The night had fallen upon the invaders, and the orc’s celebrations extended well past the early hours of the morning and into the midday. By the time they had emptied their reserves of apple ale, the party had moved from the ranch’s estate to the barn. The high orc’s musky scent mixed with the booze in the hot air, and it was eagerly sniffed by the drunken pigs lazing around their boss.
“Gah. Fuck. We need more booze, hubby.” Urzul the high orc grumbled sadly. She shook her mug up and down, hoping for just one or two drops to come out of hiding and land on her tongue. She was seated upon Richter’s lap, who was seated upon a haphazard stack of hay bales in the vague shape of a throne.
Richter, adjusting himself under his much larger wife’s rear, turned to the side and grumbled out, “Hear that, boys? We might need you to head into Riak tomorrow. Get us some more drinks.”
To the side, sitting atop and upturned washing bin with his back to the wall, was another former rancher. He had an orc seated upon his lap as well, and he lazily planted kisses on her floppy ear and squeezed at her pudgy belly.
“Ah. Fuck, c’mon… I went last time. Why can’t ya make Johnny do it?”
“‘Cuz you’re our fastest rider.” Richter sighed, tapping his fingers against his throne of dried grass, “Don’t be a baby about it. Just ride out with a wagon, pick up some booze, and come on back. It won’t take more than a day or two.”
The ex-rancher on the bucket didn’t respond. He simply huffed and grumbled, continuing to kiss and pinch at the giggling orc in his lap. Urzul and Richter grunted in unison, deciding to force him later.
At the moment, they were far too busy basking in their squalor.
It was then, over the reeking musks of the barnyard, hootch, and orc sweat, two vaguely familiar scents hit Urzul’s nostrils. She sat befuddled upon her ignorant mate’s laps for a few long moments, but soon broke out in a wicked smirk that could only belong to a sadist.
“Those two are back for more already? Damn. Gotta give ‘em points for persistence.”
“What? That gray-haired dipshit and his puppy?”
The high orc whiffed the air, then snorted and nodded in confirmation, her black eyes looking towards the doors to the barn. Two long shadows stretched into the barn as its doors were swung open.
“Harharhar! Ya back for more, punks?” Urzul laughed, tossing her mug away. One of the lesser orcs whined as it bounced off her head.
Surely enough, it was the hellhound Valerie and the human Aaron that had infiltrated the barn. Urzul didn’t notice that anything was amiss until they stepped up out of the harsh sun and into the comforting shade of the barn.
First, her sensitive nose twitched, detecting a medley of rancid odors. She couldn’t tell what each one was exactly, but all of them made her want to hurl. The next thing she noticed was both the human and the hound had clothespins clamping their nostrils shut.
“I really, really hate this plan…” the hound whined, still shuddering and shaking, even with the extra scent protection of cloth shoved up her nostrils.
“Looks like they hate it more…” Aaron replied rather nasally on account of his nose being pinned closed. He looked around, happily noting the looks of disgust crossing all of the orcs.
“The hell is in that bag?” Richter demanded, even his relatively dull human sense of smell beginning to alert him to the foulness that lurked in the dripping burlap sack.
“Oh, y’know. Some pungent berries and herbs. Decaying forest critters. Rotten pig slop… and certain other stuff you probably don’t wanna smell burning.”
Not giving any of the shocked, disgusted orcs a chance to strike, Aaron yanked a large matchstick from his pocket. Val squared herself, letting the hellfire around her eyes fire off. Aaron quickly dipped his hand through the flames. His hand came out perfectly fine, but the matchstick was quickly burning to a crisp. Aaron let the flames catch the bottom of his bag of filth before that could happen, and quickly tossed it into a nearby washing tin.
Almost immediately, the foul stench they had brought with them began wafting into the air with a thick black smoke at its side. The orcs all cried and gagged, going as green as a pink-skinned creature could. They aimlessly dashed around the barn, hands cupping their mouths and noses. Even after all their time living in squalor as the pigs they were, it seemed their human halves still couldn’t handle horrific stenches.
“Let’s hurry and beat ‘em quick.” Aaron grunted, his cold eyes already tracking the flickering embers dancing through the air, “Before the barn burns down. Don’t think Frank would be too happy with that.”
Urzul stumbled from her throne of hay, Richter stumbling after her. Their tribe of orcs, without their leader’s scent driving them on, cried and fled, the crowd bending around Aaron and Valerie like river water around stones, a few of their worried husbands right behind them.
“D-damn you!” the high orc choked, shoving two fingers up her nose to block the overpowering stench. Her eyes quickly started to water, and her entire body convulsed. But she managed to keep enough of her bearings to stumble off her throne of hay.
Richter followed behind her. He ripped off the sleeve of his work tunic with ease and divided it in two ways with equal proficiency, balling them up and handing the pieces to Urzul. Smiling wide, the high orc stuffed them into her nose.
“Tanks, hub.” the high orc snorted, unable to properly speak with the two clumps of cloth up her nose.
And no sooner had Urzul said it than Valerie had thrown herself right into her ribs, hind-paws first. The powerful dropkick sent Urzul flying back into her hay throne. It crumbled faster than her iron-grip over the ranch, and the huge monster found herself buried in a pile of the dried grass.
