Nothing could even hope to arrest Valerie’s speed. Not the sharp bends in her path, not the fear of what lay in wait for her, and not even the very real legionnaires barring her way. They met the mildew caked bricks before they could process that she was coming at them.
“Halt! You vile beast!” the armed legionary standing at the end of the hall called at ber, “I shan’t permit you to-”
Val slammed her foot into his chest, sending him flying back and painfully colliding with the iron door he was keeping watch over. Both his shield and lance flew from his hands before he bounced off and floundered to the floor, limp as a ragdoll.
“Well, that was easy.” Val whistled, shaking out her sore paw. She started towards the door, which was still resonating from the impact, and kicked it wide open.
The only thing to be found in the sparse room was another pressure regulator – another bomb at it’s core, just like the last one. It left the ancient stone cast in a dull orange light. A bright, fanged smile crossed her cheeks.
“Hold, dog. You’ll tamper with that regulator over my cold, bloody corpse.”
Stopping midstep, Val left her forepaw suspended in the air. Stepping out from a shadowy corner of the room, a lurker strode towards the hellhound.
Val cocked a brow, wondering just how she hadn’t noticed him. Now that he was moving, his footsteps rang loud clear. His scent filled her nostrils – dust, mildew, and sweat, barely smothered by a heavy perfume.
It was clear he wasn’t an average soldier, but he bore the Legion’s bold red all the same. Instead of armor, he wore a hooded cloak. The little of his face that would’ve been revealed was hidden behind a smooth, featureless porcelain mask. It’s eggshell like surface glimmered the same fiery orange as the bomb as he titled his chin up.
“Hey. Creepy mask guy.” Val greeted, “Look, I not to toot my own horn, but I’m pretty tough. Pretty sure I can beat ya… and I don’t like beating on humans anyone. Can’t ya just make this easier on both of us and-”
“Not a chance.” the man interrupted, his smooth, light voice only slightly muffled by his mask, “I’m going to smear you across this dam like a paste, you ignorant beast!
“Pfft. I’d like to see you try.”
“Would you now?” the masked fellow hissed, reaching into his hooded robe, “Then keep your eyes peeled… I’ll show you a crushing defeat and so much more.”
“Sorry, bud. I’m already seeing someone else… and besides, even if I wasn’t, you’re not exactly my type.”
“That isn’t…! Gah, you stupid animal! I wouldn’t dream of lying with you! I was planning to show you this!”
From out of the depths of his crimson garb, the man pulled an ancient, dusty tome. He propped it open, letting his free hand hover above the yellowed, dog-eared pages. His fingers danced around like a mad puppeteer’s, and by some unseen force, those very same pages began to stir on their own. The air around them was stale and stagnant, but the book suddenly looked like it had been carelessly left open on a windy day, pages flying by at a breakneck pace.
The masked man’s dancing fingers halted their crazed dance. He aimed his open palm towards Valerie, licks of flame starting to play across his hand. The hellhound stood agape, having never seen such a display in her relatively young life.
“Oh, I see! You’re a magician! I’ve seen some magic when some lost minstrels swung by my tribe this one time. But they mostly did stuff with cards and stuff, not anything with fire like that.”
“Shut your blithering mouth! This is no paltry trick or illusion!” the mage roared, “This is true, unbridled power! Ancient magics, long forgotten by the common man! The most pure form off the eldritch mysteries that only the most brilliant of minds could unravel! The very gall of an animal like you to compare them to some foolish card trick is-”
The masked man ceased his rant halfway through when he noticed that Valerie’s focus was more on a passing beetle than his spell. The flames around his palm, the embodiment of his anger, coiled together into a large, molten orb.
“Have it your way, dog! Regret your foolishness in hell! Immolation!”
With a whining hiss, the orb launched from the mage’s palm, leaving a cloud of black smoke and yellow sparks in its wake. Val turned her attention to the spell just in time to have it collide with her face. The blast cast the room with a hellish red glow for just a moment, overtaking the shine of the bomb, before leaving Val cloaked in a blanket of raging flame.
The mage’s book snapped shut. A low chuckle escaped from under his mask. Admiring the inferno enshrouding the hound’s kneeling body, he tauntingly wagged a finger at her.
