Aaron found himself light-headed and floating. The universe seemed to dissolve into a dark, formless, and endless miasma. It buzzed with the same intensity as a swarm of hornets, but swiftly waned and calmed, the storm passing before it had even began. A distant hum in his ears grew louder and louder, the sound rushing in all at once from nowhere at all.
He felt himself blink, but found no difference between the darkness of his closed eyes and the bleak void that imprisoned him. Then, when he let his himself breathe, it all came rushing back to him. Tiny little dots of light pricked along the void, like so many twinkling stars. They all became nothing but a blur of brilliant-white movement as he felt the entire universe rush past until the darkness faded. Even the blinding light that replaced it eventually faded, finally giving way to a dusky orange sky.
It was a cool day in fall. Just on the outskirts of a hillside town, a boy’s booted feet trampled the unkempt grass as he stamped purposefully ahead.
Taking the flat topped stump ahead as his cue, the boy leapt into the air. The wind tugged at his iron-gray hair as he soared, before sticking the landing right on the stump, landing crouched on a single knee. Laughing triumphantly, the boy slowly rose, his little fingers wrapping around the hilts of the crude wooden swords at both sides of his hips.
“Gahaha!” he cheesily guffawed, clearly forcing his voice down as low as he could manage, “The Grim Reaper of Justice, Starkard Valentine, has arrived… soon, the Dark Mage Agnihim’s schemes shall be put to an end!”
Cool blue eyes shining, he looked to the little boy huddled in front of him. Drawing his sword and aiming it skyward, the iron-haired boy bellowed with all his might.
“And what says his most trusted companion, Richard the Swift!?”
He was a weaselly little boy, with bronze skin, honey-colored eyes and wispy hair the rich color of cocoa. The raggy burlap he wore performed poorly for hiding his lean, boyish muscles so he instead wore a woolen cloak around his shoulders to protect himself from the elements.
“He says he’s tired of this stupid game.”
The other boy’s toy sword and smile dropped at once, “Whaaaaat? Are you serious, Nathan?”
“Dead serious.” the smaller boy sighed, starting to sit up, “We’ve played this for the last three weeks. C’mon, Aaron, aren’t you tired of it yet?”
“Hrmh… maybe just a little bit.”
Aaron jumped off the stump, looking over his shoulder, “What about you, Miles? Are you tired of it?”
The two boys waited patiently, staring with expectancy at a pine tree. Responding to their intent gazes, a small whimper rounded the tree’s trunk. Not long after, a small, freckled face framed by a head of curly auburn hair peeked around the corner.
“I- I really don’t want to play anymore… please don’t make me…”
Aaron cocked a brow, “What’s wrong with you, Miles? Why are you hiding like that?”
Eyes towards the dirt, Miles slowly tip-toed towards the other boys. So meek and sheepish were his steps, the fallen leaves couldn’t be heard as he trampled them underfoot. He stopped before the iron-haired boy, almost flinching under his deep frown.
“Hmm…” Aaron hummed, a sliver of ice creeping into his voice, “You don’t want to be Agnihim anymore, right?”
Gulping down any apprehensions he had, Miles slowly shuffled out into the open, “Well… I was just thinking… Maybe this time, I could be Starkard…?”
Aaron’s little nose twitched upon his sharp intake of frustrated breath. He stuck his thumb towards his puffed chest, “No way! Is that some sort of joke? I’m the biggest and the toughest. So I’m the leader, and I’m the hero!
Taking lurching stomps forward, Aaron didn’t stop until Miles shrank away from him. Sitting up, Nathan waltzed between the two, wearing an expression far too exhausted and jaded for one his age.
“Alright, alright.” the honey-eyed boy sighed tiredly, “Lay off him, Aaron. Seriously.”
“Y-yeah…” Miles added, peeking from behind Nathan’s shoulder “You can be such a jerk sometimes… I just want a turn.”
“Shuddup!” the now scowling Aaron callously demanded, “You’re lucky we even hang out with you at all, you little pussy!”
The shine of unshed tears began welling up in Miles’ eyes. With quivering knees and shaky feet, the redheaded boy slowly turned away and then began to run off. The weight of guilt had barely settled itself in Aaron’s chest just before his friend turned tail and took off.
The crying, shivering child didn’t go far – not before he tripped over an overgrown root, sending him tumbling into the grass. Aaron and Nathan weren’t far behind, the latter helping him back to his feet. But Miles bawled on, snot dripping from his nose and tears streaming down his cheeks. It was unsightly, but Aaron’s conscience was railing against him too hard for him to make an issue out of it.
