The Long Road to Ruin Ch. 47


She yanked Bloodlust out, following it up with Darksbane, chanting to Bastian as she did. Each one of these unfortunate souls would soon find themselves at her Most Revered Lord's mercy for all of eternity. This was her vengeance.

Pia rushed over to her, disbelief all over her face. "I can't believe they'd do this. These poor people," she glanced around the restaurant at the bodies of the dead patrons. "They never had a chance."

"I hate to say it and I know this will sound cold, but this is typical Dhorn. This is what they did at the castle the night it fell." Shiloh replied, seeing the shock on Pia's face. She walked over to the door separating the tavern room from the kitchens and upper floors, finding it blocked by a wall of stone, thick and impenetrable. "We should try to get to upstairs and see if anyone has survived."

"As harsh as it seems, Shiloh, we can't. We have to let Alfons know what's happened here," Pia countered. "If we go up there and get in over our heads, there is no one who can get us out. Alfons needs to know. He'll know what to do."

"You're right, Pia. Let's sneak out through the trap door. I bet the front door is guarded well by more Dhorn. We mustn't be seen." Shiloh led Pia into an alcove off the tavern room and threw back a small rug. She opened the trap door, climbing down the ladder into the sewer tunnel below. After waiting for Pia to join her, they made haste to the hideout, racing into Alfons's office.

"Alfons, The Bear Pit, it's been attacked by Dhorn," Shiloh blurted out.

"They killed everyone and we couldn't get the upper floors because it was blocked off."

Alfons blinked, "What?!?!?!?"

"I'm going to have a look. Someone must check on Nathan," Cata spoke up.

"No, Cata, we can't. It's far too dangerous. We must abandon this place. They'll have taken prisoners and they'll find out about this hideout. Shiloh, meet me at Barich's Tavern and by the gods, don't get caught." Alfons replied as he and Cata bustled out. He sounded the alarm and soon the hideout was empty. Shiloh and Pia followed behind, meeting several more Commandos on their way through the sewers.

"This is just great," Pia sighed. "Now we'll be the prime target of every Dhorn in the city."

"Maybe not," Shiloh shook her head as they entered Drago's Warehouse from below, noting that Drago was nowhere in sight. Even the two warehouse workers were gone as well. Shiloh prayed they were able to escape in time. "They have to catch us first. We are two sneaky girls and I've found that they aren't very good at spotting danger from the shadows."

They slunk along, keeping to the shadows as they made their way up the docks to Barich's Tavern, which sat across from the defunct brothel, The Wildcat. Shiloh and Pia emerged from the shadows, quickly entering the tavern generally frequented by sailors and dock workers. Alfons was waiting for them, along with Timmy. Much to her surprise and dismay, she watched Vico step out of the dark shadows of the smoky tavern. She knew he'd been gone on a fairly important mission to Sargoza and was surprised that he had made it back. But that was neither here nor there, she told herself as she turned her attention to Alfons.

Anxiety played heavy on his ruddy face. "It's good that you are here, Shiloh. A lot of us have managed to escape, but still, this was a heavy blow."

"Pia and I did encounter some Commandos in the sewers near the hideout when we were making my way out," Shiloh reported.

"I seriously hope they didn't see you, or live to tell?" Alfons replied, although he already knew what her answer would be before she spoke it.

"Those bastards are dead. No need to worry." Shiloh stated, rolling her shoulders reflexively. "So what are we going to do about this?"

"The good news is that we have reason to believe that Nathan and some of the other folks from the Bear Pit are alive. The Dhorn have taken them out of the city, to a ruined hunting lodge in the King's Forest, where they are to be put to the question. Timmy overheard a conversation between two high-ranking Dhorn officers who claimed as much, anyway."

Pia shivered, "Uhm, put to the question...?"

"That doesn't sound good, especially since I know firsthand what being put to question by the Dhorn is like. Gods, I hope Benthur isn't overseeing the interrogations." Ice cold terror slithered down Shiloh's back as she momentarily remembered being tortured by the sadistic Commander.

"I've warned most of our remaining folks, but we won't be safe in the city for too long. If we don't find Nathan and the others soon, we may have to leave Betancuria," Alfons shook his head, "Sad that it's come to this."

Shiloh shook her head, "Mayhap if my Father had left well enough alone, it wouldn't have."

"Shiloh, nothing lies down that road, but heartache and misspent wanderings. Don't trouble yourself so." Alfons cautioned, compassion filling his weary eyes.

