“Can I help you?” Briony asked, not making any attempt to mask her irritation. She’d just barely made it into her workshop—another late start had vastly cut into her workday. And, to top it all off, in her haste she’d managed to burn herself when stoking her kiln.
So, needless to say, she wasn’t overly enthusiastic about dealing with the two oafs who’d barged their way unceremoniously into her workshop.
“That’s what we’ve been told,” Brute One replied, promptly knocking over a bowl of pigment as he reached back to scratch his behind. He cast her a sheepish look, and she resisted the urge to crack him over the skull with her lathe.
Instead, she tugged off her gloves and crossed her arms. “Well, then, spit it out.”
Brute Two sniffed in that unfortunately male way. “What even is this lot? You do pottery shit?”
Now that lathe was looking impossibly more tempting. “Glass,” She snipped. “Now, tell me what you’re doing in my workshop before I toss you into my kiln.”
“Elwood is missing.”
Both men reared back as they spoke, clearly dreading her reaction. Briony could practically see them fumbling for tissues in preparation for the waterworks.
They clearly knew nothing about Elwood.
She just rolled her eyes. “What sort of trouble has that thick-skulled boy gotten himself into this time?”
Though Elwood was her younger brother, it wasn’t precisely fair to call him a “boy”. He was a grown man, and unfortunately he’d surpassed her in height many years prior—a fact he’d refused to let her forget.
Brute One furrowed his brow. “Uh, well, he…”
Briony tapped her foot impatiently. The poor man gulped. She knew she was being unnecessarily harsh, but she’d woken up on the wrong side of the bed today, and she’d decided to make it everyone’s problem.
“He and his team are lost in The Cavern Labyrinth,” Brute Two finally finished.
Briony froze, for the first time since the oafs had come blundering into her workshop, she was thrown. “The Cavern Labyrinth?”
Both men nodded silently.
“That gods damned, idiotic, knuckle-headed punk!” She roared, slamming her fist on the workbench in front of her and cursing once more when she hit her burned wrist.
“Ma’am—” Brute Two attempted to interject, but Briony was fully absorbed in her tirade.
“I mean, Ellie has always been an idiot, but I never thought he’d be so incredibly arrogant as to think he could just waltz into the gods damned Cavern Labyrinth and come out unscathed!” She began to pace, gesticulating wildly. “Men,” she finished, sending a disgusted glance towards the hapless pair across the room.
Brute One cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Well, he always said that if anything were to happen to him, to tell you. He said you’d know what to do.”
Briony sighed, suitably wrung out from her rant. “You did the right thing. I’ll go bail him out. Thank you.” She flipped them each a gold piece for their troubles, but they didn’t know when to let things lie.
“Bail him out? Ma’am, all due respect, but—”
Briony, who was already halfway to the door, pivoted on her heel to face him. She’d always been tall for a woman, and she used her full six feet of height to her advantage now, as she stared down her nose at the man. “I thanked you, I paid you. I am no longer your concern.”
The other man piped up. “Well, it’s just—the Labyrinth is mighty dangerous, and—”
“And Elwood asked you to inform me if he was in trouble for good reason. I can take it from here.”
She held the door open, and the two men dejectedly made their way out.
This wasn’t the first time Briony had had to yank her baby brother’s behind out of the fire. In fact, it wasn’t even close. She hadn’t always been a humble glass blower, peacefully decorating churches of all faiths and creating anniversary gifts for wives.
There had been a time when she’d accompanied her brother on his adventures, slaying goblins that terrorized humble townsfolk, negotiating with greed-addled dragons, fighting side by side with mercenaries against orc attacks.
She’d saved her brother’s hide more times than could be counted, and never received a thank you, for that matter.
But, unlike her brother, she’d grown tired. Tired of moving around constantly, tired of fighting, tired of removing gore-crusted armor to reveal skin bashed black and blue from their most recent adventure.
She didn’t even know what a home felt like—neither of them had ever
had one—and she wanted to know. To break from the path of adventure and violence that her family had followed for generations.
Elwood had never been happy to go on adventures without her to watch his back, and he’d made no secret of it. It wouldn’t surprise her if the clunkhead had gotten himself into trouble on purpose, knowing she’d come to his rescue. He’d always been the schemer of the two of them. As she’d often fondly stated, her brother was the smartest idiot she’d ever known.
Grumbling to herself, Briony set about gathering her things. It was telling, perhaps, that her armor was oiled and shiny, her broadsword was sharp and devoid of rust. Her equipment and go bag leaned against the entry doorframe.
There they waited, as if they’d known she would need them again. Or, perhaps she’d wanted to need them.
“That’s what Ellie would say,” she said to herself as she set about gathering travel rations and dungeoneering supplies. Though the Labyrinth was not far from the town, she knew once she was inside the caverns, the journey would not be so easy.
The “Cavern Labyrinth”, as it was referred to, often in hushed tones, accompanied by furtive backward glances, was a massive cave system a couple leagues or so north of the town.
Though it wasn’t a labyrinth in the technical sense, it was most certainly nature’s version. And, in Briony’s humble opinion, it was no less than the depths of Hell. Half of the jobs Ellie and she had been assigned were to slay all manner of monstrous creatures that emerged from the caverns.
Only the gods knew what actually dwelled inside.
She snorted. Well, now the gods and her kid brother.
