Captain Felix felt a low rumble in his stomach. Pity or disgust, fear or rage, or a mix of two or more of them, he couldn’t be sure. He was certain that his twenty years serving on the Legion’s front lines had chased out all those raw emotions in favor of a hard, cold professionalism. A bearing so unflappable he’d be able to keep a frosty head in the face of certain, humiliating defeat.
But he couldn’t exactly keep his head cool as he watched the old mercenary plow through his third wave of men with nothing but that damnably unassuming woodworker’s hatchet. With each strike, he sent more and more legionnaires soaring across the dam’s spacious room. Weapons came down like hail; bodies following shortly behind them.
“Where’s our heavy infantry, soldier?” Felix managed to grit out to the horrified lieutenant next to him. Surely, the hatchet man would find a knocking around men equipped in full plate-mail and tower shields more of a challenge.
“They… they were the first ones to challenge him, Captain Felix.” the lieutenant choked out, “He took out the first mage division right after. Not to mention-”
A broken mace landed between the captain and lieutenant, cutting off the former.
“This is ridiculous… we have him completely outnumbered!” Felix growled, hands clenched tightly into fists. He turned an ire-filled glare at Damian. But the smoldering hate in his eyes swiftly iced over into fear as he watched the mercenary swivel around and saunter towards his position, as casual as a blueblood at a ball.
“You wanna know why your little goons can’t beat me?”
Captain Felix was so panic-stricken that he didn’t properly register the question. Choking past the lump in his throat, he managed to croak out.
“Why your troops can’t beat me,” Damian repeated, coming to a stop not a yard away. The bandanna-clad fellow looped two thumbs under the thick leather of his belt, admiring the look of utter resignment and surrender on each of the soldier’s faces. Even as he neared their captain, none left were brave enough to make a move.
Felix felt every hair on his body stand on end; feeling a wave of goosebumps sprout across his skin. Slowly, carefully, fully expecting an unsatisfactory response to result in his death, he shot another question back.
Damian clicked his tongue. He lifted one calloused hand up, motioning to the cowering soldiers all about.
“Honestly, if all of them ganged up on me at once, I probably would’ve gotten creamed. But I’ve fought enough crowds of fodder like these chumps to pick up a neat little trick – take down enough of their vanguard, and they’re already beaten. Even the ones who charged me after the first wave already gave up. They just did it out of some kinda sick sense of responsibility… or the fear made ‘em nuts.”
Felix licked away the nervous sweat gathering above his lip. Shaking with both fear and exhilaration, he jammed a finger towards the mercenary, “You heard him, men! He’s no god! Surround him and he’ll be overwhelmed!”
Felix didn’t hear the stomping of feet or the booming, guttural roars of men charging into battle. Damian grinned smugly, his low, snorting snickers punching through the thick silence.
“A-are you mad? He’s a devil! He’ll kill us!” one red-faced, sweat-drenched legionnaire hollered back at his commanding officer in a textbook show of insubordination.
Another soldier in a similar state cried out in his fellow’s support, “Just sound a retreat already! We’re all going to be slaughtered!”
Agape and aghast, Felix had nothing to say. Most of his men were already discarding their arms, dashing for the exit or dropping to their knees in a show of surrender. The captain felt his heart drop and his spirit sag down like an oil-sodden rag. It was all over.
Then, just as he was ready to flee himself, the very dam under his feet and hanging above his head violently shuddered. Felix was nearly knocked to his ass. His men were in similar positions. Damian remained upright, whistling and staring up towards a fissure cracking across the ceiling.
“Well, well. Looks like it’s time to make tracks.”
With a nimble turn and swiftness ill-fitting of one his age, the hatchet man fled the scene. In no time at all, the dam rumbled once more, filling the air with dust and falling debris. The heart-pounding fear the mercenary had brought with him was replaced by the horrifying realization of the collapsing dam. Some of the legionnaires attempted to help their injured back up. More turned tail and fled without waiting for the order.
Sizable chunks of stone began to avalanche in front of Captain Felix. Throwing himself back, he was caught off balance by the next tremor, which bowled him onto his ass. His trusty lieutenant was quick to rush to his officer’s side, helping him back to his feet.