Vico stepped closer, slipping his arm around Shiloh's waist, "Family is all that matters now. And for that reason you and I are going to seek out that hunting lodge, Shiloh."

She jerked away from him as if burned, pinching her nose in exasperation, " Just great. Fine," she sneered.

Alfons shook his head. "The two of you had better put your differences aside for the time being. We can't afford any further hostilities within our ranks. I want you and Vico to do this, Shiloh. Together. The hunting lodge will probably be heavily guarded. This is NOT a mission for a lone man. Or woman."

"Oh fine, but as long as he doesn't think that he can order me around," she frowned.

Vico shook his head, rolling his eyes then shot an insolent sneer at her, "Stop acting up like a spoilt little girl, Shiloh. Your princess days are long gone."

She shot back a death glare, cold fury simmering just below the surface, "Oh, fuck you, Vico."

Alfons stepped between them, "We cannot take any risks. Too much depends on you. On BOTH of you. Please."

"Alright, but it may well be that Vico finds a dagger in his back during the course of this mission," Shiloh groused unhappily.

"It may also well be that you find my dick in your ass during the course of this mission," Vico retorted slyly.

Alfons and Pia exchanged even wearier glances before Pia interjected, frowning at the blackguard, "Where were you anyway when the Dhorn attacked the Bear Pit?"

Vico took his eyes off Shiloh, glancing at Pia, his eyes narrowing dangerously, but it was Alfons who spoke up, "He just came back from Sargoza an hour ago, Pia. Together with Wally and Frank."

"Do you really think I'd stay away from a fight like that, Pia darling?"

She shrugged, "Well... No. I was just wondering. That's all."

He rolled his eyes before moving to her side. His arm slid across her shoulders, "Silly girl."

Alfons pulled Shiloh aside, "Look, I know Vico's... difficult to deal with at times. But we need to work together if we want to have a chance to free Nathan and the others." He placed his hands on her shoulders and looked straight into her eyes. "We're all depending on you two. You must succeed in this. Things might get ugly. He's a damn good fighter. He'll protect you at all costs. Of that you can be sure."

"Alfons, I haven't needed Vico to protect me in how long now," she turned her head, meeting Vico's level glare. "I handed him his ass the last time we tangled, remember?"

"That's in the past, Shiloh, and that's where it has to remain in order for you two to work together successfully. Nothing else matters now," Alfons stressed.

"We'll be fine," Vico spoke up. "We have a duty and we'll do it. Won't we, Shiloh?"

"Yes, Vico, we'll be fine," she flashed a sugary-sweet smile at him.

"I'll accompany Shiloh, in any case," Pia piped up in a sing-song voice, injecting some levity into the seriousness.

"Now, as far as I know, the Dhorn haven't detected our tunnel below the north wall yet. You know where it starts?" Alfons asked.

"Nope, I didn't know we had a tunnel under the north wall." Shiloh replied, frowning.

"There's a ruined house next to the city gates in the western part of the city, right next to Tald's Tavern. Go there, the tunnel starts behind the fireplace. It's not difficult to find if you know where to look."

Shiloh nodded, "Good as done."

"This should go without saying, but I fear I must. Please be very careful. There's only very few of us left. If you get caught, we may not be able to help you."

"Don't worry, Alfons. We'll be fine and we won't fail. I owe too much to Nathan," Shiloh replied, "Plus if they have Nathan, that means they have Chella and I can't allow that."

"Good luck." Alfons wished them, watching as they headed for the door of the tavern. Silently, Shiloh, Pia and Vico made their way back through Southern Betancuria, across the river bridge and into the northern part of the city. They bisected it, passing the Academy and the Dhorn Barracks on their way to the western portion.

Onward they continued, keeping to the shadows wherever possible, passing the Dhorn Administrative Building and the Arena. They made it to the western gates then located the ruined house Alfons had spoken of. Shiloh deftly picked the lock, allowing Vico to enter first to secure the building. Shiloh and Pia entered after he'd given the all clear. Truth be told, she hadn't expected any resistance and was glad there was not.

Pia frowned, looking around at the rumble littering the floor. "Wasn't this the night watchman's house?"

"Bloody ceiling's sprung a leak," Vico sneered.

"Afraid the water might ruin your hair, Vico dear? Or that you might actually have to take a bath soon?" Shiloh taunted.

He threw her a disdainful look, "Let's check out the fireplace," he ordered.