Though she was out of practice, it wasn’t long before she’d donned her armor and sword, heading determinedly towards the doghouse she’d built out behind her home. It certainly didn’t look like one—out of necessity, it was at least three times the size of a standard kennel. It could almost be a cottage in its own right.
Before she’d come within ten feet of the gate, a howl full of canine condemnation rang out, and a long, black-furred face appeared in one of the slotted openings in the structure, wet nose twitching.
“Gods above, I should turn you into a coat!” Briony sighed, though there was no real heat in it. “You’re more trouble than you’re worth, Bat.”
The excitable hound narrowed his golden eyes, the giant ears he’d been named for flattening, whiskered lips pulling back from razor teeth, almost as if he’d understood her words.
Briony was, in fact, fairly certain he did. He’d always seemed far too intelligent for a dog. Elwood was certain that Bat must’ve had a fae hound in his ancestry.
She had never been inclined to argue with the assertion, though she would also put good money on some wolf in the mix. Along with his intelligence, Bat’s shoulders easily came up to her ribcage, and he bore no
resemblance to a housepet.
“Don’t you turn your lip at me, fleabag,” she grumped at him, unlatching the gate and snapping her fingers when she saw him thinking about making a break for it.
One of his favorite games was keep-away in the yard, usually when Briony had somewhere important to be.
He wuffed indignantly at her foiling of his plans, but settled down as she shut the gate behind her. Grabbing his collar from where it hung from a nail on the wall, she continued talking to him.
"Must we always do this song and dance, Bat? You’ve been playing that trick since you were a pup. Get new material. And besides, we have work to do.”
He sent her a sideways glower, not enthused in the least, and she knew precisely what he was thinking. These days, the only “work” he ever got to do involved modified saddlebags and fragile glassware. Due to his enormous size, he was plenty capable of transporting her goods back and forth. Though he had never pretended to enjoy it—just the opposite, in fact.
“Hey now, this is something you’ll like, you ungrateful git.” Briony latched his
collar—adorned with giant, sharp spikes for protection against predators and monsters—and turning to his saddlebags. “I know you hate hauling our merchandise into town, but this time, we’re going on an adventure.”
His ears pricked with interest, front paws shifting, long claws drawing furrows in the dirt floor. “That’s right, Bat,” she cooed, rubbing his head as she finished with his equipment. “We’ve got to go get Ellie.”
A giant, fluffy tail began sweeping back and forth slowly at the sound of his uncle’s name. “And,” she paused, knowing this was the kicker, “we’ll probably run into some monsters along the way.”
Bat let out an excited bark, which soon evolved into a howl. He rushed toward the gate, jumping up on powerful hind legs over and over in his excitement. Briony grinned.
Briony felt like a raging idiot for not anticipating the darkness. It really had been too long since she’d been out in the thick of an adventure. That much had become glaringly obvious in the last couple of days.
As soon as she and Bat had neared the entrance of the cave, she knew she’d
miscalculated. It wasn’t five feet in before the yawning mouth of the Labyrinth became nothing more than insidious, oozing darkness. The kind that would linger on your skin even once you’d walked back into the sunlight. And her foolish hide hadn’t brought any torches.
Luckily, she hadn’t been an adventurer for her entire life without picking up a fair bit of practical knowledge. She’d managed to craft several crude torches by carving into an unfortunate tree with her dagger and soaking a scraps of cloth in the resulting sap, wrapping it around fallen branches.
Despite her resourcefulness, Bat had watched her with a judging expression the entire time. He clearly thought she should have been better prepared. And she couldn’t say she blamed him. Who forgot to bring torches on a cave adventure?
That had been days ago. Now, nearing the end of their final torch, the darkness remained oppressive, both her and Bat were finding clumps of goblin gore in unfortunate places, and Briony was running out of patience.
“I’m going to strangle that little upstart,” she grouched at Bat, gnawing crankily on a strip of dried meat. Bat just let his tongue loll out, a smile on his canine face. He wasn’t grouchy in the least. The mutt was having the best gods damned time of his life. Tearing out monster’s throats and eating whatever crossed his path—goblins, uncomfortably large rodents, and even
bats when he could reach them. Which wasn’t technically cannibalism, but…
Briony leaned further against the cave wall, tossing the jerky rind at Bat, who caught it and swallowed it instantly. She quirked a brow.
“Wouldn’t kill you to taste it, Bat.”
He wuffed, lowering his chin to his paws.
She sighed, before hauling herself up, dusting her hands on her thighs. “Lunch time is over. Let’s go find that no-good brother of mine.”
She had good reason to vexed. Though Elwood had always been the better tracker of the two of them, it didn’t take a genius to realize this had all been a setup. Oh, her brother was here, that was true, but he was most certainly not lost. She’d found his tracks near the entrance to the Labyrinth that was less than a day old. After the men had come to her workshop.
The bastard had lured her here. Back into the field. On an adventure.
And she’d swallowed his bait whole. Which was nothing less than galling.
She could’ve turned around as soon as she’d realized. It had been her first instinct. But her damnable pride wouldn’t allow it. Her brother wanted to play games? Well, she’d play by her own rules. And her new objective was to find him and kick his ass.
