A Dark Lord's Penance

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Chapter 3: Bandits

Ralph begins to stir, his unconscious mind rousing him awake from both the hints of sunlight trickling and the smell of food wafting into the bedroom. Opening his eyes, he’s initially quite confused as to where he is, his memory hazy due to last night’s trauma. As he examines his surroundings, his memories slowly begin to return to him, and he realizes that he is still in the same accursed house he had so desperately tried to escape. Terror and guilt begin to envelop him, causing a terrible nausea to swell within him. Remembering the probable existence of a bathroom through the western door, he sprints to safely vomit into some sort of receptacle. Reaching a toilet – quite the luxurious item, he notes – he vacates himself of the bile collecting in his throat, expelling with it some of the terrible anxiety flooding his being. Once he recovers from this violent session of vomiting, his attention turns to two separate issues. First, why is he still alive and being treated with such propriety? Second, why does he smell food being cooked in the kitchen?

Getting up from his position next to the toilet, he makes his way to the bedroom door but pauses, starting to tremble a bit at the thought of going back into the core of this horrid house, the events of last night fresh in his head. The smell drifting into the room, however, is tantalizing his now starving stomach, egging him into opening the door against his better judgement. Allowing his stomach to get the better of him and with his confidence raised by the virtue of his life being spared by the spirits, he steels himself and opens the door to step into the lounge. As he opens the door, the smell magnifies considerably, and he can now make out specific foods. He can smell the savory aroma of sausage, the tart yet sweet odor of baked apples and the bready, delicious smell of pancakes and spices. His mouth beginning to salivate, he creeps into the living room. Looking at the ground, where last night’s final moments of consciousness were spent, he pauses and rethinks his position, realizing his current lack of weaponry and armor.

"Ralph, what are you doing?! You’re essentially naked in the house of fucking horrors, and the thing you’re most worried about is getting a bite to eat?! It’s obviously just another trick to get you to lower your guard…” he thinks, second guessing the hospitality of his ghostly host. “The question is… what should I do? I doubt I could hurt the thing, and I seriously doubt begging it for forgiveness is going to work after what it said to me last night… I already gave it the most genuine, pathetic fit of groveling I’ve ever given in my life…,” he begrudgingly admits. “Well… it did have at least a bit of mercy on me, laying me on the bed like that… Should I just hope for the best? I doubt there’s anything more I could do…”

Taking a deep breath, Ralph, still trembling slightly, braces himself and heads into the kitchen. Expecting a terrible eldritch horror, Ralph is shocked to find a beautiful girl with gorgeous long black hair, unblemished skin and captivating emerald green eyes enjoying a meal at the long kitchen table, obviously made to seat far more than one person. Without looking up from her meal, the girl speaks to him chidingly.

“Ah, you’re finally up. It took you long enough,” she says before taking a bite. “Have a seat, please, the food will get cold if you dawdle any longer.”

Absolutely stunned, Ralph obediently obeys, charmed by both the food and the girl in equal measure.


She had known that he was awake for a while now, and she’s somewhat irritated that it took him so long to arrive. This meal was made as a concession for his somewhat rough handling last night, and for him to keep her waiting is quite rude, in her mind. Nonetheless, she is able to understand his trepidation, considering the abuse she had inflicted upon him, and so forgives his comparatively minor transgression. She can tell that he’s transfixed on her nearly as much as the food she knew he’d be craving, which makes the reality of her transformation more readily apparent, seeing the effect she now has on the opposite sex in full effect. Wanting to prevent herself from thinking about his attraction towards her, she continues to talk to him as he accepts her invitation, halfway eager for the company he was now giving to her. It’s been awhile since she’s seen any of her friends or her pupil.

“You’ll do well to eat as much as you either desire or can muster. This meal was made with you in mind, after all,” she continues.

“Y-yes, of course, miss. T-thank you very much for the meal, but… I have so many questions…” stammers Ralph, fixated on the food before him and twitterpated by the girl across from him.

“I will answer all questions of yours that I deem appropriate to answer after you finish your meal. I myself would like to finish my food, and I would prefer to do so without idol conversation. Please, enjoy the meal. I’ve set a plate, some juice and some water for you there, but do not hesitate to procure more for yourself. The faucet over there provides limitless clean water, so feel free to slake your thirst without worry,” she explains, politely yet authoritatively.