“How does that feel? Spend your last few moments blighting this world in agony, knowing that this is but a small taste of the torment you’ll face in the pits of hell!”
Abruptly, so unconcerned and casually that one could’ve been fooled into thinking she wasn’t facing a man bent on killing her, Val stood back up, chuckling underneath the crackling of the flames.
“Hehehe… sorry, this just really tickles.”
Just like a wet spaniel shaking the water off it’s coat, Val wiggled and fidgeted her entire body at a wild pace. The flames that would’ve reduced a human woman into a blackened crisp flew from her fur. A rain of embers fizzled against the brickwork of the room until the hellhound had totally freed herself from the spell.
The hellhound stretched out her back and craned her neck from side-to-side, sore joints popping as she did so. Still looking about as bored as a strumpet at a nunnery, the hound advanced towards the mage with a toothy grin.
“Sorry~ but I’m fireproof! Why don’t you give up now and-”
Val paused, feeling a violent tingle rush up her leg. She looked down to find her forepaw right over an arcane rune, sketched into the brickwork with a cyan chalk. It began to pulse with a vibrant glow of the same color.
Without giving her time to retreat to safety, a mess of chains shot from the ether and ensnared her entire body. Arms, legs and body were all caught in the trap, snapping together. She was dragged to her knees before mounting a resistance, unable to budge from the spot.
The mage, previously huddled back in fear, stood upright before Val had even hit the ground. His haughty chuckle echoed into Val’s sensitive ears.
“Just kidding.” he taunted, stepping forward with a newfound swagger, “You think I didn’t know what a hellhound is? I used a fire spell to trick you into lowering your guard… to blind you with hubris so you’d thoughtlessly rush forward and fall right into my trap!”
Grumbling and mumbling, Val struggled against the chains. She wiggled, thrashed, tried to force herself forward, but found herself locked firmly into place. Even her bushy, wily tail was bound by an iron cuff.
“The only matter left to settle is how to finish you off. So many spells to choose from…”
Burning eyes followed the audacious mage as he paced around her. He flipped through every page of his tome, clear little eyes peeking from the shadows of his mask and drinking in one deadly incantation after the other.
He was so engrossed by his presumption of victory, so high on his own inflated ego he failed to notice Val’s flaming eyes begin to shoot higher. Not only that, her fierce red pupils burned with an even more hellish light. The mage didn’t even taste the noxious smoke until the heavy stench of smelting metal rushed up his nostrils.
He spun to look at Valerie, watching her stand and yawn, tail wagging free and ears wiggling back and forth. Molten slag from the melted chains rolled off her body, landing in a sizzling pile at her forepaws.
“S-shit… I knew I should’ve reinforced those with tungsten.”
A perplexed look crossed the hound’s face. She tapped a claw on her chin, “Tongue stain?”
“Tungsten, you dribbling buffoon!” the mage roared, utterly fed up with the entire situation, “Bah… no matter. My repertoire of spells extends far beyond the incendiary. All that’s left for me is to-”
The hound closed the gap between them in an instant, and connected her fist to his mask even faster. The porcelain-like material shattered upon the titanic impact, throwing the mage backward with a broken nose and sliced-up sneer.
“You whore!” he choked, blood gushing across his reddened face. He lifted one hand, crackles of amber electricity forming in his palm, “Die! Thunderbolt!”
Valerie braced herself to dodge. Yet, the attack never came. The mage stood still for a long moment, shoulders tensed and back arched, and face twisted. The sparks vanished from his palm when a pained choke left his throat. His tightened body began to slowly unwind. And with that, the mage tilted forward and collapsed.
It didn’t take Val long to deduce what was the cause of his little spill.
Jutting out from the man’s back was a knife. Sleek, perfectly polished, with just a slight curve to it’s blade. It was half jammed next to the man’s spinal cord, and from where it was stuck, it looked like it had stabbed into a lung. Val stared agape at it, watching the orange light from the bomb dance within the poor mage’s fresh blood and off the violet metal of the murder weapon.
Craning her head up, Val found a pair of nefarious cat eyes floating mid air. A smirk followed. Then a flicking tail. Soon, Lorna the cheshire was revealed to Valerie’s glowering eyes.
