Everything around him was humid and wet, but Aaron found his lips were drier than a sun-bleached bone. Stalking through the mud and shrubbery around him, the bandit peered out towards the moonlit city of Riak, while the soft ivory light cascaded the landscape with an almost serene halo.
Aside from the platinum moonlight, flickering rusty flames were speckled across the rim of the forbiddingly silent city, like smoldering embers among shattered ruins. Invaders claiming the Titan’s Palm as their own.
Aaron was beginning to think himself a bit insane for making enemies out of them.
He shifted his investigative focus to the barricade protecting Riak. The wall around the city was at least fifteen times his height, and it’s stone structure looked impenetrably thick. Even if they managed to scale it, they’d just end up in the ramparts with a furious swarm legionaries. He then looked to the sheer cliffside, which ran far, far above the city, with the dam planted into it. He wouldn’t even entertain the possibility of scaling that thing.
Still, a plan of action was required.
“Alright.” he began, “The Legion should be stationed here. We can’t risk going through the city and getting spotted by the citizens, either… and that’s assuming we could even make it past the wall without being caught.”
An raven-black figure crawled right up from behind him, her eyes burning through that thick dark. She flashed a wide grin chock full of ivory fangs up at him.
“We could try digging under it,” she suggested hopefully, “I could do in about an hour or two.”
“Nah.” Aaron rejected the idea, “Sorry, Val. Pretty sure they’ve got patrols around the perimeter, inside and out. No way we could dig under it in time for them to not notice us. Sides, we don’t even know how deep underground it goes.”
Grumbling and mumbling, Valerie sat up and brushed the wet leaves from her hair and fur, “Any other way you think we can get in, babe?”
“Let me think…” the bandit hummed, his cold eyes following the length of the trail up to the city, from his spot hidden atop a hill. After a short bit of searching, he found a few patrols traveling up and down the path. Each contained a minimum of at least ten armed guards. With Valerie at side, he was sure he could take on one of the smaller units by surprise – but he was under no illusion that it would go unnoticed.
“Hmm… maybe if we could pick one of them away from his squad, I could steal his uniform and sneak in. But I’m not seeing how we could do that without having all his friends swarm us.”
Val whined with a low grumble of annoyance, at as much of a loss as Aaron. Her tail flicked back and forth, sparks jetting from the corners of her eyes like her brain was overheating from mulling over all the possibilities.
“Bonjour~” sung a sultry woman’s voice from behind them, like an angel from on high descending to answer their prayers.
Val’s ears perked up, and she shot to all fours and began snarling and snapping at the newcomer. Aaron, on the other hand, gasped and scrambled to his knees, yanking out his claymore and threateningly aiming the tip at her.
“Oh…” Aaron breathed, recognizing her after a few tension-filled moments, “The fuck are you doing her, Jeanne?”
The Lady succubus answered with a cheery smile, “Oh~ nothing~”
Val and Aaron stood up as far as the shrubbery they were hidden in allowed, both staring down at Jeanne. Laying on her stomach before them, the succubus whistled innocently, kicking out her legs, playing with a few blades of grass in front of her, her wings flexing and her tail whipping back and forth…
“Jeanne…” the bandit sourly snapped, taking on a similar tone a father would while scolding his child.
“Fine, fine…” the succubus sighed and relented, floating back to her feet. She dusted the loose leaves and grass from her stomach, breasts obscenely jiggling with each movement, “I was planning on asking you two to join me one last time, but it seems you are very, very busy. But perhaps je can help?”
Aaron narrowed his fierce glare, “I don’t know who this Je is, but you can tell him to go-”
“Ah! Non, non. I am je.”
Valerie confusedly scratched between her ears, “I thought you were Jeanne…?”
“Je,” the succubus huffed, clearly starting to get annoyed, “Means ‘I’. I can help you…”
“And how,” Aaron leveled skeptically at her, “Are ya gonna do that? I thought you said your seduction magic didn’t work on them?”
“It doesn’t… not on large scales, at least, with all their friends around to snap them out of it. And those little red pests always stick together so tightly.” Jeanne sighed, staring almost longingly at the crescent moon, “Buuuut~ I do have something you could use~”
“Can’t you just warp us into the city or somethin’?” Aaron asked.