“Miles, sorry about that.”
The redheaded boy stayed silent, knees to his chest and eyes at the ground. Aaron stood tall over him, arms folded tightly. The gray-haired youth tensely watched the last two leaves fall from a branch overhead, falling to the will of the breeze.
“S’okay.” Miles sniffled, rubbing at his puffy eyes.
The taller of the two boys grumbled. It obviously wasn’t alright, and even with the tiny scraping of social grace he had, he knew he had to rectify the situation somehow. With only way he could think of, he pulled out a small hard candy wrapped in dirt-smudged paper.
“…here.” Aaron squeaked, clearly not used to admitting he was in the wrong. He tossed the candy into Miles’ lap, whose face lit up.
“Thanks. I-I appreciate it.”
Miles wasted no time in ripping the paper open. He wasted even less time in devouring the sweet little confection. Watching his friend chomp down on his candy, Aaron’s empty stomach rumbled in protest.
“Hey…” he said, turning towards Nathan, “How ‘bout we go find something to eat?”
The baker’s shop was smelled long before it was seen. That was just fine for the boys. They knew its location by heart, but the sweet scent of baking goodies still wafted across the streets and called out to them all the same. Letting that temptation be their guide, they slithered through the shadows and approached the humble little building from behind.
White smoke billowed from it’s chimney, and its charming, rustic brickwork reminded the boys of the scenic homes they didn’t have. But bitter regret wasn’t on their mind – they were too busy imagining the soon-to-be fullness in their bellies.
As usual, the back window was open. The boys huddled below it, forming a semi-circle in the shop’s long shadow. Nathan went first – Aaron stood right under the window, boosting the thinner boy up and inside. Miles, a bit more timidly, came next, Nathan having to grab the redhead by the hand and drag him inside. With both his friends ready to assist him, Aaron jumped as high as he could, his partners in crime grabbing either of his arms and helping him climb inside.
The first step of the plan had gone off without a hitch. They looked about the storeroom they found themselves in, trying to ignore the stench of the coal and burned loafs the baker was trying to air away. The boys navigated through a maze of crates and flour sacks with a practiced caution. Poised like cats, but sneaking like rats, they entered the main body of the shop.
There, just sitting temptingly behind the counter, were rows and rows of freshly baked bread. A slow day, evidently – but that was just fine for the boys. More for them to plunder. Each of them plucked as many loaves as they could hold, stashing them away in their raggy clothing.
“Hehehe… like candy from a baby~” Aaron chuckled, stuffing a wrapped loaf into his patchwork trousers.
“Y-yeah…” Miles agreed with a nervous stutter.
“Shh…! We don’t know if the old man is still here.” Nathan shushed the two, holding two boney pointer fingers to both his friend’s lips.
After nabbing at least twenty coppers worth of bread, the boys slid towards the exit like a trio of giddy ghosts. They retraced their steps back through the labyrinth of boxes and flour sacks, the scent of freshly baked bread now a constant in their noses.
As they rounded the last stack of flour bags, all three of their wildly pumping hearts dropped into their stomachs like stones.
The window, their ticket in and out, had been closed and locked tight.
A thundering stomp echoed from behind them. Sauntering menacingly forward, his large jiggling belly barely contained by his flour-stained tunic and apron, was the baker.
“Well, well.” the fat baker sneered, the dim light in his storage room playing menacingly against the kitchen knife in his sausage like fingers, “Looks like I just caught the little sneaky rats…”
Aaron put on his bravest face, but it was betrayed by the heavy quiver shaking his body. Miles shuffled behind the other two, tears once again streaming down his cheeks uncontrollably. Even Nathan’s bronze skin began to glisten with nervous sweat as he inched back from the baker.
“You little shits have stolen a lotta money from me, ya know? How do you intend to pay me back?”
Miles began to blubber and sob, tucking his face into the tensed muscles of Aaron’s back.
“C’mon, man… we’re just kids…” Nathan tried to plead with the baker, “We were hungry, and we have no parents to take care of us…”
The baker’s expression seemed to soften for a moment, “Is that so…?”
But just as suddenly, a wicked grin spread across his fat face, “Then no one’s gonna miss you little street rats then, eh? I intend to get back that money from all the bread you’ve stolen one way or another. I know a nice slaver who just loves naughty little tykes like you three lil’ shits.”
