It was a secluded section of land, yet still safely within the vast bounds of Otha’s property. A tall building stood ominously against the bleak night, almost appearing like a barn, but constructed from thick gray stone. Two armed men standing guard at its only way in or out – a set of wide double doors, kept under heavy lock and key. The two guards stared vacantly out into the manor in the distance, obviously not used to much action beyond chasing off any curious nocturnal wildlife.
With such dulled attention, neither of them saw the gangly shadow encroaching on them.
He went for the man on the right flank first. Sneaking up from behind, the phantom wrapped one of his long, thin arms around the guard’s neck. Before he had time to react, the creep sprung into action.
Runic circles of a dark maroon sprung from the gangly man’s rough palm. As those runes spun around in the crisp air before the guard’s face, they emitted a thick pink gas, the hapless guard breathing it in before he even realized what was happening.
“Sleep…” the shadowy man urged, pushing the coughing guard to the ground. A few gasping wheezes and rolling tears later, the guard did just that. His eyes fluttered shut and he went out like a flickering candle under a downpour.
It wasn’t until his partner’s back hit the ground did the second guard notice the attacker. He spun to meet the gangly fellow, spear at the ready.
The shadowy man pulled out his own weapon in turn. It was far less impressive than the guard’s spear, appearing as little more than a wooden tube. As laughably amicable as it was when compared to the a sharp and sturdy spear, it did it’s job efficiently enough. Blowing on the end, a small dart launched from the tube, stabbing the second guard right in his unprotected neck.
The spear hit the grass, the guard’s pupils dilating. A numbing poison raced through his bloodstream, and in just a few moments time, he had collapsed beside his partner, unable to so much as budge his limp body.
“There we go.” the gangly attacker hissed, pulling down his black shawl, leaving the cool air to kiss at his bone-white skin. His disgusting smirk perfectly encapsulated his smug satisfaction at a job well-done.
The nigh skeletal man held up another open palm to the heavy locks barring his entrance. Undeterred, he conjured more runic circles. This time, they were a sickly green in color, five small ones over each of his fingertips rather than a single one hovering before his palm.
The heavy chains around the door rattled violently as their locks danced to the pale man’s magic. The inner mechanisms of the lock could be heard clicking and snapping. Furrowing his brow in concentration, he clenched his fist shut, squeezing the magic circles into his open palm.
On his command, five keys of that same shade of sickly viridian manifested within the open keyholes. With his disgusting smile spreading wrinkles across his pasty skin, the man turned his clenched fist ninety degrees The keys turned just the same, five cheerful clicks sounding out into the night. The locks fell from the chains, and the entire collection of iron and brass went tumbling into the grass.
With a snicker that would send children away bawling, the man casually strolled inside of the barn-like building. Letting his bony fingers roam around in the darkness, he eventually found the cold, smooth metal of a lever. Pulling it down, the man expected the dark interior to spring into light, but absolutely nothing occurred beyond the lever making a creaking with a dull ‘thunk’. Grumbling, the gangly man repeatedly yanked the lever back into position and back down again, repeating the process until he finally grew tired of the charade.
“Gah! I thought there were some of those fancy automated torches here?! Dammit, Wes, fix your shit!”
He raised both cupped hands into the air, prepping another utility spell. With a low hum of concentration, he summoned a luminous orange ball, glowing dimly. Gently tossing it into the darkness, it suddenly burst with a glare rivaling the midday sun. While it produced very little heat itself, it ensured that the building he had just invaded was perfectly lit. The shadowy invader stood out like a sore thumb now. His pale skin, tattered cloak, and long, oily, ebony hair making him look like a reanimated corpse without the cover of the darkness of the early morning.
Inside, he found just what he was looking for – rows and rows of sturdy steel cages, each trapping a monster, most already stirring awake from their slumber.
Licking his lips, he strolled down, eyeing the girls like a coyote would eye a fat hen. Girls of every sort of variety focused in on the gangly man. There were exotic and foreign species on display, just waiting to be sold. Their expressions ranged from curious to puzzled to repulsed.
He spotted one that caught his fancy. She was a dark elf, her armor stripped and replaced by scanty rags, and the burning hate in her scowl told the gangly invader all he needed – she thought he should be the one kneeling hapless in a cage.
“Oh~ I like resilient ones. Makes ‘em more fun to break down.” the creep giggled, squatting down to meet her eye-to-eye, “That’s the case with humans girls, at least. Tell you what, pretty lady. Show me a good time, and I’ll make it worth your while…”
He reached one bony finger into her cage, trying to scratch at her chin. She still looked sour, but the gangly man still received a nice high as he watched her relent and lean forward, allowing his finger to dance along her jawline…
Then, with a quick snap, she bit down on his knuckle.
“Yeoow!” he hollered, pulling his sore finger back, “You fuckin’ bitch! I promise you’ll regret that!”
The self-satisfied smirk was present on the dark elf’s face even as the creep furiously stormed away, sucking on his sore finger.
Hopping atop one of the cages and terrorizing the poor monster underneath, the gangly man raised his shrill voice to make an announcement, “Alright, you harlots, listen up! Otha’s dead!”
The ambiance of the spacious, sparse room amplified the monster’s quiet, confused mutterings, and it was music to the gangly man’s ears. His thin arms emerged from his ragged cloak, waving around from cage to cage.
“You’re in no position to resist… but there’s no need to be alarmed. My employer is going to treat you to even better conditions, as long as you behave yourselves. So don’t go getting any funny ideas, y’hear? He’ll be here soon!”
“Thanks for the info, chump.” rung out a deep, gruff voice, one that didn’t belong to the gangly man and one that certainly didn’t belong to any monster girl.
Immediately the gangly man’s pale face contorted. Leaping from the cage he had used as a soapbox, he landed in the center aisle and stared towards the still open doors. There towered a true barbarian. Bald, with a dark complexion. His tight muscles and myriad battle scars painted him as a fellow who was well-versed in both receiving and dishing out pain.
“Oh~? And just what are you doing here, friend?”
“Same reason as you, creep.” the barbarian shrugged his broad shoulders, “My boss sent me out here to secure the area before he wrangles up his carriages to haul these ladies off. Word travels fast, I suppose.”