Steam would’ve shot from Urzul’s nostrils, but with exit being stuffed shut, it rerouted and left from the corners of her lips. She cried so loudly the entire barn threatened to shake, bursting from the hay like a fallen god from the very crust of the earth. She grabbed her axe, steaming, snorting, and dragging the sharpened iron across the dirt floor on her way to Valerie. As it scraped over a loose horseshoe, it made a coarse grinding sound that made all in the room’s hair stand on end.
But Aaron’s focus wasn’t on Urzul. He looked over to Richter, already brandishing a rusty mace dropped by one of the orcs.
Aaron pursed his lips. Normally, he already would’ve used his more polished and heavy weapon to demolish the flimsy thing and run Richter through, but Valerie would most certainly would’ve been upset with him. For all the predator’s fervor she exhibited on wildlife during her hunts, she seemed to despise the sight of human and monster blood. Not to mention Old Man Franklin would’ve been cross if came home to his nephew’s mangled corpse strewn across the barn.
So he tossed his claymore away, dropping it’s sheath into the dirt floor as well. He jammed his pointer at Richter’s mace, then motioned to the dirty floor.
“You want me to pick my sword back up and see how well you do with that dinky little thing, or you wanna settle this the old fashioned way?”
Richter huffed, lobbing away the mace. He tried to hide it, but the relief was clear on his face. That relief evolved into a smug sense of superority when he seemed to remember how much he towered over Aaron.
“Ya got somethin’ to prove, huh? Fine, let’s do it!”
Aaron inwardly repressed a groan, wanting to let the muscle-bound dunce know that he didn’t have jackshit to prove and he was only tossing away his weapon to spare his life. But he figured that would all be moot, considering he also planned to have Richter knocked out cold on the ground before something inside the barn inevitably caught fire.
His heart pounded in his chest for a number of reasons, but he kept his expression frozen.
As the bandit predicted, the goliath of a farmer was the first to charge. The grunts and curses of the monsters behind him became mute to Richter’s guttural shouting. Like an enraged ox, he closed, hammering a meaty fist down at Aaron. The highwayman quickly blocked with both arms, returning the gesture with a knee to the gut. Richter ate the blow then threw an upward elbow right into Aaron’s chin.
Another lurch forward, and another time Richter attempted to plant Aaron into the ground. This time, he swung his forearm, trying to pull the bandit into a haymaker. The highwayman ducked under the blow, planting a fist right in Richter’s ribcage and following with an uppercut to the gut. The bulky fellow gasped, put through pain but catching no serious injuries.
Aaron didn’t lose heart. He threw another uppercut, right into Richter’s squared jaw, but the farmer once again muscled through the punch and tosse a fist in retaliation. Aaron narrowly avoided it, feeling the knuckles brush past his nose on his way back.
‘Damn! He as strong as a fucking bull… but he just keep charging at me like one. Maybe I could use that to my advantage.’
Taking note of the support beam behind him, a wicked smirk spidered across Aaron’s face. He retreated from another wild, heavy blow from Richter and wheeled backwards, standing a few feet away from the wooden pillar.
“C’mon! You hit like an old lady, you retarded piece of shit!”
“Fuck you! You don’t know nothin’, you self-righteous little bastard! You ain’t got no right to act like I’m the bad guy here!”
“I ain’t judgin’ you for anything, pal.” Aaron spat, “Expect your horrible taste in women.”
An obvious bit of bait, but one the brutish rancher eagerly gulped down. Snorting much like the boar he had bedded, Richter charged Aaron once again. The hook was snagged, the line going taut – all the bandit had to do was yank the pole.
Knuckles bounced against Aaron’s gut, but he had tensed himself for the punch. Downing a sharp intake of rotten air, the bandit wrapped both his arms around the thick tree trunk of Richter’s forearm. The rancher was too furious, too caught up in the moment to stop it.
Aaron fell back, never letting go of Richter’s arm in the meanwhile. Dragged forward, Richter could do nothing but flail and hollor as Aaron planted his boot into his stomach, landed in the dirt, kicked up his leg and let Richter fly. The farmer flipped in the air, thrown by his own forward momentum, his spine slamming into the farms’ support beam and falling right onto his head.
“Fuck… fuck!” Richter snarled, writhing on the ground. The pain clouded his mind, and he wasn’t able to catch his bearings enough to even realized what had just happened.
Aaron rolled back to his feet, not wasting a single moment. He looked to Richter, the brute’s arm laying with the palm to the ground as he struggled to right himself, just looked to vulnerable an opportunity to pass up.
He may not have wanted to take Richter’s life, but he’d break a few bones to drag the stupid lug back to his uncle without hesitation.
Aaron sprung into the air, putting all his weight and power into a falling knee that hit right in the center of Richter’s elbow. A sickening, wet crunch rung out through the barn, drawing the attention of the orc and hound duking it out some few yards away.
The sound of her hubby’s bone shattering made Urzul’s shriveled heart sink. But the sound of his agonized cries filled her with absolute, unyielding, and unquenchable fury. She spun around, dark skin flushed from a fiery hatred, and found Aaron standing up from Richter’s fractured arm.
