If one were to were wait on the hilltop near the bustling border town of Hillcrowne, they very well would have spotted a strange sight – on that day, two men, one with purple hair and one with gray, stumbled out from the woods. One had a round and approachable face, while the other one’s features could best be described as sharp and thuggish. They were equally furrowed into unamused scowls, however.
A hellhound burst from the treeline, trotting up to the men in a few hops and skips. She was grinning from ear-to-ear, totally unfazed by the last couple of days tearing through the wilderness. She was just as dirty, in spite of her pep.
“You sure those gold dudes won’t be able to track us down?” Val sniffed, picking a stray spider from her hair and flicking it off into the distance.
“I dunno. I did my best to cover our tracks… but those guys looked pretty sharp. Avoiding a bunch of lazy lardasses is one thing, but the Legion’s best men…?” Aaron grumbled, wiping the leaves clinging to his tunic.
“Don’t worry. I’m sure they lost track of us.” William asserted with the smallest hint of a smile, “The Praetorian Guards aren’t trained for reconnaissance or headhunting. They spend their entire lives learning the ins-and-outs of frontline combat. I’d be concerned if they brought one of their Master Rangers, though. I’ve seen one of those guys pin the wings of a dragonfly to a tree without killing the thing.”
“I’ll make sure to thank my lucky stars.” Aaron grunted.
Fortunately, they had managed to escape Prince Maximus with most of their supplies still in hand. To his surprise and joy, Aaron had even gotten his claymore back. As burdensome as it was, Aaron could never feel quite at ease when out and about without the insurance of the hefty sword at his back.
“Hey, Will… did I thank you for picking my claymore up for me?”
The archer blinked, breaking from the near-trance he found himself in as he stared in relief at Hillcrowne. He turned, shaking his head to both sides.
William’s eyes popped open, surprised at Aaron’s gratitude. The bandit wasn’t amused by the expression.
“…hey! I can be appreciative. Don’t give me that look.”
“Sorry.” Will chuckled as they walked back onto the proper path and began cresting the hill, “You’re just nicer than you look.”
Aaron’s nostrils flared, “Nicer than I look?! What’s that supposed to mean?!”
“Nothing, babe,” Val snickered from behind him, “You’re just ruggedly handsome, is all.”
“C-c’mon, I know I look like a crook, but…” Aaron trailed off, not exactly sure why he even started caring. “Bah! Whatever. Let’s just stop at the inn. We need to rest up… we’ll finally be heading into Var tomorrow.”
“Sounds like a plan, babe~!” Val cheered. Her tail beat out of control, visions of meat slabs and pints of frosty ale dancing in her head.
Will groaned as he stretched his sore back, joints audibly popping as he did so, “Yeah, I could use a nice bed. I mean, the cots in Legion quarters aren’t the most comfortable things in the world, but I’d take ‘em over a sleeping in the middle of the woods.”
“Heh. Live on the wrong side of the law like me, and you get used to having to cram into awkward places for a night or two.” Aaron boasted as they reached the town’s gate.
Hillcrowne was larger than expected. Rows and rows of squat cobblestone buildings sat stacked about the streets, and Aaron wondered briefly how long it had taken the town’s founders to haul so much stone up and around the rolling hills the town was situated upon.
Aaron was surprised by the monster population in Riak’s relocation camp, having never seen so many of the enigmatic beings in such a tight density. That little camp couldn’t have held a candle to Hillcrowne’s populace.
Everywhere Aaron’s icy-eyes drifted, he saw another monster girl going about whatever business she had assorted herself with. Girls of every shape and size wandered the streets of the city, living in what looked to be a perfectly quaint harmony with the humans. He saw a centaur lugging about a carriage full of assorted barrels. A spider girl running a stall that sold fine clothes. A pregnant sheep woman, walking back into her home with a basket full of fresh apples. A werecat, walking arm-and-arm with a plain-looking fellow down the street.
As Val saw her, she yanked Aaron into her own grasp, and the two monsters hissed at each other as they passed. The cat’s boyfriend looked only a bit more dismayed then Aaron.
“Was that really necessary?” the bandit huffed, unable to pull himself away.
“Yes! Cats are no good, trust me. They eat your face if you die in your house!” Val stated, hellfire flaring up at the thought of no-good felines.
“Well… guess its a good thing I’m a dog person.”
Aaron had taken in the new setting with a mild curiosity, but adapted swiftly nonetheless. William, still behind the bandit and hound, was hit with a world-shaking sense of culture shock.
“G-guys, wait up. I think this might be…” Will trailed off, casting his shifty eyes all about, trying to spot something unsavory lurking just out of the corner of his vision.
“Be what? This place seems safe enough. I also don’t think they’ll let those golden assholes in here, considering how many monsters there are.”
“No, I mean…” Will licked his dry lips, trying to find the right words, “This place… it might be a Demon Realm.”
“A what realm?” Val asked, ears twitching in a show of confusion.
“Come on. You have to know. You’re a monster, for goodness’ sake…” Will sputtered, “I-I mean, I’m not trying to accuse you of anything. I just figured you’d know about it as much as anyone.”
“And just what in the seven hells is a Demon Realm?” Aaron cut him off, “Somewhere where tons of monsters gather up? Because that’s going to work pretty well to our advantage, Will. I doubt any Legion-sympathizers are going to hole up here. It’s perfect. Let’s just go find a tavern and rest for the night.”
“No! I mean, yes…” Will began, sighing deeply and with some measure of frustration, “A Demon Realm is someplace where demons gather, yeah. But that’s just it – monsters all carry demon energy in their bodies. If enough of them gather in one place, all that demon energy will physically manifest and taint the earth itself. That creates a Demon Realm.”
“Demon energy, huh? And all monsters have it?” Val hummed, sniffing her fuzzy paws, “I don’t smell nuthin’.”
“It’s not like BO, dammit.” William huffed, “And I can assure you, you’re rife with it. Hellhounds are Iapetus-class monsters.”
A pout and glare crossed Valerie’s face, “Hey, I never went to school. I ain’t no nerd. And I certainly didn’t take an ‘eatpeanuts’ class… whatever the heck that even means.”
“Well, it’s like this – the Legion has seven different tiers to classify how strong the typical monster species is. Iapetus is the third highest, right behind Rhea and Titan class. Typically, the stronger the monster, the more demon energy she has stored in her body. But there are exceptions.”
“Titan, huh?” Aaron’s brain scrambled to imagine monsters two whole realms of power beyond Valerie. Even after all the heroic fables he indulged himself in and witnessing the superhuman strength and speed exhibited by Damian and the Praetorian Guards, it was hard for him to picture.
“Like what, dragons?”
“Yeah.” William confirmed evenly, “Although they don’t emit much demon-energy. Most of the Legion considers corruption even more dangerous than brute strength. Monsters like the baphomet are especially powerful in that regard.”
Val’s tail and ears proudly stood erect, “Hmph! Then I guess I’ll just keep getting tougher until those Legion jerks put me up as a Titan where I belong!”
Another frustrated sigh escaped Will’s lips, “Like I said, it’s more for categorizing the overall threat presented by a species. It’s not a very accurate measure of how tough a monster is, really.”