“Well, Otha did bite it at the party tonight. Not too surprising a few of her boot-lickers would try to snatch up an opportunity this sweet… a whole barn fulla slaves. Shit, some of these girls are so exotic they’d fetch five figures, easy.”
“…and Otha’s family is going to be so busy fighting over their inheritance, no one will have the time or manpower to hunt ‘em all down.”
A deathly silence fell over the area. The caged monsters watched with rapt attention, some of them shivering in fear, others just looking on with indifference, and others glaring on with steely, callous hate. Both men were scum, and one slaying the other wouldn’t be some admonishment of justice. Just two dogs tearing each other’s throats out.
Not even the chirps of crickets seemed to pierce the thick tension. The barbarian slowly lifted his battle-ax, while the gangly man raised his index finger, a frosty mist billowing from a runic circle spinning above the tip.
“Hey, fellas. Sorry I’m late.”
The air, thick with killing intent, suddenly fell to the wayside when a new man entered the building. He was younger than either of the two, but his hair was the same shade of deep iron-gray one would expect on a mountain hermit. Heaving around his claymore with a single hand, he stuck it into the creaky floorboards and supported his weight against it.
“Great. Another asshole sent his goon to kidnap us…” chimed in a particularly snarky elf.
“Whoa, whoa. I ain’t like this two jackoffs.” the newcomer spat, gesturing wildly towards the confused men, “I’m doing this on behalf of a friend… and we’re not here to sell ya, we’re here to let you go free.”
The iron-haired man’s words seemed to spark a blazing hope in the monster’s hearts, where they previously thought ever running free with the right to choose their own husband a fleeting dream. Both the gangly mage and the barbarian stared vitriolically towards the younger man. It was only the mage, however, who caught something worrying in the gray-haired man’s bold statement.
Almost mockingly, a dark monster sprang to his side and landed on all fours, her eyes spewing forth jets of hellflame. Both goons recoiled at her feral snarl, but her appearance only brought more excitement to her caged sisters.
“Valerie and Aaron, on the scene!” she boasted, menacingly pointing a dull-copper claw at the barbarian and mage, “I hope you two are ready for a beatdown!”
The two goons refocused their anger on the punk and his hellhound. Both seeing them as the more immediate threat, the gangly man and the barbarian formed an unspoken contract, deciding to deal with Aaron and Valerie before they returned to business.
At once, the two thugs went rushing to lock blades at the center of the slave house. Valerie bounded forward. The barbarian tried cutting her down as she passed, but the hound easily dodged his slash, slipping behind him and slamming one of her hindpaws into his back as she passed.
Valerie bounced back up, finding herself before the second, more sickly-looking man. With a fitting wicked and twisted smile, he clapped his hands, then, with fingers interlocked, aimed both open palms to the ground.
The air around Val distorted like a heatwave. Grunting, she found herself forced to her knees, struggling to rise back to her hindpaws. Her ears, tail and fur all pointed towards the earth, like a powerful gale was blowing against her from above. Snickering, the man slowly approached, drawing a long, thin dagger.
“Kekeke… you like that spell? It makes your body five times heavier. Just stay right there, pooch.” he mocked, “Stay still and I’ll make it quick.”
Valerie struggled back up, her raging eye-flames rocketing towards the cheap flooring and leaving burn marks. The gangly mage was undeterred, thinking her still locked firmly in place. He stopped within arm’s reach, rearing his dagger back, ready to plunge it into her heart…
The hellhound didn’t look terrified. In fact, her dour expression could’ve easily been interpreted like she couldn’t believe how stupid the mage was. Windmilling her paw around, she brought the quintupled weight of her heavy fist atop the gangly creep’s skull with a speed he severely underestimated.
The dagger fell against the cracked wooden boards the man was now implanted in. He groaned weakly in pain, and while Val was no fortune teller, she could easily see a nasty bump in his future. The spell quintupling her weight faded with the casters defeat, and the hound celebrated by explicitly bouncing and wagging her freed tail.
On the other side of the building, Aaron stood facing the bald barbarian. The taller man swung his hefty battle-ax overhead with a single meaty arm, trying to scare the younger away. One look at Aaron’s steely scowl was all the barbarian needed to know his plan to dismay him was a fruitless effort.
Instead, he brought his ax down.
Aaron answered with a swift parry. The barbarian snarled out a confused grunt, his blade bouncing away, leaving a sharp vibration running down the weapon’s shaft and numbing his fingers. Pulling back, the barbarian choked down on the shaft of his ax, adding his other hand to the tight grip. With a mighty roar, he swung it at Aaron’s unprotected shoulder, aiming to cripple his sword arm.
To the barbarian’s shock, Aaron swung his claymore once again, deflecting the blow with ease.
A vein atop the barbarian’s temple bulged out, throbbing violently. Grinding his yellowed teeth together, the barbarian shifted into a more aggressive stance, reared his ax behind his back, and with a furious cry, brought it down, aiming to split Aaron’s head open like a ripe melon.
Aaron simply raised his sword above his head in retaliation, one hand against the flat of the blade and the other tightly gripping the handle.
The barbarian remained snarling as his blade crashed into Aaron’s sword, sparks flying off and sizzling out before they hit the ground. Pushing the blade forward, the barbarian could spot Aaron’s mocking smirk just under his sword’s edge.
Now fuming, the barbarian yanked his blade away, only to find it crumbling down the middle. Aaron’s parry’s had struck the same point each time, and while the barbarian didn’t notice it in his hasty anger, a large crack had splintered across it. Blinking with wide eyes, the barbarian watched his ax’s head fall apart and clatter loudly below.
Left staring down a man with a cocky smile and huge claymore and armed with nothing but a blunt shaft, the barbarian decided to cut his losses and flee. His footsteps echoed loudly in the small space as he hustled off in a hasty retreat.
Relaxing, Aaron smiled as Val shot him a toothy grin and a thumbs-up, and he nodded affirmatively towards her, unable to stop himself from breaking into a warm smile in turn.