“Whaaaat?” Jeanne gasped as though it was a ridiculous question, “Oh, non, non. As I’ve said, I’m a lover, not a fighter. And I do not, as you say, warp. Those sorts of spells are far too complicated for me. I merely trick the eye… I can cast illusions and pull my things from a small pocket dimension~”
“Wait… if you can just store and pull anything you want from thin air, how’d you get all your money stolen by the legionaries?” Val barked, shoving an accusatory claw at the succubus, “Wouldn’t it make sense to store all your coins there?”
The mischievous and wry grin never left her face, but it didn’t take a master detective to pick up on the nervous jitters that shook her body – nor the dilating pupils or cascade of sweat upon her brow.
“Ah… well… uhm… I may have been… well, lying about that bit…” Jeanne giggled through her tightening throat, “I… may have actually just… you know… misplaced it after a night on the town…”
“Oh, for the love of…” Aaron grumbled, pinching the bridge of his nose, “C’mon, Val. This stupid bimbo obviously isn’t going to help us. She can’t even help herself.”
Val let out a low growl of agreement before they both exited the shrub, leaving to find another vantage point. Jeanne scrambled out after them, floating clumsily through the air and wildly reaching out for them, like she was sliding on her belly over ice and reaching for someone to help her up.
“W-wait, please!” she hollered, raising her dainty hand into the air, “You want to get into the city?! Just watch this!”
She snapped her fingers, and with a spontaneous puff of magenta powder, a full suit of standard issue Legion mail clattered before Aaron’s feet. The bandit’s icy blue eyes widened with surprise. A few of the bumps and scratches looked vaguely familiar.
“This belonged to that guy from earlier, right?” Aaron interrogated, “Titus, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, yes…” Jeanne chuckled rather ominously, “Trust me, he won’t be needing it any more…”
Aaron pursed his lips, unsure if Jeanne meant that he had completely turned flags or that he wouldn’t be needing any clothing at all. Either way, he didn’t feel to badly about handing over a would-be child killer to whatever twisted machinations the succubus had planned.
“Yeah. Thanks…” the bandit sighed awkwardly, unsure of what else to say. He looked from the discarded helm to the succubus, only to find another cloud of that dark pink dust swirling in her place.
Her laugh echoed through the muggy night, but Aaron was more annoyed than impressed by the second showing of the trick. As her dust cleared and laugh faded away, Val stumbled from out of the smokescreen, coughing and waving away the pink wisps still lingering around her head.
“Okay… that chick is seriously starting to get on my nerves.”
“Likewise.” Aaron agreed almost immediately, slipping the Legion gauntlet over his hand.
With the dust gone, Val had clearance to sniff the air. And when she did, her eyes flared up with anger. Kicking a nearby rock into a shrub, Jeanne popped back out, fresh tears streaming from her eyes.
“Ouch! Ow, ow!” the succubus whined, rubbing the goose egg growing on her head, “I was just trying to wow you two with a stunning exit…”
“Well, Jeanne, while you’re still here…” Aaron began, looming over the noble monster, “There’s a few other things we could use from you…”
As Aaron approached Riak’s gate, that same prickly sense of foreboding dug into his every nerve like a hail of frosty needles. He fully disguised himself their crimson armor, a uniform that would blend him in with the rest of the Legion’s foot soldiers. But he held no misconceptions of what would happen if his ruse failed. If that were to happen, all his iron mail and bronze plating may as well have been wet cloth and dried twigs. They would rip him asunder and leave his gory corpse for the vultures before he could so much as blink.
“I hafe thisf.” Valerie rumbled in front of him, her voice muffled by a tight strip of leather. Even through the thick cowhide, he could hear the clicking of her fangs indignantly grinding against each other.
“I know.” Aaron swiftly agreed in fear of upsetting her, “But I need your help if we wanna stop Jack, and I don’t see another way of sneaking you in. Don’t worry; I’ll let you out the instant things look clear.”
The hound plodded a few feet ahead, her hands bound by steel cuffs and a leather, iron-studded muzzle blockading her mouth. Aaron had her collared as well, leading her forward with chain in hand. All of them were gifts courtesy of Jeanne – Aaron found it best not to dwell on what other acts of degeneracy they had seen under her care.