Bat jumped up as she gathered her supplies, tail wagging with seemingly unwavering enthusiasm. Torch in hand, they set out once more, following the tracks Elwood had left—far too obviously, she might add. His assessment of her tracking capabilities was nothing less than
“One more thing to keep in mind when I track his skinny hide down,” she told Bat, who grinned in response.
The torch was barely burning when they found the first drop of blood.
Briony knew something was terribly wrong when Bat’s hackles shot up, his nose
practically buried in the dirt, an intimidating rumble building in his chest. When the dog smelled monsters, his tail wagged. He didn’t react with aggression.
Thrusting the torch to the ground, Briony felt the blood drain from her face at what she saw. Blood spattered the cave floor, the dirt disturbed violently all around them. Signs of a battle, and one her brother had lost. Badly.
She swore viciously. “This is what your pranks get you!”
Pressing a hand to Bat’s head, she moved forward, examining the scene to the best of her ability. After a tense moment, she breathed a gusty sigh of relief. “He’s alive, Bat. Not enough blood here to be a mortal wound.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Four or five attackers at least.”
Big, whatever they were. At least Elwood’s size, judging from the depth of their tracks. And her brother was built like a castle—so big people who didn’t know him often thought him to be half-orc. He wasn’t easy to overpower, but it seemed to her his attackers had ambushed him.
She shook her head. Her brother was never one for vigilance—that had been her role. And, in the midst of his little scheme, he’d have been even less guarded than normal.
"Bastards dragged him off,” she told Bat, who’s ears swiveled back in response.
"We need to find him.”
And that’s when her torch extinguished.
Bat was by Briony’s side the instant the light went out, his fur warm beneath her palm.
She groaned, burying her fingers in his ruff and massaging—more for her than for him.
“Just great,” she muttered. “How am I supposed to help Ellie if I can’t see my own hand in front of me?”
It was a real concern. Whatever had taken her brother was likely a cave-dwelling species. They didn’t need a torch to see, and she was already outnumbered. Finding them now would just give them another captive on a silver platter.
“I’m thinking, I swear!” She chastised, “be patient.”
The dog nudged her, and she followed, feeling through the darkness until she found the wall of the cave, the stone warm to the touch. Leaning against it, she pinched the bridge of her nose.
“C’mon, Briony, you can’t go down because of a damned torch!” She muttered to herself.
Bat whined again, pressing her further into the warmth of the wall with his considerable bulk. She grunted as the air was pressed from her lungs by the insistent hound. “Gods dammit Bat, what are you—” she stopped, everything suddenly clicking. “Warm. The wall is warm. The caves are warm. I thought it was just because of underground insulation, but the wall is warm!
Bat, how come you’re so much smarter than me?”
Bat wuffed, clearly asking himself the very same question.
Warmth meant something was generating heat. Which, usually, meant light. So, all she and Bat had to do was follow the warmth, and…and something. It was a plan, at the very least. Once she could see, Bat could get them back to the tracks, and they could save Elwood.
“Lead the way.”
It wasn’t long before the caves began to get lighter. Briony still could barely make out the path in front of her, but it meant she’d been right. Or, Bat had been. The way he trotted in front of her, muzzle in the air like an arrogant king, made sure she wouldn’t soon forget it.
There was something generating light and heat in these caves. Perhaps a lava flow, or, if they were unlucky, a goblin camp. It didn’t matter. Whatever it was, they would deal with it, and then get back to saving her brother.
She followed Bat until the big dog halted at the end of a narrow cavern, planting down on his haunches. As she neared, her brows rose at what was clearly a door. An honest-to-gods, wooden door. Hinges and all. “That’s either really good, or really bad,” she muttered. Bat looked up at her expectantly. Impatiently waiting for her to open it. She drew her sword, steeled herself, and did so, charging through it.
Bat didn’t attack.
That was the only thought that entered Briony’s mind as she gripped her blade, knuckles rendered bloodless with the force of her grasp. Her jaw clenched, teeth aching as she took in the horrific sight before her.
It was a forge of some kind, a cavernous maw of magma and steel—a patched together quilt of created and natural structures. It was almost beautiful to behold, the fires of the forge cultivated by Mother Earth herself, protected by carved walls and constructed bellows. And, of course, there was the massive fucking monster in the middle of it all, his silhouette made much more terrifying by the flickering light of the forges behind him.
A gods damned minotaur.
She’d faced such beasts before. Feral, ravenous creatures driven only by instinct and bloodlust. They laid waste to all before them, hellbent on hate and destruction. The last one she’d fought had taken her comrade’s arm, and nearly Briony’s life with it.
Fair to say, she was not eager to see one again.
Standing at an easy—and intimidating—seven feet, the beast in front of her cut an imposing figure. Half man, half bull, he stood on two giant hooves, shaggy legs melting into a broad, heavyset chest, before once more twisting unnaturally into the head of an imposing monster. Proud, sharp horns jutted from a dark-furred brow, flaring nostrils adorned with a glittering gold hoop that danced in the light of the fire. A tail flicked nervously back and forth behind him, dark eyes assessing Briony like his next meal.
And Bat didn’t do a fucking thing.
She almost wondered if her hound was defective. Perhaps in his middle age he simply did not notice the deformed creature in front of them?
That illusion was shattered when the damned curr bounded up to the beast, bushy tail wagging with all the enthusiasm of a pup expecting dinner. Briony’s lower jaw hit the cave floor when the wretched mutt dared let out a pathetic, begging whine, pleading for the monster’s attention.