“Alright, everyone. We don’t know how long until more goons show up; stand back and I’ll get you outta these cages.”
Aaron started near the very back of the building, gripping his claymore in both hands. Taking a deep breath, he stomped forward and went to work. On the surface, it looked as though he was swinging his huge blade like a berserk madman – yet the tip of his blade hit lock after lock, smashing and slicing as he continued between the long lines of cages.
In a few short minutes, Aaron had returned to the still open doors, leaving behind enough scrap metal to repurpose into a suit of plate-mail. But more importantly, a crowd of cheering monsters. He had braced himself for them to rush around him and fully embrace their new freedom.
Yet they only stalked slowly forward, the look of a starved creature in their eyes.
“W-what are you waiting around for?” Aaron rhetorically questioned them, already fully knowing what they expected from him, “L-look, this is no time for-”
As some of the vanguard sprung, Valerie slid before Aaron, her claws scraping shrilly against the cheap flooring. Her flaming eyes burst like two erupting volcanoes, their deep orange glow shining bright against her pearly white fangs.
“He’s mine. I already helped your sorry butts out; go find your own man!”
The hellhound’s throaty snarl seemed to snap some sense into the lust-blinded monsters. Grumbling out irritated thank-yous and goodbyes, they split around the couple and slunk off into the woods near Otha’s property. Wherever they went from that point was their own business.
“Phew. Thought I was gonna piss myself for a second there.” Aaron breathed, laying a hand against his racing heart, “Not sure that would’ve stopped most of ‘em, though.”
Val only happily muttered, nuzzling her hot face into his chest, “There. Mission accomplished. Will’s gonna owe us one again, huh?”
“I guess.” Aaron chuckled, scratching between her twitching ears.
“H-help me! Gods, help me!”
Both of their attentions were drawn back to the gangly man, now stripped to his skivvies and tied up with binds of chains and leather straps. A dark elf clad in rags and a sadistic grin stood over his prone body, roughly grinding her heel into his stomach. Deciding he had had enough, the dark elf gagged him, grabbed his legs, and began dragging him towards the door.
“…got a problem?” the elf spat at Aaron and Valerie as she found blue and red eyes locked curiously on her and her new boytoy.
“Err… no. Carry on.” Aaron quickly muttered, his pity well having dried out for the gangly fellow.
“Suit yourself, lady.” Val whistled, folding her paws behind her head and staring off in the opposite direction, “Talk about crappy taste in dudes though…”
The dark elf’s wicked cackles drown out the gangly mage’s gagged, desperate pleading. As they to vanished into the night, Aaron and Valerie exchanged a final satisfied smile and departed from the grim place, never looking back.
With a low, quiet whistle sounding off his nervousness, Will ran his thumb across the rim of his quiver and was disheartened to find he had only two arrows left. He had been too liberal with his shots when fighting Basile and Atlas. That wasn’t good at all… even making the bold assumption Wes would both be his final target of the night and would go down with a single shot.
To make matters worse, Nariko was still low on energy from her spectacular attack on Atlas. William originally thought her bioelectricity something like mage’s and their finite but renewable mana pools. She explained it a bit differently.
Her powers came naturally but required regular use for proper proficiency, more like a muscle than a skill. Having gone by daily for longer than she could remember just lightly blasting a metal rod, suddenly releasing all that she had at once left her dangerously drained.
They had come back up to the center of the cross-shaped basement, and Nariko was resting at the center while Will backtracked to Wes’s lab and yanked the power distributor out of it’s pedestal. By this point, the basement was almost totally dark, only a few flickering sparks remaining in the automated torches lined all along the walls.
Will found the distributor rather light for a device of its size. And it didn’t even feel hollow; although he didn’t even dare hazarding a guess on what could’ve been found within. It was still rather cumbersome despite that, and as Will went to go check in on Nariko, he set it down to rest his back for a brief moment.
“Wes wasn’t in his lab,” Will told her mournfully, “Don’t worry. We’ll pry that collar off you one way or the other.”
Nariko stayed silent, gently rubbing her fingers across the cool metal of the inhumane device.
“So, he’s either gone back up in the manor, or… down here somewhere.” Will breathed, staring down the corridor to the right, the only one he hadn’t explored. The manor’s oddly shaped basement seemed all the more ominous now that the lights were out, leaving them wreathed in a suffocating blackness.
Will stood next to Nariko, the sudden eerie quiet dawning on him since he slowed down. Dropping to a single knee, he rested a supportive hand on her shoulder, careful he didn’t dig his coarse, dirtied fingers too roughly into her immaculate skin.
“Are you hanging in there, Nariko? Do you still have enough energy left to get out of here?”
Nariko’s belly answered with a loud grumble. Ears and tails folding in, she rubbed her stomach and looked up at the archer with pleading eyes.
“This… this is no time for a snack, Nariko.” Will chided down at her, “Besides, does it look like I’m carrying any food on me?”
“Don’t be so mean!” Nariko softly cried, weakly flailing her arms against his shin, “I missed dinner! A girl’s gotta eat, right?! Please, you have to have something.”
Will pondered on it for a moment, just remembering something he had in his pockets. In the miserable rush of Nathan dolling him up into a proper noble, Will had hastily transferred all of the items in the pockets of his old trousers into his new puffy pants, not having the time to sort through them to see what was and wasn’t useful.
And, from the previous day, he still had that small package of cookies from the cheerful elf girl. Pulling them out, he dropped them into Nariko’s awaiting hands.
“Forgot I had those. Not one much for sweets myself, and I guess if you’re that hungry-”
Will had to stop himself. Even through the dim lighting, the joyful tears in Nariko’s eyes were clear as day. She gave him a wobbly smile, her tail wildly thumping against the stone.
“S-sweets?! It’s been so long since I’ve had any!”
“Oh. Well, go ahead and help yourself.”
Nariko tore open the bag with all the viciousness of a lion clawing at its prey’s innards, and munched on the cookies with all the same voracity. Will’s eyes nearly went wide. Crumbs covered her lips and fingers as she made quick work of the sweets, patting her full belly not fifteen seconds after she had got her fingers on the first pastry.
