Aaron was peeved off by a great number of things. Somewhere in the middle of that long list, having to repeat himself over simple matters was one of them.
“Y’know, Will… you paid me back from saving me from that jailer. You really don’t have to come with me.”
“Yeah, I don’t… but I want to.” the archer shot back with a speed suggesting he expected Aaron’s urging.
The bandit snarled in return, feeling that having to repeat himself was starting to climb it’s way up his long list of grievances. The day around them was pleasantly cool for summer, a long string of clouds conveniently hovering between their camp and the sun, and a pleasant breeze rolling it’s way through the hills. The earth was still moist from the terrible storm, but that only made it easier to drive the stakes for their tents into the ground.
Tents, plural, the chagrined bandit thought. Aaron’s fingers clenched the leg of his trousers, looking to the smaller one pitched some distance across from the one he and Valerie had started sharing. It was just far enough to be considered within the same camping space, not too subtly suggesting the emotional distance between them. In the middle, the two men sat next to an unlit fire pit.
“But why?” Aaron asked, clearly annoyed. He’d appreciate any help he could he get, but Will’s tagging along swiftly proved awkward and tense for the bandit. They had saved each others lives, but the archer had little reason to stay with him. Even less reason to continue sticking his neck out for a man’s brother he had never met. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Aaron was reminded that he had just as little reason, if not less, to trust Valerie when she first started chasing his heels.
‘Yeah, but Val is different. Will doesn’t have a pretty face, he doesn’t have a nice pair of tits, not to mention a tight and hot little snatch and an ass that won’t quit-’
Aaron slapped himself in the face before his thoughts wandered too far away. William raised a brow at that.
“Fine.” Aaron moaned, “Just… why? I mean, you barely know me, and you haven’t even met my brother. Why would you risk your life to help us?”
Will’s mauve eyes sparkled with something Aaron couldn’t quite place.
“You saved me. You saved me when you could’ve just left me there… not only that, but you risked your life for the people of Riak when nobody would’ve blamed or even known if you turned a blind eye.”
“So what? You think I’m some kinda hero?” Aaron couldn’t help but chuckle.
“I… I don’t know. A better man than me, at least. I couldn’t say for certain what I would’ve done in your shoes… sides, I’m an insubordinate deserter with no family. I ain’t got anywhere else to go.”
Aaron blushed a bit at the praise, but he quickly shook off the warm feeling and continued pressing the mauve-haired man.
“Yeah, but you’re a crack shot with that bow. You could move to some little town around here and make a living as a hunter, easy. It’d be better paying, and safer than hanging with me to boot.”
“Well,” the archer breathed, slowly running a thumb along the string of his bow, “What’s life without a little excitement? Please, Aaron. You saved my life without asking anything but info to save even more people. I want to help you help others. That’s what a real soldier would do… thats what a real man would do.”
Something snapped inside Aaron’s head. He shot to his feet, leering two icy eyes at William. His hard face was set into a furious leer. The archer was nearly blown from the stump he was seated on at the sudden outburst.
“I said I’m not a damn hero, you moron! I’ve killed innocent people before to get what I want – and if it means saving my brother, I’ll be damn sure to do it again! I don’t want some idealistic dipshit like you following me around like a lost puppy! Got it?!”
Aaron breathed heavily, slamming himself back atop of his own stump. Will sat silent for a few moments, mauve-eyes to the dirt, feeling like that was their rightful spot.
“You think you’re the only one with blood on your hands, Aaron? I don’t think you’re a hero. I never said you were. I don’t think I’m a hero either. But I know you want to make a change – a good one – and so do I. The fact I’m standing here with you is proof of that. I’m going to help you save your brother… and if you don’t like that, you can just lop off my head right here and now.”
The bandit grabbed the handle of his claymore on his back, shooting up to his feet. Will remained seated, looking perfectly calm and collected. Aaron glared him down for the next minute, but not a single move was made by either man. A bird’s loud chirping seemed to snap Aaron out of his furious trance. Sighing, he sat back down, his bluff having been called. His claymore slid cleanly back into its scabbard.
“Fine. Stubborn bastard. But you had better pull your own weight, ya hear?”
“Don’t worry.” William smiled, “I’m tougher than I look.”
The punctuation to their little spat came in the form of a deer carcass. It flew between the two, landing with a wet splat, Aaron’s eyes going wide. Will, on the other hand, was already on his feet and halfway notching an arrow before he realized the thing had passed on to the other side some time ago.
“Baaabe~ I’m back with lunch!”
Aaron’s mode noticeable lightened, “Hey, Val. Nice catch.”
The hellhound’s toothy grin widened, her flames surged, and her tail wagged wildly from behind her back. She padded towards Aaron, hugging his back while playfully nibbling and kissing at his earlobe.
