Disclaimer: None needed - hah! Copyright 2001 by Jen Wardell

Rule #1: Don't Rescue Virgin Sacrifices!
by Gatekeeper

No matter what district you happened to wander through in the land of the 10,000 gods (where every city has a deity and every deity is completely insane) there were certain safety precautions a person needed to follow if they wanted to make it to the next city with all their major organs. For the uninitiated, here they are:

1) Learn the rules of the local religion, and follow them just enough not to draw attention to yourself. No matter what prophets or heroes might say, gaining the personal attention of a supreme deity is generally hazardous to one's health.

2) Also, try not to piss off any god or goddess of a surrounding district. They might not be able to send your soul to one of the seven hells if you don't believe in them, but city borders and religious beliefs mean nothing to a lightning bolt.

3) Find at least one god or goddess that is at least vaguely fond of you, and claim to believe in them. If this god or goddess happens to be big, powerful and scary to others, so much the better.

4) Do not spit in any sacred cups. Just trust me, this is a bad idea.

Kayla Dupree, mercenary extrordinaire (known to some of the more primitive peoples as She-Who-Is-Constantly-Annoyed) was well aware of these rules. She called on Mala, goddess of sharp, flesh-cutting objects and patron deity of the city of Trine, whenever she was in trouble and apologized to whatever other deity was in charge at the time when she stabbed someone. Since most of the trouble she caused was for pay and among any mere mortals nearby, most gods and goddesses didn't have a problem with her.

Most people, though, did.

"Mis ... Mistress Dupree, what brings you to the fair city of Istas?" The merchant, a small, nervous man who Kayla had been forced to pin against a wall at some point (though it was so hard to remember where - that kind of thing happened a lot in her line of work), did not look pleased to see her.

"Don't worry, Jol. I'm not in the mood to kill anyone right now. I'm just here to meet a potential employer at the Swinging Ax Inn. Do you know where it is?"

"The Swinging Ax? Oh of course, of course!" The incredibly relieved look on the man's face would be warming at some future point, but right now Kayla was just tired. "It is the third building from the left behind us." Then, before Kayla could think of something else she might want (especially if it involved that sword of hers in any way), he scurried off.

"Fabulous." Kayla sighed as she turned her horse around and started down the street, trying very hard not to step on any locals. She really had to make it a future policy not to arrange meetings in strange district with people, no matter how much money they promised. If they wanted her services that badly, they could come find her. Let them spend an entire day mucking around in nature while she was tucked away somewhere having a drink.

Ah well, maybe she would find someplace here to tuck herself. The city, though not exactly prosperous, was fairly clean, and promised to have warm beds and alcohol somewhere within it. Best of all, the roads were wide enough that she didn't have to get off her horse. In Kayla's opinion, walking was only for noble heroes or anyone else stupid enough to do otherwise.

After a few moments, she found it, the building with the rather large fellow in unattractive jewelry standing in front of it. The Swinging Ax - reputedly the largest, most impressive inn in Istas. It was actually a full two stories high, and if the fat man was the proprietor and his gesturing meant anything, he was obviously very proud of that fact.

Kayla was supposed to meet her potential employer somewhere in the middle of that mess at nightfall - he would, horrifyingly enough, be the man in the tall pointy hat. With fringe on it, quite probably. In a perfect world, Kayla wouldn't even think of associating with people who had such terrible fashion sense. In this world, however, they were the ones with all the money.

It wasn't nightfall yet, but there was no reason Kayla couldn't be there first, waiting for him. It would look impressive, which would be good for business. After all, she had an image of brilliant efficiency to keep up. The fact that she could snag a drink or two as she was waiting was, of course, purely incidental.

After stabling her horse and listening to the owner (who did turn out to be the fat man with no taste) prattle on for a few minutes, she followed Jol's example and gratefully escaped inside.

The tavern attached to the inn was larger than most, but it still carried the dim lighting and scent of stale beer familiar to all. Kayla paused in the doorway, scanning quickly out of habit for any competition. She wasn't in the mood for trouble. Luckily, it was nearly empty - it was no fun to visit a tavern in daylight. After all, the wife could find out.

Thankfully, Kayla didn't have a mate to worry herself with, just a man in a tall pointy hat that wasn't supposed to show up yet.. In fact, she tended to avoid partners of any kind - they were just so much ... trouble, was the only word she could use to describe it. Emotional and physical involvement that led two twice as many chances of someone getting themselves killed that you didn't want to. Kayla had enough to do just worrying about her own skin, thank you very much.