“Mmm~ it’s been years since I’ve had any sweets.” she giggled, still elated. As she licked away the crumbs surrounding her lips, Will could see a few azure sparks pop around her wiggling ears, and Will could only take that as a sign that she had recovered just a bit of energy.
Still a tad blown away by her frenzy, the archer offered her a quick nod and warm smile, “Glad I could help, Nariko.”
Nariko stared at him curiously, wonderment like a child gazing upon a strange new land. In spite of the twinkle in her eyes, her scowl showed only distrust.
“So, what do you want in return?” she asked dryly.
“W-what?” Will asked, dumbfounded, “Nothing. You’ve been free to go since you destroyed Atlas. You didn’t power up Wes’s machines; I got you out of that prison. I couldn’t expect you to go help me save my friend.”
“Really? You’re just going to let me run off? Not even going to make me rub your feet or something?”
“N-no… nothing like that… I just can’t stand seeing people being locked up for no reason.”
“Hmph. And how do you know I haven’t been a bad girl?” Nariko said, letting the last words roll thickly off her tongue like warm honey.
Will’s wide smile was as bright and honest as his words, “You trusted me when you didn’t have any reason to. I wouldn’t be able to sleep with myself at night if I didn’t give you the benefit of the doubt in return.”
A blush crossed her creamy cheeks. With her ears folding down, the monster turned away, hugging her strange dress closer to her shoulders. Will only smiled cordially, stepping away from her.
“You’re a naive idiot.” she whispered away from him, “But your heart’s in the right place, I guess. Thanks… thanks for saving me.”
Will allowed his brief respite to linger on a bit longer, stretching out his back and staring deeper into the darkness around them. He could vaguely make out the dark lump of Zulifqar’s still warm body at the other side of the basement’s center… perhaps Atlas had kicked him in his haste. Either way, he wasn’t sure it was a bright idea to let Nariko know that she had been resting nearby a cadaver for the last five minutes
That’s when William heard them – footsteps. Light but hard-hitting, echoing, approaching fast and aggressively. They were coming from the unexplored hallway, and becoming too loud for comfort.
Nariko noticed sooner than he had, and was staring wide-eyed at the silhouette inching ominously towards them. In a single instant, Will recognized who it was.
The wiry mage’s features were still obscured with darkness, but his body language told William all he needed to know. The short, hard steps. The slanted shoulders. Each time he roughly clenched his fists, sparks of amber firing off conspicuously into the dark.
Wes stopped by one of his lauded automated torches. He ripped off the small panel underneath, holding one bulky gauntlet up to it. A blinding white burst followed, and when the stars flashed away from Will’s eyes, he found the torch lit once again. Its new glow was a far cry from it’s previous gentle, ethereal blue.
Now, it burned all the more intensely, bathing the hallway in amber. That intense light sat flickering on Wes’s face, illuminating every crease of his deep and furious scowl. Will hadn’t known Wes for long; but he seemed like a permanently sullen bastard. Even showing off his vast collections of relics, he just barely emoted beyond a small hint of smug pride.
And because of that, the mage’s trembling fury had Nathan’s alarm bells ringing all the louder. Neck hair bristled, the archer whipped out one his last two arrows and lined up a shot. William was certain of something; if hate could’ve been given form, Wes’s burning glare would’ve melted right through his spectacles and reduced both he and Nariko to sticky ash.
“Where is Atlas? What did you do to him?” Wes demanded, an almost startling calmness to his inflection.
“We destroyed it.” Will replied curtly. He knew damn well it was Nariko who had won that battle, but he didn’t want to place her captor’s full fury solely on her shoulders.
Wes kept his tense silence for a few long moments. His shoulders heaved up and down, and his tightened and tightened his fists at a far higher frequency. Electric sparks flew freely from his strange gauntlets, sizzling out as they showered the ground.
“Do you two dimwits… do you even realize how much Atlas cost me?”
Will opened his mouth to tell him off, but the mage just raved on, voice heavy and wavering, disregarding the cocked bow pointed his way.
“All those costly excavation teams? The endless quest to find and replace his old, rusty parts? The countless sleepless nights, unlocking his secrets…?! Having to lay with that disgusting hog for funding?! I… I didn’t even unlock five percent of his full potential!”
The furious mage slammed a gauntlet into the wall, the electric band across his knuckles making a dull cling as it connected. Will centered his bow, ready to fire.
“You’ll fucking pay for that, you cur.”
Will made no further efforts to dissuade Wes. The killing intent was transparent in the redhead’s eyes; clear and toxic as snake venom. As the mage lifted up a single hand, Will fired at his neck.
With that simple word uttered, a hexagonal panel the color of a deep sunset flashed before Wes. The arrow collided with it, snapping in two before clattering pathetically against the floor. Will wasn’t sure what kind of face he made, but it certainly amused Wes.
Will didn’t even have time to consider notching another arrow. Wes dropped his spell and rushed the archer, one of his sparking gauntlets cocked back. Will doubled back, lifting up his bow on instinct. Wes’s bolt-clad fist crashed right into the bow’s shaft. Will still had no clue what the material was, but it was harder and more flexible than wood and conducted electric currents just as poorly. The only tingle Will’s fingers felt were from the reverberation of the punch itself.
Wes wasn’t dissuaded. Gripping the shaft of the bow, he tugged Will forward with a strength and ferocity Will didn’t expect from his stringy arms. Leaning his head to the side, Will just barely dodged a fierce jab from Wes’s free hand. The archer could feel the heat and hear the air crackle as the thunderous fist just barely missed his cheek. Briefly, he thought back to what Nariko’s full power did to a hulking, walking weapon. He wasn’t sure how those electric gauntlets compared, but Will wasn’t eager to test it out. If they had even a fraction, he would surely end up like the fools who run through storms with spears raised high.
Will let go of his stolen bow to escape and back away from a wide, arcing backhand. Even if it had been an effective weapon at such close quarters, Will only had a single arrow left. Although he’d readily admit to being rusty and it not being his forte to begin with, he was at least somewhat versed in close-quarters-combat. It was beaten into him back during his Legionnaire training. The idea didn’t exactly excite him, but he had little option with the mad mage rushing him without pause.