“Bat!” She cried, unable to remain silent in the face of such blatant insanity.
She could’ve been blown over with a feather when the beast spoke.
“May I soothe your companion?” His words were a grating rumble, both deep in tenor and obviously rarely used. A voice of masculinity and isolation.
Unsure how else to respond, Briony nodded numbly.
The beast lit up as if he’d been granted a great boon, leaning down from his considerable height to pat and scratch Bat enthusiastically. The mutt in question practically melted under the attention, back leg thumping and tail wagging with such vigor the appendage could serve as a lethal melee weapon.
Feeling slightly ridiculous brandishing a sword in such a scene, Briony reluctantly lowered her weapon, utterly baffled at the turn of events.
“Who are you?” She asked, with no small amount of indignation.
The minotaur looked up briefly from Bat. “I am called Aster.” His dark gaze traveled up and down her form with no small amount of heated curiosity. “And you?”
She forced herself to shake off her instinctive preening at his inspection. “I am called Briony. And that there is Bat—a useless mutt, he is.”
Aster chuckled. “He is certainly no guard dog.”
She struggled to hold in her snort, remembering the poor half-orc Bat had nigh on dismembered when the hapless male had attempted to pick her pockets. “I wouldn’t be so sure of that. However,” she gave the hound a vexed look, “he seems quite fond of you.”
Aster shrugged as if this were no surprise. “I like dogs.”
“I’ve met others of your kind, and they were not quite so…” Briony struggled to find a phrase that wouldn’t be incredibly insulting.
The male did not have such concerns. “Intelligent? Peaceful? Generally pleasant?”
At a momentary loss for words, Briony managed to stutter, “Err, yes. That.”
Aster snorted, his nose ring fluttering under the heavy breath. “I was fortunate enough to have parents who cared for me despite my deformities. Now I merely tend this forge and create as I am called to. I have no interest in harming the innocent.”
Bat thumped his tail in emphasis.
Feeling utterly ganged up on, Briony sheathed her sword entirely. “You tend this forge? For whom?”
“I forge weapons for whomever may pass,” Aster answered, looking at her longingly. “But I have not had customers for many a century. Would…would you not mind staying for a moment? I confess…I am enjoying this encounter.”
It was on the tip of Briony’s tongue to tell this creature that, no, she could not stay “for a moment”. She was on a mission to rescue her brother, gods dammit. She didn’t have time to dally with an abomination of nature that, for some unfathomable reason, made pleasant company.
So, imagine her surprise when, instead, the words that came from her lips were, “Let’s make a deal.”
The minotaur—Aster—lit up, dark eyes unexpectedly shrewd. “I am listening, small one.”
Briony blinked. “Small”? Not once in her life had she ever been described as such.
Though, she supposed, by comparison, the descriptor could fit. Deciding not to address it, she forged on. “Yes, a deal. I will stay…if you promise to answer my questions.”
He snorted, horns weaving in the air as he shook his head. Briony saw now that they were capped with gold, glinting with their own lethal beauty in the light of the forge.
“You have a deal.” He smiled, revealing wicked fangs that made Briony shiver. “I would invite you to sit, but I do not do much of that myself, so I am afraid I am not equipped for it…”
Briony swore she could see his ears twitch and cheeks flush with embarrassment.
A minotaur, embarrassed by his hosting abilities? This was beyond surreal. And yet, Briony found him to be utterly endearing. Unlike many males she’d encountered in her life, he was unconcerned with asserting himself upon her, openly revealing himself to her with abandon.
Completely at odds with his brutal, menacing appearance. The combination was undeniably intoxicating.
“I think you’ll find I’m not terribly concerned with material things and physical
pleasures,” Briony assured him.
He cocked his head, heavy brow furrowing. “No? That is a shame.”
For a moment, she was confused, and then it was her turn to blush. A thing she rarely did.
Such a comment from any other male would be met with the working edge of her broadsword, but she knew simply from his guileless expression that Aster had genuinely been confused by her comment.
“I didn’t mean…oh, never mind it. I don’t need a chair, I mean to say,” Briony clarified, and Aster nodded seriously, still scratching Bat gently behind the ears as the hound demanded of him.
“Ah, but you deserve one nonetheless, and I am sorry I am not able to provide it. But I suppose there is no sense in dwelling upon it—what questions do you have for me? I am most eager to hear them.”
Briony sheathed her sword absentmindedly, leaning against the cave wall. “You said you forge weaponry? I can’t imagine you’ve had many customers.”
A deep, mesmerizing laugh emerged from Aster’s barrel chest. “Ah, I can see why one such as you would think so—you cannot be older than three decades,”
He heaved a deep sigh. “I myself am far older. In days long since passed, these caves were a bustling metropolis. A civilization unto itself. My forge was renowned for its weaponry, and I supplied warriors from worlds over with my wares.”
Briony’s brow furrowed. “I have never heard of such a thing.”
He shook his head slowly. “You would not have. The Below retreated unto itself and has now garnered a reputation for evil that has come from decades of isolation and sorrow. I forge my wares for only the specters of what once was, I am afraid.”
Gods, she could taste the loneliness in his words. “Why is it you are so different from others of your kind, then?"