“Why did you do that?!” the hellhound growled out, the fury clear in her tone.
“Well~ that fight was pretty boring. I decided to just step in and end it myself~”
“Not that! Why did you kill that guy?”
Lorna gave a dramatic roll of her eyes. Valerie was unable to tell if it was exaggerated or the cheshire genuinely despised her presence.
“He was gonna die anyway, mutt. You know, when the dam collapses? He’d be crushed like a bug-” Lorna slammed a fist into the opposite paw as demonstration, “-or drown like a rat.”
“Then why do you want to kill humans? They’re weaker than us. They need to be loved and protected!”
The disgust Lorna wore couldn’t have been a sarcastic exaggeration.
“Some humans, honey. Some. You’re woefully ignorant to hold on that stupid little idea, though. Most humans are rotten, evil creeps who want nothing but to put our heads on pikes. And a handful are strong and clever enough to hold a candle to the best of us.” Lorna said, bending over to retrieve her knife, “You’d have to be a fool not to see that. Not all humans deserve our love, dear~”
“You’re nuts! Just because there are a few rotten eggs out there doesn’t give you the right to go around drowning people ya don’t like.”
Lorna sniffed, seeming to digest Val’s words – and find them pitifully disgusting. She yanked her knife from the Legion mage’s back, flicking off the sticky blood before letting it vanish from her palm.
“If my Jacky and I don’t take them out, they’ll just keep on killing more and more monsters. Is that what you want?” the cheshire spat, her mouth twisting into a lopsided frown.
It was barely noticeable, but Lorna’s keen eyes caught Val’s flames die down just a hair.
“N-no, but I-” Valerie stammered out an excuse, but stopped halfway through, unable to defend herself.
“I’m sure we don’t want to sit here, sip on tea, and argue philosophy~” Lorna chuckled, her lopsided sneer becoming a lopsided grin. She held out an open palm; in the span of a half-second, a comically oversized mallet appeared in the chesire’s paw, “Whaddya say we get down to business?”
Val snapped and snarled, squaring her forepaws and bringing her claws to bear. She waited, body tensed, ears pricked and nose twitching. Her every sense was dancing on a hot wire, watching and waiting with a quiet fire underneath her taut muscles.
Then, the cheshire struck. Without a sound. Without any sign of movement, not so much as a twitch. The violet and black cat simply popped out of reality and reappeared beside Valerie with her mallet cocked back.
The hellhound gasped, raising her furry forearms just in time to put up some semblance of a defense. The heavy wooden head of the cat’s hammer collided with her arms, making Val grunt and snarl at the fierce, reverberating sting it sent racing throughout her entire body. The sheer force sent the hellhound tumbling back, but she was on all fours and prepped to repay the strike in full in no time flat.
But as she turned to throw a quick jab right into Lorna’s smug grin, she found both had vanished yet again. It wasn’t a moment later Val’s sensitive ears picked up a quiet popping sound and a heavy rush of wind. The hound dived out of the way, hearing the ancient stone crack and crumble as Lorna smashed it with her mallet. Whatever that thing was made out of, it wasn’t any sort of standard wood.
Landing and rolling back to a righted position, Val waited for the next strike. She didn’t have to wait long – the mallet came in from the side this time, smashing into her shoulder and sending her stumbling across the room. Val hit the wall, gasping in pain and clutching at her bashed shoulder blade.
One of her eyes was clenched shut, yet both her fires raged higher than ever. With her one open eye, all she could see was a smug cheshire cat merrily playing with her mallet amongst a world of violently flashing red.
Without a doubt, it would be a tough fight to win. But Valerie was a hellhound, and she took no small measure of pride in that. Even if a hellhound lost her dignity, her home, her hope, or even her family, they’d always cling to the last smoldering embers of their savage, unrelenting grit.
Val sat up, her twin flames blasting like a dying star.
Each step took Aaron deeper into the belly of the dam, farther and farther away from his only source of backup. He began to berate himself for foolishly coming there in the first place, but just as swiftly repressed that self-deprecation in favor of focusing on the task at hand.
Val’s kiss was still warm on his lips. It didn’t matter how he had gotten there – he had to see it through, or Douglas, as well as the city of Riak and the many lives within, would be soon-forgotten history.
