it, dear girl. Dear princess, actually!" Artesia shook her head. "No, my lord, she's illegitimate. Not a princess, but still a lady." John frowned. "Is that... it's no matter. She's my honored guest and my responsibility. Come, Corsa, let's get some proper food in your belly and see if we can't help you forget the horrors of the day." John offered his hand and she took it. He helped her rise on still-trembling legs and held her hand as he led her to where Zynga finished piling sticks, brambles, and some larger logs. John frowned at the total lack of pattern or style of the firewood. Zynga rubbed her hands together and then turned so that her back was to them. She moved both arms in front of her and, as far as John could tell, it looked like she reached into the too-tight leather trousers she wore and dug around for a few seconds at her crotch. When she pulled her hand out and John caught a glimpse of it again, her palm was glowing with an eerie purple and blue-white flame. She rubbed it across several logs, leaving the flames to flicker and slowly turn orange and red as they spread to the wood and grew. "I've never seen a fire started that way before," John said as he walked up. Zynga turned and winked at him. "Pain is pleasure, Master." He titled his head. "What?" "Proof that it can burn so good." John jerked his head to look at Corsa. Her eyes were as wide as his. He coughed and said, "Ignore my assistant, she's... difficult at times." "What fun would this be if it were easy?" Zynga asked. John ignored her and guided Corsa to a spot on the ground a few feet back from the growing fire. He realized as he did so that Zynga hadn't prepared the spot for a fire, she'd simply dumped wood and set it on fire. He bit back his curse and hurried to dig and tear up the grasses around the edge of the wood. Corsa saw what he was up to and crawled forward to lend a hand, tearing out the green and brown grass in the opposite direction until they met on the far side. "I swear that sometimes I think Zynga wants to watch the world burn," John muttered. Corsa responded with a weak smile. "Oh no, it would take a lot more than me to make this world burn," she said. "A little fire does wonders though to motivate people." John glared at her a moment before turning to Corsa. "Wait here, I'll fetch some of our rations. Brie stocked us up well before we left." Corsa nodded and waited for John to go to the wagon and rifle through one of the sacks Brie had given them. He returned with some sausage, cheese, and bread. He offered her a slender dagger as well and said, "Eat whatever you like, we have enough t go around." "I can hunt too, if need be," Artesia offered as she walked up. John smiled at her and then frowned. "How? You don't have your crossbow anymore." "It was damaged in the fight," she said. "Fixing it would be nearly as much as a new one. That wasn't my money to spend." "Keeping us safe and secure is worth the cost," John said. "Never doubt that." She bowed her head, "Yes, my lord. I'll do better next time. I'll be back, I'm going to set some snares. Won't help tonight but maybe tomorrow we'll have fresh rabbit for dinner." John turned to Corsa and found her watching him. Her lips parted and closed and then she pressed them together and frowned. "You wish to ask me something?" he asked. She nodded and then traced lines on her palm with her finger. He sighed. "The only paper I have is in my spell books, it's not safe for the untrained to use. Not to mention that could leave the spells themselves confusing to learn." Her shoulders slumped. John frowned and then snapped his fingers. He kicked at the ground under his feet, digging his heel in at first and then trying to scuff his boots along it. Zynga began to giggle at his frantic actions and muttered something about him belonging on a farm. He wasn't sure why she thought he should be on a farm and had more important things to do than explain himself to her. A few minutes, and three very curious women, later, John had cleared a small patch of dirt near the fire. He looked around and frowned. "I need a stick or something. You can draw in the dirt." Corsa gasped and crawled over to it. She held out the thin knife. "Perfect, John agreed. Her first scribbling was to say, "Thank you." John smiled and nodded. "Yes, we've been over this. Now I'll here no more of it. Remember, I'm being paid too, so it's not entirely out of the kindness of my heart." She blushed and then roughed up the patch of earth before asking, "Where are you lord of?" "Ah, no where... well... far from here, at least. Let's not worry about that for now, it has no bearing on our time or business together." She frowned and then shrugged. "I can cook, sew, dress game, count, right, and more. I want to help." John nodded. "Then help you shall. I'll let Artesia give you direction if I don't have a task for you." She nodded and smiled and then pointed her dagger at him. "Me?" She nodded. "I'm just a man," he said. "Same as any of us, I have my own goals and problems. I won't burden you with them though." She bowed her head and scribbled out an apology in the dirt. "No need to be sorry, my lady. I'll not bore you with the trials of learning magical