“H-hey! Val, stop…” Aaron urged, red spreading across his cheeks like wildfire.
Giggling like a girl who had just received her first kiss, she left him with a final lick and turned her attention over to the deer. Skipping over, she easily broke and ripped off one of its hind legs. Not perturbed by the gushing blood or snapping bone, she eagerly dug into the feast, flames surging and tail wagging into overdrive as the savory, juicy meat hit her tongue.
Aaron had already grown numb to the beast girl’s primal dietary habits. He was already drawing the deer over a branch and prepping to skin it.
William looked absolutely repulsed on the other hand. He tried his damnedest not to stare at the hellhound as she enjoyed her bloody feast. She plopped onto her behind, tail still beating out of control, tearing away stringy red meat with her pearly fangs.
It wasn’t long before she picked the bone clean. Then, in a display in stark contrast to her voracious devouring of the meat, she took her sweet time in slowly chewing away the bone.
Will sat, transfixed, wondering just how such a creature could act so human-like in so many ways but then appear beastly in others.
It was then Val’s ears twitched in what appeared to be a show of confusion. Her tail froze mid-swing. Then, with a quick swivel, she turned to catch Will staring at her. Nearly yipping, the archer scrambled for his bow, pretending to busy himself with restringing it.
But Val’s fiery glare never left his chest. She started crunching down on the bone, slowly grinding the marrow into dust, making sure her huge fangs were on full display for William.
“Valerie,” Will called, swallowing nervously, “No offense, but… you’ve kinda been shooting me the stink eye ever since we left Riak. Did I do something to offend you?”
“This was supposed to be a fun adventure with just me and my babe!” she snarled, making her feelings on the third wheel more than transparent.
“Hey, hey.” Aaron entered the fray, bringing back two arms full of deer meat with him, “Don’t be an asshole, Will.”
Will’s mauve-eyes went wide, staring dead towards the hellhound. She was grinning quite smugly, her tail beating wildly once more.
“B-but she’s the one antagonizing me!” Will spouted, sounding very much like a peeved younger sibling.
“Yeah, she’s the also the only one here who’s sucked me off.” Aaron grunted, spearing the meat above their fire pit, “Whose side do you think I’m gonna take?”
Aaron took a moment to admire the look of embarrassment and irritation on Will’s blushing face. Then, with a low chuckle, he began lighting up a flame.
“Relax. I’m just fuckin’ with ya.” Aaron soothed the other man. The William huddled up across from him reminded Aaron more of the prisoner he found in Riak’s dam and less of the tall, confident fellow who had saved him from the jailer. The two may have shared a face, but were a far cry from each other.
“Y-yeah. Hahaha.” Will tried and failed miserably to laugh it off, uncomfortable as could be.
Their meal went by in relatively mundane silence. Aaron tore into his venison with gusto, handing cleaned bones over to the hellhound cuddled protectively up at his side. Will winced ever so slightly on every bite, clearly not used to the gamey taste of the meat. He ate it without complaint regardless.
Aaron glanced up from the fire pit every now and again, trying to catch William in the act. He could feel the archer’s eyes every time his focus was elsewhere… it was rather obvious he wanted to ask something of Aaron, but for whatever reason, he just couldn’t force the question out.
The bandit decided to let Will muster up the courage on his own. Stomping out the fire, packing up their tents, and salting the rest of their meat, the trio set back off on their path.
Now, they were practically out of Graeme and into Var. And Aaron could almost picture Mount Enthya on the horizon, a sagely wizard waiting for him with a panacea at its summit.
“So then I was like, ‘Put the turkey down, and nobody gets hurt!’”
Val bounced and trotted at Aaron’s side, recounting all sorts of stories. Whether they were truly life stories or tall tales meant to impress him, Aaron couldn’t say. He lent an ear to her regardless. Her sheer joy of sharing a story with him was enough to keep him enraptured.
“Yeah? Then what did the cultist do?”
The hound snickered, fluffy chest puffed out with pride, “He turned tail and ran for the hills, of course~!”
“Thats a bit anticlimactic.” Aaron said, “I liked the one where your sister cooked the evil pumpkin into a pie better.”
They were walking along a long, wide, hilly path, thick woods to either side of them. As Val and Aaron led, Will took to walking a few yards behind, serving as a sort of rearguard. Despite the outrageous heat of summer still beating down, the day acted as a perfect testament to the beauty and serenity of mother nature. Viridian leaves drifted past upon mercifully cool breeze, making the old trees bob and sway all the while.
“Alright! Now lemme tell you about the time I went hunting for…”
Val cut herself short. Aaron watched her ears twitch, straining for distant sounds. It wasn’t long before he heard it as well. The thundering neigh of horses, great wooden wheels clattering against dirt and gravel, all barreling towards them from behind.