Snarling and snapping in a way unbecoming of any sane man, Wes threw another few sloppy punches at Will, who dodged them as quickly as his fancy high boots would allow. What brought the archer some measure of relief was that Wes seemed even more a greenhorn in fisticuffs than even himself. His strikes were easily telegraphed, rather sluggish, and left ample openings. The only reason Will hadn’t tried to catch Wes post-swing and floor the little shit was because he suspected that even a wayward tap from those electric gauntlets could spell a gruesome electrocution.
Their fight had them dancing back to the very center of the cross-shaped basement, just out of the illumination of the automated torch Wes forcibly started. Deciding he couldn’t be pushed back any further, Will drew his pocket knife and settled into a defensive stance, ready for the mage’s next assault.
Wes was breathing heavily. Strands of orange-red stuck to sweaty forehead, but he dared not try and wipe them away. Seeming to calm as he savored Will’s desperation, he spared a glance back towards the hallway Nariko was resting, finding the monster nowhere in sight.
“Looks like that blue-haired bimbo left you in your hour of need. And after you risked your life to save her… not that I blame her. It was simply the most logical course of action. But I sure bet that grinds your gears, huh?”
Will didn’t want to believe it, but it was true. Nariko had taken the opportunity to flee. Although, he couldn’t rightly blame her either.
“I never asked for her help, and she didn’t offer it. No, I’d think you be the one pissing and moaning here. How are you going to tinker with your little gizmos now? That’d be like trying to burn a lantern with no oil.”
Wes sniffled, letting the sparks on his gloves die for just a brief moment. Taking the moment to adjust his glasses, Will could see only a small wince of annoyance rather than outright fury.
“I may need to go back to using mana crystals for a bit… admittedly more effective, but even a bit too much for me to fully control. They seem to work better only when carefully segmented and used in smaller devices.” Wes mouthed, seeming to forget he was trying to murder William just a moment ago, “Or perhaps I’ll find some more monsters with electrokinetic abilities. I’ll say this, the raiju’s power was far beyond what I expected. She generates nearly the same amount as my last subjects combined, some trio of thunderbirds. Such fragile creatures for monsters, them. They dropped one after another… like flies.”
Gut-wrenching disgust surged through Will’s body. He gripped his pocket knife all the tighter, just barely refraining himself from rushing the heartless mage and slitting his throat.
“You sick fuck! How can you talk about them like they’re just some dumb animals!?”
Wes’s brow furrowed, “Perhaps because they act like them? For goodness sake… they breed like rabbits, and that’s all they care about. They don’t process the world the same as dirt-slinging peasants like you. They don’t care about what’s moral or appropriate or just. They spend every waking second of their putrid lives scrounging for a mate. And when they do end up bringing in some chump, it’s just a cycle of eating, fucking, sleeping, and squeezing out a baby. Then their daughters do the same; repeat the process until the damned sun fizzles out. They’re nothing but wanton whores. Automatons. No better than Atlas.”
All of the propaganda beaten into William since before he could even properly speak the common tongue rushed back to the forefront of his mind. He remembered all the preachers and pamphlets and books filled with warnings. For just a brief moment, Wes’s stinging words made sense.
Then, he flashed back to Riak. He remembered the lizard woman. The proud warrior who refused to take any of his squad mate’s lives even when they were fighting tooth-and-nail to put her in the ground. The brave woman who gave up everything to ensure her daughter lived another day.
He remembered Valerie. He remembered fearing the hellbeast, thinking her so domineering and lustful. But she cared for Aaron far beyond his body. Will knew Val would give anything to help save Aaron’s brother when she just as easily could’ve dragged him off to some dingy cave to mate until the earth crumbled to dust. He remembered seeing Aaron and Valerie together, seeing the spark between them, knowing they’d be together no matter what came their way.
Will gritted his teeth together. He wouldn’t allow anyone to tell him that was all some sort of devilish trickery any longer.
“You have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.” Will seethed at the mage, “I won’t let some bastard who doesn’t even understand how to be human talk down to me about morals!”
Wes chuckled ever so gently. Then, he broke out into full-on bellowing laughter.
“You’re such a fool! What’s there to understand about other humans, huh? Maybe we’re just the same as the monsters; maybe most of us only fill in that empty space between eating and fucking with sentimental bullshit, trying to convince ourselves everything is just and every road leads to a happy end.”
Wes was red in the face again and raving now, swinging his arms around in wide arcs, electric crackles and sparks filling the air like a shower of stars.
“Perhaps I haven’t been giving monsters enough credit – they certainly cut to the chase, I can respect that at the very least. They know what they want to do, and they do it. Like me. And what about you, fool? You’re so eager and satisfied to judge me, but Otha and I have done nothing against the laws of the land here… it was you and your friend that are the invaders! The killers! You poisoned her, destroyed my most ambitious project yet, and for what? To make off with my property!”
“That’s right… I did.” Will breathed. His violet eyes flaring with rage and resoluteness all at once, and in that moment, he didn’t care how harshly the Good Mother judged him, “And before I leave this hellhole, I’m going to put an end to your sorry life.”
No more words needed to be said. The two rushed each other at once, meeting just at where the amber torch’s glow ended.
Will ducked under a wild haymaker. He lashed out with a quick swipe, slicing into Wes’s thigh. Grunting in pain, the shut-in of a mage clasped both hands together, trying to slam them down on the archer’s purple-haired head. The archer hopped back just as quickly, then was on the return as he shuffled closer and stabbed at Wes’s shoulder.
The mage leaned back, feeling the very tip of the bloody blade press into his breast. Will pulled back from the unsuccessful strike, weaving away from two quick swings. Wes swung out his foot at the back of Will’s knee, catching the archer completely off guard. Righting himself before the worst came, Will just barely dodged a jab aimed at his throat. He lashed out with his knife, not realizing his mistake until he heard the sharpened point clink against the gauntlet’s plating.
An electric current ran raced up the blade, sending a nasty shock throughout Will’s body. He let out a shaky howl as he stumbled, back, his knife falling from the clutches of his burned hand and landing somewhere off in the darkness.