The very earth seemed to shake as the fat man threw his weight forward, trying to get a meaty palm around Aaron’s throat. Thinking on his feet, Aaron ducked under the fingers before the clamped down, grabbing hold of Miles’ wrist and charging forward. Nathan was just as quick to react; but he did so in a more aggressive way.
The honey-eyed boy drew a rusty knife from the depths of his raggy cloak. Sliding forward, he slashed at the back of the fat man’s knee, cutting through his thin trousers and slicing into flesh. Crying out in pain, the baker collapsed under his own heavy weight.
The trio of boys tried to flee for the exit, but the baker struggled back to his feet far faster than they expected. Whether this was because of anger or adrenaline was uncertain. Roaring and snarling, the butcher pursued, then pushed against an empty stack of crates. Like dominoes, three rows of heavy wood pushed each other over and collapsed before the exit.
Nathan was the quickest to react; instantly changing directions and fleeing in the opposite direction. Aaron couldn’t stop in time, but slammed an open palm against one of the wrecked boxes and quickly changed course. Miles was made of softer stuff than his friends, and he was slower than both at reacting to the new danger and join Aaron and Nathan. Now lagging behind, his little heart pounded as he felt the baker’s massive frame limping up from behind.
They dashed out of the storeroom, Nathan stopping short just as they hit a bend in the hallway. There was a set of stairs leading up, leaving them no choice but to scramble up to the second floor in a desperate gamble for escape. Nathan set his foot atop the first step, looking over his shoulder to check if his friends were still behind him.
Given that second to catch up, Aaron was right by his side. Miles was further behind, but with an empty hallway ahead of him and a terrifying baker behind him, the redheaded boy managed to increase his already frantic pace.
Nathan turned, dashing alongside Aaron. The boys ascended the steps. The baker wasn’t a moment behind, his fat body shaking the entire house as it slammed into the wall flush with the base of the stairs. Through angry gasps of pained breath, he struggled up the stairs, paying no mind to the small knife-wound on his leg. He was far too full of bestial anger to care about that.
Aaron and Nathan spotted their escape route at once. It was almost too convenient; like some god had taken pity on the boys and decided to aid them.
At the very end of the second story, at the end of a narrow hallway, there was a small rectangular window. Not only that, but the naked branch of a tree outside scraped the window, like it was hurriedly beckoning the boys to climb down it’s thick trunk. And like to hammer in the point of it being a gift from on high, there was a small table right below it. A perfect height to climb up and out.
It didn’t take Nathan long to react. The window wasn’t glass, but a thin weave of twine. The little rogue wasted no time in hopping up and slashing it with his pocket knife. He forced his body through the cut, breaking it open and leaving him free to hop onto the branch outside.
Aaron was next, red-faced and panting as he hopped atop the table and sprang up to the window. As his fingers met the seal, the blood-curdling panic leaped from his pounding heart, replaced by an ecstatic, adrenaline-fueled high.
That all ended when he tried to pull himself up and failed, feeling his right leg anchored in place.
First, confusion. He noticed a set of thin little fingers around his ankle tighten. Then, he heard a mousy little squeak and choked sob from behind. That’s when he looked back and let the panic rush back into him all at once.
Miles was caught in the air, clinging to Aaron’s ankle as the baker’s held both of his in an iron grip. The little redheaded blubbered and sobbed, his entire body uncontrollably shaking and shivering.
“Help me…!” he begged Aaron, trying in vain to pull himself closer, “Please…!”
Aaron’s pupils shrank as his throat tightened. His racing heart pounded in his chest as time seemed to crawl, and his mind kicked into overdrive. That picture carved itself into his skull – Miles, face as red as his hair, crying and begging for his life. The baker behind him, enraged into a similarly bright shade of crimson. Blue veins throbbed on his forehead as he pulled back, threatening to yank both of them back into his shop.
The iron-haired boy quickly came to a realization. If he didn’t get Miles off of him soon, they’d both fall mercy to the slaver the baker had promised them to.
Aaron knew full well what the dauntless Starkard Valentine he so flippantly impersonated would’ve done. He wouldn’t have hesitated to let go and throw himself into danger for the sake of his friend’s safety. But he wasn’t Starkard. His grip only tightened around the windowsill. But the butcher’s grip was simply too strong. Even as Nathan crawled over and tugged at Aaron’s wrists, the little rope of bodies remained locked in a quickly crumbling stalemate.
Nothing mattered to Aaron at that moment except his own survival. He discarded what little he had for it. Without hesitation, without thought, without even a shred of guilt or remorse, he bent his left leg up to his chest.