"Did you know about the tunnel before Alfons told us?" Shiloh asked him, as she knelt down before it, searching the floor.

Vico shook his head, "Nope."

"Me neither," Pia replied. "Must be one of those secrets that Nathan and Alfons kept to themselves. They sure as hell have had enough of them."

Shiloh rolled her eyes as she continued to search. "A-ha, found it!"

With a rasping sound, the back of the wall gives way, revealing a dark corridor behind it. Thick layers of dust cover the ground, making it obvious this passage hasn't been used at all recently. Shiloh made her way through it followed close behind by Pia and Vico. After a few minutes, Pia sniffed, "What's that smell?"

Shiloh wrinkled up her nose, "See I told you Vico needed a bath."

The blackguard rolled his eyes at her, "It is bat dung, stupid cunt."

"Phew, it stinks," Pia complained, pinching her nostrils shut as they moved further down the tunnel.

Vico threw his arms up in the air, "Stop complaining, Pia. The smell could be worse. I mean, Shiloh's yet to open her legs."

"Oh bite me, asshole," Shiloh retorted, tired of his nonsense already. She shook her head, wondering what she'd ever really saw in him. He was still the same childish thug he'd always been. He truly hadn't changed a bit. She didn't expect he would either. That's just fine, she thought. I don't need him. I can do better. I need someone with the connections to put me where I want to be. I want someone who can help me become Queen. Someone who'll be my King and that isn't Vico.

Vico laughed, "Don't dish it if you can't take it."

She ignored him this time, scouting ahead. When she came to a ladder, she figured this was the way out. She only hoped this put them outside the city walls. She sure as hell felt like they'd covered enough ground to make it beyond the walls. Only one way to find out, she sighed, then climbed up until she reached a thick stony slab, which easily gave way. She pushed it aside, finally emerging out in the open. She found herself in a tight, rectangular earthen pit of sorts, about five feet wide and deep. Above, thin rain drops fall down upon her head at a steady pace. She took a couple deep breaths.

"Shiloh, could you move your fat ass a little so the rest of us can get out of here too?" Vico snarled at her, still standing on the ladder. He swats her bottom viciously.

"Mmmmm, do it again, please, daddy," she teased, wiggling her ass at him.

Vico growled, "By the hells!" Swearing loudly, he shoved Shiloh out of his way, joining her in the pit before helping Pia up as well. Then he glanced around, taking a long look at their surroundings.

Shiloh's inner imp soon got the better of her as she snaked her hand around, under his armor, pinching his bum.

He hadn't seen it coming, "Ouch! What the...?" He turned a sharp glare at Shiloh who flashed an innocent look at him.

"Is something wrong, Vico dear?"

Pia giggled softly behind her hand.

Vico rolled his eyes once more, shaking his head at her cheekiness. Things would certainly never be dull with Shiloh around, that was for sure. "Let's just get the hell out of here before we drown," he groused at her.

The grass on the pit's rim proved somewhat slippery from all the rain, but with the help of a few gnarly roots close by, Shiloh managed to climb out. She gave Pia a hand next then waited for Vico to make his way out.

"Do you think we are far enough from the city walls?" Pia asked, glancing around the area, before brushing dirt off her colorful bard wear.

"We should be safe," Vico stated then glanced back down into the pit they'd climbed out of, "A grave, go figure." He motioned to the weather sarcophagus covering the bottom of the pit.

"It looks pretty old," Shiloh replied. "The engraving on the headstone is worn away."

"One thing for certain," Pia spoke up. "It's highly unlikely that anybody will suspect that there's a tunnel below it. This will probably be our way back into the city as well."

"Yeah, we know, Pia darling. Anyway, the road should be a few hundred feet to the east of here. We'll follow it north into the King's Forest. Let's be off. There's no more time to waste." Vico replied as he headed for the road.

Shiloh and Pia followed along behind him, huddled close, whispering a conversation between themselves. Vico glanced over his shoulder back at them a time or two, just to make sure they were keeping up, but didn't comment. It seemed odd that the two of them were so close. Their personalities were so different. Shiloh stood several inches taller than Pia and was actually somewhat hunched to accommodate the petite bard, but she showed no signs of weariness. He wouldn't have imagined Shiloh so close and so friendly with someone as frivolous as the bard, but it seemed the two girls had a connection. He pondered it, knowing it had to do with the fact that Shiloh drew people to her like moths to flame. He shook his head, setting aside past regrets. It did no good to dwell on it now. That ship had long sailed.