So, after touching her fingers to the small altar standing by the door, she went inside. She thought about claiming a table for a moment, but they seemed to far away from the alcohol and designed mainly for grabbing at the serving girls. If there had been serving boys, or maybe even serving men ...

No. The bar it was, then.

"Bartender," she called, sliding gratefully onto one of the empty stools, "How good is your beer?" It didn't really matter - Kayla was planning on ordering something with the potential to get her drunk, no matter what the man said. But it was nice when people took pride in their work.

"The best in the land, milady," he replied confidently, easing some of her worries and the potential need for those first small, inquisitive sips every drinker used as an act of self-preservation. You never knew what you could find in alcohol.

Still, it was always best to check. "How big a land?"

The man seemed understanding. "Much bigger than Istas, milady."

"Then I'll have one. I'm no lady, though."

He grinned as he set a tankard down in front of her. "You are if you carry a sword that big."

He was right, Kayla decided after the first drink. Both about the sword and the alcohol. It was good, certainly better than she'd had in ages. Maybe even the best in the land like the man said, which to Kayla was a plenty good enough reason to have another one. She was just about to motion to help make this happen when the front doors crashed inward.

Much more used to this sort of thing than she's like to be, Kayla hand moved reflexively to her sword. As soon as the sawdust cleared, she would be ready to cut off the head of any potential threats that would be revealed. No one would even have to pay her. Until then, though, there was no need to waste energy that would be needed later.

Kayla heard someone whisper beside her, a rather worn-looking man that smelled like the stables. "Oh no, he's got a sword. Who let him get a hold of a sword?"

A sword? The threat potential in the room suddenly increased dramatically. Tensing for a fight, her hand tightened around the handle of her sword and ...

Stopped. Behind all the dust and potential panic, it was just a kid with a sword. A big sword, to be sure, but the boy looked too drunk and too young to be able to cause much trouble with it. Not nearly as old as she was, and without nearly as much training.

"Challenge me!" the boy shouted. He swung his sword wildly around the bar, leaving circles of destruction behind him. Kayla wondered if she had been wrong about the "much trouble" thing, and was already deeply regretting her impulse to be early. Still, she didn't move as he attacked, and thankfully missed, a supporting beam. "Challenge me!"

Blessed Mila, this was the last thing she needed. Some young idiot who couldn't hold his alcohol had decided to get frisky. What was worse, it looked like it was up to her to deal with him. Every other person in the bar was flatly refusing to look up from their drinks, only willing to duck occasionally when an overly large piece of wall came flying at them. Not even the stone wall of a man meant to deal with the troublemakers was moving.

Kayla had seen the technique before, and would have even understood it if it had been a warlord or someone more impressive. But the kid wasn't that scary. Besides, he was making a mess.

Not getting up from her stool, she unsheathed her sword and swung the flat of it outward into the narrow walkway between where the bar ended and the tables began. He seemed to be following a path of some kind, so he should be arriving shortly. In a few moments, the idiot obliged by swinging by, and then continued to follow Kayla's hastily thought out plan by running right into it. There was a very satisfying thunk as his head hit the floor.

When he didn't immediately get up again, Kayla waved a hand in front of his lips to see if he was still breathing, not noticing the unusual interest level of everyone in the room at what the answer turned out to be. Good, he was just unconscious. She hadn't really wanted to hurt the dumb kid, though it would have been nice if he had possessed at least had some skill with that sword. Business had been slow lately, and the heavens knew she would have enjoyed the practice. Ah well, at least this would give her a chance to finish her beer.

When she returned to her stool, the bartender looked highly displeased, as if she'd just done something so inappropriate as stripping naked and running around the bar screaming. Or worse, not paying her tab. "That wasn't very wise of you, lady," the bartender warned, averting his eyes from the boy on the floor.

"Why?" Kayla asked, calmly finishing her drink. "It wasn't like I hurt him or anything. At least," she amended, "nothing that he won't recover from. Besides, shouldn't you be thanking me for saving your establishment from the further wrath of short, dark and stupid over there? I suppose you could have rebuilt, but think of the cleanup time."

"It's not that. He's . . ."

Hearing a groan behind her, Kayla held up a hand to stop him. "I'm sorry," she told him, "But it looks like our fearless warrior over there is coming to. We'll have to finish this conversation later, along with any accolades you might wish to bestow on my most deserving person."

Sighing, she got up and walked over to the boy. She was being forced to undergo such undignified actions today. Best get ready, anyway ...