Blinking, the highwayman stared blankly towards the high orc charging him, realizing his genius plan might not have been so smart after all. He was so caught up in the fight he hadn’t even considered how the huge orc would react to him snapping her husband’s arm like a dried twig.
A flash of ebony rushed from behind Urzul, slamming a hind paw into the back of the orc’s knee. Sent stumbling forward, the tripping orc wasn’t able to replant her feet before she tipped over and hit the support beam head-first. Hopping out of the way, Aaron narrowly avoided being sandwiched between the towering boar and the wooden beam.
Urzul wasn’t given a single second to rest. Val slammed herself into the high orc’s back, once again planting Urzul’s forehead into the wood beam, leaving a few spider-web cracks against its left face. The orc threw a spinning backhand at the hound’s head, but the wily mutt ducked under it and scampered over to the orc’s blindspot. The high orc snapped and snarled as noisily as she was able, having had quite enough of the hellbeast’s games.
She tried clenching her fingers around the handle of her axe, only to find her meaty fingers gripping nothing but empty air. Her lips forming a wide circle, she stared dumbly at the empty air in her palm. Then, her eyes looked across from her mate’s writhing body, finding it firmly in the grip of the only other human in the room.
Urzul could’ve have remembered a time she was so angry – the cheeky little human had nicked her blade while she was still reeling from having her head slammed against the beam. Her blood burned with such a gusto it threatened to roast her like a honey-glazed ham.
The muscles in his arms flexing out, Aaron threw a spinning chop and smashed the beam with the weighty axe. Whining and creaking as it’s leg was smashed, the brace gave way and the rafter’s snapped under the weight of the storage on the second floor. With a loud clap of cracking timber, hundreds of pounds of rubble rained down atop Urzul’s head. She only had time to dive atop of Richter, protecting him from harm.
Around a square yard collapsed down, burying the orc and her husband in a shower of wood and empty barrels. Valerie and Aaron dove away, avoiding the shower of wood and nails.
Coughing as the dust settled, Aaron propped himself to his knees with Urzul’s axe before discarding it to the side. A few small fires sparked up during the battle, but Val was already stomping them out before they could spread. Groaning as he forced his sore muscles to work overtime, he lifted himself to his feet and walked over to the washing tin in which the rancid flames surged. He used his bare hands to shovel dirt from the well-trodden earth into the tin until the licking fires were quenched.
“Urgh… lets never do this again…” Valerie sighed, unable to take her mind off the ungodly stench filling the barn without the high of battle to distract her. Her ebony skin looked as green as it could turn, and the hound was barely able to keep down the various snacks she had stuffed herself with from the manor’s kitchen.
“As long as we don’t have to fight any more orcs.” he promised her, unclipping the clothespin from his nose and tossing it to the side.
“Boo!” she yipped, leaving hers on.
“Well, we’ll figure out something. For now, let’s dig Urzul and Richter out.”
As if to tell him to shove off, Urzul’s hammy fist shot from the rubble, pushing away a large hole. Not quite large enough for her to fit through, but she managed to squeeze in and let her natural bulk make more room on the way out. She came stumbling from the pile, covered in gashes and bruises, but very much still standing. She carried the unconscious Richter like a blushing bride, with his shattered arm laying limply across his stomach.
“You’re fuckin’ kidding me…” Aaron gaped, already reaching for the axe he had dropped. Val skid defensively in front of Aaron and squared her hind paws, flames jetting around her eyes.
“W-wait. No more. No more, alright? I know when I’m beat.”
To the surprise of both Aaron and Valerie, the mighty Urzul dropped slowly and gently to one knee, like if she had one errant movement the physically imposing man in her arms would shatter like a porcelain dish.
“You’re just gunna give up…?” Val hummed, not quite buying the excuse.
“Yeah. We’ve lost… just please, please don’t hurt my hubbie anymore…”
A thoughtful purr bubbled in Aaron’s throat. If both Urzul and Valerie weren’t outliners for monsterkind, it seemed monsters were highly protective. That seemed to clash with the idea so many imposed upon him that monsters would regularly discard their men like the nibbled core of an apple once they’ve either had their fill or another appetizing meal landed on their platter.
Then again, many of those same preachers said monsters would also eat men, and that thankfully hadn’t been the case for him.
“Hahaha~ victory!” Valerie cheered, excitedly pumping her paws in the air. Sparks crackled around her eyes like celebratory glitter, and her tail swung in a wild, overjoyed circle.
“So the girls and I are gonna hafta pack our bags and leave, huh? Figures. First, those red fuckers kick us out of our fort, and now this shit…”
“Red fuckers…?” Aaron found himself whispering under his breath. He was about to press Urzul further on who exactly these mysterious “red fuckers” were, but Val bounced in front of him before he seized the opportunity.
“Hmm… not to worry! I think I can convince ol’ Frank to let ya stay. I have a nice little plan for you piggies~”
The high orc looked up, her hard expression trembling. From the glint of sadistic glee in the hellbeast’s fiery eyes, the high orc had a sinking feeling in her gut. A feeling that she’d rather have had faced a messy but quick end at the hound’s claws then be strung through whatever twisted wringer she had in mind.