Nearly falling to his knees, Will gripped the wrist of his burned hand, evaluating the damage. It felt numb, and the pain hadn’t quite set into the charred flesh yet. He couldn’t flex his fingers on command, but they sporadically twitched into a bend, blood and skin flakes falling to the floor.
The mage’s war cry snapped Will out his trance. His violet eyes raced up, finding Wes bounding forward, a fist cocked back. William screamed at his body to obey, to veer to the side, but his buckling knees still felt like jelly from the nasty shock.
William found himself Wes’s mercy – and the mage had none for the archer.
“I’LL END YOU, YOU PIECE OF–”
Wes stopped short, finding his hand locked in the air. He couldn’t budge his gauntlet, no matter how hard he yanked. Confusion washed over both the adrenaline throttled men. At once, their eyes slowly looked to the hand gripping Wes’s gauntlet; dainty fingers basked in azure bolts.
A woman with the ears and tail of a weasel emerged from the shadows she had been sticking to, driving away the dark with peels of azure lighting. And even with her slaver in her grasp, Will was elated to find her slick smile aimed solely his way.
“N-Nariko!” William cried. He hadn’t had any time to mull over what he thought was her abandonment. Now that he knew she had stuck around, a cocktail of relief and joy flooded his entire body, a weight he hadn’t noticed during the battle lifted from his aching shoulders.
“Let me go, you stupid whore!” Wes cried, “I swear, I’ll make you pay for this!”
Nariko responded only by kneeing the mage in the gut. His glasses dropped off his nose as he doubled over, only held up by Nariko’s iron-grip around his wrist. Still sucking in wind, Wes was helpless to stop Nariko as she bore both hands down on the glove.
“Ah, all this for me? Ya shouldn’t have~”
With another white flash, amber sparks began racing from the gauntlet and bounced up Nariko’s arms, changing into a deep azure shade as they entered her body. Wes howled in pain, violently throwing himself around in a fruitless effort to escape the electric-monster’s grasp.
The relic-suited gauntlet had finally taken enough abuse. Whatever systems Wes had rigged overloaded, sending sparks shooting from the knuckle bands and sparking a small fire across it. Quickly letting go, Nariko finished his punishment by hopping into the air, throwing a spinning knee into the mage’s mouth, somehow brutal as it was graceful.
Wes stumbled back, blood running freely from his busted lips. He landed on the ground, groaning and wheezing as he desperately pulled his flaming gauntlet off his hand. When he managed to get it off, he collapsed onto the other gauntlet, panting and sweating and cradling his injured hand to his chest. Orange-red hair hung around his pained frown, matted and dripping with nervous sweat.
Nariko leered down at the mage, twirling a lock of her azure hair between her fingers as she boasted her absolute victory.
“Hehehe. Now get lost, you pale little freak. I’m in a generous mood today~”
Will hobbled to Nariko’s side, and both stared intently down at Wes, expecting squeals of forgiveness and promises of quittance. But they never came. He slowly rose, chest heaving with small, pained chuckles. Blood dripped slowly from his smiling lips at his next chilling boast.
“Did you really think I only had one way to discipline you?”
With his injured hand, the one he held so close to his coat, Wes had produced a strange device. It appeared almost like a caestus, but with a cap between the thumb and index finger. Flicking his thumb over the cap, he revealed a tiny red button. Without wasting a precious second, Wes slammed his thumb down atop it.
Will’s attention was drawn over to Nariko. Her smug grin faded in an instant. She clutched desperately at the circlet still around her neck, but couldn’t pry it off no matter how hard she yanked. The collar slowly started burning hot-red, the sallow stench of burning flesh filling the air. Nariko’s tail was rigid, but her body fidgeted uncontrollably. Tears poured down her cheeks, a pained cry escaping her. Will slid to her side, trying to help her pry it off, but only succeeded in further searing his hands.
Wes shakily rose. He roughly shook his other gauntlet off, letting it clatter against the stone as he popped his sore wrist. Rolling up his sleeves when it was nice and loose, he turned his focus over to a livid William.
“Just quit while you still can, plebeian. She belongs to me, and I’ll do damn well what I please with her.”
In all his life, William had never felt such a blinding, burning rage consume him. He had never seen anyone so callously render suffering onto another for his own gain. His entire body felt hot; everything around him save Nariko’s crying and pleading crumbling away. His focus sharpened to the finest point, his body and mind demanding nothing but to put Wes six feet under.
The mage never gave Will the opportunity. He lifted a hand above his head, a crackling sphere of flame materializing. Will was already close half the distance between them, but even in his furious rush, he noticed something off – the callous, uncaring eyes behind Wes’s thick glasses weren’t aimed at him. They were over to the left, resting on Nariko.
Grimacing, Will ground to a halt, leaping between Wes and Nariko, arms spread wide. He felt the fiery bite of Wes’s spell not a moment later.
Will collapsed to the cold stone, agony overtaking his every nerve and clouding his mind. He felt the fancy shirt Nathan had nicked for him fall away, the burns all over his chest being bitten by the chilly air of the lightless pit around him.
“Dumb bastard. I knew you’d dive in the way. Did you really think I’d kill so precious an asset as my raiju?”
“You… you dirty, gutless … coward!” Will choked out, body racked with pain, anger, and fear.
Wes clicked his tongue. Nariko’s crying died down. Black smoke rose from her neck, the sickly stench now overpowering in the end. She could only lay down, tears flowing, trying to bear the ungodly pain the best she was able. William was no better, trying and failing to stand back up, his contracted pupils and violent trembling making him look like a cornered animal.
“You know what separates the chaff from the pioneers of tomorrow? The pioneers are willing to get their hands dirty and make sacrifices. Do whatever it takes to survive and thrive.” Wes mouthed, staring up towards the ceiling, taking all the time he wanted to relish his victory.
“The Good Mother… pardon my language… but go fuck yourself.”
Wes gasped, a rare look of disbelief flashing across his pasty face. Will was back on his feet, albeit barely so. He swayed back and forth, standing defiantly in front of Nariko.