“W-we failed. The intruders destroyed the pressure regulators.”
The lieutenant stiffly nodded at the grim truth. He looked up the cracked ceiling as he led Felix to the exit.
“I sent a report with a carrier pigeon right before we came down to help. The culprits were some gray-haired kid and a hellhound. We should be able to get a positive identification on them once we get out of here-”
The damn rumbled, as if in protest of their escape. But both the captain and lieutenant managed to keep upright, even as more soldiers began rushing past or tripping over themselves in a desperate panic.
“Who ever he is, he’ll pay dearly for his crimes here…” Felix snarled, his voice so filled with unhinged hatred that the rumbling dam’s seemed paltry in comparison.
Aaron knew he had no hope of removing the debris from between them. At least, not before the dam finally burst and flattened him like a maggot under a boot. That grim reality didn’t stop him from feverishly clawing at the pile, sending mortar and stone flying behind him as he went.
“Can you hear me, Val?!” he called past the pile.
A weighty dread punctured his every nerve. For all he knew, she could’ve been crushed underneath, killed instantly. Just imaging her broken body, crushed beneath thousands of pounds rubble… with bloodied fingers and shaking hands, he sped up his pace. The dam rumbled once again, a deafening reminder of his minuscule and quickly diminishing timeframe to escape.
“Fuck! No! No!” he cried distressed, demanding the dam to stay upright. It continued to fall nonetheless.
Another violent rumble shook the ground, sending Aaron toppling onto a single knee. Bursting back up, he grabbed two handfuls of stones and screamed as loudly as his lungs would allow.
“Val… Val, please!” he begged, at least wanting to hear her voice one last time, “I… I can’t do this without you! My brother needs you!”
He leaned forward until his forehead hit the pile. Clenching his eyes shut to stop the tears, he weakly sank back to the ground, trying to stop himself from sobbing.
“I… I need you…”
“Hehehe… so ya finally admit it, huh?!”
Aaron felt his heart soar, the embarrassment notwithstanding. Breaking out into a stupidly wide grin, he sprung to his feet and called past the rubble.
“Val! Are you alright!?”
“Yup. Sorry… I dodged the bulk of it, but a rock conked me on the noggin. I blacked out for a few seconds there.”
Aaron felt himself chuckling. Happily tapping his palms against the broken stone between them, he poised a hurried question at her, suddenly aware of the fact he was still inside the crumbling dam.
“Do you have a way out, Valerie!? We don’t have much time left!”
He could hear her thoughtfully hum over the distant sound of horrified cries and crumbling rocks, sounding anything but desperate or worried.
“Yeah! I think I could climb up the rubble and go through the hole in the ceiling. But what about you!?”
Aaron couldn’t help but smile again. Now she sounded concerned.
“Don’t worry. I can still take the emergency exit. I’ll meet you outside!”
“Right! See ya soon, babe!”
And with that, he heard her scramble up the rubble, stones rolling out from under her paws and hitting the ground where she once stood. Needing to get a move on himself, Aaron turned and dashed down the hallway.
The exit was clearly in sight, and the path was free of any obstructions. The tremors all around the crumbling structure had increased to a fevered pace, and it was a struggle simply to keep to his feet under him. Pebbles and dust rained down on his shoulders, but a few bumps on his head and a dirty tunic were the very least of his concerns.
The safety of the outside world was singing to him. The dim moonlight beckoned him as he sprinted for it, the fresh, cool air already hitting his lungs and replacing the balmy filth that he had been forced to breath during the entire ordeal.
But suddenly, out of nowhere, he felt his ability to breath cut off entirely. He gasped, reaching for his throat and felt a big, meaty arm covered in an iron gauntlet wrapped around it.
His mind raced. He saw a doorway to the side. Someone had sprang out. They had been waiting for him to pass…
“Gahahaha! I’d knew you’d try to get out this way, ya little shithead!”
It was the burly jailer – the jailer he had knocked out only half an hour earlier. Aaron’s pulse raced, his blood running thin as the grip as he lost more and more oxygen. The jailer tightened his grip, pulling Aaron off the ground entirely. The bandit desperately kicked out his legs, but the jailer’s grip was simply to solid to escape.