“Well, I wanna be Titan anyway.” the hound pouted.
“Hey, what’s so bad about Demon Realms? You talk about them like your head explodes if you stay too long.” Aaron asked, trying to get things back on track. The three began walking as they talked, having to raise their voices as they pushed through the hustle and bustle of the crowded city.
“Men are affected by demon energy too, Aaron.” Will explained, brushing past a passing plump merchant to come closer to the bandit, “You understand, right? It can do strange things to a guy.”
Aaron felt like something had just snagged in his chest, the strange pressure rushing all the way up to his throat. He knew that well enough, from first hand experience. His sexual appetite and stamina seemed to shoot through the roof after lying with Valerie, and the only reason he hadn’t been grossly concerned about it was the myriad of bigger issues piled in front of him.
That, and better sex wasn’t exactly a glaring issue for him.
Val cocked a brow, at a loss for what the two men were on about. William continued as they took a bend in the path.
“It… it can change you. Turn you into something else.”
“What are you talkin’ about?” Aaron demanded, concern giving way into frustration. His mind began to buzz, and he rudely brushed past another young fellow as he huddled closer to Will.
The archer shrugged both shoulders, shaking his head to each side, “I dunno. They never really told us much beyond that… just that we need to kill any guy who ends up turning ASAP.”
“Forgive me if I take Legion propaganda with a grain of salt,” Aaron muttered, nonplussed at the vague revelation, “They also told me monsters ate humans after they were done with ‘em.”
“Hehehe~ I ate ya, all right!” Val bragged, sneaking up behind him with a perverted laugh.
Will’s face twisted up in embarrassment, the tips of his ears and nose turning a nice cherry color. He turned his head away from the couple, “T-that’s not something you should be talking about on the street, Valerie.”
“Heh. Like I give a rat’s ass.” the hound chuckled, now fully snuggled into Aaron’s back. The bandit started to feel a rush of humiliation himself as passersby started to eye Val and him while beginning to snicker to themselves.
Still, that toasty warmth she always brought with her embrace always set him at ease. It was hard for Aaron to believe that some covert agent of evil and corruption lurked within the wisps of those comforting flames.
No matter what trials came, the bandit thought, he decided to stick by her until the end.
With some measure of help from a few friendly locals, the archer, bandit and hound managed to hobble over to the local hostelry. It was named simply, ‘Hillcrowne Inn’.
A burly minotaur stood guard by the door, leaning her back against the wall. She carried a nasty long-bearded ax in both hands. Her impressive size and bulk were nearly offset by the fact she was dozing off before she saw the three approach.
“Whoa there. Who are you three?” the bull-woman snorted, heaving her ax between Aaron and the door.
“Calm down, lady.” Aaron tried to sooth her, raising open palms as a peace sign, “We’re just a few travelers looking for a stiff drink and warm bed.”
“It’s getting pretty late. And this here is a respectable sort of joint… so why exactly should I let a trio of strangers like yourselves in?”
“W-we promise we won’t cause any trouble, ma’am.” Will promised her with a quivering smile, “Honest. You can hold onto our weapons if you want.”
The minotaur doorwoman and Valerie were busy glaring each other down, but the minotaur’s attention was inevitable redirected over to the more good-looking of the two men.
“Oh. Hello there, handsome.” the bull cooed, stepping in closer to the archer. Her deeply-tanned skin began to take on the slightest shimmer as an excited sweat broke across her body. She leaned towards the mauve-haired man, making sure her impressive bust was on full display.
Aaron fully expected Will to be physically blown away from sheer force of anxiety , but the archer seemed to keep enough of his bearings together to stay in place at the very least. Chuckling nervously, William tugged at his collar.
“Urhm.. h-hi. Can… can you let us in, please?”
The busty minotaur whistled lowly, the hunger evident in the delivery of her next words, “That depends, handsome. What are you willing to do for me?”
Aaron nearly slapped himself in the forehead; Valerie had to slap both paws over her mouth to stop herself from breaking into howling laughter.
“I make plenty of coin here, boy.” the bull cooed, running one of her thick fingers across Will’s collarbone, “But I haven’t found anyone ‘man’ enough to take me home… think you’re up for it?”
Will’s mauve eyes darted wildly around, looking everywhere except at the impressive set of tits being practically jammed into his face. His desperate gaze landed on Aaron and Valerie, expecting some sort of support or advice from them.
Val cupped her fingers together to make a tube, in which she immediately jammed the pointer of her opposite paw. It was a suggestion that was anything but subtle. Aaron was right beside her, nodding quickly but firmly.
“S-screw you guys! I’m not some street whore!” Will shuddered, doubling away from the massive breasts.
“Err, fine. Jeez. Guys today have no balls at all.” the minotaur huffed, “I’ll let ya in. Just… squeeze ‘em a little, will ya? Give me somethin’ to think about tonight at least.”
Will continued to sputter and shake, his brain fried from the sudden advances that he surely had rarely, if ever, received. To have them so suddenly thrust upon him by such a stalwart beauty, and it wasn’t a wonder why he was reduced to a frittering mess.
“Dammit, Will. Just do it already!” Aaron huffed. He almost offered to take Will’s place, but the mental image of Val ripping the udders straight off the minotaur’s chest in a jealous frenzy was all too easy to imagine.
“F-fine. Jeez.” Will swallowed, finally seeming to catch his bearings. The doorwoman grinned wide and eagerly, folding both arms behind her head and offering her chest over to William.
The archer’s head spun like a dust devil, still unable to fully process what was transpiring and why it was falling on him. Letting instinct guide him, he raised his shaking fingers up to the monster’s tits. He felt her shiver as he cupped them as well as he could, their warmth and softness something nearly unreal.
His pulse and mind were racing along, going far too rapidly to gain any sort of gratification from the lewd act. Will squeezed down with all the grace and rhythm such one could expect from a sexual neophyte. It seemed the minotaur was sensitive enough to get no small measure of enjoyment from it, though.
“Ahh~ that’s enough, boy. Go on in. Just don’t make any trouble, or you’re all mine~”
Will scampered into the bar like a squirrel into it’s den, just having dodged the swooping claws of a hungry hawk. With the purple-haired cutie gone, the minotaur sighed dejectedly and turned her attention over to the rougher-looking fellow and the hellhound.
“And you’re with him?” the doorwoman asked, gesturing from Valerie over to Aaron.
“He’s with me. Key difference.” Val giggled, proudly wrapping a toasty paw around the bandit’s unsuspecting neck.
“Good. We’ve had to be more careful with letting in single monsters these days. Male clientele from out of town can be a bit… touchy about how our kind mingles.”
“Jeez. Whadda bunch of weenies.” Valerie grumbled, cocking a black brow up, “So what’s the big deal about a little wrestle sex?”
“I know!” the minotaur huffed in instant agreement, “I mean, I never heard any of them complain after it was all said and done. But a jobs a job, y’know? Boss man doesn’t want any lovin’ on the floor, there ain’t gonna be any lovin’ on the floor.
“Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll find the right guy soon~” Val smiled encouragingly up at the minotaur, giving her a few supportive pats on the bum as she passed. She dragged Aaron right behind her, the bandit sputtering and kicking out his legs as he struggled for breath under her tight hug.