“And still you struggle.” Wes sighed, blatantly frustrated, pushing his glasses back up his nose, “Honestly. Can’t you see how hopeless your situation is?”
“Of course I do…” Will breathed, surprising Wes once again with a weak smile and pained laugh, “But I won’t give up. You can break my bones… rend my flesh… but I’ll never kneel. Not to any tyrant, and certainly not to you.”
“I never asked you to, you delusional jackass.” Wes breathed out, “I just want you out of my life. Now… step away from the raiju.”
Will made zero effort to budge, slowly straightening himself out and standing defiantly before Nariko. Wes could only rub the bridge of his nose in frustration, letting out a deep, grumbling sigh.
“Fine, have it your way.” he spat, aiming a single finger in Will’s direction, “Ice Needle.”
The first frigid projectile hit William’s kneecap. His mouth twisted open into a silent scream, and he instantly crumbled onto the uninjured side. Yet he still kept himself planted firmly in front of Nariko, arms folded over his face and jugular.
Scoffing, Wes violently waved his arm back and forth, a new sharpened icicle flying out with each hand toss. And with each toss, another one sank into Will’s flesh. Two in each forearms, three to his gut, one in his shin and a final piercing through the skin of his thigh. Will gritted his teeth until his gums bled, refusing to scream. As he tipped over, unable to stand the assault, he still refused to utter even a single yelp.
Nariko’s color gradually cooled, but the searing pain remained. With tears clouding her vision, the raiju gingerly reached for William’s shoulders, relief rushing through her as she found him still clinging to life, if only by a small margin.
“You dumbass… I didn’t ask you to…”
“I know. But I wanted… I wanted to do it.”
“Enough of this nonsense…” Wes growled. He aimed the switch towards Nariko again, thumb looming over the trigger, “Raiju. No sudden movements. Get back in your cage, or you’ll suffer the consequences.”
Nariko stayed rigid and silent, staring at Wes with hate smoldering in her eyes. Scoffing, Wes shook the switch, teasing his thumb over the trigger.
“I said no sudden movements, you dumb bitch. Get up and get your stupid ass back to your cage. I’ve had a long day, and I’m not in the mood for your bullshit.”
The raiju finally moved – not standing, but defensively draping herself over Will’s beaten, burned body. The archer’s heart only pounded harder. His horizontal view of the scowling mage was set, and Will trembled at the thought of what Wes would do next. It didn’t take long to find that answer. Wes sneered down at them both, his last minuscule sliver of patience used up. He raised his thumb, ready to mash down the button and send the raiju into another fit of burning agony.
Then, a low whistle. A dull shclhk, and Wes’s face contorted. He stumbled forward, the remote slipping from his knuckles, landing on the ground and skidding between Nariko and Wes.
Wes tipped over, landing on his knees, a small blade stuck into his shoulder – the very same blade Basile had attempted to murder him with not even a full hour ago. Gaping, all three stared towards the amber light. Nathan stood, beaten and supporting himself on the wall, a cut, bloodied hand still outstretched. The thief flashed the mage a sadistic, mocking grin.
“Sorry ‘bout that, egghead. Maybe leaving your prisoner all alone with a knife in the same room wasn’t your brightest moment.”
The mage’s gaze snapped away from the thief at the other side of the room. It peered back into the darkness, just out of the amber torches glow, the remote sat waiting. Nariko’s ears and tail perked, noticing the door of opportunity was busted wide open.
Not even having time to yank out the blade from his shoulder, Wes forced himself through the pain and launched forward. Nariko was off of Will in a single moment, springing for the remote in turn.
The mage and raiju quickly lashed out in turn. Wes howled, throwing out a quick combat spell – a smoldering orange ball of flame. Nariko returned the gesture, firing a quick bolt of electricity in the mage’s direction. The attacks scraped by each other in the stale air, soaring past and finding their marks. Nariko cried out in pain, the flame exploding against her crossed arms and throwing her to the wayside. Her quick bolt hit Wes, and for a long moment he stood, body jittering, clothes burning, the frames on his glasses cracking. But in the end, he managed to remain upright, smoke rising off his heaving form. Through blurry eyes, he saw the remote still waiting only for him a few feet away. Hot blood pumping throughout his body, he tossed himself forward, sliding on his knees with his hand outstretched.
He scooped it off the ground without thinking. As he pulled it up, he met resistance. He yanked, but the remote stayed in the air. Vision refocusing, Wes gasped as he found another hand gripping the knuckle-shaped remote at the same time. From out of the dark, a pair of burning violet eyes bore into him.
“Let it go.” William spat, all the bitterness and acid in his tone suggesting an ultimatum – if Wes didn’t comply, it would cost him his life.
Both Will and Wes were on their knees, burned and beaten and fatigued. Nathan was on one side, watching with his breath held and shoulders tensed. Nariko was on the other, groaning in pain with her face down in the stone. No one would come to either’s aid.
The silence between them lasted only a moment, but seemed to stretch on for an eternity for both of them. Neither was thinking of surrender. They were waiting for the other to strike so they could throw out their killing blow faster.
Then, the thin tension snapped.
Both men roared like animals. Wes summoned yet another orb of flame, small but just powerful enough to blow a hole in Will’s head with a point blank shot. With a tired and burned arm pumped full of adrenaline, Will yanked his final arrow from his quiver and brought it forward.
Wes was swinging faster, but Will wasn’t aiming for Wes’s head.
The archer slammed his arrow’s head into the mage’s wrist, causing this magic to miss the mark and launch into a nearby wall. Grunting, Will pulled the arrow back, the fear in Wes’s eyes now readily apparent.
With a mighty cry, Will slammed his final arrow into Wes’s jugular. He felt the warm, sticky goo splash against his face, but the mage’s pained gurgles were growing faint in his ears. Their conjoined grip on the remote slipped and clattered between them. They both tipped over, landing across from each other. Will saw Wes’s shocked face, his glasses fallen, beady eyes wide, his jaw slack and the little color on his skin quickly draining away.
“I… did it…”
For the briefest of movements, an overwhelming sense of accomplishment rushed throughout William’s numb body. Then, it all went dark.