He shuffled on his hooves, almost uncomfortable. “I know not of the story of my birth, but I know of my mother. She was a high elven noble, refusing to abandon me as an infant, as many of my kind are. She left her family behind in order to raise me. The power of a mother’s love is unmatched, and so here I stand. It is not the fault of my brethren that they were deprived of such.”
Briony was not quite as prepared to give his kind a pass—the memory of being gored by the horns of one of Aster’s “brethren” far still far too vivid. She had the scars to remember it. But still, she would not hold that against him. Actions spoke for themselves, and Aster’s were screaming.
He was damned likeable.
"If you do not mind…I have a question of my own.” The rumbling words were almost tentative, as if he were afraid to shatter their fragile truce.
Briony grinned. “Changing the rules, are we?”
Aster snorted, the ring in his nose vibrating with the force of his exhale. “Not if you are made uncomfortable by it.”
“I’m a fairly open book, I think you’ll find,” She assured him, thoroughly charmed.
He nodded, all trepidation gone. “What brings you and your heavy-pelted companion,” he held up his hand, shaking off a clump of Bat’s long, black fur, “into the Below?”
Briony winced at Bat’s awesome shedding power, before addressing Aster’s question. “It’s kind of a long story…” She trailed off, not wanting to drag him into her family drama.
He flicked an ear, as if to dismiss her concerns. He gestured with a giant palm at the quiet forge. “As you can likely see, I have nothing but time on my hands.”
She smirked. “You asked for it, big man.”
Over the next while, Briony went into detail on the circumstances that had brought her and Bat here, leaving no part of her brother’s idiot schemes untold. It was incredibly cathartic to vent her frustrations on someone other than Bat—the hound, despite his incredible intelligence, was a poor listener. If it wasn’t to do with the dismembering of goblins or hunting of trolls, he simply wasn’t interested.
Aster, however, was a most intent audience. Not the fake kind some men displayed when they wanted to get into her good graces—Briony could smell that stink from a league away. The minotaur’s gaze never wandered, pausing her occasionally to clarify or ask questions, snorting with derision at the appropriate moments—of which there were many.
When she finished, he shook his massive head slowly, his shoulders shaking with a gravelly chuckle. “It seems to me your brother is an imp in human skin.”
Briony blinked. “That is, quite possibly, the best description of Ellie that I have ever heard.”
Aster smiled, fangs, that Briony had already become accustomed to, flashing in the light of the forge. He opened his mouth to speak, and the door of the forge splintered, then cracked down the middle, and in swarmed a trio of… Briony swore, diving for her sword.
Briony’s fingers had just grazed the hilt of her broadsword when she felt the tips of her ears tingle. Knowing better than to ignore her instincts, she hit the floor, fast enough and hard enough to drive the very breath from her lungs. Just in time, too, as she watched a massive Morningstar slam into the cave wall right where her head had been. The bugbear wielding it—an especially ugly specimen, in her opinion—snarled in fury, strings of saliva dripping from
yellowed, dagger-sized fangs.
With a snarl of her own, Briony rolled into a practiced crouch. Now gripping her sword, flicking her wrist in a practiced maneuver and sending her scabbard sailing away.
The bugbear started to lunge, but Briony met him head on, driving up from her crouch with her broadsword. Unfortunately, bugbears were a tenacious breed, and though her blade punched through his plate armor and into flesh, the toughness of his hide and muscle stopped the sword before mortal damage could be done.
The bugbear roared, spinning away and consequently wrenching the sword from her grasp.
Which was unendingly embarrassing. Briony truly was out of practice.
The bugbear took a moment to yank the blade from his chest, and Briony risked a glance in Aster’s direction. Unsurprisingly, though he was engaged in combat with two bugbears, he was more than holding his own, a heavy battleax slashing with deadly force, eyes dark and enraged in a manner totally opposite from the male she’d been speaking to just moments ago.
Her eyes narrowed when she noticed he fought not alone, but with a certain furry mutt at his side.
Man’s best friend, her ass.
Briony snapped back to the present, grunting as, once again, she was forced to throw herself to the side to avoid the bugbear’s headlong charge. Pain radiated from her hip as she slammed into hard stone. She glanced down to see the carved structure of a furnace…with a glowing, molten short sword buried in the coals.
The hilt was almost uncomfortably warm as she grasped it, but the bugbear’s shrill yowl of pain as the blistering heat of the blade slashed deep into his shoulder was well worth the discomfort. The beast stumbled back, dropping his Morningstar and clutching the wound. With a final, pressed advantage, Briony pursued him, driving the sword deep into the softer flesh of his
gut. She followed him as he crumpled, ensuring the blade bit deep enough to end the fight.
It did, and his death was a quick one.
Once she was sure it was over, she turned, only to see Bat and Aster dispatching the last of the invaders with a final growl and heavy thud of the ax.
With a low grunt, he pulled his weapon from the body, his broad shoulders rolling backwards. And then he turned to look at her, his eyes dark and smoldering.
Briony knew what that look meant. The heat of battle had its consequences, and neither man, beast—nor woman—was immune to it. All mortal beings, after facing death head-on, needed to remember they lived. Even Bat, as he always did, had already trotted off to hunt himself some unfortunate dinner.