The inside of the tavern was nothing special. A good bit cleaner and far less rowdy then the usual establishments Aaron stomped, but nothing where a few lowborns would stick out. Among the local barflys, Aaron spotted a few dust-caked travelers being chatted up by a few sultry monsters.
“Here, Will. Get us a room…” Aaron said, tossing Will his coin purse after removing some coppers for himself.
Aaron’s keen eyes saw a hopeful Valerie peek into his field vision, her fiery eyes glittering and her tail swinging in an excited arc. Sighing through the corner of his mouth, he turned back to Will.
“Make it two.” Aaron added, “I don’t think a choir boy like yourself is gonna wanna see what she’ll do to me tonight.”
Will nodded blankly, scurrying away to find the proprietress. Valerie gave him a quick kiss on the cheek before running off to find something to eat before the festivities began in earnest. It was only then Aaron realized just how much his overworked legs burned. He dragged himself over to the bar, picking up a tall ale before sliding into a booth near the back.
He took a long sip of the watery swill, trying to relax himself and enjoy the first sliver of free time he had found in since he had began his journey. The first sliver of free time where he wasn’t concerned about dying in a collapsing dam, at least.
There was neither band nor bard playing. Only the low, incessant chatter around him stirred his ears. He shut his eyes, letting the dim lantern light all about fade into a soothing darkness. Unwinding all the further, he took a moment to appreciate the relatively pleasant scents around.
Cooking meats. Flowery incenses and perfumes. A few assorted wisps of tobacco smoke tickled his nose… but a faint, exotic variety hit him. It was something that had hit his nostrils before. His eyes burst wide, looking down to find the stub of cigar at his feet. His hand shot down to grab it, bringing it back up for a few sniffs.
It was burnt away, totally cold. Whoever smoked it was long gone. That scent, that odd aroma was nearly identical to whatever it was Jack had smoked.
With nervous eyes, he scanned around the tavern. But there wasn’t hide or hair of the albino.
“Its… gotta just be a coincidence.” Aaron tried to reason with himself.
There was no denying he was on edge. Narrowly escaping a collapsing superstructure and dueling with a warmonger prince in the span of three days would do that to a man. Aaron threw the stub away, almost laughing at himself. Of course, he was being irrational.
The bandit felt someone shimmy in next to him. Not even having enough time to turn and see who it was, his visitor shot out a greedy mitt and snatched up his drink, chugging down quite a good bit.
“Bah. Not the worst I’ve ever had, but I expected way more from a fancy joint like this.”
Aaron was too stunned to react with anything but a stupid, slack-jawed stare. The man’s lean body was wrapped protectively in a burlap cloak. A mess of cocoa-colored hair sat atop his head, barely kept restrained in a short ponytail. From the frame of a sun-kissed face, a sly grin and playful, honey-colored eyes stared back at Aaron.
“Holy shit,” Aaron finally breathed, “Nathan? What the hell are you doing here?”
“Just came to get the ocean of booze you promised me. Don’t tell me ya forgot already?”
“C’mon, Nathan. I’m serious here.”
The roguish fellow snickered like they were still kids grab-assing on the dusty streets. He propped his feet up on the table, taking another swig of Aaron’s ale.
“Well, I was in the area, right? Making a delivery? And I heard something interesting on the grapevine. The Black Bandit had blown up a dam to flood a town or somesuch. Not exactly my old pal’s modus operandi, I thought. I mean, you’re a mean bastard, but you don’t stick your head where it doesn’t belong… and you certainly wouldn’t waterlog an entire town just for a few kicks. So, what gives?”
Aaron gingerly took the ale back from Nathan, taking a swig to wet his throat before he explained himself. In a brief hail of words, he told his old friend all about the veritable storm of misadventures he had been pelted with in their short two weeks apart. Everything from his confrontation with the tribe of orcs on Franklin’s ranch to trying to stop Riak’s destruction to battling Prince Maximus within a circle of his Praetorian Guard.
“Good gods. You’re serious, aren’t you?” the rogue said, clicking his tongue in thought, “And cripes, man. Bashing the Legion prince’s pretty nose with his own fancy shield? You always made up your lack of brains with balls, I guess.”
“How’d you know I’d be here?” Aaron asked, taking the back-handed compliment in stride.
Nathan shrugged his shoulders, his smiley mug containing mild bemusement, “Easy. I knew you’d be heading to Mount Enthya. This is the last town before Var… so I just hopped on down here, put my feet up, and waited.”
Aaron hummed, the sparking excitement from seeing his oldest friend starting to fizzle out as he began recounting his many close-shaves. His grin fully limped into a tired frown as he finished.
“So,” the bandit began again, “Is Doug alright?”
Nathan chuckled, nearly spitting up the ale he pilfered, “It’s always about your little bro, huh? Y’know, Aaron, I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone as protective as you. Kinda makes me I had someone like you when I was an ankle-biter.”
“He’s the only family I have left, Nathan.” Aaron sighed wearily, rough fingers drumming against the table before him, “Your aunt’s taking care of him, right?”
“Can’t say the crotchety old bitch was happy about it, but yeah. I gave her a quarter of the money – I promised her the rest of her payment when we get back with a panacea.” the rogue said, “The only food he can keep down is mashed berries and herbs and the like, but he’s fine on water. We should have plenty of time to get back and fix ‘em up.”
“Thank the gods…” Aaron breathed, a great weight he hadn’t even taken notice of launching off his shoulders.
“Feh. Why you thanking those pricks? Those assholes didn’t do shit. It was all me!”
The two men shared a bout of quiet laughter. As Nathan finished off Aaron’s ale, he finally peered back to the main floor of the tavern, watching an uneasy archer sit in solitude. The rouge’s honey-eyes were alight with a caution, thin and deadly as a tripwire.
“And that’s Will, right? He looks like a lost kid. What’s his deal?”
“I dunno.” Aaron said blankly, “He wants to help me… maybe he’s the honorable type. Maybe he has nothing better to do now thats he out of a job. Either way, he’s acts real distant and jumpy. Any guy who turncoats would act like that, I guess. I also thinks he wants to ask me something else, but… I just dunno. I figure if I just give him some space he’ll sort things out eventually.”
Nathan hummed in agreement. His sharp eyes floated further down the tavern, past the skittering legs of an arachne and the bulk of a bear woman, over to a hellhound balancing a wobbling tower of assorted meats with both arms. Her tail vibrated in place, wanting so badly to wag with joy, but also not wanting to throw off the careful balance and send her dinner flying all over the establishment.
“And she’s still with you, huh? For crying out loud man, just fuckin’ ditch her already.”
Aaron’s wooden face broke wide with confusion. He leaned towards his friend, making sure to let him know he was dancing on thin ice.
“And whys that?”
Nathan’s face didn’t show it, but Aaron knew the keen flash in his friend’s eyes all to well. Nathan knew he had touched a nerve. He pressed on regardless.
“Did you hit your head on a fucking rock or something? Or did you really not have anything in there to begin with?” the rogue snarled out.
“Fuckin’ think for a second, Aaron. How many sluts have you reamed in your life? Huh?”
“Man, I don’t… I don’t keep a fuckin’ list, dammit!”