“I stil dunt lik if.”
“Neither do I. But to be fair, you’re the one who wanted to go save the city…”
With their t-visors and the darkness disguising their faces, Aaron was unable to read the guards at the gate. But their tensed, stiff postures were enough to tell him they were alert- not that he could rightly blame them. The sight of a hellhound, even one bound and surrounded, would be a worrying sight for anyone.
“What in the seven hells are you doing with that demon, soldier?” one asked him, his voice booming and demanding, but unable to hide his shaken nerves.
Aaron had already cooked up a lie, “We have reason to believe that she’s in cahoots with more monsters planning an attack on Riak. My squad leader figured our best course of action would be to beat more info out of her… even if that fails, she’d still be a valuable hostage.”
“And where, exactly,” the other sentinel asserted, “Is the rest of your squadron…?”
The bandit had anticipated that question before they were even in sight, “Several of our troops were injured; there were also several monsters that fled. We were so stretched thin on manpower and so close to the base that my commanding officer decided to send me back to turn this bitch in on my own.”
“Humph. And just what patrol were you with, soldier?”
“The thirteenth, under Captain Felix.” Aaron smoothly lied, nearly patting himself on the back for checking Titus’s armor for his marching orders.
“Dammit. I didn’t know they’d be out this late.” one of the legionaries huffed, “Command doesn’t tell us anything, man.”
“Well, you know Captain Felix. Bastard doesn’t bring his men back until their boot are falling apart.” the other complained, but swiveled back over to Aaron, “Take her up to the base, and make sure she doesn’t get loose.”
“You got it.”
The bandit’s charade was nearly shattered by his own hubris. He felt the corners of his lips try to creep into a sly smile, but he managed to keep his bearing long enough to walk between the guards and right into Riak.
Aaron’s throat tightened, slowly turning to meet the legionary before he left. In that single second, all the fuzzy excitement from his plan going off without a hitch had turned into prickly fear.
“Need anything else?” the bandit hesitantly asked.
“I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but the number of horny dipshits that we have to punish keeps on growing. I suppose our trainees still don’t get the picture. You know what’ll happen if you try anything funny with that animal, right…?”
Aaron didn’t respond, but the guard didn’t wait for his answer. Taking one hand off his spear, he outstretched two fingers and used them to make a snipping motion towards Aaron’s groin.
“I’ll try to keep that in mind…” Aaron nervously laughed, having to keep the off hand over the wrist of his dominant arm to keep it from instinctively cupping his crotch.
Riak was quite a different beast than Oakvale. While they covered roughly the same amount of earth, the former was packed more tightly than a deck of playing cards. Alleyways were a rare sight; each building was nearly touching the next. Not only that, but each building was at least three stories, with some even reaching five. Its population density must’ve been off the charts.
But as he looked around the streets, he found a surprising lack of rubbish and rats feasting on it. He looked towards the river, he found it nearly too crystal clean. He briefly wondered if those ‘relic’ things in the dam had something to do with that.
Taking another step forward, he felt his armored boot rattle against something. Lifting his foot, he found a rusty grate set into the street, and heard the sounds of water rushing beneath it. Ahead of him, he noticed Val’s sensitive nose scrunch up and her face twist.
“Ah… a sewer system, huh? Oakvale didn’t have one of these.”
“A wut?” Val grunted from in front of him.
“An underground tunnel. People throw all their shit and garbage into it, and it carries it away. I’ve only heard some traveling architect talk about ’em. Wasn’t particularly interesting… guess I was pretty special kinda drunk that night.”
“Blrgh.” she faked a gag from under her actual gag.
They continued onward with little incident aside from a nervous glance from a peasant’s window. Soon, as the dam loomed ever closer, and the buildings around them gave way to a winding stone path leading up. Across the rapid waters of one of the dam’s many divides, Aaron laid eyes upon some sort of mansion– it was far more spacious and opulent than the rest of the city. A huge estate, with an equally impressive garden guarded by a fence.
“Guess that they can’t have the riffraff sniffing those flowers…” Aaron mumbled bitterly, knowing full well he’d take back far more than a few sniffs of flora if he had found himself behind those pronged iron bars.