When the young man awoke, he found himself staring at a sword point. A rather large, sharp sword point. Further investigation revealed a frighteningly determined, attractive young woman at the other end of it, her leather outfit equipped with various deadly weapons, all of which she looked like she knew how to use.

It was the answer to his prayers. "Kill me," he whispered pleadingly, clasping his hands in much the same manner that other men might beg for their life. He had to make the woman understand. She could do it quickly, with less pain than he would face later.

"What?" Kayla bit back a curse, her face betraying her confusion.

"Kill me," he repeated, desperation evident in his eyes, eyes that for the moment seemed perfectly sober. He grabbed her ankles, hugging them as if she was his only hope in the world. "Please, I beg you."

In all her time as a mercenary, that was one request Kayla had never heard before. She wasn't quite certain how to deal with it. She did know, however, that there was no way in the seven hells she would decide anything until she'd heard the whole story.

"Why?" she demanded, but skipped her usual next step of pressing the sword closer to the boy's throat to persuade him to talk. In this situation, it didn't seem like it would be much of a threat.

"I ..."

Whatever his explanation would have been (and in Kayla's opinion, it better have been fabulous) it was interrupted by the bartender, still looking just as displeased as ever.

"If you have to be treasonous, at least have the decency not to do it in my establishment. Get out." When Kayla didn't move, he added, "Before I call the city guards." From the look on everyone's face, they seemed to agree, though they weren't quite as vocal about it. Even the stone wall seemed to remember the reason for which his patron deity had given him feet.

Kayla didn't have the slightest idea what was going on, but she knew from experience that the city guards wouldn't help matters any. They tended to have the nasty tendency of stabbing first and asking questions later, and didn't trust anyone else that got to carry around a sword.

Besides, there was always a chance that they had something on her.

Still, she had saved the man's miserable hide a world of property damage. The least he could do was kick her out politely. "Fine. Your alcohol is horse piss anyway. I'll make sure to tell everyone."

Hauling the kid up by his collar, Kayla yanked him towards the front door. In response to the kid's confused expression, she muttered, "Looks like this is our cue to exit, kid." She would have preferred a more snappy comeback, but after the whole fiasco she had just suffered, she was much too stressed to think of anything clever.

There were a few shocked gasps, a few glares and several head shakes from the patrons, then Kayla and her new baggage were gone.

Her patience barely made it to the city limits. It didn't help any that he wouldn't shut up the entire time, constantly begging her to kill him. Something like that could drive even the most patient person insane, and no one had ever accused Kayla of being patient.

She pushed him up against the nearest tree, allowing herself to think of the nice warm bed she could have been sleeping in. Kayla didn't allow herself to get really steaming mad that often (it was unhealthy, particularly if it was distracting enough to let the other guy get a dagger between your ribs) so she decided to enjoy it.

"Now," she warned him with a growl, her eyes blazing, "What in the heavens was so important that you had to make this much of a mess, kid? That was the first decent alcohol I've had in weeks, and I was looking forward to more." Actually, Kayla was the one to get herself involved in the whole affair, but, since it was in the name of safe preservation, neither of them felt it wise to mention that. Besides, it was hard to drink even good alcohol when the tavern was falling down around your ears.

The young man thought for a moment, weighing his odds. Was she more likely to kill him if he didn't say anything? She looked angry enough to do just that, and since that was the final goal maybe it would be worth it. But he took another look at her face, which told him she would want to engage in a good maiming before any actual killing was done, and changed his mind.

"Ren," he choked out, due to the fact that she was cutting off his supply of air, "My name is Ren." She hadn't specifically asked him that, but there was a chance that any information might appease her somewhat.

Taking the hint, Kayla relaxed her grip on his throat. Slightly. "Kayla." Her introduction came out as a growl.

"That's better," Ren breathed. "Actually, I don't know where to start." Her grip tightened again.

He made an interesting noise. "Suddenly, I've figured it out," he said quickly. His face darkened. "I'm going to die in the morning, and I wanted to beat them to it."

Okay, so he had a good explanation. She still needed more. "Why is one way better than the other?" Kayla asked, relaxing a little on her threatening aura.

He managed to look sardonic, which was really quite hard given his current condition. Kayla was impressed, at least until he started talking. "A blade through the heart is better than being flayed alive without several major organs, don't you think?"

"Oh." She dropped Ren quickly, as if he had burned her. It must be something in the subconscious, but it was easy to think of torture (or at least the reasons for getting it) as catching. "I see your point." She backed away a couple of steps, just staring at him. "Are you a convict, or something?"

Kayla already knew that he wasn't. Probably only a little younger than her own 25 years, his dark face seemed too naive to have merited that kind of punishment. Now Kayla, on the other hand...