“T-thank you very much, miss! I hope I can repay your hospitality in some way,” says Ralph, his eyes sparkling with gratitude as he begins to devour the food and drink set before him. After both have finished their second helpings and Ralph his third, the girl speaks again.

“Did you enjoy the meal, burglar?” she asks, adding emphasis on the last, stinging word. At hearing that, Ralph bows his head apologetically.

“Yes, very much, miss. I know I have no right to expect forgiveness from you, but I’m truly sorry for having wronged you, breaking into your house and stealing your things, only to take up space in your house and eat your food…,” he relents.

“Ha! I accept your apology, but only because I believe I may have treated you a bit too harshly last night,” she remarks.

“You mean… you were the source of those devils that tormented me last night?!” he asks, anxiety beginning to well up within him once again.

“That’s correct. Every bit of mischief, every voice, every apparition, every word was formulated specifically to torment you in the most effective way, as reparation for unlawfully entering my home,” she reveals. “I wonder what the disparity between your words and thoughts will be after learning this…” she thinks, observing that his thoughts and words have so far been quite consistent, having preemptively cast a spell to read his surface thoughts.

“T-that… y-you… I’m… again, I’m very sorry…,” he says. His thoughts, however, paint quite the different picture.

"This sadistic bitch! She made me go through all that, made me break down crying, just to get her sick kicks off punishing me for breaking into her house and taking a few knick-knacks?! Even if she’s drop-dead gorgeous, there’s no way I can forgive that…” he thinks, noticeably gritting his teeth to prevent such words from slipping out to his gracious host.

"This impudent little brat…” she thinks, eyes slightly twitching at hearing his thoughts on her.

“Ah… a sadistic bitch, am I?” she teases him. “To say such things to the person treating you with such propriety, even after you broke into their home… And, for the record, those certainly weren’t simple knick-knacks, as you call them… each of those items are magic items of decent power. Ha! You could’ve sold those for quite a bit of money, actually, if you had escaped, that is.”

“Y-you can read my mind…?” Ralph asks.

“Yes, and I can even see into the depths of your soul. In fact, one of the only reasons I’m being so gracious to you is that which I see in your soul. I see a good man trapped among bad rolls of the dice, struggling to find a decent life for himself. I’ve taken a measure of pity on you for the lack of favor the god of luck has shown you. Additionally, I also have some questions for you, if you would be so kind as to answer them, of course,” she provokes. “I will allow you to ask yours first, though, as I would like to move past the more trivial matters.”

She notices that Ralph perks up a bit after being called a good man, although his spirits dim back down quickly.

“I see… Well, I don’t think I’m in a position to refuse… and, since you’re letting me ask first… Who are you, exactly, and why have you and your house just up and appeared here?” he asks, clearly interested in her response.

“Ha! To ask the owner of the house in which he is in who they are… how uncouth!” she mocks, causing him to wince a bit in embarrassment.

"Shit!” she thinks, panicked. “I can’t very well say that my name is Nox. It’s not particularly ladylike, as much as I hate to have to play the role of a woman, and telling him that I’m a man will be more confusing for him than it’s worth right now. I suppose if I need to feminize my name, though, that could work…” she considers.

“My name is Nyx. I am the master of this house and all its wonders as well as a potent wielder of magic and an accomplished fighter. As to why I am here… I must regrettably inform you that I do not know…” she admits.

“You… don’t know?” asks Ralph, incredulous.

“I really don’t, sir thief. All I can tell you is that I am not from around here, if it wasn’t obvious enough to you,” she teases. “Any more questions?”

“Y-yes,” he stutters. “Will you let me go, and will you return my equipment? Oh, and why have you let me off so easy, after going through the trouble to torment me to the point of breaking down into a crying, vomiting mess?”

“Hmm… yes, I will eventually let you go… once you have performed a few tasks for me to my satisfaction. In the process, your equipment will, in full, be returned to you. And, I have not let you off as easily as you make out. I have bestowed upon you a curse for interrupting me in the middle of a rather important bit of… research I was conducting last night. The curse will cause to you pain equivalent to that which you dealt to me by interrupting me in my… studies. I will not reveal the nature of the curse to you now, but I assure you that it will become readily apparent as to what the curse is,” Nyx explains. “Ha! I can’t wait to see his reaction when he finds out he can’t get it up!” she thinks, amused at her childish prank.