When Franklin returned to his family ranch, the old man had braced his frail heart the best he could. He half expected to see the home he had spent his entire seventy years in tatters, covered in the blood and guts of mangled pig women.
But the sight he found before him was much more pleasant. Almost humorous, if not so laughably out of place.
The orcs had washed up, along with whatever husbands they had wrangled from the surrounding area and what was left of the farmland. They all stood at the nervous men’s feet, hair done up and wearing lovely spring dresses.
Even Urzul, the vicious, steam-spewing monster of a boar, had managed to dig up a nice, frilly blue one piece. It was an old number from Franklin’s estranged sister, but he was too busy stifling a laugh to make a comment about it – and it seemed the high orc was barely able to squeeze into it. It hugged along her pudgy waist and squishy breasts, but she seemed far more humiliated at the neat bun of white hair replacing her boar skull crown than having to display an outrageous amount of cleavage and leg to a man she had pilfered land from.
And to Frank’s even greater shock, his nephew Richter shuffled into his sunday best in turn, despite the cast Aaron had put him in. He had his sun-kissed blonde hair slicked back, his cheeks freshly shaven. But it seemed those fine clothes he had so carefully prepared were about to rip under the stress of his nervously jittering frame.
“U-Uncle… I’m so, so sorry fer what I’ve-”
“Save it, Richter… look. I know you were comin’ from the right place- with all them taxes, we weren’t gonna last much longer. We’d need to ramp up production ten times, and we just didn’t have the money to hire anyone else. But still… to kick yer own flesh n’ blood outta his home? I still hardly believe you did that to me. You were such a sweet little boy…”
“S-sir. I… I might have a solution to that lil’ problem…” Urzul spoke up, her voice shaking with false bravado, “As… as a way to make up for what we’ve done… the girls and I will work here for free! That’s right! No more banditry for us! From now on, only hard work!”
Frank slowly craned his dulled vision over to the high orc, hardly believing the proposition for a moment. He looked from the pleading faces of his nephew and the pigs surrounding him, then back over to the faction of his former employees. What he found on every last one was sincere regret.
“Well, I’d like to think that I ain’t no bigot… but I don’t think I can just go and forgive you after what you’ve done to my ranch…” Frank sighed, staring off to his ruined childhood home within a stone’s throw.
“Sir… I swear in my ma’s grave…” Urzul breathed, her entire body seeming to puff up with resolution, “All me and my girls ask for is food, water, and a place for us and our hubbies to sleep!”
Franklin hummed, giving his grayed beard a few long, thoughtful tugs. No around could read the expression on his tan, wrinkled face, but the rusty gears in his head were doubtlessly spinning.
“Things’ll get a tad crowded… we’ll have to build a new quarterhouse… but I think we can manage. ‘Sides, if I turn down your help, well… I’m not sure the ranch will make it. Alright, missy. You’ve got yerself a deal!”
The flatlands and woods surrounding the ranch stayed relatively silent up until that moment, the quiet only being broke by the occasional moo or neigh. Then, the orc’s ecstatic squeals came. They threw themselves to their husbands and each other, most nearly brought to joyous tears.
Even the mighty Urzul, sniffled and wiped a few flecks of moisture from her eyes. Richter, with half a pleased smirk on his face, gently patted her on the back with his good arm.
“Thank you, sir!” the high orc but… but, there’s one more thing I just gotta ask…”
The curiosity didn’t show on his face, but the twinkle in Frank’s tired eyes displayed it well, “And what would that be, dear?”
The fields went silent again, and a long moment of tension suffocated the orcs. They stood agape, staring at their unflappable and iron-willed leader shaking like a naked mole caught in a snowstorm.
“Uhrm… please, sir may I…” the high orc finally stammered out, her dark cheeks flushing, “H-have your nephew’s hand in marriage?!”
A small chuckle emerged from under Frank’s dusty beard, “Well, that’s a first. Pretty sure this went the opposite way with my old step-father and my wife – bless both their souls – but I suppose lots of things are all topsy-turvy with you monsters, huh?”
Urzul, Richter, the ex-ranch hands, and the orcs stayed deathly silent. They awaited Frank’s verdict with baited breath, but hope seemed to be getting dimmer and dimmer with every second without a ‘yes’ from Frank.
Right until the old man’s thin lips quivered into a wide grin.
“Heh. What the hell? I’m sure this shriveled ol’ coot’s jabber wouldn’t have stopped ya anyway.”
More than thirty sets of bright eyes found their way to the high orc. Unable to hold them back, heavy, sodden tears fell from her cheeks. The grinning Richter, reaching out with his singular arm, stood on his tiptoes and mashing his lips into Urzul. She scooped him up and excitedly hopped up and down, never breaking their passionate kiss.
Another round of deafening cheers shook the fields.
“I… I promise to give ya lots and lots of cute, strong grandnieces! I swear, or my name ain’t Urzul the Terrible!” the orc cheered, catching herself at the very end, “Uph! I-I mean…. Urzul the Farm Gal. Harharhar~”
Leaning against a post, an iron-haired man looked upon the scene, finding it so bitterly sweet that he could’ve sworn a few cavities had gnawed into his teeth. The hellhound at his side had a different reaction – her eyes sparkled like forming stars, soft flames popping at the corners of her eyes.