It was spring, but Will found that the sun’s mild rays felt absolutely brutal under the full weight of the heavy pack strapped over his shoulders. He trudged forward, sweat plastering his violet hair over his forehead. Against the brutal conditions, a smile could still be found on his lips.
“Just… one more mile…” the archer heaved, “One more mile… I’ll make it next time…”
He turned a bend in his path and saw the marker he had set for himself. His pace increased, his heart soaring as he watched the red flag flap invitingly in the breeze.
All his hopes were dashed when a thick boot shot out from a cluster of brushes along his path. He saw it far too late, and it easily tripped him over. Will let out a weak cry as he flopped into the dirt, his pack flying open and spilling its contents.
“Hehehe. Not bad, William. I guess I’ve gotta commend you for training on your own hours… tired of making a complete fool out of yourself?”
Will struggled back to his feet, furiously brushing the dirt from his training gear, “Aren’t you tired of making a jackass out of yourself, Montes?”
The other trainee rose from the bushes. They were of the same height, but the more swarthy and black-haired man was far more thickly muscled. Brushing the leaves off his shoulders, he smugly grinned at William.
“Don’t think your hot shit just because you can launch arrows around half-decently. If you hadn’t stuck all those bullseye, they would’ve kicked your weak ass out of the Legion by now. You throw javelins like a blind hermit and swing a short sword like a half-rotted leper.”
William said nothing, glaring at Montes as they stood across from each other on the path. Montes’s grin only grew by the second.
“What’s with that puffed chest, pretty boy? You seriously wanna fight me? Just pick up all your crap and sulk off somewhere. Save yourself the beating.”
Will didn’t take the advice. Rage blinding him, he burst forward, only to immediately be knocked on his ass. The boot crashing into his ribcage came shortly after, and the archer suddenly found himself curling into a ball, his only recourse being a shallow attempt to guard his vitals.
“And just what the hell is going on here?”
Will heard the booming voice even through the dull ringing in his ears. He felt Montes’s boot pull away, and cracked open one swollen eye to watch it stomp into the dirt in front of him, meeting it’s twin as Montes pulled into a tight stance of attention.
“L-Lieutenant Thadius, sir! You see, I was just-”
“Get your ass back to your quarters, Montes. Before you make this any worse for yourself.”
Will’s eyes closed again, but he could only imagine Montes nodding dutifully and fearfully scurrying back to their nearby base. Just as he was about to fall unconscious, the Lieutenant Thadius grabbed him by the shoulders and easily yanked him back to his feet.
“For the love of the Mother, boy. You sure don’t know when to quit, do you?”
Black eyes peeling open, Will looked up to his commanding officer. He was a tall man, with a handsome face grizzled by years of war and battle. At that moment, that face was set into a mix of befuddlement and disappointment.
“I… I just…”
Will bit his tongue, not sure of how to respond. Sighing, Thadius removed his hands from the boy and placed his fists on his hips.
“Why did you join the army, William? With your archery skills, you could’ve been the finest hunter in your village. Hell, you could’ve been a game master for anyone in the empire.”
“I… I wanted to help people.”
Thadius kept his face hard as stone, “Even if that means hurting or killing other young men like yourself?”
William quickly nodded.
The lieutenant’s expression went grim. “A hero’s job is to help people. A soldier’s is to follow orders. What if one day, helping people meant betraying our empire? Would you have the stones to do that?”
The archer kept his lips knotted in a frown. It took a long moment, but he finally managed to muster up enough courage to bob his head once more.
“I could have you tried for mutiny for saying that, y’know.”
Will kept his tight lips sealed, staring towards the dirt rather than meeting his commanding officer’s gaze.
Then, against all of Will’s expectations, Thadius bellowed out with deep, booming chuckles.
“Alright then, hero. Let’s go over hand-to-hand again…”
Will sprung back to life, his guard raised and chest heaving. Thin sheets clung to his sweat-drenched body. His chest heaved, heart-racing.
“Whoa. Take it easy there, slugger. You have a nice nap?
Still gasping, Will found Nathan sitting cross-legged in a wooden chair at the side of his bed. Will didn’t know how long the thief had been sitting there, but if the worryingly large collection of empty bottles on the nearby dresser were any indication, it had been quite awhile.
Will’s breath slowed back to a steady pace. They were back at the dingy inn at the Hog’s Way. They were safe.
“It wasn’t easy, y’know.” Nathan spoke up, the heavy odor of alcohol wafting from him with each word, “I overhead Wes had some healing potion on him and picked it off his body… it was the good shit too. More than enough for both of us. Unfortunately, it didn’t wake you up. Trust me, having to drag the distributor and your sorry ass all the way back to Aaron was a chore… ‘specially outta the manor… but I managed.”
Nathan flashed a smile. Will was almost startled. It wasn’t one of his usual mocking smirks.
“Hey… thanks, Nathan.”
The desert thief winked and gave Will a thumbs-up, “We watch each others backs. That’s what partners are for.”
Leaning back in his chair, Nathan picked up a bottle of ale from the ground, sipping down the very last bit before adding it to the collection on the dresser. Will settled back down into his pillow, the bed feeling stiff but warm and welcoming. He stared up at the ceiling, the high of victory gradually dying down as a loose end came up and nagged at him.
“Who, the sparky chick? I gave her some of the potion and she ran off somewhere or the other”
Will looked more than dejected. He sat back up and peeked out the room’s open window, finding the sky’s deep blue an indication of the afternoon. Noticing the long face, Nathan patted Will’s bare shoulder and let out a low chuckle.
“Don’t worry ‘bout it, buddy. Bitches come and go. Speaking of bitches, let’s go see Aaron and the mutt, and hit the town. I’d bet good coin they’ll be happy to see you’re still kickin’.”
Nathan moved away from the bed, letting Will drag himself from bed and slap his regular attire back on. As Nathan slipped out of the room, Will just finished fastening his belt buckle. He moved to the door, but took a final look at the window before leaving.
He watched two birds of a feather he couldn’t place soaring away. They flew so fast and high together, but they eventually parted ways, leaving each other to explore the vast blue sky on their own.
Looking towards the floor, Will gently huffed and locked the door behind him.