No, best not think about that now. Obviously, she had other worries.

"No," Ren said, sagging back against the tree. He seemed so tired, or maybe it was just the alcohol. "Actually, I'm a prince, or as close as you can get to one around here." His head fell into his hands with a soft moan.

At this, Kayla sighed. Shifting the sword's position against her back, she sat down, leaning herself against another tree. It looked like this was going to take awhile, especially if he was going to keep interrupting himself with moaning, like she suspected he might.

He continued. "We weren't blessed with one of the nicer goddesses out there, you understand. Bala can be vicious, very vicious. The kind where you clean your teeth with anyone who might happen to bother you. And, like most vicious creatures, she gets bored easily."

The question hung in the air, so Kayla was obliging and asked it. You had to humor drunk people. "What does she do when she gets bored?"

Ren raised his head, searching for an explanation. "The legends don't really say, but I'm certain that quite a bit of general chaos is involved. Exploding animals, screaming people, bloody suns, that sort of thing. Which, of course, means that the royal family has to stop it, unless they want to get blamed for the mess. So what do they do?"

His voice got louder as he went along. "Find some hero to muck around with it? Become atheists? No! They throw the virginal second son of the king, or whatever in Tarsus he is, to her! For, well, I don't like to think about that, but I have heard people mention that she has something of an appetite. I don't think they were talking about chicken." He sort of trailed off at that point, a slightly dazed and horrified look on his face.

Kayla honestly thought about leaving at that point, even without the benefit of sleep, food, or a system full of alcohol. Either he was crazy or his family was, and both options spelled trouble for her. Trouble she didn't need. Besides, wasn't there something she was supposed to be doing? But...it would make an interesting story, at least, something to share on some future night when her life was much more calm and well-adjusted.

Still, she did wonder about one thing. "Why did you just get upset about this now? You seem as if you've known about it for awhile."

This started him up again, perhaps even more loudly than before. "Just get upset? You think I just got upset? Lady, I've been in a constant state of upset for most of my life. I've tried to run away nearly a dozen times, but they've always caught me. I've tried to kill myself even more often than that, but they've always caught me then, too. Do you know how hard it is to never be let outside the palace, just so your 'purity' will be assured?"

He peered at her drunkenly for a moment, as if he expected her to answer. When she didn't (not ever having been in a situation where purity was in issue), he continued. "No, of course not. You know, I was only expecting water when I asked the innkeeper for a drink. Water. A little spiced wine, maybe. How was I supposed to know?" His voice became bitter. "I've been in the palace." His head sank back wearily against the tree, eyes closed in defeat.

It took a moment to realize that he was attempting to explain why he had gotten himself so drunk, somewhere in the middle of explaining why he wanted her to kill him. At least it made an odd sort of sense. Actually, the whole thing made an odd sort of sense. That didn't mean, however, that she had to like it. Or that she couldn't just leave it slumped right in the middle of this clearing and head back to wherever in the seven hells she was supposed to be right now.

In one smooth motion she rose and grabbed her satchel, heading for the horse. With any luck she could be out of here before the kid - Ren, he said his name was - even woke up. Off to a saner city, where she had no idea where the local virgin sacrifice even looked like.

Unfortunately, it seemed as though that luck had decided to save itself for a more important moment, because Ren's eyes flew open just as Kayla was cinching up her packs. When he saw what she was doing, he sighed, a deep soul-wearying noise. Normally, Kayla hated having her soul wearied, but this was a special occasion.

"You're leaving." It was a statement, not a question, made dull and flat by more than just the alcohol. He had known that this wasn't going to work, but that didn't mean that he hadn't hoped it would. Somehow, getting stabbed by this woman didn't seem like nearly as terrible a thing as it probably should have been.

"Yes, I'm leaving. I have a job to do." Kayla tried very hard not to look at him as she finished gathering her things. He could ask for a ride, she thought fiercely, a lift to another city. His father couldn't find him everywhere. That's what a sensible person would do. Sure, he didn't seem like the most sensible person in the world, but even he had to see that. She couldn't refuse him, if he asked. No one could.

But he didn't ask. He only placed his head very gently in his in his hands and said tonelessly, "Leave me a weapon, at least, so I can do it." He wanted to ask for suggestions on where the best place to do it might be (Ren would imagine himself bleeding to death in an inappropriately lethal manner) but even now it seemed ... well, embarrassing. He didn't even know how to kill himself properly.