formulae or the rigors of learning to fight... speaking of which, where is Artesia, she's due to start my nightly beatings any time now." "I'm here," Artesia called as she walked out of the darkness behind him. "Oh, good," he said. "Are you ready or do you wish to eat more first?" "No, I'm ready," she said. She reached for her sword and drew it. The nicked and dinged steel blade gleamed in the firelight. "When you're ready, my lord, this is a good flat bit of land." John smiled at Corsa. "Well, not time like the present, is there?" She shrugged as he reached out and used a touch of power to pull his staff from where it lie on the back of the wagon after Artesia had rebound the barrel. It flew to his hand and he moved to stand in front of his woman-at-arms. Artesia raised her sword. John hoisted his spear up in both hands and quickly changed position so he faced her almost sideways, with the point facing her. She nodded. "Am I holding it right?" he asked. "One way to find out," she said before darting forward and thrusting her sword at him. John yelped as she caught his spear with her blade and pulled it up and away. She took another step after her lunge and kicked her left boot into the back of his extended right leg. He teetered and crashed, falling on his back. Corsa gasped. Zynga howled with laughter. John groaned and looked up at the sword that was a few inches from his neck. He held up his hands in surrender. "I guess that's a no?" Artesia shrugged. "You held it fine. You failed by fighting me without know how." He grunted. "Why didn't the others fighting me chop me up?" "They weren't well trained either." John took the hand she offered and climbed to his feet. He picked up his spear and held it at the ready again. "You've been trained?" She nodded. "I guess that's good for me then," he said. "Not tonight, it isn't," she said before taking a swing that drove him back. John gave ground and tried to deflect her strikes when he dared. She left his hands raw and bruised from the strikes to his spear and the times she knocked it from his hands. She drove him to the ground a few others, either with kicks and trips or simply by making him lose his balance. He sword left marks on him too, but she took care to only strike with the flat of her blade. After nearly an hour of practice he was gasping for breath and aching from several bruises. Artesia saw he was finished and launched another attack at him, driving him back and passing up several openings that would have crippled or killed him. She ended by striking his spear and spinning him half around so she could slip behind and wrap her arm around his throat. She pulled him back, dragging him off balance and dropping him to his bottom hard enough to jar his entire body. She was kneeling behind him, her arm around his neck and holding his chin up while her shin and knee pressed into the back of his neck. Her sword rested under her arm, ready to slice deep into the soft flesh of his neck. "You're out of shape, my lord," Artesia said. "You're breathing hard too," he panted. "True, but I'm accustomed to it. John scowled. "Let me up then." "We're done tonight," she said. "Good." "An enemy won't care that you're tired," she said. "In fact, they prefer it." "If they're smart," he agreed. "If we do this every day that should help." She grabbed his hand and pulled him to his feet. "It will. Until then, try not to get in any more fights." John chuckled and nodded. "Good advice. I've been in two so far and barely survived with my life. I have you to thank for the second, Zynga for the first." Artesia glanced over at the halfling. "Zynga? She doesn't strike me as the fighting sort." "She tripped a man trying to kill me," John said. "Ah, that I can see— what is she doing now?" John turned and saw his familiar staring into the darkness beyond the edge of the firelight. He peered into the darkness with her, turning slowly and using his magic to enhance his night vision. The grasses swayed with the wind that swept around the southern edges of hills in the west. He saw nothing of any concern as the ground dropped away from the gentle slope of the side of the hill they'd made camp on. "I'm not sure," he admitted. John shrugged and winced at the ache in his back the motion caused. He turned and limped back to the fire. Corsa motioned for him to sit next to her. He did so, thinking nothing of it, and stared into the flames of the fire. They were mesmerizing and seemed to move with a life of their own. A dance that teased him with hidden meanings and elemental powers if only he could stare deep enough into them to— John cried out as fingers dug into the flesh between his neck and shoulders. He tried to jerk forward but the hands held him fast. A grunt from behind him made him stop. John twisted his head and was able to glimpse enough of Corsa to know she was behind him. Her thumbs dug into his skin and moved around, kneading his aching muscles. It hurt until he relaxed his shoulders and let her work. Then the hurt turned to a soothing warmth that began to seep into his muscles. His chin dropped to his chest and he let out a heavy sigh. Corsa's finger worked out to his shoulders and down his arms, rubbing away the