But there was a rather more popular method of doing so. fucking on the battlefield of vanquished foes was a time-honored tradition, and not one Briony had ever deprived herself of. But she knew just by looking that Aster needed permission.
Slowly, she tossed the sword back into the furnace, not bothering to look and see where it landed. She dared not break eye contact with the male across the forge. Then, reaching for the buckle of her weapon belt, she twisted, dropping it to the floor.
That was all the invitation Aster needed.
Just as he had the bugbears, he charged her, massive hands gripping her ass and hauling her into his bloodied chest, slamming into the wall with a growl through bared teeth.
“Remove your garments, before I tear them.” Aster’s words were barely decipherable behind his perpetual, rumbling snarl.
Normally, Briony might have had something sarcastic and flippant to say to such a demand. As it was, she struggled with her tunic for maybe a moment before deciding it wasn’t worth the trouble, tearing it down the middle herself and tossing it aside.
“I overpacked anyway.”
Aster’s pupils dilated at her show of strength, before following her lead and wrenching the remaining clothing from her body. With a shaking grunt, his large hand delved down between her thighs, parting the folds of her pussy with rough, calloused fingers, and, finding them wet with need, her body responding to both him and her near-death experience, he wasted no time in shedding his own clothing.
As soon as his loincloth hit the floor of the forge, his giant cock sprang free of its
confines with an angry vengeance. Though Briony had dabbled in nonhuman males before, Aster was by far the most impressive. With a flared head, dual thick, raised rings of flesh, and length mottled red with desire, he painted the perfect picture of desperate, virile male. One she was intending to conquer.
And yet, the damnable gentleman hesitated.
With a rough exhale, he grated, “If you are unready, I can—”
Swift as a striking tabaxi, Briony hooked her fingers in Aster’s golden nose ring, tugging sharply until his forehead pressed against hers. Any twinge of guilt she might have felt about her rough handling of the male dispelled immediately as he groaned lustfully in response.
“If you are not inside me in the next few moments, I shall see what I can find in your forge that will do the job instead,” she hissed, reveling in the leashed violence that trembled in his muscles.
The words had barely left Briony’s mouth before she felt him sliding between the folds of her sex, settling and working his way determinedly inside of her. She lost her grip on his nose ring as her fingers were abruptly robbed of their strength, her head lolling back on her neck in bliss. Her mouth fell open on a silent cry as his immense girth stretched her beyond what felt possible. It seemed an eternity before his hips finally rested against hers, horns scraping restlessly against the cave wall above her head.
“By the gods, you feel magnificent,” he breathed worshipfully, the metal of his ring dragging erotically along her collarbone. “Nothing has felt more like home.”
Her flesh quivered at his praise. Never before had she felt so desired and needed than now, pinned against the rough cold of the cave wall, this supposedly beast of a male cradling her so carefully in his embrace.
For a brief moment, Briony thought she’d have to encourage him to move as well, but it appeared he’d reached the end of his rope. Drawing back, the raised flesh along his shaft dragging sensuously against every part of her sensitive tissue, he then abruptly thrusted home, drawing a feral cry from her lips, her thighs bracketing his furred hips with crushing intensity.
Baring his fangs, Aster set a blistering tempo, encouraged by her response.
She cried his name desperately and without shame, begging him with whimpers and cattish demands in the very same breath, meeting his onslaught with one of her own. With every drive, she bit and clawed and kissed in her own carnal attack. Though the male gave as good as he got, this was a battle she was certain to win.
But then, with a roar, he gripped the insides of her knees, bending her nearly in half as he pinned her even more harshly against the stone, his thrusts becoming more punishing and beautifully painful.
“You like me inside you, small one? Feeling my need for you in my very flesh?”
He rolled and bucked his hips, rendering Briony utterly wordless. It was all she could do to cling to his massive form and accept what he gave, his thick cock plundering her and remaking her all at once.
“You are fierce, yes, but I am born of Baphomet, and I shall not be so easily defeated.”
Though she struggled to regain her advantage, it was pointless, her every counter met with swift, pleasurable retribution. Accepting her loss, Briony surrendered to him, going limp and pliant, accepting his rough drives and ministrations with mindless pleas and begging.
Immediately, she felt that telltale tightening in her abdomen, her pussy flexing around Aster in warning of her impending orgasm.
“Yes,” he roared, one hand lowering to harass her clit in tight, punishing circles,
somehow pounding more fiercely, “Give me my reward!”
Unable to deny him, her back bowed as the tide broke, ripples of unending, harsh pleasure crashing over her body, burning her up from the inside out. For a moment, all she could do was silently scream, before inevitably dissolving into babbling nonsense and expletives.
Bellowing his own string of vulgarity, Aster’s hips stuttered, crushing his sweat-soaked form to hers as he came with similar intensity, his every muscle tight with exertion and sensation for what seemed like eons.
Finally, he relaxed, bringing both their tired, spent bodies to the floor, cradling her as if she was the very center of his world.
“Holy fucking shit,” Briony managed to choke out, finally catching her breath.
But still, she made no effort to rise from Aster’s arms—which were obscenely comfortable, it must be noted. Even if she’d wanted to do so, she could not guarantee her legs, trembling like a newborn filly, could even hold her weight.
Aster’s ears flicked above her head, his cheek pressing harder against hers. “I assume by your inflection that this is positive feedback?”