Kayla whirled around, staring in shock at him (this was fast becoming a habit with her). How could he give up so easily? No one but an idiot would give up that easily. "You really see no other choice, do you?" she asked slowly. "Not even escape?"

"Bala's priests can sense members of the royal bloodline anywhere in the world, no matter how far. Even then, I'm completely lost outside the palace and would need to travel with someone else, giving them two people to kill. I can't risk someone else like that." He recited his reasons as if he'd reminded himself of them many, many times over the years. For a brief moment, Kayla wondered if they'd ever become an issue.

Realizing what she was doing, Kayla cursed inwardly. It was completely not her fault that she hadn't yet done the smart thing and run screaming for the hills. It was his, really. Why did he have to go and be noble like that? She had a soft spot for noble people, though Kayla herself had never had that particular failing. And noble while drunk, which was even harder.

Shoti's ears, she couldn't leave him now. But she also had no desire to fight off the entire battalion of royal guards that would undoubtedly be a part of staying with him. Not that she couldn't, of course - she was good at that sort of thing. But think of all the work that would be involved.

Besides, there wouldn't be any money in it - the only guy with any chance of paying her would be the one she was pissing off. Still, she had to do something to help him. How was she going to get out of this one?

Suddenly, a thought came to her. He hadn't looked up yet, so she walked over and poked him with the toe of her boot. When he looked up, she said, "You've been trying to eliminate the wrong qualification, you know." She was amazed that he hadn't thought of it before now. Actually, she was amazed other virgin sacrifices hadn't thought of it before now. If this worked, they could be starting a trend. The Kayla Dupree anti-sacrificial program ...

The perplexed (and suspicious, she noted approvingly) expression on his face interrupted her train of thought. "What are you talking about?"

"Virgin sacrifice. You've been trying to avoid the sacrifice part. Why not just eliminate the virgin half of it?"

She thought he might go red. She knew he didn't have much experience with the outside world, and besides, he just seemed like that kind of guy. To her surprise, however, he just started ranting again. "Of course I've thought of that. What man doesn't think of that, no matter how little opportunity he's had to do anything about it? But if I can't find anybody that'll kill me, which would certainly mean a lot less fuss on their part, do you really think anyone would be willing to do THAT with me?" He sighed, then added almost mournfully, "I'm not even certain I'd be willing to do that with me, given the circumstances."

She looked at him again, deciding. She could see his point, as well as the points of any women that might have been possibilities. Most of those points were no doubt attached to the swords of Bala's priests, or whatever other weapons they might choose to carry.

But Kayla had a point of her own, and knew how to use it. And she hadn't had the chance to enjoy masculine company in longer than she liked to think about.

She moved her eyes up and down Ren, evaluating him. Shaggy black hair that fell just past his ears, leaf-green eyes that were much too soulful for Kayla's own good. Light brown skin, like expensive leather, covering a body more wiry than bulky (but still not completely useless). All in all, not bad looking, just a little small.

Kayla had always been a sucker for short, dark and handsome, no matter how stupid she might have thought them previously. Best of all, he seemed like a fairly considerate sort of person, even in his cups. Yes, he would do just fine.

"I'd be willing," she told him, uncinching her packs and setting them down in the dirt. There was a blanket in here somewhere, or at least canvas for a tent. This may be more of an act of mercy than pleasure, but they could at least be comfortable while they were at it.

Ren's head flew up and he stared at Kayla, wide-eyed. Was she saying what he thought she was saying? Seeing her drop her packs and looking for all the world like she was settling in, he realized that yes, he was pretty sure she was.

Not that he minded, of course. Tall and lithe, she was the kind woman that could command attention from any distance. With her golden skin and rich brown hair completing the picture, she reminded Ren of one of his father's prize hunting cats - magnificent, but incredibly deadly. Right now, though, magnificent was the most important qualification.

Actually, he more than not minded - Ren was convinced that some other god or goddess when he wasn't paying attention, and had done a marvelous job of it. He was just... surprised, to say the least. For the first time in the entire 21 years he had been trapped in this miserable city, things actually seemed to be looking up. Even if this turned out to be an extremely detailed hallucination of some kind, he might as well revel in the feeling.

His gaze wander down to her vest (yes, it was only her clothing he was looking at - get your mind out of the gutter), well covered with various deadly weapons. Thinking about it, his eyes widened slightly. How was he going to manage getting it off without killing herself? Though that had been his goal in the first place ...

And what a way to go.

When the packs were done and the canvas had been found, Kayla started removing her boots. "Well," she said briskly. "Let's get started, then."

The vest, as it turned out, wasn't all that hard to get off.