His cold blue eyes, alight with the twisted shine of greed, scanned along the manor. Fabulous masonry, immaculate marble statues, more arches and pillars than he had seen on all the churches in his life. Quietly whistling, he wondered just what riches he could find within if he had just taken the time to search…
Suddenly, the shine of gold caught his attention. But against his expectations, it was far from a welcome sight.
They stood like statues, but a closer look revealed them to be men. Their armor looked to have a smooth and garish golden finish, from helm to gauntlets to chest plates. Both of the men carried long, platinum-bladed glaives, which stood ready at their respective sides. Crimson capes spilled down their shoulders, tossing and twisting in the wind and writhing over their ominously still bodies like dragon’s flame.
Something told him they weren’t run of the mill sentinels.
His gaze lingered only for a few still heartbeats, but evidently, that was far too long. One of the golden warriors head’s turned, and Aaron abruptly hustled away as he hurried on. He crested the hill, coming ever closer to the dam that earned Riak the monicor of Titan’s Palm.
Whoever those men were, his well-tuned gut told him to stay far, far away.
As it turned out, the the Legion had set up headquarters inside the dam itself. Aaron had originally thought it an odd strategic move, but then it began making a bit more sense as he laid eyes on the massive, cliffside structure. It towered into the night sky as an obelisk before the Titan’s Palm, rivers splitting and spilling from it’s great maw.
There must’ve been ample room in it, and it looked more than easy enough to defend against any rogue civilians that were already within Riak’s walls. Not only that, it was a key position for the entire country of Graeme – each of the Titan’s fingers stretched through the rest of the country. A good portion of the nation relied on the water the dam provided.
Aaron pursed his lips. Like he expected, he found no entrance other than the gate tucked into the dam’s bottom right. He wasn’t sure of the finer details of how normal dams worked, but he thought it safe to assume it was different than the average dam. He attributed that to it’s titanic size and the alleged relics built into it.
Two legionaries stood watch at the gate, their careful gazes watching the darkness for any looming threats. Steeling himself, Aaron dragged Val forward and stood before the guards. He puffed out his chest as far as he was able, as if to brandish the red mail upon his breast.
One of the guards put on a gnarly snear, poking at the chained hellhound’s belly with his lance.
“Why exactly do you have this mutt with you? And where’s the rest of your squad?”
Val snarled at the guard’s prodding, and Aaron tugged at her chain before she could take the act too far. Aaron provided the same excuse he had for the legionaries stationed outside Riak’s wall, inwardly praying that the trick would work twice.
“Oh… I see. You really should’ve brought a partner, though. Did the guys at the wall really have not a single person they could spare?”
Aaron responded curtly and negatively. The guard before him tilted his head forward as if to expect Aaron more closely.
“Well, you’re already here, I suppose. I guess I’ll just talk to Captain Anton about it after my shift is up.”
Knowing he’d be long gone by then, Aaron bobbed his head along.
“Take her in for an interrogation. You remember where the room is, right?”
“I do.” Aaron lied through clenched teeth. Briefly, he was reminded of all the falsities he fed to the lawmen of Oakvale. He never thought of himself as one with a silver-tongue, but he supposed practice made perfect.
“Hmm… well, get to it, boy.” the soldier didn’t sound entirely convinced, but noticing the nervous flicker in his eyes as he glanced at Valerie, Aaron figured he didn’t want to keep the hellhound around any longer than absolutely necessary. The bandit eagerly followed his orders and hustled into the dam, dragging Valerie behind him. Whether her obstinance was an act or legitimate, he couldn’t have been certain.
When he stepped inside, he was immediately hit by the earthy stink of mildew. The room he was in was spacious, he’d even say overly so. Treated rafters hung almost twenty meters overhead. The loud echo of his armored boots against the cold stone was drowned out by the roaring rush of water. He looked to the room’s left, past a gated area, and watched the river the dam was controlling waterfall by.
Aaron checked behind his back, making sure that the gate inside was sealed shut. Then, he turned to the other end of the room, spotting a large stack of crates. He didn’t know what they contained, but that didn’t rightly concern him.
The bandit made sure there weren’t any eyes on them a final time. He ducked behind those crates, Valerie bounding at his side. No longer needing to maintain the illusion of being caught, Valerie freed herself from her unlocked cuffs, letting them drop haphazardly next to Aaron’s feet.