Nathan’s face was now furrowed into a complete sneer. He prodded a finger into Aaron’s chest.
“Enough that you should know the difference between some puppy love and a cunt who just wants a quick lay. For fucks sake, she rode your cock an hour after you met! You really think she cares about you?”
“She’s saved my ass more times than I can count.” Aaron rumbled, voice laced with a furious hint of warning.
“That right? More times than I have?”
Aaron tried to argue back, but he knew he’d be lying to say otherwise. Nathan ranted on during Aaron’s tryst in concentration.
“Trust me, she’s just using you. As some kind of fucktoy or whatever, I dunno. But I do guarantee you she’s got some kinda sick ulterior motive. Maybe monsters really do eat your soul or something.”
Warnings of Demon Realms and memories of men rutting with orcs flashed in his mind. Perhaps monsters really did twist men into their subservient playthings; perhaps he was already nothing more than a marionette dancing to the tune of a lusty hound.
“No…” he growled out, fists and teeth clenching together, “You’re wrong, Nathan. She’s helping me because she’s a good person… that’s something you wouldn’t get. Hell, I didn’t get it until a few days ago.”
The men sat in a tense silence, still watching with bated breath as Val awkwardly weaved past humans and monsters alike on her way to Aaron’s booth, being careful that not a single meaty morsel was dropped. Nathan, a clear, fuming annoyance bubbling under his skin, gripped at the empty beer stein in his hand before the weak wood began to creak.
“Dammit… I hope I’m wrong, at least. You’ve done some bad shit, but you’re a good guy, Aaron. You just never used your fuckin’ head. I’ve always had to do that for you… and that won’t be stopping anytime soon, I guess.”
Aaron’s squinted brows raised, unable to fully decypher Nathan’s words.
“What do ya mean?”
Nathan lightly pounded his fist against the table in a show of impatience, “See? Proving my point. I don’t know how you ever got along without me. Why’d we grow apart, Aaron?”
“Well… we moved away from Legion turf because neither of us wanted to be drafted, I remember. When we got to Graeme, I had to settle down to take care of Douglas, and you became a smuggler…”
“Hold on…! Smugglers so harsh. I prefer a courier who just so happens to ferry goods to places with unreasonable trade regulations.”
“Yeah. Whatever the fuck that means.”
Nathan slammed a palm into Aaron’s shoulder, staring with deadly accuracy into his eyes.
“It means I’m coming with you, you knuckle-dragging goon.”
The frustration gave way to shock. Aaron sat, dumbfounded, thoughts buzzing around at a pace he couldn’t put a lid on.
“W-why? You know how risky it’ll be, especially now that the Legions after me. Don’t you have anything better to do?”
“As it just so happens,” Nathan began, reaching into his cloak to pull out a tightly-wrapped package, “I picked up a new job as soon as I dropped off Doug. Some nutty alchemist wants this outlawed chemical. Need to deliver it to a town nearby Mount Enthya…”
A grin spread along Aaron’s cheeks as a realization hit him, “You… you took that job just to come with me, didn’t ya?”
“Maybe. I guess I’m feeling a bit nostalgic. Whaddya say? I’m still good to be Richard the Swift if the Grim Reaper of Justice is up for a little adventure.”
“Sure as hell am.”
The two men wrapped an arm around the other’s neck, pounding knuckles together with the opposite hand. They laughed; not like the cold, indifferent chuckles they let out during the common outlaw’s gallows humor. They laughed like children again, bright and hopeful for the future, despite their differences and fears.
It was then a mountain of meat fell onto their table. Honey-roasted ham rolled forward like boulders; sausage-links spilled like guts from a sliced belly. At the genesis of the greasy mayhem was Valerie, already eagerly digging into a roasted turkey leg, waving the other one at Aaron.
“Hey, babe! You won’t believe all the deals they have here! We’ll be eating like…”
The hound trailed off, fiery eyes slowly craning over to the man she hadn’t noticed with the meat in the way. Scoffing, Nathan turned cheek and leered towards a bar maiden’s rack from across the room.
“Whos this?!” Val demanded, jamming a half-eaten turkey leg at the newcomer.
“He’s Nathan, remember? You saw him taking Doug away right before we left Oakvale.” Aaron reminded her.
“Yeah, and I’m coming with you.” Nathan sneered up at her, “So ya’d better get used to me.”
Val’s face twisted into a half-scowl, half-pout. Sizzling tears gathered beneath her jets of hellfire, sending steam twisting into the air.
“Great. Just great… some other jerk getting between me and my babe! Why don’t you just go ahead and invite all of your other guy friends, Aaron? Our adventure is already turning into a sausage party!”
“Hey, sorry if he prefers actual companions over dumb sluts.” Nathan spat out at her, teasingly picking a chicken thigh from her collection and taking a large bite, “Now why don’t you go ahead and use that pretty little mouth of yours to gag on his cock instead of spewing out stupid bullshit? That’s about all that it’s good for.”
“Nathan, what the fuck?!” Aaron hissed, just barely stopping himself from cleaning the rogue’s clock.
Val’s hellflame sizzled nearly thrice over, even drawing attention from some of the other patrons. She slammed her angry fists in front of Nathan, but the rogue remained undaunted. Right up until the hound slapped him clean across the face, laying him flat into the booth’s seats.
The hellhound didn’t take things any further. She dropped her food, sniffling and taking off, out of the tavern and out into the quickly dimming night.
“Jeez. She sure is sensitive for a guardian of hell.” Nathan breathed out, the faintest traces of relief hidden on his bruised face, “Guess I deserved that.”
Aaron shot up, yanking Nathan to his feet by the collar. By this point, they had attracted the concerned and curious stares of every patron in the inn.
“She wasn’t crying because you insulted her, dumbass. She was crying because she thought I was taking your side.”
“Sorry. I’ll try to be nicer.”
Aaron so badly wanted to give Nathan a black-eye in addition to the swollen cheek right then and there, but he just settled by throwing the rogue back into his seat. He looked across the cluster of wide-eyed patrons, finding the inn’s doors swinging back and forth. Wasting no more time, he took off after the hellhound.
As Aaron wandered down the dark streets of Hillcrowne, he wondered why he was even bothering to call Val’s name at that point. On such an uneventful night, she’d easily be able to hear him. She must’ve been deliberately ignoring him.
The bandit found a deep claw mark furiously slashed into an old, dilapidated horse post. He followed the clues into an alleyway nearby, his racing heart calming just a tad as he saw an orange glow setting near the head of a hill.
“Val! Why’d you run off like that? You had me worried.”
Even as he dashed to her side, the usually upbeat hound remained eerily silent. She just sniffled and scratched at the dirt, her ears and tail folded down.
The bandit gently settled himself next to her, taking a moment to admire the star-speckled nebula above and the cavalcade of fireflies swirling at the bottom of the hill, feeling like they were trapped in the midst of a gentle pool of glimmering lights. Carefully, he set a hand atop Val’s shoulder, giving it a few soft squeezes.
“You alright? I’m sorry about Nathan. He just has some serious trust issues… but we still need his help.”
“I know. Gods, I know. Because this was never about us… it was about your brother.”