“Sweetie, I don’t fake it. That was most definitely positive,” she assured him. “I don’t think I can even move.”
His brows furrowed as he drew back to look at her. “This doesn’t sound good.”
“Trust me, it’s good.”
He shook his head vigorously, and Briony swore she could see a hint of mischief on his face. “No, no. I must fix this ailment.”
“What are you—”
Before she could finish, Aster gripped her thighs and upended her off his lap so she lay on her back on the forge floor.
It happened so swiftly she didn’t even think to protest as he settled his massive shoulders between her legs, rubbing his cheek and nose along the inside of her thighs like a contented feline. A giant, horned, roguish feline.
Finally, she found her voice. “Aster, you really don’t have to—” her words ended with a gasp as the minotaur dragged his large, black tongue up the split of her pussy, his eyes never wavering from hers as he groaned in pleasure at her taste.
“Don’t have to what, small one?” He asked, the words rumbling against her in a way that made her belly clench like a fist.
“Never mind,” Briony managed. “You definitely have to, now.”
Aster didn’t hesitate, launching a full assault, all rough tongue and teeth and blunt, calloused fingers. Already hypersensitive from their previous round, Briony was shocked at how fast her stomach tightened and her muscles clenched.
Body trembling, head thrown back, the minotaur nigh on threw her over the edge into orgasm. Her mind whited out completely as she was swallowed by pleasure, attempting without success to prevent her gasps and cries from echoing off the forge walls.
Aster let her down gently, pressing his cheeks to her inner thighs softly, his chest grumbling with a perpetual sigh of contentment.
“You realize that did nothing to help the whole ‘can’t move’ situation, right?” Briony breathed once she’d sufficiently recovered.
He snorted. “Did you really believe that to be my goal?”
She want to reply when she heard Bat, just outside the forge, going absolutely ballistic. Both of them sprang into action, leaping from the floor and diving for their belongings.
After hurriedly redressing, Briony and Aster stumbled out from the forge in a haphazard mess. She fell to her knees in front of Bat immediately, rushing to soothe the hound, whose fur stood on end from muzzle to tail, his body quivering with distress. Aster stood behind her, inhaling deeply, nose in the air, peering with dark eyes down the corridor of the Labyrinth.
“Bat, what’s gotten into you?” Briony cooed, attempting to hide her frustration when the dog refused to settle. As insane as it may sound, he was normally a bit more level-headed than this nonsense.
“He scents outsiders,” Aster rumbled from where he towered above her.
She turned to peer up at him, still patting and scratching Bat soothingly.
What does that even mean?”
He cocked his head, considering. “The smell of beings that do not match with this environment. I am certain he would react the same if he scented one of my kind Above. Their odor is as obvious here as a cracked breastplate in battle.”
Briony blinked, processing. There was so much to unpack in that…too much.
Shaking it off, she pressed her companion further. “Do one of those ‘outsiders’ smell like my younger brother, by chance? Any undercurrents of ale and vanity?”
Aster’s brow rose, his words tinged with amusement. “I am unsure as to what the concept of vanity would smell like, but of the two scents, one is indeed human.”
“It has to be Ellie,” Briony glanced sidelong at her anxiety-ridden hound. “Bat knows it is.”
Aster paused for a moment, thinking, before hefting his giant battleax up to his shoulder.
Fixing her with a heavy, meaningful look that told her not to argue, he said,
“Well, then I suppose we’d better go fetch him.”
Travelling with both Bat and Aster through the Cavern Labyrinth was akin to a stroll in the park. Between the hound’s elevated senses and the minotaur’s easy familiarity with the area, the trek was devoid of the confusion, and Briony had no fear of running into hostile parties. Even if she did feel a bit like a hapless infant being lovingly shepherded in the process.
Despite the general humiliation of the situation, they made good time, and soon all three members of their party were moving as silently as they could muster, weapons (and, in the case of Bat, teeth) at the ready.
Soon, even Briony, with her weak, pitiful, irritatingly useless human senses, could hear commotion and see the flickering light of torches reflecting on the cavern walls ahead of them.
Leaning down, Aster whispered into her ear, “the family of caverns ahead belongs to the bugbears.”
Of. Fucking. Course.
Briony tightened her grip on her sword, narrowing her eyes at the dancing firelight in front of them. She’d be damned if she let the bugbears make a fool of her again.
Especially not in front of her little shit brother.
She needed a plan. Quickly, she debated the likelihood of doing any sort of
reconnaissance undetected, but quickly discarded the idea. There was no way she could manage to—
A crash and a roar shattered her focus.
Glancing around in the dim light, Briony realized she was standing there, completely alone. Being essentially indestructible (and men), both Aster and Bat had simply opted to barrel ahead, sans plan of action.
Viciously cursing the hubris of the male species, she followed. Bursting into the cavern, she was almost immediately rushed by a roaring bugbear, who, being unarmed, was easily dispatched with a quick slash of her broadsword.
Head swiveling frantically, Briony clocked her companions fighting back to back, locked in combat with a half-dozen creatures. Two already lay dead, one missing his head, the other essentially shredded.
On the opposite end of the cavern, she saw two figures, bound and sat with their backs to the stone. The larger of the two was instantly recognizable as her kid brother, but she didn’t recognize the other with him. It didn’t matter.