There were very few soldiers in the second level. All the better for him, he thought with relief drowning out his frayed nerves.
The dam certainly was ancient, that much was for certain. It was a simple, effective, and straightforward design, but one that overwhelmed with its sheer size and volume. As he traversed through the veritable castle of a place, he began wondering just why it was designed with so many spare rooms. Was it meant to double as some sort of estate or keep? He swiftly disregarded the aimless pondering, opting to focus on the task ahead of him, as daunting as it may have been. The lights all around began to grow dimmer and dimmer, nearly suffocating him with an oppressive dark.
Another iron door waited ahead of him. Even if he didn’t have Valerie’s supernatural power, he still found solace in the fact he bore the Legion’s crest. He was sure he could convince any guard that he belonged in the current level– all he’d have to do is point a finger at Jack and Lorna for all the mischief taking place. It might’ve even proved useful. In the best case, the Legion might’ve stopped the albino and werecat themselves.
But then again, they might’ve stopped him and sniffed out his bullshit. Though unlikely, it would’ve been best to avoid them altogether.
Bursting into the next room, he was disheartened to find it chock full of prone legionnaires. His heart sunk even lower in the half second it took him to realize something else – they were all strewn about the floor, just like in the first room of the second story. His heart finally hit rock bottom when he realized that unlike the other room full of incapacitated soldiers, a sleeping potion hadn’t been used.
There was blood, shattered armor, and broken weapons scattered every which way. At the room’s center, with his face shadowed by the magic-infused bomb shining on his back, there stood a man. The legionnaires were splayed all around his feet like so many discarded pieces of trash, and even then, sticky crimson dripped off the blade of his only weapon; it was a small hatchet, clearly intended for woodwork rather than battle.
The enigmatic warrior faced Aaron with a sideways glance and low whistle, “Well, well… what have we here?”
The hatchet man wiped away the blood caking his blade, stepping over and around the bodies strewn about the floor. For the bandit, the only way was forward. Despite that, the warrior slowly sauntering towards him made Aaron want to turn tail and flee. He wheeled backwards until his shoulders hit the cool stone of the wall.
“Oh, c’mon. I ain’t that scary, am I…? Why are ya backing away like I’m some kinda leper? Is it cuz of all these scumbags I killed?” the man let out a mockingly sarcastic sigh, “Try not to judge me too hard, kid. Fellas gotta eat, right?”
The hatchet man sighed again, his exasperation sounding a bit more genuine. He looked down at the nearest corpse at his feet; it was some young corporal, his helm split asunder and his fresh-face soaked in blood, eternally twisted into a visage of shock and terror. Sneering just a bit, as if the man he killed was nothing more than some sore-covered rat he stomped, the hatchet man halfheartedly kicked it out of the way.
To Aaron’s horror, the body flew almost all the way across the room before landing with a macabre thud.
“Ooh, but you weren’t thinking ill of me, were you? Nah, you’re just afraid. After all, I can sniff out a killer whenever I see one…”
Aaron’s shaky eyes darted from over where the corpse landed back to the hatchet man. He stepped out of the light the bomb was casting, letting Aaron finally glimpse his face. Filthy blonde hair splashed with a few strands of silver hung around a face of leathery tanned skin, sharp, hard features, and a strong chin coated in rough stubble… the man had to be in his fifties at least.
His clothing was as drab and unassuming as the blood-soaked hatchet between his calloused fingers. But he wore something else that Aaron couldn’t help but notice. A red bandanna, tied around his scalp.
It all came rushing back to him. For every other tale of Starkard’s exploits he had enthusiastically absorbed and retold, there was another man that caught his interests. The stories of a the son of a simple woodsman who had risen to a heights most could only dream of.
He was the one who had single-handedly defeated the entirety of the Red Chain Knights. The reigning champion of over fifteen fighting pits. He had dug himself out of his own grave and scalped the thug who had the audacity to bury him alive. He had even matched Starkard Valentine in single combat on more than one occasion.
He was the man who had carved his name into the annals of history with nothing but the hatchet in his hand.
“Yup. Thats what they call me, kid.”