Aaron blinked, a bit perplexed, “Yeah… I said so before we left. I care about you, Val, but I’m not going to turn down someone with Nathan’s skills just because you two don’t see eye-to-eye.”
The hound hummed in a near whisper. With arms folded around her knees, she slowly turned to face Aaron, her fiery eyes glistening wet.
“I… I’m sorry. I’m sorry for acting so selfish.”
“What’d you mean, Val?”
Valerie gritted her sizable fangs together, more tears dripping down her cheeks. They sizzled against her superheated knees as they landed. Her bottom lip trembled, trying to force the words out.
“I know you just want to save Douglas. B-but… but I don’t want to go on some big, serious quest with you. I want to have fun. I want it to be just me and you… I… I want… I want a nice little house we can live in together…”
Aaron blinked slowly, his heart starting to beat like a wardrum. Understanding dropped on him like an iron curtain.
“Val… do you love me?”
Aaron felt her paw slip away, slipping under his palm. Her thick, fuzzy fingers gently but firmly laced with his own, sending a rolling wave of warmth through his already heated body.
“Of course I do, dummy! I love you, babe. I want to squeeze you and wipe away your tears when you’re sad. I want to spend every night snuggled up next to you. I want to make lots of cute puppies with you. I want to spend the rest of my life with you… b-but we can’t… because I wouldn’t even dream of hurting you, and I couldn’t live with myself if I dragged you away from your brother when he needs you the most.”
Val’s words left Aaron totally breathless. Struggling to even fully process her words, he managed to squeeze her paw back and gasp out.
“Think about what you’re saying, Val! How can you love me? You’ve only known me for two weeks… and do you even realize all of the awful things I’ve done? I’ve killed loads of innocent people for money! Is that the kind of man you want to be with?!”
Tears were fully spilling down the hound’s cheeks in a steaming cascade. She spun around, tackling Aaron to the ground and forcing their lips together. The bandit’s own wet eyes widened, mind swimming as their heat mingled together and went off like bursting flame.
“Don’t talk about yourself like that, babe! No matter what you’ve done, no matter what you do from here… I… I love you, and I’ll never stop loving you!”
“Val… you’ve got a real shitty taste in men.” Aaron trembled, his own tears starting to spill, “But… I love you too. After we save Doug, I promise we’ll go have our own adventure. Just the two of us. How does that sound?”
The hellhound’s entire body began trembling. Her whole body flushed a deeper shade of ashy-black, and her happy grin was lit up by the leaping hellfire pouring from her eyes like celebratory fireworks. She kissed and licked at his face, the bandit happily returned the prior action. As they lay snuggling at the hilltop, both overjoyed and content, Aaron saw the faintest traces of a frown curling around the hound’s lips.
“What’s wrong, Val?”
“Babe… I… I’m so happy I met you, and I don’t want to hide anything from you… so I need to fess up. I lied to you before. T-the truth is… I didn’t leave my tribe because I was bored. I left because… well, I’m not tough at all. Not compared to others hellhounds, at least. I’ve always been the smallest and weakest of my sisters. That’s why I don’t have a skull collar. Every hellhound gets one from her mom when she grows up… but my mom never gave me one. She said I wasn’t ready to go out and find a mate yet.”
“And you ran away before she decided you were ready?”
Valerie sniffled, nodding into his chest. He felt more hot tears seep through his tunic.
“It’s the symbol of every hellhound’s pride. I was afraid I’d never find someone who loved me without one. I know it sounds silly, but… I don’t even care about it anymore. You’re all I need, babe. You’re what I fight for.”
“I’m flattered.” Aaron chuckled. He gently tilted her head away, brushing a few strands of her raven hair aside to kiss her forehead. Feeling her tears on his chin, he pulled a piece of cloth from his pocket to wipe them away.
“A-Aaron? Where did you get this?”
The bandit’s half-lidded eyes widened in shock as he realized just what the cloth was – it was the bandanna that Damian had left with him all the way back at Riak.
“Shit. Sorry, Val, I wasn’t thinking-”
Val cut him off. She yanked the cloth away, giving it a few deep whiffs.
“This… this smells just like my Uncle Damian. It looks like the same kind of bandanna he also wore, too…”
Happy, quiet contentment soon boiled over into shock.
“D-Damian is your uncle? Are you serious?!”
“Sure I am, babe. But I haven’t seen him in years… ever since he and my dad had some big fight…”
With two mammoth revelations collapsing a top of him at once, Aaron could only rest his head in the grass and stare dumbly up at the infinite blanket of stars and night hanging above. Things began to make a bit more sense – Damian and Starkard were always said to have a rivalry. Then, he realized, he had never heard Damian’s surname. Was that a purposeful vow against his kin? Aaron realized he might’ve had all the answers in the warm bundle of wild happiness in his arms. His new girlfriend. The thought brought a smile to him, and all his burning questions didn’t seem so important.
“…here, Val. It ain’t a skull collar, but I think it’ll look good on you…”
Tail beating back and forth, Val let her forehead rest in Aaron’s chest as he tied the bandanna around her neck. Making sure the knot was securely fastened, he pulled away and admired how the crimson framed her happy face.
“How’d I look?” she giggled, shooting him a wink.
“Cute.” he whispered huskily, leaning up to kiss at her neck.
Certainly, no matter what came to pass, he knew they’d be together until the end, whether it be bitter or sweet.
The entire space was carved from mountains of marble, then polished to a bone-white sheen. Busts and portraits made by the most careful and articulate of hands could be found sleeping between the thick marble pillars that lined the long stair hallway. They were of gods and their chosen heroes, of kings and their loyal vassals. The ones who’s blood and sweat had created the grandiose palace around them.
Royal red, gold-trimmed curtains parted from high above, letting light spill in from the stained glass, casting a kaleidoscope on the shoulders of the young prince as he advanced down the hall. He walked past with an ill-mixing cocktail of trepidation and haste. The long carpet below unfurled from the throne room ahead, and for a moment, he felt like he was walking along a great tongue right into the maw of an ancient beast.
He ascended the final wave of short steps, coming face-to-face with two golden-armor clad Praetorian Guards. They nodded dutifully at him, their faces just as hard and unflinching as the statues down the hall.
“Prince Maximus.” they greeted simply, their platinum polearms uncrossing, giving him clear access to the set of double-doors they stood guard at. The prince nodded back.
The prince laid tentative hands against the cool brass of the oak doors. He paused shortly, trying to gather himself before entry. It wasn’t the lack of weapons that had him feeling unprotected; nor the fine robes replacing his armor that left him feeling naked and afraid.
He knew he simply couldn’t wait there forever. Slowly pushing, the doors came smoothly open, swinging on their well-oiled latches for the prince to cross the threshold. He did, and the guards still in the hallway promptly eased them closed. It wasn’t a heavy slam, but in the spacious throne room, the sound reverberated like the bellow of a furious giant.
The room was sparsely decorated, as compared to the hallway. No windows leading in, no other doors leading out. The clean ivory floor stretched under the feet of another long line of Praetorian Guards, all the way up to an elevated throne, a massive structure of the finest woods and most precious of metals.
There, Maximus stared towards his father with a quivering nervousness shaking his sharp jade eyes.