Miles was too caught up in the moment, to paralyzed with fear to see it coming. It didn’t even rightly register with him when the boot came crashing down, crushing his nose. Aaron pulled his foot back, looking to find Miles’ still clinging on, his bloodied face still reeling in pain and confusion on just what was happening.
Yet still, his grip on Aaron’s ankle remained. So the little marauder kicked again. And again. And again and again.
It was only after the fifth time Aaron smashed his foot into his friend’s face did he see the look of realization on Miles. It only took a moment, too short for the baker or Nathan to even process was happening, but it all unfolded at a snail’s pace to Aaron. Beyond the bloody, bruised, and mashed up mess, Aaron spotted his friend’s reaction.
There wasn’t any more confusion. There wasn’t hatred. There wasn’t even any anger. There was just pain and grief.
Aaron felt the grip around his ankle slip. Gritting his teeth, he smashed his boot into Miles a final time, at last knocking him off and into the fat baker’s meaty arms. The tension let him fly like a rock from a sling, making Nathan tumble back and drag Aaron with him. The weight of both boys was too much for the branch to handle, and as they rolled atop it, it snapped with a dry crunch.
They fell to the ground, reds, oranges and browns becoming a swirling typhoon around them as the crashed through each layer of twigs and leaves, right until they collapsed into the bushes below. They were both dazed, bruised all over and sore to the bone, but relatively uninjured.
Aaron didn’t give Nathan time to scold him. As he laid panting in the bush, his heart exploded under the full weight of what he just done. Tears filled his shaking vision. Stumbling out like a drunkard, he stumbled away. As his bearings returned to him, he began to break out into a run. He didn’t care where; he didn’t care how far.
His tears blinding him he just ran far, far away.
Aaron gasped, the numbing pain of emotional trauma mixed with the twisted sting of physical ailments. His tears faded; his eyes weren’t wet with anything but his blood. He struggled back to his feet, his fractured ribs screaming at him to stay down.
He swayed back and forth. It was a struggle not to collapse to his knees, but he managed to stay upright. Wiping away the flow of red blinding him, he was met by Damian’s smug smirk.
“Still alive, kid?” Damian laughed, playfully juggling his hatchet around, “Still wanna play hero?”
Aaron’s cracked lips parted. First came a pained wheeze for breath. Then came a mumble and dribble of blood. But on his third try, even with the screaming agony that came with every word, he forced out what he needed to say.
“No… I’m… I’m no hero…”
Aaron paused, his eyes glossing over. His swaying increased, and it became a herculean task just to not collapse. But he stayed up, refusing to bend to Damian. The mercenary seemed to squeeze even more laughs out of the bandit’s struggle.
“Wait, wait, wait… lemme guess…” Damian chuckled, sounding almost giddy, “’I’m no hero, and I never wanted to be one. I just do whatever I think is right and fight for my friends!’” he mocked in a crude approximation of Aaron’s voice.
“No. You’re wrong about that last bit.” Aaron laughed, exhausted, “I… I’ve always wanted to be a hero. Why wouldn’t I? You don’t think I wanted to save the world from some evil wizard? Travel around the world and meet new friends along the way? Have the bards sing about my adventures to little kids…? Hahaha… but… but I could never do that.”
Aaron had to pause yet again, the dull ache of his ribs beginning to fade. But that was only due to his every other sense also fading, his own voice starting to sound distant and tinny in his ears.
“I’m a coward. I’m afraid of dying; and even more afraid of being alone. I’m so scared of being alone I’m willing to kill innocent people to avoid it.”
Damian cocked an interested brow, “That so?”
The last vestiges of resistance were slipping from his limp fingers. Aaron could feel the sweet release of unconsciousness starting to creep into his mind. In the back of his buzzing, addled mind, the realization he wouldn’t wake up from his next sleep hit him. But even the shock of that was dulled.
Flashing reds stalked around the corners of his vision; the entire room before him flashing black every so often. He could feel himself teetering back and forth, taste the coppery tang of blood as it ran down his forehead and onto his cracked lips. He tried with the little strength he had remaining to hold onto consciousness. He highly doubted Damian would spare him the next time.
But the harder he tried to hold on to that tiny sliver of clarity, the harder it became and the deeper he slipped. It was like holding onto a lone metal bar above a black pit – only the bar was slick with oil, and with every second, with each desperate grasp up, you only fell further down.
The last few sparks of light in his eyes started to fade. Even Damian vanished. The world was black. Spinning. He could feel himself falling, helpless to stop it from melting away. He felt his whole reality fade, yet he relived each event leading up to his present situation.