The bandit was at a complete and utter lack of words. He stood as rigidly as a toy soldier, his lance and roundshield poised into a proper, albeit kilter stance. The Legion standard lance wasn’t exactly his style, but then again, the claymore he used both hands to wield would’ve drawn more attention than it was worth.
He inwardly stirred up a storm of curses, aimed at both himself, Lady Luck, and the living legend staring him down. He wasn’t supposed to fight anyone but Jack and Lorna if the need arose. Not any legionnaires, and certainly not a bastard who could bring down nearly twenty of them with a small hatchet.
“Boss man said someone who had the Demon God’s own cold eyes would show up. That’d be you, right?”
Aaron’s mind was so addled with fear it took Aaron an embarrassingly long moment to piece things together.
“Jack hired you?”
“Pale little fella with spiky hair? That’s the one.” the mercenary cooed evenly.
“But he’s trying to destroy the dam!”
“What about it? I’ve been around the block, kid, and I’ve seen some pretty wacky shit… but I ain’t ever seen a fella who could run around without some food in his belly. And if you wanna eat, you gotta work. Don’t like it, but… well, the world is anything but fair, right?”
A sudden burst of indignant fury sparked in the bandit’s veins, “Y-you’re supposed to be a hero! What kind of a hero would help flood a town?!”
A small chuckle left Damian’s lips, throwing Aaron for a loop. Soon, that humble little chuckle grew into rumbling peels of laughter.
“I never said I was a hero, kid – not once in my fifty-six years. I don’t have to act like some holier-than-thou blowhard in shiny armor for anyone. Nah. I’m just a nasty motherfucker with a hatchet and empty stomach.”
Aaron’s mind raced for a response. Although he himself still found the idea childish, he thought to appeal to Damian the same way Valerie had to him, “There are civilians down there…! How can you just let their homes flood? And what about all the people still in the city who won’t get away in time?”
Damian laughed once again – but this time, it was a short, almost disappointed chortle.
“Hate to break it to ya, junior, but this is the real world, not some stupid fuckin’ fairytale where everyone and their mother gets a happy end. Conflict happens. People die in the crossfire. Thats life.”
Aaron didn’t have a response. He agreed totally and completely. He didn’t want to be a part of that cycle, but there he was, jumping right in the middle all for the sake of a beastly devil he hadn’t even known for a full week.
And as much as he wanted to, for as much as his instincts and logic screamed at him to flee, he stood his ground.
“I guess we gotta fight now, eh?” Damian grunted, juggling his hatchet from one rough palm to the other, “Don’t worry. I don’t like killing stupid kids like you, but gold is gold, eh? I’ll make it quick.”
Aaron didn’t have time to think. He didn’t have time to barter or reason; his arm barely had time to flinch on instinct and raised up his shield.
The hatchet flew forward faster than a diving falcon; all from a casual flick of Damian’s wrist. The impact knocked Aaron back, the iron and bolted wood of his roundshield shattering upon the impact.
Aaron quickly righted himself, the pounding of his heart nearly smashing his chest against his stolen armor. He tossed away the broken remnants of his shield, using his freed hand to establish a dual grip on his lance.
Damian followed up his attack before Aaron could so much as consider charging him. After breaking the shield, his hatchet spun back through the air, landing neatly back into the mercenary’s palm. It didn’t get to rest for long – Damian lobbed it with a backhanded toss. It spiraled through the air, traveling in an uncannily similar fashion to a boomerang, smashing through the tip of the lance before returning to its owner.
Aaron took a few charging stomps forward before looking down to see the tip of his weapon had vanished. Choking back a horrified gasp, he discarded the broken lance. Quickly backing away, he desperately scrambled for a new weapon.
Between the cold fingers of a face-down lieutenant, he spotted it. A basic longsword. Something lighter than what he was used to, but against an unarmored enemy like Damian, it would serve him well. His ears heard the whistling of the hatchet slicing through the air only a half second later.
He hit the floor, nearly tripping on the still warm body of a legionnaire, a chill creeping down his spine as he felt the grind of the hatchet’s blade against his helm. It flew from his brow, painfully bending his neck back, but he hit the ground uninjured. His fingers snatched the longsword not a second later, and he scrambled back to his feet just in time to watch Damian catch his boomeranging hatchet.