“You sure you don’t want me to keep my disguise on a little longer?” Val asked as she ripped away her gag and collar, “Not that I’m complaining…”
“Nah. I bullshitted my way past those gate guards, but I’m not too sure how long I could’ve just wandered around here with a monster without someone finding us out.” he explained, “Think you can ghost behind me until I need you?”
Her fanged smile embodied her confidence well, “Hehehe! Easypeasy! I’ll watch your back.”
“Just make sure to keep your flames down so you’re not spotted, yeah?”
“Not to worry, babe.” she assured him with a dismissive waggle of her paw, “I’ll go in all sneaky-beaky like~”
The hellhound dropped to all fours, pouncing out from out behind the boxs and towards the tall gate keeping anyone from falling into the flowing water. Val made the climb easily, hopping onto the rafters and grinning down at him.
Aaron waved up to her, praying to the gods to grant her the fortitude to keep her emotions in check – and flames under control. As far as he could tell, they were some sort of outward show of her excitement. If they shined brightly enough from that darkness, then they’d both be up a creek.
With Val sticking to the rafters, Aaron ascended the steps further up into the dam.
He carefully wandered about – from each room, as the echo of rushing water became more muffled, he passed more and more legionaries lounging about.
They did everything from chatting over some local barmaid and the unspeakable things they’d do to her, to sharpening their vast assortment of weapons, to gambling with friends, or writing homebound letters.
Each room was just as obscenely huge as the first one he stepped in. But after traveling in a sort of half-circle through the dam, he found another set of stairs leading up – the only problem was that it was guarded by another pair of legionnaires, remaining ever vigilant among the lethargic revelry of their countrymen.
“Dammit…” Aaron grumbled. At the very least, they must’ve been keeping guard over something important. Most likely, it was whatever was helping to keep the dam together.
And whatever it was, Jack would be after it.
Unfortunately for him, Jack had Lorna. With the Cheshire on his side, sneaking past the guards would be a trivial task. He’d have no such ease. He also knew very little about Legion military protocol in general, and even less about this particular battalion. Trying to convince the guards to let him by or take their shift would more than likely only shatter the subterfuge he had built up.
He stood by, a safe distance away, wondering just what he could do to get past them, when his little problem was solved.
A thundering snap resounded, the crack of splintering wood following shortly behind it. The legionaries all around yelped and hollered, scurrying away as a wooden beam from the rafters above gave way and collapsed.
Timber smashed against the brickwork of the floor, sending a rolling wave of sawdust lurching forward. The crimson-clad soldiers crowded around, concerned mutterings filling the tense air.
Aaron looked up to the rafters. He saw Val, with her dark body almost totally hidden in shadow, shoot him a thumbs-up.
A few seconds later, Aaron understood. The sentinels blocking the staircase had hustled away from their post to evaluate the damage. Acting fast, the bandit rushed up the stairs while the commotion behind him covered his tracks.
He dashed up the stairs, turned around, then sprinted down a dreary stonework hallway. He huffed the stuffy, muggy air as he gasped for breath, but didn’t slow until he reached the next room – another spacious and empty one, but free of any soldiers. He let his back hit the wall and slid down to his bum.
Gently catching his breath, Aaron listened to the muffled rush of water from behind the wall. He figured he must’ve been about a quarter of the way up the dam, and swiftly approaching it’s center right.
He heard the chipper whine of claws scraping against wood reverberate from above. Val jumped from above, landing in front of him.
“Good thinking.” Aaron praised her as he sucked in a final breath, “But how’d you knock that thing down?”
“I hit it really hard!”
Aaron couldn’t truthfully say he was surprised by that answer. Tilting his helm up, he wiped away the fat beads of sweat slithering down his brow. Outside, and even more so that deep into the dam, the air was humid and heavy.
“Alright… Jack said he’d be here tonight, but he didn’t mention a specific time. So either we find this relic thing and wait for him…”
“…or he’s already here.” the hellhound finished.
They looked to the far west of the room. Unlike the others, there wasn’t a massive archway leading to the next, but a steel door meant only for people, not large quantities of supplies, to pass through.
“Smell anyone on the other side?” Aaron asked.