“Ah… I thought I was getting off too easy. Can I at least ask if the curse could kill me?” Ralph inquires.

“I can assure you that it is not lethal. Really, it’s more of a quality of life type of curse. Hahaha!” she laughs at her own joke.

“Well, I guess if it won’t kill me… I can’t complain too much…” he says, attempting to find a silver lining to the situation. “You said you had questions for me, Miss Nyx?”

“I have several. First, where are we? More specifically, what is the name of this forest, what is the name of the closest major town and what is it that you call the world? Second, where is your boss’s hideout? I would like to pay him back in spades for his transgression against me. Third, what kind of gods do people normally worship in these parts? Fourth, what level of proficiency in magic or fighting ability would you say is common here? Lastly, when are you going to clean all the food from your face? It’s quite rude,” she admonishes after rattling off her questions. Reacting to her final comment, Ralph, flustered, stumbles to grab a tablecloth, finally cleaning the bits of food and syrup around his mouth. Believing himself to be presentable again, he begins to answer her questions.

“Sorry, miss… This forest is called Thrandulwood. It’s near the center of the central continent, Rondeval. The closest major town would be Vaxi, “the Forest Gate”, to the north. It’s an important trade stop before merchants and travelers have to hoof it through the forest, which is why we’ve set up shop near there… I’m not exactly sure what you mean by what the world is called, but the entire world itself is usually called Ea.”

“Our hideout is north of here. We happened to see your house as we were returning from a raid on a merchant caravan, which surprised us since we never noticed it before then, so my boss sent me, of all people, to scout it out and rob it if possible. A lot of good that’s done me…” he complains. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to go looking for revenge against the boss, though, miss. I may be weak, and you’re sure pretty powerful… But, there’s a ton of us at the hideout, and the boss is no slouch either. We even have a couple magic users, and the one, our boss’s right-hand man, can cast some wicked spells.”

“Ha! Although I appreciate your concern, I can assure you that I alone am more than capable of dispatching a petty band of bandits, mages or no mages. Tell me… what is the most powerful feat of magic you’ve seen him perform?” she asks, genuinely curious.

“Well… I’ve seen him make massive fireballs and walls of water. Oh! There was also one time where he stopped another magic guy protecting a merchant from casting a spell!” Ralph excitedly relates.

“Ha! So, he’s not a complete rank amateur. But, compared to me, Ralphy, you’ll find that he’s actually quite adorable,” she boasts, a look of pure confidence enveloping her face. Ralph, remembering the events of last night, timidly shakes his head in agreement.

“Continue,” she commands.

“R-right… I’m not very religious myself, but most people in Vaxi and other villages and towns tend to worship Terra, the goddess of earth and the harvest, Lumen, god of light and the sun, or Fors, god of luck and chance. The boss, though, worships Argenta, goddess of wealth and plenty, as cliché as that might sound… The only other gods I know of were those that some clerics and paladins our troop have defeated worshipped. One was called Fornax. I think he was a god of smiths and invention. The other, I think, was called Praecantia, the goddess of the study of magic…” he explains, a bit self-conscious at his lack of religious knowledge. “As to your last question… I would say that my boss and his mage are pretty much the cream of the crop around these parts, other than maybe the captains at Vaxi or Vaxi’s guild leaders. There have been adventurers passing through that were too much for us, but they’re pretty rare…”

"Well, the fact that I have absolutely no fucking clue where these places are or who those gods are, it’s probably safe to say that I really have been transported to some weird parallel universe… At least, from what he’s telling me, the power scaling is similar to my old world, so I won’t have to worry about being hopelessly outclassed by some overpowered race of demigods…” she thinks, accepting what few concessions Ralph’s explanations have given her.

“Very good, Ralphy, your answers have helped me immensely,” she lies. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I am going to prepare myself for our expedition to your little hideout. You have free reign of the house and all its comforts, but I expect you to be ready to depart within an hour’s time. You’ll find your equipment lying on your borrowed bed. Please do not try to escape… you’ll find it quite impossible, and I don’t wish to have to punish you further for your impertinence,” she explains, rising from her chair and beginning to walk toward the living room, turning her head to him. As she reaches the living room threshold, without turning her head, she gives Ralph a warning, almost inviting him to not heed it. “Oh! I almost forgot to tell you… if you attempt any larceny from this point forward, the numerous suits of armor I’m certain you’ve noticed will make short work of you… See you in an hour, Ralphy!” she says, sickeningly sweetly, as she departs from his sight. She senses Ralph shudder, fear resonating in his soul once again, which brings a wicked yet innocent-looking smile to her face as she ascends the stairs.