“You’ll pay for what you’ve done…” the jailer huffed into Aaron’s ear. The dam around them shuddered violently, nearly bowling both men over.
“Y-you’re… you’re gonna die with me…” Aaron managed to choke out, more in his own disbelief than in warning to the lug of a legionnaire.
He only heard the guard snicker. Of course, that was the plan. His life would be over anyhow. The army would soon be disjointed and scattered, the men either fleeing with shame back to their homelands, many bound to die along the way, or settle down as bandits or mercenaries. The jailer had no such plans. He was going to go down with the ship, and take the one who had sunk it with him.
At least, the one he assumed had sunk it.
Aaron had half a mind to tell the jailer he wasn’t responsible. But even if his constricted throat could force out the words, he doubted the brute would’ve listened anyway. He felt his captor’s grip bear down with all the more power. Aaron let out a choked gasp, his vision starting to flash black.
The resounding boom of the guard’s laughter became a distant echo in Aaron’s ears. Just as he felt consciousness start to slip away, he heard something else – a sharp thwip, and a heavy thunk. The laughter ceased, and Aaron felt the grip on his throat slipping away.
Aaron stumbled forward and braced himself against a wall, the guard behind him tipping over and hitting the ground. Looking back, Aaron saw the dull fletching of an arrow sunk into the jailer’s neck.
Still gasping for air, Aaron peered into the dark. He saw another man approaching, a bow in his hands, the string still vibrating from the force of the arrow it had let loose.
Aaron’s icy-blue eyes went wide, “William?”
It was indeed the insubordinate legionnaire that Aaron had freed. But as dirty as he still was, his entire demeanor seemed to have changed during their time apart. Gone was the hunched mess of a man. Standing tall and proud before Aaron was a handsome fellow with the friendliest grin one could imagine.
“Looks like we’re even, friend.” Will smiled. He placed his bow around his shoulder, using the other hand to help Aaron to his feet, “Lets get outta here.”
What encapsulated Aaron was an odd mixture of jaw-dropping awe and complete, gut-wrenching pity. Aaron watched from as close as he dared on the cliffside; the dam finally crumbled apart, foundations collapsing, no longer able to hold back the river’s torrential flow. The water from the river spilled forth, glistening brilliantly in the orange and purple dawn, before crashing into the town below.
Any small sense of catharsis he tried to wring out of the Legion’s distant cries for divine mercy seemed trivial and cruel. He watched the water roll down, flooding the streets and drowning homes. In a single instant, with a crash and roar that shook the very earth, the river continued on it’s natural path, flooding everything from Riak to it’s bountiful farmlands beyond.
Aaron was unable to stop his own fingers from digging into his palm until they drew blood. He had failed, utterly and miserably. He was sure a few legionnaires had escaped like he had, and they’d carry Jack’s deception with them. The most brutal military on the planet would soon be hunting for his head, and they’d hound him till the earth’s end for it.
Chewing his bottom lip, Aaron wondered briefly just why he had involved himself with the whole debacle in the first place. He would’ve been perfectly safe in the relocation camp the Legion had forced Riak’s monsters and resistance citizenry to a few miles away. He had no money to gain, nor no debt to pay back.
He had done simply because Val had thought it the right thing. And now, everything had gone wrong, the bad tidings stopping just short of his death.
But for the oddest reason, he found his regrets lingering more on the poor townsfolk than himself.
His keen eyes scanned the area below – the bursting dam’s flow seemed to calm, leaving behind a gargantuan waterfall lending itself into a brand new river. The Titan’s Palm was no more, nor were it’s fingers. A single stretch of blue ran as far as he could see southward, riding right into the rising sun.
But as hard as he strained his gaze, he could only spot dots of crimson and various wooden debris in the river. He heard gruff voices of men cry from nearby, but as hard as he strained his ears, he didn’t hear any women, elderly, or children from the town.
“Hey, mister! Don’t worry about the townsfolk! Me and Jacob already saved ‘em all~”
Aaron jumped out of his skin at the sound of a little girl’s voice. He swiveled around, finding three familiar faces beaming at him.