“Around… ten guys. But there’s also some weird coppery smell.” Val murmured in response, pressing an ear up against the door, “And it sounds like they’re all snoring…”
“What? Step back, Val. Let me take a look.”
Aaron entered the room to find bodies of soldiers strewn all about the floor. He retched for a moment, only to find it was a totally bloodless sort of carnage – each of the men was alive and well. It dawned on him that they were all asleep. Aaron had his doubts that it was a nap room – and was even more doubtful that all the soldiers would suddenly just decided to have a quick snooze while fully armed and armored.
At the center, he found the second half of the peculiar puzzle. A large, round bottle, smashed open with some of it’s contents still pooling among its shattered remains. The liquid therein was thick, green, and the mere smell of it had Aaron tittering back and forth, his eyes fluttering.
“Must be some kind of sleeping agent…” the concerned bandit whispered, also realizing just what that had meant for them. He shot back up to his feet.
Aaron rushed forward with purpose in each step down the next hallway, Val following close at his side. Bursting into the next room, his attention was immediately drawn to it’s centerpiece. Set into the damp stone, against the back of the room, was some sort of large contraption he didn’t recognize. It’s shape resembled a sort of upturned urn, with large and regular openings revealing the clusters of gears endless spinning and grinding from within. At it’s very center, a soft orange light flickered from within a fist-sized glass node.
“What in the…?”
Aaron sauntered forward like a man possessed, the grind of gears and the muffled rush of water becoming distant in his ears. He had never before seen such a strange device, although he knew from the moment he saw it that it was what Jack was after.
“What the heck is that thing?” Val asked, prancing up and giving the contraption a few careful sniffs.
Aaron settled right beside her, eyes set on the orange node. He could already feel a heat coming off of it – not to unlike the heat that radiated from Val, but it brought with it a completely different sort of feeling.
He didn’t have some great desire to master it or make it his own. Instead, he simply wished to know what it was. He could practically feel the power radiating from it. Some sort of morbid curiosity drew his fingers to the warm glass – it tingled, not pleasantly but not painfully.
“This is some kinda powerful magic…” he figured, shadows shooting from between his fingers and wavering across the rafters and wall above and behind him, “This must be what Jack is after. Lets just wait here for him so he can’t-”
“Touch it? I’m afraid you missed the boat on that one, friendo.” came a snarky feline’s voice.
In a single painful heartbeat, Aaron’s body jumped to full alertness. Val was in a similar situation, bearing her claws before the snarling growl had even rushed out her throat.
From out of the empty nowhere behind them, Jack and Lorna stepped forward. Lorna, as per usual, looked as though she was attempting to stretch out her cheeks through the sheer force of her grin. But Jack was more restrained, the fire and ice in his scarlet eyes riding over both the bandit and the hellhound.
“Well, well. I spitballed there was about a thirty to seventy chance you’d show… you sort of struck me as the kind of fella who’s only out for himself…” Jack drawled, pale, thin fingers tapping thoughtfully against his hip, “So that begs the question – just why the hell are you here? Have a change of heart?”
“Something like that.” Aaron mouthed. The weight of the standard Legion lance on his back suddenly felt much more welcoming, “Riak makes some damn fine produce, y’know? Shame if all their fields got flooded.”
“I also didn’t figure you for a glutton… not for food, at least. Maybe gold. Maybe booze or sex… but certainly not for punishment.” Jack laughed, a sly smirk playing across his lips, “Though your coming here would serve as sufficient evidence to the contrary to that, wouldn’t it? Hellhound should’ve given that away, I suppose.”
“Shove it.” Val spat angrily at the albino.
His only response was a thoughtful hum. Tilting his chin up, Jack wagged a finger at the orange node at the center of that upturned urn.
“That glowing thing you were palming just now? It’s a bomb, by the way.”
The adrenaline racing through his veins suppressed a properly surprised reaction from Aaron. His lance was drawn, tip trained at the cat and the albino.
“And you two planted them there?”
“No, dipshit, it was the Queen of fuckin Wonderland.” Lorna snickered with a venomous grin.
Neither Aaron nor Valerie could’ve recalled how long they stood there, staring down the other two. Seconds seemed like minutes; the full minute seemed like an hour. When neither side seemed to want to budge, it was Jack the broke the stalemate.