At the top of the stairs, she waits to see what he’ll do before getting herself ready. She senses him sit at the table for a few minutes, probably contemplating his situation, before rising and walking briskly to the guest room, surprised to find his equipment exactly where Nyx said it would be. She chuckles to herself as she feels him inspect the equipment, probably searching for anything suspicious, before donning it. A cool, defeated resignation fills him as he sits on the bed, seeming to simply wait there for her beck and call. Retreating to her bedroom, Nyx dons the equipment she prepared for herself yesterday, calling the sword she had removed from her back during her exhaustion to her hand and placing it in the scabbard on her back. With her more diminutive stature, the sword now dangles much closer to the ground than before her transformation. Sighing as she grabs an infinity bag - a magic bag that can hold an impossibly large amount of matter - which she’s filled with other useful items, she sets back into the hallway and descends the stairs. It’s been about 50 minutes since her warning to Ralph, and she still senses him obediently sitting in the guest bedroom, despite being - truthfully! - told he could avail himself of the house. Once she reaches the living room floor, she calls out to the man, eager to finally start her exploration of the new world.

“Ralphy! I am ready to depart, but as per my previous statement, you may take an additional ten minutes to collect yourself, if you so desire!” she yells, injecting an innocent cuteness into her voice to torment him. It is only a couple of minutes before he appears before her.

“I’m ready… Um… Miss Nyx, if you wouldn’t mind, could you please stop calling me Ralphy? It’s a bit…” he asks, slightly blushing, not wanting to admit kind of liking being called a nickname by such a cute girl.

“Demeaning? Belittling? Patronizing? Condescending? Humiliating, even?” she teases. “Would you prefer Raffo? Big Raph? Ray-Ray? Oooh, Ray-Ray has a nice ring to it…”

“N-no, could you please… just call me Ralph? Even calling me thief or burglar would be better…” Ralph admits, his embarrassment deepening as the cute, beautiful girl before him toys with him.

“Ah… to ask such a concession of me after you broke into my house and I was so gracious as to still avail you of all its comforts. I will offer you a compromise! I will refer to you, while among others, as Ralph, but in private, I will call you any nickname I may conjure. Is that acceptable, burglar?” she asks, continuing to toy with him, leading him out the backdoor.

“Y-yes, I guess that’s better than nothing…” he accepts as he follows her toward the forest path.

“Excellent! Now, tell me, how long on foot would it take to reach your hideaway?” she asks inquisitively.

“Um… I’d say about three or four hours… I know a couple of shortcuts, so probably closer to three,” he responds.

“Hmm… that’s a bit too long to have me wait for my “talk” with your boss… Alright, Ralphy boy, I’m about to gift you with the power of flight. Please, do not panic, although I do understand that the sensation will be quite foreign to you,” she says, pulling two rings out of her bag. “Normally, I would simply cast the flight spell on us. But I’m afraid the duration is not long enough, and I refuse to cast it multiple times,” she concedes, slipping one of the rings around his right ring finger.

"Ah… her hands are so soft… wait, what the-?” he thinks, before the shock of suddenly levitating in the air snaps him back to reality. His levitation brings with it a freedom and levity in both his body and mind. “S-so this is how it feels to fly. I feel so free!” he shouts, smiling as he flies a bit higher, trying to get the hang of it.

“Yes, yes, I’m sure you do,” she chides, secretly happy to see the joy of the man, who had so far been riddled with trepidation and fear, as she dons her own ring. “Take a few minutes to practice, and then we’ll be off to your den of thieves. I’ll be relying on your directions, so please try not to disappoint me.”

“Woo-hoo! Don’t worry, Miss Nyx, I won’t let you down!” he shouts, unable to mask the thrill he’s feeling. Ever since he was a boy, and especially after his parent’s death, Ralph had always envied the birds, how they glided through the skies, seemingly without a care in the world. They weren’t bound to the worries and problems of the surface world. They were free to escape to the clouds, wherever their wings could take them. How he wished to be able to depart for the skies, forget about all his problems for once, and now, he was flying! He could touch the clouds at last! He was alive!