When he turned, Aaron marveled at the largest coach he had ever laid eyes upon. He had taken down his fair share of carts, but he couldn’t even begin to think of how to attack the mobile fortress coming towards them.
It was a hulking beast of furnished oak and reinforced iron. Its crimson dye immediately declared its overwhelming presence, while the studded gold finishes on its bracing sang of it’s garishness. Several spires could be seen towering atop the coach, bearing Legion flags, giving it the impression of a mobile castle.
A practical stable of powerful stallions rode at each of its sides, at least twenty pulling its massive weight. As it drew closer, Aaron took notice of the riders guarding each of the warcoach’s flanks. They wore gold armor, cloaks of the deepest red billowing from behind them – the same sentinels Aaron had spotted at the manor back at Riak.
“Oh dear gods, no…” he heard William shakily mutter, looking like he was staring upon the chariot of an angry god, “Why is he here…?”
Aaron watched in horror as those shining knights spurred their mounts onward, dashing ahead of the coach and surrounding him, Will, and Val with an expert precision. Val stood at his back and snarled, claws fully extended. William, on the other hand, quivered in his boots at Aaron’s side. The stallions, clad in similar garish gold and crimson as their riders, became little more than glistening, blood-colored blurs as they surrounded the trio. But soon enough, they trampled to a stop, letting the knights hop off and brandish their glaives.
Gulping, it occurred to Aaron the gold knights had them trapped in a circle – a circle which was quickly tightening, threatening to cut off each of them at the head.
The warcoach rolled to a stop. The driver kept his hold on the reigns as he stood at attention. Watching with a sinking fascination, Aaron felt his stomach curdle as the door to the coach swung open, it’s gilded knob firing off beams of sunlight as it went.
“On your knees, whelps!” one of the knights called, pressing his weapon dangerously forward, “The High Prince of the Imperial Legion Is about to grace you with his presence. You will show him the proper respect!”
Aaron made no move, more out of stunned fear than a lack of respect or self-preservation. Val rumbled out a low growl, refusing to kneel to the strange, forceful humans. The shocked Will’s legs shook like two stacks of jelly. For a moment, he looked as though he were about to fall, but he kept himself upright, seeming to remember who his company was and why he was there in the first place.
“Impudent heathens! How dare you?!” one the knights snapped, his thin twig of patience being snapped under the weight of their inaction.
“Don’t lose your temper, soldier.”
Aaron nearly did a double take at the voice. It was smooth as butter, and carried all the suave confidence one could expect from a leader. Yet, at the same time, it was commanding and domineering, seeming to echo out and punch through all the other sounds around it.
The door to the coach unceremoniously swung open. Its studded gold handle and support bars perfectly caught the sunlight, flashing with a blinding halo. Aaron couldn’t see anything but a silhouette through the glare, but the resounding clap of armored feet against wood was all too clear.
“There’s only a single way to teach uppity trash like this their place – beat them into it.”
From behind, Aaron heard Val rumble a low snarl and William mutter a prayer under his breath. But his glance remained focused on the commanding figure, and he raised a single hand overhead to block out the harsh sun rays haloing him.
His platinum-blonde hair glimmered like gold under the sun; flowing like wheat in the wind. His eyes were like jade sharpened to a fine point, and they seemed to punch through the space between he and Aaron and bore into the bandit’s very soul with their inquisitive edge.
The noble fellow stepped further out of the blinding sun rays. He was clean-cut, his face sickeningly handsome but stern as watchman’s and hard enough to shatter stone. His plate armor glistened; a medley of dark red fitted with gold engravings around each joint and groove. A white cape whipped and danced to the tune of the wind, appearing as an ivory flame flickering about his angelic visage.
From even a cursory glance, it was easy to tell. The blonde man exuded an absolute, palpable arrogance. With every step down from the coach, he strode like the earth should’ve been proud as it kissed the bottom of his boots. With every breath, he grinned like the air was thankful to be a part of him, if only just for a moment. It was as if he existed solely to declare his supremacy to the lesser beings graced by his beaming radiance.
“Some may call the task beneath me, some may find it callous…” he went on, head held proud and high, “But I’ve always enjoyed putting sniveling degenerates like you in their place.”
Aaron and Will were respectively awed by caution and terror. Val was the one to snarl at him for daring to approach, never being one to be trifled with by frail humans. Especially not frail humans that were so full of themselves they looked ready to burst with narcissism at any given moment.
“Up yours, pal.” the hellhound snapped, jamming a clawed thumb skywards as demonstration.
The insult only brought a wider smile to the smug noble’s lips. He tossed his cape back, raising both palms to the heavens, his immaculately polished armor glinting with the light of the gods.
“I am Maximus Lucius Cotta the Fifth, the High Prince of Esperia, and a proud commander in it’s Grand Imperial Legion. You are nothing but ignorant, dirty chaff… and by the end of this day, you shall kneel.”