“There are four more of those devices – pressure regulators, by the way – along this level of the dam with the main valve. I’ve planted bombs on each regulator… all that left is to bypass the valve’s magic barrier and send this whole damn crumbling down.”
“Why are you telling us?” Aaron demanded.
A sly grin shattered Jack’s poker face, “What would be the fun of this little game of our opponent doesn’t know the rules? Let’s see if you two can remove all four bombs in time. Just try to keep us entertained, won’t you?”
Jack laid a hand on Lorna’s shoulder, and once again, they poofed completely out of reality in a fraction of a second. Left nursing his booming heart, it took Aaron a bit of time to gather his jangled nerves and turn to face his partner.
“Can you track them by their smell, Val?”
“Sorry. It was just like how they showed up.. I couldn’t smell ’em or hear ’em.”
“Great…” Aaron spat. He rushed over to the bomb, fingering around the rim to find anyway to remove it from the pressure regulator. It seemed hard set, but Aaron didn’t surrender.
Eventually, after giving it a hard twist, he felt it give way. Heart leaping with joy, he twisted it around and around until the thing popped out entirely, like it was some sort of oversized wine cork. He wasn’t sure how big of a blast radius it had, but he didn’t have a wealth of time, and thus couldn’t afford to store it somewhere properly. Stashing it in the previous hallway, he prayed to the gods that the regulator could survive an indirect blast.
No words needed to be said. Val and Aaron raced down the hallway at top speeds, quickly approaching a new room. This one was smaller, with no rafters above and no pressure regulator to be found.
What they did find were two doors leading in opposite directions.
“Oh, fuck me…” Aaron snapped and snarled, “We don’t have time for this shit. Val, you go left, and I’ll go-”
The bandit was already heading right, but he felt a pair of fuzzy fingers yank at his back. Dragged backwards, he couldn’t help but fall into the hot, waiting grip of Valerie.
“H-hey, what gives?” he grunted, feeling her crushing hug even through the Legion’s mail.
“I-I’m not going to leave you all alone.” she vowed, heat flaring up, “Not with all those legionaries around! Not with that maniac and the cat after you…”
“C’mon, Val. You’re the one that wanted to stop them, remember? Why are you getting cold feet now?”
“Isn’t it obvious, dummy?!”
Aaron made a face akin to a man biting into a lemon, “Not really?”
“I can’t… I won’t let you get hurt! I’d never forgive myself if that happened…”
Aaron suddenly felt his throat tighten and his lips dry. Her hug seemed to relax, but he could’ve sworn he felt a few burning tears run down from his pauldrons and leak through his tunic.
“I never should’ve brought you here… I’m sorry.” she sniffled, “I’m so selfish… my mama would’ve whooped me good if she knew I brought you here…”
“Hey. I can handle myself, y’know.”
“I know. I know. You’re just a human, but you’re so strong. Just like my dad.”
Aaron couldn’t help but notice the heavy twinge of sadness in her downtrodden tone. His fingers traced up her back, nestling between her ears.
“I don’t think I’m quite there yet…”
The hound gently whined and hummed, tilting her head until her face was completely buried in his chest.
“I want to save the city, but I also want to keep you safe. I don’t want to let you go…”
A veritable typhoon of feeling stormed around Aaron’s chest, threatening to swell until it burst open. He recognized the paralyzing fear and hulking guilt. But that warm, fuzzy spark in his the middle of all the icy bitterness was a new sensation to him.
“Val. I promise I’ll be okay.” he swore, voice sparking with resolution, “I’ve had more than my own life to worry about for a long time now. I won’t die as long as Doug needs me…” he trailed off, pulling back until he met Val’s teary eyes, “…and as long as you want me.”
A dark blush crossed her cheeks, “As long as I need you.”
They slowly leaned in, lips meeting. Their kiss lacked any of the raw, primal lust it usually did. It was quick, simple, and sent both their hearts fluttering.
“…see ya later, babe. You’d best be careful, ‘kay?” Val said and smiled, pulling away from him before she took off down her hallway. She disappeared into the darkness, leaving Aaron all alone.
Even as he swallowed his fear and sprinted off in the opposite direction, into the terrifying unknown, he couldn’t wipe the confident grin from his face.