“I’m alive…” he thinks, tears beginning to well up in his eyes. Wiping away the tears and looking back at the one responsible for granting him a childhood wish, he confidently shouts at her. “This way, Miss Nyx! With this, we’ll be there within an hour! Haha!”

“Lead the way, fly boy!” Nyx shouts back, following him.


After about an hour, Ralph beckons Nyx to land. Reaching the ground, the two remove their rings, with Ralph reluctantly returning his to Nyx to store in her magic bag.

“Just past this ridge, we’ll reach the perimeter of the hideout. We don’t normally keep guards too far from the hideout to make it harder for guards or mercenaries to find our position, but there are a few who’ll sound an alarm if they see anyone suspicious,” Ralph explains.

“That’s not a problem. Let them all come at once if they want. It makes no difference…” Nyx confidently states, starting to leisurely walk further down the path towards the hideout.

“A-are you sure? I mean, even if it’s you, to take on an entire hoard, and I mean horde, of bandits basically by yourself… I mean, the most I could take is one guy…” he grudgingly admits, following her.

“I’m certain, Ralphykins. I highly doubt that there’s anyone there who could do meaningful harm to me. By the way, put this on…” she says, slipping another ring from the bag onto Ralph’s finger.

“What does this one do?” he asks, curious as to the nature of the ring.

“Oh, I have a feeling that you’ll find out soon enough,” she affirms, continuing to brazenly walk further down the path. Soon, Nyx suddenly stops, causing Ralph to stumble to stop with her, confused.

“There’s no point in trying to hide! I can see and sense you, plain as day, so you might as well stop making asses of yourselves!” she shouts, mocking the group of bandits attempting to hide among the shadows and foliage of the forest. After shouting that, around 20 bandits, most men but a couple of them women, slowly slink out of the underbrush, circling the pair with malice in their hearts and eyes.

“I’m impressed you were able to spot us, rude little girl!” one of the men shouts at the pair. “But I’m afraid that’s all you’ll be able to do! Drop your weapons, now! We’ll be taking everything of value on your persons, and…” he pauses, noticing the beauty of the young woman before him, “perhaps yourselves as well, little miss!”

“Wait… Ralph, is that you?!” one of the other bandits shouts. “Dude, where the hell have you been?! And why are you with this babe?!”

“Ah… well… you see…” Ralph mumbles, struggling to think of an explanation.

“You should be less occupied with your fellow thief and more worried about me, the calamity accompanying him!” she shouts commandingly, continuing to move forward, dragging Ralph with her. “I am going to see your boss. None of you will dare stop me. If any of you either attempts to harm us or steps within ten feet of us, you will suffer harsh punishment!”

“Hahaha! Bold words for such a small, delicate flower!” shouts the first bandit who spoke, unconvinced of the warning he’s just received and moving closer to meet the girl. “If you come quietly, I promise you won’t be treated too roughly later…” he reassures, licking his lips lasciviously. Ignorant of who he’s walking so carelessly towards, he encroaches upon the ten-foot limit set just moments beforehand, with the other bandits beginning to follow suit.

“Fools…” Nyx sighs, disappointed in the blatant disregard for her warning. “Steel yourself, Ralph…” she whispers, as a bloodcurdlingly intense wave of pure terror spreads out from her, enveloping the area where they and the bandits are occupying.

In such close proximity to its source, Ralph feels as if he’s about to faint, but, noticing a small glow coming from the new ring around his finger, he is somehow able to keep himself upright and somewhat calm. The other bandits, however, are not nearly so lucky. Ralph watches in shock and awe as, one by one, each of the bandits are paralyzed, looks of absolute terror twisting their faces, their eyes bugging out and tearing up upon contact with the wave. Most of the bandits fall to their knees immediately after, starting to wretch from the inability to cope with such an intense stimulus of dread. A select couple, including the speaker of the group, able to somewhat keep their wits about them, begin to flee towards the hideout in terror, screaming, begging for help or mercy as they do. Ralph is absolutely flabbergasted as he watches his fellow bandits, many of whom have beaten the shit out of him at one time or another, become useless, sniveling wretches – just as he had become last night – in the presence of his new captor. Before he can contemplate these thoughts and feelings further, though, he feels a tug at his arm as Nyx pulls him along, beckoning him to continue walking toward the camp.