His miserable childhood. His teenage years, plagued with struggle and sorrow. Soon, his fledgling adulthood replayed all the memories that he now regretted making. All the hearts he broke. All the life he took and wasted…
Then, it slammed into him with a force he couldn’t have imagined even mere weeks ago.
Val’s smiling face, brimming with joy and spirit. Douglas, the last smolder of hope and love still shining in his little blue eyes. The two of them together, smiling up at him, like one big family.
Aaron couldn’t stop the hot tears from rolling down his cheeks. His back straightened, the pain and fatigue assaulting him was sent flying to the distance. His body shivered, but with gritted teeth and a fire in his very soul, Aaron didn’t just manage to stop himself from collapsing, but stomped forward. He heard Damian coo in mock admiration – that only further spurred him to fight on.
“It doesn’t matter if I’m good or evil! It doesn’t matter if everyone in the whole damned world spits on my name!” Aaron roared, the faded pain in his ribs acting like oil in an pitfire, “The only thing that matters now is if I’m his hero! If I’m her hero!”
Damian looked confused, but just for a moment. With a low whistle, he lightly clapped one hand into another.
“Oooh. How noble. Well, Mr. Hero, come prove how much the power of love and friendship and rainbows and ponies makes you sooo much stronger than me. Ha! Give it up, kid. You can barely move, much less-”
Aaron slammed his fist into Damian’s nose before he could finish. But he didn’t let up there. Even with his fractured ribs, nearly concussed state, and multitude of lacerations, he pushed himself forward like a blood-drunk berserker. His fists flew like a raging maelstrom, repeatedly meeting the merc’s face with more power and speed than Aaron had ever mustered in his life.
His vision was flashing red. He could only feel desperation and rage, the overwhelming pain and fear ramming against his defenses with the force of a thousand siege engines. If Aaron had his full bearings, he would’ve compared hitting Damian’s face to attempting to outbox a solid wall. But his fists keep flying, even as his knuckles began to burst open and run red.
A hard left hook, followed by a battle roar and powerful right jab. He saw Damian’s head snap back, a trail of blood running from a single nostril. Surging forward, clawing for the final blow, Aaron squared his feet and threw a wild haymaker right at Damian’s neck…
His wrist was promptly caught in a grip, and crushed until it cracked. The agony finally snapped Aaron out of his berserk trance. The stress from his previous injuries all came collapsing in on him at once. He fell to both knees, throat too hoarse to even cry out.
“Well, that was anticlimactic.” Damian sniffed, using the back of his wrist to wipe away his nosebleed.
Aaron could only whimper and groan, grasping at his shattered wrist.
“Tsk-tsk… now, just stay down and-”
A final act of rebellion was all Aaron could hope to do. He shot from the ground, slamming his forehead into Damian’s. His insurmountably powerful foe was stunned by the sheer suddenness of the blow, meaning Aaron was free to land a solid punch to the throat with his good hand.
The bandit cocked back his fist again – thrust it forward, planning to leave Damian with a broken nose as a final memento before his untimely death. Problem was, the hired blade had a similar plan.
The sheer hitting power and ludicrous speed of Damian’s punch far outstripped Aaron’s own. The last thing Aaron felt was his jaw snap and neck crack. He collapsed to the ground, blood spurting from his lips and his limbs twitching like a stomped roach.
“Yeah… and stay down, ya persistent little fuck!”
Damian’s victory slowly faded away as he stared down at the soon-to-be corpse. The rusty gears under his bandanna clad scalp began to sluggishly grind together, matching the pace of the pressure regulator nearby.
Then, the old merc’s eyes bugged out.
“Fuck! I got too serious! I wasn’t supposed to kill him!”
Pacing back and forth, Damian violently scratched at his stubble-coated chin, deciding on just what to do. After a few glances down at Aaron’s twitching body, it suddenly hit the mercenary that he wouldn’t have much time before the decision was made for him.
“I still have this…” Damian mummered, thumbing a vial that was tucked away into a utility pouch at the small of his back, “That’d put me down on a good bit of cash, though… nearly as much as that little bastard is paying me…”
The soldier of fortune grumbled in annoyance, torn at what to do. The young man’s imminent death would either put a dent in his wallet or a gash in his pristine reputation.
“Don’t know why Jack wants ya alive, kiddo. But that ain’t any of my damned business.” Damian grumbled, biting out the stopper on the vial, “I got a professional image to protect.”