“Aww… thats sooo cute…” she cooed, two paws to her beating heart.
On the other hand Aaron found himself unmoved due to the account of Richter and Urzul having attempted to thrash him not a full twenty-four hours prior. But the high orc had mentioned something that had one of his eyebrows cocked.
He finally remembered something Valerie had told him, something he had been told his entire life but had passed off as mere embellishment and rumors, something he still had trouble swallowing – that the entirety of monsterkind was female.
Aaron pursed his lips. He was no zoologist by any stretch of the word, but he had spent enough time skulking through the woods and conversing with a ranger or two to know a thing or two about wildlife. An entire race, one that included countless species no less, having to entirely rely on another for reproduction seemed completely insane, even considering the monsters supernatural properties.
And yet, the living proof stood right next to him, Starkard Valentine’s raven-haired hound of a daughter beaming like a fiery sun.
He found himself totally perplexed. The more he thought about it, the more like a lunatic he felt like for entertaining it. And yet the more he saw, the more he realized evidence was stacked predominantly in that insane idea’s favor.
‘But monsters were mostly beasts around two hundred years ago, weren’t they? Or was it earlier than that? I’ve always heard they were being driven to the brink of extinction, then they changed, but… damn… ’
He’d make a poor zoologist, and he’d be even further unqualified as a mathematician. Although, it didn’t take a professional to figure the numbers clicking in his head.
Monsters are all female. Thus, they could only breed daughters. Thus, if their population were to grow too large, both species would go extinct. The last human would shrivel and die from old age, and the monsters would die off without any way to reproduce.
Or, perhaps, human woman would be kept in camps; made into breeding machines, their sole existence only to bleed on the birthing bed and pop out more male heirs for monsterkind.
He shuddered at the idea, but it wasn’t something he found himself too concerned with.
Both he and Douglas would be long dead before the hypothetical worst-case scenario, after all. His ill brother was what he was qualified to be concerned with, his ill little brother was the only thing he should’ve been concerned with, and thus his ill little brother was his only concern.
He figured he’d leave the entire monsters eventually breeding humanity to extinction bit to the next Starkard. Or whatever other champion struck the next rising legend’s fancy. He’d be too busy taking care of his brother to worry about playing hero.
Even if he’d wanted to.
“Hey, babe. Anyone home?”
Aaron snapped out of his thought-laden trance, his distant gaze refocusing and darting over to the hellhound standing atop the fence behind him. She leaned over, studying him with a curious glance and a few careful sniffs.
“Yeah. Just fine.”
Val hummed, unconvinced. Deciding to wring the info out of Aaron, she hopped to his side and shoved her paws under his armpits before he had the opportunity to mount a resistance.
“Hey! What’re you- hehehe… s-stop that! Cut it- hahaha!”
Val didn’t stop, even as Aaron’s shaking legs collapsed from under him. She sat atop his stomach, continuing to tickle him.
“Tell me what’s on your mind first~”
“Nothing! Please, stop! Stop! Hahaha!” he begged between fits of uncontrollable chuckles. Something about her soft, velvety fur had tears running down his eyes.
“Tell me! Tell me!” Val egged him on, not relenting a single bit.
While Aaron refused to relent, his laughter was cut short. No matter how thoroughly her fuzzy paws tickled under his armpits, he knew to stop laughing when he felt the massive shadow ensnare him. Opening up his teary eyes, he was met by the upturned sight of Richter looming above.
“H-hey, if it isn’t the lucky groom. You’re not still upset about me snapping your arm, are ya?”
“Water under the bridge.” Richter growled out in a way that made Aaron think Richter had a strong urge to return the favor, “Anyway, Uncle Frank told me to give this to ya… as an apology and whatnot.”
Looking somewhat begrudging, Richter pulled out something from his back pocket.
Aaron instantly recognized it, and was elated when he did. It was a healing potion. A delightful little brew that could swiftly patch up injuries when ingested. Of course, the potions came in a great many of varieties. They could be found in many places, from homes and businesses, to castles and forts. Depending on potency, some could go as far as bringing back one from the brink of death.
As pricey as they tended to be, Aaron wasn’t proud to admit how many he had chugged in his lifetime.
“Shit… well, thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” Richter forced through gritted teeth, obviously sore about handing it off, “Well, no reason to worry about us here. Hopefully, with all the girls making up for lost time, and Urzul and myself protecting our shipments, we can patch up all the damage we’ve done.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll be out of your hair soon.” Aaron assured him.
Pursing his lips, Richter set off back towards his fiancee… his official fiancee, at any rate. They had already seemed to take each other as newly weds before being pounded into submission. Aaron watched the hulking fellow leave, not taking his eyes off the girth of Richter’s back until it was out of earshot and wrapped in Urzul’s tight embrace.
““Ya know…” Val began, bouncing on her heels, “Ya didn’t really have to break his arm. That seemed to be going a little too far. He didn’t hurt me or nothin’…”
“Oh. So you want me to wait until someone bashes your head in before I do more than rough ‘em up a bit?”