“No time to feel sorry for them or for yourself, Ralphmeister. We have bigger insects to fry,” she says as she drags him forward.

“Y-yeah, but h-how…?” he asks, still unable to process the scene unfolding before him.

“I generate an aura of pure fear about my person, although I normally suppress it. It causes, well, that to happen to people. Those who don’t fall to the ground paralyzed and vomiting generally run away in terror, like those two. That’s why I gave you that ring. It provides immense resistance to fear effects. I figured I’d terrified you enough, so I was generous enough to let you borrow it for the time being,” she explains, scanning her surroundings for reinforcements.

“T-thank you…” he sighs, relieved and thankful that he didn’t end up like his comrades.

Losing sight of the two sprinting bandits, the pair continue unabated along the path. Beginning to hear the tumult of panic within the camp ahead, Nyx giggles, proud at the chaos she’s sewn. Soon, they come upon a clearing that marks the entrance to the hideout. As they approach the gates, meager fortifications built of timber and some fieldstone, a large group of at least 50 approaches and hails them from within the camp.

"Halt!” shouts an older man, clad in opulent robes that smell of pungent incense. “Is it you who have reduced our perimeter guards to such a pathetic state?”

“Yes, Majid, it’s them! It’s her! She’s a she-devil, a witch in the skin of a beautiful girl! She’s even bewitched and captured poor Ralph!” shouts the lecherous bandit Nyx had terrified a few minutes ago.

“Ha! I am indeed the culprit who broke the minds of your minions! I demand to speak to the leader of your troop, for he has deeply offended me by sending this underling of his to disturb me and assail my home! If he explains himself to my satisfaction, I will depart this place in peace. Otherwise, or if any more of you is stupid enough to add to your transgressions against me, I will take great pleasure in punishing you all until I am satisfied!” Nyx commands and warns, pointing in the general direction of the bandit group before her.

“You little whelp… do you really think you can just waltz up to and demand such things from the Golden Goblin Gang?!” asks Majid, visually enraged at the hubris of the shrimpy girl in front of him. “The punishment for such insolence will be… death!” he screams, as he begins to cast a spell, conjuring a massive ball of fire.

"Ah… so this is how I finally die…” thinks Ralph. Before this massive ball of fire, which he has watched incinerate many bodyguards and adventurers far stronger than himself, he can only close his eyes and hope for a quick death. But, as he does so, he hears Nyx snap her fingers next to him and the roar of the fireball dissipate. Curious to see why he no longer hears the crackle of or feels the heat of the flames, he opens his eyes to find Majid uselessly attempting to finish the spell, shock and frustration in his eyes.

“Curse you…” mumbles Majid. “You’re able to counter spells, witch?”

“Oh, I assure you, I’m capable of far more than countering your pitiful magics!” she boasts, clearly trying to irritate the wizard. “For example, I can do this!” she shouts, beginning to cast a spell of her own.

“Fool! Are you so arrogant to believe that you’re the only one able to counter spells? Counter!” shouts Majid, waving his hands in arcane gestures. Nyx’s spell, however, does not dissipate, instead only becoming fuller as she casts, with Majid’s face twisting into a scowl.

“W-what?! Impossible! Why didn’t it…?” fumbles Majid, now fearful for his life.

“Little wizard, all of my spells are cast at least at the fifth level…” she explains, smiling smugly as she finishes her casting. A large sphere of pure blackness envelops the bandits, and Ralph thinks he can hear… slurping, of all things, emanating from it, accompanied by the screams of his bandit comrades. “Ah! It burns!” “I can’t see! I can’t see!” “The cold! I can’t feel my legs!” are some of the shouts he can make out from the black ball. Again, he can barely begin to comprehend the sight before him as Nyx drags him toward the black ball. He notices her laughing, sadistically happy at her work. As they near the black ball, Ralph is about to plead for Nyx to stop as she snaps her fingers again, dispelling the ball and allowing them to continue unhindered.

“If you’re worried about them, Ralph, don’t be. They’re all still alive. I’ve only beat them within an inch of their lives to ensure they don’t continue being nuisances. Oh, but just to make sure…” As she says this, Ralph sees sinews of cold light appear above the bandits that slowly make their way to Nyx, the bandits groaning in agony as they do.

“Done!” Nyx happily shouts once the sinews have disappeared. “Now they’ll be so exhausted that there’s no hope of them getting up to annoy me further.”