The man was old, old enough for one to question why he had such a young son. Any trace of the once golden hair had long faded from his stark-white beard. A gold crown wrapped around his liver-spotted head, leaving no question as to who he was.
Ancient as he was, the emperor was far from a pathetic sight. His was still broad-shouldered and tall, fitting well into his red silken robes, his tan, weathered skin in combination with his frame gave the impression of a still mighty oak tree. His fingers clutched tightly to the arms of his throne, threatening to crack under his grip. His eyes were like his sons, still gleaming with fire, life, and a barely restrained fury.
“My son. It’s good to see you unharmed.” the old emperor cracked, voice just as resounding and resolute as his title would imply.
Maximus had already bent his knee, bowing his head. He looked up to his father, thankful for the Legion’s top-notch healers for patching up his broken nose.
“You as well, father.”
The old man grumbled something, leaning forward, hanging on the seat of his chair. The jade fire in his eyes flared, the fatherly concern in his inflection all but gone.
“Tell me something, my boy; what was your mission in Graeme?”
Maximus’ throat went dry. His father wasn’t asking for a refresher. His body was crumbling, but his mind was still as sharp as ever.
“I… I was to set up a garrison in Riak, to ensure they wouldn’t fall through on another one of our deals. Their crops and top agriculturists for our gold reserves and magic instructors.”
“A fair trade, I would think. We need more food in order to continue bolstering our numbers; they need more power in order to quash their bandit problems. But they fell through, didn’t they? They came up short on both food and men while helping themselves to the full promise of gold. They went back on their word… much like you did. Or am I mistaken?”
Maximus remained silent, beads of bitingly cold sweat gathering on his creased brow.
“What did I tell you, son? Not to engage any enemy forces? To stay neutral in their politics?”
“Father… they were…”
“I was told you sent men to attack an orc stronghold that was well out of the way of your path. Does that sound like staying neutral!?” the emperor boomed, a deep scowl unfurling from under his long, bushy beard.
“The filthy swine were abducting innocent farmers and stealing their livestock, father! You’d have me sit idle and allow evil to take root?”
“It was none of your damned business, boy!” the king now roared like a lion, pushing himself up from his throne, “Not only that, but you allowed the dam I entrusted to you to collapse! Worse yet, instead of accepting your defeat and regrouping your men, you took after the culprit like a brash fool, and were nearly killed for it!”
The younger Maximus had nothing more to defend himself with. At least, nothing he knew his father would take heed of. An overwhelming, sickening feeling of humiliation wrenched at him, assaulted his every sense. He could almost hear snickers in his ears, the sadistic smiles aimed at his back, the cowards who wished to see him fall from a distance jeering at him… even the Praetorian Guard’s boundless silence almost seemed mocking.
“Yes, father… Your Excellency…” was all the prince could muster.
The emperor settled back into his throne, his old joints popping as he did so. As his posture relaxed, his ironclad expression seemed to soften in turn.
“Warmongering and endless combat with monsters is what killed the old order of humanity, my son. A man who craves combat after having a taste of it is no better than the devils he claims to abhor.” the elder Maximus breathed, the faintest slivers of remorse and sorrow on his voice, “No. We won’t be as foolish. We shall merely bolster our forces, only warring with those who have crossed us first. When the rest of humanity realizes their foolishness in placing their trust with demons, they’ll flock to us with open arms. That is the only way to ensure we don’t end up like the old Order. That is the only way to survive in this mad world.”
Maximus felt something snap inside of him. As he stared at his wide-eyed face in the marble floor, he felt that something burst into a flame, kindled by rage at his father’s words. He wanted peace with demons? Sign treaties with devils? Sleep at night knowing he allowed humanity to mingle with the very abominations that hunted them since antiquity?
The prince felt his numb, shaking legs push his body back upright. He glared up at the emperor, jade flame burning past the golden warriors lined up before him.
“No… you’re wrong. You’re wrong! The reason the old Order fell was because of weak cowards like you, trying to break bread with the damned! Do you even realize how many innocent men are corrupted every moment we let those fiends walk the earth!?” Maximus roared, unfettered by his previous fear, “You… you think to make peace and bide time for the sake of our men? For my fallen brothers? You spit on their graves!”
The emperor’s nostrils flared. He rose from his throne once more – but it wasn’t like the last time. He didn’t push his gnarled body to stand with a haste. It was slow, methodical, and bubbling under with a titanic fury, like hot magma waiting to burst from a raging mountain.
“Listen here, you insolent brat. You are to return to your quarters and wait for your next assignment. The scum that destroyed Riak shall be hunted down and punished accordingly; under no circumstance are you to chase after them on some childish notion of vengeance.”
Maximus had only realized the full extent of his words after he had carelessly let them fly. He sunk back to his knee, bowing his head until his forehead hit the cool marble of the floor.
“Father… pray forgive me, I didn’t mean to-”
“Enough!” the elder boomed, “I’ve… I’ve had enough. Leave. Leave now, and know the only reason I haven’t had your head lopped off is because I couldn’t bear to stain my throne room with my own blood.”
Maximus felt his entire body involuntarily shudder. Anger, rage, frustration, everything seemed to charge in around him at once. His entire world shook apart, worse than the tremors he felt aboard his coach as Riak was destroyed. Somehow, he managed to rise to his feet, but couldn’t bear to look his father in the face. Turning on his heel, he hurriedly paced away, feeling like nothing more than a beaten dog.
He never had anything even remotely resembling a green thumb, but Maximus always had a slight interest in gardening. As he walked through the expansive palace courtyard, he thought it more than just an admiration for the beauty and power of nature.
The prince’s hurried pace slowed with each step through the verdant greenery, finally stopping in order to pick and sniff at a rose. It was sickeningly sweet, a verdant red like the flag of the country he was born to rule.
Maximus looked upon the flowers and thought, perhaps, a gardener was really no different than a king down to the essence of their profession. Any lowborn hillbilly could throw slop at pigs and take out sheep to graze – but a gardener, a truly spectacular one, one worthy of an emperor, needed to take meticulous care of his flowers. Like a ruler, he existed on a higher plane than the life he cultivated, and would never be able to fully understand their simple, quiet lives. And yet he clipped away, ensured they received enough nourishment, plucked the weeds threatening to overtake them…
He smiled, for a brief moment. Then his father’s pity-filled jade glare returned to the forefront of his mind. He felt his thumb dig into a thorn, pressing down until his blood ran freely down it’s stalk.
The rose was perfect. Beautiful, immaculate in form and shape and color, but perfectly capable of defending itself.
A vengeful lust flashed across the prince’s scowling face. He tossed the rose away, licking away the blood at his thumb, the bitterly metallic flavor reminding him of the broken nose he had received a week ago, at the hands of that filthy bandit…
Aaron Axenus was his name. The man who spat right into his eye during a duel. The man who destroyed the Titan’s Palm, killing hundreds of his men and destroying his garrison, forcing him back to his country in shame. The sheer gall of the evil bastard appalled him. The fact he, his bitch, and his little archer friend escaped and were still skipping across the country side felt like an affront to justice itself. Like an acid eating holes in his stomach.