“I… I never said that!” Val barked.
“Yeah, yeah. I know.” Aaron grumbled, folding his hands over his hips, “I just don’t get why you’re expecting a bandit like me to go all soft. I’ve killed for my brother – people more innocent than Richter or those orcs – and yeah, I ain’t proud of it, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat if I had to.”
The jumping flames around Val’s eyes slowly died out as she slid her eyes shut. He couldn’t stop her paws from running up his neck, cupping the sides of his face.
“I know you’re better than that.” she replied, her tone going soft and calm, “I know you’re not a killer. Not if you can help it.”
Aaron bit his tongue and chewed his lip until he tasted blood, unsure of how to respond at first.
“That right? Think whatever you want.” he nearly whispered, pulling away from her. He had was under no illusions he could slip away. She had let him get space of her own volition.
Aaron paced away, the hound rolling her eyes and trotting after him.
“I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, Val… but I guess there’s just some things we’re gonna butt heads over.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll get you to unwind sooner or later~” she swore, a burning twinkle in her infernal eyes.
“Yeah… good luck with that.”
The two trekked back towards the ranch, finding Old Man Franklin relaxing with a pipe in his cracked lips and his ancient bones seated in a rocking chair. He was on the estate’s porch, lounging in the shade, already barking orders at two downtrodden orcs that were repairing a fence.
“No, don’t use a damn pitchfork to bang in the nails! And for pete’s sake, can’t ya just… oh! Aaron, Valerie. I didn’t see ya’ll comin’.”
The sagely rancher removed the pipe from his lips, coughing up a few puffs of smoke.
“Ya got our payment, old man?”
“Sure thing. Here are yer coins, just like we agreed – and feel free to help yerself to anything in the pantry.”
Frank reached behind his rocking chair, pulling out a small cloth satchel heavy with coin. After checking to make sure it was all there, the bandit pocketed the coin without a second thought, but couldn’t stop his gaze from lingering on the orcs already plodding about the ranch, clumsily patching up the damage they had done.
“Not that it’s any of my business, but are you really okay with letting the orcs stay here? The people from the village aren’t gonna forget what they’ve done easily.” Aaron asked.
“Meh. As long as they keep their end of the bargain,” Frank sighed and shrugged his boney shoulders, “Not much like I value what those handfulla hicks think anyway. ‘Sides, I ain’t concerned about what they think. I’m concerned with what passersby think. I’m sure we’ll fill the ranch up with hard working young un’s like you before long. What more could a man want aside from a pretty gal to wife and a stable career anyhow?”
“You’d be surprised.” Aaron grumbled in response, not indulging the Frank’s conversation any further, “Anything else, old man? We need to get going.”
“Please. Stay fer a day or two. You’ll need to rest and save up your energy fer the road, youngster.”
Aaron felt a pleasant warmth surge at his side, and he glanced over to Valerie. Like he was expecting, she was beaming and bouncing excitedly on her paws.
“Fine, fine.” he strategically relented before the fight even began, “I’m sure you woulda just pinned me down and hugged me for those two days if I wanted to leave anyway…”
“Hehehe~ I woulda done more than hug you~” Val teased, wrapping two arms over his neck and hugging him close.
Aaron wasn’t sure what perturbed him more – the hellhound crushing his windpipe, or the old man howling and snickering at the scene, nearly swallowing his pipe and collapsing out of his rocking chair.
Miles and miles away from the sleepy little city of Oakvale, another city stood proud underneath the crescent moon above Graeme. It was called Riak, but was more informally known as the Titan’s Palm.
If one were to look down upon it from the eyes of a high-flying hawk, they could easily mistake if for a god’s handprint punched into the earth. The wrist ran thick, ending with several tight lines of buildings clustered in the palm and branching off into five separate paths onwards.
But if they were to study it closer, they’d find that the wrist was actually the dark, flowing waters of a large river. It ran into a massive dam right before it hit the palm of the city, splitting it up into a quintuple of streams that stretched through the fields like thin, outstretched fingers.
In the center of that spread hand of a city, a seedy little tavern sat in the center of the palm. Inside, a ring of white smoke rose into the air, thick with the stench of hooch and burning tobacco. Another shortly followed, mingling with its brother on the ceiling. Then, a third, only further adding to the dense collective of smog clinging onto the rafters.
“I raise ya… I’m putting down all my coins!” boasted a rapacious man, his snickers ringing loud and clear despite the rumblings murmurs of the other patrons enjoying their booze around him. He could even be heard over the minstrels somewhere near the back of the tavern he was in.
Sitting across from him, a bored young man removed the cigar from his lips, blowing out a fourth ring of smoke. The smoker was a pale fellow, wearing a fine coat that hung off his lanky frame. His skin was stark white; his spiky hair as pure as the winter snow. Everything about the albino was as cool and sharp as an icicle, from his dress to his face to his demeanor.
A pair of quick, studious looking eyes soaked in everything around him, carefully planning and calculating. They were a rich scarlet in color, and their intensity belittled his bored and detached expression.