“Oh… of course…” Ralph says, eyes glazed over, his mind unable to keep up with the stimuli.

At a leisurely pace, Nyx drags Ralph toward the largest tent in the camp, where she assumes the bandit leader resides. Ralph, confirming the suspicion with a tired nod, follows along, now collecting himself to the point of not needing to be dragged any longer. Upon reaching the entrance to the tent, two guards raise crossbows at them, sheepishly telling them to leave.

“Y-you can’t go any f-further. We w-wont’ let you hurt the captain!” one yells, trying to sound confident as he stammers.

“Young men… I understand the desire to protect one’s leader and the hubris of youth very well, but I will speak with your boss, with or without your permission. But, if you truly wish to end up like your friends, I would be happy to oblige,” says Nyx, in an almost motherly tone. Their resolve waning at the thought of suffering the fate of their comrades, the two lower their weapons and run away toward where the rest of the bandits lie beaten down and exhausted. Taking the opportunity to walk into the tent, the pair find the bandit captain rooting through the tent, seemingly trying to find something before he flees.

“It’s so nice to finally meet you, mister bandit captain!” Nyx cutely shouts, ill intent tainting the innocence of the greeting.

“S-stay back, you monster!” shouts the captain as he raises his sword and dagger.

“I’m not a monster, mister!” Nyx pouts, seemingly offended by his words. “These, however, certainly are…” she whispers evilly, a twisted smirk coming over her face as she snaps her fingers. Ralph’s jaw drops as eight horrific creatures suddenly appear in bursts of fire and darkness around the captain. Screaming in shock and fright, the captain attacks the one immediately to his right, eliciting the others to swarm him, covering him in a cloud of claws and fangs, a putrid stench filling the room. To this horrid discourse, Nyx calmly sits down on a nearby chair.

“I will be waiting here when you are ready to apologize for the disrespect you have shown me,” Nyx coldly states.

The captain, while obviously a capable fighter, is overwhelmed by the fiends’ onslaught quite quickly, beginning to tire and succumb to the wounds they are inflicting upon him. He kills two he had been concentrating on, but upon looking at the other six of his enemies, he visibly becomes desperate.

“I-I’m sorry! I shouldn’t have tried to rob you!” he screams as he’s pummeled by one of the beasts.

“Hmm… I’m just not feeling enough sincerity… Try harder!” Nyx distantly scolds.

“I-I’ll do anything to make it right! Anything to make it up to you! I promise! Please, just spare me! Send these monsters away!” he screams in agony as one of the creatures slashes his face.

“Oh, now you’re just trying to save your own skin… I’ll tell you what. If you apologize to my good buddy Ralph here for putting him through so much trouble, I’ll accept your apology and get rid of the demons, alright? I’m waiting…” she compromises.

“M-miss Nyx, I really don’t need you to…” Ralph starts to say, but the captain almost immediately interrupts him.

“R-Ralph, my boy, I’m so sorry!” the captain screams as he begins to sob in pain and despair. “I treated you like shit for no real reason, and I gave you all the shittiest jobs because I liked to see you squirm! I put you through the ringer for so long, Ralph… please forgive me, my boy! I’m sorry! Make her send them away! I beg you!”

Shocked by the captain’s quick admission, Ralph feels a million different feelings before the roulette finally settles on rage.

“That’s right, you dumb prick!” Ralph screams even louder than the frantic captain. “I slaved for you, thinking working for you would make me tough, make me strong enough to not be useless anymore, but look at you! You’re nothing but a sniveling coward when you’re finally outclassed, aren’t you?! Aren’t you, you bastard?! Well, I don’t need you anymore! Go to hell!” Hyperventilating as he finishes yelling at his captain, who’s still weakly fighting for his life against the summoned horrors, he feels a dainty hand on his back.

“Ha! Don’t you feel better now, Ralph? You were finally able to tell him off to his face!” Nyx laughs as she places her hand on Ralph’s back, snapping her fingers to dismiss the demons assaulting the bandit captain, who now lies limply on the ground, clinging to his life. Ralph, moved to tears by the comforting act and words, firmly grabs the delicate yet powerful hand resting on his back and thanks its owner, purely and genuinely.

“T-thank you, Miss Nyx. From the bottom of my heart, thank you…” he’s barely able to bellow before his tears overtake him, increasing his grip on her hand.