Maximus saw himself gouging out the bastard’s corneas in his mind’s eye. Then he saw himself beheading his bitch. He could hear the screams of that blasted archer as he gutted him. He could nearly feel his finger’s around the bandit’s throat, squeezing down, his heart leaping with joy as he felt the cunt’s pulse gradually peter out.
The prince was suddenly and immediately dragged out of the pool of dark thoughts by a familiar hum. He knew that sweet, heavenly voice. It danced along the aromatic air of the gardens, drawing him like a bee to honeysuckle. He weaved through the gardens, a fresh pep in his step. The black dregs weighing down his spirit crumbled away as he drew nearer and nearer.
It was through a great ivy-covered archway and next to a small pond he found her. She sat by a bush of violets, the windswept petals blowing past her silky hair of a darker shade. She wore a fine, frilled gown of the purest white, a matching sun hat atop her head. Past it’s hanging brim, Maximus could see her pink eyes light up as she saw him approach.
“Pheles… I’m so glad to see you.”
The girl smiled; a delicate thing so sickeningly sweet he could almost feel his heart ache at the sight. She was the very definition of a noble beauty; oozing a subtle grace and radiating a certain sort of serenity wherever she went in whatever she wore.
“Oh, Max… you’re safe, thank the heavens. I heard about what happened at Riak. I was so worried about you!”
“Don’t fret over me, Pheles. If I’m to fall in battle, I’d fall with sword in hand, honorable and proud to the last breath.”
Her cute face contoured into a gloomy sadness, “Please, Max. Don’t say such things. Every time you leave me, I do nothing but pray for your safe return… you visit me in my dreams, and you pervade my every waking thought. I can’t live without you~”
A cherry-red blush crossed the prince’s face, from one cheek, across the nose, to the next one. He sheepishly rubbed at the back of his head.
“I… I feel the same, Pheles. I don’t know if I could go on without you by my side. I swear it, I shall make you my empress one day.”
Pheles, with all the delicate grace of a gliding spirit, rose from the grass, patted off her dress, and approached her prince with open arms. He did likewise, and they caught each other in a warm embrace that lasted far too short for either of them to be satisfied. Gently kissing at her neck, Maximus pulled away and met her shimmering pink eyes.
They sat together in the garden for hours on end, simply content with sharing each other’s company. Max, with tears nearly spilling from his eyes, recounted all the tribulations he had been through since their time apart. Pheles lent a supportive ear, comforting him all throughout.
“I love you, Pheles. More than anything.”
She silenced him with a finger to the lips. She gently kissed him on the cheek, pulling away to whisper into his ear.
“Make me yours, my prince~”
Maximus practically smashed his way back to his quarters, Pheles in his arms the whole while. That restless night, he nearly forgot about all that had ailed him. But the morning did come, and like all good things, his time with Pheles began to draw to a close.
The prince’s weary eyes slowly craned open, sunlight filtering in from the slightest crack in his parted curtains. A rapid knocking on his door lured him further out of the hazy dreams that were already slipping from his mind. He peered over to Pheles, already half-awake and smiling sweetly at him. He gave her a quick peck on the forehead.
“Wait here. I won’t let him see you.” he said, fingers brushing across the smooth, creamy skin of her cheek. She giggled lightly, kissing his palm before he pulled away.
Grumbling all the while, the prince straightened out his tangled mess of golden locks and slapped on his robes.
“Sire? Are you alright?”
“I’m coming. Have a bit of patience, will you?”
Maximus slowly pushed open the door, allowing just enough room for one of his jade eyes to peer out and take a look at his visitor. It was one of the usual runners, a young, squat fellow who looked just barely able to uphold a tidy appearance in the midst of all his dashing back-and-forth.
“My Lord,” the runner fell to a knee, bowing his head and holding out a scroll in a single smooth movement, “I have new orders for you.”
Maximus snatched away the scroll and slammed his door shut in a less-than-smooth fashion, but it was effective in the crudest way. The prince’s jade leer fell to the scroll… then ran back up to Pheles, still lounging under his sheets, shooting him what would should’ve been an impossible fusion of a flirty stare and innocent smile.
“Coming back to bed, love?”
He wanted to rip off his robes and hop in then and there, but his fist tightened around the scroll. He couldn’t very well ignore it. He was already in hot water with his father, ignore his military orders would’ve been tantamount to treason.
“Just a moment, dear.” he sighed, holding up the scroll and letting gravity unfurl it.
Maximus paced about his spacious living quarters, from his file-stacked desk, across from his ceiling-high bookshelf, over to the decorative suit of ancient mail that stood near his bedside like a watchful sentinel. Teeth grinding together, he promptly pounded his fist against the old armor. It’s hollow ringing hadn’t even stopped before the prince ripped his orders in two and threw them into his rubbish bin.
“Damn that old fool!” Maximus gritted out, his whole body tensing up as fury flared within him, “He’s sending me to Var to aid some fat fool of a duke in a pointless coup! I can’t believe this! For as much as preaches about noninterference and remaining neutral in foreign affairs… and now this? Unbelievable! He wants to appease monsters and throw away precious men and resources fighting worthless conflicts that have not a drop of worth to us! If our governors and generals weren’t taking things into their own hands, that senile profligate would’ve had our country overrun with demons by now!”
“Hmm… this grand palace, teeming with monsterkind? Hard to imagine.” Pheles cooed up at him, “As soft as he may be going, I doubt your father would allow things to reach that point.”
“Oh… I doubt that. I’ve heard… other rumors, shall we say.”
“And pray tell, what would those be? The ones insinuating your father wishes to step off the throne and reinstate a council?”
Maximus nodded sluggishly, but with a white-hot purpose that seemed to burn from every fiber of his being, “I shan’t be denied my birthright.. even by my own father. And I’ll be stripped of my flesh in the deepest circle of hell before I let this world be denied it’s saviors. The first Maximus Cotta destroyed the triumvirate and built up this empire for a damned good reason – to stave of monsterkind. With the old Order gone, humanity needs a new banner to rally beneath.”
Pheles smiled up at him, playing with a lock of her rich purple hair, “You don’t believe the people have the ability to rule themselves?”
A sour look crossed Maximus’ already frowning face, “Of course not. Would you allow sheep to lead each other? Especially with so many wolves stalking around them…”
“Perhaps most people are smarter than you give them credit for, dear.”
“Perhaps. But perhaps they’re also prone to panic, prone to act rashly and without thought of the consequences of their actions. Even being raised with the finest tutors and mentors, its something even I’m still guilty of, I’m afraid… and all that aside, democracy is far to fragile a thing in times of crises. Arrogant fools would much rather screech like banshees and sling dung at each other than come to a compromise with their political opponents. It leads to divisiveness and sluggish reaction, something we can’t afford nowadays.”
“Hmm. Good point, my prince.” Pheles giggled, settling further into his mattress, “Maybe when the monster crises is all said and done with, then?”
“Just maybe.” Maximus laughed in turn, “As for now, I suppose I have no other choice but to keep following my father’s misguided will. I just got back from the west, and now I’m forced to dive back to fight in some meaningless war as mankind’s true enemy continues to bolster their numbers.”
Pheles rolled over to her stomach, the tan blanket wrapping around her and hugging tightly to her curves, and showing more than a good bit of her breasts to the prince. His wandering eyes were quickly grounded, however, as they read a sudden seriousness in Pheles.