“Ohh. Been a few years since someones dodged one of my attacks. Maybe I am getting rusty… or turning into a geezer faster than I thought.”
Either with anger at being toyed with or his survival instincts kicking into full gear, Aaron abandoned thought in favour of action. His feet stomped the ground like a mad drummer, bounding across the blood soaked floor at record speeds.
Damian didn’t so much as flinch. His hatchet sliced through the air, quickly zipping towards the mad bandit’s throat.
Aaron was ready. Predicting the killing blow, he swung his longsword up in advance. The hatchet carried more force than any blow he had been tackled with before – but it raced down his blade all the same, a grinding screech sounding off as sparks flew. As it flew off, it cut through his chainmail sleeve, callously biting into his flesh underneath.
Yet he didn’t stop, even as the hatchet clattered against the floor, adding his blood to the macabre puddle already pooling around the room. Roaring like a lion, Aaron put his foot atop a particularly large legionnaires’ back, using the cadaver to spring into the air. He swung his blade over his shoulder, ready to bring it down on the unarmored Damian’s scalp and split it wide open.
Damian’s amused smirk vanished. He dodged to the side right before the blade hit, springing back and slamming his fist into Aaron’s temple in the span of a split second.
The bandit’s world flashed white, then red. He had expected to cleave Damian’s skull in twain, but the edge of his sword only met with the stone beneath his feet. With his hands still throbbing and a sharp pain shooting through his head, he collapsed and let his stolen weapon slip from his numb fingers
Everything was spinning in Aaron’s eyes. Even as Damian hauled him up by the wrist, he couldn’t muster enough strength to resist as the mercenary grabbed him from under the armpit and hurled him away. Aaron slammed into the wall, cracking the very stonework from the impact. Pain rocketed throughout his body, but still too detached to make a fuss over it. Instead, he landed roughly on the ground, hearing fractured bones shift and crunch.
Aaron curled up, his breathing shallow and coarse. He felt blood run from between his lips. His gaze, shaky and distant, met the frozen scream of poor legionnaire felled by Damian’s hand not but a few hours ago. It was only a few inches away, it turned Aaron stomach, but he didn’t have the will or strength to push it away.
Fresh blood oozed from the side of his head, pouring into his eyes and blinding him with a curtain of sticky red. It was only then he could feel them slip shut, waiting for the bitter, inevitable end.
“I told you I’d make it quick, didn’t I? But no… you had to be some kind of a tough guy and resist. Well, it’s your own fault, pal.” the merc huffed. Aaron couldn’t see, but in his ringing ears, he could still hear the man stomp across the room to retrieve his hatchet.
More bitter and afraid than he had ever been, Aaron was shocked to find himself almost laughing. But his ribs were cracked, and the unbearable pain stopped him. He never even had the slightest chance of victory.
Valerie wouldn’t be able to stop him. Either she’d be caught up in the dam’s destruction or she’d fall at Damian’s hands. It was at that moment it dawned on Aaron that humans weren’t entirely the frail, weak things that many ancient and current monsters believed. Many rose above their limits, became paragons and legends in their fields. Legends were real.
Damian had proved he had just as much strength and skill as those heroes of yore.
A dark, brooding chuckle rose up from Aaron’s pain-stricken chest. He was dead. Valerie was dead. But worst of all, Douglas would be dead, passing away in the bed of some strange woman slowly and painfully, praying that his big brother would swoop in and save him at the very last moment.
Aaron’s heart raced once again. Despite the pain his body was racked with, he stirred. With every echoing footstep, he could practically feel Damian drawing closer. A cold, throbbing panic settled in his aching chest. Agony and terror begged him to flee, but he didn’t have the strength to answer their pleas.
“That’s what you get for trying to play the hero.” the mercenary sounding disgusted, disappointed and mocking all at once.
Aaron pounded a fist against the ground. He pushed himself up, but another rolling wave of pain throbbed within his broken body. He collapsed, vision violently flashing, the bitter ‘hero’ that had been spat by Damian clawing at his ringing eardrums.
And then, as his forehead harshly connected with the floor, everything went black as pitch.