"Ha… idiot… I didn’t exactly do this all for you, you know. I really just wanted to get my petty revenge on this guy,” she thinks. “But I figured I’d help you and your self-esteem out a little while I was at it.”

“Don’t mention it, Big Raph,” she teases, departing from his side. “Now, as for you, pile of flesh on the floor, I demand further reparation from you,” she commands the bandit captain, lifting him up by the neck with strength uncharacteristic of her frame. “You and all of your men will turn yourselves in to the town guard in Vaxi, and you will happily, obediently serve out the sentence they award you. And, if you do not, I will introduce you to the big brothers of those creatures you just met. Do you understand?” she asks, activating her aura of fear.

Appearing to age several years in an instant, the bandit captain, his black-gray hair turning white, captivated in pure terror, quickly but weakly nods, almost inaudibly chanting “I understand” to Nyx.

“Excellent!” she says, smiling cutely as she drops him mercilessly on the ground. Walking back over to Ralph, who is currently trying to collect himself, she exempts him from her command to the captain.

“I hereby exempt you from being included in “all of his men”, Raphy Taffy. You’re a good guy; I can feel it. You just needed a really hard push in the right direction is all. Trust me. I was once a pretty bad guy myself, and as you can see, I still have some bad habits. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to gather up all the punks outside so the captain over there has an easier time leading them to their incarceration. I suppose I’ll follow them over to Vaxi from a distance, just to make sure he keeps his promise. You’re free to tag along, if you’re so inclined,” she offers.

“You know… you’re the first person since my parents to genuinely believe in me, Miss Nyx. I’m so weak, and I thought that following the strong would change that, but it turns out I was never following the strong in the first place. I was just following fellow cowards this whole time…” he realizes. “I would be glad to accompany you to Vaxi and keep an eye on these pieces of trash. And… Miss Nyx… may I ask something of you?”

“You may, but I give you no guarantee that I’ll fulfill it,” she answers bluntly.

“Please, can you teach me, train me? I want to become strong, like you. I don’t want any other little boys, or even illusions of little girls, to have to suffer like I’ve suffered. I don’t want the urchins in the streets to turn into people like these. But, as I am now, I have no chance of saving anyone. So, please, make me your student!” he begs, prostrating himself before her.

“You… want to be my student?” she asks, slightly surprised at his request.

“Yes! Please, I’m begging you! I want to protect others, to be the hero that I never had! At least give me a chance!” he responds, hope and confidence radiating in his voice.

“Hahahahahahahahaha!” she cackles, finding Ralph’s heartfelt prostration hilarious.

“This guy…” she thinks, her mind going back more than 5700 years. “He reminds me a little of me, all those years ago, when all I wanted was to become a knight to protect the weak, to protect my country from our neighbors and others who wished to exploit it.”

“If you become my student, you’ll suffer pain far exceeding both that which you suffered last night and that which all of your old comrades combined suffered today. Your very soul will be in jeopardy, for you must forfeit it to me as payment for my training and teachings. Knowing that, do you still wish to walk that path?!” she exclaims, attempting to test his resolve.

“Absolutely!” he responds, without a single moment of hesitation in either his voice or soul. Every fiber of his being wants it to become reality.

“Very well, Ralph! From this day forward, you will be my disciple! In exchange for your soul, your loyalty and your devotion, I will grant you physical, magical, emotional and moral strength. Now, pick yourself up and shake my hand! Upon shaking my hand, you will enter the contract, the pact that I have defined. There will be no going back,” she explains, intensely, a murky magical aura engulfing her outstretched hand.

Ralph, his checkered life and all his moments of weakness flashing before his eyes, resolutely picks himself up from the ground and looks Nyx dead in the eye.

“Miss – no - Master Nyx, I accept the terms of the contract and look forward to your training. Thank you. I will be in your care,” he says, firmly shaking her outstretched hand, the same murky aura amplifying to engulf him as well. Feeling his body overflow with power, Ralph nearly faints, but his newfound determination prevents such an embarrassment. Quickly, the aura dissipates, and Ralph begins hyperventilating and trembling, still holding on tightly to Nyx’s hand. Letting go of his hand, Nyx smiles and lightly nudges him forward, causing him to drop flat on the ground, a shamelessly large smile across his face.

“Welcome to the Order of the Hexblade, Ralph,” she tells him, smiling pensively.

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