First was the Lady succubus from Gaul, Jeanne. She playfully winked and blew him a kiss, then used the same outstretched hand to point down to the two tykes draped protectively under her wings.
The bandit blinked twice, not believing his own eyes, “Jacob? Millie? What the hell are you two doing here?”
“You’re not too hard to find. You have a very pungent scent~” the succubus cooed.
Aaron took a moment to carefully sniff under his arm, not terribly pleased at the result. He quickly snapped back to the more important matter at hand.
“No! I meant, why do you have those kids with you?”
“I decided to help evacuate the town – just in case you couldn’t save the dam.”
Aaron’s gaze narrowed in on Jeanne, keen with suspicion. Unable to see any ulterior motive on the surface, he accused her directly.
“So, what’s in it for you?”
Jeanne let out a long, melodramatic gasp, every bit the sensationalist she was last time they had met. While Aaron still seemed to sour at her antics, the children at her side seemed to revel in them.
“Why, I never! Sir Aaron, I’m a pure-hearted maiden. It’s only natural for me to do the right thing!”
Through the filter of her theatrical speech and thick accent, Aaron could just barely understand what Jeanne was saying half the time. Yet still, he sensed not even a speck of deception in the lusty demon’s tone.
Perhaps, he thought, monsters really did have some sort of innate, motherly desire to protect the innocent from unneeded death or injury. Even if she seemed to somehow scavenge some sadistic glee from it, Lorna seemed to think she and her boyfriend’s atrocious actions would benefit the world in the long run.
The bandit’s cold eyes flitted back over to Jacob and Millie, figuring he’d better get back to the more important matter at hand, “And the kids?”
“My charm spells may not work well on large scales, or those with strong willpower… but everything can be whittled away, even a man’s will~ crying, pleading children are hard to turn down, after all.”
Aaron looked a bit closer. He saw the little boy and lizard girl’s cheeks were still wet with what he could only assume were crocodile tears. They snickered up at him, both wearing cheeky little grins.
“So you weren’t…” Aaron trailed off, trying to find the right words – something firm, but not accusatory, “Y’know… plotting something weird with them? I ain’t tryin’ to point fingers at anyone, but…”
Jeanne cut him off with a high-pitched gasp. Aaron was nearly blown back as she advanced upon him, jamming a finger into his nose.
“I would never! How dare you even suggest such a thing?! Do I look like one of those demented little Sabbath cronies to you?”
“Err… I… guess not?” Aaron replied coyly, suddenly finding himself on the defensive, “I don’t even know what a Sabbath is, to be honest…”
Jeanne pouted, turning her back and gently patting the children atop their heads. Aaron didn’t receive the chance to press Jeanne further on the subject.
Knowing both the cry and nickname all too well, Aaron’s muscles acted upon memory. Bracing himself for impact, he was able to keep to his feet when Valerie crashed into him. He spun about, tottering around, threatening to tip over into the grass as Val planted an affectionate storm of licks and kisses on his face.
“Whoa, whoa!” Aaron cried, trying to retain his balance. It was difficult, especially as the mischievous laughter of the succubus and the two children near them mockingly reached his ears.
She did eventually calm down, the beat of her tail calming somewhat. Unfurling her warm legs from around his waist, she stood facing him, her padded paws forcing their eyes together. Aaron’s lips went dry as he saw the small traces of joyful tears roll down her cheeks, steam rising from her wisps of flame as they met.
“…I’m so happy you’re safe, babe.”
She planted her head into his chest, and Aaron was left agape as he felt her ears twitch against his pectorals. All at once, her all-encompassing heat blanketed him. As his worries and stresses melted away, he couldn’t help but smirk and gently scratch between her ears, using his other hand to rub the small of her back.
The tender moment lasted just long enough for Aaron. Valerie pulled away, the concerned look on her face putting him ill at ease. She looked out to a budding tree, staring cautiously at the mauve-haired archer who rested in it’s shade.
As the man attempted to break through his nervous shell with a friendly grin, Val looked to Aaron and cocked an acquisitive claw at him.
“Who the heck is that purple dude?!”