As they came to a crossroads, Vico stopped, waiting for his companions to catch up. Pia pulled away from Shiloh, sneezing into her upper arm. "We're wet to the bone, and I think I've caught a cold," she sneezed a second time then accepted a handkerchief from Shiloh. "First we trounce around in the damn snow trying to find a way home, now we trounce around in the rain trying to find a way to rescue Nathan."

Shiloh grinned, hugging her, "I like it when you're all wet, my sweet."

Pia giggled, watching as Vico rolled his eyes at them, "You're so naughty!"

"Actually, Pia, it would've been better for you to keep wearing that leather armor I gave you. As much as I love your exposed skin, you'd be feeling better and you'd be warmer." Shiloh stated.

"I know. You're right, so perhaps we can stop at a tavern or an inn when we're a bit farther away from the city? Then I can dry off and change back into it." Pia glanced hopefully at Vico.

He rolled his eyes at her, "Pia, we don't have time for you to fool around with serving wenches."

"That's not what I meant. I need to put something dry on before I get even sicker, silly," she shot back.

"Ya know, he might be right for a change. We've only just started our venture into the King's Forest. We've got a ways to go before we reach that hunting lodge." Shiloh pulled a face, hating that she was agreeing with Vico.

Pia shook her head, layering a dry woolen cloak against her skin under her wet one. "Did the hells just freeze over? You, Shiloh, are agreeing with Vico on something? May the Gods save me."

"Indeed," Shiloh quipped.

Vico hugged Pia tightly, "I've truly missed your humor, Pia darling. But if you're so set on changing, that shack over their looks decently dry. The roof isn't completely gone yet. Don't take too long. Shiloh and I will be waiting."

Pia dashed off after accepting the clean, dry suit of red leather armor from Shiloh's portable hole. The void that Pia had been filling between them was now left wide open. Shiloh did her best to ignore him, but found it wasn't so easy. She turned to him, looking him up and down, sizing him up in a way she hadn't before. At one point in her life, the only thing that mattered was having all the men pining for her, but that hadn't worked with Vico. He was something supremely different. She knew him intimately, knew he was the kind of man to do whatever it took to get the job done, and if the job involved killing, he enjoyed it even more. Vico was smart and cunning, though he hid those traits well behind his ego. True, they were evenly matched on the battlefield, but he was so much more. He was street-wise, a survivor. Far too opinionated for his own good, and sexy as hell, it nearly made her weak in the knees. She remembered a time when she wanted nothing more than to be his lover, but even that was long gone. She would never reopen that wound. It was far too painful.

"I've been doing a lot of thinking lately and I've come to the conclusion that the only way any of us are ever going to live in peace again is if somehow I manage to become Queen." Shiloh spoke up, "I'm not saying it's going to be easy, but it's the only solution I can come up with."

Vico leveled a pondering look upon her, choosing his next words carefully, "How is that going to bring peace to the region? Furthermore, how are you going to pull that one off? Do you even realize what that will mean for the rest of us?"

"I'm perfectly aware of it, Vico. I've thought of nothing but this. First, I'd have to make an advantageous marriage with someone who can get me an audience with Emperor Dhorn. Then, I'd have to convince him that I'm not my Father and do not have the same selfish hunger for power that my Father had. I'll essentially have to agree to rule under his banner in order to negotiate the allowances that I want for Betancuria. That means the overwhelming presence of Dhorn soldiers have to go away. It will put me in the position to negotiate for Nathan's and everyone else's release. If this can be done without further bloodshed, then it may be a plus in our corner. I'm not saying my plan is perfect and I'm not saying it's the only option, but it may be what brings peace to Betancuria. That's what I want. I want to take my rightful place. I want to be the kind of monarch my Father never could."

"You're breaking my heart, birdie," he rolled his eyes. "It's never going to happen. We just need to focus on finding the old man."

Shiloh threw her arms up in the air, "You're impossible to talk to. I fuckin' hate you."

He smirked insolently at her, "Ahhh, you love me and you know it."

Pia returned, bouncing headlong into their tension. "Maybe you two should visit the shack over there for a while. The bed's clean and dry, that's all I'm saying."

"No thanks," Shiloh replied. "I'd rather hump the tree over there." She stormed away, cursing her folly for even saying anything to Vico. She knew he would never understand, would never see things her way. She knew in her heart it was the only way. She knew she could make a difference. She just needed to make the first steps in that direction.

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