Running the pro-cons list in her head in a split second, Briony pivoted toward Elwood, sprinting across the cavern. If she could get Ellie free, his help in the battle could very well make the difference between winning with injuries and winning without. Because of course, they would win. That was a given.
Apparently, between the slavering hound and the axe-wielding maniac, Briony was deemed not to be the primary threat. Which was to her advantage, but still stung.
She made it to Elwood and what she now saw to be a petite female half-elf completely uncontested. As she approached, she saw that the half-elf was minimally bound at best, whereas her brother’s forearms and calves were nearly mummified with rope. He also was helpfully decorated with a massive leather gag.
Briony didn’t blame the bugbears if she were being honest. She’d been on many a campaign where she would have done anything to get her brother to shut the hell up.
As she skidded to a stop, his eyes twinkled with mirth and an easy arrogance, which was impressive considering the state he was in. But then again, that was Ellie for you. No matter what happened, he always claimed it was “going to plan”.
Briony sliced through the half-elf’s bindings first, scanning the small brunette quickly for injuries. Finding none, she hauled the woman up.
“You’d better get out of here, girlie,” Briony warned her, before clocking the vast array of sigils and glyphs decorating the woman’s arms. “Unless you can make yourself useful, that is.”
“My name isn’t ‘girlie’, it’s Lissanore,” the half-elf replied, full of reproach. “And I’m happy to lend a hand if you leave the oaf tied up.”
Briony snorted, glancing quickly behind her to see three more bugbears had joined the fray. With a sigh, she cleaved her brother’s ankle bindings in two.
"Sorry, girlie. I get it, but we need the muscle.”
Elwood instantly ripped off the gag that Briony had “forgotten” to remove. “Trust me, Lissa knows all about my muscle.”
Lissanore grew so red in the face Briony worried she’d burst with anger. “I should turn you into a goat—”
Briony took off, ignoring the squabbling, which quickly ceased as they remembered the gravity of the situation. She arrived just in time to deflect a sword headed for Aster’s back, flicking the blade back at the bugbear with such force the creature stumbled with a surprised snarl.
Aster quickly cut him down with his axe, sending a heated look Briony’s way.
“You doubt my battle prowess, small one?” He teased, glancing back at the newly freed captives behind her. “Nice of you to finally assist.”
“Keep talking like that,” Briony paused with a grunt as she sidestepped a club. “And I’ll leave you and that traitorous mutt here to fend for yourself.”
Before he could reply, Aster snorted an alarmed grunt as a vicious roar rang out from behind them. Unlike the minotaur, Briony didn’t so much as flinch at the noise, nor did she startle when the source barreled past them, a giant tornado of whirling blade and fury.
“Your brother always yell nonsense in battle?”
“It’s not nonsense,” Briony said dryly. A discerning individual could, in fact, make out the litany of taunts and curses that made up the long, drawn-out battle cry, if they knew to listen for it.
Behind the idiot, sighing daintily, Lissanore followed, her hands glowing with her ki as she unleashed a litany of impossibly fast punches and kicks at her startled opponents.
Together, the four (and Bat) proceeded to wipe the floor with the bugbears, the stragglers fleeing as soon as they saw the tide of the battle turning against them.
Before the dust had even settled, Bat trotted up to Elwood, pink tongue lolling from his smiling mouth, tail whipping back and forth excitedly.
“Batty!” Her brother crowed, falling to his knees to embrace the hound enthusiastically. “I knew you’d find me, old boy.”
“Hey!” Briony snarled in protest. “I don’t remember the dog untying your sorry, reckless ass. I can’t believe you would be so stupid as to fuck around in the Cavern Labyrinth!”
Elwood grinned, blowing blond hair from his face. “What, you’re trying to tell me you didn’t have fun?” He looked pointedly at Aster, who was hovering close behind her.
Briony narrowed her eyes, not-so-subtly telling him to watch it. “You could’ve been killed.”
“I had it handled.”
Lissanore, who had been carefully removing the dust from her slippers, scoffed.
"You most certainly did not.”
“Babe,” Ellie cast a heated look in her direction. “Now I know you had fun, so don’t try lying to me.”
Lissanore flushed, looking away quickly. Briony quirked a brow. Though she knew her brother got around, the half-elf certainly didn’t seem to like him as much as he was implying.
Judging by the way she always seemed to be glancing at him from the corner of her eye, however, perhaps that was a mere façade.
“I suppose you will be leaving the Below, now.” Aster’s voice was low and distressed, though Briony could tell he was trying to hide it.
She whipped around, hands on her hips as she glowered at him. Bat trotted up beside her, doing the same.
“I don’t like your tone, minotaur. You implying I’m not coming back?”
Aster’s brows rose, eyes turning hopeful. “What do you…but surely you have a
livelihood back at your village.”
“Oh gods, I never told you,” Briony laughed, reaching up to cup his cheek. “I’m a
glassworker, Aster. I’ll need to go into town to sell, but there’s no reason I can’t stay over and use your forge on occasion.”
His nostrils flared around his golden ring, and that was all the warning she got before he quite literally swept her off her feet. She gasped in surprise as he carried her swiftly out of the cavern, before laughing in delight.
“You’re welcome, Bri!” Elwood called out, grinning manically behind them, arm
wrapped around his half-elf.
She flipped him off as they left the cavern, heading toward the forge, and, hopefully, the future.