“One last thing, Max.” she breathed, leaning ever forward, “Don’t be so sure his coup in Var to be so worthless. It may be a small country, but it’s mages are top notch, and more and more relics are being discovered there. Something many wish to have integrated into our forces, yes?”
“That is true, but… there are several more closer countries that share those traits.”
“Yes, but if the duke leading the coup there… Alvo, I believe his name was… owes his victory to the Esperian Empire, then we’re in a far better position to barter, are we not? Butter him up like a lobster, and we might even be able to set up a few garrisons there. It would put us in a perfect position to cull any uprisings or monster outbursts in the west.”
Maximus slowly nodded along, a bit embarrassed that he hadn’t immediately come to such an obvious conclusion with all his long hours studying military strategy.
“You’re deceptively sharp, Pheles. I have to say, I’m a bit jealous.”
“Every rose has them, dear~” she giggled haughtily, motioning him to come closer with a single finger.
The grinning prince was more than happy to oblige her.
Dragging himself from bed and grabbing hold of his saber, Maximus tidied himself up before giving Pheles a final goodbye kiss and departing. He began his descent down the tower, ignoring the storm of good mornings and sires thrown his way by his gaggle of servants. Leaving them to their business, he left his wing of the palace and paced towards the armory.
He had ran through so many mission preps that it was near second nature for him. He’d pick up his armor, choosing any other personal weapons he might’ve wanted. The prince descended into a long hallway, sparsely decorated by the standard of the rest of the palace. Long pillars were stacked intermediately between long rows of open windows, letting the saccharine fragrance of the gardens spill in with the soft sunlight.
The prince advanced down the hall, shadows and light racing off his shoulders with every striding step. Although perfumed by the flowers and walking with a fresh confidence after feeling Pheles’ tender and sympathetic embrace, he still felt something was off. Terribly off. Like trying to recall a fleeting nightmare in the earliest hours of the morning, something dark and sinister teased the very corners of his mind before darting back into the crevice it had sprung from.
He stopped, another man’s presence suddenly apparent to him. He glared ahead, watching an odd figure step out from behind a pillar, staying safe in his little island of darkness between the two patches of sunlight.
The prince’s handsome, detached poker face contorted into a scowl.
“Chicot.” Maximus snapped, “What is it you want, clown?”
Giggling like the lunatic at midnight, Chicot danced halfway into the light, the bells stitched onto his costume jingling all the while. Black and red and trimmed with platinum, it was clear that the fool was no ordinary jester. He stared up at the prince, Maximus only able to imagine the disgusting grin hiding behind the garish mask of a static woman’s face.
“Oh… you wound me so, young lord.” the freak laughed, his voice just as wiry and twisted as his body, “I just meant to tell you I’m glad to see you in good health.”
“I don’t need your pity, you disgusting toad! Now make yourself scarce before I splatter you all over these halls!”
“Tsk, tsk. I don’t think your father would approve of you slaughtering the head researcher in his magic development program.” Chicot hooted, the mockery flying off his tongue like slag out a smelter, “Would he? No, not for such a trivial reason I think… and especially since that little tantrum you had in front of him.”
Maximus had his saber drawn before the jester had even finished speaking. In a single moment, he had the blade’s tip up against the freak’s throat. A jade death glare bore right into the jester’s mask.
“Thats a tongue-lashing I’m willing to take. The old man’s becoming senile, trusting so much to a a rat who refuses to show his face.”
A low giggle escaped Chicot, unfazed by the saber at his throat, “I’ve told you before, dear prince. I’m horribly scared from both chemical burns and pox~ I don’t want to offend your royal sensibilities. Besides, its tradition for mages to wear masks in this lovely nation of Esperia, is it not?”
“Just shut your slimy little mouth, you buffoon. I still haven’t an iota of trust to lend you.”
Even as he declared his utter lack of faith, the prince saw it inappropriate the hold the jester at bladepoint any longer. Chicot pirouetted away as the prince’s blade left his throat. Making a dramatic show and back flipping back into the shadows, he shook both hands wide open.
“Oh why, dear prince? What has poor Chicot done to earn your ire?”
“For one, your voice grates my ears.” Maximus snapped, “Secondly, I’ve heard the rumors about you… you experiment with dark, forbidden sorcery… make deals with evil entities… that makes you no better than a man who lays with monsters in my eyes.”
Chicot nodded quickly, the bells hooked onto the end of each point of his cap jingling affirmatively, “Ah, I see. A good reason. Even if you have no proof of such a bold claim~”
“Your blithe attitude also strongly tempts me to smack you in the throat.”
“Just. Shut. Up.” the prince snapped. He pushed past the jester, continuing on his way, “I’m sick of you! For all I know, you’re the one poisoning my father’s mind. Just stay locked up in your dingy little lab and play with your elixirs if you know what’s good for you.”
Maximus heard the freak’s bells jingle, but he didn’t look back. He knew Chicot was a crazed fool, but he also was confident the jester wasn’t mad enough to attack a High Prince in the middle of his palace. Just as the noble youth was fixing to leave the hallway and continue to the armory, he heard something that froze him to the spot.
“Aaron Axenus. You want his head mounted on a pike, don’t you?”
Maximus slowly craned his neck over, a new fire burning in his chest. He stared down the jester, striding towards him with a sluggishness that suggested mockery. With every dancing step, his bells jingled like a warning siren.
“How do you know that name?”
“I hear many things, dear prince. Few whispers escape my notice in this palace.”
Maximus felt a newfound disgust as he stared towards the demented little cretin. He felt something akin to violation, like the jester had sneakily picked his mind for the deepest, juiciest bits. The prince went fully red in the face, now incredibly urged to strike Chicot down. His fingers found his saber’s hilt as the jester came dangerously close.
“Leave. Now. I want nothing of you, and I want even less of your foul magics.”
Chicot saw the prince’s saber flash in a vein of sunlight, only a bell on his cap being taken off by the swing. A fair warning. The jester wisely chose to take it and lifted up two empty palms, tapping his feet against the stone below as he slid backwards in retreat.
“Well, I never! I was just going to offer you a spot of help… oh well. You’ll see the light soon enough, dear prince.”
Like a wilting shade or wispy phantom, Chicot seemingly disappeared into the shadow of one of the pillars. Still sneering even in his absence, Maximus spat at the ground where Chicot once stood, the interaction residing like spoiled meat on his tongue. With the jester gone, the prince returned to his senses shortly after he returned to business, still planning on spending the afternoon with Pheles before he departed.
Even as he left the hall and entered the armory, the outside world snailed by. He couldn’t focus on the vast array of weapons the quartermaster practically threw at him. He couldn’t focus as his freshly polished armor was handed back into his care. He felt absolutely nothing as he stared into the six-winged hawk at the crest of his shield.
Aaron Axenus. The Black Bandit. Even more then Chicot, the man’s name and the memories of his transgressions gnawed like a parasite feasting at the back of his skull. He decided he didn’t care what his senile old father had to say. He’d have his revenge, even if he had to chase it to the ends of the earth or beyond. Any consequence that came his way after that would be paltry. One way or another, he’d personally escort that disgusting, insolent thug down to the deepest pits of hell.