The man sitting across from the albino snickered once again. Surely, he figured, his bold move would have the pale man running with his tail between his legs.
‘C’mon… fold already!’
The gambler nearly shat his pants as the albino pushed his own coins into the center of the table, an impressively large stack forming. Gaping onlookers watched with the same awe one would reserve only for a champion gladiator diving towards an armored beast’s snapping jaws.
Nearly losing his nerves, the rapacious gambler glanced down at the four trump cards clenched in his hands. A spade, a club, a diamond, and a heart. They were all aces. An impressive bluff by the albino, but it wasn’t one that couldn’t be called.
The gambler slapped his cards down on the table in a proud display. Their small crowd went wild.
“Ha! Four of a kind, sucker. I’ll be taking my winnings now, if you don’t-”
His vacant expression never flinching, the albino slowly and carefully lay his cards down in turn. As everyone took a long second to process his hand, the whole tavern seemed to go eerily silent.
A nine, an eight, a seven, a six, and a five. All proudly bearing the red sigil of the heart.
“A-a-a-a straight flush…?”
“Yup.” the young albino sighed, grinding the lit butt of his cigar against a nearby ashtray, “Thanks for the game. See ya.”
“You must be cheating!”
“Or maybe you’re just a cocky idiot.” the albino grumbled, tucking away the cigar into his coat pocket. He stood from the table, scooping up his winnings and waltzing away.
“Sorry.” an onlooker walked up to the defeated gambler and tried to console him, “That was my deck, man. He couldn’t have tampered with it. And I was watching him the entire time… I didn’t seem him try anything funny.”
The previously rapacious fellow slammed his head against the table, not caring his nose was mashed into filth. Tears flowed from his eyes as the full weight of the crushing defeat hit him.
A few glared at the albino as he pocketed his coins. Even more started throwing their own icy daggers with their eyes as he left the establishment without another word.
The albino stepped out of the tavern, letting the cool breeze of the summer night tug at his clothing. As the scent of tobacco and whiskey left him on the wind, he adjusted the collar of his coat and set off.
His scarlet eyes traced the city around him. Darkened two-story buildings, all stacked up and packed tightly like dominos in a row. The crammed formation may have been a fire hazard, but it was made way for the cities’ main avenue of profit.
Long, man-made trenches took the center of every other street. They ran all the way through the settlement, all the way to its crescent-shaped wall.
Naturally, his gaze worked up the unnatural river, not stopping until he hit the spot where all the trenches originated – a massive dam built up into a cliffside.
It was a marvel of engineering, a towering obelisk of stone and wood. It pressed its back against a rapid river, dividing the flow into more than thirty different streams. Those streams all eventually reunited in a set of five at the outskirts of the Riak. The albino looked back to the wall that curved into the cliffside, helping the dam protect the city at all sides.
The albino’s brow furrowed. He wondered how so many could’ve been stupid enough to congregate around so ginormous a dam to the point an entire city was erected at its feet.
Then, he remembered the verdant farmland that lay outside the walls, stretching on for miles and miles. As a gambler, he well knew the bounty a calculated risk could bring.
Or, perhaps, it was simply foolish, haughty pride. Perhaps those who had gathered near the dam and their descendants thought the dam simply too grand, too mighty and too imposing, to ever falter and fail them. They refused to accept the fact that even a single crack could break the structure’s hold on the river. That a tiny splinter could grow and spread, bursting open the floodgates and spelling a watery end for their entire reality.
The albino laughed a dark, deep chuckle. Surely, the same fools who believed that would’ve also thought the same of their town’s defenses. That with the damn and cliff to their backs and the sturdy wall arcing around their city, it was impenetrable.
He looked to the wall’s ramparts, watching the proof to the contrary standing watch over Riak. Even at a first glance, a child could tell they were far too well-armed, cautious, and organized for a local town guard, even for a city as large as the one they were stationed in.
Clearly an outside militia.
Their armor, crimson as freshly spilled blood, shimmered under the soft light of the stars and the furious glow of their lanterns. They marched down the streets, round shields and and javelins clutched tightly. With helmeted faces masked in shadow, the soldiers appeared as legion as they patrolled the sleeping city, searching for something. Or, more likely, some people.
The pale gambler smiled despite the sickness bubbling in his gut. He found them quite the eyesore, and not entirely due to their tacky choice in armor.
The man walked down the street, ignoring the disembodied woman’s voice whispering in his ear as a regular occurrence, and not treating it like the telltale sign of a slip into madness like any other sane individual would.
The ethereal voice prodded on, and the albino continued to pay it no mind.
“Jacky boy~!” the voice never lost its wry and mischievous overtone, but if the tugging on his earlobe was any indication, it was tired of being ignored.
“Lorna… for the last time,” the man hissed, but kept his expression cool and collected as his scarlet eyes scanned for eavesdroppers, “I can’t talk to you in the city. It’ll draw attention.”
“C’mon, Jack~ there’s nobody around.”
The albino heard them first, but they were coming too fast for him to turn change his course. A squadron of those crimson soldiers spilled from an alleyway in front of Jack. So polished their armor and so crisp were their movements that for a moment, it looked as though a stream of sticky blood was spilling through the nighttime streets of the Titan’s Palm.