tiredness and soreness in equal measure. She made her way back up, her hands working tirelessly, and then started down his back. She had to adjust and tug his robe when it got out of place or caught up in her fingers. Other than that her back robe was steady and unbroken. She went down his spine and out to his sides, stroking his muscles in ways that loosened and relaxed them. She made her way back up from there an went to his neck, rubbing in long strokes and then tiny circles. John was almost certain he'd drooled on himself. Then her fingers slipped into his hair. She tickled his scalp and rubbed the skin while her fingers combed through his hair. His mind drifted, unable to focus, and his eyes half-closed as he stared at the edge of the fire. John wasn't sure how long she'd stopped when he realized she wasn't there anymore. He picked his head up and looked around, only to find Corsa dropping to her knees beside him. He blinked as he stared at her. She looked stunning in the firelight. Shadows played across her face as she smiled shyly and dropped her eyes. John followed her eyes down and saw what she was staring at it. He had a tent in the front of his robe. Her back robe had triggered something in him. Something primal and, now that he noticed it, needy. He swallowed and looked back up at her. This was not what was supposed to happen. She was not his conquest, she was his responsibility, damn it! Corsa blushed and reached down to place her hands on his thigh. Low on his thigh, near his knee. She rubbed a little and looked up at him. John swallowed and nodded. "That feels nice," he managed. She smiled and bent her head down again. She tugged at his leg, helping him straighten it toward her, and then began her work in earnest. She worked from mid thigh down to his calf squeezing and massaging both the front and the back before she pointed at his other leg and helped him straighten that into her lap. John had to lay back on the ground while she repeated the process and left his entire body in a hazy warm sense of pleasure. The only thing that could make him feel better at this point would be a warm and willing— A roar split the night. John sat up, the perfect moment shattered. He looked around, his body casting off Corsa's soothing effects and tightening up. He struggled to his knees and rose to his feet as another roar followed the first. John grabbed his spear while Artesia dropped from the bench of the wagon where'd she moved to keep watch. Zynga grinned and hurried over to climb up on the wagon and replace the warrior. "Better take both spears," Zynga said. "Just in case." John ignored Zynga's lewd comment and said, "Get on the wagon." Corsa scrambled after Zynga. John half jogged, half staggered off after Artesia into the darkness. He found her squatting a few moments later. He crouched as best he could to hide amongst the three foot high grasses and walked up to her, "What is it?" he asked. "One of my snares was over there," she said. "I think that's where the noise came from." John looked where she pointed. There was nothing but long grass that came to his mid thigh blowing in the breeze. "I don't see anything," he said. "What was that noise, anyhow?" "Plains tiger." John twisted to stare at her. "When I was in Talas I heard that they'd been driven out by the ranchers... some said wiped out completely." Artesia stared into the darkness and shook her head. "I heard the same," she said. "But I've seen some in cages north of here. They make fierce arena fighters. Half starved yet fully strong." John swallowed and looked back. "So you've heard them?" "I have," she said. "That's what they sound like when they're angry." "Of course they do," John groaned. He turned and peered into the darkness. He squinted... had that been a flash of movement? No, just weeds blowing... even looking for heat did him little good since the ground and grass retained the suns warmth from the day. "Are plains tigers solitary, or do they hunt in packs?" John asked after a few more tense minutes passed in silence. Artesia frowned. "I'm not sure. I've only seen them in cages." "Come on, let's get back!" John hissed. He stood and turned around. The grass parted in front of him and a massive orange furred beast with black stripes crouched and bared its fangs. The tiger's tail twitched. John threw himself into Artesia. The tiger pounced as John slammed into the surprised woman. They crashed to the ground and rolled through the grass while the tiger sailed through the air over them. It hit the ground and dug its fierce claws into the ground, tearing clumps of it up as it spun around. Artesia pushed John off of her and leapt to her feet. Her sword was in hand as she faced the beast. The tiger crouched low and then shifted. Artesia moved with is, changing her stance and balance to be ready to strike or leap away, as the situation demanded. The tiger began to move, walking in a circle around them. John called his spear to him and slammed the butt in the ground as he stood up. He felt a surge of confidence with the spear at his side again. He twisted and rolled his hand before thrusting it up in the air. Black flames erupted from his finger and swirled around his hand.r"