Dipping his fingers under Aaron’s head, grabbing him by the hair, he tilted his head up. The squelch of torn flesh and cracked bone shifting from its proper place was an all too familiar sound for the hatchet man. However, it was the first time in recent memory that it bothered him.
Forcing Aaron’s dislocated jaw into a somewhat stable position, Damian put the vial up the younger man’s lips and poured it’s contents down his gullet. It was thick like syrup with a lime-green color, seeming to glowed with a soft golden sheen. The halo of light was soft buttery and warm, yet the shimmer could be clearly seen through the muscle and skin of the bandit’s throat as it went down.
With an unsettled grimace and furrowed brow, Damian propped himself back on his feet. He stared intently down at Aaron, his foot tapping rhythmically against the floor. A few seconds later, the elixir kicked into it’s full impressive effect.
First, his entire body, starting with the chest, was cloaked in a rising mist of glimmering gold. Next, the dull fogginess in Aaron’s visage was consumed by a new fire, raging skywards, a brand new wave of tenacity flaring in the endless ice of his eyes. It blazed onward, spreading from the weakened embers, sparking with a tenacity and hunger for life.
His jaw popped back into place, and his neck followed the lead shortly afterward. The fractured bones in his wrist and ribs came back together with ease. All over his broken body, under his cracked and blood-splattered Legion mail, his bruises and lacerations were patched up.
The bandit’s grossly unfitting halo left him the instant the elixir had run its course. What was left was a stunned bandit staring blankly up at the ceiling. The ragged, shallow breathing was the only sign he was still among the living. And the blood splattering his face and stolen armor were the only traces of his crushing defeat.
“Don’t worry, kid. Can you hear me? If ya can, you’re still in shock. That’ll happen… and all the healing magic in the world can’t help that. Eh… actually, it probably could. But I haven’t bought any potions for that, so just bear with it for now.”
Aaron didn’t respond. Hissing like a kid who just broke an old toy, Damian approached the bandit and relaxed himself onto his knee. The merc removed a bandanna from his utility belt, another crimson one that looked to be an exact match for the one around his head.
“Yup. Sorry ‘bout that. I ain’t too bad a guy… least, I don’t think I am. I’m pretty much the standard merc. Don’t kill women or tykes. Just soldiers or bastards have it coming. I mean, is that any different from what the hangman does? I just cut out the middleman.”
As if too apologize for his actions, Damian used his spare bandanna to wipe away the red staining Aaron’s face. The stains caused no change in it’s color.
A quadrant of legionnaires rudely burst in, three infantrymen guarding a crossbowman who positioned himself to lay down a spread of bolts.
“In the name of the Grand Army of the Imperial Legion, die for your crimes!” cried the leading soldier.
Damian didn’t bother to emote, nor did he dignify their attack by turning to meet them. With a casual backhanded toss, he sent his hatchet soaring through the air, breaking past the defenses of all three of the lancers and tearing open each of their throats. They collapsed, gurgling and flopping like gutted fish. The crossbowman wasn’t foolish enough to hazard firing a returning shot – he was sure the mercenary would just catch the bolt between his teeth and spit it back out with thrice the force. Slinging his weapon over his back, the surviving soldier took off back from where he came.
“Whelp, that’s my cue. The Legion already wanted my head on a platter, I got no qualms about them adding this little debacle to my list of offenses. I’d better go hold ‘em off before they all start rushing up here and messin’ up the bosses’ plans.”
Aaron coughed twice, gasping for breath. His eyelids flickered and fluttered, trying adapt to the low light. He barely was able to register what was happening… but he did notice the warm, wet cloth on his face, and the imposing mercenary towering above him.
“Good luck, kiddo. Oh – and keep the bandanna as a little keepsake. I’m expecting great things outta ya.”
Aaron dragged himself up just in time to watch Damian take off. He slammed the iron door behind him, leaving a skull-rattling echo behind.
The bandit was unsure what to think. Not of the mercenary, not of his parting words, and not of the bandanna on his cheek. He stumbled to his feet, catching his bearings – he stuffed the bandanna into his pocket, then ambled over to the regulator, his vision still blurred and unfocused. He let the grinding of archaic gears guide him over to the bomb, which he promptly twisted and removed. The mystic heat of the explosive helped jolt him back into the waking world.
Aaron took a deep breath of stuffy air. The shaking in his knees calmed. He felt his body and focus tighten, fighting on despite his confused and turbulent mind.
Somehow, he was still alive and well. And he still had a job to finish.