One of the soldiers stopped, and his marching compatriots followed without missing a beat. The warrior broke away, the lance and roundshield strapped across his back rattling against his mail as he went.
Jack was forced to shield his eyes as the soldier lifted a lit oil lantern until the flickering orange light danced on his pale face.
“What are you doing out so late, son? Curfew is in half an hour.”
“I’m sorry, sir. I am, really,” Jack assured the armored man, smiling a smile as warm and soft as mewling kitten, “Taking night walks just helps me sleep is all.”
Jack kept that disarming grin on, even as he saw a steely pair of eyes peer from the soldier’s t-visor and scrutinize every inch of his body.
“… you from out of town, kid?”
“Yessir. Staying with a family friend.” Jack lied smoothly without missing a beat, “My father’s a traveling merchant, you see. Stopped in town to pick up some salt and trade a few wares.”
“Well then… I’ll leave you to it. Just be sure to keep your nose clean, son. And be careful. I’ve got a feeling there’s a monster around here somewhere.”
“What makes you say that, sir?” Jack asked, his mock concern not being discerned by the soldier.
“I’ve been fighting those harlots and the sick bastards that bed ‘em for twenty damned years, kid. I dunno… can’t really explain it, but… everytime one’s around, I can just feel the hairs on my neck prick up, ya know?”
“Can’t say, sir. I’ve never been too close to one for too long.”
“Good. Let’s keep it that way, huh?”
The soldier left with that friendly warning, blending back in with the crimson mass he came from. Back in formation, they continued their steady patrol down the street.
Jack stood, his breath pitched, his back erect and his grin ever present.
“Ehehehe~ sorry, J.”
Jack didn’t peer to look behind his back. He could already feel the two padded paws resting on his shoulders. Even if he looked, his eyes wouldn’t have found anything anyway.
“I didn’t need you whispering his hand into my ear, y’know.”
“Mmm? Ya mean that smelly guy back at the pub? Ya really didn’t?”
“No. His signs were so obvious a toddler could’ve figured what he had. When he had nothing but junk, his left eyebrow twitched. When he had anything decent, his right thumb would rub against the rim of his last card.”
“I see~” the unseen woman mewled. Jack felt her lean further into his shoulders.
“Enough about that. When is the target showing up?”
The girl hummed. The light pressure lifted from his shoulders, and he heard the sound of two claws thoughtfully clicking together.
“A few days, give or take. I’ve set everything else up, all we need to do is hire some backup.”
Another smile spread across Jack’s face. Like a master tactician, he could almost imagine the pieces of his scheme falling into the correct places until something beautiful was left.
“Good. Maybe this will teach those bastards what happens when they muscle into places they don’t belong.” the albino said, “So… any recruits you have in mind?”
He heard cloth crinkle as the invisible lady shrugged, “Just that Damian dude. But he’s a bit pricey for such a basic job.”
“Did you find anyone else? We don’t need to be hiring some drooling farm boy who’ll mess everything up.”
It appeared further back in an alley, away from prying eyes. Her low giggles tickled his ears, drawing his focus over to the empty, decrepit crate waiting patiently in between two closed shops.
First, the yellow feline eyes appeared from thin air, appearing to float in the cool night. Then, the smug grin shortly faded into existence under the eyes. Stark-white fangs glistened under the moonlight, beckoning Jack to draw closer.
With each careful step into the alley, Jack saw more and more of the cat-woman reveal herself. From her wiggling ears, to her silky violet hair, all the way down to the stripped tail that excitedly flicked to and fro.
“What’d you find, Lorna?”
“I was diggin’ around Oakvale… to find that one-man raider dude we’ve heard about, right…? I took a lookie-see at what the town guard had dug up, and I found this.”
Pinched between the sharp points of her claws, Lorna lifted a tuft of frizzy hair that put the shade of a starless midnight to shame.
“Pitch black… looks like its from a canine… too fine for a animals, but too dense for a human.” Jack noted.
The cat mewled and bobbed her head, rolling the hairs between her fingers, “Some kind’ve werewolf, I’d wager. They found a segment of the forest all torn up… looks like someone was being chased~”
“Interesting…” Jack breathed, taking the black hairs into his own hands, “Go on…”
“One of the guards in town? He also said one of the prime suspects for the investigation just went missing- poof! – like into thin air. Everything of value in his cabin was gone… even his dear little bro~”
“Well,” Jack smirked, “I think we’ve got most the of pieces to this little puzzle. Anything else?”
“Yeah, yeah! This one is real juicy- I had to squeeze it outta some tubby barkeep- a fella with ice-blue eyes stopped in his rinky-dink little village… went to his bar… and guess who he had with him?”
“Do you think he’s travelling this way?”
“Oh, most likely… I’m sure they’ll stick out like sore thumb~” Lorna purred. Her striped tail was practically whipping the air, an outward reflection of the devious intent broiling in her wicked mind.
“Good… we might make some new pals. If not… well, we’ll still squeeze some use out of them one way or another.”
Jack’s smirk bent into a deep crescent, not too unlike the star-flanked moon hanging so unimaginably high over his head.