Jack angrily chewed into the chunk of beef at his plate. He took special care in telling the serving wench that he wanted it cooked thoroughly. And yet, as he lifted his fork, he found the cube he had cut out more bloody red than his scarlet eyes.
He decided to forgo his usual table manners, ignoring the napkin at his side and licking away the juice running down his lips. What he didn’t catch was wiped away by the back of his sleeve. Using his knife to tap an uneasy rhythm against his plate, he studied the tavern around him.
A more high-end place than the others in Graeme. A bit cleaner, with a more active filter on the clientele. That still didn’t stop it from having watered-down booze and horrendous service.
But more importantly, it’s lighting was dim and it’s patrons sparse. Making sure no one spotted him, the albino rapped his knuckles against the empty seat at the booth he was situated in.
He heard the air pop, then rush by as a girl landed next to him. But there weren’t any low, haughty giggles. Nor was there any fuzzy tail playfully combing his shins, not to mention no grabby paw reaching for his unmentionables.
“Whats wrong, Lorna?” he whispered between bites.
“Its… well… someone started evacuating the town while we were setting the bombs. That moron and his mutt must’ve had a friend somewhere.”
“Anything else…?” Jack urged her to continue, his keen observational skills sensing a lapse in her unusually brief and stoic report.
“Well… oh geez…” Lorna inhaled a sharp breath, sounding as downtrodden as she could be, “Word got out to the prince’s men. He must’ve had a runner planted in town that came to warn him before the dam burst. The manor flooded, but the rich boy and his goons were long gone.”
Jack circumvented his fork entirely. Letting it’s prongs clatter against the porcelain below, he stabbed into the steak with his knife and chomped out a giant chunk, letting it’s moist juices run freely down his chin.
“That sly little bastard… didn’t figure him sharp or humble enough to have a backup plan just in case he failed.”
Swallowing what he had in his mouth, Jack exhaled through his nose and grumbled. He absently prodded at his thick slice of beef with his knife, seeming to mull over the previous day’s events. His scarlet eyes stared onward, focusing on the tavern beyond with a feverish intensity.
“Jack…? I’m sorry…”
“Don’t be.” Jack finally said, sighing as he picked his fork back up, “It’s my own fault. I underestimated the fool’s guile… or his social skills, at any rate. We may not have killed the prince, but the sliver of what’s left of his men are scattered and panicked. He’ll be forced to flee back to his father’s feet in shame, beg for a second chance. And I’m sure the monsters that were booted from Riak won’t take kindly to those left in the city who betrayed them. All-in-all, I’d say this mission was worth the trouble.”
She was invisible to the naked eye, but Jack could almost sense Lorna grin – they had spent that much time together. He did feel the rush of wind as she happily swished her tail and pumped her paws up and down, though.
“Great! So, what about that Aaron fella? He should still be nearby. I can go find him and slit his throat tonight if that’s what you-”
Again, Jack could see her double-take in his mind’s eye.
“Cuz’.” Jack mouthed through another chew of steak, “How many times have I beaten you in chess?”
The confusion radiated from the invisible pussycat. While she didn’t exactly see how it factored into the current topic, Lorna answered regardless.
“Forty-five. Oh, but I nearly got ya that last time~!”
“And why, exactly,” Jack postured as he swallowed, “Do you lose so often? I remind you after each game.”
Things began to click together in the cheshire’s mind. He felt a knowing grin consume her cheeks.
“Even a single pawn can turn the tide in a game of chess~”
“Right. And considering how hard and often the Legion is starting to push itself onto other territories, I’d say this is looking to be long game. That Aaron is a unique specimen… he’s smart and strong, but one of the most tunnel-visioned fools I’ve ever come across. I told Damian to let him live for a reason. Even if the bastard is clever enough to find the cheese at the end of a maze, he’s too blind to realize when he’s playing right into enemy hands. Not to mention his little pooch. No doubt she’d follow him off the edge of a cliff. We play our cards right, those two could prove to be quite helpful.”
A wicked smirk passed Jack’s lips. He let his fork fall against his empty plate, dabbing away at his chin with his napkin.
“Even if its just to take a killing blow for their king and queen.”